Well, that was a surprise: This past Christmas, after a lifetime of lapsed Roman Catholicism, I came to the realization that the Jews are right.
I’m not talking about matters of religious faith. Where those are concerned, I stand firmly in the corner of songwriter Iris Dement: “But no one knows for certain, and so it’s all the same to me.”
No, I’m talking about Christmas dinner. At the end of an interminable confab with my family, taking into account my children’s admittedly provincial preferences along with the varied aversions and phobias of our invited guests, I huffed in exasperation, “Maybe we should just send out for Chinese!” My daughter yay-ed spontaneously, and Chinese takeout it was.
As those of you to whom I am currently married will attest, however, I cannot simply order Chinese. I must over-order, and over-order I did. Lo mein. Chow mein. General Tso’s Chicken. Colonel Wu’s Yam Salad. And rice. Lots and lots of rice. Enough rice, in fact, to earn me the cumbersome nickname, “Mr. Many Extra Cartons of Rice in the Fridge.”
Of course, then the question became, what to do with all that leftover rice? If only there were a way to fry it up and — aha! Fried rice it is.
Why you need to learn this
Seriously? Like you’ve never had leftover rice hardening to gemstones in the back of your fridge? Don’t play coy with me, missy. How much rice have you tossed in the garbage, anyway? Well, you can kiss those days goodbye because, from now on, it’s fried rice for everyone.
The steps you take
The premise behind fried rice is as easy as toast: Stir cooked rice into cooked nonrice ingredients, get it piping hot and, as the French say, “Look there!” (Of course, they say it in French — Voila! — so it sounds classy.)
But, let’s get something straight from the get-go: Today we’re focusing on using up leftovers. Obviously, you could make fried rice “from scratch.” But, if you’re hankering for organic heirloom rice simmered with Himalayan spring water and Pomeranian cloud salt in a hand-tooled copper vessel over smoldering peat embers, then perhaps you should be reading something else.
Also, even though fried rice is associated with China, we can apply to it any flavor profile we want. It’s just dinner, for cry eye. It’s not like the Chinese Imperial Guards are going to come rocketing through your window like Michelle Yeoh with a bone to pick — although, how cool would that be?
Now, about those leftovers.
The rice from your leftover ordered-in Chinese is perfect, though any leftover rice will do. And really, you don’t even need rice. Any starch will work: couscous, barley, pasta, quinoa, even fried potatoes.
Next, you’ll need some additional color and flavor, because, let’s face it, on its own, white rice is as pale and bland as Jimmy Osmond’s bachelor party. The easiest thing is simply to use leftover meat — chicken, beef, pork — and/or vegetables — broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, peas, whatever. Cut everything into bite-sized pieces.
When you take this easy, precooked ingredient route, all you need do is toss everything in a little oil in a saute pan (or wok), over high heat until it’s hotter than Satan’s minty-fresh breath.
But you might want a little more flavor. Before adding any leftovers, saute some of what the kids call “aromatics,” like onion, garlic, carrot or celery. If you’re staying with Asian flavors, add some fresh ginger.
If you’re using fresh vegetables, approach it like a stir-fry: Long cooking items (like carrots) go in before quick cooking items (like garlic or mushrooms). If you’re using leftovers as well, add them at the end, with the rice.
Egg is also common, scrambled or cooked into a flat omelet and cut into strips. Do this first, in the same pan, then remove it and add it back with the rice.
We’re almost done. You just need to add more flavor and possibly moisture.
First, the moisture. I keep a box of chicken broth in the fridge and add a splash to anything I’m reheating. And, let’s face it, leftover rice can get drier than King Tut’s martini, especially in those oddly shaped, white cardboard containers from the Chinese restaurant. (Incidentally, I may be no Apollonius of Perga, but I believe that container’s shape might accurately be described as an “inverted frustum.”)
As for additional flavors, the world is your oystery palette. If you’re staying Asian, try a splash of soy or fish sauce or one of those other tasty condiments, like oyster sauce, fermented black beans or chile paste. Start with a little, and taste as you go.
Or, take a different tack altogether: Go Mexican with pico de gallo or cumin, minced chipotles and cilantro. Or Indian with coconut milk, chutney and garam masala. See what we’re doing?
Good. Now, go grab your frustum and start cooking.
Consider this a base recipe. For example, in place of the peas and carrots, add a couple of cups of leftover vegetables and/or meat, or consult the accompanying variations. Better yet, make up your own.
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
- 1 ounce soy sauce
- 2 ounces chicken stock
- 1 ounce oyster sauce, optional
- 2 tablespoons peanut or other vegetable oil
- 2 eggs, beaten
- Kosher salt as needed
- 8 ounces onion, cut into medium dice
- 1 carrot, cut into medium dice
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon peeled, minced ginger
- 1 cup peas (frozen is OK)
- 3 to 4 cups leftover cooked rice
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 green onions, sliced on a bias, optional
Combine soy sauce, chicken stock and optional oyster sauce in a small bowl; set aside.
Heat a large skillet or wok over high heat. Add one tablespoon of oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add eggs, season to taste with salt, and cook until lightly scrambled, about 60 seconds. Transfer eggs to a bowl.
Return pan to high heat, and add another tablespoon of oil to coat bottom of pan. Stir in onion and carrot; saute until tender, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and ginger; sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add peas, rice, cooked eggs and reserved soy sauce mixture; saute until warmed through and liquid is absorbed, about 2 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in sesame oil. Garnish with green onion, and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 352 calories, 13 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 93 mg cholesterol, 46 g carbohydrates, 5 g sugar, 10 g protein, 490 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
The following are more flavor options; cook using the same basic method described above. Feel free to add any additional cooked vegetables or meat, all cut into bite sized pieces, along with the rice (or other grain).
Vaguely Mexican: Sauté green pepper, onions and carrot. Add rice and any cooked vegetables or meat (chorizo would be nice) along with chicken stock to moisten. Add 2 to 4 ounces of pico de gallo, or red or green salsa. Garnish with cilantro.
Somewhat Indian: Sauté onion with a teaspoon or so of mustard seed and cumin seed, a quarter teaspoon of turmeric and some sliced green chiles (if you like it hot). Add rice and any cooked vegetables or meat, and moisten with chicken stock or coconut milk. Stir in a half teaspoon of garam masala and garnish with cilantro.
Fairly New Orleans: Sauté onions, celery and green pepper. Stir in rice along with cooked shrimp and/or andouille sausage and a half teaspoon each of basil and thyme, along with any red, black and white pepper you like.
Reminiscent of Southeast Asian: Sauté onions, and add garlic and ginger. Add rice and whatever vegetables or meat (cooked shrimp would be great) and flavor with fish sauce, lime and white pepper. Garnish with cilantro.
By-god American: Crisp some bacon, and remove. Sauté onions and garlic in the bacon fat. Add the rice along with any vegetables or meat you want, because this is America. Moisten with a little stock, and serve with crumbled bacon and hot sauce.
Prep School is a Tribune News Service column by James P. DeWan, an award-winning food writer, chef and culinary instructor who teaches at Kendall College in Chicago. He is the author of “Prep School: How to Improve Your Kitchen Skills and Cooking Techniques,” a collection of his columns.