Savoury Avacado Chicken in a Cast Iron Wok

I’ve read all manner of reviews about one of the epic cast iron pieces in my collection, the fourteen inch wok, and it turns out the idea of a big and heavy iron wok is divisive and controversial.

A traditional wok (which I do not own) is an agile tool. It is light. It’s meant to be brought up to screeching hot temperatures in which food is moved, flipped, agitated, swirled and stirred with motion of both a scoop in the hand and by tossing and lifting the wok itself. Wok cooking is truly an art form.

It does turn out however that a residential gas stovetop with modest ventilation is not an ideal place to cook in a traditional wok. On the other hand, a wok-shaped bowl of cast iron is pretty darn good enough to replicate some of the properties of a wok. In fact, having spent the last two years learning how to cook well in my cast iron wok has been a remarkably rewarding experience.

And a tasty one.

Our challenge in the wok has been learning to cook dishes that have a curious cultural legacy here in North America. Not everything cooks well in a wok. Woks have a very narrow purpose even in experimenting across cultural recipes. Again, this may be a sensitive topic for some, but as a result of colonial history and inequalities among those who settled here over the generations, in the twenty-first century we have what I understand is a unique form of cuisine: North American Style Asian food. Or as one of my running pals who hails from Hong Kong reminds me frequently “not real Chinese food.”

What I’ve read is that cooking styles and spices mingled with availability of ingredients and limited by tastes linked back to various European ancestries meant that traditional cooking was almost impossible. Immigrants who crossed the Pacific rather than the Altantic set up restaurants as a means to make a living and a life here. They found that they needed to invent dishes that brought the knowledge and experience from their homelands but would be palatable to western tastes (so people would buy and eat it) so dishes like General Tao’s Chicken, Chop Suey, or Ginger Beef became locally known as “Chinese food” but were never dishes that one would actually find in China.

Fast forward to my kitchen, and decades of savouring those shopping mall food court noodle and rice clamshells of spicy goodness. A cast iron wok in my kitchen and a very Canadian-style of recipe that brings together a mish-mash of cultural and regional styles, ingredients, and flavours that results in many various stir-fry-style dishes something like Savoury Avacado Chicken:

The Recipe.

First, mix up the following as a deglazing sauce and then set aside.

125 ml water
15 ml of cornstarch
small packet of chicken bouillon powder
15 ml of lemon juice

As you heat up the wok to get it screaming hot, mise en place your main ingredients, frying in succession the chicken, then the peppers and mushrooms, then adding the spices and diced avacados until it all comes together into a lovely stir fried jumble.

vegetable oil and/or sesame oil for pan
450 grams chicken breast meat (cubed)
handful red bell pepper (diced)
handful white mushrooms (sliced)

10 ml curry powder
salt and pepper to taste
1 large avacado (diced)
toasted sesame seeds to garnish

Deglaze the whole thing with the boullion/lemon juice mix from earlier, and serve over rice garnished with a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds.

Thus, the controversy of the cast iron wok: not an authentic wok, sure, but I’m not cooking authentic recipes. It all evens out, right?

Cooking an Easy Stovetop Paella

I want to tread carefully into the waters of writing about certain foods. Food always … always, always, always… has rich cultural roots that wrap around people and their own personal and shared histories. I respect that.

I write this because I am aware that some (if not all) of the recipes I make and (often) write about online are steeped in the cultures of other people. And I share these recipes, writing about them here and other places, simply to express the joy I’ve been given in learning to cook those things (and then sharing the results with my family.) It is a way for me to attempt to honour and more deeply understand those cultures, and hopefully pass along that respect. It also makes me long to visit the homelands of these dishes and see how accurately the recipes have traversed time and distance to reach me here in the middle of the Canadian prairies.

For example, Paella.

To me Paella is a dish that feels like it has deep cultural roots, well-known and tracing back through Spanish origins.

We inherited a paella recipe somewhere along the way that recipe has become a regular staple in our kitchen. It’s one we thoroughly enjoy making and eating even though I cannot lay claim to even a single drop of Spanish blood in my veins.

Our Paella Recipe

1mL saffron
1mL salt
1mL paprika

500g boneless skinless chicken thighs (chunked)
150g chorizo
sausage (chunked)
1 whole red bell pepper (diced)
1 medium yellow onion
1 tablespoon of minced garlic
2 tablespoons fresh parsley
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 cup Arborio
rice
125mL (cheap) white wine
175mL chicken stock

olive oil for pan

The broth and the saffron need to come together for a start.

The chicken then needs to be browned, and separately sweat the onion and pepper. I do this in batches in the same four quart braiser and everything turns out just a little nicer.

The veggies all in the pan, the tomato paste and garlic should be mixed in and fried up together to coat. Shortly after drop in the rice and let that coat up and come together with everything else in the pan. These two steps shouldn’t take more than a couple minutes.

The saffron broth, wine, water, spices, chorizo, and cooked chicken now all go into the pan, come to a light boil, and then are simmered while covered to let the rice cook. You may need to stir this every five minutes or so just so the rice doesn’t get too crunchy on the bottom of the pan.

Stir in the parsley when the rice is cooked and let it stand for a few minutes to set up before serving.

This becomes a rich and delicious one-pan meal and it definitely makes me hope that some day I’ll find my way to Spain to compare it to a more traditionally authentic version of the recipe.

Making Homemade New York(ish) Style Pizza for Pi Day

The kid was determined to eat round for March 14th.

We’d already made a pair of fruit dessert pies for later, but she decided that pizza was on the menu. What better way to make use of one of those specialty cast iron pieces that doesn’t otherwise see much day-to-day use: the 14 inch pizza pan.

Sadly I didn’t give myself enough runway to make use of my sourdough pizza crust recipe.

Some recipe research and light modification produced the following, which actually turned out fairly awesome from a “reminds me of that time in New York” slice perspective.

recipe

450 g all purpose flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 1/4 cups tap water

1 cup tomato sauce
blend of pizza spices, to taste
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese
assorted pizza toppings

We blended the flour, salt, sugar, and yeast in a food processor, then drizzled in the water and oil until a shaggy dough ball formed. This was kneaded on the floured countertop to a smooth consistency, then divided into two smaller portions, rolled until smooth. We oiled these up and let them rest and rise on the counter for a couple hours.

I heated up the tomato paste in my small cast iron melting pot, stirred in the spice mix, and let it bubble away for about fifteen minutes until everything was nicely blended.

The proofed dough balls were hand-shaped to two fourteen inch crusts, docked, and baked at 450F for about ten minutes (or until I noticed they were starting to brown on the top.) Ideally you should crank your oven a little hotter, but I need to clean mine and 550F would have smoked us out of the house.

The pizza crusts were topped and then baked back in the still-hot oven for about 12 minutes until the cheese was bubbly.

She missed out on a school trip to New York city last fall thanks to pandemic lockdowns, but with a recipe like this… well it smoothed out the rough edges a little bit.

This is Pi Day

Any excuse to bake something, my pie skills are not top game but with the assistance of my daughter we managed to bake a pair of non-standard cast iron pies to celebrate the dad-jokiest of days.

We doubled the recipe below to make a six inch mini (or as the teenager would have it, personal) pie and a super-large double-dip pie in the big ol’ twelve inch lodge pan.

Pi day also falls at the wrong time of year for some proper fresh fruit, so where we’d have a couple thousand baking apples to work with in August, in March we used our fallback: cherry and blueberry pie filling from a can.

Recipe

1/2 pound lard
2.5 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup orange juice
1 can of pie filling

The flour, salt and lard got mixed up roughly in a bowl, being careful not to overwork. Unlike with a good gluten-strong bread, pastry and gluten are cautious friends and too much gluten development makes for chewy crust where a flaky pastry is preferred. Blend lightly, my friends. Oh so lightly.

When just mixed, the orange juice was combined in and the whole thing was wrapped tight for a couple hours of rest in the fridge.

Rolled out, panned up, filled, and topped, we baked these at 475F for ten minutes then dropped the heat to 375F for a finishing bake watching for the desired browning. The filling was pre-cooked, so the cast iron pan on the bottom and the hot air on top ensure the whole thing is cooked through.

Happy Pi Day. Enjoy something round!