I have no idea how Sunset Wok Cookbook found its way into my collection. My best guess is that it came bundled with a wok – probably the one I received at my wedding. I own the coveted Special Edition Fourteenth Printing, which seems to be a promotional paperback run “compliments of Crisco Oil”, which fits well with the “free gift” hypothesis. That wok is long since gone, replaced by a heartier carbon steel upgrade, but the cookbook lives on.
Sunset is a century-old lifestyle magazine in the mold of Better Homes and Gardens or Good Housekeeping, but with a regional emphasis on upscale “West Coast Living”. My mother and grandmother were both long-time subscribers. Like most print media, Sunset’s popularity is waning – the LA Times has documented their struggles here – but when my cookbook was printed in 1989 Sunset was still the self-proclaimed “Nordstrom of magazines” with over a million subscribers.
The cookbook is a mass-market specialty paperback, similar to ‘special edition’ magazines you might find at the checkout stand. My edition is a handsome eight pages with quality paper and a dozen or so full-color photos on glossy stock. The photos are wonderfully outdated, with shaggy-haired men cooking with their turtlenecked wives. Consistent with Sunset’s lifestyle concept, this is not just a collection of recipes – it’s an introduction to the wok cooking lifestyle. There’s a short introduction to wok cookery: how to select a wok, what kind of accessories you might need, and an overview different wok cooking techniques.
The recipes reflect a time when authentic ingredients weren’t widely available. “Asian” food meant chopped celery and canned water chestnuts. Sunset commendably avoids fried chow mein noodles but also avoids certain Asian ingredients that are grocery store staples these days. Sherry is used instead of rice wine, tofu is treated as an exotic health food, and a Vietnamese salad is flavored without fish sauce. The only hard-to-source ingredient might be fermented black beans, which in my neck of the woods still require a trip to the Asian market. They also reflect a time when the American palate wasn’t accustomed to Asian cuisine – there are wok-focused recipes for everything from sloppy joes to tacos to English fish and chips.
And yet despite being an obvious product of its era, the Sunset Wok Cookbook is still both practical and fun. Some folks might bristle at the thought of Americanized Asian cuisine, but the constraints of the mid-80s American kitchen keep things interesting. There are some brilliant improvisations, such as the pillowy thousand-layer buns (think Peking Duck) made from refrigerator biscuits, and time capsule oddities like the molded chicken-tofu custard.
The recipe that perhaps best showcases the spirit of Sunset Wok Cook Book is Curried Carrot Croquettes. It fits with the vaguely Asian theme of the cook book (India’s in Asia, yo) and still maintains the mid-80s suburban dinner party vibe of the rest of the book. It’s also a great way to use a wok for something other than stir frying, though a dutch oven or hefty cast iron pan will do the job just fine.
And it’s an amazing recipe – the croquettes are light and crispy on the outside but stay custardy-creamy in the middle. They double as both side dish and sauce. These are an absolute hit in my family. They require some advance prep and don’t always turn out the prettiest, but there’s a lot of margin for error. I’ve found that fully submerging the croquettes in oil provides marginally better results, but they’ll be equally delicious if you pan fray them in about an inch of oil.
I’ve stolen a few cues from the Indian samosa to jazz this up a little. I’ve amped up the curry powder and added some heat and thrown in some frozen peas. This maintains the creamy all-American goodness of the original but adds some vibrancy and texture. I’ve also traded in the wok for my trusty cast iron, but a wok will certainly do the trick. With a side of basmati rice this is a hearty vegetarian meal on its own, but also works well as a side dish with my fragrant cumin-spiced pork loin roast. The interior filling is creamy enough to double as a sauce for the roast, or whatever proteins/sides you choose to serve with it.
For the filling:
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter (divided)
- 2 cups sweet onion, chopped
- 1/2 Tbsp minced garlic
- 4 cups shredded carrots
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup peas (frozen)
- 1 Tbsp Indian curry powder
- 2-3 dried hot Indian chili peppers, crumbled
- 1/2 cup flour (heaping)
- 2 cups half and half
- 1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
- 4 egg yolks (the egg whites are used below)
For the final deep fry:
Prepare the filling the day before:
- Melt 1/2 cup of the butter in a flat-bottomed wok or skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, shredded carrots, and salt and stir fry until softened. Add the peas and heat through. Then add the curry powder and crumbled chilis and stir until fragrant, taking care not to burn the spices. Add the remaining butter and stir until melted, then stir in the flour,
- Remove from heat and slowly stir in the milk until thoroughly incorporated and liquid and roux are well-blended. Stir in the chopped cilantro, then add the two egg yolks and stir until completely incorporated and the mixture has a chunky, custardy consistency. Transfer the mixture into a large baking ban (13 x 8 x 9 or similar), cover, and chill overnight.
The final fry
- Remove the vegetable mixture from the refrigerator. Divide into 14-16 equal portions and form into small balls.
- Heat 3-4 inches of oil in a wok or dutch oven to 375 degrees. Mix potato flakes and rice flour. Working in batches of three or four, coat each ball in the egg white mixture, then dredge in potato flakes and deep fry for 3-4 minutes. Store in a warm oven until ready to serve.
The balls will retain their shape better if the mixture is ice cold. For best results keep the croquette mix in a cold refrigerator until you’re ready to fry. Even under the best conditions you’ll need to get your hands dirty – using a spoon or utensil to coat and dredge the balls usually ends in disaster.
To mix things up even further, consider using a pav bhaji masala in place of the curry powder. You can mix your own (this recipe is excellent) or purchase prepared masala spice blend at most Indian grocers. If you must order online I recommend MDH brand, available at my Amazon affiliate link here: https://amzn.to/3ooc5ih