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Wok classics

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An online video showed how to resurrect my wok, providing new inspiration for the old utensil
Donburi Soboro, a simple egg meal with beef in a bowl. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
Egg foo young with mushrooms and bean sprouts, served over rice with a mushroom gravy. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Japchae made with dangmyeon Korean sweet potato starch noodles, stir-fried with onion, carrot, bell peppers, shiitake mushrooms and beef. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)

Consigned to my cookware cabinet’s corner, my wok was the outcast. Yet I clung stubbornly to notions of what my wok could — and should — be, refusing to jettison it when moving earlier this year and prioritizing a smaller kitchen’s contents.

I shouldered the blame for the wok’s compromised state. Receiving the basic, stainless steel skillet as a bridal gift in my 20s, I mistakenly treated it like cast iron.

Novice that I was, I tried to bake a layer of oil onto the wok’s surface in a hot oven. Except the oven couldn’t get too hot without scorching the wok’s wooden handle. The result was a tan-colored, slightly tacky veneer on much of the wok’s sloped sides.

I suffered years of the pan’s penchant for sloughing black bits of polymerized oil. Then I stumbled onto an Instagram video demonstrating the removal of blackened material from a stainless steel skillet. The method combines kosher salt, baking soda and dish detergent.

Sprinkle and squirt these household chemicals over the pan’s outer surface and stir them into a paste. Drape paper towels over the pan and moisten it, through the towels, with white vinegar. Allow the mixture to foam and soak for several hours, then wipe off the cooked-on gunk with the flick of a wrist.

I watched the video several times and replicated the routine once, twice, three times … ultimately a half-dozen times. I reasoned that 17-year-old seasoning would be more stubborn than whatever prop pan was used in that Instagram video. And I couldn’t effectively coat and soak the entire wok in one shot, so I tackled it roughly in thirds, situating it in my sink so the paste and vinegar would pool on a particular spot.

Almost immediately, I noticed significant improvement as chunks of seasoning started releasing. But the uppermost edge was stubbornly adhered, requiring several more applications and vigorous scrubbing with additional salt, baking soda and steel wool. I wore out at least two scouring pads.

Finally, I freed my wok from seasoning. The metal’s coloration was still uneven, and some areas had been scrubbed so much they rusted upon contact with water. But the surface was smooth and unmarred by unsightly ridges and pockmarks. All that remained was doing what might seem counterintuitive after so much effort: seal the pores with a layer of oil.

The seasoning on a stainless steel wok or skillet, I read online, is not intended to be permanent like the surface of cast iron. It should constitute the thinnest, barest application possible, by swiping a lightly oiled paper towel over the metal’s smoking hot surface. Just to make sure I hadn’t overdone it, I wiped the wok down a few more times with clean paper towels after removing it from the heat.

It’s practically a new pan. And I’ve been newly inclined toward some favorite wok-style dishes. Given my wok’s shortcomings over the past 15 years, I still have a lot to learn. But I have approximated these classics of Chinese, Japanese and Korean cuisine enough to feel confident in passing them along.

Egg Foo Young

Peanut or vegetable oil, as needed

8 ounces fresh shiitake or portobello mushrooms, sliced thin

3 tablespoons soy sauce, divided

1 teaspoon dry vermouth or vegetable stock

2 teaspoons sesame oil, divided

1/2 cup water chestnuts, chopped rough

1/2 cup bean sprouts

1/2 cup thinly sliced scallion greens, divided

Kosher salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

6 eggs, beaten frothy

Steamed white rice, for serving

Egg Foo Young gravy (recipe follows)

Sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)

Heat a wok to medium-high; add 1 tablespoon of the peanut oil, immediately followed by the mushrooms. Cook until mushrooms start to brown, for about 5 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce and the vermouth; cook until mushrooms are golden-brown, for about 5 minutes more. Transfer to a big bowl, with scraped-up brown bits; stir 1 teaspoon of the sesame oil into mushrooms; set aside to cool.

After mushrooms cool, add the water chestnuts, bean sprouts, 1/4 cup of the scallion greens, remaining soy sauce and sesame oil and the salt and pepper to taste; toss to mix well.

To the beaten eggs, add mushroom-sprout mixture; mix well to coat all with eggs.

Clean out wok, heat, then add oil for frying, about 2 tablespoons. Immediately ladle about 1/2 cup egg mixture into wok. When bottom sets and turns barely golden, flip carefully. Cook other side. Transfer to a rack over a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining mixture, adding more oil if needed.

Best served immediately over steamed white rice, with gravy on top or alongside, garnished with remaining scallions and the sesame seeds. Makes 6 servings.

Egg Foo Young Gravy

1/2 cup peanut or coconut oil

1/2 cup finely sliced white part of scallions

4 ounces shiitake or portobello mushrooms, chopped well

1/2 cup flour

4 cups vegetable broth

1 teaspoon soy sauce

Kosher salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat a wok to medium-high; add the oil, scallion whites and mushrooms. Cook until browned well, for about 10 minutes.

Sprinkle in the flour; stir and cook until golden, for about 5 minutes. Slowly whisk in the broth until a sauce forms. Simmer until desired consistency is reached, for 5 to 10 minutes. Add the soy sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm until ready to serve.

Donburi Soboro

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 carrots, minced

2 scallions, trimmed and minced

4 to 6 ounces ground beef

8 ounces tofu, diced into 1/2-inch cubes

1/2 bunch spinach or 1/2 cup frozen, chopped

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

4 tablespoons soy sauce

Salt, to taste

4 eggs

Hot cooked rice, for serving

Hot sauce, for serving (optional)

In a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat, heat the oil and saute the carrots until tender. Add the scallions and cook until limp. Add the beef, breaking it up to prevent formation of chunks. Cook until brown. Add the tofu, spinach, sugar, soy sauce and salt to taste. Cook on low until heated through, stirring carefully so tofu doesn’t crumble.

Beat the eggs and add to mixture, cooking and stirring carefully until done, for about 4 to 5 minutes. Divide hot rice between 4 bowls and top each with meat-egg mixture. Serve with hot sauce, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Japchae

Marinade:

5 ounces tender beef (rib-eye, flank, or tenderloin), cut into 2-inch strips

3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1/4 teaspoon (or to taste) ground black pepper, plus more as needed

Noodles:

5 ounces dangmyeon (Korean sweet potato starch noodles)

1 tablespoon sesame seeds (toasted)

1/2 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoons sesame oil

4 ounces spinach

3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided, plus more if needed

2 eggs, beaten

1 small yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced (julienne)

1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced into thin strips (julienne)

1 red bell pepper, cored and sliced into thin strips (julienne)

Kosher or sea salt, to taste

Ground black pepper, to taste

5 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps cut into 1/4-inch strips

2 scallions, trimmed and cut on a bias

Combine the beef in a small bowl with the marinade ingredients. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate, refrigerated, for 15 minutes. Remove beef, reserving marinade and holding in separate containers.

Add the noodles to a large bowl of warm water and allow to soften, for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain noodles, rinse with cold water and drain well. Toss noodles with the sesame seeds, sugar, soy sauce and sesame oil; set aside.

In a large pot of salted, boiling water, blanch the spinach until wilted, for about 45 seconds; remove and shock in an ice bath. When cool, squeeze water from spinach and set aside.

Place a large, nonstick pan over high heat. When hot, add 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil. Add the beaten eggs; swirl to cover bottom of pan. Cook until underside is set, for about 1 minute. Flip over; cook until set through, for about 1 minute. Remove from pan; when cool, cut into julienne strips and set aside.

In a large saute pan or wok, add remaining 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Stir-fry the onions, carrots and bell pepper until tender-crisp, for about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper; remove and set aside.

Add marinated beef and the mushrooms to pan; stir-fry until cooked through, for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove and reserve.

Add additional oil if needed, then add seasoned noodles. If more moisture is desired, add reserved beef marinade. Stir-fry until hot, for 1 to 2 minutes. Add all reserved ingredients; stir-fry until hot throughout, for 1 to 2 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust as needed. Garnish with the scallions; serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.