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."

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