There is only a small handful of issues in life that cannot be solved, at least momentarily, by the comfort of good food. A warm, flaky Bojangles chicken biscuit, strategically unwrapped behind the wheel of your car at the start of an otherwise miserable and rainy road trip. A vanilla-strawberry smoothie, there to sweetly welcome you back to reality after a particularly agonizing trip to the gym. A Marie Calendar pot pie, microwave-zapped to perfection to complement an evening "Office" binge when the homies unexpectedly cancel. You know what I'm talking about.
But there is a marked difference between a savory treat being simply handed to you (and, more than likely, delivering a guilt-inducing kick to your bank account) and the process of preparing something incredible for yourself, from scratch. Contrary to popular belief, the latter experience doesn't have to take up an immense amount of your time -- and it can easily save you money. Better yet, the flavors in question can be perfectly tailored to your individual, palate-based needs at that particular moment. The key is knowing what exactly to pull from the shelf at Harris Teeter, or from a stand at the farmers' market, and how to convince those ingredients to love each other.
When it comes to the difference between completing tasks just to stay busy and actually doing the things that need to be done, Ziggy Marley hit the nail on the head in an interview with Mantra Magazine. "Doing something that is productive is a great way to alleviate emotional stress," he said. "Get your mind doing something that is productive." What better way to live by this belief than to pay better attention to the food we eat? It's time to stop viewing nutrition as secondary to other things that define our worth as humans -- and it's time we take responsibility for understanding and cultivating those tastes ourselves.
And how, exactly, is that done, you ask? Through the incredible art of the stir-fry. Follow my lead...in five easy steps.
1. Understand the stir-fry.
The opportunities surrounding this particular style of cuisine are endless. You need only keep the kitchen stocked with a couple of key ingredients, which exist, delightfully, on an either/or basis, depending on the type of stir-fry lover you are. Olive oil, or butter. (Although as a functioning adult you might want to keep both on hand, you know, for regular cooking reasons.) Teriyaki, or canned tomatoes. Angel hair pasta, or wild rice. Or sticky rice. Or quinoa! See? Endless. Once you know that your pantry lives as perpetual home to the trusty best friends of stir-fry ingredients, you may rest easy knowing that if you feel like Italian sausage or chicken or just plain veggies, you can drop by the grocery store on your way home from work, drop $5 and know that dinner is just a 10-minute sizzle away.
2. Hone in on what you love.
This takes practice, and a lot of really minimalist-style stovetop engineering. Start with what you know -- or at least with what you know how to recognize. I personally grew up eating a lot of Italian, so for me that meant olive oil, olive oil and more olive oil. My entire life I thought that olive oil was really, really good for you, based solely on the fact that olive oil in the form of a giant puddle in my dad's skillet provided the framework of everything we ate. (And then this year I discovered that it really isn't that good for you, but that's a really sad story that we don't have time to get into.) Anyway, I started with olive oil, plus diced onion and crushed garlic, since I knew those things definitely went together. Turns out, the flavor potential springboard that is oily pasta is incredibly diverse. Sometimes I keep it down to just that bare-bones partnership and season it with something lovely and floral, like rosemary or fennel. Plus a little Parmesan shaving. (But only when I'm feeling rich.)
3. Unplug and make it perfect.
Mastering the stir-fry's healing properties will rely largely on your mastery of the timing involved. The 30-second window between that beautifully aromatic garlic simmer and awful, burned-clove, sticking-to-the-pan grime can feel like a really, really short period of time -- even when you're giving it your full attention. Frying up veggies to the desired consistency can seem simple -- just let 'em do their thing! -- but leave them too long and they become one monotone mush with no edges, no body, no soul. And everyone knows what overcooked pasta spells. (Disaster. It spells disaster.) So what does this mean? It means you need to put the smartphone down, forget about what pending notifications or private messages you could very well receive over the next half-hour or so, and focus on what's brewing before you. I'm not lying when I say that the time I spend each week stir-frying makes up some very crucial moments of healing that I sometimes don't even realize I need amidst eight-hour work days, family drama, convincing myself I should go to the gym, balancing rent money and beer money, and everything else that inexplicably creates stress in my life. When I shut myself off from the world, turn on some tunes and focus on beating eggs to fluffy perfection or portioning out just the right amount of lemon juice, I am happy and I am in control -- and, for the most part, I'm healthy.
4. Love the leftovers.
When you cook at home, you remove the stress of possibly ordering too much food -- and let's be honest. You're not going to eat the rest of that beef 'n' broccoli lo mein, a) because half of it is glued to the papery bottom of that takeout container, and b) because it is never, ever going to taste as good as it did the day before. The only form of takeout that is maybe worth multiple rounds of leftover chow is maybe pizza, and that entirely depends on which angry employee prepared it that day and how much they skimped on your toppings. However, when you stir-fry and put in that little extra effort to keep the components separate (toppings in one Tupperware, rice in another and unused vegetables in another), you suddenly become privy to the beautiful world that is desirable leftovers -- and the best part is that they can become OTHER dishes that you could have never dreamed of the night before. I once made a chorizo/bell pepper 'fry that was so unbelievably good mixed into rice and cheese, and what was left played into one killer breakfast burrito the next morning.
5. Impress your friends.
Or your parents. Or your S.O. Whatever. Through this important culinary study, it's important that we don't forget that one of the driving forces behind producing and consuming great food is the person-to-person connection. You can do it for yourself, which you sometimes really need; don't shy away from those moments of delicious solitude. But whether you're hosting a party or just early for a family dinner, don't be afraid to break out some stir-fry and show the people how amazing mixed-up flavors can be.