Ever since reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper last year, I’ve been hankering to get into more authentic Chinese cooking. I realize “authenticity” is subjective and can be cause for debate, but in the broad sense I mean food that would actually be prepared in a Chinese home, rather than dishes that were created Stateside and appear on every Chinese take-out menu from Dubuque to Des Moines.
With that in mind, I picked up The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young from the library recently. It focuses in on the techniques of wok cooking as a necessary component of Chinese cookery, as opposed to some Asian cookbooks that reassure the cook that it’s fine to just stir fry in a skillet if need be. The way Young describes the use of a wok, it’s practically an ingredient unto itself. Anyone who’s had a well-prepared stir fry can identify the flavor of wok hay, the essence or “breath” of the wok, as Young translates it. It’s that underlying hint of smokiness that you just don’t get unless you cook at extremely high temperatures, and it is simply not possible to accomplish with a Western skillet.
So vital is the selection, care, technique and culture of the wok that Young spends the first 65 pages of her book discussing these topics before any recipes are given. I read most of those pages, but the other night I was feeling eager to dive in so I thought I’d forge ahead and try my hand at one of the recipes, a scallop & asparagus stir fry. Apart from one misstep at the very beginning (minced garlic that turned black within seconds of being added to the uber-hot wok), the recipe was a breeze. Best of all, when I tasted the dish, there it was- the slight “grilled” flavor of wok hay! It felt like a revelation. I served it with a very non-authentic but delicious variation of my favorite carrot and avocado salad, where I subbed in ginger, hot chili paste, rice vinegar and a touch of soy sauce for the French vinaigrette.
Even if you only make the occasional stir fry, I would highly recommend reading Young’s chapters about wok use and putting her advice into practice. That little bit of knowledge just might have you creating some wok hay of your own, and I’m here to tell you it’s worth whatever small extra effort might be involved. My scallop stir-fry was easily one of the best I’ve made- the scallops seared but juicy; the vegetables crisp-tender; the sauce just a sheer glaze that nicely flavored without drowning the ingredients. I have a feeling the wok is going to be put to use a little more often in our household in the near future.
I can’t summarize Young’s 65 pages for you, of course, but here are a few tips for achieving wok hay in your own kitchen:
- Use a carbon-steel wok, never nonstick.
- Have all ingredients close at hand; the process goes lightning fast and there’s no time to realize you forgot a component during cooking.
- Don’t exceed the amount of ingredients a recipe calls for or add too much to the wok at one time; it brings the temperature down too far and your food will steam instead of sear.
Notes: The original recipe called for 1 lb of asparagus. I only had about 3/4 lb so I subbed in some snow peas for the remaining 1/4 lb. The important thing is not to go over 1 lb total of vegetables, because it will reduce the wok’s heat too much. The only other change I made was to sprinkle the garlic on top of the scallops when I put them in the wok. When I put the garlic in first, I found that it instantly burned and I had to start over.
1 lb. scallops (if you want to splurge, use fresh dry sea scallops, but I used frozen, thawed bay scallops and they tasted fine)
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed & cut into 2-inch pieces
1 ¼ tsp salt
4 tsp Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 ¼ tsp cornstarch
1 ½ tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp ground white pepper
1 Tbs peanut or other vegetable oil
1 Tbs minced garlic
Put 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan with 1 tsp salt and bring to the boil. Add asparagus. When the water returns to a boil, remove from heat and drain the asparagus; set aside. (If using any snow peas, they do not need to be blanched.)
Rinse the scallops and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Combine in a bowl with the sesame oil, white pepper, 1 ¼ tsp of the cornstarch, 1 tsp of the rice wine and the remaining ¼ tsp of salt; mix well to combine. In another bowl, combine the remaining 1 tsp cornstarch, rice wine, and the oyster sauce with ¼ cup cold water.
Place scallops, asparagus, sauce and garlic within hands’ reach of the stove. Heat a 14″ flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1-2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil. Add the scallops, carefully spreading them in a single layer. Sprinkle the garlic on top. Cook undisturbed for 30 seconds to allow them to brown; then stir-fry with a metal spatula for 30-60 seconds or until scallops are light brown but not cooked through. Add the asparagus. Stir the sauce mixture and add to the wok. Bring to the boil to thicken the sauce and finish cooking the scallops, about 30 seconds.
Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal.
Sometimes it’s lovely to live alone. No one to bicker with over a stray sock left on the bedroom floor, or to question your kooky choice of paint color for the bathroom, or to be bothered when your basement band practice runs later than usual. A nice, quiet house when you’re in the mood to curl up with a book and a cup of tea. No one to fight with over the remote when you want to watch something ridiculous on TV. Although I do appreciate these and other perks, living alone doesn’t feel to me to be a “natural” state of affairs. I grew up in a large-ish family, and had lots of roommates throughout my college years. And while there are definitely things I don’t miss, like my sister reading my diary or “borrowing” clothes, or a roommate filching all the quarters from my change jar to buy cigarettes, sometimes I just want some company. This feeling seems to surface the most when I’m in a cooking mood, since it seems so strange to make something special or out-of-the-ordinary just for myself. (For more on the subject, see this post about eating alone/ cooking for one…)
So, with that in mind, when the mood struck last Saturday to make a luxurious breakfast, I texted my friend Kate: “Are u up yet? Want to come 4 breakfast in a bit?” She didn’t waste any time in replying that she would be over shortly. (So shortly, in fact, that I was still in my sweatpants and hoodie when she got here!) We sipped coffee and kvetched about our jobs and significant others while I fried up bacon and stirred the eggs. The idea for the egg dish had been rolling around my head for the last couple days- I knew I wanted to use up some scallops, and scrambling the eggs in a double boiler seemed like the perfect textural backdrop. Bacon is a natural partner of both scallops and eggs, so it was the logical third component. Nowadays I’m at the point where I usually trust my culinary instincts, but I did google the combination, partly to compare notes and partly to validate myself (lame, yes, I know!). Here’s a similar recipe I found online, although I didn’t follow it. It was enough just to know a “real” recipe writer had come up with something very similar.
Here’s my version, which will make a sumptuous breakfast for two ladies. Call a girlfriend and indulge. If you’re really being decadent, Prosecco or mimosas would be an excellent beverage choice.
slow-scrambled eggs with scallops and bacon
5 large eggs
1/4 cup half and half, or milk mixed with heavy cream
1 small shallot, minced
3 slices bacon, cut into 1-cm strips
about 1 cup (8 oz) scallops (I used some frozen scallops from Trader Joe’s and used about 6 per serving)
something green- I only had parsley on hand, but I think a little fresh thyme would work well here, or some minced chives
Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Once it’s hot, add the bacon- I just take my kitchen scissors and snip it right over the pan. Give it a stir, and reduce the heat to medium, stirring occasionally. When the bacon is done to your liking, remove it with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel to drain (I like it mostly crispy with just a little chew left). Pour most of the bacon fat off, leaving just enough to coat the pan. Return the pan to medium heat and cook the shallot in the bacon fat. When it begins to soften, turn the heat up a smidge and add the scallops to the pan. Cook undisturbed for 2-3 minutes (depending on the size of your scallops), and then turn and brown on all sides (another 2 minutes), taking care to remove from heat as soon as they are opaque in the center.
Meanwhile (assuming you can multi-task), put a large, shallow pot of water to simmer on the stove. Whisk the eggs and cream together. If you have a metal bowl, you can use the same bowl to mix and cook the eggs, or put the eggs in a smaller saucepan that you can fit inside the pan of water (if you have a double boiler, even better, but I don’t). Place the pan or bowl containing the eggs in the simmering water and cook gently, stirring with a wooden spoon, until eggs are still moist but cooked through. They will have an almost custardy texture. Stir in the bacon, scallops and shallot, leaving on the stove a moment more if necessary to re-warm the scallops. Divide between two plates and sprinkle with the fresh herb of your choice. (If using thyme, add it to the eggs as they are cooking so it can release its flavor.)
Ah, risotto… is there anything more comforting than a big plate of warm, creamy, starchy goodness? The other night I was craving risotto and knew I wanted to include some shrimp and scallops that had been hanging around the freezer, but I wanted to take it to the next level and try something a little different. Typical me, I had bought some saffron several months ago without any specific recipe in mind, and it has sat on my spice shelf ever since, making me feel guilty. Now was the time to delve into that precious little vial! (I have since come to the realization that spices as an impulse purchase, even with the best of intentions, is not such a smart idea.) I consulted the Flavor Bible to see what other flavors might be viable- I wanted to compliment the saffron, not compete or cover it up. I was thinking something citrus, and finally settled on citrus zest with the notion that straight-up lemon juice would be too aggressive. My risotto was just right: the mineral tones of the saffron and the bright citrus zest perked up the dish and kept it from being too heavy on the palate. And since it was a seafood risotto, I didn’t use any cream or cheese (and only a small amount of butter). Hey, I’m not saying it’s diet food, but as risotto goes, it’s lighter than most. Oh, and as a side dish, I made some sautéed spinach with garlic, lemon and pinenuts. I do need a little something green on my plate if I’m going to eat all those carbs!
Saffron-Citrus Risotto with Seafood
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
4-6 cups water, seafood stock / fish fumet if you have it, chicken stock, or some combination thereof (see notes)
1 shallot, minced
1 celery stalk, diced small
a large pinch of saffron threads
1 tsp citrus zest (orange, lemon, and grapefruit)
1/2 lb uncooked shrimp, scallops, or a combination
4-6 tbs butter
1/2 cup dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc)
salt and white pepper to taste
Notes: I used a combination of chicken stock and water, since I wanted to add some flavor but didn’t want it to taste overly chicken-y. A good option if you’re using shrimp is to peel the raw shrimp and simmer the shells in a bit of lightly salted water to make a quick stock (strain before using). For the citrus zest, a Microplane is the best option, but if you don’t have one, use a zester and then mince the zest. I really loved the combination of all three types of citrus zest, but feel free to just use one or two, or to substitute different types of citrus (with the exception of lime, which I think would be too bitter).
Directions: Put the stock and saffron in a saucepan and turn the heat to medium; when it reaches a simmer, turn it to low. Put 2 tbs butter in a medium sized heavy-bottomed saucepan or stock pot over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the shallot and celery and cook for 3-5 minutes or until the onions soften. Add the rice and cook for another 2 or 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a little salt and white pepper, and the wine. Stir and let the liquid bubble away.
Continue cooking over medium heat. Add 1/2 cup of the warmed stock. When the stock is nearly evaporated, add the next 1/2 cup, continuing the process until the rice is fully cooked. The mixture should be neither soupy nor dry. Stir frequently, making sure the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Meanwhile, heat 2 tbs butter in a skillet for the seafood. If you’re using both scallops and shrimp, give the shrimp a head start of 2-3 minutes before adding the scallops to the pan. Cook gently until opaque, taking care not to overcook.
Begin tasting the rice after about 20 minutes of cooking. You want it to be creamy but still a tiny bit “al dente”. This could take up to 30 minutes or more. When it reaches this stage, stir in the seafood and its pan juces along with the citrus zest, and stir. If you want to take it over the top, add an additional 2 tbs butter. Taste for salt, and serve.