Dinner Improv: Basil Beef Stir Fry

Sometimes I get bored with leftovers.  After I’ve eaten something once or twice, I’m ready to move on.  But I also hate to let things go to waste, which is where the ability to re-purpose and re-envision ingredients comes in handy.The other day, I was faced with an abundance of green beans from the garden and some leftover grilled flank steak in the fridge.  We do a lot of southwest and Latin influenced meals, but I wasn’t really in the mood for fajitas or tacos or burritos on this particular day.  Besides, the green beans didn’t really fit into that flavor profile.

I decided instead to go the Asian route and do a stir fry, incorporating some rainbow carrots from the garden, and some red bell pepper and sweet yellow onion.  I didn’t really use a recipe, just went on instinct and tasted as I cooked.  I served it all over some brown rice.  This is a great example of improvisation in the kitchen, using the ingredients you have on hand to dictate the outcome rather than the other way around.

Basil Beef Stir Fry
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
serves: 4-6

Ingredients (all measurements are approximations – taste and season as you go)

  • 2 Tablespoons neutral cooking oil (I used grapeseed)
  • 1/2 lb. leftover beef or chicken (or tofu, if you want it to be vegetarian), sliced very thinly
  • 1/2 lb. green beans
  • 1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 2 medium carrots, julienned
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, cut in chiffonade
  • 1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • 2 cups brown rice, cooked according to package instructions

  1. Heat oil in a saute pan over high heat.
  2. Sautee the onions, peppers and carrots until they begin to brown and soften
  3. Add the meat and stir to heat through
  4. Add the green beans and saute briefly
  5. Combine the soy sauce, vinegar and sugar and add to the pan. Stir to coat the ingredients.
  6. Remove pan from the heat and cover.  Allow to sit for a few minutes so the green beans will steam to finish cooking.
  7. Add the basil just before serving.
  8. Serve over cooked rice with a little of the pan sauce.  Garnish with a sprig of basil.
  9. Enjoy!

I spiced mine up a bit by adding some of my favorite fermented chili paste – it played very well against the sweetness of the basil.

So, what are your favorite ways to improvise in the kitchen?  Do you choose your ingredients based on a recipe, or do you like to let your ingredients dictate your dinner?

Simple Summer Meals: Asian-inspired Noodles with Grilled Chicken in Spicy Peanut Sauce

The days are long, and only getting longer.  I revel in squeals and giggles, screams and screeches, soft snuggles and hot little hands.  Days at the pool, evenings on the deck, sweltering nights filled with the gentle flicker of fireflies.  Summer.
School’s out, the kids are home, and we’re all looking for something to stave off the boredom that so often accompanies long hot summer days.  We’re not one of those families that fills our days with camps and activities, although sometimes I long for such a life.  A life where I can have a few hours of quiet while someone else entertains my children.  Sometimes I long for  a day, just one whole day, one 24-hour stretch where I don’t hear “Moooommm – he’s not sharing! Mommmmyyyy – I don’t want to have quiet time today!  Mooommmmy, I’m hungry, can I have a snack?!”  Just one.  That’s all.  One little day.

>Cook it Frozen: Asian-inspired Fish and Chips


A while ago, Foodbuzz and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute issued a challenge to Foodbuzz Featured Publishers.  We could submit proposals detailing how we would prepare one of the fish/seafood options that was featured on the Cook it Frozen website, and the top submissions would be chosen and featured on the Foodbuzz website.  The great part was that we all got free frozen fish to work with!
As you can probably guess from the fact that I’m writing this post, my submission was chosen.  My proposal was to do an Asian twist on a classic English fish and chips with mushy peas.  I chose to work with cod, mainly because my husband has only recently begun eating fish again after many years of thinking he was allergic, and he prefers mild white fish – which cod most definitely is. 
Instead of deep-fried beer-battered cod and deep-fried chips, I decided to do baked panko-crusted cod and miso-glazed sweet potato fries.  And instead of mushy peas, I served Edamame.  I was going to puree them, to simulate the mushy pea texture, but it just seemed somehow wrong to do anything more than just steam them and serve them in their natural state – so that’s what I did.

For the fish:
5-6 cod filets, frozen
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 cup panko breadcrumbs

  1. Preheat your oven to 425F
  2. Begin by rinsing the cod filets to remove any visible ice crystals.
  3. Mix together the egg, oil, soy sauce and vinegar
  4. Dredge the fish filets in the egg mixture
  5. Coat the dredged filets in the panko breadcrumbs
  6. Place on an foil-lined, oiled baking sheet
  7. Bake at 425F for 15 minutes, or until fish is cooked through and coating is crispy and brown
For the sweet potatoes:
2 sweet potatoes, peeled
Oil for coating
salt and pepper to taste

  1. Preheat the oven to 425F
  2. Cut the sweet potatoes into shoestring strips
  3. Lightly coat them in oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper
  4. Bake at 425F for 20-25 minutes, or until cooked through
For the Miso Glaze:
2 tablespoons miso paste
1 tablespoon agave nectar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup light salad oil (I used grapeseed)
  1. Mix together first 4 ingredients
  2. slowly drizzle in the salad oil, whisking constantly
  3. serve over sweet potatoes, and/or as a dipping sauce for the fish
For the Edamame:
1 lb frozen Edamame
Water for boiling/steaming
salt to taste

  1. Cook Edamame according to package directions
The verdict:  Overall, the meal was quite good.  The fish cooked in a reasonable amount of time, and was fairly easy to handle.  My only complaint was that the filets were quite thick, and it was difficult to get flavor infused throughout the fish.  I imagine if you were to thaw them first and marinate them for a few minutes, that solve this issue.  However, the point of this challenge was to “Cook it Frozen!”, so that’s what I did.  Unfortunately, it yielded an end-product that was a little dry and only had flavor on the very outside.  I think this technique could work quite well on a thinner filet, though.
The sweet potatoes, on the other hand were excellent.  The sweetness of the potatoes were complimented very nicely by the salty/earthy flavor of the miso glaze.  I highly recommend serving this as a side dish soon.

And the edamame were great – slightly crunchy, a little nutty and with just enough salt to bring out their flavor.   These were actually my kindergartner’s favorite part of the meal – although he did eat the fish without too much protest.  For some reason, the sweet potatoes weren’t his favorite.

I love the idea of “cooking it frozen.”  It definitely makes getting meals on the table a lot faster (something that is key for us working moms out there).  Not having to wait for the fish to thaw before you put it in the oven is a real time-saver.  While the large portions were much appreciated, I think this would be more effective on thinner cuts of fish.

>Asian-style Noodles with Chicken and Broccoli


This is a very loose interpretation of the very first dish I posted back in January – Saucy Chicken Lo Mein.  I chose to revisit this dish because my family seemed to enjoy it, but I didn’t feel like following the recipe step-by-step again.  As such, I’ve cut quite a few corners.  The end result is just as flavorful (different from the first, but just as good in my opinion).  Additionally, I’ve cut the amount of oil by about 2/3, making it much healthier than the original.


3 chicken breasts
2 cups broccoli, chopped
1 cup green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 shallot
1/2 pound spaghetti noodles
water for cooking pasta
For the sauce
2 1/4 cups chicken stock
1 finger of ginger
7 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice-wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons cornstarch
I began by cooking my chicken breasts in the oven – just put 3 frozen chicken breasts on a foil-lined pan in a 350F oven and let them go for about an hour.  Once they’re cooked, remove from the oven, let cool until you can handle them, and cut them into 2-inch strips.
While the chicken is cooking prepare the vegetables – chop the broccoli (okay, every time I type that phrase, I think of Dana Carvey on SNL – anyone else?  No?  Just me – oh, well…), the green beans and dice the shallot.  
You can also warm the chicken stock in a pan on the stove – add the ginger to it so that the flavor of the ginger can infuse the chicken stock (I did this instead of mincing the ginger and adding it to the sauce).  Once warm, remove it from the heat and take out the ginger.  Add the remaining ingredients to the chicken stock and whisk to remove lumps from the cornstarch.
Boil water for noodles and cook as directed until just al dente (do not overcook – they will continue to cook in the sauce). 
NOTE – I actually cooked a full pound of pasta and added it all to the mix.  This was fine for our family, as my husband likes A LOT of noodles.  I, however, felt like the ratio of noodles to vegetables and chicken was a little off, so I’m suggesting 1/2 a pound of noodles instead.
Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet.  Add the shallot and saute until translucent.  Add the chicken and vegetables and stir to coat with the oil.  Cook until just warmed through (remember, the chicken is already done, and you don’t want to overcook your vegetables).  Pour the sauce over everything and bring to a boil – this is necessary to thicken the sauce.  Add the noodles and toss to combine everything.

>A Spoonful of Ginger by Nina Simonds


 I have a lot of Asian cookbooks in my collections, but I rarely cook Asian-inspired cuisine.  Most of these cookbooks were purchased during a time in my life when I was dating a man of Chinese descent.  Many of them have sat untouched on my bookshelves since we broke up more than nine years ago.  All the more reason to start with this particular genre.

Today’s recipe is Saucy Chicken Lo Mein from A Spoonful of Ginger by Nina Simonds.  I chose this recipe because of it’s child-friendly potential.  My 4-year-old son is a fairly adventurous eater, but it still requires a bit of bribery when he’s asked to try new things.  This recipe lent itself nicely to the familiar.  I did make one omission and one substitution to make it more palatable for the whole family.
You’re given the option of leeks or garlic chives – I chose leeks (easier to find in my local grocery store)
The recipe calls for Chinese black mushrooms, but I couldn’t find any so I omitted them,  Additionally, I substituted broccoli (my son’s favorite vegetable) for the bean sprouts that the recipe calls for (I figured they both have an earthy flavor, and my family prefers the former, so why not?).
Also, I no longer own a wok, so I used my All-Clad Chef’s Pan instead.  It was a fair substitution.
I also used whole-wheat linguine to increase the health benefits.
Overall, I’d say it was a success.  Both my son and husband thoroughly enjoyed the flavors, and it made enough to feed an army.  I think I’ll try at least one more recipe from this book before I decide whether it stays or goes.
Saucy Chicken Lo Mein
(six servings)
1 pound boned chicken breast, skin removed
Garlic Marinade
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons rice wine or sake
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
8 dried Chinese black mushrooms, softened in hot water for 20 minutes
2 leeks or 1/3 pound garlic chives, cleaned and ends trimmed
1/2 pound Chinese flour-and-water noodles or linguine
3 1/2 tablespoons safflower or corn oil
3 tablespons minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 1/2 tablespoons rice wine or sake
2 1/4 cups chicken broth
7 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons rice wine or sake
1 1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
 4 cups bean sprouts, rinsed and lightly drained (I used broccoli)
1. Lay the chicken breast meat flat on a cutting board.  Holding the blade of your knife at a low slant to the board, cut the chicken into thin slices, then cut the slices into matchstick-size shreds; place them in a bowl.  Add the Garlic Marinade and toss lightly with your hands to coat.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
2. Remove and discard the stems from the black mushrooms (if using) and cut the caps into very thin shreds.  Cut the leeks into thin julienne slices about 1 1/2 inches long.  If using garlic chives, trim the ends and cut into 1-inch lengths.
3. Bring 3-quarts of water to a boil, add the noodles, and cook about 10 to 12 minutes, until near tender; drain in a colander, rinse slightly to remove the starch, and drain again thoroughly with a colander.
4. Heat a wok or large skillet, add 2 1/2 tablespoons of the oil, and heat until very hot but not smoking.  Add the chicken shreds and toss lightly over high heat until they change color and separate.  Remove with a handled strainer or slotted spoon and drain.  Clean out the pan.
5. Reheat the pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil, heat about 20 seconds, and add the ginger, garlic and black mushrooms (if using).  Stir-fry over high heat about 15 seconds, then add the leeks or garlic chives.  Stir-fry over high heat briefly, then add the rice wine or sake, and cook about 1 minute, then add the pre-mixed Sauce and cook, stirring continuously to prevent lumps, until it thickens.  Add the cooked noodles and chicken, then the bean sprouts (I added the broccoli with the leeks), and toss lightly to heat and combine the ingredients.  Spoon the chicken lo mein onto a serving platter and serve immediately.