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November 19, 2009 at 9:12 AM

Wok season

I’ve owned several woks, but never got into the habit of using them. My first was aluminum and came as part of a cheap boxed set — with a pair of long chopsticks and a half-moon frying rack. It gathered dust in the far corners of my cupboard till I sold it at a yard sale long ago. I own a nonstick wok that’s truly good for nothing, and I married into a small halfway-decent wok with a wooden handle that Mac often employs to stir-fry beef with cabbage and “brown noodles” — one of the dishes he and Nate eat when I’m out on the town. But a week ago I treated myself to a new wok, for which I paid a surprisingly reasonable $18 at the restaurant supply store. It’s the wok I’ve been thinking about buying since I first read Grace Young’s lovely book “The Breath of a Wok,” in which she describes that versatile vessel as “the only pan ideally suited for stir-frying, pan-frying, braising, poaching, boiling, deep-frying, steaming, smoking foods, and even cooking rice.”

Cost? $18. Thrill-quotient? Priceless.

It’s exactly the kind of wok my radio sidekick Dick Stein uses on his trusty DCS with the fifth wok-burner — the stove I checked out several months ago when I drove to Tacoma just to see what kind of heat it could throw. (Answer: a lot.) Stein’s wok wore a beautiful dark patina and was naturally non-stick from 30-plus years of frequent use. When I stir-fried some of his homegrown bok choy, within a few short minutes the choy was perfectly wilted: still bright green and crunchy and tasting like something I’d be served in the ID at Hing Loon.

‘Tis the season: Stein’s wok, 30-plus years of great cooking — and counting.

Now that I’m back in my own new kitchen cooking with gas — and plenty of it — on my four-burner BlueStar (whose major selling points for Mac and me included the enameled-cast iron burner-grates that invert to make wok rings!) I wasted little time getting my hands on the right wok to cook on it.

Cool! (Or is that hot?)

While this isn’t the hand-hammered heavy-gauge wok Grace suggests is the better product, this classic round-bottomed Cantonese-style wok (as opposed to the single long-handled Northern Chinese-style “Peking pan” preferred by some cooks) still gives me a thrill each time I see it resting on the stove top.

Stovetop scenery for my Asian greenery.

And here’s the funny thing: now I don’t want to use anything else. Not my stock of beloved Le Creuset nor my long-suffering and incredibly serviceable set of 15-year-old Belgique pots and pans from Macy’s. Because Grace Young wasn’t kidding: the right wok, seasoned correctly, makes (almost) every other pot and pan superfluous, though it’s unlikely to surpass my Dutch oven for baking no-knead bread or braising my go-to recipe for lamb shanks with lentils. I think. I came to this realization when I found myself using the wok to reheat leftover veal stew and later, paella, then swearing I’ll never use the microwave again.

As soon as I got my wok home, I proceeded to season it according to Grace’s instructions in the chapter on selecting, seasoning and caring for that versatile tool — researched and reported to great effect in “The Breath of a Work.” Its subtitle, “Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore” helps explain why this beautifully photographed reference is an imperative for anyone interested in wok-cookery. And need I mention that coupled with a new $18 wok, it would make the perfect holiday gift for your favorite cook.

There are many ways to season a wok, as Grace found while traveling throughout the U.S., Hong Kong and mainland China, and her book offers several for both carbon-steel and cast-iron woks. I chose one she learned at Hung Chong wok shop in New York City’s Chinatown, substituting a gorgeous bunch of farmers market-fresh scallions and ginger (said to remove the wok’s metallic taste) for the Chinese chives, as directed. Not because those chives aren’t readily available locally at Greater Seattle’s many Asian grocery stores and supermarkets, but because I had the ingredients on hand when I brought my wok home. Here’s the recipe:

Getting my “wok hay” on

Hung Chong Chinese Chive and Oil Stir-Fry (for carbon-steel wok)


1/2 bunch Chinese chives (about 7 ounces), cut into 2-inch pieces, plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Or substitute: 1 bunch of scallions (green onions) cut into 3-inch pieces plus 1/2 cup sliced ginger

1. Wash the inside and outside of the wok with hot water, using a stainless-steel scrubber and liquid dishwashing soap. Rinse with hot water. Dry the wok with paper towels, then place over low heat 1 to 2 minutes until the pan is totally dry.

2. Open the window and turn the exhaust fan on high. Heat the wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the oil and add the chives (or the scallions and ginger). Reduce the heat to medium and stir-fry 5 minutes, using a spatula to push the mixture up the sides of the wok to the edge. If the mixture becomes dry, add an additional tablespoon of oil. Remove from the heat. Cool. Discard the chives (or the scallions and ginger).

2. Wash the wok with hot water and a soft sponge. Dry over low heat 1 to 2 minutes. The wok is seasoned and ready for cooking.

Grace notes: After the initial washing, most experts insist the wok should never be subjected to soap — said to strip away the seasoning, causing food to stick and leaving a taste that can’t be rinsed away. But if the wok becomes extremely greasy, she suggests using a minute amount of mild liquid dishwashing soap, applied with the kind of dual-sided sponge used to clean a nonstick pan. You might also consider using a soft natural-bristle brush, but she does not recommend the traditional hard-bamboo scrubbing brush on a carbon-steel wok, reasoning that unless the wok is in constant use and has developed a thick patina, the thinner, more delicate carbon-steel surface may be scratched in the process.

Though I’ve only been using mine for a week, it’s already developing a proper patina. I’ve learned to make certain it’s completely dry after washing, lest it also develop rust spots, and though it’s big (nearly 17 inches across), I’ve been leaving it on the stove as a constant reminder that when it’s time to cook, I don’t have to wok far to find the right vessel to cook in.

So tell me: Do you use a wok? Where did you get it? What kind is it? How long have you had it? Was it expensive? Any tips for keeping it in prime condition?

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