Tuesday April 03, 2012 | 11:52 AM

Sometimes it's nice to have directions - say, when you're driving alone through unfamiliar territory and the locals look hostile. Or when you're staring at the 1,298 pieces that comprise the seven-tiered DIY cabinet you just bought for the living room.

In such cases, a plan comes in handy. A plan is what guides you through seven hours of Swedish engineering or a two-day road trip to the Midwest.

On the other hand, it's pretty awesome to just fly by the seat of your pants.

In the realm of cooking, newbies like me tend to cling to recipes. We're like 2-year-olds clutching onto mom's pant leg in the face of extreme danger. But recipes are a nightlight to the novice - a kindly guide through the terrors of the stove top.

The notion of shirking a recipe - actually cooking something without step-by-step directions - can be daunting.

I'm not quite ready to go totally rogue yet. Sure, I've matured past cooking adolescence (at least, now I know what a green onion is) but I'm hovering in the "college cooking" phase (i.e., I'm open to experimentation, but I still need to go home every week to do laundry and borrow money).

Luckily, there's a meal for that. It's called stir-fry.

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Stir-frying - the art of tossing a seemingly random assortment of vegetables, meat, and seasonings into a hot wok or other pan - allows beginner cooks to break free from authoritarian recipes. With stir-fry, we can get crazy with fresh produce, toy around with flavor combinations, and cast cooking caution to the wind - because stir-fry is like a safe place. Stir-fry won't judge.

And because rice is such an accommodating canvas (colorful veggies look downright purty on pile of rice and the grain doesn't mind stepping in to calm down an overly exuberant spice), the stir-fry is as close to sure-fire as anything in the kitchen can be.

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To prove it, Chef Marion Bannon at Aurora Provisions (you know, the folks who just cooked for the president), let me back in the Aurora kitchen for a stir-fry tutorial.

Inside the walk-in fridge, Marion helped me pick out ingredients: broccoli, green beans, a red pepper, carrots, ginger, an orange, celery, and something called a leek.

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I chopped the dickens out of all of it.

Some sesame oil went into the pan (diluted with grape seed oil, because the sesame stuff can be overwhelming, according to Marion), and then along came the veggies.

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Thicker vegetables, which will take longer to cook, go in first, like the broccoli and green beans. Some good stirring is essential along the way. Or if a chef dares you, and you feel pressured because you're in her kitchen, you might try tossing the stir-fry like the professionals. And you'll be awesome at it.

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The final product: Delicious. The combination of soy sauce and juice from a fresh orange gave this dish a level of flavor I'd never have come up with on my own. And the simplicity of the stir-fry makes it an easy go-to meal for beginners that will still impress dinner guests who are used to being served buttered rice and burnt toast.

For more tips on the perfect stir-fry, check out 10 Tips to a Successful Stir-Fry

For a high-speed stir-fry tutorial with Marion, check out this video:

About the Author

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Shannon Bryan is a feature writer for the Portland Press Herald and content producer for MaineToday Media's entertainment website, www.mainetoday.com.

And here's a well-known truth: Shannon can't cook. She's also ostroconophobic (in Maine?!?), but in a foodie place like southern Maine, she's determined to learn how to cook, eat, and order with the best of them. Read about her culinary crusade:
Pans on fire

She's also an investigator into all that's strange and entertaining to do around here. Those findings are gathered here:
Out Going: Things to do in southern Maine

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