Wokking again

I’ve noticed a couple of things in the course of Wok Wednesdays. One, that I need to sharpen my knives. Before I can stir fry, I have to chop – a lot. If you aspire to wokking, get those kitchen knives good and sharp. It will make life easier and get dinner on the table faster. Mine will be on the way to the sharpener tomorrow.

The other thing is just how little oil good stir frying requires, when you have a well-seasoned wok – and mine apparently is on the way to being so. Tonight’s recipe, Chinese Trinidadian Stir-Fried Shrimp with Rum, called for just two tablespoons of vegetable oil. And it was plenty. Nothing stuck.

I have to say, this week’s recipe wasn’t my favorite so far. The ketchup-based sauce reminded me of restaurant Chinese food – a much better version of it, but reminiscent of conventional flavors. I like a little more…oomph.

I decided to peel the shrimp despite instructions to leave the shells on to make them more moist. I dislike dealing with shells in a completed dish. I did squeeze half a lime over the peeled and deveined shrimp and left it for a couple of minutes before cooking. The rest of the lime went into my iced tea and a strawberry cider-soda concoction I’ve been enjoying recently. More on that later.

This is my first time participating in a “group-cook” like this. It’s a great way to explore a technique and piece of equipment that I’d been frustrated by in the past. Read more about the group experience here.

Wok Wednesday No. 1

I signed up for Wok Wednesdays in the hope of overcoming my issues with the cooking implement. Things did not get off to a reassuring start. My new 14-inch carbon-steel wok was, as the directions said, “coated with a food-grade clear protective layer at the factory before shipment.” This had to be removed. Thirty minutes and three SOS pads later, I was grateful I hadn’t bought the mani on Saturday, just the pedi. Is polyurethane “food grade”? Because that’s what appeared to be on my wok.

After eliminating the last bits of the stuff with the aid of C-4 (ha, ha, just kidding, TSA), I consulted our Wok Wednesdays bible, “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge” by Grace Young (Simon & Schuster, 2010). Young’s seasoning instructions – stir-frying sliced ginger and scallions for about 15 minutes and rubbing them all over the wok – were a breeze.

Our first recipe was a simple one: Stir-Fried Garlic Spinach. it was just, well, garlic and spinach (with vegetable oil, salt and a little sugar). I wondered what the big deal could be. I’ve made sauteed spinach and garlic hundreds of times in conventional frying pans. Honestly, it was different. The deep wok holds copious amounts of fluffy greens more easily than a saute pan. The greens didn’t collect liquid, like they do when I use a saucepan, probably because the wok can get super-hot very quickly. It got hot fast even on my electric range. And it took longer to wash the greens (I threw in some swiss chard, too) than it did to cook them.

Since the wok was there, after cooking the greens I cooked some diced tofu, onions and Japanese turnips in soy sauce, sesame oil and sherry. Frequent visitors here know that I am also attempting to embrace the bean curd. Cooking it in the wok gave it the crispy outside texture I’d been looking for.

My wok-up call

I once owned a wok. It was the early ’80s. Strangely, it was one of the first things I actually bought for my post-college kitchen. It joined dented aluminum pots and dull knives that I “borrowed” from my mother.

Based on my cooking knowledge at the time, me having a wok made as much sense as using a Lamborghini as a church van.

In college, my friends and I had discovered Asian food and vegetarian eating. Not that we were going to give up our burgers or frozen waffles, but it became “the thing” to have a wok.

So, there it was in my kitchen, with a round bottom, a metal ring to sit it over my lame rented electric range, and no directions. Seasoning? Nobody told me about that. The ring made the wok hover so high over my limping burner that it barely got hot. Food stuck to it like wallpaper. Then, it started to rust. I believe I converted it to a planter in the back yard.

Since then, I’ve done any Asian-style stir-frying in either a saute pan on the stove or (don’t throw things at me, now) an electric frying pan. I’m still working with electricity, although my range cranks out the heat now. (There’s no gas line to my house, and it would cost a stupid amount of money to get one.) My results haven’t been like the real stuff, but I was content.

Until today. The story in today’s Raleigh News & Observer here made me long for that crack and sizzle of properly stir-fried food. The article made it sound easy, with simple instructions. Most of all, the article made it sound like I could, indeed, wrestle that wok (a flat-bottomed one) to the ground and make it do what I want.

I bought a wok this morning, before I could weaken. And I signed up for WokWednesdays, a locally spurred plan for a group to cook its way through Grace Young’s “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge.” Find out about it here.

I can’t wok away now.