A couple of weeks ago, I bought myself something for my birthday. I won’t keep you in suspense: it was a wok. I told you about shortcake in Santa Cruz, but we spent my actual birthday in San Francisco, mostly in Chinatown (with a brief but worthwhile swing through the Mission on our way home, to show the guys some murals and get ice cream). But anyway, the wok.
Kyle and I actually received a beautiful wok as a wedding gift. It had so much going for it: it came from Steve and Denise, who are two of the nicest people you could ever meet. The box it arrived in was so lovely that to this day it sits on a shelf in my closet, filled with wedding photos. And tucked next to the wok in its box was an impossibly thin metal wok spatula that is still the single most-used cooking utensil in my kitchen … but in a heartbreaking turn, the wok itself met with an untimely death at the hands of my soap-and-scrubber wielding husband (I’ll spare you the details, but therein lies a testament to the depth of the love we share: we both lived to tell this story).
It turns out that you can bring a wok back from the brink with a quick facial – no really, you can. But I didn’t know that. I actually cried about that wok – I felt like we had failed in being grown-ups, somehow. It was a how will we ever be able to take care of children if we can’t figure out how to take care of cooking implement?! sort of thing. Well, fast forward 7 years or so, and here we are … stumbling along on the parenting bit, and ready to try again with this magical, flavor-breathing pan.
But this time, we went low end. We got the most basic, $15 cast iron wok. It came in a plain plastic bag, and had to be scrubbed several times for hours and then baked “like a self-cleaning oven” to remove the powdery gray “rust proof” coating that it wore for its long ride across the Pacific from China. It was a multii-day process that bore some resemblance to labor, and at the end we had a new baby wok: beautiful, round-bellied, ready to be seasoned by life.
The wok takes its place alongside expensive Dutch ovens and ancient Pyrex bakeware, and that old rolling-pin I love so much … which is to say, it is one of the things I hope I will pass on to my kids someday. If all goes well, by the time they get it they will have eaten more meals than they can remember from it. Its silhouette will be so familiar to them on the stove that they can see it with their eyes closed. And when they stand in their own kitchens someday, tossing onions and beans and noodles over the white-hot pan, they will smile, and think of home, and feel a huge upswell of love for their mother.
Well we all have our dreams, right?
I have shared stir-fry recipes in the past, but they were stir-fries only in the vaguest sense of the term – lots of things stirred and sort of fried together, perhaps is what I meant. I didn’t mean to imply that I had mastered, or even actually attempted, the true ancient art of the stir fry.
But I have been reading the ultimate guide to mastery – and now, with my baby wok and a special ring to make its little round bottom sit still on my big-gas burners (wait for it …) … now I’m learning.
I’m still reading. I’m also learning by doing – that is, by stir-frying anything I can think of. I started with lots of onions, which the wok sages in Chinatown told me would help deepen the seasoning on the wok. From there I moved on to spinach (Grace Young’s recommended starter stir-fry), and peppers, and these lovely yellow beans from our neighbors’ garden. We have had stir-fried veggies on pizzas, in omelets, with fajitas, and stuffed into sandwiches. I’m no master, but we’ve moved well into the realm of edible.
I also used my wok to sear leftover fruit after making a pie – the pie recipe I will share soon (apples are here!). But I don’t recommend stir-fried fruit, as it turns out. At least not yet.
The biggest hit to date has been this stir-fry: veggies and soba noodles, with a bright and lively ginger-kicked dressing over top. Kyle insists that it is even better the second day – since he has requisitioned all leftovers for his lunches, I cannot vouch for this … but I believe it. I believe it because he is serious enough about the new wok that he only cleans it with oil and salt. And coming from this guy, that is an extraordinary testament of love.
Beginner’s Stir-Fry with Soy-Ginger Sauce
If you don’t have a wok, you can certainly use a cast iron skillet – it will not be the same but it should still be plenty good. A few basic tricks for stir frying: make sure your wok (or pan) is seasoned. Heat it up very hot before you start cooking. Have all ingredients chopped and ready. I like to keep a big bowl next to the stove, and dump each cooked ingredient into there as it is done. Some experts can time things so that they can add each item at the precise right moment: I find it easiest just to cook each thing separately. Grace Young recommends starting with onions or whatever your aromatics are, and that seems very sound advice to me: it seasons the oil a bit and makes everything taste a little extra delicious. I find that I need just the tiniest whisper of oil – stir-frying is more of a pan-searing than a true frying, which is part of why everything tastes so good. I drizzle a little oil in once the pan is heating, and so far have not needed to add more. (I have not stir-fried any meat yet, but if I ever do I suspect this might be different).
We have been using whatever veggies are on hand, but to really make the dressing pop it is nice to have a few crisp-tender parts (onions, peppers, beans) and a few sop-it-up parts (broccoli, greens). Toasted cashews over top are about perfect, but peanuts would also work well.
Vegetables of choice, julienned or sliced, about three cups total per person
(Recommend: onion, pepper, broccoli, beans, bok choi)
Soba noodles, rehydrated or pre-cooked (we like these ones, or these)
For the dressing: mix equal parts soy sauce and rice vinegar (I start with 3 ounces of each). Add the juice of one lemon, an inch of grated ginger with its juice (microplane is good here) and a squeeze of honey (or a pinch of sugar for my vegan friends). Mix well, taste, and adjust to your liking. We serve hot sauce on the side because of the kids, but this is also great with a Thai chile diced in. Mix it all well and set aside.
Heat your wok over high heat. When the pan starts to get hot, add a drizzle of oil (I like grapeseed, but if you like peanut oil that’s very popular for stir-frying). Working carefully with the hot pan, cook each vegetable until it is crisp-tender. You will need to stand right next to the pan, using a metal spatula to stir each veggie as it is cooking. It is nice when it gets a little char, but it shouldn’t burn. As each vegetable finishes cooking (things cook very quickly in this hot pan!) transfer it to a bowl to keep warm (they can be mixed together in one big bowl). For the broccoli, you can add a teaspoon or two of water to the wok to help it steam a little bit as you stir-fry.
Once all the veggies are done, add the prepared noodles to the hot pan. Stir fry for a minute or so to warm them, then add a couple tablespoons of your dressing. Continue to stir-fry until the noodles are heated through and have absorbed the dressing, which will take a few minutes. Add the veggies back to the wok, and stir everything together. Add the remaining dressing, mix well, and then turn off the heat.
Serve immediately, with toasted cashews over top and hot sauce at the table.