(Reprinted from Edible Memphis, Spring '14)
I still remember how the shiny, enameled red lid of the electric wok would catch my eye as I sat on the kitchen counter and talked to my mom as she cooked. Those of us who lived through it recall the wok craze of the 70’s and 80’s. Everybody had one; our family was no exception. Us three vegetarians in the house grew up on soggy, salty stir-fry, and I carried this questionable tradition into my young adulthood. As a thrifty college student trying to start my own photography business, I’d budget $20 a week for groceries: fresh vegetables, rice, plus tempeh, eggs, or nuts for protein. So, what was (always) for dinner? Stir-fry! Sometimes I had it over rice and sometimes over noodles, but if we weren’t having spaghetti, we were having stir-fry…a pretty soggy stir-fry.
My version was so bad that my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, secretly hated it but covered by saying that she just wasn’t in the mood for stir-fry. She secretly hoped that I wouldn’t catch on. What I didn’t realize at the time is that my version of stir fry lacked that signature wok flavor that comes from this ancient cooking vessel when it’s in the hands of a true professional. So, I always started with a great assortment of fresh vegetables. That’s good! What was I doing wrong? I was missing that crisp vegetable snap with plenty of intense flavor from the Malliard Reaction that happens when the vegetables brown from contact with the hot pan. And, for goodness sake, why was my stir-fry soggy? The answer, it turns out, is simple.
I asked James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and stir-fry guru Grace Young what the single most important thing one needs in order to make a successful stir-fry meal at home. She told me, “I would say it starts with choosing the right pan. There are many people using nonstick woks or skillets, and that is guaranteed to produce a soggy, lackluster stir-fry.” I could see myself in her words; I’m truly the Goldilocks of woks. I’ve had the plug-in electric kind, which didn’t get any hotter than warm. I’ve had the round-bottomed kind with a wok ring for a conventional stovetop. I’ve had the nonstick variety, a true waste of money. I’ll tell you from firsthand experience: don’t buy any of these. Grace says, “I recommend a 14-inch flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok. It costs less than $25, and it will last you more than a lifetime.” I agree -- the 14-inch flat-bottom wok I’ve had for 3 years now has been the best option for me, for sure. It’ll work on a gas or electric stove, and it offers the stability and control we all need in order to stir-fry correctly.
Season your new purchase (or your old wok if you’ve never done so before) by following these simple steps. First, wash the new wok with liquid detergent and dry it thoroughly. Next, rub the inside of the wok with canola oil (or any oil with a high smoke point) and set it over a high flame until the whole pan darkens; this will take about six to eight minutes, depending on how hot the flame is. I’m going to recommend that you do this outside on your outdoor grill’s side burner since it makes lots of smoke! Repeat the process after simply rinsing the cooled wok with water and drying it. This will ensure a good, slick coat. What is really happening when you season your wok is a chain reaction of chemical changes. According to Modernist Cuisine, “New kinds of molecules will form, oxidize the iron, then polymerize into a waterproof film bound to the metal.” In other words, it’ll make your wok slippery where it needs to be, easier to use, and it won’t rust. You want that! The result is that your brand-new wok will look ancient but work great...and that’s the whole point.
Now let’s head to the market. The wok makes it simple to eat seasonally, so pick up a few things that are at their best right now. Aim to stock your basket with a variety of colors and textures from the produce section. In spring, choose hearty greens like kale, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, an abundance of mushrooms like shiitake, fresh carrots, and because this is a stir-fry, we can’t forget traditional Chinese vegetables like bok choy that grow well in the Southern climate. Add garlic, fresh ginger, and spring onions. I usually throw in a few sweet bell peppers, too, for color, no matter what the season.
The next step is to wash everything and thoroughly dry it. I like to shake the excess water off in the sink and then air-dry my vegetables on a clean dish towel to ensure that they’re completely dry. This not only helps them to last longer in storage, but I’ve found it to be crucial to the stir-frying process. Next, cut everything up into same-sized pieces so they cook quickly and evenly. There’s no need to be too fussy about this -- just eyeball it. Make sure to cut denser vegetables like carrots or the stem of the broccoli thin; a mandoline is a great tool for this, but you could just use a chef’s knife. Toss the vegetables together and store them in a large lidded container in the fridge until you’re ready to use them.
Before I got to cooking, I paid a visit to Wally Joe, Chef, partner, and general manager at Acre Restaurant in East Memphis. He was born in Hong Kong and raised in Cleveland, Mississippi, where his family’s restaurant KC’s had a real-deal wok station. “Don’t be afraid of the wok,” he told me after I’d let him in on my years of failure with it. “It’s just like any other pan, but it’s just a different shape.” He laughed, “I break it out at home mostly to make a simple and easy noodle dish or stir-fry or a curry.” While it’s just a pan of a different shape, I figured that there has to be a trick to it, so I asked for a hint. “Just remember to use high heat,” he advised. “That’s the best way to get the brown and crispy edges on the vegetables and noodles that are the hallmark of wok cooking.”
“The wok is an easy pan to work with, but until recently, there hasn't been enough information to guide novice cooks,” Grace reassured me. After years of learning what not to do, and after my conversations with Wally and Grace, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on it now. There’s nothing left to it but to do it, so here’s my new way with the wok.
The first thing to remember is to have everything ready to go: vegetables cut, sauce made, and rice or noodles should be prepared and set aside. It moves way faster than you’d think, though nowhere near as fast as a professional chef cooking over a real 200,000-btu wok station. Put your seasoned wok over the highest heat on the stovetop and let it heat up until you see little wisps of smoke rise up off of the hot metal. Pour in the oil and wait for it to start to smoke, which is very important! If you put vegetables (or really anything) in a cold wok with cold oil, you simply won’t get the results you desire -- and your significant other will only eat it to be nice. Now, put your vegetable mixture into the wok and give a little shake. Never, ever use more than 4 cups of anything total in a wok; overcrowding the pan will result in the dreaded soggy stir-fry. Let the mixture rest in the hot pan for 45 seconds before tossing everything to redistribute it by pushing the pan forward and then jerking it back just like you’d do to flip an omelette or by using a spatula (maybe even stir-fry spatula!). You’ll notice the browned edges of the vegetables that were touching the hottest part of the pan. That’s flavor! Allow the vegetables to rest for another 45 seconds to 1 minute before flipping them again. Flip the vegetables one last time and allow them to cook for 1 minute. At this point, add your sauce and cook for one more minute. Once you notice the sauce starting to thicken, remove the stir-fry from the wok and place it in a serving bowl. The whole cooking process take less than 4 minutes, and it can feel a little reckless, but you’ll gain more control as you practice.
There is so much more to wok cooking, such as learning about the Bao and Chao techniques, but this will set you on the right path. I appreciated that Grace shared this last bit of wisdom with me: “When you cook with a wok, you become a part of a cooking tradition that is over 2,000 years old. It's true that it takes a little time to learn how to work with it and care for it, but unlike most cookware, you'll develop a relationship with your wok. It is a pan to cherish.”
Let’s do a quick review of our simple stir-fry method: the right wok that’s seasoned correctly, seasonal vegetables that are dry and cut to a uniform size, hot wok with hot oil, and slow it down just a little to attain that coveted wok flavor that comes from the browned edges of the vegetables. Avoid all the pitfalls I’ve experienced in the past by following these few simple steps! You, too, can have a beautiful, quick, and delicious meal of seasonal vegetables. Oh, and now after 20 years of avoiding my soggy stir-fry at all costs, my wife requests my new-and-improved, seasonal stir-fry on a twice-weekly basis. That, may friends, is a long-fought victory.
Ginger and Cashew Stir Fry
2 cups prepared rice
4 cups Spring Vegetable Mix (recipe follows)
1/2 cup vegetable broth
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sambal (more to taste)
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
3 cloves garlic (minced)
1-inch piece fresh ginger (minced)
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 spring onion (sliced)
1/2 cup roasted and salted cashews
Prepare rice according to package instructions. Prepare Spring Vegetable mix according to the recipe. In a pint-sized jar with a lid, add the broth, soy sauce, sesame oil, sambal, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, and cornstarch. Screw on the lid and shake vigorously. Set sauce aside until ready to use.
Put your seasoned wok over the highest heat on the stovetop and let it heat up until you see little wisps of smoke rise up off of the hot metal. Pour in the canola oil and wait for it to start to smoke, which is very important! Now, put your vegetable mixture into the wok and give a little shake. Let the mixture rest in the hot pan for 45 seconds before tossing everything to redistribute it by pushing the pan forward and then jerking it back just like you’d do to flip an omelette or by using a spatula. Allow the vegetables to rest for another 45 seconds to 1 minute before flipping them again. Flip the vegetables one last time and allow them to cook for 1 minute. At this point, add your sauce and cook for one more minute. Once you notice the sauce starting to thicken, remove the stir-fry from the wok and place it in a serving bowl. The whole cooking process take less than 4 minutes.
Spring Vegetable Mix
2 crowns broccoli
1 pound shiitake
2 small or 1 large bok choy
1 bunch lacinato (dinosaur) kale
2 large or 4 small carrots
2 cups snow peas
Wash and dry everything thoroughly. Cut everything up into 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch slices. Store in an airtight container in the fridge.
You know, I've never owned my own wok!!! I rarely make stir-fry, but I bet I would if I had one. Now I know what kind to get.
Thanks for the tips! I am a big fan of stir-frys and it is life changing when you start doing them right. My mom at one point said, "oh, we have that wok in the basement if you want it, I don't think we every used it" and it ended up being electric! For a generation I think a wok automatically conjures up the electric variety.
I also suffered through years of soggy, icky stir-fries but you convinced me to get a wok and give stir-fries another try! Now I'm so stoked on my wok and stir-frying again! Thanks for this recipe!
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