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Wok Much? 

Waking up from a skillet stupor

I've got a new baby in the house. Swaddled in plastic, she arrived in need of a good scrub. Although she doesn't cry, gurgle or spit up, she does keep me up at night, my mind racing over all the meals we'll cook together. Currently, I'm feeding her a diet of oil and Chinese chives, to help give her a smooth complexion.

Wok is her name, and she's a good girl.

Seriously, though; my only question about being a new wok owner is this: What took me so long to own one? Wok, baby, where have you been all my life? (To be clear, I'm talking about a cast-iron or carbon-steel wok from China, available at Asian groceries or a Chinatown nearest you, not the Americanized nonstick variety.)

For the first time, I can see with my own eyes the speed with which the wok heats, the key to the mythical lightning velocity of stir-fry cookery. For years, I used a skillet, which was better than adequate, and nobody complained. Not until Wok arrived did I begin to understand that I had been living in skillet denial, under a cloud of oil that never had enough room to dance, eliminating any chance of bringing wok hay (breath) to my food.

Even a dish as simple as fried rice (detailed below) becomes Other -- aromatic, multi-layered and totally satisfying. Alchemy is more like it.

Aromatic vegetarian fried rice

From The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 teaspoons sesame oil

2 large eggs, beaten

1/3 cup chopped shallots

2 tablespoons minced mild fresh chilies

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 cup diced carrots (substitute: chopped fresh green beans)

4 cups cold cooked rice

1/2 cup diced red bell pepper

1/2 cup diced celery (substitute: chopped bok choy)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper (optional)

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact.

Swirl in 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon of sesame oil and the eggs. Cook 30 seconds to 1 minute, tilting wok so that the eggs cover the surface as thinly as possible to make a pancake. When bottom is just beginning to brown and egg is just set, flip and allow to set on other side, about 5 seconds. Transfer to a cutting board and cut into shreds.

Add remaining tablespoon of vegetable oil, followed by shallots, chilies and garlic, and stir-fry for about 10 seconds. Add carrots (or substitute), reduce to medium heat and stir-fry 2-3 minutes until shallots soften.

Add rice, bell pepper, celery (or substitute), soy sauce, salt and pepper. Increases heat to medium-high and cook 2-3 minutes more, breaking up rice with a metal spatula until heated through. Add egg and stir to combine.

Remove wok from heat. Stir in cilantro and drizzle sesame oil.

Note: You may make this dish without eggs. If so, eliminate the teaspoon of sesame oil at the beginning of the recipe, and proceed with 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil.

Makes 2-3 entree-sized servings.

Culinary questions? Contact Kim O'Donnel at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com.

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