I just bought a new wok, and I don't know how I lived so long without one.
I've heard professional cooks rave about cast iron cookware. I avoided it because I thought cast iron would be too hard to take care of. "Seasoning" the pan sounded like a pain.
Like my Food Network hero, Alton Brown, I don't like single function tools (except a can opener) in my kitchen. Despite my love of asian food, I avoided getting a wok. What else can you make in a wok except stir fry? I can make stir fry in my saute pan.
I was wrong about both counts. If I had known how marvelous and versatile a cast iron wok is, it would have been the first item I bought when I was learning to cook and build my kitchen collection.
I've slowly replaced my non-stick cookware with cast iron. I now have no teflon coated pans in my kitchen. Cast iron is as old as the metal age, and has been used for thousands of years. I also have a rule that my kitchen utensils must be durable, sturdy, and long lasting. No 'throw away' items to be replaced when they break. If it's something I expect to break, I don't buy it.
I'm also surprised that cast iron is easy to clean, my main 'reason' for avoiding it in the first place. "I can't put it in the dishwasher, so it must be too difficult to care for."
Seasoning the surface is not difficult at all - just heating oil in the pan a few minutes at a time when first purchased. After that, it's as simple as rinsing the surface in water while it's still warm. No abrasives needed. I used to be real bad about leaving my dirty dishes at the side of the sink. Now I'm better about cleaning up as I go. After dinner is eaten, the cast iron is perfect temperature to touch and rinse off.
The wok is not just for stir fries and deep frying. The wide, sloped lip on my wok makes it ideal for pushing food aside as it finishes cooking. Remember recipes that say things like, "Brown chicken on all sides, then set aside". I just push the chicken up the side of the wok to make room for the next ingredient. It keeps warm. No extra dishes used - I like that!
For most of the week, I have been giving my wok a test run with my favorite asian meals. Last night, I headed out of the Orient and into the culinary delights of the Mediterranean with Spanish Paella.
Paella is a very old dish. It was invented by Spanish fishermen who were far from home and needed a quick cooking, nutritionally dense, and inexpensive meal.
Quick cooking, cheap, healthy, and delicious - sounds like my kind of dinner!
The traditional paella pan is very large and flat because increased surface area means quicker cooking. The same reason makes a wok a good candidate for making paella.
I used to think of paella as an expensive dish, mostly because it's a 'specialty' dish in the US that's usually only found in fine restaurants (at least in the places where I lived). Saffron, the key spice, is intimidating because of the cost.
When I went to Spain, I learned paella is actually a cheap 'comfort food' to the Spanish, on par with things like stews or chili in the US. It is considered 'poor man food', which makes it comical that I used to think of it as being a specialty gourmet thing! Saffron is a very, very potent spice, and a $10 per gram packet will last many meals. A few threads are used, at most.
Like everything else this week, I prepped my ingredients ahead of time.
Chicken sausage, 1 chicken breast, carrots, diced onions (1 cup from the batch pictured here), green beans, red bell pepper, tomato, chicken broth, paprika, rice, and few strands of saffron in 2 tbsp warm water.
If you want to make paella, there really is no substitute for saffron. It truly is a distinct, unique spice. Here's a closeup of the saffron. Now that I'm looking at the picture, I've actually got too much here - ack. I only needed half that - DOH!
I'm also adding half a pound of fresh, Georgia shrimp.
Brown the chicken, set aside. Brown the sausage, set aside. Add onions to the pan until translucent. Remember how I mentioned earlier that the large lip of the wok allowed me to just push these off to the side without adding more dishes?
All veggies are added to the pan until just heated.
Everything is mixed together, rice added.
Let it cook until the rice is almost done, then add the shrimp.
Keep adding more broth as necessary to keep the rice moist, until the shrimp is fully cooked. About 5-10 minutes, depending on the size of the shrimp.
Normally I would enjoy with a fabulous Spanish wine, but I didn't have any. We made a pineapple-daiquiri. Remember the pineapple I chopped up on Sunday. We put a few chunks of pineapple in a blender with ice, and a couple shots of coconut rum.
Absolutely delicious! Though, it's not as awesome as the paella I had in Spain. Paella is a Spanish favorite. They brag about the best one their grandmothers used to make. I don't have a Spanish grandmother, so I'll just have to keep trying until I can find the secret. In the meantime, I'm enjoying trying!
Spanish Paella recipe: recipes.sparkpeople.com/