In mid-winter when comfort food rules the day, my palate occasionally craves something light and lively, and nothing fills that bill more than stir-fry. It is, simply put, quick cooking over high heat that creates tender meats and crispy vegetables, not to mention a fast meal. It's a versatile technique that works for most types of protein and vegetables.
The idea of stir-frying can be a bit intimidating, though. I've noticed in the cooking classes I teach that many home cooks feel uncomfortable with the concept, mostly due to the fast-paced nature of the process and the fact that it requires working with high heat. They worry about overcooking the food, or, worse yet, burning the meal.
There is an easy solution, though. It's called mise en place (pronounced miz on plahs), a French phrase that in the culinary world has come to mean "everything in place," as in "set up and ready to go." This is a discipline that serves every cook, young or old, and every recipe well. It requires getting all the ingredients prepped and measured, and all the necessary equipment out, so it's easily accessible.
It eliminates that familiar scenario of getting halfway through a recipe, only to realize you don't have enough (or perhaps none at all) of an important ingredient. Although I agree that necessity may be the mother of invention, when you're standing over a hot pan, with garlic sizzling in oil and threatening to burn, not having the next ingredient ready to toss in can feel more like the mother of "Let's just call for pizza."
Another point of hesitation for some can be the equipment, in this case the wok. I love my wok. I've had it for years and use it often. Do I have to have it, though, if I'm going to stir-fry? No. If you own a wok, great. If you don't, just use a large skillet. It will work fine.
So now that your ingredients are prepped and your equipment is set, you are ready to go. The only other thing you need to know is that in order to get everything perfectly cooked at the same time, you need to add them to your hot pan in the right order.
Most stir-fries will have you cook the protein first and remove it while you cook the vegetables. This allows the meat to brown quickly, without overcooking. It also allows the vegetables to have the pan to themselves while they're cooking, which means they'll cook quicker and stay crispy tender. Just keep in mind that not all vegetables cook at the same rate. So add the denser veggies first -- such as carrots -- and leave the more delicate ones, such as snow peas, for the end of the cooking process.
Serve over a little rice, or in the case of this Lemon Chicken stir-fry, over some crispy noodles (a kid favorite), and dinner is done in a flash.
Meredith Deeds of Edina is the author of "Everyday to Entertaining" and "The Big Book of Appetizers." Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meredithdeeds.