How Low Can You Go? Chicken-and-Corn Fried Rice with Lemon Spinach

In April and May, National Public Radio featured a series on inexpensive gourmet dishes entitled “How Low Can You Go?” Although many of the dishes looked quite tasty, most of the dishes weren’t actually all that inexpensive, often narrowly getting below $10 to feed a family of four, and many involved arduous cooking processes. I decided to try out some of these recipes throughout the summer to see how I could take the recipes and reduce them down to a simple and very inexpensive form.

Chicken fried rice on a bed of spinach

I know of Ming Tsai from his excellent public television cooking show Simply Ming. He tends to make a lot of fairly unusual dishes with Asian themes that are really palatable to Western taste buds. So I was excited to try out the recipe he submitted to “How Low Can You Go,” Chicken-and-Corn Fried Rice with Lemon Spinach. Even more interesting, he claimed his kids love it, which made my foodie thoughts perk up even more. Here’s the recipe:

1 pound ground chicken
2 eggs
1 large yellow onion, minced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon ginger powder
2 ears of corn when in season, or 1 bag frozen (12 ounces)
1/2 (10 ounces) bag spinach (washed, spun dry, de-stemmed, leaves torn)
2 tablespoons naturally brewed soy sauce
Juice of 1 lemon
4 cups cold, cooked long-grain rice, brown and white combination, preferably day-old so it’s nice and dry*
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Canola oil

Heat a wok or large saute pan over medium-high heat. Lightly coat with oil. When oil shimmers add chicken, season with salt and pepper, and brown, breaking up any large chunks with wooden spoon or spatula. Remove chicken to a plate. Add about 1/2-inch oil to wok and allow to heat; add eggs, which will puff up. Cook scrambled eggs and remove to a paper towel-lined plate. If necessary, add more oil to wok to lightly coat, then add onions, garlic, and powdered ginger, and cook until nicely caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add corn, rice, chicken and egg, and toss to combine. Add naturally brewed soy sauce, toss to combine, and check for seasoning. Place mound of raw spinach in center of four dinner plates. Drizzle with lemon juice and season. Top with fried rice to cover. Enjoy!

My wife Sarah took charge of this recipe, so my notes below are largely taken from her comments as she was making it.

First of all, here are the ingredients we used.

Ingredients for CFR

We wound up using Dole spinach for this because the spinach we got at the farmers market (our usual source for summer produce) was utterly abysmal – the two purveyors had some of the saddest looking spinach we’d ever seen, so we passed. The rice – a mix of white and brown long grain – was pre-cooked a day in advance. We also chose to substitute some ground turkey for the ground chicken, because that’s what we had on hand.

So, anyway, on with the cooking. She cooked the turkey with quite a bit of seasoning by itself, breaking down the pieces. Here it is, frying away on our stove:

Cooking ground turkey

Sarah suggests spicing the meat quite a bit here by putting on plenty of pepper and I agree wholeheartedly – black pepper really complements things well.

After the turkey was finished, she cooked the eggs, essentially making scrambled eggs in a bit of oil. This part smelled really good to me:

Eggs in frying pan

After the eggs were finished, she cooked the other ingredients together in the remaining oil. A quick note: she decided that there was an excess of oil after the eggs finished and removed most of the oil. I agree – I think with that much oil, there would have been too much in the pan. Half an inch might be the right amount in a wok, but not in a large pan – use just barely enough to cover the pan (once the eggs are done).

Upon adding the rice, the turkey, the eggs, and the corn to the mixture, there was a huge amount of food, filling up our rather large pan.

Chicken fried rice

It smelled heavenly at this point. I (personally) suggest adding a bit more soy sauce than what the recipe calls for, but it was quite good as-is.

Serve it on top of spinach leaves, as the flavor of the spinach combines well. Here’s our final plate:

Chicken fried rice on a bed of spinach

Did we like it? Almost universally, yes. Even our son, who is the pickiest eater in the house, seemed to really get into it, gobbling it down like crazy. Both children had seconds, though neither one finished their second helping. I loved it, though I would have included just a bit more soy sauce. Sarah loved it, too, though she’s intrigued as to whether it would be significantly different with chicken.

What about the cost? Our cost for this recipe totaled $9.80. But here’s the kicker – there was more left over than we consumed at the table. We were able to get eight more meals out of the fried rice, for a total of twelve meals. Thus, the cost per meal was $0.81 – not bat at all.

Still, if you’re eating for a small family and don’t want to eat this four times, you should reduce the recipe significantly.

Changes I Would Make to Save Cost and Time
The first thing I would do is halve the recipe. The recipe makes a mountain of food and, unless you want to eat it several times or have an enormous family, it makes too much food and the rest will go to waste. One could freeze it, I suppose, but the dish does not strike me as one that would tolerate freezing well.

The second thing I’d do is reduce the oil. This doesn’t change the time, but it slightly reduces the cost and definitely improves the health of the meal. You don’t need half an inch of oil here unless you’re using a wok – even then, it’s perhaps too much.

Third, de-stemming the spinach seemed flatly unnecessary to us. It would be a time investment that doesn’t gain too much – the small stems on most spinach is just fine. We served ours just as it came, after washing.

Those changes alter the recipe quite a bit. Here’s my alteration:

1/2 pound ground chicken
1 eggs
1 small yellow onion, minced
1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon ginger powder
1 ear of corn when in season, or 1/2 bag frozen (6 ounces)
1/4 bag spinach (washed and dried)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 cups cold, cooked long-grain rice, brown and white combination, preferably day-old so it’s nice and dry (that’s about 3/8 cup of white and 3/8 cup brown when dry)
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Canola oil

Heat a wok or large saute pan over medium-high heat. Lightly coat with oil. When oil shimmers add chicken, season with salt and pepper, and brown, breaking up any large chunks with wooden spoon or spatula. Remove chicken to a plate. Add about 1/4-inch oil to wok (unless using pan, then just coat bottom) and allow to heat; add eggs, which will puff up. Cook scrambled eggs and remove to a paper towel-lined plate. If necessary, add more oil to wok to lightly coat, then add onions, garlic, and powdered ginger, and cook until nicely caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add corn, rice, chicken and egg, and toss to combine. Add naturally brewed soy sauce, toss to combine, and check for seasoning. Place mound of raw spinach in center of four dinner plates. Drizzle with lemon juice and season. Top with fried rice to cover. Enjoy!

If you enjoyed reading this, sign up for free updates!

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. teri says:

    for the veggies among us, crumbled extra firm tofu makes a good chicken substitute in stir-fry/fried-rice type recipes.

    If you use baby spinach, no need to de-stem. If you use regular spinach, you would need to remove stems, as they’re tough…

    sounds good. thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow! Nice one. How low can we go? Try just eating raw vegetables and fruit for a weekenk. You’ll cut out everything bad, absorb the most amount of nutrients, and never have trouble going to the bathroom!! :)

    It’s all about the diet. You don’t even need to excercise as I found out in my 180 day experiment I wrote on my blog entitled “Losing Your Way To More Money.” The results were awesome.

    Have a great weekend!

    Rgds,

    RB

  3. Dawn says:

    I am a big fan of stir fry recipes to use up left over rice and vegetables. It seems to me that this would be quite flexible and you could add or change veggies and meat depending on what was at hand. I had heard about this recipe on NPR – thanks for sharing your experience with it.

  4. That looks great, I would add more veggies in to boost the nutrition but overall it seems like a nice meal!

    Stir fry recipes are awesome because you can add in whatever you have in your fridge, reducing waste and cutting cost at the same time. Good post!

  5. Kelly says:

    thanks! loving this series!

  6. I have those exact same plates… :)

  7. deb says:

    I would add more veggies (when I make fried rice I use up all kinds of veggie bits), other than that, it sounds terrific!

  8. J says:

    If/when you come to the Boston area, Ming Tsai’s restaurant (Blue Ginger) is located in Wellesley, about 30-45 minutes from Fenway and downtown. We’ve been for a few “special occasion” meals over the years and have always left impressed.

  9. sammy says:

    how about using real garlic–i think a head of garlic is less than a jar of minced. you just need a clove or two from the head for your recipe.

    same for the lemon juice–how much can one lemon cost?

    in the summer you can get an ear or two of corn for practically nothing. cut the kernels off w/a sharp knife, then scrape the cob w/ your knife to get the corn bits and juices. yummy!

  10. Steven says:

    I grew up in a Chinese restaurant and the eggs CAN absorb a great deal of oil. We used to have the wok flaming hot and add the oil, then throw in the eggs and scramble vigorously. It really extended the eggs by a lot, and would easily double the volume of eggs. It was a way to extend the eggs and make it taste a lot better, at the expense of health, just FYI.

    Also, I would make a couple more changes. First, I would brown the meat on high heat, kind of like the crust you get on a nice grilled burger/steak.
    Ground meat is not necessary as well, as long as it is cut into small pieces. In the restaurant, we would cube boiled chicken for chicken fried rice.

    Second, I would cook/heat all the ingredients separately before you add it to the pan. Then stir fry all the ingredients together on high heat in 1 serving batches. In the restaurant, we had the luxury of large woks and enough heat to keep them flaming hot and able to avoid mushy/soggy rice. From the look of the rice from the pictures, it seems to be on the soggy and mushy side.

    Yeah, I’m kinda spoiled being having had access to that. But man, college was brutal not being able to make myself a good plate of fried rice, being so far away from home.

  11. Hi Trend,
    nice articles about making nice but cheap meals! But with all due respect, your photo’s don’t really look appetizing. I know food photography is really, really hard, but with some small brush ups I think they can become much better.
    Check out http://kayotickitchen.com/ It’s a foodblog from a Dutch girl that is really good with photography. But she doesn’t only blog about great food, she also published small tutorials about photography which I think you would really like.

    Keep up the good work!

  12. HyacinthB says:

    I understand how you are trying to economize but this dish just looks nasty. You eat with your eyes first and to me this looks like it was already eaten once and is being “recycled”. Throwing a pile of beige “stuff” on a bed of uncooked spinach is not my idea of color on a plate. I would serve the spinach on the side of the plate as a salad very lightly dressed with some basalmic vinegar and oil and add some green onion or tomato to it. Definitely add veggies like carrots (small dice) or celery to the rice to add color. I like the idea of diced chicken rather than ground which is higher in fat. And rather than just piling it on the plate, consider packing it in a small bowl and turning it out onto the plate. Only takes an entra minute to do and helps with portion control. Add a slice of fruit, like orange to garnish. Prettier plate with more flavor and nutrition.

  13. ClaireTN says:

    That looks great. I love these food posts.

  14. joan says:

    Love this series: I look forward to your Saturday posts. This meal looks wonderful; I’m gonna try it this week. I believe I read about making three meals out of one chicken on your blog. This could easily be one of the meals making the cost even lower. The green spinach really sets off the dish making it very eye appealing. Thank You for this dish.

  15. Moneyblogga says:

    Thanks for this recipe. Gonna try it this week.

  16. Michael says:

    In our frat house we used to make a lot of Tuna Pasta. Make sure to get the Tuna tins in olive oil. Nothing beats Tuna pasta, bang-for-the-buck-wise, imho.

  17. katie says:

    Hey Trent! One great tip for fried rice is to collect all your bits of leftover white rice from meals in a large ziplock bag in the freezer.

    Then when you have enough you just move it to the fridge to thaw the night before you cook your fried rice. It is nice and cold and dry and fries beautifully.

    Another good way to get rice is to save the extra white rice from chinese take-out meals. You are already paying for take out and a lot of people just throw those away and eat the fried rice. Just pop them in the freezer to add to your rice collection.

  18. Shannon says:

    My family loved this recipe. I did make a few additions such as bok choy, peas, and Chinese 5 spice. Overall, quick, easy, and a great use of leftover roasted chicken!

  19. Lindsey O. says:

    I just tried this tonight and it was really good. And fairly quick! I forgot that I had to have precooked rice until I began, but no fear! I just had it cooking in the rice cooker while I made the rest and never added it to my wok. It was fine just like that, with the ground meat and corn mixture served on top of the rice and spinach. I didn’t bother to tell anyone I had goofed! :)

  20. Arthi says:

    Seems a delicious recipe!!

    I notice it uses comparatively less spices, so I think it would me room to experiment with more spices.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>