Stir fry concepts have become one of the most popular stations in onsite foodservice, and the reasons are clear. Stir fry offerings:
- allow frequent ingredient and flavor profile rotations.
- provide an exciting platform for live-action cooking.
- permit the use of more vegetables and less protein.
- leverage the interest many consumers have in Asian cuisine and more healthful meal options.
At Duke University Hospital, customers can tuck into a plate of stir fried pork that has been marinating overnight in beet juice to give it a cool red color and a distinct sweetness. At Scripps College, students are nibbling stir fries made of quality seasonal ingredients, simply prepared, with a freshness that speaks for itself. Even middle school students have been feasting on reimbursable stir fry bowls complete with authentic Asian flavors but using less sodium and less fat.
Stir Fry Success
Stir frying meets all the modern challenges and goals of 21st-century cuisine. It is intrinsically quick, with its components chopped into very small pieces that cook quickly in a very hot pan. Vegetables step up while protein steps back. Meat and seafood play a major role, but more often as an accent rather than as the star.
At Duke University Hospital in Durham, NC, an Asian noodle bar concept debuted about four years ago and attracted approximately 250 customers daily. Four offerings — a variety of four noodle bowls one day, four stir fry choices another, or a series of dim sum, as well as grab-and-go — were available.
“Asian-style noodle bars put an emphasis on seasonal ingredients,” says Duke's Chef and Foodservice Manager Cherie Smith, who focuses on freshness by sourcing the best possible ingredients and chopping them on a bias to give them even more eye — and plate — appeal.
While the noodle bar has since been changed to an exhibition cooking station to allow for more flexibility in the menu, the Asian influence has remained strong with a rotation of dishes like chicken and vegetables in a spicy ginger-garlic sauce over jasmine rice or the stir-fried chicken & vegetables in a savory bourbon sauce prepared a la minute.
“The secret to stir fry is to be sure you maintain a balance of flavors and temperatures,” says Smith. “Because you're cooking these components quickly over a very high heat, they will retain texture and flavor, but they need to be uniform in size and temperature before they hit the pan.
“Some ingredients, like tofu, won't keep their form in this environment, so we like to deep fry it for just a few seconds before we add it to the wok,” she adds.
Dale McDonald, executive chef at Scripps College in Claremont, CA, agrees that freshness and presentation are the keys to stir fry success. With his hugely successful sizzling salad bar — a marriage of the salad station and the exhibition station — McDonald is better able to please Scripps' ever-demanding, all female student demographic.
“Students can opt to have the hot protein components from the stir fry station added to their salads to create a ‘sizzling salad’,” he says. “Customers can either order the stir fry components from the menu directly or design their own if they want since each warm salad is made to order.”
The best seller is a chicken stir fry salad, he says, but other favorites include a szechuan beef stir fry salad, and a fried tofu with stir fried vegetables over a bed of greens.
McDonald says that customers select their own vegetables, meats and sauce ingredients for the wok chefs to cook in the exhibition stations. “We tend to only put items on the bar that complement one another, flavor wise. That way, it becomes kind of fool-proof,” he adds.
Stir fry has a light and healthy connotation, which, as McDonald has learned, is key when you're serving primarily female students. “The Asian flair also adds a lot of flavor,” he says, “and it's very reasonably priced. It doesn't cost us a lot to create these dishes.”
Breakfast of Champions
Who says you can't have stir-fry for breakfast?
“We use our stir fry station once a week at breakfast,” says Dave McElhinney, general manager, Cornell College, Mount Vernon, IA. “We have done filled crepes, some potato dishes, and omelet spin-offs.”
Since tofu has the same consistency as egg whites, it's not all that far of a reach to feature a breakfast stir fry. Plus, it's a great way to use chopped vegetables and add a new type of exhibition station to breakfast, beyond the omelet or waffle station.
With the stir fry station still being a relatively new addition to Cornell though, McElhinney and his team strive to keep the menu new and innovative beyond just breakfast.
“We change the station regularly but we maintain the favorites to always keep the customers returning,” he says. “The old favorites bring them to the station and the new ideas break the monotony.”
Some of Cornell's stir fry station ingredients — both new and traditional — include: chicken breast, pork loin, and a variety beef cuts including inside round, flank, and brisket. For seafood, Cornell uses shrimp, real and imitation crab meat, and on occasion, tuna. For produce they use a variety of in-season vegetables including asparagus, avocado, bok choy, carrots, eggplant, a variety of greens (spinach, mustard, collard), jicama, mushrooms (button, shiitake, oyster, portobello), olives (black & green), onions (red, green, and yellow), potatoes, a variety of peppers (red, green, gold, jalapenos, ancho), and a variety of squash.
“We use canned bamboo shoots, baby corn, and bean sprouts too,” adds McElhinney. “We also use a variety of fruits like tomatoes, mandarin oranges, lemons, pineapple, limes, apples, grapes, and raisins.”
When it comes to sauces, Cornell offers everything from the traditional soy, ginger and teriyaki-based versions to more specialty sauces like a wild mushroom, Thai peanut sauce, and a variety of flavored oils.
“The point,” concludes McElhinney, “is to offer variety.”
Stirring up New Dishes
School lunch menus are a melting pot of the various cooking styles. Now that Asian foods have been added to the stew, schools are looking for practical ways to introduce this healthy and unique item to the menu.
“Stir fry is something that we know teenagers eat and love,” says Dave Williams, executive chef for Sodexo School Services, who has visited dozens of secondary school districts over the past year to help the school lunch staffs add Asian flavors with the company's two-year-old Asian Cuisine program called Chop Sticks.
“These days in school lunch, you want to represent your constituents,” says Williams. “On the West Coast especially, the Asian population is getting bigger and bigger. Plus, a lot of these students are accustomed to eating stir-fry dishes either at home, at a friend's home or in a restaurant.”
|Here are links to some great related recipes selected from past issues of FM.|
Black Bean Chicken Stir Fry
Asian Noodle Stir Fry with Tofu and Vegetables
Sesame Beef and Broccoli Stir Fry
Mongolian Hot Pot
Kung Pao Chicken
To maintain portion sizes, students can choose their own vegetables and a pre-portioned cup of protein to be added to their stir fry. “The biggest problem has been the timing,” says Williams. Schools are looking to cut down on the exhibition time by using speed-scratch sauces, oven-browned proteins and parboiled or steamed vegetables which are then added to the stir fry.
“Stir fries are really perfect for schools looking for ways to use USDA-donated foods,” adds Williams. “A lot of the ingredients can be used interchangeably. For example, a stir fry recipe might use turkey, chicken, canned pork or beef, or even salmon or tuna, with equally good results.”