'The wok is a miraculous pan, probably the most versatile cooking vessel ever created. [It will] will happily cook anything from an egg to a chicken... and has no need for design changes after centuries [and] millions of satisfied users.'
If there's one good thing that I learned from distinguished Australian-Chinese cook, Elizabeth Chong (who visited my cooking school many times), it's to appreciate the wok and understand 'wok hay'. Thanks to Ms Chong's wisdom, I have come to love my wok and I use it often to cook meals that may come as a surprise to you.
Consider steak and mushrooms, for instance, one of my favourite go-to dishes. Lean beef and fresh baby spinach and mushrooms are staple ingredients in my kitchen, along with home grown garlic and chillies. And there's always a good supply of oyster and soy sauces, peanut and sesame oils, as well as rice wine in my larder. With those few items we have the makings of a quick, simple and nourishing dish that can be prepared in two ways: stir fried, where the ingredient morsels are 'married together', or cooked as a steak with a side of stir-fried vegetables.
For the stir-fried version, we are using bite sized portions of the beef and mushrooms, and this method of cooking takes only two or three minutes at the most. The heat of the wok is critical, as Ms Chong reminds us. 'This is what the Chinese call correct wok hay and it is a good cook who understands wok hay. You must learn to toss and turn the foods to be stir-fried quickly, so that they will not burn, but acquire a light glazing of hot oil that ensures the flavours and juices are locked inside.' Keep the temperature of the wok at the highest point, even after adding sauces... and avoid the urge to turn down the heat, which often results in a stew of grey meat and soggy vegetables.
For the steak, simply sear the seasoned steaks in the wok on medium-high heat with minimal oil, turning only once. Pop a lid on briefly and cook until the meat reaches your choice of either well done, medium or rare. Set aside to rest on a warm plate while you stir fry the vegetables for a minute. Then serve immediately as steak with the stir-fried vegetables as a side. Don't keep the heat cranked at full speed for the steak, as you might dry it out too much, but turn it up again to cook off the vegetables.
These two dishes are so easy that there's no recipe, per se (although I am happy to provide one if you absolutely insist). To serve two, you need around 450g of lean beef steak, 200g or so of mushrooms, 1-2 cups of baby spinach leaves, a chopped bird's eye chilli, a clove of chopped garlic, a little peanut oil, a few drops of sesame oil, a tablespoon of low salt soy or tamari sauce, a tablespoon of oyster sauce and just a splash of rice wine. Simply heat the peanut and sesame oil in the wok and when you see that it's smoking (Ms Chong refers to this as 'the breath of the wok'), add the beef slices and chilli, and quickly stir-fry. Then add the mushrooms, garlic and baby spinach, tossing briefly. Sprinkle over the sauces and rice wine, and serve immediately with steamed rice or cauliflower rice. That's it. Simple!
Note, you can marinate the meat in the sauces if you prefer. And, of course, you can add your choice of vegetables, such as broccolini, sliced bell peppers and so on.
Some of the staple ingredients in my kitchen...
Baby portabella mushrooms...
Stir-fried mushrooms and baby spinach...
Steak cooked in a wok: two ways...
Wok-cooked steak with a side of of stir-fried exotic mushrooms & baby spinach...
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Tell me, do you use a wok in your kitchen? What are the staples in your fridge and larder, and what's your favourite go-to dish?
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.