Scallions Get Their Turn in the Spotlight

The sidelined vegetable co-stars with chicken in an easy weeknight stir-fry
May 31, 2019 Updated: May 31, 2019

Using big pieces of scallions in a dish might seem unexpected, but they are actually one of my family’s favorite ingredients to see in a stir-fry.

It started with a chicken and scallion stir-fry dish that we used to order in from a local Chinese restaurant when the kids were little. They cooked and delivered the food so quickly that we used to joke that we had to get the plates out before we ordered, or the food would get cold before we could set the table. Our order varied slightly (not all that much, since at that age, the boys were definitely creatures of habit) but there was always the ginger chicken with scallions in the assortment.

Judging by the proportion of scallions to chicken—which I’ll guesstimate at about five to one—the scallions were clearly wildly less expensive than the chicken. Really, the dish probably should have been called something more along the lines of stir-fried scallions with chicken.

But it was delicious: slices of chicken buried in heaps of soft, tender green and white spring onion chunks. Shreds of peppery ginger speckled the light but savory sauce. Everyone loved it, including the boys, who were quite young at the time, and I’ll concede that I hadn’t been so sure that they would embrace scallions as an actual vegetable. But since most of the scallion pieces were the green tops, they were actually a lot milder than one might think, and just plain enjoyable.   

A Co-Starring Role

My version has a more generous ratio of chicken to scallions, since I am a good sport, and not trying to increase my profit margin. But there are still very substantial pieces of green onion in the mix, because scallions are, in fact, a delicious vegetable in their own right, and can play a bigger role than just a supporting ingredient.

This is true of all members of the onion family, which I sometimes forget, and then I realize I am diving for that big chunk of red onion in a platter of roasted vegetables, or I start dreaming about creamed pearl onions for the holidays. So, scallions, I am happy to highlight you in this dish.  

Rules of Stir-Fry

If you have a really big industrial-sized wok or a monster skillet, you could do this in one batch, but one of the secrets to great stir-fries is to not crowd the pan. Giving the individual pieces of food a chance to come into direct contact with the hot pan on a continuous basis is the difference between nicely browned pieces and a pile of steamed ones. The same principle applies to lots of other cooking methods, like frying and sautéing. Space between pieces of food is your friend.

Therefore, if you just have a regular old skillet, cook it in two batches, as instructed in the recipe. The cooking process is super-quick, made quicker when the batches of food are small, so it only takes a few extra minutes. Then everything will be returned to the skillet for a final turn in the pan with the sauce, so everything will end up cooked and hot at the same time.

If you want to use boneless skinless chicken thighs instead of the breasts, you can. You’ll need to add a few more minutes of cooking time to each batch, but otherwise, it’s an easy substitution.

To toast sesame seeds, simply put them in a dry skillet and heat the skillet over medium heat. Give them a shake or a stir every 30 seconds or so, and when they have turned golden brown and smell nicely toasty, they are done. Remove them from the hot pan quickly, as they can go from browned to burned fairly quickly. You can store extra toasted sesame seeds in an airtight container for several weeks, but due to their high oil content, they can become rancid. I just give them a nibble before using them to make sure they are still fresh.

What the Kids Can Do

The kids can measure and mix together the soy sauce-cornstarch mixture (don’t worry, the alcohol from the tiny amount of optional sherry will burn off in the cooking). They may be able to cut the scallions into pieces with an age-appropriate knife (for scallions, a plastic knife may be a good solution, and there are some good plastic kid-chef knives on the market). If they are old enough to cut the chicken, press home the idea of washing one’s hands with warm soapy water before and after to kill any bacteria. And if you are using the sesame seeds, let the kids give the dish that final sprinkle.

Yes, some kids might pick around the scallions. There’s no helping that, but they still add a nice flavor to the whole dish. I used to take any leftover scallions in the sauce and use them to top the noodle soup we also ordered from the restaurant—I couldn’t bear to let any go to waste.

You’ll want to serve this with a big bowl of rice, your choice of white or brown, to soak up all of the sauce.

Stir-Fried Chicken With Scallions

Serves 6

  • 2 tablespoons less-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons dry sherry (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil, divided
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 2 bunches scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces, white and green parts (about 20 scallions)
  • 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • Toasted sesame seeds to garnish (optional)
  • Hot cooked white or brown rice to serve

In a small bowl, mix together the soy sauce, sherry, sugar, and cornstarch.

In a large skillet or a wok, heat two tablespoons of the oil over high heat. Add half the ginger and stir for 1 minute, until you can smell the ginger. Then add the half the scallions and the chicken and sauté for about 3 minutes, until the chicken is mostly white on the outside but still slightly raw inside, and the scallions have started to soften. Remove the chicken and scallions from the skillet to a shallow serving bowl and set aside.

Repeat with the remaining oil, ginger, scallions, and chicken, and when the chicken is mostly cooked on the outside, return the first batch of cooked chicken and scallions to the pan, along with any juices that have accumulated. Give the soy sauce mixture one more stir and add it to the pan. Stir to coat the chicken with the mixture. Add the chicken broth and sesame oil, bring to a simmer, and allow the sauce to thicken while the chicken finishes cooking, about 3 minutes more.

Serve hot, sprinkled with the sesame seeds, if desired, with the rice.

Katie Workman is a food writer and recipe developer in New York City. She writes the popular blog, contributes to many publications, and has written two cookbooks: “The Mom 100 Cookbook” and “Dinner Solved!”