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?

Jerk Chicken

When I was in college, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a week in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  My mother was given the trip as a bonus for a big project she had led to completion at work, and she thoughtfully invited me to accompany her on the trip.  The package had us staying at a fairly bland resort, away from any of the real culture or flavor of the country, but we did manage to experience some Jamaican life while we were there.

The most distinct memory that I have from that trip is, of course, food related.  We had been on an excursion – maybe to the market, maybe to some tourist attraction, I can’t really remember – and on the way back we asked our taxi driver for a recommendation for lunch.  He began talking about good restaurants that he’d heard of in the resort area, but we insisted that he tell us where he would eat if it were up to him.

He pulled into a little road-side stand and told us that this was the best place to get the Jamaican specialty, Jerk.  If we wanted to eat here, though, he was going to take his lunch break and we’d have to wait for him to finish.  We conceded to his conditions and proceeded to enjoy some of the most flavorful, spicy, smoky chicken and pork we’d ever experienced.  Sitting in the noonday heat, perched on a wooden bench on the side of a busy road, eating meat off the bone with our fingers and drinking Red Stripe beer.  We felt right at home.

Needless to say, our taxi driver got a good tip from us that day.

Fast forward 18 years: When I asked my husband what he wanted to do for Father’s Day this year, he said all he really wanted was to watch a Gold Cup soccer game on television.  I told him I’d be happy to keep the kids out of the house for the 90 minutes (or so) of the game.  Out of curiosity, I asked who the US National team was playing.  Jamaica, he informed me.

And thus was born our menu for Father’s Day dinner. Despite my husbands protestations that I shouldn’t make a meal that represents the opposing team, I convinced him it would be okay (and it was – the US won 2-0).

Luckily I had a tried-and-true Jerk recipe that we’d discovered shortly after Mom and I returned from Jamaica ‘lo those many years ago.  It’s from a 1993 issue of Gourmet, and it very nearly replicates the flavors of that authentic Jerk we had on the roadside back in Montego Bay.

Jerk Chicken
prep time: 5 minutes
marinade time: 24 hours (at least)
cook time: 2 hours
serves: 8-10

  • 2 cups chopped scallion
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons habanero chili paste or 2 habanero chilis, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 5 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 3 teaspoons English-style dry mustard
  • 2 bay leaves, crumbled
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon unrefined sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons sucanat (some people recommend molasses)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme, crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 5 lbs. chicken (whole or parts)
  1. In a food processor or blender, combine the scallion, chili paste, soy sauce, lime juice, allspice, mustard, bay leaves, garlic, salt, sugar, thyme and cinnamon.  It will become a dark, greenish paste.
  2. If using a whole chicken, remove the backbone and butterfly the chicken so that it lays flat.
  3. Smear the marinade all over the chicken (as you can see above, I did some chicken legs, and one whole chicken.  For the drumsticks, I reserved some of the marinade without the chili paste and used that for the kids – the flavor was still there, but the habanero heat was absent).
  4. Cover and allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours.
  5. Grill over indirect heat (around 250-275) for 2 hours, or until the joints of the chicken begin to separate and the juices run clear.  Keep an eye on it, since there is sugar in the marinade, and it will burn easily.

We served ours with some grilled asparagus and some creamy coleslaw, but you could certainly go more traditional with some black beans and rice or plantains. It was just as flavorful as I remember it being, and my husband loved it. The kids seemed to enjoy their heat-free version too, so definitely I recommend making the marinade without the chilies if you’ve got heat-sensitive people in your family.

So, the US plays Panama on Wednesday – what Panamanian dish should I make to ensure our victory?

Some Like it Hot: Fermented Chili Paste

Do you like things a little bit spicy?  I’m not sure when it happened for me, but for as long as I can remember I have liked spicy foods.  Loved them, actually – even as a child.  It was like a badge of honor if you could eat spicy foods without complaining.  And I could down some spicy foods.

I like a lot of horseradish in my cocktail sauce.  I want it to make my sinuses burn.

I like a lot of wasabi with my sushi.  I want my eyes to water and my nose to run.

I put hot sauce on a lot of things, and jalapenos are a common topping for just about anything.  When I was pregnant with both my boys I craved many different foods, but mostly it was anything that was spicy, spicy, spicy.  The spicier the better – heartburn be damned.

So when I saw this recipe for fermented chili sauceover at Nourished Kitchen I just knew I had to make it.  As much tobasco and sriracha as I go through, it seems like I should know how to make it myself.

Continue reading “Some Like it Hot: Fermented Chili Paste”