Use the Wok


The king of spring vegetables, towering over the mostly young fresh grasses and ferns and alliums and greens, is the asparagus. I will happily eat an entire bunch as a meal, raw, dipping stalk after stalk into herbed yogurt or hummus until my urine is pungent enough to create visible cartoon stink lines. But a very strange thing about asparagus is that the best ways to cook this delicate, sweet vegetable are also the most intense. And that brings us to one of my very favorite cooking tools, the wok, and my extremely aggressive opinions about how you are probably using it incorrectly.

The wok isn’t an unfamiliar piece of equipment to most people; any moderately well-appointed kitchen will probably have one. But I do think there are serious problems with the way it’s generally used. The wok is a tool that’s designed to do a very specific job — cook quickly over extremely high heat. The high arcing walls of the wok, along with the thinness of the material, are all in service of this one goal. A good wok heats up quickly and evenly and retains its heat. The high walls allow you to toss food confidently; given the extreme temperatures, food will burn if it’s not constantly stirred, and you don’t want your food to go flying all over the place.

A wok is not a giant saute pan, nor is it a Dutch oven. The reason people think it can be used to, say, saute vegetables in olive oil for twenty minutes is because a huge proportion of the woks sold today are nonstick. These woks are garbage and if you care about them you should put them in the garbage can where they can be reunited with their families (their families are garbage, they come from the Garbage Clan, their coat of arms is a rotten banana peel gently nestled inside a styrofoam takeout container). Earlier this month, a collection of hundreds of scientists and safety experts released a series of condemnations and recommendations known as the Madrid Statement, which is primarily concerned with certain chemical compounds known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). These are the chemicals which cause non-stick pans to be non-stick (in addition to making fast food wrappers greaseproof, and many other very useful roles), and the authors of the paper make a very convincing case that these chemicals are under-regulated and almost definitely going to kill us all.

That’s in addition to the many reasons why a non-stick wok is awful. For one: high heat will cause it to warp and melt. Another: a typical tool to use in a wok is a metal ladle, which will scratch the coating and cause it to leach into your food. For another: a proper wok, by which I mean carbon steel — or possibly cast iron, but I prefer carbon steel because it’s much much lighter — will eventually achieve what’s basically a nonstick coating thanks to repeated uses, like the seasoning of a cast iron pan. (This is called “wok hei” in China, which means something like “the soul of the wok,” and is considered almost a flavor in food. China seems cool.)

An odd thing about the wok is that it’s a pretty common tool in the U.S., but looking through recipes, the vast, vast majority of them are Chinese-style stir-fry dishes. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; a wok is an ideal tool for stir-frying, but I think stir-frying, to Americans, implies not a heating technique but a flavor profile. When we think stir-fry, we think of a few different key flavors: soy, chiles, sugar, cornstarch, garlic, ginger, sugar. We think, basically, of Chinese food, whether that means American Chinese food or whatever we think “authentic” regional Chinese food is.

The key thing about stir-frying isn’t the flavors, but the technique: high heat, short cooking time, frequent tossing. And there’s no reason why that technique should be limited to Chinese food. For me, I think spring is the ideal time to break out the wok, because the extremely short cooking time ends up maintaining the delicate flavors and textures of spring vegetables like asparagus. A stir-fry brings the best parts of spring vegetables out: their outsides are charred or fried lightly, but the insides barely cooked, like a perfectly done burger. Asparagus from a wok doesn’t taste like oil, or a sauce. It tastes like asparagus, but more so; the color and texture of the raw plant is preserved, but you get some nice char and caramelization to ramp up the flavors. The best way to cook the season’s produce is to heat the shit out of it, but just for a few seconds. So I put together a few wok-asparagus recipes with non-Chinese flavors, just to show that the wok is good for more than just beef and broccoli.

Wok-Fried Asparagus With Lemons And Walnuts

Shopping list: Asparagus, garlic, shallots, lemons, walnuts, olive oil, chile flakes, parsley, sugar, parmesan or pecorino

This is basically a riff on a Melissa Clark pasta recipe, just with asparagus instead of pasta. If you want to serve this over pasta that’d be fine too, though. Anyway: get a small pot of water on the stove on its way to boiling. Slice a lemon in half lengthwise, then slice those halves in half again. Thinly slice the quartered lemons into rounded triangles, discarding any seeds. Toss the lemon slices into the pot of boiling water and boil for a couple minutes, just to get some of the bitterness out of the pith. Drain and dry the lemons very thoroughly. Also, spread your walnuts on a tiny baking tray and put in the toaster oven for a couple minutes to toast.

Heat your wok to low and pour in a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Chop a shallot and a few cloves of garlic. Toss in a pinch of chile flakes, then the garlic and shallot. Cook over low heat until the shallot is a little translucent, then throw in the lemon slices and a pinch of sugar. Not a big pinch. A very small pinch. Stir until sugar is dissolved.

Prepare your asparagus: trim off the woody end, then chop into equal-sized pieces, maybe a couple inches long. Crank the heat on the wok to as high as it’ll go, then throw in the asparagus. Stir constantly; if you leave this for just one second everything will burn. Toss and fry for maybe two minutes, adding salt and black pepper to taste, then scrape everything out onto a plate. Top with walnuts, chopped parsley, and shaved parmesan or pecorino cheese.

Asparagus Hash With Eggs And Mustard Vinaigrette

Shopping list: Asparagus, potatoes, red onion, paprika, lemons, red wine vinegar, canola or vegetable oil, mustard, olive oil, eggs, honey

Set a pot of salted water on the stove to boil. Chop potatoes into hash-sized pieces, maybe a centimeter cubed. (Opt for small potatoes rather than the big russets here. Fingerlings or Yukon Golds are good if you want to be fancy.) Toss the potatoes in and boil until very nearly, but not quite, done. Strain them out, dump out the cloudy starchy potato water, fill up the pot with clean water and heat it up yet again (this time it’ll be for the eggs). Let the potatoes dry as much as possible.

Put your wok on the stove over low heat and pour in some canola or vegetable oil, maybe two or three tablespoons worth. (This will seem like a lot. That’s because it’s a lot.). Toss in about half an onion’s worth of chopped red onion, fry until translucent, then throw in a couple pinches of paprika. (Either Hungarian sweet paprika or Spanish smoked paprika will work here.) When fragrant, crank the heat to high and throw in the potatoes. What we’re doing here is shallow-frying; the wok is a great tool for shallow- and deep-frying. Toss the potatoes every once in awhile until browned and hash-looking, then scrape the contents of the wok out onto a plate or something. Taste one and season with salt. It probably doesn’t need pepper.

Trim woody ends of asparagus and chop into smaller pieces than before, maybe an inch long. Also check your pot of water. If it’s boiling, lower the heat to simmer and crack a few eggs into it to poach. Feel free to use whatever superstitious method you have for poaching eggs (Vinegar? Salt? Swirling water? Sure.). Return the wok to the flame and toss in the asparagus over super high heat, tossing to fry the way we did before. Season to taste. The asparagus and eggs should be done at about the same time; remove both from their cooking vessels.

Make your vinaigrette. Add a spoonful of mustard (dijon is classic, but really any will work; I prefer brown spicy deli mustard because it sustained my people through thousands of years of exile from our homeland) to a jar or bowl, then whisk in some red wine vinegar. Squeeze in a little lemon juice and a little bit of honey and whisk to combine, then drizzle in olive oil slowly while still whisking.

To serve: place potatoes on a plate, top with asparagus, then stick the poached egg in the middle and drizzle vinaigrette all around.

Ras El Hanout-Spiced Asparagus With Orange Yogurt And Couscous

Shopping list: Asparagus, Greek yogurt, orange, ras el hanout spice blend, vegetable oil, raisins, pine nuts, parsley, scallions, couscous, olive oil

Ras el hanout is a spice blend from North Africa — it doesn’t have a specific blend of spices, but generally is sweeter than, say, garam masala. To make this dish, first cook some couscous: put a measured amount of couscous in a bowl (along with a few pinches of salt), then bring to a boil an equal amount of water. Pour the water into the couscous, stir and quickly cover and let sit for about five minutes, then uncover and fluff with a fork. Also: Put some raisins in a glass tupperware and cover with boiling water. Let sit until you’re ready to use them. ALSO! Toast some pine nuts either in a toaster oven or in a dry cast-iron pan and reserve. And: Plop about a cup of Greek yogurt in a bowl, zest in maybe a quarter of an orange’s worth of zest, and squeeze maybe a quarter of an orange’s worth of juice in there as well. Add a little salt and stir to combine.

Slice some scallions into small rings. Get a wok on the stove over low heat, and pour in a couple tablespoons of oil. Toss in the scallions and stir for about a minute, then throw in a few pinches of ras el hanout. Stir for maybe thirty seconds to toast the spices.

Chop asparagus into some easy to eat sized pieces, discarding the woody ends, then crank the heat up to high. Throw them in and stir constantly for about two minutes. There may be some smoke. Scrape out the asparagus and scallions onto a plate.

Combine the couscous, raisins (which you have drained), and pine nuts. Top with the asparagus and then finish with a blob of the orange-d yogurt. Sprinkle some chopped parsley over the top and serve.

There’s much, much more to be said on the subject of woks; I haven’t even mentioned the fact that you can dry-fry in them, which leads to wonderfully blistered vegetables. But that’s okay as long as it emphasizes just how versatile and underused the wok really is–especially in springtime.

Photo by Alpha