Non Nova, sed Nove. (Not New Things, but New Ways).*
Say that I have been making fried rice twice a month since I was thirteen years old. Two times twelve times fifteen means that I have made three hundred and sixty pans of fried rice in the past fifteen years. Give or take. Nearly all have contained scallions, peas, and eggs. Most have had bits of bacon or ham. Sometimes garlic would take the place of scallions, if none were available; occasionally there would be leftover smoked salmon, or no meat at all. When other people are here it forms the base of a meal; when I am alone, it is all I need, a one-pot dish, the leftovers packed into a plastic box for lunch the next day. It always looks so pretty, white rice speckled with pink ham or bacon, green peas and scallions, yellow shreds of egg, like a spring garden. Early on I would often be criticized for not slicing the scallions sufficiently fine, not chopping the fried eggs into small enough pieces, not breaking up the clumps of cold leftover rice so each grain is separate. Time and experience have erased those small transgressions. Most of the time.
At some point in my fried-rice-making education, my grandfather (who does not cook, but has no shortage of opinions on how other people should) suggested that the eggs should be stirred into the hot rice instead of fried separately. Supposedly a really skilled cook should be able to scramble the rice and eggs together in such a way that each grain of rice is coated in a layer of yellow egg. I have never seen this done, nor have I been able to manage it. But now I do pour the frothing beaten egg into the rice and stir it madly together with a spatula as the egg gently cooks in the hot pan. Now I add the scallions last, instead of browning them first, which is how my mother prefers it. (That my dad prefers the scallions lightly browned is of no consequence). For many years now I have been making my fried rice this way: frying the peas with whatever meat I plan to add to my fried rice, then adding the rice and breaking up the lumps with a spatula, then pouring the egg in, then at last the scallions, and finally, seasoning with salt and pepper. But suddenly I wondered if there might be another, better way.
So. Tired of eating out, I have proposed a simple dinner, fried rice and perhaps some vegetables (there is a head of cauliflower lurking in the produce drawer) on the side. I like to minimize the mess as best I can, and to wash as few pots and pans and knives as possible. First the cauliflower is washed and sliced into bite-sized florets, then the scallions are finely chopped into translucent white-and-green rounds. Meanwhile, before any of that happened, I put the bacon into the freezer to chill. By the time everything else is ready, vegetables in colanders, eggs broken into a bowl and gently beaten, the bacon is firm enough to slice evenly instead of falling all over the place into ragged chunks. I leave it on medium heat to cook, and this time the heat is low enough to render out nearly all the fat before the meat begins to burn: perfect. I scrape all the bacon (and the grease) into a bowl, and cook the cauliflower, which can sit comfortably on a plate while I finish making the fried rice. I will try a new method, cooking the peas and scallions separately, then the rice and eggs, before combining everything together and seasoning it.
First I heat a little more oil, then pour in the defrosted peas (which hiss softly as they feel the heat) and the scallions. When they are just cooked through I scoop them into another bowl, and add more oil to the pan. The rice goes in, cold and hard and lumpy, but when I bash them down with a spatula the grains break apart and soften a little. When the rice is hot, I pour in the eggs. I have miscalculated the ration of eggs-to-rice, and it becomes an uncontrollable, wet mass of rice suspended in egg. After I stir it all madly with another spatula, the eggs begin to scramble most satisfyingly, yellow and deep gold against the white rice. In goes the peas and scallions, the bacon bits, a few sprinklings of salt and freshly ground pepper. It is as close to perfection as I have ever come, each grain of rice separate, all the ingredients evenly sliced, everything shot through with tiny bits of egg. So I have not enrobed every grain rice in a golden cloak of egg. I will never be a master chef. But the peas are cooked just right, the bacon not too tooth-shatteringly crisp, the scallions tempered by the heat. It is a little more trouble to make fried rice this way, but worth it.
Not new things, but new ways.
*When I was in fourth grade, our teacher read The Twenty-One Balloons aloud to the class, one chapter a week. It has stayed with me all my life. This motto is emblazoned on the coat of arms of the Krakatoa government, formed by the forty families that gathered on this volcanic island in search of a new, better existence.