My Italian Wok

Italian wok

Danielle Oteri uses her wok to fry sausages and peppers and to make other classic Italian dishes./Photo by Danielle Oteri

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.

Once Oteri's wok developed a sturdy patina, she was able to use it to make tomato-based dishes./Photo by Danielle Oteri

Once Oteri’s wok developed a sturdy patina, she began using it to make tomato-based dishes like sausages and peppers./Photo by Danielle Oteri

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.

 

Makes 2 servings

Italian-Style Sausage and Peppers in a Flat-Bottomed Wok

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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

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.

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25 Responses to My Italian Wok

  1. Jeanne Mozier April 1, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    My wok is my favorite vessel for oven roasting turkey. I have a heavy, large, sturdy wok that was a wedding present more than 40 years ago. We spent a year on the road traveling the country soon after we got married, living out of a van. I had limited space and brought only two pots — a saucepan and my wok.

    • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal April 5, 2013 at 7:27 am #

      Jeanne, that’s amazing. How do you roast a turkey in a wok? (and it must be a REALLY big wok!)

  2. Helen Free April 1, 2013 at 9:16 am #

    Among other aspects of this article, I loved reading about the wok bathing ritual. I will rethink how I wash my beloved pans.

  3. Profile photo of Michelle Capobianco
    Michelle Capobianco April 1, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    Hi Danielle, First things first…can’t wait fry eggplant in chickpea flour…I’ve never tried that but it sounds genius! Although I loved reading your piece, I was left with a twinge of regret. Although I grew up with Italian immigrant parents, I never had any interest in learning to cook myself until I was about to get married. I registered for every cooking vessel and utensil you could imagine, including a wok and a fajita pan, and was determined to teach myself how to use every one of them. However, a 70-hour work week as a corporate lawyer and an escalating obsession with regional Italian cuisine led me to narrow my focus to Italian cookery. My wok continued to gather dust in the back of the pantry until I finally gave it away during a move. Your lovely article has made me wish I had utilized that wok in my Italian cooking adventures! Ciao, Michelle

    • Profile photo of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti April 1, 2013 at 11:50 am #

      No regrets Michelle ~ it’s not too late to start now. And I’m with you ~ I love the idea of frying eggplant in chickpea flour. Must try!

      I actually did eat a fair amount of Chinese food when I was growing up. My Italian-born mother loved it and when I was a kid our family would often take day trips in to NYC to have dinner in Chinatown. When I was a teenager I started making Chinese dinners at home using a Sunset Chinese cookbook and a cookbook co-written by Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee. Now I have a growing collection of not only Chinese but other Asian cookbooks as well, from which my teenage daughter cooks often. However, the thought of browning Italian sausages in a wok, or frying vegetables in it, would never have occurred to me. Now I can’t wait to start experimenting.

  4. judithbishop April 2, 2013 at 8:59 am #

    Yes, your story was about the cross cultural use of the wok. To me it was about how a humble tool has taken on a hallowed spot in your kitchen and how it channels your cooking. From the magic of the bread boards to the wok. We all have tools that speak to us.
    Thanks!

  5. Lara O'Brien April 2, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

    Great piece Danielle! I must make eggplant fried in chickpea flour. You just inspired me to buy a wok – the one pan I don’t have!

  6. Casey April 2, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    Gorgeously written, Danielle. I love all the levels of symbiosis in this story, from the personal connections to the larger cultural ties.

  7. Danielle Oteri April 2, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    The wok is more than a pot, it’s an instrument in all senses of the word. The fact that it’s very inexpensive and incredibly versatile is just a bonus. And yes, I always fry my eggplant in chickpea flour! It gives it a greaty nutty taste and a little crunch as well.

  8. Rosemary Nickel @Motivating Other Moms April 3, 2013 at 7:44 am #

    What a great piece. You have inspired me to pull my wok out! I purchased one and used it once. Wasn’t sure what to do with it after the one Chinese dish I made. I do remember really enjoying cooking with it. Can’t wait to get started! Thanks Danielle Oteri!!

  9. Jamie April 3, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    What a beautiful essay! Beautiful! I now must pull out my rarely-used wok and try a little French or North African. A stunning story!

  10. bob woo April 3, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

    Well, I am a squarely cook that is Chinese American. I recall reading way back, Italian cooking was closest to Chinese cooking……another thread. I also cook with only three oils: cheap olive oil blend (for health and neutral taste), extra virgin for flavor (used off heat), and canola for frying.
    The Wok.
    A well “seasoned” wok is made of spun (carbon) steel. It is fairly thin, and one breaks it in by heating with a brushing of oil a few times. One does the same with cast iron skillets, another treasured pan……..the original non-stick pans. They need only, once “seasoned,” a quick rinse in soapy water.
    The difference is: you wanted the heavy skillet when you needed to efficiently use the retained heat – the heavy cast iron, once heated up, was great for fried chicken, stews, etc. But they retain heat
    A wok is of thin steal and heats up fast……..and can cool fast, so when one lowers heat or takes it off heat, the reaction is quick, the retained heat is far less. Professional kitchens have many thin steel pans they use: they saute and can move on and off heat, or, they sear, then tranfer to oven where surrounding heat gives a more consistent, juicy result ( I do it all the time and it frees up stove top).

    But the wok. Because of its shape, one can “toss” things more easily. I often make croutons for salads, or, to make the easiest toasted bread crumbs. I finish pasta dishes in my wok – tossing pasta and sauce in a wok is much easier and thorough. And, when fresh corn is in season, I cut if off cob, and saute kernals in wok with some butter and olive oil……..my mother could no longer chew off cob, and, it was better this way!. Yes, one can roll the meatballs around more easily, roll the sausages, etc. The thin metal, and shape make for a most efficient utensil.

    And then there are eggs…………..

    I have many “multi-ply” bottom skillets, and they are good for long sauteing, or a lot of sauteing. They mimic cast iron and are lighter…..but don’t have that same combination of quick sear, seasoned pan and…. non-stick/easy clean quality.

    • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal April 5, 2013 at 7:35 am #

      Bob, I have never thought of these uses for a wok. You and Danielle have really made it seem so versatile. I really may have to get one now.

  11. Lorraine April 4, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    This makes me hungry. Thanks for the post. In the future I will be definitely bringing out the Wok!

  12. Profile photo of Michele Kayal
    Michele Kayal April 5, 2013 at 7:32 am #

    Danielle, thank you for such a lovely story. I love the way you have made your wok a true melting pot, to further abuse a cliche. But I’m also admiring of the time and dedication you’ve give to your wok. I admit that I bought one, but returned it, not having the patience to truly make it my own as you have. Maybe I’ll give it another try….

  13. Profile photo of Annie Nielsen
    Annie Nielsen April 5, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    Thank you for the reminder. I purchased a wok about 2 years and haven’t gotten around to seasoning it yet. The directions looked sort of complicated so I put it off. I think I’ll do that this weekend and start enjoying my wok. My mother used her wok for just about everything from rendering lard to steaming cakes.

  14. Frank April 6, 2013 at 8:57 am #

    I’ve always thought that there were more connections between Italian and Chinese cooking than most people realize. And certainly that extends to the importance of food to both cultures. I love Chinese food—that’s mostly what we eat out, which we mostly eat Italian at home. And, funny, I use my wok for some Italian dishes, too, especially the ones made “in padella”, although I’ve never thought to use it for slow-braised dishes like ragù. Worth a try!

  15. Danielle Oteri April 6, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    Frank, I only use the wok for the browning and searing stage of the ragu. The long simmering is still best done in a large sauce or stock pot. Annie–the seasoning is really very easy! I used chinese chives, ginger and peanut oil. Get the pot nice and hot and use your spatula to rub the chives and ginger all over the surface. Also, Grace Young’s best trick for building the initial patina is popping popcorn. I make “wok-corn” all the time and it’s amazing.

    • Profile photo of Annie Nielsen
      Annie Nielsen April 8, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

      Oh, I know, but this wok seems to have some sort of coating (plastic?) on it (not sure why) that must be heated and scrubbed off before I can even start the seasoning process.

      Still didn’t get to prep the wok because gardening took over my weekend (again), but all the summer vegetables are in the ground so next weekend is looking very good. I will definitely try your method of seasoning. Can already smell the ginger and chives.

  16. Janine Sarna-Jones April 7, 2013 at 10:52 am #

    Danielle, great article! I shouldn’t have read it on an empty stomach. All I know is that I want to come over to your house for a meal!

  17. Janet April 7, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    Hi Danielle,
    I really liked this article and didn’t know how a pan could be seasoned. I had a wok once but maybe I didn’t buy the right one because it was a teflon wok that died in less than a year. You make me want to go pick one up and just start cooking my Filipino food in it. Thanks! Janet

  18. Profile photo of Steve Webb
    Steve Webb April 21, 2013 at 11:49 am #

    Lovely article and a lovely story. I used woks in restaurant I once worked at over wok burners that looked like upturned jet engines, they had to have water running past them to keep them from buckling. The beauty of it was that everything cooked so quickly it retained a lot of color, flavor and texture, so I can imagine it being perfect for things like broccoli rabe as you say. My problem at home was I could never get the heat high enough for wok cooking and when I moved house (horror of horrors) I had to get used to electric so I haven’t made use of the wok in a while, but this has given me renewed hope. Thanks Danielle!

  19. elisa May 11, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    Danielle, this is an absolutely great “wok story”, is inspiring to any food lover and how to use it for an infinite amount of recipes. When I came to this country I cooked only Italian food since I born and brought up in Rome and Brazilian food because I lived in Brazil for a long time. My first neighbour was a Chinese family and I could smell from their apartment some wonderful food. One day one of their daughters knocked at my door and in her hands there was a wok, it was dark, I thought it was old (and it was VERY old). She was holding it like a tray and presented it to me as a welcome gift. I was absolutely mesmerized by her generosity. She said I was the nicest and friendly neighbour they ever had and that I was so nice toward them.
    After thanking her many times I told her I would brin to them my first meal cooked in that wok, Of course I didn’t know how to properly use it, but I knew I to cook. And there it was, my first pasta, cooked first, and then braised in aglio e olio with anchovies and chopped broccoli florets cooked in “the wok”. Well ,that chinese family liked the pasta so much that they replicated it using udon noodles! ….A friendship was born because of a special wok…

  20. Jen Miller December 3, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    Great recipe. My new wok will arrive this week. I can’t wait to try this. Thanks a lot! Jen.

  21. Lynn Bragan February 25, 2015 at 8:06 pm #

    What a fascinating article! I’m so excited to experiment.