In theory, a stir-fry is the model weeknight dinner. It’s fast, it combines vegetables and protein in a single dish, it’s relatively healthy, and it requires no accompaniment other than rice. (OK, fine, maybe also some Riesling or a beer, preferably a pale ale.) But many home cooks shoot themselves in the foot by being far too ambitious in their stir-frying. Stir-fries can accommodate many different kinds of meat and produce—but that doesn’t mean you should dump the entire contents of your refrigerator in your skillet or wok. In fact, the best stir-fries are as restrained as James Blake’s eponymous album: They combine two principal ingredients—one protein, one vegetable—with a trio of essential aromatic seasonings and a simple, delicious sauce. The below recipe, featuring chewy tofu (made chewier via freezing, if you have time) and vernal asparagus, is the ideal stir-fry iteration, as far as I’m concerned. But it can serve as a blueprint for virtually any stir-fry, so long as you remember three fundamental rules.
The first is to cook your protein and your vegetable separately, and combine them only after both are fully cooked. Protein—whether chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, or tofu—should be stirred minimally so that it maintains undisturbed contact with the hot pan and acquires a nice, seared exterior. (If you’re tempted to prod mercilessly at your protein, distract yourself by chopping your other ingredients as it sears.) Meanwhile, vegetables must be stirred fairly often so that they cook through quickly without any part getting mushy. Attempts at stir-frying protein and vegetables simultaneously will result in an erratic mélange of overcooked and undercooked ingredients, many of which will end up slimy and tattered.
A second rule of thumb for stir-frying: Choose one vegetable per stir-fry. Not all vegetables cook at the same rate, and getting two vegetables to hit that cusp between tender and crisp at the exact same time is pretty much impossible. (You can, of course, cook multiple vegetables in batches, but once you head down that road, stir-frying no longer qualifies as quick and easy.) Furthermore, crowding your pan with vegetables will result in their releasing more liquid, which threatens to make them soggy instead of crisp. Though you should not combine more than one vegetable in a stir-fry, you may combine your vegetable with a fungus: Mushrooms cook through quickly but never really become overcooked, which makes them a great companion to any vegetable. You must combine your vegetable with three important aromatics—ginger, garlic, and chile—without which your stir-fry will taste flat.
Finally, always remember to add liquid only after everything is more or less finished cooking. A proper sauce for stir-fries combines something salty—soy sauce, usually, though fish sauce also works—with something a little bit sweet. Mirin, sweet Japanese rice wine, contributes a wonderful fermented flavor, but if you don’t have any, substitute a teaspoon of honey or sugar combined with two teaspoons of water. Soy sauce and mirin both burn if cooked for much longer than a minute, so plan to leave them on the heat just long enough to coat the other ingredients and thicken into a glaze.
Stir-Fried Tofu, Asparagus, and Shiitakes
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
Time: 25 to 30 minutes, plus time to freeze and thaw the tofu
One 14-ounce package extra-firm tofu, drained and patted dry
2 tablespoons peanut oil
Salt and black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 medium jalapeño or bird’s eye chile, seeded and minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound asparagus, peeled, trimmed, and cut into 1-inch segments
3½ ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon mirin
Cooked short-grain brown or white rice for serving (optional)
1. At least one day before you plan to make the stir-fry, cut the tofu into ½- to ¾-inch slices and cut each slice into 1- to 2-inch triangles or rectangles. Freeze the tofu overnight, then thaw it in the refrigerator.
2. Put 1 tablespoon of the peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the tofu, season with salt and pepper, and cook, turning every 3 to 5 minutes, until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes total. Transfer the tofu to a plate.
3. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon peanut oil to the pan. When it’s hot, add the ginger, jalapeño, and garlic, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the asparagus and mushrooms, and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are just tender, 3 to 5 minutes.
4. Return the tofu to the pan, and add the soy sauce and mirin. Cook, stirring gently, until the sauce thickens, about 1 minute. Serve hot, over rice if desired. (Store leftover stir-fry in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a few days.)