Life without a wok is not unendurable; a good cast-iron skillet is a close approximation. But for perfect stir-frying the work is hard to beat. Its curved sides distribute heat evenly, deflect spatters and facilitate the rapid, constant movement stir-frying requires. They also let you get away with a truly minimal amount of oil.
The most useful woks are those made of carbon steel, and they are usually inexpensive. Avoid flimsy woks, but don't get one that is heavier than you can handle either; a friend who used to work in a fine Chinese restaurant recalls that her boss' woks were all of cast iron -- and that his "wok arm" was about twice as big as the other one.
To season a new wok, scrub off the greasy protective film that was laid on in the factory. Heat it until it smokes and apply lots of peanut oil (with paper towels). Then heat it again. Repeat the process several times. That finish is what helps you keep your cooking oil minimal, so do a good job.
The basic principle of wokkery is to heat the oil, then add whatever flavorings you choose (ginger, garlic, etc.), then add the vegetables in order of cooking time. You'll have cut them with an eye to making that time reasonably close (carrots paper thin, zucchini just a little thicker, etc). Each time you do this, you'll have a better feeling for what works.
Once you've become thoroughly enamored of your wok, you might wish to expand its usefulness by purchasing a bamboo steamer, made to fit prettily inside the wok over an inch or two of boiling water.
Woks are typically sold with rings that fit over the burner and stabilize the wok itself. If your gas flame is on the weak side, though, this can sometimes put the wok too far from the flame for proper stir-frying, so experiment and invent your own dishes.
For now, here is a good "whole meal" stir-fry, and a simpler one that makes a fine side dish. MIDWINTER STIR-FRY (4 servings)
2 tablespoons sweet white or yellow miso
1 tablespoon honey
1 to 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
3/4 cup water
1 small onion, sliced thin
3 cups hard vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery)
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1/2 cup cubed tofu
1 cup chopped fresh chard, spinach or bok choy
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Mix in a bowl the miso, honey, ginger, water and cayenne.
Slice onion downward through center into thin crescents. Make 1-inch flowerets of broccoli and cauliflower. Cut carrots and/or celery into diagonal slices, a scant 1/4-inch thick.
Heat oil in wok until you can see a slight rippling look on the surface. Add onion and hard vegetables and stir-fry over medium-high heat, stirring continually, until they begin to get tender -- 4 or 5 minutes. Now stir in miso mixture, tofu and greens. Stir briefly and cover. Simmer over reduced heat another 5 minutes, or until vegetables are cooked to your taste. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve over brown rice. STIR-FRIED BRUSSELS SPROUTS (4 servings)
3/4 pound brussels sprouts
1/4 pound fresh mushrooms
1 medium red bell pepper
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 large clove garlic, pressed or minced
3 tablespoons vegetable stock or water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Quarter brussels sprouts or halve them if quite small. Slice mushrooms 1/4-inch thick. Seed bell pepper and cut into strips 1/4- by 1-inch.
Heat oil in wok. When surface looks ripply, throw in the garlic. Saute' for 5 seconds, then add brussels sprouts, mushrooms and bell pepper. Stir-fry over medium-high heat for 1 minute, then add stock and soy sauce. Cover and simmer 5 minutes more or until vegetables are done to your taste.