Wok group members meet on the Internet and are cooking their way through Grace Young's book, Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge. Every two weeks, the site host posts new recipes on the Wok Wednesday blog. There's a Facebook page as well. Members post their experiences with the recipe along with photos on their own blogs and on Facebook.
Grace Young herself checks in to help choose recipes and answer questions. Young said the group has about 425 members.
Gross, who has 6-year-old twins, noted that she and her husband, Harris Gross, don't go out to eat as often as they used to. Online cooking clubs allow them to try new things without having to make reservations or get a babysitter.
"I like the group because you can see what others have done, and it makes you want to give it a try," Marlise Gross said.
Joining the group was easy: All Gross had to do was buy the book and a wok. "The book tells you everything you need to know to buy a wok and properly season it," she said.
Filling the pantry
Finding ingredients can sometimes be challenging because Asian ingredient names are not standardized.
For example, Gross was looking for Sichuan peppercorns, only to find out that it was labeled as Dried Prickly Ash in the Asian market where she was shopping. Fermented beans are also difficult, because most labels have no English on them.
But it's all part of the fun.
Wok cookery goes quickly, Gross has found, so it's best to have all your ingredients chopped and ready to add at the proper cooking time. Dinner gets on the table faster that way, too.
A basic Asian pantry includes garlic, ginger, dark soy sauce and regular soy sauce, dry sherry and chicken broth.
"With those ingredients on hand you can make pretty much anything," said Gross. "Second-line pantry items to have on hand are hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, mushrooms, carrots, onions and beef, chicken or other proteins."
Cooking with a group also helps the participants learn and understand the techniques.
"I never knew some vegetables such as broccoli had to be blanched before stir-frying," said Gross. "Whenever I tried stir-frying before, I had some soggy vegetables and some overcooked. Blanching the thicker vegetables makes everything cook evenly."
Gross also likes that Asian cuisine has a healthy appeal, and that ingredient substitutions are easy.
A classic shrimp dish from Young's book can be used in a simple salad or taken over the edge by serving it over buttered pasta.
"I actually came up with this adaptation because I was making buttered noodles for the kids and didn't have time to make the rice," said Gross. "I put the shrimp over the noodles and it was good! Then I started adapting the recipe even more."
She added, "My husband doesn't like really spicy dishes, so I used poblano pepper in place of jalapeño. Changes like that are easy."
Sichuan peppercorns aren't really pepper, so they are handled differently. They are pan roasted until fragrant and slightly smoking. Once cooled, they are ground and stored in a jar.
CLASSIC DRY-FRIED PEPPER AND SALT SHRIMP WITH PENNE
For the shrimp:
2 tablespoons plus three-fourths teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon roasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns
4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic (about 6 medium cloves)
1 1/2 tablespoons minced ginger
2 tablespoons minced poblano pepper, without seeds
For the pasta:
1 pound penne pasta
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
In a large bowl, combine 1 tablespoon salt with 1 quart cold water.
Add the shrimp and swish the shrimp in the water with your hand for about 30 seconds. Drain. Add 1 more tablespoon salt to the bowl with 1 quart cold water and repeat. Rinse the shrimp under cold water and set on several sheets of paper towels. With more paper towels, pat the shrimp dry.
In a small bowl combine the remaining salt, sugar and ground peppercorns.
Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 2 tablespoons of the oil, add the garlic, ginger and chili. Using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the aromatics are fragrant.
Push the garlic mixture to the sides of the wok, carefully add the shrimp and spread them evenly in one layer in the wok. Don't crowd the shrimp. Cook undisturbed for 1 minute, letting the shrimp begin to sear. Swirl in the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, and stir-fry 1 minute or until shrimp just begin to turn orange. Sprinkle on the salt mixture, and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until the shrimp are just cooked. Remove from heat.
For the pasta: Fill a large pot with water and add salt. Boil. Add penne to the pot and cook per the package directions (about 10 to 12 minutes). Drain.
Add the butter and Parmesan and mix until all the pasta is covered. Pour the shrimp mixture over the pasta and toss. Serve. Serves 4.
Source: Marlise Gross, adapted from Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge, by Grace Young
Find Wok Wednesdays at wokwednesdays.wordpress.com and on Facebook. Marlise Gross' blog is thedoubletroublekitchen.com.
Lari Robling is the author of the cookbook Endangered Recipes: Too Good to Be Forgotten. Nothing makes her happier than championing the home cook. Follow her on Twitter @larirobling.