But can the first dude cook rice?

    

In my travels on the internet yesterday, I was tickled to find 2 newspaper pieces that probably would have no correlation in your mind unless you’ve been a foreign student in East Asia. When I was studying in Taiwan in the mid-80s, there was a running joke about foreign students (particularly the guys) falling in love with and (against the advice of any professor who runs the year-abroad orientation sessions) marrying the local girls. The somewhat icky sexist punchline to “What are you taking your mother when you go home?” then was “A rice cooker!”

Browsing the newspapers’ food sections yesterday (when DID Wednesday become THE day for newspapers to cover food and dining, anyway?) I came across a fun article in the New York Times about the wonderful ways in which rice cookers (the appliance!) have made their way into our lives.

Moving on to more serious matters – such as my real job! – I browsed around for articles on religion and immediately found a piece in the Los Angeles Times that talked about how evangelicals, particularly the women, are dealing with the idea of Sarah Palin becoming Vice President: some see a threat to the belief that “loving male headship and gracious wifely submission are God’s plan for spouses,” while others take a more conciliatory view:

Many say that biblical restrictions on women’s leadership apply to church and home, not the secular world – clearing the way for a woman to run the nation but not a congregation. And so long as Palin’s husband, Todd, approves, they say, her career conforms with teachings on wifely duties.

Call me twisted, but I did find it highly amusing to move from one article to the other – it made me wonder whether we had better not ask the important questions at the debate tonight: “Governor, CAN the ‘first dude’ cook rice? Because if he can’t, I have some good news – the Zojirushi company is now making cooking a snap, freeing you up to run the country….”

Seriously, though, I do encourage you to check out the rice cooker article, temptingly titled “The Steamy Way to Dinner” for some great ideas and some good advice on purchasing a rice cooker if you don’t already own one. I’m tempted to try a few of the recipes/experiments myself, although I must warn you that if you do try to cook congee in one, be sure to soak the rice well beforehand – we had a messy overflow situation at our house on that one….

Okay, back to recipes tomorrow, and some yummy pictures to add to previous posts.

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Wok this way…

In Chinese, a wok (pronounced guo in Mandarin) is a generic term for a pot or pan. In America, wok has come to mean a stirfry pan, but in actuality, this versatile utensil can be used to stirfy, braise, simmer, deep-fry, and even steam food. You don’t absolutely have to have a wok to make a decent Chinese dish, but it really is one of the best (not to mention cheapest) pieces of cookware you can own and it will help you make truly authentic Chinese food.

Edited to add: If you don’t have a wok, I would recommend a well-seasoned cast iron skillet or a fairly heavy saute pan – All-Clad is great because it heats so evenly. Use the “using the wok” section below to ensure it won’t stick, but this will be something you should do for each use).

round or flat bottom?

The typical stirfy wok has a large, shallow bowl shape for several reasons:

  • it has no inside edges where food or oil could collect, so it’s great for quickly sauteing food;
  • less oil is needed to coat the surface of the food because it’s not collecting in the corners of the pan;
  • the center and edges heat evenly and food therefore cooks more quickly and uniformly.

You can purchase flat-bottom woks, which are made to be used on electric stoves (they’ll work for gas, too) and will not heat as evenly as a round-bottomed wok. Their advantage is that you won’t need to purchase a ring for them.

material:

You can find woks made of several different materials, each with its advantages and disadvantages:

  • Teflon or other non-stick coated – I would avoid these for almost everything! Teflon has been shown to be harmful when heated to high temperatures for extended periods of time, and if you try to avoid overheating it, you won’t get the searing heat you need for many Chinese dishes. I will admit that we own one, and I do use it, primarily for making scrambled eggs and tomatoes. However, most of the recipes I give use a minimum of oil, and if your wok is properly seasoned, you shouldn’t need more.
  • Aluminum are the lightest and least expensive, but they are also the least heat resistant, heat less evenly, and are best left for improvising steamers.
  • Cast iron are great because they season well and become virtually non-stick with age, but they are heavy to wield with one hand, which you will need to do to slide food onto its serving platter.
  • Carbon steel are my favorite, and with proper seasoning and care they will become nonstick and very low maintenance.
  • Electric wok – stay away from these! They do not get hot enough AND they turn on and off at odd moments!

buying a wok:

You can do a lot of research on woks on the internet – a good place to start would be The Wok Shop. You can buy woks online, but the best place to buy a great wok at a good price (and save on the packaging material and time for delivery) is probably in a restaurant supply store. If you live in or near a large city that has an Asian neighborhood, check out the supply stores there first – they are likely to have rows and rows of woks, all with different style handles. Other restaurant supply stores may or may not carry woks, but they can probably tell you where to get one if they don’t.

While you’re at the store, try holding one in your hand, imagine it with food weighing it down some more, and see whether you can easily tip it as if sliding the food out. Also consider the size of your stovetop – most domestic stoves won’t fit a wok that is more than 12-14″ across. The recipes on my blog are all cooked in a 12″ wok. If you plan to cook for more than 4 people on a regular basis and your stove can take a larger wok, go with a 14″ model – if you crowd the food in the wok for a stirfry, it will steam instead of stirfrying.

buying add-ons:

  • A cover made to fit your wok is a good thing to have, particularly if you are going to be rigging up a steamer with it. It is not, however, totally necessary – I have a steamer lid and a pot lid that both fit my wok sufficiently for simmers and braises that require a loose cover.
  • A wok ring is a good investment if you have a round-bottomed type of wok (particularly one with a single handle) and are cooking with a gas stove (which is infinitely preferable for Chinese cuisine): this will keep the wok upright and the food from spilling at the inopportune moment when you turn your back on it “just for a second.” The disadvantage of using a ring to stabilize the wok is that it will remove the wok a bit from the heat source, which is a lower temperature than it should be on most domestic stoves to begin with. No worries, though – don’t give up if you don’t own a Viking range! Use a good-quality, well-seasoned carbon steel wok, heat it hotter than you think you need to, and you’ll be fine!
  • A good stirfry spatula is a must – if you are not using a nonstick wok, nylon, rubber, or plastic WILL NOT DO! You will be needing a metal one with a very slightly curved bottom edge that will allow you to stirfry without gouging the finish on your wok.

seasoning the wok:

Before using your new wok, you should season its cooking surface as follows:

  1. Scrub it thoroughly with a mildly abrasive sponge or even steel wool
  2. Heat it over a very high flame, then rub it all over the inside with a THICK wad of paper towels or clean old rag dipped in peanut oil.
  3. Let it cool almost to room temperature.
  4. Repeat steps #2 and #3 two more times with fresh oil and clean paper towels.
  5. Wipe it out well, and voila – you’re ready to start cooking!

caring for your wok:

A properly seasoned wok will develop and keep a non-stick finish if treated properly. The outside is rarely washed, but you should give it a good rinse in HOT water, as oil is definitely going to run down the side you tilt it toward to slide food onto your serving plate.

  • After cooking something in it, rinse the wok immediately with HOT water and scrub with a dish brush – you shouldn’t need any detergent to get it clean. If you have some bits of food stuck to it (common after stirfrying meats that have been marinated in egg white and/or cornstarch), use a bit of salt and a mildly abrasive sponge or dish brush to scrub it after the first rinse.
  • Rinse the wok well, again with HOT water, and put it back on the stove. Turn the burner on medium high heat and dry the wok completely to avoid rust.
  • If the finish looks scratched or very dull, rub in a bit of peanut oil while the wok is still hot.
  • Got rust? Dont’ worry – give the wok a good rub down with salt, wash it out well, and re-season it.

using the wok:

The best way to ensure a non-stick finish before you start cooking is to heat the wok on high heat until it smokes, swirl some oil around in it, then pour it into a heatproof container. Then add cool oil and proceed to cook your recipe.

I find this procedure a bit tedious, not to mention wasteful, so if you season your wok properly to begin with, take good care of it after each use, and be sure to heat it well before adding the oil, you should have no problems.

Let’s get cooking!

Do I need to buy a cleaver?

Among my mother’s cookbooks are some volumes from a series on cuisines around the world. I don’t recall now the name of the series, but I do remember flipping the pages of these gorgeous coffee table books over and over when I was a child. The one on Chinese cooking fascinated me no end because there was an entire section (complete with pictures) on how to wield a cleaver – not only for slicing, dicing, and mincing, but also for tenderizing, roll-cutting, and a few more glamorous tasks. I did eventually own a small cleaver (one of those mail-order Ginsu ones, I believe), and I did become somewhat proficient in its use. Once I went to culinary school, I discovered that really the only tools necessary to make just about anything in the kitchen are a good chef’s knife and paring knife (although I admit I usually opt for the vegetable peeler now that I’m not required to use the latter so much).

If you are serious about cooking, spend the money for a quality professional chef’s knife and learn how to use it as well as sharpen it the old-fashioned way, with a stone and a steel. All those wonderful kitchen gadgets? Put them away!  You’ve just made a new best friend – your chef’s knife. Eventually you will become so attached to it that you will resent when others use it….

To start your search, go to a store that sells high-quality knives and speak to a knowledgeable salesperson – you don’t need to buy then and there, but spend some time holding a chef’s knife in your hand – they are not light, so you need to be able to use its balance to your advantage.

There are several considerations to make: do you want a full tang (meaning that the blade back runs through the handle) or one where the handle is separate from the tang? what sort of metal are you looking for (high carbon steel is expensive, but it’s durable and keeps its edge longer)? do you want 8″, 10″, 12″?

Armed with your research results, go online and do some research as to where you can buy the knife you want at the best price. Some resources you may want to try:

F. Dick

Wusthof

Chef’s Catalog

Sur La Table

Crate & Barrel

My absolute favorite? Wusthof: 10″ high carbon full tang. I own 2 of them and they are my most prized possession in the kitchen.

Steamers

A good multilevel steamer is an invaluable piece of equipment, and I recommend that you buy a decent one – go with stainless steel rather than aluminum (sturdier) or invest in a bamboo steamer – make sure you have a pot it will fit.

Can’t find a steamer nearby and don’t want to order it? Never fear – you can improvise! In a large pot with a reasonably tight lid, place an inverted heatproof bowl or deep plate, then add water so that the bottom of the bowl/plate is still above the top of the water. Place the item to be steamed on a heatproof plate on the inverted bottom of the bowl/plate. Voila!