The tragic tale of a shrimp fried rice dinner disaster

Shrimp fried rice. (Dreamstime/TNS)

The heartbreaking tragedy of my Wednesday-night dinner began with a simple message from my wife: She was on her way to an appointment and was defrosting a package of shrimp.

Great, I thought. I’ll make shrimp fried rice. Everybody loves fried rice. And although I think I had only made it once or twice before in my life, it will undoubtedly be fast and easy to make. I even found a terrific-looking recipe called Easy Fried Rice.


What could go wrong?

I decided to double the recipe so I could get two or three meals out of it, and besides, I was working with a full pound of shrimp. I stopped off at a grocery store on my way home and picked up a large onion, a thumb of ginger (not in the recipe, but I thought it would add something), a jar of oyster sauce (also not in the recipe), a bunch of scallions and a bag of jasmine rice.

When I came home, I measured the rice and rinsed it several times. I put it in a pot with a large pinch of salt and the right amount of water — letting it soak for a half-hour makes the rice fluffier — and then went to a different store to buy the frozen peas I forgot to get the first time.

When I got back home, I put the rice on the stove. While it was cooking I chopped the aromatics — the carrots, onion, garlic, ginger and scallions.

The recipe I used came from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the nerd-master of cooking. He tried several versions and determined that the best way to make rice for fried rice, if you’re not using leftovers, is to spread fresh-cooked rice on a tray and put it in front of a fan for an hour to dry out.

So that’s what I did. And the top did, in fact, get dry. But when I flipped it over, halfway through the drying, the rice was very gummy and sticky. It stuck to my fingers. It stuck to my clothes. It stuck to my hair. It stuck to the ceiling. And gummy, sticky rice is exactly what you do not want for fried rice.

I threw out the rice I had cooked and also the rest of the bag, which was quite cheap, and now I knew why. It didn’t even taste like jasmine. I pulled out a bag I already had of basmati rice.

Basmati rice is not traditionally used for fried rice. However, it cooks easily into individual grains that are not gummy. And I had a new, unopened bag. I reached into the cabinet to pull it out and accidentally knocked over a carton of cocoa, spilling its contents onto the floor.

The basmati rice came in a canvas bag with one of those sewn strings on top for easy opening. The same method is used for bags of charcoal, and I always, always have trouble opening them.

This particular bag had two such strings, and I pushed them and I pulled them and I prodded them and I snipped at them with scissors. I tried to open the bag for a full 10 minutes, and never made a dent on even the first string. So I took the scissors and cut off the whole top of the bag.

Inside the canvas bag was a plastic bag. I pulled that out and poured rice into the measuring cup. More rice cascaded onto the floor, because the plastic bag had a hole in it that I’m pretty sure I didn’t cause when I cut off the top of the canvas bag, I think.

So if you’re keeping track, that’s cocoa on one part of the floor, rice on another part and pieces of chopped carrot that I didn’t tell you about on a third. It’s a large kitchen.

I cooked the rice without letting it soak first because it was getting late. And I didn’t put it under a fan, either. Lopez-Alt also suggests spreading freshly cooked rice out on a baking sheet and letting it come to room temperature, which takes about five minutes.

That method worked fine.

The secret to frying rice is to avoid frying too much at one time. Too much rice in your wok or skillet will lower the temperature and you will end up steaming the rice instead of frying it. Lopez-Alt recommends cooking it in two batches.

I was doubling the recipe, so I divided the rice into four portions. And because I was doubling the recipe, I used a full tablespoon of oil to fry the first batch in, instead of the half-tablespoon called for in the recipe.

I had the rice in the oil for about 20 seconds before I realized that I was frying the same amount of rice that the recipe used, and should therefore have used the same amount of oil. The rice looked oily and gross. I threw it out and started anew with the remaining three portions.

After that, everything went relatively well, except my wok is not quite large enough for a double portion of shrimp fried rice.

So instead of pushing the rice up the sides of wok while cooking the other ingredients, as Lopez-Alt highly recommends, I poured it into a bowl.

I cooked the aromatics until they were aromatic, returned the rice to the wok and tossed in the soy sauce, sesame oil and oyster sauce. Then I added the shrimp.

Remember how trying to cook too much rice at one time lowers the temperature and makes it steam instead of fry? The same thing happens when you add a pound of shrimp all at once.

It’s not a major problem, though. Shrimp are small and cook easily.

The wok at this point was so full that it was difficult to make a hole in the middle for two eggs. I added the eggs and attempted to scramble them, but other ingredients kept falling in. That also wasn’t a problem, because the eggs got cooked, eventually.

I stirred everything together, added a little salt, and served.

My quick-and-easy meal took 2 1/2 hours, but it was worth it when I was all done. Dinner was delicious, and it didn’t need a thing.

Except the peas. I forgot to add the peas.

‘Easy’ Shrimp Fried Rice

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

1 cup white rice (or 3 cups cooked)

2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil, divided

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into small dice

1¼ inch ginger root, peeled and minced

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

2 scallions, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1 teaspoon oyster sauce

Salt and pepper

1 large egg

½ pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined

4 ounces frozen peas

Note: For best results, use leftover rice, preferably Chinese-style medium-grain rice, jasmine rice or sushi rice. Otherwise, rice should either be cooked fresh, spread on a tray and allowed to cool for five minutes, or, alternatively, transferred to a loosely covered container and refrigerated for at least 12 hours and up to 3 days.

1. If using day-old rice (see note), transfer to a medium bowl and break up the rice with your hands into individual grains before proceeding. Heat ½ tablespoon vegetable oil in a wok over high heat until smoking.

Add half the rice and cook, stirring and tossing, until the rice is pale brown and toasted and has a lightly chewy texture, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl. Repeat with another ½ tablespoon oil and remaining rice.

2. Return all the rice to the wok and press it up the sides, leaving a space in the middle. Add ½ tablespoon oil and then onion, carrot, ginger, garlic and scallions, and cook, stirring gently, until lightly softened and fragrant, about 1 minute. Toss with rice to combine. Add soy sauce, sesame oil and oyster sauce, and toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Push rice to the side of the wok and add remaining ½ tablespoon oil. Break the egg into the oil and season with a little salt. Use a spatula to scramble the egg, breaking it into small bits. Toss the egg and the rice together.

4. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, until pink and curled. Stir in the peas, and serve.

Adapted from a recipe by J. Kenji López-Alt in Serious Eats.

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