A Wok for the Trail
by Gerald Rowan
What if you had a single pot in which you could boil water, make soup, cook pasta, fry, stir-fry, deep-dry, steam, sauté, and even cook pancakes? Well, how about a wok? Yes, one of those thin, steel pans common to Chinese cooking. But we’re not talking about the giant woks often found in Chinese restaurants but, rather, medium or small ones that probably won’t fit in your backpack but are perfect for car campers, picnickers, and family gatherings.
Woks are made from hammered steel, cast iron, or cast aluminum. The hammered steel is the lightest and probably the best for campers. In addition to being lightweight, woks heat quickly and, when seasoned, clean up easily. They’re a very versatile utensil and really inexpensive. Add a lid, and a wok is just about the only pot you’ll need.
There are 2 types of wok—1 with a couple of short handles, the other with a single long handle. I prefer the long-handled variety; it allows a little distance between the cook and an open fire and is therefore safer. Woks are available from 10 to 28 inches in diameter and are made with round or flat bottoms. Flat-bottom woks fit conventional stove-top applications better than round-bottom woks, which are designed to allow a gas flame to move up along the outside of the wok, cooking foods very quickly but requiring a frame for support over the burner.
A canvas bag is great for storing your wok. The wok utensils, seasonings and an ovenproof mitt can be stored in the bag too.
A lid is great to help reduce cooking time, especially in windy weather. There are domed and flat lids—again, it’s your preference. A domed lid can also be used to cover foods on the grill to shorten the cooking time.
Match the wok size to your cooking needs. Match the burner or fire size to the size of your wok. Stir-frying food in a wok requires high temperatures and hot fires. When cooking for a group, a large wok placed over high-energy burners designed for deep-frying turkeys will work really well. Large woks are perfect for doing fish fries and deep-frying food. To remove the fried food from the hot oil, add the spider, and you’re in business.
The cuisines of both India and Pakistan use a type of cooking pot, known as a karahi, that is similar to a wok. Some are made from hammered steel; others are made from cast aluminum. They are available in Indian and Middle Eastern markets or online.
To steam-sauté in a wok, start by sautéing the food until the food and wok reach tight temperature. Then add 1 to 2 tablespoons of sherry, white wine, chicken stock, or water at a time. Cover immediately. The idea is to form steam in the wok without lowering the temperature significantly. The steam will help transport the heat around the wok, cooking the food more quickly. If the wok gets too cold, you’ll be stewing the food, not steaming it. Add small amounts of water at a time, and allow the wok to come back to hot before adding more water. Wash your wok with soap and water; then heat over the fire to dry, and season with a small amount of vegetable oil to keep it from rusting outdoors.
Basic Stir-Fry Recipe
1 pound beef, chicken, or turkey, cut into strips
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into strips
1 medium onion, peeled, cut in half and then into slices
1 carrot, peeled and julienned
3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 to 2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 to 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
Heat the wok to hot; then add 3 tablespoons of the oil. Heat the oil to hot; then add the meat. Stir-fry the meat until browned. Transfer the meat to a bowl and cover to keep warm. Add the remaining oil to the wok and heat to hot. Add the onion; stir-fry the onion until translucent. Add the remaining vegetables; then continue stir-frying until the carrot is just tender. Add the garlic, ginger, and soy sauce; then continue stir-frying for an additional minute. Serve over the cooked rice.
Additions: ¼ cup chopped parsley or cilantro; 1 to 2 tablespoons oyster or hoisin sauce; one 6-ounce can sliced water chestnuts, drained; one 6-ounce can sliced bamboo shoots, drained; one 14-ounce can baby corn, drained and cut into 1-inch pieces; 1 or 2 green onions, chopped.
Garnishes: chopped parsley or cilantro; 2 to 3 tablespoons thinly sliced basil; commercial fried chow mein noodles.
1 to 2 tablespoons cornstarch
⅔ cup chicken stock or water
When the stir-fry is about cooked, mix the cornstarch and chicken stock together and add to the wok. Stir and cook over high heat until the sauce thickens. Serve.
What if you have a small fire or single-burner stove? Why not stage your cooking? Start by prepping the rice. Bring the water to a boil; then add the rice and let it begin to cook. While the rice is cooking, prep the meat and vegetables. After the 10- to 12-minute active rice-cooking period, wrap the rice pot in a cozy, set it aside, and begin stir-frying the entrée. When the entrée is ready, so should the rice. There you go—a meal in about 30 minutes.
Basic Rice Recipe
1½ cup white rice
3 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Add the water to a heavy pot fitted with a lid. Bring the water to a boil; then add the salt and rice. Stir well, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the pot from the fire and place in the center of a casserole or Dutch oven cozy.* Fold the cozy over the Dutch oven, allow the rice to stand, and proceed with stir-frying the meat. To serve, fluff the rice with a fork and serve.
*A casserole or Dutch oven cozy is a thick, quilted fabric cover about 3 to 4 feet squared. The pot is placed in the center of the cozy; then the cozy is folded over the pot. You can make a cozy by sewing 2 or 3 layers of an old quilt together. A cozy is also useful to keep food warm when you’re waiting for guests. Make a storage bag for the cozy, or store the cozy in a small plastic bag.
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