How a New Wok Lit a Fire Under Me
I’ve long extolled the virtue of meal planning and I stand by that, but as much as I value planning, I do find it hard to keep things fresh. Bored of cooking the same stuff all the time, I decided I needed something new.
My initial inspiration was a pan; more specifically, a wok, which I hoped would improve our weekly stir-fry. Featuring broccoli and chicken, it is a favourite of my son and mainstay in our meal plans. As much as he enjoys it, I knew it could be better.
I call this dish a stir-fry, but I use that term loosely. I’ve never had any knowledge of technique and have relied instead on a mishmash of various recipes that I cobble together into a noodle dish with store-bought sauce. In reality, I saute and steam more than I stir-fry and the results are not always great. Sometimes the chicken gets very dry, while the broccoli is often overcooked, undercooked or, in the worst case scenario, cooked unevenly into an unsavoury mix of mushy and crunchy green stuff.
I blamed my pan, a deep-ish cast iron skillet that is excellent for the right recipe but far too shallow for the volume of ingredients I use. I figured changing the pan would improve things greatly, hence my focus on a wok. As with any major kitchen purchase, I took my time and did my research. Ultimately, I held back; I just wasn’t sure I needed another pot in my kitchen.
Fast forward to our winter of discontent, with four months that felt like endless November: damp and dreary with virtually no snow to brighten the chilly days. I was sick of grey skies and sick of cooking. I decided I needed to look into this wok idea more closely, not just for stir-frying but also as a source of new ideas and flavours.
Before buying the wok, I wanted to learn more about what I could do with it. I borrowed The Wok: Recipes and Techniques by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt from the library, a monumental work of culinary writing that checks in at more than 600 pages. I was blown away. I love exploring different cuisines but have never attempted Asian cooking in any meaningful way. This book introduced me to an incredible array of new ingredients and techniques. Stir-frying was just the beginning–the book also covers steaming, braising, deep frying, soups, stocks and side dishes, among other things. Of course, these methods and foods have been known to cooks of Asian heritage since time immemorial, but they were all new to me. I was suddenly excited about cooking again.
Knowing I could never finish the book in the 3-week loan period, I returned it to the library and headed out to buy both it and a wok. I wanted exactly what Lopez-Alt and others recommended: a durable and affordable carbon steel wok with a long wood handle and additional helper handle for lifting, and a flat bottom–as opposed to round–for ease of use on a variety of cooktops. I found it at my local kitchen store, brought it home and got to seasoning the pan and cooking.
It has been an interesting experience so far and fascinating to learn not just about wok cookery but the cuisine of many Asian countries. I basically pepper sprayed my whole family trying to cook chiles on high heat and rocked their tastebuds when I overdid it with Sichuan peppercorns, but I am having so much fun!
Lopez-Alt includes recipes in his book but focuses on techniques, providing readers with knowledge they can apply to all manner of cooking so they can move beyond the recipes and create their own unique dishes, although the recipes seem pretty solid too. He definitely delivers what he promises–I have learned so much and the lessons will continue as I make my way through the book.
The wok’s benefits have extended further than I expected. It has certainly been good for our meal plan, but all this learning has also been very good for my brain. It feels like I’ve awakened something after sleepwalking through meal planning for the past few months, and not just in terms of cooking. Repetition is so tedious. Learning something new–whether in cooking or other pursuits–challenges the brain and helps improve cognitive and mental health. (Psychology Today) I’d been feeling pretty foggy; taking a new approach to cooking, something I’d been doing pretty much the same way my entire adult life, was just what I needed to jump start things and get me motivated in the kitchen and other areas of life.
That’s a lot to lay on a cooking vessel, but sometimes the simplest thing can kick off much needed change. If you feel you’re in a bit of a culinary rut or just want to try something new to recharge your batteries, maybe you’ll find inspiration in my wok journey. I will be documenting it here in a series of blog posts. Up next: a lesson in how not to season a wok.