Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Exploring the wonderously versatile wok

My latest column in Wednesday's Times-News.

From frying and steaming to boiling, the versatile wok can do it all

Drew Long

A few months ago, a reader e-mailed me and asked if I planned to write a column on wok cooking.
The thought had crossed my mind. I like woks and my wife is fascinated by them. The iconic Asian cooking tool is as simple as it is versatile.
When most of us think about the wok, we think about stir-frying. However, the wok can do much more than that. Think boiling, poaching, steaming, deep-frying and smoking.
Six cooking techniques with one pan. Now that's versatility.
So with Michael Phelps and the U.S. Olympic team amassing medals in Beijing, I figured now is the perfect time to break out my wok.
The big drawback to wok cooking is our stoves are not set up for it. Our flat stove tops don't heat woks all that well. Asian restaurants use wok stoves, which have wok-shaped holes in the stove tops that snugly fit the pan's conical shape and heat more of its surface area. Home cooks in Asia who don't have a wok stove use a wok ring that fits over electric and gas burners to accommodate the pan.
In her excellent book on wok cooking, "The Breath of a Wok,'' author Grace Young offers a few tips on cooking with a wok on a typical American stove. When stir-frying, Young advises cooking with high heat -- an unusual and unsettling method for American cooks -- and preparing the meat and vegetable separately.
Beginning with the meat, make sure not to crowd the wok. Doing so, Young warns, will drop the temperature of the wok and prevent searing. Also, don't cook more than 12 ounces of meat at a time.
With vegetables, Young limits portions to 4 cups at a time.
The idea behind stir-frying in a wok is speed. Meat and vegetables are cut into small portions so they cook fast over a very high heat.
Because everything is quick, you have to be ready to cook. That means the vegetables are cut up, the seasoning is on the counter and preferably portioned out, the meat has been prepped and you have dishes waiting to receive the food as soon as it's done -- all this before you begin heating the wok.
As I said, woks aren't limited to stir-frying. When I mentioned to my friend Xiaoyi (sh-OW-yee) that I was writing a column on wok cooking, she told me about saltwater chicken, a steamed dish her mom taught her.
Steaming, as it turns out, is as common in Chinese cooking as frying. Xiaoyi, who grew up in Shanghai before moving with her family to Boston, said cooking oil was expensive, so home cooks often steamed their meals. Although cooking oil is no longer a luxury, steaming remains a staple in her family's home.
The technique is quite a bit different than stir-frying, but just as efficient. When steaming, the meat and vegetables are cooked in a bowl set inside a covered wok. Saltwater chicken, one of many Chinese recipes that utilize steaming, is a one-pot dish that can be done in 45 minutes.
Admittedly, when Xiaoyi told me about the recipe, I was worried that at best it would be wet and bland. At worst, it would be undercooked.
Luckily I was bright enough to trust Xiaoyi.
The chicken comes out perfectly moist and subtly flavored by the salt, ginger and scallions. It's a delicate dish that proves limited means don't limit culinary ingenuity.
Behind my kitchen cabinet doors is a battery of frying pans, stock pots, sauce pots, grill pans, roasting pans and one wok -- which can do the work of all of them.

Xiaoyi's Saltwater Chicken

4 pieces of chicken (2 legs, 2 thighs)
6 scallions, diced
1 piece of ginger (at least 2 inches long), julienned (cut into match sticks)
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon rice wine (dry sherry and sake can be used as substitutes)

The day before, dice the scallions, peel and julienne the ginger, and season the chicken with the salt. Combine the chicken, scallions and ginger in a Zip-lock bag and put in the refrigerator to marinate over night.

Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before you begin cooking so it can lose some of its chill. Place the steaming rack in the wok and fill the bottom with water, but not enough to touch the rack. Place the chicken and half the scallions and ginger into a bowl and place on the steaming rack.

Cover the wok with a lid (I used aluminum foil) and turn the stove on high. When the water is boiling, reduce to simmer and cook for 45 minutes. To make sure the chicken is fully cooked, use a meat thermometer (180 degrees F.) or pierce the meat and see if the juices run clear. If they do, the chicken is ready.

Remove the chicken from the wok, discard the skin and strip the meat off the bone. Serve the chicken, scallions and ginger over rice, ladling on top some of the rich juice that collected in the bowl the chicken cooked in.
Makes 2 servings.

Jean Yueh's Shanghai-Style Shrimp

(Source: From Grace Young's "The Breath of a Wok'')
1 pound large shrimp
3½ tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 slices ginger
2 scallions cut into 2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon dry sherry
3 tablespoons sugar or to taste
1 tablespoon sesame oil (optional)

Using kitchen shears, cut through the shrimp shells two-thirds of the length down the back of the shrimp. Remove the legs and devein the shrimp, leaving the shells and tails on. Rinse the unpeeled shrimp, drain and set on several sheets of paper towels. With more paper towels, pat the shrimp dry. In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce and vinegar.

Heat a 14-inch, flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil, add the ginger and scallions, and stir-fry 30 seconds or until aromatic.
Add the shrimp and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add the sherry and stir-fry a few seconds. Swirl in the soy sauce mixture and sprinkle in the sugar. Stir-fry the shrimp 1 to 2 minutes or until the sauce is distributed and the shrimp are just cooked. Remove from the heat.

Stir in the sesame oil, if desired. Serve immediately or at room temperature. Makes 4 servings as part of a multicourse meal.

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