Insert wok pun here

May 26, 2010

No, seriously, I don’t think there are any new wok jokes out there. So I’m not even going to try.

Sometime in the last year or two, I adopted my parents’ wok, a big carbon-steel number with a wooden handle and a lid. My dad not only dug it out of the shed for me, discovering an unknown mouse colony in the process, but also very kindly scrubbed it as clean as he could. Lest any wok purists shudder at the idea of scrubbing a well-seasoned wok, let me assure you, this piece of cookware had been seldom if ever used. My parents had Asian coworkers who wielded chopsticks with stereotypical finesse but then went home and cooked in regular old frying pans, and my folks figured if that was good enough for their friends, it would work OK for them too.

Like parents, like daughter, I guess: I would come home hungry after hours of grad school, musical rehearsals, or other employment, and while I could muster the energy to throw together some fried rice, there was no way I was dealing with an unseasoned, untested wok on an empty stomach, not when there was a clean, convenient nonstick skillet hanging right next to the stove. I would look at the wok every so often, hunkered in its nook at the bottom of the living room hutch, and feel a little twinge of embarrassment at not having yet helped it reach its culinary potential. I would promise myself to get that wok in working order just as soon as I had the time. And then I would go back to the frying pan.

This Christmas, my mother gave me a smaller, nonstick wok she saw in a store and thought I’d enjoy. It seemed much less intimidating than the one I already had, and it made great fried rice, too; the tall, sloping sides meant I could toss ingredients around with abandon, not worrying that I’d spill everything onto the stovetop. I may have also used it for stir-fried beef and celery, which I highly recommend. It seemed less likely than ever that the big steel wok would make it into my regular arsenal.

But, well, I’ve been reading a lot of food blogs lately — it’s a bit of a slippery slope. I read this article about pad thai, which I’d made once before, from a Trader Joe’s kit containing an unfortunately sweet sauce. Sadly, I find nearly all of their Asian-in-a-box entrees too sweet, and yet I keep trying them. Sigh. But I like noodles, and I know Jacob likes Thai food; a disproportionate number of our dates have involved Thai restaurants.

And I was a little intrigued at the prospect of customizing the sauce, making it heavier on the spicy and sour and backing way off on the sweet. Intrigued enough to read this much longer post on Chez Pim, detailing the many ingredients, optional and not, that go into a traditional pad thai, as well as how to prepare the dish. And — and! — instructions on seasoning a steel wok, which, I learned, I really ought to do since a nonstick surface couldn’t handle the high heat required for a good stir-fry. I hadn’t been looking for a pad thai recipe or wok instructions, and yet there they both were, each cleverly nudging me towards the other. Clearly it was time to make a pilgrimage to the Kam Man Marketplace, just a few minutes away, to procure the necessary supplies.

Normally when I visit Asian markets, they’re a little out of my way, so I stock up on things I might eventually want but don’t have an immediate use for. They take up space in my pantry until they get knocked over and spill, or become moth-infested. (That was in the old apartment. No pantry moths here, thank goodness.) But it turns out if I go with a list, I can find a lot of perfectly normal ingredients for better prices, and sometimes in better shape, than at Shaw’s or elsewhere. A carton of firm tofu was 99 cents, a bunch of scallions 39 cents, a bag of bean sprouts, 59 cents. I grabbed a bag of baby bok choy, about a pound and a half, for less than two dollars — OK, so that wasn’t technically on my list, but I am always allowed to make vegetable impulse purchases. And later I found a package of just three small bok choy at Trader Joe’s for about the same price. So there. I couldn’t find tamarind paste or concentrate, so I had to settle for a jarred pad thai sauce, but at least it was Maesri, a Thai brand recommended by Matthew Amster-Burton in that first post. And when I got it home and opened it up, I knew that sauce would suit me fine; its spicy, tangy aroma had none of that overpowering sweetness I’d feared.

I followed Pim’s suggestions for seasoning the wok, which are pretty simple if you don’t mind creating a lot of smoke: Coat interior with lots of oil. Heat until smoking. Throw out the oil. Rub with salt and a rag or wad of paper towels. Throw out the salt. Wipe clean with a damp towel. Coat with oil again. The end. Yes, it’s a bunch of steps, and you have to not burn yourself on the hot wok. But it’s not that hard. And neither is pad thai. Best of all, it involves chopping a lot of things that you need to have prepped and handy while you cook. And that means using lots of ramekins. Which are almost as fun to use as they are to say, especially if you have them in assorted bright colors.I <3 ramekins

I don’t have much to say about making pad thai beyond the excellent instructions I’ve linked to, except that a mini food processor works great for chopping the peanuts. Oh, and it was delicious. And if you find yourself with a seasoned wok and a pound and a half of baby bok choy, you might want to cook them like this. And then you might find yourself wanting more bok choy. I know I do.


One comment

  1. Finally, a cooking blog by someone whose kitchen actually resembles mine.

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