Before I met John, I would have never bothered to write up a recipe for something as simple as some stir fried vegetables. Then I tasted his stir fry. It’s always so good, so balanced, and so much better than mine. So I’ve been taking some notes, and though he still does almost all the stir frying (I take care of the cookies), I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things:
1. It’s all about the wok. A good wok is to Chinese cuisine what a good cast iron pan is to Western cuisine. The expression “wok hay” or “the prized, elusive, seared taste that comes only from stir-frying in a wok,” as Grace Young puts it in her book The Breath of a Wok, is my favorite way to sum up wok cooking. It’s essentially the wok’s spirit working its way into the food. How to achieve wok hay? Use your wok a lot and keep it well seasoned. Never wash it with soap – just rinse with water and scrub with a soft sponge. And always dry your wok well by putting it back on a hot burner for 30 seconds or until it’s completely dry. It’s the same principles for keeping cast iron well seasoned. I usually buy second hand cast iron pans which are kind of pre-seasoned and always cook better than new ones. Before this idea of wok hay, I thought keeping a pan well seasoned was more about caring for the pan than caring for the food you cook in it. But it’s true; when you stir fry with a well seasoned pan that’s got a little history, you get a depth of flavor and smokey richness that you just can’t achieve otherwise. Bottom line, you want a pan that’s been around the kitchen a few times. So what if yours, well, hasn’t? Not to worry, just start cooking and don’t look back. It’ll happen. The more you cook, the better seasoned your wok will be and the faster you’ll be tasting wok hay. John suggests using your wok the next time you make something fatty like bacon to jump start the process. Just like oiling a cast iron pan, fat or oil heated to a high temperature in a wok seals the surface of the pan so that food tastes more like food and less like metal. Added bonus, this process also makes food less likely to stick to the surface of the wok.
And what if, gasp, you’ve never used your wok before?? (Kidding, we’ve all been there.) No time like the present. The traditional way to break in or “open” a wok is to stir fry some Chinese chives in oil or pork fat for several minutes over high heat swirling and stirring to coat the entire wok, then discard the chives and rub any remaining oil over the cooking surface. Essentially, you want to cook some fat at a high temperature to seal the wok before you cook your first dinner. The chives, I think, are just a poetic touch. And finally, if you don’t have a wok of your own? Woks are great for all manner of cooking and relatively inexpensive to buy, so I think it’s a good investment. Of course, there are about five thousand different kinds of woks to choose from. Grace Young’s book Breath of a Wok is a great resource to help you choose wisely.
Ok, I got a little lost in wok land there, but now back to things I’ve learned from John about making better stir fry…
2. Take it easy on the soy sauce. And buy a high quality, wheat free brand (it just tastes better.) Maybe because it’s the Asian ingredient with which we are all familiar and one thing I can be trusted to buy at Super 88 unassisted, but I tend to be pretty heavy handed with the soy sauce, and I have a feeling I’m not alone. Use it like you would use salt – in small quantities to heighten flavors. Too much soy gives stir fry a one-dimensional, not to mention salty, flavor.
3. Reduce the stock ahead of time in a separate pan. Stir fry that has to cook for a while in the wok doesn’t need pre-reduced stock because it will reduce as you cook. But quick stir fries, like this one or others where you don’t want to over-cook the components, benefit from a head start. Reducing the stock just intensifies it’s flavor and makes a richer sauce. I’ve been told by a trustworthy source that chicken bouillon is the “secret ingredient” in a lot of stir fries. A little reduced stock evokes a similar flavor without the MSG, hydrogenated oils, etc.
John’s Wok Charred Baby Bok Choy
- 1 lb baby bok choy, washed, dried, and halved or quartered depending on the size
- 1 inch square piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 2 scallions, washed, trimmed, and thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp canola oil
- 3/4 cup homemade or good quality bought chicken stock
- 2 tbsp rice wine or sherry
- 2-3 tsp soy sauce
This is a simple little stir-fry that, along with some rice, makes a nice light meal or lunch on its own (serves 2), or it can be served as part of a larger meal (serves 4-6). Place the chicken stock in a small sauce pan over medium heat and reduce by half. Turn off the heat and set aside. Heat a well seasoned wok or heavy cast iron pan over medium-high heat until very hot. Add the oil and tilt the pan to coat. Wait 30 seconds and then add the ginger, garlic, and scallions and stir fry 1 minute until fragrant. Add the bok choy and stir to coat. Stir fry until the bok choy is seared and hot, about 5 minutes. Press the bok choy against the sides of the wok or pan as you stir fry to blacken it slightly. Add the reduced chicken stock, the rice wine or sherry, and the soy sauce, and stir fry 30 seconds more. Taste for seasoning, adjust as needed, and serve immediately.