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Learning to wok is a sensible aim

  • TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

    Woks come in many sizes. Some have two short handles, while others have one long one. They can be round- or flat-bottomed. Hand-hammered carbon steel is recommended. And whatever you do, don’t buy a nonstick version.

Call me a stupid American (you wouldn’t be the first), but whenever I’m cooking Asian dishes, that great Muppet stand-up comedian, Fozzie Bear, is never far from my mind. As I’m tossing stir-fried vegetables in my iconic, round-bottom Asian cooking vessel, Mr. F. Bear’s signature tagline sits ready on my tongue tip: “Wokka wokka.”

Oh, stop rolling your eyes.

Anyway, it’s time to take a quick look at the wok and understand its many iterations. And then, stir-fry for everyone!

Wokka wokka!

WHY YOU NEED TO LEARN THIS

You absolutely can produce a jim-dandy stir-fry in a regular saute pan. Still, there’s nothing like the rounded bowl of a proper wok to facilitate that way-cool, arcing vegetable toss you’ve been dying to master.

Plus, cooking implements so closely associated with specific cultures will trigger flavor and ingredient ideas that your regular pots and pans may not. Get out your wok and automatically your brain will drift easily to Asian flavor profiles and thoughts of crisp, quickly cooked vegetables and meats.

THE STEPS YOU TAKE

First, let’s get you a good wok. I recommend hand-hammered carbon steel. Hand-hammered for that certain “not-made-by-job-killing-robots” je ne sais quoi. Carbon steel for its sturdy, light weight and its quick, even heating. Most important, though, is how it develops that layer of deep-space black, polymerized oil that forms on the inside surface and prevents food from sticking.

Whatever you do, avoid those nonstick woks. They’ll crack and chip and contain chemicals that can break down in high heat.

Carbon steel it is, then.

Next, round bottom? Flat bottom? Either. The flat stovetops of Western kitchens can make a rounded cooking vessel difficult to use. I say, use what works.

Another variant is the handle. I prefer one long wooden handle over two short handles on either side. It allows you to practice your aforementioned way-cool arc-y flips while keeping your tossing hand relatively blister free.

Finally, size, for they are myriad. There are restaurant-style jumbo woks in which you could stir-fry a full-grown Canadian bull moose. And there are smaller wokettes. For most of us, the 14-inch size should be just right.

As for accessories, you’ll definitely want a good wok spatula. They’ve got super long handles so you don’t burn your fingers, and an extra wide business end that makes for easy-peasy scooping.

If your wok has a round bottom, you might want a wok ring to steady it on your stovetop.

Other accoutrements like lids, steamer inserts, cleaning brushes, spider strainers, all have their uses, as woks are for much more than stir-fries. They’re also for steaming, braising, poaching, smoking, you name it. If you’re new to this, though, I’d say start with a few simple stir-fries. Then, if you find that you’re liking the old doo-wokadoo, watch “Eat Drink Man Woman” on Netflix, and start the wokification of your entire menu.

FINAL ADVICE

First, if your wok is new, you’ll want to start that layer of “polymerized” oil that helps keep it nonstick. To do that, season your wok thusly:

Wash your wok with warm, soapy water, then dry it while repeating this mantra, “I shall never again use soap on my wok.” Next, place your wok over high heat and swirl in a little oil, covering as much of the surface as you can. When it starts smoking, take it off the flame and wipe it out. Every time you stir-fry, your wok will darken. Clean your wok immediately with a brush under hot, running water. No soap.

My last bit of wisdom: Remember that, with stir-fry, heat is your friend. Crank your hottest burner all the way.

Now, go out and make us some stir-fry.

Wokka wokka.

MAPO TOFU

By James P. DeWan

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pound ground beef, pork or chicken
  • 1/4 cup black bean chili sauce
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 pound firm tofu, diced
  • Cold water, as needed
  • Salt and white pepper, to taste
  • 2 bunches green onion, sliced

Place a wok over medium-high heat. When hot, add enough oil to cover bottom. When oil is hot, about 30 seconds, add peppercorns, pepper flakes, garlic and ground meat. Stir-fry until spices are fragrant and meat is browned, 6 to 8 minutes.

Add black bean chili sauce, soy sauce and sesame oil; mix well.

Gently add tofu, along with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until warmed completely through, 8 to 10 minutes.

Season with salt and white pepper; garnish with chopped green onions. Serve immediately over steamed rice. Serves 4 to 6.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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