8 essential ingredients for a flavorful, healthy stir fry

I love a good stir fry: piping hot, aromatic, flavorful and fresh, a great solution when you crave something healthy but a little more substantial than a salad.

It’s easy to make a bland or uninspiring stir fry, especially when you try to make it without meat. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to make them full of flavor — even when you want to go vegetarian — without relying on gabs of soy sauce. You just need to familiarize yourself with a few ingredients and cooking methods.

To me, what kind of protein you put in your stir-fry — or what kind of grain or starch you choose to serve it over — is less important than what you use to build the flavor profile of your hash. It’s fun to experiment; I like serving stir fry atop quinoa, Jasmine rice, wild or brown rice and even noodles.

Here is my list of essential ingredients for a healthy stir fry (though not necessarily all together).

  1. Fish sauce. This product isn’t likely to win you over at first (the smell is, shall we say, off-putting), but trust me: It adds tons of great flavor and a welcome lashing of saltiness. Just a tablespoon or so is all you need for a large skillet or wok.
  2. Curry paste. It’s easy to find green or red curry paste nowadays in specialty sections of grocery markets. They combine dry spices with fresh herbs, garlic, chiles and other ingredients. To use it, mix and dissolve it in a hot liquid, such as water (and use extra water so it becomes like a sauce). Or use green curry with coconut milk for a classic Thai-inspired pairing.
  3. Black bean sauce. You can use various versions of this sauce — with or without garlic, or fermented black bean paste — to add a salty depth of flavor to your concoction.
  4. Coconut milk. Dissolve some curry paste in thick, creamy coconut milk over heat and you’ve got the starters of some mighty fine Thai-style curry. Peas, eggplant, mushrooms, peppers, tofu, seafood or meat; it’s all good to go with this.
  5. Garlic. Do I really have to explain this one? Garlic improves just about everything, except maybe your morning cereal.
  6. Ginger. This edible root lends a bright, zingy spiciness to any stir fry. Ginger is also good for circulation and digestion.
  7. Lemongrass. This stalky, tough and fibrous plant lends its incomparable lemony spice to Tom Yum soup. Apparently you can eat it so long as you chop and cook it thoroughly, but usually I bruise the yellow stalks and add them to a stir fry but remove them before serving.
  8. Fresh herbs. Cilantro, mint and basil make for great late additions to a stir fry, or try them as a flavor-adding garnish just prior to serving.

What do you like to add to your stir fry?

Photo by velkr0

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