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Monday, August 20, 2012 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.

Spice it up: How to turn one dish into many

By Leora Y. Bloom
Special to The Seattle Times

Sometimes what we really need is a little spice in our lives. We have our repertoire of dishes we feel comfortable preparing that we know our families will eat, but we're tired of them. Fortunately there's a solution that's healthy and inexpensive: Learn to make a successful stir fry and expand your spice drawer. Simply change the spices you use to turn one simple dish into many: Chinese, Italian, Greek, Japanese, Indian, Mexican — the possibilities are endless.

A stir-fry is healthy (all those good vegetables), inexpensive (a little protein goes a long way) and quick and easy to prepare (the instructions refer to time in seconds and minutes). I learned the technique from a Burmese friend who didn't even make me buy a wok.

You can find my recipe for my friend Amy's Chicken Karba below. But her lessons are simple: Cut the meat into small pieces and salt it well. "Velvet" the chicken (a traditional Chinese method) to guarantee that it will be tender and juicy by marinating it for a short amount of time in the refrigerator with a little cornstarch and either egg white or water. (See recipe.) Separate your vegetables by approximate cooking times — you can stir-fry almost anything, so it's a clever way to clean out your vegetable drawer. (And as long as I include vegetables I know my kids will eat, I find this is a great way to introduce them to new vegetables or vegetables they're sure they don't like.)

Be sure your oil is hot before you start cooking. Don't be shy with your spices, and be sure to keep adjusting your seasoning. Finish the dish with a slurry of cornstarch and water — a short simmer results in a light and flavorful sauce.

Amy's recipe makes a tangy curry with a kick. But following Amy's guidelines and leaving out her aromatics and acids, it's simple to make a traditional Chinese stir-fry by using Hoisin sauce in the marinade, and adding more to the slurry. For a Japanese yakitori, use soy sauce, sake and mirin (see recipe below). To make it Greek, add oregano and thyme to the vegetables, and serve it topped with crumbled feta. For an Italian meal, stir store-bought pesto into the finished dish and serve with grated Parmesan and pasta. For a quick Indian curry, start with lots of thinly sliced red onions, plenty of garlic and ginger, and add ground cumin, ground coriander, whole mustard seeds, and serve with basmati rice.

You can make a stir-fry into fajitas with ground cumin, chili, and lime juice, and serve it with tortillas, avocado, sour cream and salsa (see recipe below).

You can buy your spices anywhere; just don't buy too much. The best reason to buy spices in bulk is that you can purchase really small quantities. You don't want to keep any spice for more than a year. PCC, Fred Meyer, Ballard Market and the larger QFCs sell many spices in bulk. World Spice on Western Avenue and Market Spice just above it in Pike Place Market are destinations for a remarkable list of spices and blends such as Moroccan Ras El Hanout, Thai blends and a variety of Indian curries.

Sugar Pill on Capitol Hill has a few interesting proprietary blends including a ground "sel de Provence" which will whisk you to the south of France with ingredients like lavender, fennel and tarragon. Add it to your stir-fry and serve with crusty bread, and only you will know it's practically the same dish you made last week.

Leora Y. Bloom is the author of "Washington Food Artisans: Farm Stories and Chef Recipes."

Burmese Chicken Karba

Makes 4 servings

If you haven't tried Burmese curry before, you are in for a treat. The addition of white vinegar, lemon juice and chile gives it a hot-and-sour kick. You can use any vegetables for this stir-fry, but the easiest way to cook it is to cut the vegetables according to how long they will take to cook so you can add them all at once. I cut thin slices of hard vegetables like carrots, and I thinly slice my onions. I cut peppers and zucchini into ¾- to 1-inch dice. I cut green beans in half or thirds, leave snap peas whole, and cut broccoli into florets. If I can plan ahead and have a bag in the fridge, I love to add bean sprouts in the last minute of cooking. And my all-time favorite vegetable to include in a stir fry with this sauce is tomato. You can use whole cherry tomatoes, or cut large tomatoes into wedges. Add them at the last minute, too.

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 egg white

Vegetable oil

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 teaspoons minced ginger

5 cups assorted vegetables (see headnote)

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon chile powder

1 teaspoon paprika

Kosher salt


1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons white vinegar

½ cup water

1. Cut the chicken into ¾-inch dice and put it into a small bowl. Sprinkle the chicken with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and use a clean hand to mix together well. Add the cornstarch and the egg white and stir well to dissolve the cornstarch, break up the white and coat the chicken. Cover the bowl and refrigerate while you prepare the vegetables.

2. Make the slurry by whisking the ingredients together in a small bowl. Set aside. Keep the whisk handy because the cornstarch will settle and you'll need to whisk again before you use it.

3. With clean hands wash and cut your vegetables. If using bean sprouts and tomatoes, keep them separate.

4. Heat a large nonstick sauté pan or skillet over high heat. Add enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and ginger and sauté for 15 seconds. Add the chicken, and sauté until it is cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the chicken from the pan and set it aside on a plate. Add the vegetables (except the bean sprouts and tomatoes) and about 1/3 cup water to the hot pan. Be careful, because it will make a lot of steam and can splatter. Cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Sprinkle with ½ teaspoon kosher salt and continue to cook, stirring, until the vegetables are crisp-tender and brightly colored. Add the chicken back to the pan along with the spices. Stir well to coat the chicken and vegetables with the spices. Whisk the slurry to reincorporate the cornstarch, add it to the pan, and reduce the heat to low. Let the stir-fry simmer for 30 seconds until the sauce thickens, stirring constantly. Check for seasoning and add salt and lemon or vinegar to taste. Serve with rice.

For variations, leave out the curry powder, chile powder and paprika, and replace with other spices. Also leave out the lemon juice and vinegar from the slurry.

Japanese Variation:

Marinate the chicken with 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons sake, 1 ½ tablespoons mirin, ¼ teaspoon dried ginger and 1 tablespoon cornstarch. Make the slurry with 1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch, 5 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons sake, 1 tablespoon sugar and ½ cup water.

Mexican Variation:

Marinate the chicken according to the original recipe. Leave out the minced ginger. Use 2 teaspoons ground cumin and 1 teaspoon chile powder (or more, to taste) when you add the cooked chicken to the vegetables. Squeeze the juice of half a lime over the finished dish, and serve with warm tortillas, avocado, salsa and sour cream.

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