The $84 Stir-Fry: A Non-Cook Tackles Mark Bittman's Recipe

Attention, please. Important food writer Mark Bittman says there are just three basic recipes one needs to master to become a cook. And last night, I made one of them for dinner.

Doesn’t sound revolutionary? Let me explain: I come from a long line of non-cooks. We are humble takeout folk, my ancestors and I. Until last night, in fact, I had barely used my stove for anything other than boiling water or heating soup. I had no idea what a button mushroom was (you will see why this is relevant as we go along). And the super sharp chef’s knife a friend once gifted me never left the kitchen drawer, save once, when I stashed it under my pillow in order to possibly defend myself against the stranger who came over to buy a console I had listed on Craigslist.

Anyway, on Sunday, I read Bittman’s piece in the New York Times. In it, he implored people to start making their own meals and offered three basic recipes—a chopped salad, rice and lentils, and a stir-fry—that could potentially change the lives of non-cooks like me.

"Make these three things and you’re a cook," he wrote. "By becoming a cook, you can leave processed foods behind, creating more healthful, less expensive and better-tasting food that requires less energy, water and land per calorie and reduces our carbon footprint."

My head full of grand “new year, new you” notions, I decided to answer Bittman’s call to action and try making the Broccoli Stir-Fry with Chicken and Mushrooms, which was billed as “lightning fast.” Here's how it went:

6:00 p.m.
Leave work and stop to pick up garlic, scallions, soy sauce and vegetable oil. I’m not a fan of ginger, so I skip that ingredient. (Look at me, already putting my own spin on Bittman's recipe!) Puzzle over what the heck button mushrooms are—I can’t find them in the store and I’m too embarrassed to ask anyone.

6:15
Stop at home, drop off groceries and google “button mushrooms.” Oh. Realize I do not own a cutting board or pepper grinder.

6:45
At Bed Bath & Beyond, purchase the basics. On my way out, a food scale with a pretty picture of strawberries on the box catches my eye. Hmm. Do I need one of these to figure out what constitutes 8 ounces of mushrooms? I decide yes.

7:00
Stop home to unload my new kitchen supplies. (Did I mention I live in a third-floor walk-up?) Then it’s back to grocery store to buy chicken, broccoli and the elusive mushrooms.

7:31
Returning to my building, I open the door for a takeout deliveryman. Follow him up the stairs as he delivers to my across-the-hall neighbor. Resist the urge to shake my bag full of sustainable food at both of them.

7:37
Start mincing garlic. Thank god that I skipped the ginger. Open a beer. Discover that pricey food scale was totally unneccessary, as a 99 cent measuring cup would have done fine.

8:40
It occurs to me that cooks define “lightning fast” much differently than non-cooks.

9:00
Finally heat up the pan. The garlic smells amazing, until I figure out that my 225-square foot apartment is probably going to smell like that for weeks. Ah, well. If anyone asks, I’ll say, “Oh, I whipped up a little stir-fry the other night, just some garlic, chicken and button mushrooms, the usual.”

9:20
Notice that it’s pretty cool when the things that are supposed to happen actually do happen: the broccoli turns bright green, the liquid evaporates, the chicken stops being pink. I take a taste and add more soy sauce. Yum.

9:35
Sit down to eat. Think: "I am now just two recipes away from becoming a cook!"

9:39
Finish eating.

9:40
Go downstairs again to put out garbage. Begin washing the staggering pile of dishes I created. Store the remaining three servings of my stir-fry and debate e-mailing Bittman for reheating instructions.

Cost (I had to buy more than I needed in most cases)
Mushrooms (10 ounces): $2.30
Skinless, boneless chicken thighs (1 pound): $5
Broccoli (one pound): $2.50
Scallions (four) .65 cents
Garlic (four ounces): $3
Soy sauce: $3
Pepper grinder: $3.19
Vegetable oil: $4.79
Cutting board, $10
Totally unnecessary food scale, $50

Total cost of stir-fry: $84.43

Total time spent on stir-fry (including clean-up and time taken to google “what are button mushrooms?” “how to mince garlic,” “how to chop broccoli,” “how to chop scallions,” and “can garlic be stored?”: 3 hours, 41 minutes

Total stairs climbed: 174

Total alcoholic beverages consumed: Two beers, extremely well deserved

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