Remember that old slogan, “When you’re really good, they call you Cracker Jack?”
Well, I think it applies here. But I think there’s a problem with calling this dish “Cracker Jack Stir Fry.” (Just one problem?) Mainly that it might be misleading about its ingredients. Alas, there are no carmelized popcorn bits or candied peanuts hiding amid the luscious noodles, shrimp, chicken and veg.
So we don’t call delicious dishes in this house “Cracker Jack.” Instead, in a fit of uncreativity and lameness, I call them “special.” Yes, like the way they tried to jazz up your school lunch menu. (I never said I was a genius marketer.) “Special” is shorthand for what a ravenous wife (me) can say when she wants some of the favorites of her husband’s cooking: “Make me special pasta.” “Make me special tacos.” “Make me special stir fry.”
This, friends, is special stir fry.
What elevates it to “special” level? Something about the combination of herbs and sauces — the subtle play of salty soy, vinegar and fresh, leafy herbiage. Something about the sweet and luscious shrimp and the tender, delicious chicken. Something about the unexpected and delightful crunch of carmelized cashews. Something about the mounds of slender, seasoned noodles that are nesting all that goodness. No, wait, I’ve got it: It’s something about the alluring heat of the fresh red pepper flakes and their tingle on your tongue.
Well, wherever the magic resides, it is indeed “special.” Grab your fork and open your maw, Cracker Jack… The special stir fry is on.
When I got done playing with and tweaking this dish, I turned to my wife and said, “We have to give this a name… something cute like General Tso’s Chicken. We can’t just call it ‘shrimp, cashew, and chicken stir fry with coconut, mint, cilantro, basil, and lemon thyme.’” With noodles still hanging from her fork, my wife just shrugged at me and said, “Just call it, ‘Special Stir Fry’.”
At that moment, I knew I had done good. “Special” is a moniker few dishes get. It also means that it has to go into the rotation of dishes we do on a regular basis when not blogging or experimenting. In our house, it’s the equivalent of throwing “Ultimate” or “Classic” or some other super adjective in front of the dish. So I was strutting like a 6’2’’ rooster when I heard “Special” tacked on to this dish.
When designing Special Stir Fry, I wanted that freshness and lightness that so many Southeast Asian dishes have. However, since I’m not familiar with their cuisines beyond a few scarfs here and there (I’m allergic to peanuts so I have to be careful), I tried to imagine that freshness while balancing the five flavors.
What are the five flavors? In many Asian cultures, cooks speak of balancing sweet, salty, sour, bitter and spicy in order to create the perfect meal. The idea is that these flavors must be in harmony for the most enjoyment — the culinary version of feng shui if you like. So in this dish, I tried to keep the five flavors as my guide posts.
And I think I did a fairly good job. The sweetness from the mirin and coconut, the heat from the chilis, the salt from the soy sauce, the brightness from the herbs, and the sour from the squeeze of lime at the finish play together to give you several distinct flavors. At the same time, the flavors from the proteins are preserved. You always taste shrimp, chicken and cashews. I’m tremendously delighted with this dish. Hopefully, you’ll appreciate Special Stir Fry as well. However, my wife’s “Cracker Jack stir fry” line started me wondering…