I've adapted Grace Young's original recipe for Stir-Fried Sugar Snap Peas and Shiitake Mushrooms by adding thinly sliced green garlic and heirloom carrots. But the real improvisation came with the thick-cut smoky bacon B brought home one day...
“There is an age-old Chinese expression: “One wok runs to the sky’s edge,” which means one who uses the wok becomes master of the cooking world. As the wok user becomes master of the cooking world, so does the user of Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge become master of the stir fry.” From graceyoung.com
Alas, no. As much as I love meringues and rum cocktails, there are times when a girl must eat her vegetables. And one of the most delicious ways to get your broccoli and carrots is in a savory Chinese stir-fry.
I have been a devoted fan of Grace Young ever since I discovered her cookbook, Breath of a Wok, a few years ago. The title refers to the Cantonese phrase wok hay, which Young defines as “the prized, elusive, seared taste that comes only from stir-frying in a wok.”
She learned about wok hay during her early years in San Francisco, eating with her family in Chinatown restaurants. “My father taught me early in life that there is nothing quite as delicious as the rich, concentrated flavors of a Cantonese stir-fry, in which morsels of meat are cooked just quickly enough to ensure their juicy succulence and vegetables are rendered crisp and refreshing.”
But you don’t get wok hay by stir-frying in just any old wok.
And to my personal chagrin, especially not in a heavy 17-inch round-bottomed cast iron wok carted home at great pains from Singapore. (My prized but unwieldy wok is, I’ve discovered, better-suited to the volcanic heat of a restaurant stove.)
Carbon steel woks with the patina of long use. Photo: graceyoung.com
No, the best wok to use on a residential stove is a 14-inch flat-bottomed carbon steel wok with a wooden handle. “I like a carbon steel wok not only for the special fragrance and wok taste it gives food, but also because once the pan is seasoned, its natural non-stick-like surface allows meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables and rice to stir-fry with minimal oil,” writes Young, aka “the Wok Evangelist,” in her award-winning cookbook, Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge.
Also known as "the Wok Doc," Young recommends buying your carbon steel wok at The Wok Shop in San Francisco where “owner Tane Ong Chan will take the time to figure out what wok is best for you.” Other possibilities include KK Discount at 78 Mulberry in New York (“Make sure you get the flat-bottomed carbon steel wok with the long wooden handle,” she advises) or Hung Chong, a restaurant supply store at 14 Bowery, full of “cool stuff at inexpensive prices,”—but be sure to avoid the non-stick woks since you’re going to create that patina by seasoning and using your wok properly.
I actually met Grace when she came to Chapel Hill in late March for a special dinner at the Lantern Restaurant. True to form, she arrived lugging her own wok in a carry-on bag. It had caused so much consternation at JFK security that she was pulled aside and almost missed her flight. It’s hard to imagine this small, slender woman wielding a wok as a weapon, but who knows what dark suspicions Homeland Security harbors.
In fact Grace always travels with a wok, sometimes a newish one that that needs to develop a “better patina” or natural non-stick surface. “When I’m on the road the wok gets a vigorous workout which helps to accelerate the patina,” she explained in an email. When teaching classes, she uses the wok to demonstrate a stir-fry within the first 10 minutes. "All it takes is one taste of the intense flavor a stir-fry made in an iron wok imparts and the seduction begins," she says. "The aroma of the food, impeccably seared on the natural nonstick surface, seals the deal."
All the dishes we ate at the Lantern dinner came from Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge, and every one, with the exception of dessert (a citrus sherbet with black sesame sprinkled fortune cookies), had that mouthwatering wok hay. Standouts included the Dry Fried Pepper and Salt Shrimp with Stir Fried Garlic Lettuces and Vinegar Glazed Chicken Wings with Hong Kong-Style Chinese Broccoli.
Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge is a true technique book, one which explains everything you could possibly need to know for successful stir-frying. There are easy-to-follow instructions for seasoning a new wok—try popping popcorn to fortify the surface patina—as well as essential methods for controlling the temperature such as preheating the wok until “a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact,” and then swirling in oil and liquids so as not to lower the heat.
Here’s are more do’s and don’ts from a video at chow.com.
The book has detailed sections on the stir-fry pantry, with specific brand recommendations—she prefers Koon Chun hoisin sauce and Kikkoman organic soy sauce—and the proper cutting of seasonings like scallions, garlic and ginger. The simplest way to peel ginger, incidentally, is by scraping it with the edge of a teaspoon which “easily removes the skin from the nooks and crannies around the knobs.”
In short, by the time you get to the recipes—over 100 from stellar Chinese cooks around the world—you’ll have a pretty good handle on what you need to do to make dishes like the classic Stir-Fried Ginger Beef. I like the improvements that Grace offers to the original recipe, adding Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry to the usual oyster and soy sauces and using both fresh and pickled ginger for a more assertive tangy flavor.
If, like me, your stir-fry experience is spotty, you might want to join a cooking group called Wok Wednesdays. Every other week you’ll make a recipe from Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge and the results will be posted. (On May 16, the recipe is Stir-Fried Garlic Spinach, on the 30th, Cashew Chicken).
Or, on your own, you could start with an easy but delicious recipe like Stir-Fried Sugar Snap Peas with Shiitake Mushrooms. This deceptively simple dish offers contrasting textures (soft shiitakes, crunchy peas) and delicious flavors (meaty mushrooms, sweet sugar snaps, spicy ginger)and it takes all of 10 or 15 minutes to prep and maybe 5 or 6 minutes to cook. With steamed rice, that could be supper, at least in our house.
Eventually you could go on to more complex recipes like Hong Kong-Style Mango Ginger Chicken and Taiwanese-Style Stir-Fried Scallops and Shrimp with Yellow Chives.
Or you could improvise.
The morning after I made the stir-fried sugar snaps and shiitake mushrooms, I found the most gorgeous stalks of green garlic at our farmer’s market. Then our CSA box arrived, brimming with small heirloom carrots in the most delectable shades of magenta, orange and cream. I couldn’t help but think how tasty they would be with the sugar snaps and the shiitakes.
That night I made the dish again, adding a few small colorful carrots and thinly sliced bulbs of green garlic. The garlic slices were almost translucent and as they sizzled in the wok, I could see the outline of the baby cloves. The dish was different but quite good, sweeter with the addition of the tender carrots, mildly pungent with the flavor of the green garlic.
Then I did a bad thing.
B brought home a pound of his favorite thick-cut smoky bacon. All I could think of was how luscious that bacon would be in "my" new stir-fry. In the pantry section of her book, Grace clearly mentions Chinese bacon. Known as lop yuk, it is actually dry-cured pork belly “with an earthy smoky flavor.” “It comes in a 1-inch thick slab,” she writes, “never in thin slices.”
Did I go out to find lop yuk? Nope. It was already 7 PM, so I stacked four slices of B’s bacon, cut it on the diagonal and cooked the pieces very slowly (not in the wok), until most of the fat was rendered and the bacon was still slightly soft, but almost caramelized and salty-sweet. I made the stir-fry once again, adding the bacon at the end. Even though it was “wrong,” I have to say the bacon added a magnificent porky twist to the dish.
So, with apologies to Grace, here’s my adaptation of her lovely recipe. Interestingly even though the quantity of vegetables increases, I found that you don’t need any more peanut oil or liquid than Grace specifies in the original recipe. However, I did have to cook the vegetables a minute or two longer.
As for the bacon, well, next time I will try to find lop yuk. But for now, our local thick cut smoky bacon will have to do.
The nice thing about mistakes is that eventually you can correct them.
Stir Fried Sugar Snap Peas, Shiitake Mushrooms and Tender Carrots with Green Garlic and Smoky Bacon
This recipe is adapted from Grace Young’s recipe for Stir-Fried Sugar Snap Peas and Shiitake Mushrooms on page 209 of Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge.
Serves 4 as a side dish or 2 to 3 people as a main dish with rice
Ingredients for the bacon:
4 thick-cut slices smoked bacon
Method for the bacon:
1. Stack the slices of bacon on top of each other and using a sharp knife, cut them into ½ inch diagonal slices.
2. In a cast iron frying pan over medium low heat, gently cook the bacon until much of the fat has rendered and the bacon itself is golden brown and very lightly caramelized. Do not let the edges burn.
3. Remove from the pan and let drain on a stack of paper towels. Set aside.
Ingredients for the stir-fry:
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon chicken broth
1 tablespoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 teaspoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons peanut oil
2 tablespoons finely shredded ginger (see note)
12 medium fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps quartered
2-1/2 cups sugar snap peas, strings removed
1 or 2 bulbs of green garlic, white part only, sliced very thin (see note)
4 to 6 small heirloom carrots, scrubbed and sliced very thin on the diagonal
¾ teaspoon salt
Method for the stir-fry:
1. In a small bowl, combine ¼ cup chicken broth, rice wine and soy sauce.
2. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet until a bead of water vaporizes in 1 to 2 seconds.
3. Swirl in 2 tablespoons peanut oil
4. Add the shredded ginger and stir-fry 10 seconds or until the ginger is fragrant.
5. Add the shiitakes and stir-fry 30 seconds or until they absorb all the oil.
6. Swirl in the broth mixture and cover. Cook the mushrooms for 30 seconds to 1 minute or until they have absorbed all but one tablespoon of the broth. (For me this seems to take another minute or two—possibly a defect of the round- bottomed wok which I am still using.)
7. Swirl in the remaining tablespoon of peanut oil.
8. Add the sugar snaps, thinly sliced green garlic and carrots. Sprinkle on the salt. Stir-fry for 1 to 3 minutes or until the sugar snaps are bright green, the carrots are heated through and the green garlic has begun to wilt.
9. Swirl in the last tablespoon of broth. Add the cooked bacon. Stir-fry for an additional 30 seconds to 1 minute or until the sugar snaps are just crisp-tender.
10. Serve at once with white rice.
Note: To shred fresh ginger, first peel a 2-inch piece by scraping the skin off with the edge of a teaspoon. Then slice the ginger lengthwise into paper-thin slices. Stack them on top of each other and slice them, again lengthwise, into very fine shreds.
To prepare the green garlic in this recipe, cut off the green stalks and reserve for another use. (They are very tasty stir-fried.) Peel away the tough outer skin covering the white bulb. Then cut the bulb into very thin rounds. If the bulbs are large, one will suffice for this recipe. If small, use two of them.