Wok Queen: Celebrate the New Year with Grace Young and her hot new cookbook

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Grace Young has been called The Wok Queen, The Poet Laureate of the Wok and a Wok Evangelist. She's been wokking since she was a teen, growing up in a traditional Chinese home in San Francisco where her parents cooked the same Cantonese dishes they had eaten in their youth in China. Married and now living in New York, Ms. Young is the go-to professional and authority on all things Chinese. Her latest cookbook, "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge" (Simon and Schuster, 2010, $35), is a treatise on the Chinese tradition, culinary history and technique of stir-frying in a wok.

"Even the title has meaning," she explains. "One wok runs to the sky's edge" is an old Chinese expression that means "one who uses the wok becomes master of the cooking world." For centuries, Chinese emigrants have carried their woks all over the world re-creating their traditional stir-fry dishes, always adapting to their new homes, using the local, unfamiliar ingredients. While the non-Chinese cook with a wok who chooses to "practice, practice, practice" may not make it to Carnegie Hall, the odds are good that he or she can become a fan, even a master, of the stir-fry. With this cookbook in your kitchen library, you can begin that quest.

Feb. 3, Year of the Rabbit in the Lunar Year 4709
Auspicious foods to serve

Chinese New Year is celebrated for two weeks anytime from mid-January to mid-February, depending on the lunar calendar. Each year is named after one of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals: rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. The holiday is steeped in tradition and superstition.

The festivities begin with the New Year's Eve meal, the most sumptuous of the year, symbolizing thanksgiving and family unity. Based on the Chinese belief that "you are what you eat," the feast is designed around meaning-laden foods to ensure auspicious blessings for the coming year. Some foods are symbolic of good fortune, while others are homonyms in Chinese for words that mean "good luck" or "prosperity."

If you would like to celebrate too, why not make a stir-fry? Be sure to feature one or more of the following ingredients (from "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge"):

Shrimp: Happiness and laughter

Eggs: Fertility

Mushrooms: Growing fortunes

Chicken: A proper beginning and end

Scallions: Intelligence

Lettuce: Prosperity and wealth

Cilantro: Compassion

Clams/scallops: Prosperity

Noodles: Longevity

Lobster: Auspicious symbol of the dragon

Fish: Abundance and surplus

Pork: Bounty and family unity

Five-spice tofu: Happiness

Oysters: Good business

Hard liquor: Longevity

There are 100 plus classic stir-fry recipes, each one a-pop and a-sizzle with flavor. More than 80 photographs show "how to's" (clean a wok, sharpen a knife, etc.) plus finished dishes. Bedside-table cooks will stay up too late turning pages to read Ms. Young's anecdotes and her interviews with expatriate Chinese cooks from all over the globe. You won't find a recipe for chop suey because it is considered to be a Chinese-American "forgery." Instead, settle for a color reprint of Edward Hopper's oil on canvas "Chop Suey, 1929."

And graphic artists? There are goodies for you, too. The book's design is gorgeous, ideal for both readers and cooks. Credit goes to Diane Hobbing for a most tasteful layout and design; it is clean, the typeface is easy to read, and the colors and decoration are some of the best in the book business.

In the kitchen

Ms. Young collects woks. Some are the treasured equivalent of a Gibson guitar or a veteran hitter's Louisville slugger. "I'm the Imelda Marcos of woks," she says. " I have about 20 woks. My favorite is flat-bottomed, 14-inch wide, made of carbon steel with a long wooden handle, and opposite it, a smaller 'helper' handle. I always have this one on the stove. The others are in cabinets, under my desk, even some under the bed. All are seasoned, aged and ready to go. You can buy one in Sur La Table or Williams-Sonoma. You can't spend over $30, and in any Chinatown, even less. Your wok will last a lifetime." In the book, she describes exactly how to acquire that seasoned non-stick surface.

"Most Americans are so disappointed when they stir-fry," she continues. " The term 'stir-frying' is misunderstood, and with wrong technique, dishes end up mushy and braise-y. A good stir-fry results from the combination of a seasoned wok, high heat, a low-smoking oil, evenly cut and measured vegetables, a constant sizzle, and no crowding of ingredients." She goes over the basic steps for stir-frying, but maybe more important, she lists the common mistakes most beginners make. Here are some of them:

• Never attempt a stir-fry on a non-stick surface, such as Teflon.

• Never use olive oil. The best stir-fry oils are peanut, grapeseed and canola, which have a high smoke point.

• Not preheating the wok. Think "grill." You'd never try to cook chicken or beef on a cold grill, would you? Always preheat the wok.

• Never crowd the wok with too much food. A crowded wok takes down the temperature resulting in a mushy braise.

• Never put wet food into the preheated wok. Meats will turn gray and mushy, as if boiled. Seared brown meat is what you want.

Rice is a stir-fry's best friend. There are whole books written about it, but Ms. Young keeps it simple. "I prefer Carolina long-grain rice," she says. "I cook it in a saucepan, and I don't own a rice cooker."

Traditionally, woks were used over open flames. In our modern kitchens, we have both gas and electric burners. In recent years, flat ceramic (glass) top ranges are the biggest sellers in apartments, condos and new homes and in kitchen remodeling. When asked if wok cooking would be affected, Ms. Young consulted Tane Chan, owner of Wokshop.com in San Francisco's Chinatown. Ms. Chan answered, "Yes, you can use a flat-bottom carbon steel wok on ceramic/glass top ranges safely and efficiently. We sell a lot for use on these 'new' ranges."


Ms. Young describes the Chinese diaspora. "In 1882, the United States passed the "Chinese Exclusion Act," suspending Chinese immigration, a restriction which lasted 10 years. Meanwhile, 7.5 million Chinese left southern China at the beginning of the 19th century because of economic poverty and civil unrest. They migrated to all corners of the globe.

"While researching the cookbook, I found Chinese whose families had immigrated to Peru, Trinidad, New Zealand, Jamaica, Holland, India, Germany and many other countries," says Ms. Young. "These cooks adapted to their new homes and fused culinary traditions. I fell in love with Chinese Cuban Fried Rice, Chinese Jamaican Stir-fried Beef and Chinese Trinidadian Stir-fried Shrimp with Rum, the recipe on the cover of the cookbook."

Ms. Young is a traveling cooking teacher, taking her star-turn at cooking schools around the country. "I've never traveled so much as in these last few months," she says. "I NEVER let my wok out of my grip. And everywhere I go, I take my wok in my carry-on through security, talking my way past TSA agents. It's a scary-funny experience. The line halts. Scanners stop the conveyor belt. They call over colleagues who look grim and puzzled at the image of that 'thing' on the screen. I always get pulled aside, but after considerable explaining, they always let me go through. It seems a wok is not on the TSA list of weapons."

One security agent pulled her aside, but his questions were more personal. "What are the secrets to a good stir-fry?" he asked, bending close. "Mine never quite turn out right."

"Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge" is Ms. Young's third cookbook. Her others, "The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen" and "Breath of a Wok," have won numerous awards. This cookbook, like those before it, has everything a foodie wants: information, stories, recipes, illustrations and beauty along with good conversation from the author.

Thanks, Grace Young. You've done it again.

Hot Pepper Beef

PG tested

Sure, you see a long list of ingredients, but once they are prepped, the stir-fry goes together lickety-split. This is a good recipe for cooks who have limited access to Asian ingredients. Probably the most "exotic" ingredient is hoisin sauce. Grace Young prefers Koon Chun brand, but Kikkoman hoisin is also very good. Twelve ounces of beef is an ideal amount to stir-fry. You can use red, green, yellow or a combination of bell peppers.

  • 12 ounces flank steak, or skirt steak
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
  • 1/4 teaspoon plus 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons cold water
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon ketchup
  • 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced red onions
  • 3 slices ginger, smashed
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 large red bell pepper (or a mix of red, green, yellow peppers), about 2 cups, cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips

Cut the beef with the grain into 2-inch-wide strips, then cut each strip across the grain into 1/4-inch-thick slices. In a medium bowl combine the beef strips, garlic, soy sauce, cornstarch, 1 teaspoon of the rice wine, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, pepper and 2 teaspoons cold water. Stir to combine. Stir in the sesame oil and stir again.

In a separate small bowl, combine the ketchup, hoisin sauce and the remaining 1 tablespoon rice wine. Stir to combine.

Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 1 tablespoon of the peanut oil, carefully add the beef, and spread it evenly in one layer in the wok. Cook undisturbed for 1 minute, letting the beef begin to sear. Then using a metal spatula, stir-fry 1 minute or until the beef is lightly browned but not cooked through. Transfer the beef to a plate.

Swirl the remaining 1 tablespoon peanut oil into the wok, add the red onions, ginger slices and red pepper flakes, and stir-fry 10 seconds or until the aromatics are fragrant. Add the bell pepper and stir-fry 30 seconds or until well-combined. Return the beef with any juices that have accumulated to the wok, sprinkle on the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, swirl the ketchup mixture into the wok, and stir-fry about 30 seconds to 1 minute or until the beef is just cooked through.

Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish with rice or 4 as part of a multicourse meal.

-- "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge" by Grace Young (Simon and Schuster, 2010, $35)

Chinese Trinidadian Stir-fried Shrimp with Rum

PG tested

This superb dish demonstrates, thanks to the diaspora, the convergence of Chinese and Trinidadian cooking traditions. It is a Chinese custom to cook the shrimp in the shell to protect its succulence and flavor. The shrimp is tossed with lime juice to remove the "fishy" taste. Rather than using the more typical Chinese rice wine, Ms. Young uses dark, Jamaican-style rum (white rum would be too harsh for cooking). The photo of this dish, one of the easiest recipes to stir-fry, is on the cover of the cookbook.

  • 1 pound shrimp, shells and tails left on
  • Juice of 1/2 lime
  • 3 tablespoons ketchup
  • 3 tablespoons dark Jamaican rum
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 2 teaspoons peanut or vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 medium ripe tomato, cut into thin wedges
  • 1 large green (or red or yellow) bell pepper, cut into thin strips
  • 1 small onion, cut into thin wedges
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro

Using kitchen shears, cut through the shrimp shells two-thirds of the length down the back of the shrimp. Devein the shrimp and remove the legs, leaving the shells and tails on. In a medium bowl, toss the shrimp with the lime juice for a few seconds. Rinse the shrimp, drain, and set on a plate lined with paper towels. With more paper towels, pat the shrimp dry.

In a small bowl combine the ketchup, rum, soy sauce and ground white pepper.

Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the oil, add the garlic and ginger, and using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until aromatics are fragrant. Push the aromatics to the sides of the wok. Carefully add the shrimp spread evenly in one layer in the wok. Cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting the shrimp begin to sear. Sprinkle on the salt and stir-fry 30 seconds or until the shrimp begin to turn orange. Add the tomatoes, bell peppers and onions and stir-fry 1 minute or until the shrimp have turned almost totally orange. Swirl the ketchup mixture into the wok and stir-fry 1 minute more or until the shrimp are just cooked through and sauce coats the shrimp. Stir in cilantro.

Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish with rice or 4 as part of a multicourse meal.

-- "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge" by Grace Young (Simon and Schuster, 2010, $35)

Stir-fried Ginger Broccoli

PG tested

This is a great vegetable side dish that goes equally well with a Chinese menu or with roast chicken. Broccoli is a "hard" vegetable that benefits from a quick blanching before stir-frying. Without the blanching, broccoli requires longer stir-frying, which in turn means using more oil. Just make sure all the florets are the same size, even if you have to halve or quarter larger pieces. If you like, you can mix in the broccoli stems, sliced 1/4 inch thick. Why toss them out? (For the ginger juice, grate a small amount of ginger with a Chinese ginger grater, microplane or cheese grater and then squeeze the ginger pulp with your fingers to extract the juice.)

  • 3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 12 ounces small broccoli florets (about 6 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons ginger juice
  • 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
  • 3 slices ginger, smashed
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar

In a 3-quart saucepan bring 11/2 quarts of water to a boil over high heat. Add 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and the broccoli and cook, stirring the broccoli, 1 minute or until the broccoli is bright green and water has almost returned to a boil. Drain the broccoli in a colander, shaking well to remove excess water. In a small bowl combine the soy sauce and ginger juice.

Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the oil, add the ginger slices, and stir-fry 10 seconds or until the ginger is fragrant. Add the broccoli, swirl the ginger juice mixture into the wok, sprinkle on the sugar and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, and stir-fry 1 minute or until the broccoli is just crisp-tender.

Serves 4 as a vegetable side dish.

-- "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge" by Grace Young (Simon and Schuster, 2010, $35)

Marlene Parrish: marleneparrish@earthlink.net .


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