Wok Hai (or Wok Hay) is a Cantonese expression that means, roughly, “breath of the wok.” “Hay” is “Chi” in Mandarin, so it’s as much “energy” or “spirit” as “breath,” but the idea is the same: the food has a particular flavor that can only come from quick cooking in a wok. It’s something I’ve known about for a long time, and it’s one of the qualities that has eluded my Chinese cooking for even longer. No matter how good, it never tasted authentic. Until now. See, our gas range in Brooklyn was OK, but not great. And the execrable piece of shit of a hotplate that came with this house, well, let’s never speak of it again. But the new stove–the gleaming, stainless beast that it is–was the missing ingredient. All of the circular cast-iron grates lift out, allowing a wok to sit down low and get very close indeed to the burner. And when the burner in question is 22,000 BTUs, that wok gets obscenely hot. The thin steel becomes a highly conductive membrane bathed in fire, so your food is cooking right in the flames. It’s bad-ass, and it makes the best Chinese food possible.
Even if you make shit up that’s not even close to traditional, like I did tonight. There was a good bunch of asparagus to be picked, so I did. I got a fair amount of other gardening done today, too, including hooking up a free old stainless restaurant sink outside the house so we can give vegetables the first wash out there, saving our kitchen sink drain from a lot of dirt. I inaugurated it with the asparagus, which I then cut into pieces and tossed in the wok with a little oil. After about 45 seconds, I added a beaten egg and some garlic, then a splash of smoked chicken stock. I scooped it all into a bowl. After a quick rinse, cubes of tofu followed, with a bit more oil plus onion and sliced fennel stalk. They browned in no time, and then I added shredded coconut, smoked stock, grated garlic and ginger, and some soy sauce, letting it bubble for a minute before pouring it into another bowl. Last up, tempeh, also cut into small cubes, browned hard and followed by chopped kale and a sort of barbecue-type sauce made with miso, tomato paste, and smoked stock. I let the sauce reduce for a minute, then removed it to yet another bowl. Last up, I made quick fried rice with leftover rice and a few bits and pieces from the fridge, and dinner was served.
These four dishes took a total of about 10 minutes to cook. Add in a bit of chopping, and figure double that. Even with a less-powerful stove, as long as the wok is as hot as it can get, the results will be similar–hell, they’ll almost certainly be more authentic. The heat and speed allows for the most wonderful contrast between almost charred and nearly raw, especially in the vegetables. The asparagus tasted almost grilled, but was still al dente. And the tofu/fennel/coconut thing was out of this world, tasting like some sort of Malaysian mashup in the best possible way. When we have fennel and onions (both planted today) I’m going to make tofu from scratch and cook the definitive version of this; it’s good enough to be served by itself as a course in a fancy dinner to be named later.
This post is a sort of a response to a conversation that’s been bouncing around for a few days, in response to Ruhlman calling bullshit on the “30-minute meal” concept that has made food TV so utterly unwatchable over the last few years. (Personally, I think they should have called Ray-Ray’s show “Cousins shouldn’t marry,” but nobody ever listens to me). You should read it, but in essence his point is that we should all spend more time cooking, and not less. And there’s been some pushback by working people, saying they can’t possibly. To which I say: eh. It’s really all about the wanting to. Also, cancel your cable. Today. You’ll be amazed at how much more time you have for actual activity. I made this dinner in 20 minutes using about 9 ingredients, none of them even a little bit complicated. And there was one dish to wash at the end.
This thoughtful response to the Ruhlman piece got me thinking, as I like to do occasionally, so this post took shape around the idea of the overlap of quality and quickness. I’m fully aware that most people don’t have their own personal jet engine to cook on, since I have only had mine for two months. And I know that most people don’t work at home, like I usually do, which makes a big difference. But the busy, late evenings are why pasta was invented. There’s nothing but pleasure in a bowl of fettucine, especially if you grow the herbs, or the tomatoes, or buy the pasta locally and freeze it. Simple is good. What matters is that dinner doesn’t come out of a box, go into a microwave, and then onto the table. That’s not simple; it’s the end of an extremely complex and destructive industrial food system that only appears to be convenient.
The part of Anita’s piece that I don’t really agree with is her vow to post–and have her readers post–about all of the half-assed quickies they wouldn’t normally blog about, as a way of showing that we’re all hard-working people who do it fast and dirty on the regular. And OK, I get the point: solidarity, helpful shortcuts, inspiration to be found in other people’s phone-in repertoires. But here’s the thing. I don’t post those kinds of meals for a couple of reasons. One, they’re not that interesting. I don’t have anything to say about penne that I haven’t said before. The same is true for lackluster stir-fries, (though they’re much more lustrous now) or another fucking chicken curry, or any of two dozen other workhorses.
Two, have you SEEN the internet lately? There’s so much content even just in the food court that it boggles my tiny mind. The fact that so much of said content is provided by people who can’t cook, can’t write, and can’t even take a picture of a plate of food makes it a little bit easier to navigate, but still. The many great food blogs are impossible to keep up with. I think we should all be striving to write the best posts we can, not cluttering up infinity with mediocrity. Even if the goal is noble, which in this case it is, I’d prefer if people wrote less often about good food than more often about less-good food. But that’s just me, and I’ve been sick all week, and have to go to Brooklyn for a week on Sunday to do a bunch of unfun shit. I may try posting from my phone, since I’m hoping to have a few good dinners, but I may wait until I get back. Be sure to sit at the very edge of your seats, quivering in anticipation.