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Flash in the Pan

Fried stone

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Perhaps you've heard the story of stone soup. Some hungry travelers arrive at a village during a famine, set up a kettle in the town square, put a rock in it, and start cooking.

"We're making stone soup" is the travelers' response to the obvious question, and they invite the villagers to join them. One by one the villagers arrive, each with a little something to contribute. In the end, everyone enjoys a great meal, and nobody eats the stone.

I relived this drama the other day. Searching the fridge for my morning meal, I saw lots of leftovers, including a Thai take-out box full of rice. I decided on fried rice for breakfast.

Soon my wok was full of sizzling goodies. I reached for that take-out box and found it nearly empty. Curses! Someone poached a midnight snack.

Although I had only a few grains of rice to work with, I didn't go hungry since all the bacon, sausage, squash, peas, onions, garlic, egg and chile I had prepared to mix with that rice amounted to an adequate meal of its own. I had made the fried-rice equivalent of stone soup.

Fried stone, if you will.

The fried rice most of us are used to is composed of mostly rice and just a few bits of vegetables and flecks of meat. But fried rice, like soup, is more a concept than a recipe. It's flexible enough to handle all the leftovers and creativity you can throw at it.

There are few important rules when it comes to fried rice, and only one that need be followed to the letter. And while the other rules can be broken, they should at least be broken respectfully.

Rule 1: Traditional Chinese fried rice contains fish sauce. If you were flailing in front of your wok trying to figure out what to add next and you opened a jar of fish sauce and took a whiff, you'd probably say something like, "I don't think so." But fried rice without fish sauce is missing something important. When you add that something, your kitchen will stink, but only for a moment. Afterward, all is good. I can't call this an unbreakable rule because your fried rice will still be edible if you don't add fish sauce. Nonetheless, it will suffer. If you don't have fish sauce, consider bending this rule by adding oil from a jar of anchovies.

Rule 2: Many purists claim that fried rice must contain Chinese sausage, aka Lap Cheong, which is sweet, fatty and mildly spiced. With all due respect to Lap Cheong, this rule was made to be broken. You can use bacon pieces. You can use shredded leftover chicken. You can use Italian sausage, pepperoni, tofu, etc. Or you can skip additional proteins altogether without much penalty.

Rule 3: The rice must be cold, ideally having cooled overnight in the fridge. This rule must never, ever be broken. If you break this rule and add just-cooked rice to the wok or pan, it will smear into a disgusting soggy goop. Cooling the rice shrinks and hardens the grains so they'll separate gracefully, with a pleasing crunch when fried. So if you're making fried rice and you discover you don't have any, or very much, leftover rice in the fridge, do not attempt to make a new pot of rice. Remember my fried-stone fable, take heart, and add more other stuff.

Because every batch of fried rice is dictated largely by what's available, I won't micromanage you with a specific recipe. Instead, I'll give an example of how I prepared a recent batch as a guideline you can follow, however closely or distantly you like.

I began with some sausage slices—sweet Russian sausage from the farmers' market and homemade elk pepperoni slices. Along with the sausage I added slices of leftover squash, so they could brown. I had to add a little oil since the sausage was lean, but if I had used bacon, oil probably wouldn't have been necessary. If I hadn't had leftover squash I might have browned some julienned carrots.

After browning them on one side, I flipped the sausage and squash. When they finished cooking I pushed them to the side of the pan, added another tablespoon of oil, and into that puddle I poured a beaten egg. I let the egg form a bottom, as if making an omelet, tilting the pan to pour the uncooked egg onto any vacant areas. When the egg started cooking through to the top I sliced it with the spatula and scrambled it around the pan. Then I removed the egg, squash and sausage.

Another tablespoon of oil, and then some garlic, fresh ginger and onion. Once this had cooked a bit I added some pecans (whereas tradition dictates peanuts), frozen snap peas from last year's garden, chopped roasted green chiles (for New Mexico-style fried rice), and a few shakes of fish sauce. I stirred that all around then added a cup of leftover wild rice (by no means need the rice be white) and a pour of sherry (because I was afraid stuff was about to start sticking). After mixing the rice around I added my egg and browned sausage and squash, stirred it together, killed the heat, and seasoned with soy sauce.

Some cooks don't use soy sauce in fried rice, relying on the fish sauce for salt. I prefer to use both. But while it's better to add fish sauce early, giving its flavor time to mellow, I add soy sauce after I've killed the heat so it won't burn to the bottom of the pan.

Fried rice works anytime, but I eat it most often for breakfast. Morning, obviously, is the first opportunity to fry rice that sat in the fridge overnight. And since my fried rice often contains eggs and bacon, and since last night's leftovers are still fresh, and since it tastes very good with coffee, fried rice—or fried stone—just makes sense to start the day.

Ask Ari: Curry conundrum

Q: Dear Flash,

I really love Thai curry dishes, but have no idea how to use curry while cooking at home. Do you have a yummy recipe for curry soup to warm me up in these cold winter months? Thanks for your help.

—Curry Crazy

A: The easiest way to make a good Thai curry is by using canned coconut milk and curry paste. Purists may protest, but there's really nothing impure about it. In Thailand it's common to buy curry paste premade at the market, and Thailand is perhaps the world's biggest market for coconut milk.

Almost any store will sell curry paste in the ethnic section. The pastes come in red, yellow, green and sometimes panang or massaman, all of which are variations on the theme that includes ginger, chile, lemongrass, lime leaf, shallot, shrimp or fish paste, garlic, and other spices, all ground into a paste. Green curry will have basil or cilantro, yellow curry will have turmeric, etc. The containers of curry paste will have directions for use, but here is generally how it's done:

If you want proteins in your curry—tofu, chicken or meat—cook them first. I like fish to be crispy in large pieces; beef, tofu or chicken in small pieces.

In a pan or wok, heat some cooking oil on medium heat, and add an onion, chopped. When the onion browns, stir in two tablespoons of curry paste. Add a little water to make sure nothing burns, and add other veggies you want, like broccoli, greens or mushrooms. When the veggies are cooked, add your proteins. Stir-fry it all together and then add coconut milk. When it's all mixed together, add soy sauce, lime and fish sauce to taste. If you want a thicker curry sauce, cook on low and let it thicken. If you want soup, add water to thin it out, adjust seasonings, and serve.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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