The curse of the takeout box of rice: If you’re anything like me, you know it well. Shoved toward the back of your fridge — “Oh, I’ll use it later!” you promise yourself — it languishes, unused, unloved, its red pagoda and admonition of “ENJOY” glaring at you like some scarlet letter. Then, weeks pass until you unearth it, long after its useful life is up.
Guilt, frustration, the haunting of meals uneaten, all of it bubbles to the surface. But no more! After years of telling myself I would repurpose the extras, I now feel confident I will, because this dish is one of my favorite things I’ve made and eaten lately.
The “fresh” fried rice you get from your local carryout is often so underwhelming. No surprise, homemade is better (and can even use up the bits and pieces of other dishes, too).
Perhaps no one knows her way around a quick, improvised stir-fry better than cookbook author Grace Young (“poet laureate of the wok,” according to one food historian, and owner of the Twitter handle @stirfrygrace).
“It’s the quintessential one-pot meal,” Young says of fried rice. “I love it because it’s my lifesaver. … I know I can get dinner on the table in 15 minutes because I have cooked rice in the refrigerator.”
Young strongly endorses making this and other stir-fries in a well-seasoned carbon-steel wok. To reflect what most beginner and intermediate cooks probably have, I adapted this recipe for the more common 12-inch stainless-steel skillet. (If you do use such a wok, you can double all the ingredients and cut back a bit on the oil, because the wok can handle more volume and requires less oil.)
Here are Young’s tips for fried rice success:
— Use cold rice. Any rice will do — brown, jasmine, even sushi — as long as it’s cold. Day-old is best. This way, the grains are dry and distinct, assuming you fluff up the rice after you cook it. Basmati is great, too, and Young says it’s one you can actually use while hot because it cooks up drier with grains that don’t stick together. If you want to inject extra flavor, make your rice with vegetable, chicken, beef or seafood broth. Of course, you can use your takeout rice, too. Just don’t let it solidify into a block in the carryout box. Heck, you don’t even have to use rice. Bulgur is one great alternative grain that Young suggests.
— Preheat the skillet. If you add oil to a cold pan, your food will stick. You’ll know the skillet is at the right temperature when a few drops of water flicked on the surface evaporate in a second or two.
— Don’t just stir like you’re stirring a pot. The stir-fry motion is scooping and tossing. This does a better job cooking all sides of all the ingredients and prevents sticking. You really need to get under the rice and keep it moving so it doesn’t burn on the bottom of the skillet. That’s why a fish spatula is excellent for the task. Any other type of thin metal spatula, even one designed for pancakes, works.
Each ingredient should be cut the same size to encourage even cooking. Young recommends that hard vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips and broccoli stems, be cut into 1/4-inch dice.
The cooking happens fast, so be sure to have all your ingredients nearby before you start.
— Make the dish exactly the way you want it. Think of this recipe as a starting template. You can use whatever vegetables or meat you have in the refrigerator, as long as you think about when it’s added to the dish. Hard ingredients, such as carrots, and medium-hard, such as bell peppers, should go in first. Then you can use defrosted frozen vegetables. Add cooked proteins in the last minute, and you can get as creative as you want. Two of Young’s favorite recipes use unexpected stars — jerk chicken and crab. (She suggests cutting chicken into about a 1/2-inch dice.) And don’t discount barbecue chicken and shredded prosciutto, either. Eggs and nuts help turn the fried rice recipe here into a hearty main for vegetarians. Young says fresh shiitake mushrooms are another good option.
“I feel like fried rice is a wonderful way to express yourself as you cook,” Young says. “Once you start doing this, the sky’s the limit.”
Prep note: Toast the nuts in a small, dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes, shaking the pan a few times to avoid scorching. Let cool completely before using.
Heat a 12-inch stainless-steel skillet over medium-high heat. When a few drops of water flicked over the surface evaporate in a second or two, the skillet is at the right temperature.
Swirl in 2 tablespoons of the oil to coat the bottom of the skillet. Add the beaten eggs and tilt the skillet so that they spread, covering the surface like a crepe. Cook for about 30 seconds to 1 minute, until it’s just set. Use a thin spatula and flip the eggs over; cook for 5 seconds to make sure they are thoroughly cooked through. Slide the eggs onto a cutting board, then cut into strips.
Wipe the skillet clean, then return it to medium-high heat. Repeat the water test to make sure the skillet heat is the right temperature.
Pull the skillet off the heat, add 1 tablespoon of oil, swirling the pan to coat the bottom and sides. (If the oil begins to smoke, the skillet is too hot. Let it cool for a few minutes, wipe it clean, wash and start again.)
With the skillet back over medium-high heat, add the ginger and crushed red pepper flakes; stir-fry for 10 seconds, or just until fragrant.
Add the carrots; stir-fry for 30 seconds, or until they turn a brighter shade of orange. Add the corn and peas; stir-fry for 1 minute.
Make a small clearing in the center of the pan and pour the remaining 1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons of oil into the skillet, then swirl to distribute. Add the rice and scallions; stir-fry for 2 minutes, breaking up the rice with a spatula until the rice is heated through. Season with the salt and white pepper.
Pour the soy sauce around the edges of the skillet, then stir-fry to incorporate it. Return the cooked egg to the skillet, along with the nuts, if using, tossing to incorporate. Stir-fry just until the egg is just warmed through.
Serve right away.
Adapted from a recipe by cookbook author Grace Young posted on TheKitchn.com.