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A stir-crazy summer

If you can't take the heat, take the wok outside with these techniques from award-winning cookbook author Grace Young.

Renee Studebaker
A carbon steel wok is an inexpensive and effective tool for the kitchen or backyard, and cooking in one starts with seasoning the pan with oil, ginger and scallions.

Extreme drought, extreme heat and extreme grumpiness. Ah, another summer in Austin.

But no matter how hot and cranky you are, you still gotta eat. Cold supper plates and chilled cucumber soups are good on hot nights. So are cold bean salads or a medley of summer squash and eggplants cooked on a charcoal grill. Perhaps, like me, you're willing to try just about anything that doesn't involve standing over a hot cookstove in the soul-searing heat of summer. Which brings me to today's column topic - backyard wokking.

Take one well-seasoned, inexpensive carbon steel wok (about $25), a small propane tank hooked to a freestanding iron burner ($45-$100) and a shaded and well-ventilated outdoor space, and you've got the basic ingredients for an outdoor wok kitchen. Set it up near your vegetable beds, and you can wow your locavore friends with garden-to-plate dinners of wok-kissed seasonal vegetables prepared right before their hungry eyes.

If you're reading this and thinking, "Yeah, sure, I tried a wok years ago, but it never worked right," you are not alone. I bet that's what a lot of fans of wok master and cookbook author Grace Young were saying before they found her and started trying her wok tips and stir-fry techniques. Before I read her new James Beard Award-winning cookbook "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge" (Simon & Schuster, $25) and attended her wok class and book signing earlier this month at Central Market's Cooking School, a lot of my so-called stir-fries turned out more like stir-stews. But now, almost a month later, my wok is properly seasoned and I'm turning out lightly browned, crisp-tender (not soggy) stir fries. (See box on back page for some of Young's most helpful stir-fry tips.)

Even if you don't like the idea of wokking outside (or if you don't have a yard), Young's stir-fry methods can still help you spend less time in front of a hot kitchen stove. When you master the wok, you can make a tasty dinner for four in less than 10 minutes. (Chopping and prep time varies, depending on how fast you are with a chef's knife.)

If you do like the idea of wokking outside (and don't mind a late dinner), try this: Get a headlamp and throw a wokking-after-dark party. It might feel a little silly at first, and your dinner guests might laugh, but it's actually quite practical. After dark, the outdoor temps are tolerable and sometimes quite pleasant, and a good headlamp focuses light right where you need it. I'm sure the neighborhood raccoons are still chattering about the crazy lady with the glowing head who was stir-frying wild boar and Hill Country peaches the other night. Come to think of it, late-night wok sessions might be just the thing to keep backyard critters entertained (or distracted) so they don't steal so many vegetables and fruits before harvest time.

I'm definitely not the first to think of wokking after dark. Thousands of years before propane burners (or headlamps) came along, Asian cooks were using outdoor hearths to heat their woks to cook their family dinners. My next-door neighbor DJ Ho (DJ is short for DerJane) introduced me to the joys of Taiwanese-style outdoor cooking last summer. Although her home is air-conditioned just like mine, she does a lot of her cooking on a propane burner (which she bought at WalMart) and a small charcoal grill in the backyard. That way, she says, the cooking smells and oil spatters don't mess up her tidy kitchen, and her AC doesn't have to work so hard to keep her house cool. And her neighbors get a good whiff of what she and her family are having for dinner. Mmmm.

Classic Dry-Fried Pepper and Salt Shrimp

Whenever Sichuan peppercorns are called for in a recipe, they must be roasted and ground. Remove any tiny stems from 1/4 cup of Sichuan peppercorns and put them in a dry wok. Stir over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes until the peppercorns are fragrant and just beginning to smoke. Once they're cooled, grind them with a mortar and pestle and then store them in a clean jar.

2 Tbsp. plus 1/2 tsp. salt

1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/4 tsp. sugar

1/4 tsp. roasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns

2 Tbsp. peanut oil or vegetable oil

1 Tbsp. minced garlic

1 Tbsp. minced ginger

1 tsp. minced jalapeño chile with seeds

In a large bowl, combine 1 tablespoon of the salt with 1 quart cold water. Add the shrimp and swish the shrimp in the water with your hand for about 30 seconds. Drain. Add 1 tablespoon of the salt and repeat. Rinse the shrimp under cold water and set on several sheets of paper towels. With more paper towels, pat the shrimp dry.

In a small bowl, combine the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, sugar and ground peppercorns.

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 oil, add the garlic, ginger and chile, then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the aromatics are fragrant. Push the garlic mixture to the sides of the wok; carefully add the shrimp and spread evenly in one layer in the wok. Cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting the shrimp begin to sear. Swirl in the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and stir-fry 1 minute or until shrimp just begin to turn color. Sprinkle on the salt mixture, and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until the shrimp are just cooked. Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish with rice or 4 as part of a multicourse meal.

- Grace Young, "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge"

Stir-Fried Beef and Baby Bok Choy

Fermented black beans are also known as preserved beans and are fermented with salt and spices. They are sold in plastic bags or in small cardboard containers. Before using, rinse the beans in several changes of cold water to remove the excess salt. A favorite type is Yang Jiang preserved beans. Store the beans in an airtight jar in a cool, dark, dry cupboard or in the refrigerator. Baby bok choy can vary in size. If the bok choy has thick stems, cut the stem into 1/2-inch pieces to reduce the stir-fry time.

12 oz. lean flank steak

1 Tbsp. minced ginger

2 tsp. soy sauce

2 tsp. plus 1 Tbsp. dry sherry or Shao Hsing rice wine

11/2 tsp. cornstarch

1/2 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. freshly ground pepper

1 tsp. sesame oil

2 Tbsp. chicken broth

2 Tbsp. oyster sauce (preferably Lee Kum Kee premium)

2 tsp. dark soy sauce

12 oz. baby bok choy (such as Shanghai bok choy), trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces (about 8 cups)

2 Tbsp. peanut oil or vegetable oil

1 Tbsp. minced garlic

1 Tbsp. fermented black beans, rinsed and mashed

3/4 cup thinly sliced onion

Cut the beef with the grain into 2-inch-wide strips. Cut each strip across the grain into 1/4-inch-thick slices. In a medium bowl, combine the beef, ginger, soy sauce, 2 teaspoons of the rice wine, cornstarch, salt and pepper. Stir to combine. Stir in the sesame oil. In a small bowl, combine the broth, oyster sauce, dark soy sauce, and the remaining 1 tablespoon dry sherry.

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; add the garlic and black beans; then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the aromatics are fragrant. Push the garlic mixture to the sides of the wok; carefully add the beef and spread evenly in one layer in the wok. Cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting the beef begin to sear. Then, 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 onions and bok choy, and stir-fry about 1 minute or until the bok choy leaves are bright green. Return the beef with any juices that have accumulated to the wok. Swirl the sauce into the wok and stir-fry about 30 seconds or until the beef is just cooked through. Serves 2 as a main dish with rice or 4 as part of a multicourse meal.

- Grace Young, Central Market Cooking Class (adapted from "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge")

Chinese Trinidadian Stir-Fried Shrimp With Rum

This dish demonstrates the convergence of Chinese and Trinidadian cooking traditions. It is the Chinese custom to cook the shrimp in the shells to protect the shrimp's succulence and flavor. The shrimp can also be peeled and deveined before stir-frying.

1 lb. large shrimp

Juice of 1/2 lime

3 Tbsp. ketchup

3 Tbsp. dark Jamaican rum

2 tsp. soy sauce

1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

2 Tbsp. peanut oil or vegetable oil

1 Tbsp. minced garlic

1 Tbsp. minced ginger

1/2 tsp. salt

1 medium ripe tomato, cut into 1/4-inch-thick wedges

1 large green bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips

1 small onion, cut into 1/4-inch-thick wedges

1 Tbsp. finely chopped cilantro

Using kitchen shears, cut through the shrimp shells two-thirds of the length down the back of the shrimp. Remove the legs and devein the shrimp, 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, then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the aromatics are fragrant. Push the aromatics to the sides of the wok, carefully add the shrimp and spread them 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 or until the shrimp are just cooked through and the sauce coats the shrimp. Stir in the cilantro. Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish with rice or 4 as part of a multicourse meal.

- Grace Young, "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge"

Wok talk: A few of Grace Young's tips for successful stir-frying at home

The right equipment matters: A 14-inch flat-bottom carbon-steel wok is the best choice for the home cook. (In a pinch, a 12-inch stainless-steel skillet will work.) The wok ring, a Western invention designed to balance a round-bottom wok over a home stove, usually raises the wok too far from the heat, which keeps the pan from getting hot enough.

To season your carbon steel wok: Heat the wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes in one or two seconds. Swirl in 2 Tbsp. of peanut oil and add 1/2 cup sliced unpeeled ginger and one bunch of scallions cut in 2-inch pieces. Reduce heat to medium and slowly stir-fry for 5 minutes, stirring and pressing the vegetables into the sides and upper edges of the wok. Continue cooking and pressing for about 15 minutes. Add another tablespoon or two of oil if mixture becomes dry. Then remove wok from burner and allow to cool. Discard mixture and rinse wok with hot water while washing with a soft sponge. Do not use soap. To dry the wok, set it on a burner over low heat for 1 to 2 minutes, or until no water drops are visible.

Keep the wok hot, but not too hot: For a successful stir-fry, you must adequately preheat the wok, then maintain the pan's heat during cooking. (Chinese restaurant chefs cook on stoves that can be as much as 20 times hotter than the average residential range.) Your wok is hot enough as long as you can hear the sizzle of the food cooking. If the sizzle sounds stop, your pan has lost its heat and your stir-fry is turning into a braised stew. If you're using an outdoor wok burner or a professional range, which are both much hotter than the average home range, take extra care that you don't incinerate your food. Also, if your home stove is a gas range and has a burner that puts out more than 16,000 British thermal units (and if you're a stir-fry novice), you might need to lower the heat to low or medium-low and be prepared to remove your wok from the burner if it gets too hot and the food starts to burn. Note: If you're a novice stir-fry cook, you probably don't want to be cooking with heat above 16,000 Btus.

To maintain your wok's heat on an average residential range:

• Preheat wok before adding oil. Add oil in a thin stream, pouring it down sides of wok. If the oil smokes wildly, you've overheated the pan.

• When adding liquids, swirl liquids down the sides of the wok.

• Towel-dry vegetables before adding to the hot pan. Do not overfill the pan.

• Don't cook more than 1 pound of pork, shrimp or chicken at one time.

• For beef and scallops, limit cooking to 12 ounces at a time. If the sizzle stops, you've added too much food.

• Add meat in a single layer and cook for about 1 minute before stir-frying to get a good sear.

So long …

Today is my last column for the American-Statesman because I'm taking the Statesman's early retirement offer. I will continue writing about my gardening and cooking adventures. I can be reached at reneesroots@gmail.com. Thanks for reading, and happy gardening!

- Renee Studebaker