If you can't stand the heat...stir-fry
With summer approaching, many home cooks are starting to feel reluctant about spending too much time preparing meals in a hot kitchen. Of course, on many evenings you'll probably just want to throw some fish or chicken or steaks or burgers on the grill. Or you might just decide to have a cool, refreshing meal that doesn't require any cooking, such as a main-course salad or a cold summer soup like gazpacho.

But, let's face it -- sometimes you've just got to go into that kitchen and cook a meal. Fortunately, when moments like that come along, there's the perfect cooking method at the ready to help you put food on your table in a matter of minutes: stir-frying.

This traditional Chinese cooking method is one of my favorite ways to prepare a meal with blazing-fast speed. Usually in 10 minutes or less of actual cooking time, you can have a delicious, colorful, healthy meal ready to serve to your family and friends.

The main secret to stir-frying's speed comes from the fact that all of the ingredients are cut up into uniform, small, bite-sized pieces. Quickly stirred with a long spatula around the hot surface of a large cooking vessel (the curved Chinese pan known as a wok is the best choice, since it distributes heat evenly and facilitates rapid stirring, but a spacious skillet would work fine, too), food sears to perfect doneness in just a few minutes. Aromatic seasonings like garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes, and liquids like plum wine and hoisin, help to build a complex and exciting profile of flavors while also rapidly forming a sauce that coats the ingredients. The only other thing you need to complete the meal is steamed rice, which you can get going quickly in a rice cooker or saucepan beforehand.

My recipe for Stir-Fried Chicken with Cashews and Pine Nuts is just the starting point for a wide variety of dishes you can make using this method. Substitute another protein if you prefer. Try different kinds of vegetables, making sure you add those that are a little bit denser and harder, such as carrots, to the wok earlier on and those that cook quickly, like snow peas or asparagus, nearer the end of stir-frying. Change the nuts in the recipe, too, trying peanuts or walnuts instead. And vary the seasonings as you like, adding a light drizzle of toasted sesame oil, for example, or a handful of chopped fresh cilantro leaves or slivered green onions.

Get creative in making this stir-fry a recipe of your very own. The result will be a fresh-tasting, healthy, delicious one-dish main course. And you'll have cooked it from scratch -- without even breaking a sweat!

STIR-FRIED CHICKEN WITH CASHEWS AND PINE NUTS

Serves 3 or 4

2 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil

3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken pieces, trimmed of visible fat and cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup plum wine or sweet white wine

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons chopped and peeled ginger root

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1-1/4 cups organic chicken broth, heated

2 teaspoons hoisin sauce

1 cup trimmed and sliced fresh shiitake mushrooms