Sunday, March 18, 2012

Grace Young: Humble woks even the playing field for home cooks

Dear Dr. Wok:
Please help me. The fire that used to burn in our relationship has gone cold. What once made me sizzle with anticipation has turned to soggy mush. Where I used to see balance, beauty and dignity, I now can’t ignore a distinct, almost drunken wobble. My grip has become slippery. Our love has lasted about 30 years, but I think the time has come to say goodbye. What should I do?

If such a mystic for downtrodden wok users really existed, it would point to a sole source for relief.  Grace Young, dubbed everything from wok evangelist to empress of stir fry, prescribes a simple solution for Western cooks who long for the crisp, deeply flavored results – without the gloppy sauces – of popular take-out eateries.

“You have a round-bottom wok, don’t you,” she said, as if checking my pulse by phone from her New York City apartment. “The reason I write books is that stir-frying is a culinary term that’s totally accepted in America. But when they go to cook it, the majority of Americans are frustrated with the results.

“Round-bottom woks are made to cook in a Chinese hearth stove over a fire,” Young explained, noting that adjustments must be made to accommodate non-commercial, lower-BTU American stoves. “You need a flat-bottom, carbon steel wok so it can cook closer to the heat.”

Young will talk about wok cookery as the guest of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Flyleaf Books  in Chapel Hill. Her culinary genius also will be celebrated Tuesday night at Lantern, where Chef Andrea Reusing will prepare a spring menu based on Young's award-winning cook books. For reservations, call 919-969-8846.

My aged, curvy wok is carbon steel, and it has achieved an enviable patina since I acquired it along with my first apartment. But the smarter, more modern design minimizes unintended steaming and, as an added benefit, features a long wooden handle, plus a small helper one, that makes keeping a jug of burn-cooling aloe under the sink no longer a necessity.

If you hope to achieve a degree of stir-fry Zen, don’t be tempted by a fancy stainless-steel model, or one coated with a non-stick finish. And, let us all say hallelujah, don’t dare cast your eyes on an electric one.

While Young could make a fortune selling a celebrity line of cookware, she instead suggests seeking recommendations from family-owned wok shops. If you can’t find one, she recommends San Francisco's The Work Shop (, where many budget-friendly options are available.

Grace Young's Classic Dry-Fried
Pepper and Salt Shrimp
“There is so much about cooking these days that is elitist. You can spend all your money on All-Clad, and people look down on you if you don’t have certain ingredients,” Young said. “What I think is extraordinary about stir frying is that is makes less seem like more.

“Even if you’re the most wealthy person in the world, your stir fry isn’t much different from a peasant – if you do it right,” she said. “The ingredients don’t have to be extraordinary. They just have to be fresh.”

Combine this humble cookware with the coming abundance of competitively priced farmer’s market vegetables, and you’ve got all you need for quick, affordable and flavorful family meals. For example, Classic Dry-Fried Pepper and Salt Shrimp and Stir-Fried Cilantro with Bean Sprouts and Shrimp, two of several recipes posted on her website, would be terrific with fresh-caught Carolina shrimp.

Stir-Fried Cilantro with
Bean Sprouts and Shrimp
While Young has published hundreds of recipes in three popular  books, most recently the James Beard Award-winning Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, she insists that delicious, spontaneous suppers can be produced in minutes by relying on the freshest seasonal ingredients. A stir fry made right now with tender asparagus will naturally caramelize and need scant seasoning. But if you try to recreate the experience with woody November asparagus, you're bound to be disappointed.

“The goal is to just accentuate the inherent flavors,” she said. “Really, it’s a frugal and healthful approach to cooking.”

Young said the method should appeal particularly to those taking heed to the Archives of Internal Medicine's startling warning about the health risks associated with eating red meat.

“I always shake my head when I see a wok recipe that includes a pound of beef or even more chicken,” she said. “I ran the Time-Life Books test kitchens for 20 years. I know for a fact that if you try to cook more than 12 ounces of beef in a wok it just goes gray and foamy.”

Too much meat also drops the wok's temperature, which must remain consistently high to sear and not steam. While ingredients can be dried with paper towel and cooked in batches to minimize unwanted braising, Young maintains that it’s better to make multiples of a single recipe than to tinker with ratios.

Young’s current book includes a vast array of meals made in the kitchens of Chinese chefs and home cooks who have scattered around the globe, and the local influences are apparent. In Trinidad, for example, rum takes the place of traditional rice wine.

One particularly interesting recipe deploys peeled watermelon rind as a substitute for hard-to-find fuzzy melon. It’s a resource penny-wise Southern cooks have long used for pickles. “You don’t waste it, where the rest of America tosses it away,” Young said.

Though she admits the recipe is not one of her favorites, Young said she was intrigued by the waste-not ethic that led cooks to make use of the amino acid-rich but otherwise bland white band, which is sliced into thin wafers for a crunchy bite.

Her ongoing research into stir-fry methods and technique – she’s currently pondering a new book proposal – serve to deepen her respect for it as a “chameleon cooking technique.”

“It can adapt and absorb different cultures. For example, if you can’t find Chinese broccoli, use American broccoli,” she said. “For me, that’s what it all about: adapting traditional techniques by using regional variations or what’s in season.”

While Young encourages home cooks to exercise creativity with their wok, she recommends against trying to imitate the physical style of experienced restaurant wok cooks whose balletic elegance mesmerizes customers in the take-out line.

"That jerking motion with the wok, where the vegetables are tossed into the air, is called the pao action. It's a beautiful thing to watch someone who really is one with the wok, but the pao is not very effective at home as it's counter productive to keeping the pan properly hot," Young cautioned. "If you stick with a flat-bottomed wok, you'll spend less time cleaning the kitchen floor and more time eating."

Friday, March 16, 2012

Blue Bell Ice Cream ready to bloom in Triangle

We all have our breakfast rituals. For some, it’s toast and coffee. Others opt for bacon and eggs.

But in a conference room in Brenham, Texas, there is a small group that faithfully gathers each work day morning for something few consider as a day breaker. They sit around a large table, spoons in hand, to do what might be the most important act of their business day. They eat ice cream.

Want to win one of five coupons for a free half-gallon of Blue Bell
Ice Cream? Follow Eating My Words (directions at right)
and @jwlucasnc on Twitter by midnight Wednesday, March 21.
Winners will be chosen at random and announced on March 22.

 “It’s important to taste the Homemade Vanilla every day because it’s the reason we’re here, the reason Blue Bell is popular across the country,” said Brenda Valera, Blue Bell’s head of Research & Development. “It’s quality control, but it’s also grounding and team building. We don’t want to get too far away from where we started.”

Blue Bell is straying a bit this week, gearing up new trucks and delivery teams to officially enter the Triangle market on Monday, when its products will be available at Kroger, Lowes Foods and Walmart stores. Other sellers are expected to follow.

While the brand is not as ubiquitous as other grocery store stalwarts – indeed, North Carolina will become only the 20th state where it is sold – Blue Bell’s reputation for creamy texture and creative flavors has provided bragging rights as the No. 3 seller nationally.

Valera said local ice cream lovers can expect selections that reflect seasonal abundance. Many variations are based on Blue Bell’s signature Homemade Vanilla, such as strawberry and peach. Valera’s flavor descriptions prompt imagined scenes of ice cream being hand-cracked on grandma’s summer porch, with add-ins based on what’s fresh or which grandchild had a birthday preference.

Blue Bell, named for the native Texas bluebell wildflower, does little to discourage this image. “Even as the company has grown, it maintains a family ethic of working together and valuing input from all areas of the business,” Valera said. The cleverly named Made in the Shade, with its fudge ribbon, was so dubbed by a quality control employee. A flavor currently in development for 2013 release is based on a fruit bar that was a winning entry to the company’s annual employee baking contest.

Valera, a 31-year veteran who has developed countless flavors for the company, said the R&D unit typically considers about 300 concepts annually and produces as many as 20-25 of the most promising in small batches. Only 10 to 12 of those ever get invited to a series of tastings the company conducts each May, which further winnows the field to five or six winners.

One such example was Rocky Mountain Road, which was introduced in January. The decadent blend features dark chocolate ice cream, dark chocolate-coated peanuts, milk chocolate-coated pecans, white chocolate-coated almonds and roasted walnuts, all surrounded by a marshmallow swirl. It proved so popular that it likely will reappear in rotation.

The new flavor for March, which should be found in local stores next week, is Strawberry Banana Pound Cake. While she’s sworn to secrecy regarding the choice for May, Valera hinted that “it’s almost a nostalgic dessert flavor.”

Blue Bell does not operate any ice cream shops but does prepare three-gallon containers for the commercial markets. Its options for most North Carolina consumers will include half-gallons of ice cream and frozen yogurt, as well as frozen snacks.

All Blue Bell products are manufactured in the company’s Texas plant and handled exclusively by employees until it is placed in a store’s freezer case. Warehouse and cold storage are managed locally in Morrisville and Greensboro, respectively, with a distribution facility to follow in Raleigh or Durham.

“We want to make sure that people who handle our brand know the importance of temperature control,” Valera said. “Freshness is of utmost importance to us. It’s a product that can be easily damaged.”

Blue Bell likewise wants to take special care of its fans by inviting them to register online for Extra Scoops. These special promotions include monthly coupons, recipes and advance notice of new flavors.

“We take seriously our responsibility to make sure our customers are happy,” Valera said. “It’s a great feeling when you talk to people and they find out where you work. I’m ecstatic that people enjoy what we create.”

*Note: Coupons for free half-gallons of ice cream are provided as a promotional item by Blue Bell. Be sure to follow both Eating My Words and @jwlucasnc on Twitter by midnight Wednesday, March 22. Winners will be chosen at random and announced on March 23.