Sunday, July 15, 2018

Wok Dreams - How To Season a Carbon Steel Wok (at the beach, or anywhere)

The owner of the Wok Shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown stopped me on the way to the register.

     “That’s a round bottom wok,” she said. “Are you sure your house has the right burner for that?”

     “Well,” I answered, “It’s like this.... We’re not so much buying the right wok for the house. It’s more like getting the right house for the wok.”

     “Oh?!” Grinning and pointing a finger at the ceiling... “I like where you have your priorities!”

     Yep. Me too.


It’s a bit of an exaggeration, this statement about the wok. But not much of one. After five years of visiting the small pueblo of Sayulita, Nayarit, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, we finally found the huevos to buy our own home here. Like a lot of gringos (and non-gringos), we found ourselves talking about the possibility of a home here during the very first visit. After that, it was a process of one thing or another conspiring to inch us closer and closer to the commitment.

     The wok was one of these things.

At home, I make do with a 14“, carbon steel, flat bottomed Helen Chen wok on a regular, flat gas burner. And hey, that wok gets 5 stars. It’s faithful and well-seasoned and cranks out at least three great meals a week in our standard American kitchen. But I dream of fire. Of standing over an enormous, blazing BTU inferno, brandishing a shining sliver spatula like the sword of Camelot, flipping screaming hot garlic, chives and chicken, cackling maniacally under a pair of singed eyebrows. Which is, in my kitchen, impossible, without filling the entire house with splattered oil and billowing smoke.

All over Thailand those glorious, standalone outdoor propane burners made me drool with envy. That seemed like the answer, if it weren't for the post-5PM fog that descends on our backyard year-round, making it a totally inhospitable outdoor kitchen environment.

In Sayulita, on the other hand, the weather’s warm all day and night, often with a nice breeze in the evening. Here, we don’t spend much time inside. It’s the perfect place to get a proper wok fire going. Also, even more important, having a kitchen and wok setup meant the ability to bring our favorite foods to our favorite place. As of now, there’s no place for Pad Thai or Hunan Chicken in town. Ah, the cravings for noodles! It burns, it burns! So whatever we need to build to build a REAL wok-ready kitchen here, we’re gonna do it.

After we closed on the house, it was straight to Chinatown for me. First, to the Wok Shop, to upgrade to a 16“ round bottom carbon steel wok and purchase a 32,000 BTU burner that should probably be illegal for civilians (haven’t been that excited since opening a 64-bit Sega Genesis system - WITH Altered Beast - on Christmas 1989), then a bunch of essential ingredients that I was skeptical about being able to purchase even in nearby Puerto Vallarta. Lastly, a gigantic tacky suitcase from one of the tourist shops, to stuff it all in. Talk about one stop shopping.

After packing, weighing, reassessing, and re-weighing, we got two suitcases to come in under the 75 pound limit. Tough choices were made. Oyster sauce and fermented black beans were non-negotiables. The thin and black soy sauces we had to leave behind, to follow on another trip. No Pad See Ew for now. *sniff*

The TSA website was a little murky about which things may or may not be allowed through customs. When the customs officer searched our bags they filched the whole dried chiles, but were cool with the crushed ones. Seems kinda arbitrary. They fortunately overlooked the pickled whole chiles in a jar - haha! So we’ve got those and everything else we brought, safe and sound in the casa.


The built-in propane burner setup will come later. It’ll require a lot of debate and engineering and Spanglish and trips to small funky hardware stores, and I’m in no hurry because the journey on all that should be as fun as the destination. In the meantime we'll just stick the burner up on the countertop. 

And now, this baby has to get seasoned, because the salt air is already attacking it.

The Wok Shop’s been testing oils for wok seasoning, and flaxseed oil came out on top, so use that if you can get it for seasoning, and follow these steps:

     CLEAN IT:

Scrub the wok - hard! don't nancy around! - with a sponge and soapy water to remove as much of the yucky protective coating as possible.

     DRY IT:

Put the wok on the stove and crank up the heat to get it completely dry.

     OIL IT:

Once it’s cooled, use a paper towel to coat the inside and outside with a thin layer of flaxseed or other neutral tasting oil. Approximately 1 tsp per side or so.

     COOK IT:

Bake the wok at 400-425 degrees fahrenheit for 40 minutes. Make sure to wrap any wooden handles in a wet rag with foil wrapped around it, so that they don’t get scorched. Also make sure to put the wok into the oven upside down. Fail to do that, like I did the first time, and the oil will pool in the bottom of the wok, making the coating uneven.


Let it cool off, and then, like Aimee Interrupter says... Do it again, Do it again... For maybe three times total.


Now the wok is looking gorgeous, dahling, and you’ve started building up the naturally non-stick surface that will last a lifetime, IF you take care of it. *(see warning note below) But it always seems like, no matter how hard you scrub before oiling, there’s some of that metallic factory covering lingering, so use some green onions like a natural scrub brush to furthers the seasoning process AND make 100% sure that the first meal you cook in the wok won’t taste like you're licking a penny. Heat the wok until smoking, pour in 1-2 tablespoons of oil, and add a handful of long pieces of green onion. Rub the onions up and down the sides of the wok with a spatula. Discard them and repeat.

No need to rush the seasoning process. Chill out, make a day of it. Hell, talk to the wok if you want to. If you’re like me, you’ll want to start communing with this little beastie that will be the cornerstone of your kitchen. Remember, you’ll be spending a lot of hours together.

While the oven’s doing it’s thing, maybe you kick up your feet and enjoy the happy little playlist I’ve put together for you (below). Maybe you use the time to update your will to instruct your surviving family members to bury you with your wok spatula. Maybe then you take a few minutes to go upstairs and make love to your spouse and maybe you accidentally scream out “Dan! Dan!” at an inopportune time, and then maybe you have to decide which explanation is worse: that you were thinking about dan dan noodles or that you were thinking about a dude whose name is Dan. Hey, it’s your time. Life is full of possibilities. I’m not here to judge.


To paraphrase Bradley, this wok's only gonna die from our own arrogance, so we might as well take our time. After completing the seasoning I did not take my time, stupidly ignored sage advice, and this was the ugly result:


How could this happen!?! Whelp, until you've built up a bulletproof surface via lots and lots of frying, your wok has a tender spot; a vulnerability; a natural enemy. That enemy is vinegar. "I've seasoned it enough," I said. "There's only a tablespoon of vinegar in this sauce," I said. "The wok can handle it," I said. Dead wrong, sister. After following the long, loving, careful process above for an entire day, it was time for baby wok's first dinner party. With our family plus four guests hungrily waiting for chow, I cranked up the flame, threw in some oil, a few aromatics, some veg, then the chicken. The rice was already hot and fluffy on the stove, drinks were poured, everyone was ready to eat. Only one remaining step: pour in the sauce, thicken it up, and then grub down.

That sauce may as well have been paint stripper. When it hit, all that glorious, fresh brown seasoning dissolved like one-ply toilet paper. Now a bunch of burned-looking flakes were doing the backstroke in the dish, and everywhere that the sauce touched, the wok surface became shiny, useless silver again. Ruined food, ruined wok, total dinner party meltdown. 

I'd like to claim ignorance about the potential destructive force that vinegar could have on a newly-seasoned wok; to say that this situation caught me entirely off-guard. Unfortunately, that's not the case. I had been forewarned. This disaster just rode in on the hubris horse. Surely my seasoning skills were so advanced that they would overcome the basic chemistry of the situation. Right?

In cooking parlance, the opposite of vinegar would have to be oil. And oil is the solution to this vinegar problem. Just like humans, woks need fat and oil-heavy cooking in order to mature. Deep frying is ideal, if possible (GREAT excuse to deep fry), or cooking bacon (GREAT excuse for gobs and gobs of bacon). Non-vinegar based sauces are also fine. Over time, with the help of fat and more fat, the seasoning in my new wok has started to come back to life. Ok, ok, and I've also learned a lesson (hmph, stupid lessons) in patience from this humbling smack-down.



I Try To Think About Elvis - Patty Loveless

Sold - John Michael Montgomery
Some Girls Do - Sawyer Brown
C'Mon Everybody - Eddie Cochran
Cut Across Shorty - Eddie Cochran
Honey Don't - Carl Perkins
Lucille - Little Richard
Come On, Let's Go - Ritchie Valens
Rave On - Buddy Holly
Burning Love - Elvis Presley
Good Hearted Woman - Waylon Jennings
Born to Boogie - Hank Williams, Jr. 
Once More - The Buckaroos
Rip It Up - Elvis Presley
Get Rhythm - Johnny Cash
Say Mama - Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps
I've Got a Tiger By the Tail - Buck Owens
God Blessed Texas - Little Texas

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


One of the many advantages of living in an Asian neighborhood is cheap produce. And once in a while this ‘hood really outdoes itself and drops something at your doorstep for FREE.

Case in point: Some little refugee pomelos recently fled their crowded homeland garden and made their way over the rear border fence into our territory. Like good San Franciscans, we offered them sanctuary, no questions asked.

Welcome... Weeeelcome.

Pomelos are a southeast Asian citrus. Unlike the ones in the store, these backyard fog-grown versions are almost inedible on their own. And no one’s ever comes over for brunch and asked us for pomelo mimosas. So, what to do with these thick-skinned, thorny little escapees?  Well, as the saying goes…

When opportunity knocks: ferment it.

Here’s the story: Late last year, San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewery released a grapefruit-infused version of their Sculpin IPA. It’s freaking addictive. We were going through that stuff like a stripper goes through Summer’s Eve, and at $18 a six pack, it looked like one of us was going to have to sell a kidney pretty soon in order to keep us in beer. Thankfully, white boy (the genius behind Sunset Brewing) ended up brewing a clone called OG (Original Grapefruit) IPA and our bank account has almost made a full recovery.

Now, thanks to our mysterious neighbors to the east (no really, they have the yard to the east of us, and they are shrouded in mystery – all we know is that they’re quiet and there’s a lot of them), a sister beer - OPP (Other People’s Pomelo) IPA has been born. (recipe below)   

The zest of these bad boys packs a punch – super citrusy and sour. So much citrus oil, actually, that the zest burned a pattern in the plastic tray on our food scale. Their peel is hard and super thick.  Despite all that, the end brew could have done with more actual pomelo flavor. Don’t get me wrong; it was rad and we drank ALL of it. But in subsequent versions we've pumped it up with more zest. 

American IPA
Type: Partial Mash                                           Date: 10/10/2014
Batch Size (fermenter): 5.00 gal                      Brewer: Sergei Andruha
Boil Size: 4.27 gal                                             Asst Brewer:
Equipment: Pot and Cooler ( 5 Gal/19 L) - Extract/Partial
Boil Time: 60 min
End of Boil Volume 3.90 gal                              Brewhouse Efficiency: 72.00 %
Final Bottling Volume: 4.60 gal          Est Mash Efficiency 82.8 % Fermentation: Ale, Single Stage    Taste Rating(out of 50): 30.0 Taste Notes:



Amt                               Name                                                                             Type           #      %/IBU
2 lbs Cara-Pils/Dextrine (2.0 SRM) Grain 1 18.6 % 2 lbs Pale Malt (2 Row) US (2.0 SRM) Grain 2 18.6 %
8.0 oz                             Caravienne Malt (22.0 SRM)                                        Grain          3      4.7 %
1.00 oz                           Amarillo [9.20 %] - Mash 60.0 min                               Hop            4      7.2 IBUs
0.50 oz                           Warrior [15.00 %] - Boil 60.0 min                                 Hop            5        29.5 IBUs
0.25 oz                            Columbus (Tomahawk) [14.00 %] - Boil 60.0 min        Hop            6        13.8 IBUs
0.25 oz                           Magnum [12.00 %] - Boil 60.0 min                               Hop            7        11.8 IBUs
0.25 oz                           Willamette [5.50 %] - Boil 60.0 min                             Hop            8      5.4 IBUs
0.25 oz                           Citra [12.00 %] - Boil 30.0 min                                      Hop            9      9.1 IBUs
0.25 oz                            Crystal [3.50 %] - Boil 30.0 min                                    Hop            10    2.6 IBUs
0.25 oz                           Simcoe [13.00 %] - Boil 30.0 min                                  Hop            11    9.8 IBUs
1.00 Items                      Whirlfloc Tablet (Boil 15.0 mins)                                  Fining         12   -
1.00 oz Pomello Zest, Bitter (Boil 5.0 mins)   Spice    13        1.00 oz Amarillo [9.20 %] - Boil 0.0 min            Hop      14        0.0 IBUs
1.0 pkg                            California Ale (White Labs #WLP001) [35.49 ml]        Yeast          15   -
6 lbs 4.0 oz                     Pilsner Liquid Extract (3.5 SRM)                                   Extract        16    58.1 %
2.00 oz                            Amarillo [9.20 %] - Dry Hop 7.0 Days                          Hop            17    0.0 IBUs
1.00 oz                            Simcoe [13.00 %] - Dry Hop 7.0 Days                           Hop            18    0.0 IBUs
0.50 oz                           Pomelo Zest, Bitter (Secondary 3.0 days)                     Spice           19   -

Beer Profile

Est Original Gravity: 1.067 SG                          Measured Original Gravity: 1.046 SG
Est Final Gravity: 1.015 SG                               Measured Final Gravity: 1.010 SG
Estimated Alcohol by Vol: 6.9 %        Actual Alcohol by Vol: 4.7 % Bitterness: 89.2 IBUs            Calories: 151.6 kcal/12oz
Est Color: 5.7 SRM

Mash Profile

Mash Name: Single Infusion, Light Body,
Total Grain Weight: 10 lbs 12.0 oz
No Mash Out
Sparge Water: 3.40 gal                                    Grain Temperature: 72.0 F
Sparge Temperature: 168.0 F Tun Temperature: 72.0 F Adjust Temp for Equipment: TRUE        Mash PH: 5.20

Mash Steps

Step Time
Mash In
Add 6.63 qt of water at 161.3 F
150.0 F
75 min
Sparge Step: Fly sparge with 3.40 gal water at 168.0 F
Mash Notes: Simple single infusion mash for use with most modern well modified grains (about 95% of the time).

Carbonation and Storage

Carbonation Type: Bottle                                  Volumes of CO2: 2.3
Pressure/Weight: 3.61 oz                                 Carbonation Used: Bottle with 3.61 oz Corn Sugar
Keg/Bottling Temperature: 70.0 F                  Age for: 30.00 days
Fermentation: Ale, Single Stage                       Storage Temperature: 65.0 F


Saturday, February 21, 2015

SF Beer Week - Dim Sum and Belgians

San Francisco Beer Week is here. Across the Bay Area taps are spewing the modern day versions of frankincense and myrrh; stuff so precious that you ordinarily can’t get it. Nope, not even on the interweb. Not at that trendy bar with skinny bartenders in suspenders. Not even in beer trades with people on the other side of the country, most of the time. Thanks to Amazon and Netflix, we’ve lost touch with what it feels like to not be able to get whatever we want, whenever we want it. We become insane with lust for anything unattainable, so Pliny the Younger and Dogfish Head 120 bring ALL the lumbersexuals to the yard during Beer Week.

Beer Week’s a nightmare for anyone with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).  There are 600 events over 10 days. Even if you quit your job and damn your liver… you’ll still miss out. So you have to choose: What wondrous events are too sweet to miss? Not to state the obvious, but this 7 course Szechwan Dim Sum and Belgian Beer pairing at Mama Ji’s was not an event I was willing to just hear about from friends after it happened. 

Dim Sum in the Gayborhood? That has a 15-line beer sonnet on their menu? Oh yeah, this is livin' the DREAM, people.
What we done came for. 
Best pairing of the night - seafood shumai with the Lucifer Golden Ale. For this, I would storm the Emperor's castle wearing nothing but granny panties.
Turnip cake. With sausage and beer. As god intended.
Hard to remember the last time I saw three different types of beer glasses at a Chinese restaurant. Oh yeah wait, it was NEVER.
Pork Buns and Vegetarian Buns. Vegetarians... thanks for making this a world that has fewer pork buns in it. I hope you're happy. 
Oh good lord, I'm so full, I couldn't possibly.... 
Well OK, fine, maybe just one.
Lady, stop bringing food out here. Are you trying to kill us? Pack this up to go please, for the love of all that's holy. Wait, wait! ...leave that beer though. 
Usually when I eat this much I get my picture on the wall, or a free t-shirt, or something. So... just sayin. No? Well screw you - pack this stuff up too then.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Chairman Food Truck

Tired of food trucks phoning it in? Riding the wave of food truck mania and slinging mediocre food? 

Check out the Chairman's legit Gua Bao... 

Can't get by on clever names and fancy truck-wrap graphics alone. But it doesn't hurt. 

Pork and pork and chicken and pickle and buns. Oh my. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Happy Dumpling - Stonestown Farmer's Market

When I grow up, I'll eat dumplings for breakfast. Every. Day.

In the long tradition of anthropomorphizing dumplings. 

Break me off a piece a dat.

Positive reviews? Propaganda? Both? 

This dumpling is all about that bass, no treble. Extra thick wrapping would kick a Xiao Long Bao's delicate little booty. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Kimchi Bacon Burger

This was supposed to be the first generation ‘test run’ of a more sophisticated (read: complicated) burger that would evolve to incorporate Korean BBQ ingredients like Asian pear and ginger and stuff. But after tasting this beast, the verdict was that it would be hard to improve on it. Kimchee and pork are like lemon and garlic. Like Frankie and Dino. Coffee and doughnuts. Mario and Luigi. There’s a reason those matches have endured for decades; an alchemy that doesn’t need much messing with.

So smoke a bowl, cook this burger, then call in sick for work tomorrow ‘cause you’re gonna have to spend all day in the gym to work this one off. 

Kimchi Bacon Burgers (makes 4 burgers)

1 lb ground beef

1/4 lb ground pork

6-7 pieces thick cut smoked bacon

Sriracha mayonnaise (mayo + sriracha to taste. I use approx 4:1 mayo to sriracha. If you think mayo in a jar is grody (and it is), here’s a recipe for idiot-proof homemade mayo:

Hamburger Buns

1 1/2 cups Kimchi

½ tsp salt

Thoroughly mix beef and pork together with your hands, adding salt as you go.
Form meat into 2 patties, making the center of the patty thinner than the outside, so it doesn’t bulge up in the middle when you cook it (so annoying).

Cook burgers on the grill, in the broiler, in a pan, whatever. You know how to make a burger. Medium rare, unless you’re one of those “well done” people, in which case that’s something you should definitely be disclosing on your online dating profile. Toast up those buns.  Meanwhile, cook the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until it’s browned but not crispy, otherwise bacon shards will be flying all over the dinner table.

Spread a generous amount of Sriracha mayo on both buns, add burger, and top burger with kimchi and bacon.  Serve with side of more spicy mayo for dipping your tater tots or oven fries into.

NOTE ON THE KIMCHI: I recently made a version of this one from my homegirl Maangchi:

So easy even white people can do it. I omitted the salty squid because I just straight up chickened out on it, and cut the recipe by about 75% so I didn’t have to go out and buy a bigger house. It’s very bomb, very delicious, and the bonus is getting to watch the videos in which Maangchi take adorableness straight to 11.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving Leftovers 2: The Curry That Saved Christmas

Aaaand now it’s Sunday. Day three after the holiday, and the last of that turkey had. to. go. If we threw that final, symbolic half pound away, then an innocent beast would have died in vain, the abundance of the holiday would have been dishonored, and we would have been spitting in the face of our Pilgrim ancestors who would have called up Santa and baby Jesus all ornery-like to instruct them to fill our stockings with weasel droppings and Justin Beiber novelty pens.  

So for the final push, here it is, The Curry That Saved Christmas.

Today I am grateful for keffir lime leaves, coconut milk, and the fact that this dish tastes like all of the things that don’t remind me of Thanksgiving food.  

Turkey, Kale and Sweet Potato Curry     

2 tsp vegi oil
½ onion, sliced
2-3 thai chilies, chopped fine
4 tsp red thai curry paste
1 ½ cups chicken broth
1 cup coconut milk
1 tsp soy sauce
2 keffir lime leaves, torn
1 ½ cup kale (or ½ lb of green beans, or other leftover greens)
½ lb cooked turkey, cubed
2-3 cooked sweet potatoes, cubed (festive marshmallow and/or fruity topping scraped off).*
White rice, for serving

In a large pot, heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and thai chilies and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or so until onions are soft.  Add curry paste and fry, stirring, for 1-2 minutes. Add broth, coconut milk, soy sauce and kefir lime leaves and bring to a simmer. Add kale or other greens. If greens are raw, simmer in the curry for 4-5 minutes until cooked through. Add turkey and sweet potatoes, and simmer for another 2 minutes, just to heat. ** Serve with rice, hot pepper flakes, and lime wedges.

*This only works if you make sweet potatoes like my mother-in-law. That is, not mashed but cut into halves and baked with sweet stuff on top.  Otherwise use raw sweet potatoes, peeled, and added just after the broth and coconut and cooked for 5-10 minutes until tender. Leftover pumpkin or other firm winter squash will work just as well.

** Should your sweet potatoes have, like mine, been sitting on the counter for three days instead of in the fridge like they were supposed to be, boil vigorously for 2 minutes to kill whatever questionable bacteria might be present. Unless your great-great-grandparents came over on the Mayflower, in which case the USDA advises that you are of such hearty and resilient stock that the potatoes are safe for you to consume either way.