Fried stone

by Ari LeVaux

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 started 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 re-lived 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 augment that rice amounted to an adequate meal of its own. I had made the fried rice equivalent of stone soup.

The fried rice most of us are used to is composed mostly of 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 needs to 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 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 southwest-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 eggs 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. •



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