Skip to content

Where I learned how to cook: Lan Nguyen’s Ex-Boyfriend Stir-Fry

September 8, 2008

Summery Stir Fry

In my last post, I blathered on about the importance of sharing recipes with friends and family, and continuing old school traditions of index cards in recipe boxes. And then what do I do? I turn around and tell you all that almost everything I learned about cooking I learned from the internet. What a hypocrite!

Ok, it’s not exactly true that I learned how to cook from the internet. But this stir-fry recipe is what I always think of when I remember cooking my first real, grown-up meal in college. It’s the first thing I cooked for friends (including the boy I had a big fat crush on), and when I look back at the smudged computer print out, I realize it’s the first time I really learned about improvisation in the kitchen. A lot of my cooking quirks and habits probably originated from this recipe, like serving stir-fry over pasta instead of rice, and putting in any old darn thing I want, even if people say something like “sun-dried tomatoes don’t belong in Mexican food!” And you know where I got this recipe? A random stranger on the internet.

Back in the day, when I was a wee young college student, before the days of blogging and easy-to-use blog editors, people made up their own version of blogging, and wrote online journals that were pretty much the same as blogs. We just had to hand code them whenever we updated. Then walk two miles uphill in the snow both ways. There were a few of these writers I followed for years, all of whose websites have long since disappeared, and more than a few of them shared their favorite recipes with their readers.

Lan Nguyen was one of those writers, and much to my excitement, you can still find remnants of her awesome site, Trouble, at the Internet Archive. Thank you, Brewster Kahle! I have no idea where to find her now, if she’s still writing on the internets at all. But I still have her Ex-Boyfriend Stir-Fry recipe in my stuffed recipe folder.

Summery mis-en-place

This was the first thing I cooked with tofu. It was the first time I thought of food as something beyond nutriment, and saw the possibility for a meal to tell a story. Lan wrote, “This recipe is an amalgam of standby stir-frys that two guys I ate a lot of meals with put together,” and that was the first time I realized that recipes could be fluid, that they could even be amalgams. And yes, it was the first time I realized that you could put plums in your dinner if you felt like it.

I still love to cook this because it makes me feel so healthy, with all those tasty vegetables. And because it is, as Lan wrote, “sexy food, tangy, garlicky, olive oil-y.” I have, over time, changed the recipe in my own ways, though I still usually use the same basic ingredients. For example, my printed recipe no where mentions eggplant, but they were so pretty, I couldn’t resist. See?

Eggplants and aromatics

Ex-Boyfriend Stir-Fry
(Perhaps better retitled the Where I Learned to Cook Stir-Fry?)

  • 1 T. peanut oil or olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 a red onion, finely chopped
  • about 1-2 T. sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 package of tofu, drained and cut into cubes
  • sweet-and-sour sauce (probably about 3/4 of a cup)
  • a small head of broccoli, cut into florets
  • 1 small eggplant, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 peppers, sliced (I used an orange and yellow for good color contrast)
  • 1 large plum, sliced
  • 1 big bunch of kale, roughly chopped
  • rice or pasta, whichever you prefer

Heat the oil in a wok or a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, onions, and sun-dried tomatoes, and saute for about three minutes, or until the onions are soft and just starting to become transparent. Add the tofu and saute until they are nicely coated in oil. Then stir in the sweet and sour sauce. Saute for another minute or two.

From this point on, your just going to continue adding the ingredients one by one, starting with those that take longest to cook. Saute for a few minutes between each ingredient addition, adding a bit more sweet and sour if things start to look dry. Add the kale last, and saute just until it’s wilted. (Lan also taught me that leafy greens like spinach and kale could be cooked, and that while it might seem like you’re adding an excessive amount of greens, it ends up being not that much at all.)


The plums add an unexpected tangy sweetness to the mix, and I love love love the very idea of adding fruit to a savory dinner, just to see what will happen. One good thing to keep in mind, though, is that if your plums are very ripe and juicy, you can add them closer to the end, and if they’re not, you should add them a bit sooner, so they have a chance to break down with the heat.

This time around, I had to make my own version of sweet and sour, because I didn’t realize until I got home from the market that we were out. I think it was darned tasty. I just mixed together a sweet ginger dipping sauce I found in the refrigerator with some ponzu (or just use soy sauce and lemon), chili paste, and a splash of fish sauce. Yay for improvising.

Colorful Stir Fry

I love how bright and colorful this is, and how flavorful. And I love the internets for teaching me to cook, even back in 1999.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Heather permalink
    September 10, 2008 10:45 pm

    Ok…seriously? You made your own sweet and sour?
    Oh yeah, just throw together a feather of a purple owl and 2 drops of unicorn tears and wah-lah!

    Some day I will be like you and not make cake in the microwave.


  1. Curried Cauliflower and Potatoes with Black Beluga Lentils « The Kitchen Illiterate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: