Monday, April 2, 2012

Double blessings with hope for 'wok hay'

I can't remember the last time I was so happy to be wrong.

I've been using the same wok for about 30 years. I've been proud of its dark, non-stick patina and felt confident stir-frying countless meals. Sure, I'd flirted with sleek stainless versions and I wondered, as anyone might, if a long-handled model might be more satisfying. Yet I remained faithful.

But I recently realized that my wok's round, Cantonese shape and my standard Western gas range lack the makings of a happy marriage. Memories of soppy, unintended braises and limp vegetables resurfaced like forgotten, but unresolved, arguments. And those stubby, blazing hot metal handles? Let's not even go there.

The only way to breathe life into my old wok, I realized, was to replace it with a new, flat-bottom, carbon steel one designed to make the most of American stoves. I followed the advice of wok guru Grace Young, who was in Chapel Hill last month for a gastronomic feast in her honor at Lantern and a reading at Flyleaf Books presented by Culinary Historians of the Piedmont North Carolina.

Raymond Leung of Classic Silver Wok
1322 Fordham Blvd., Chapel Hill
At Lantern, I had the good fortune to dine with both Young and Raymond Leung, owner of Classic Silver Wok in Chapel Hill. Leung's unassuming shop caters to everyday locals who load up giant bags of Jasmine rice and to culinary superstars like Lantern's Andrea Reusing. Needless to say, I asked for his help in selecting a new wok.

An unforeseen delivery delay postponed acquisition until today, but now that I have it I can hardly believe I fought with my wobbly old one for so long. To season and imbue it with "wok hay" -- the "breath of a wok" Young so eloquently describes -- I decided to give it a double blessing: first the technique Young recommends, and then the method suggested by Leung.

After giving it a good soapy scrub -- the one and only time detergent will come close -- I dried it well and set it on a high flame. Into a shimmering puddle of fragrant peanut oil I tossed in sticks of juicy ginger and swirled it around the pan with a handful of green onions. I then cut the onions into two-inch lengths, added them to the pan and dialed back the flame to medium.

I flipped and pressed the mixture into the bowl until it disintegrated about 10 minutes later, then used paper towel to brush out the crumbs and rub a thin coat of the remaining oil over the pan. The towel came away with a trace of gray, evidence of the wok's manufacturing process.

After the wok cooled, it was time for Leung's technique, which involved a sturdy block of firm tofu diced into cubes. After bringing the pan back to temperature, I poured in a drizzle of peanut oil and added the tofu. The pale white cubes grabbed the remaining gray silt like a sponge, leaving the pan clean and the tofu in precisely the unappetizing condition Leung described.

Now ringed with a pale cast of color, the wok appeared ready for real cooking. Tim had bought several bunches of slender asparagus from the market, as well as sweet spring onions. After heating the wok and quickly reaching the magic moment when, as Young describes, a drop of water vanishes in a flash, I poured in a final tablespoon of peanut oil and swirled the pan to coat. Some minced ginger and thin slices of onion followed, along with a generous shake of Asian Sprinkle. Next came two bunches of asparagus, trimmed into two-inch lengths, and a handful of raw cashews. I stir-fried constantly, about two minutes, until asparagus was bright green and tender crisp.

I thought I was done at that point, but the result was too gingery for my taste. I turned the heat back on, adding about a teaspoon of sugar and a splash of sweetened black vinegar. It cooked just long enough for the vinegar to absorb and evaporate, less then a minute, and gained a restaurant-quality sheen I was pleased to serve. I sighed -- and could almost swear I heard my new wok do the same.

With Grace Young at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

No comments:

Post a Comment