Okay, so I have a confession: I hate frying food! I used to watch my mother fry up batches of beautifully browned pieces of chicken breast, thighs and legs and thought it was the most brilliant act I had ever witnessed. Then, while a sophomore in college and residing in a campus apartment, I psyched myself up to mimic that same feat.
I had a cast iron skillet, a brown paper bag filled with about a pound of flour, a package of pre-cut chicken and tons of seasoning. I ready to conquer my fear and go where this man had never gone before. In theory it was perfect; in reality it was an epic fail of major proportions.
The temperature was too high under my skillet, which resulted in billowing smoke, a piercing fire alarm, coughing roommates, irritated neighbors and blackened pieces of unrecognizable bird carcass. In ten short minutes I had managed to go from being a man to being a mouse. Luckily, one of my roommates at the time, an exchange student from Vietnam, pulled out this huge, oblong shaped skillet and introduced me to the world world of woking!
Since that fateful day, the wok has become my go to piece of culinary equipment for this one particular reason: fast heating + fast cooking + tasty results = one happy camper.
Just as important as the cast iron skillet is to the African American community, the wok is the quintessential jack-of-all-trades to the Asian community; it is versatile and multi-purpose in its ability to saute, fry, steam and boil anything that is tossed its way. Indigenous to China, the main use is quite clear: to prepare healthy food quickly and in large quantities.
Its popularity has increased tremendously over the last 20 years and has introduced Asian cooking to a new and health-conscious demographic, especially amongst young African-Americans. The way of the wok is not an ancient secret, but one of sheer genius: the simple, round-bottom design heats quickly, thereby producing a fast meal in record time. Made of spun carbon steel, which distributes heat evenly and retains as the food is prepared, it looks like a giant bowl.
The great thing about the wok is that you can combine any meat, vegetable and sauce to create your own personalized meals. There are the traditional combinations like snow peas, carrots, onions, chicken and soy sauce, but anyone can do that. But you, because fabulous is as fabulous does, can throw in your favorite greens, a piece of rib, a brown sauce, pearl onions, edamame or whatever floats your boat at the moment.
Also, don’t settle for regular seasonings like salt and pepper. Step up your game! There are limitless choices of spices, mostly found on the ethnic food aisles of your local grocery store; just experiment until you find a few that suit you. Keep in mind, since you researched and purchased a stainless steel or anodized aluminum piece of equipment, there are less worries about calories since you don’t have to season a regular carbon steel wok. It is the perfect solution to a perfect dining experience.
Don’t go crazy purchasing the most expensive wok you can find. Pricey doesn’t mean better; it just means it’s pricey! I purchased a new wok a few years ago from Swedish home store IKEA for $9.99 and it works just as well as any I had ever known. You can always purchase an electric wok, but what’s the fun in that? Use that leftover money toward a new pair of pumps, a new bathing suit (since you purchased the stainless steel and calories no longer hold you hostage), a night out with the girls or a vacation to China to learn the actual art of woking.
Keep in mind these key tips when using a wok:
1. Look for a classic, round-bottomed shaped wok that is able to sit over any burner especially a gas burner.
2. When cooking, I suggest using wooden or plastic tongs, spatulas or spoons. Steel utensils tend to scratch the surface of your equipment, resulting in an aesthetically unpleasing body and possibly some of the surface coating mixing in your food during preparation.
3. Use peanut or corn oil instead of regular vegetable oil. The purpose of cooking with a wok is to prepare healthy foods and these oils are well-suited in ensuring that your finished product is not greasy or swimming in tons of fats. Your goal is lightly, sauteed meat and crispy, bright and crunchy vegetables.
4. Make sure your wok has a lid and a wooden handle! While you are cooking, cover with a lid to seal in all those delicious flavors and to prevent being splattered with oil if overheated. The handle can be used to aid in tossing those vegetables like a pro. You can become an Iron Chef right in your own kitchen!
5. Clean up is easy! Just takes a damp rag or sponge, warm water and little or no soap and carefully clean out and rinse until the next use. Since you purchased a non-stick wok, there is no scrubbing which makes clean up a snap.
And now the moment you have been waiting for: an easy, delicious and filling healthy meal prepared by you with a little help from your wok and the Food Network. I present to you… Sweet and Sour Pork!
Sweet and Sour Pork
1 pound pork tenderloin, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons ketchup
3 tablespoons sugar, plus a pinch
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, thinly sliced
3 scallions, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 cups snow peas, cut in half
Toss the pork with 1/2 tablespoon vinegar and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Mix the remaining 2 tablespoons vinegar, the soy sauce, cornstarch, ketchup, 3 tablespoons sugar, 1/3 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon salt in another bowl.
Heat 2 tablespoons peanut oil in a large skillet or wok over high heat. Add the pork and slowly stir until it turns mostly opaque, about 2 minutes. Remove the pork with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate. Discard the oil and wipe out the skillet.
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon peanut oil in the skillet, then stir-fry the garlic with a pinch each of salt and sugar, 15 seconds. Add the carrots and scallions and stir-fry until crisp-tender, 2 minutes. (Add a little water if the garlic starts to stick to the skillet.) Add the pork, snow peas and soy sauce mixture; stir until the pork is cooked through and the sauce is thickened, about 3 minutes.
Recipe courtesy of the Food Network Magazine.
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