Wednesday, December 19, 2012

UnRecipe: Hot Wok Culture Shock - a Tale of Two Noodles

With food, as is with life, it's so much about presentation and context. We all have our set ways and expectations, but we're never beyond making adjustments. I don't mind the idea of both savory and sweet crepes, but I still can't quite wrap my head around the notion of a "dessert pizza," where it's usually smothered in marshmallows, chocolate and a hefty serving of Just Plain Awful. While I'll never be a fan of sugary pizza, I do think there's something to be said for the versatility of ingredients and even the kitchen tools we use to prepare them. For example, take something as simple and homey as a plate of spaghetti and meatballs -- would it totally blow your mindgrape to know it was all cooked in a wok?

Spaghetti cooked in a wok, dogs and cats living together - MASS HYSTERIA - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I think my wok had a Liz Lemon/30 Rock moment of, "What the WHAT?!" when I was simmering an Italian style red sauce in it. I'm certainly no purist, I've thrown Sriracha or Tabasco sauce in pasta sauces if I'm out of red pepper flakes, and nobody died from an acute case of culture shock, but yes, even the Mister, aka the Whitest Kid You Know, had to do a double take to see red sauce with meatballs simmering in a wok. I think he was worried the Asian Police would finally serve out that longstanding bench warrant against me for sucking at math and never learning to play the violin. 

I was inspired by Lorna Yee's new book, The Everyday Wok Cookbook, which the cover alone had me dead-set on making her Spaghetti and Bison Meatball recipe from the get-go. I don't need much arm twisting to make spaghetti and meatballs, but I was intrigued at the thought of using bison meat and even more intrigued at the weird juxtaposition of a marinara sauce throwing my anthropomorphized wok's brain for a loopty-loop.

Wokked spaghetti and meatballs - weirdly wonderful - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Using a wok as an all purpose cooking vessel isn't so crazy. I'm pretty sure billions of Chinese people can attest to its versatility and use. Granted, they're probably not making French toast in it, but really -- why the hell not? It's got a sizeable surface area with varying temperature zones that are fairly predictable (center = screamin' hot, away from the center = less screamin' hot) and the amount it can hold makes it ideal for soups and stews. Many people prefer woks as their stovetop deep fryer, convinced it's better than the typical Dutch oven. I use it as a one-pot wonder when I make things like Pad Thai at home -- it's great for getting the noodles partly cooked, then a quick wipedown and it's ready to cook the rest of the dish. Everything fits back in the wok for when it comes time for the final ingredient combination, and that's kind of how this spaghetti and bison meatball dish worked out.

I thought the bison meat would be tough to find. It's not something I normally shop for, so I immediately assumed I'd have to get it from a specialty grocer. And of course as Murphy's Law would have it -- no fancy butcher seemed to be carrying it. The holiday season doesn't help, as it's all festive meats taking up precious shelf space, and rightly so. I had my sad No Bison Meat face on (it looks much like this) until I happened to be at the grocery store where we live and there was a whole flippin' row of ground bison meat! At the Safeway, of all flippin' places. Apparently, it's not as exotic as one would think, so don't skimp on using bison meat for this dish. It's very tender, has a good flavor and not gamey since most bison are likely farmed/grazed like cows.

Tis the season, and Lorna's cookbook would make for a great holiday gift, especially if you want to up the ante and give the book with a new wok for someone who may not cook a lot, but wishes to learn. The recipes are very user-friendly and the book is beautifully photographed, which inspires you to get into the kitchen. The food is enticing and it covers multicultural menus. There's macaroni and cheese, breakfast omelets and scrambles, paella, several traditional Asian dishes like pockmarked tofu and dumplings, and even a dessert section. It's a nice reminder that just because you have a wok, it doesn't mean you only have to cook Asian-sounding dishes in it. It was a refreshing exercise for me to consider the wok as just another team player in our kitchen full of cooking vessels, and it's as much of an A-Game player as a basic skillet.

Whole wheat spaghetti for dan dan noodles? Fantastic - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Since this post is about multipurpose things, I'd also like to wave the banner of versatility for the simple spaghetti noodle. My wok was back in its Happy Place making a heaping pile of Szechuanese Dan Dan Noodles one night. I had everything I needed from the Asian grocery store -- black vinegar, preserved mustard greens, an industrial sized bottle of sesame oil, sesame paste, and enough Szechuan peppercorns to last me for when the Year of the Dragon gets chased out by the Year of the Snake. Since I live out in BFE-Duvall, I only make periodic trips to a big Asian grocery store in Bellevue to stock up for a few months at a time. Most of the things I get are dried, canned and preserved, so it's got great shelf life, but I always neglect the noodles. Curse my feeble brain! I forgot to get more udon noodles and Chinese style egg noodles, both of which are great for making dan dan, with their thickness and wider surface area to hold more sauce. The local grocery stores have some Asian noodles, but they're typically chow mein style or flat rice noodles which are great for some things, but just mehhhh.... for what I wanted.

Enter the Dragon: whole wheat spaghetti noodles, for the win. I don't typically love whole wheat noodles for traditional pasta dishes. Regardless of the health benefit, I find them tough and depending on the sauce you're making, they can make the finished dish ruddy-looking and less appealing to the eye. But for a noodle dish like dan dan, where it's rich and nutty from the sesame paste and oil, and a mix of textures from the ground, fried meat and freshly sliced scallions, having a hearty noodle works well. You don't want something turning into mush, and that extra toughness of the whole wheat spaghetti has a satisfying mouth feel.

Dan dan noodles is one of those dishes with a million and one ways to make it. I've had versions as a soup and most in this stir-fry method, all flavored with the smokiness of the Szechuan peppercorn and rich sesame taste. The recipe I work from is thanks to Appetite for China's, available here. This recipe's style isn't as oily as some -- the most traditional has the noodles sitting in an orange bath of chili oil, which is plenty good, but if that's not your thing, this less oily version is a great dish. If you love the idea of peanut butter spicy noodles, that's one way of describing dan dan noodles in familiar terms. It's quick, and I've even substituted ground turkey for the ground pork -- the seasonings are strong enough and there's plenty of fat from the sesame paste and cooking oil.

So, cheers to versatility, in both ingredients and cooking vessels. Food and recipes constantly evolve in the way we prepare them, so throw away the rule book now and then and don't be afraid to free your mind and make spaghetti in a wok.

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