I’m squarely an Italian cook. I crave puttanesca, dream of ribollita and would have carried a bouquet of zucchini flowers when I walked down the aisle last month if they were in season. Yet the pot I use most, the one that never leaves the range, is a $12 wok that I bought it in a crowded Chinatown kitchen supply store. It has proven indispensable for preparing at least half of my favorite Italian meals.
I never had a serious interest in Chinese cooking until I heard cookbook author and wok evangelist Grace Young speak at a food writers’ symposium. For me, Chinese food was either for delivery or a food adventure when stuck with jury duty in New York City. But listening to Young’s impassioned lecture about upholding Chinese cultural traditions through the use of the carbon-steel wok captivated me.
As a historian, I was thrilled to learn how the patina of a carbon-steel wok slowly blackens and transforms with frequent use. (Like a Byzantine icon darkened by candle smoke, it gains potency from devotion.) But mostly I connected to Young’s avowal that a family’s history could be re-embodied through cooking.
See, my Uncle Sonny had died the day before I heard Young’s lecture. I was wrestling with a complicated grief for a stubborn man who had succumbed to preventable illness. He had never left home or his Italian-immigrant parents, even after my beloved Nana and Papa passed away. For seven years, he lived alone among their possessions – Papa’s pasta board and Nana’s bread pans among the most precious vestiges. He faded away in their silent house, eating solitary dinners on the simple white and blue flatware that I associated with big Sunday family dinners.
I thought of the board, pans and plates as having an invisible patina, built from the spirit of meals my grandparents had prepared, always with so much love and pleasure. As Grace explained how the wok was often the one link that Chinese immigrants had to their traditions, I knew the relics of Nana and Papa’s kitchen were mediums to my own.
A few months later, my kitchen held the board, bread pans and plates, two of Young’s books and a new carbon-steel wok, ready to be dutifully seasoned with chives and ginger. My first Chinese food experiments were done to the letter of each recipe, with Young’s “Breath of a Wok” propped up on the counter while I moved through the quick choreography of stir-frying.
Afterward, I’d carefully bathe the wok, wiping it gently with the soft side of a sponge under lukewarm water. Holding it against the overhead light, I’d scrutinize the tea-colored patina, to see what progress, if any, I was making.
Young had said that a new wok loves pork fat, so I seared off sausages for a quick weeknight meal. It worked so well for both the sausage and the wok’s patina that I decided to use the wok to brown meatballs. A week later, I used it to brown veal bones for what my then-fiancé declared the best osso buco he had ever tasted – a high compliment since the recipe came from his own Northern Italian mother.
While still using the wok for the occasional Chinese stir-fry, I began to improvise with my own Italian cooking. There didn’t seem to be much difference between Chinese and Italian preparations for broccoli rabe or spinach with garlic, so I prepared my greens Chinese style, but with extra-virgin olive oil instead of peanut oil. Frying in a wok leaves far less splatter to clean up, so I more frequently started frying eggplant slices coated in chickpea flour, zucchini flower fritters and arancini—bread-crumb coated balls of rice, cheese and ground beef.
As the patina grew sturdier, I added some crushed tomatoes to make an exceptionally quick and delectable Italian-style stir-fry of sausage and peppers that food-crazy Uncle Sonny would have loved. The wok also gave new life to my favorite meal from childhood— Neapolitan ragù or “Sunday gravy.”
Because of the great sear I could get using the wok, I reintroduced cotica, a stuffed and rolled pigskin braciole, to the mix of meats. This signature ingredient of my Nana’s hometown in the mountains near Salerno recreated the smell and taste of Sunday dinner like nothing ever had.
I like to think my wok illustrates a beautiful symbiosis between Chinese and Italian culture in America. My great-grandfather’s first voyage to the Unites States was as a temporary worker laying railroad tracks out to the west, alongside Chinese laborers. Mid-20th century immigrants from Italy and China shared a neighborhood in lower Manhattan. Chinese and Italian cooking are both simple, uncomplicated and, at their best, focused on the freshest of ingredients. Wherever you travel in the world, you can reliably find Italian and Chinese food.
One year later, my wok is a storyteller; its patina is built with flavors from my own tradition of Sunday gravy to my new mother-in-law’s osso buco. It’s also built from the scrambled eggs and bacon my husband makes for me on Sunday mornings. My wok is a medium for rekindling the happy days of Uncle Sonny’s life, when the entire family huddled together in Nana and Papa’s kitchen, eating with great gusto.
In addition to the inherited pasta board, bread pans and blue-and-white plates which I use daily, my wok will some day be a happy artifact of my own cooking and of the all the meals enjoyed around my table.
Inspired by cookbook author Grace Young, Danielle Oteri began using her wok to sear sausages in effort to build a patina. It worked so well, that she started using the wok to make traditional Italian dishes, including this classic recipe for sausages and peppers. Because of the acidity of the tomatoes, this recipe isn't recommended for a young wok that hasn't yet developed a sturdy patina.
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 links of sweet Italian sausage, sliced into one inch pieces
- 2 links of hot Italian sausage, sliced into one inch pieces
- 2 red peppers, seeded and cut into long slices
- 1 medium white onion, sliced
- 1 medium red onion, sliced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
Measure 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil into a well-seasoned wok and heat on medium-high. Once hot, add sausage slices, turning each piece with tongs to sear until nicely browned on both sides.
Add diced peppers and onions and stir-fry for 1 minute. Sprinkle in salt and stir-fry 30 seconds more. Add tomatoes and stir to combine. Cover the wok and cook for 3 to 5 minutes or until peppers are softened. Remove lid and add remaining oil; stir-fry 30 seconds. Serve immediately on a lightly toasted roll or with a piece of thick, crusty bread.