January 23, 2012

on a totally different note

I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention that my inestimable dad's birthday is this week. Happy birthday, Dad! Among other things, he taught me to ride a bike, drive a car, make smart financial decisions, and to value learning for the fun of it. He pushed me harder in school than any Tiger Mom but also impressed upon me an appreciation for travel, adventure, and some of the finer things in life. I love you, Dad. We will definitely have a belated birthday celebration when you come to visit in a few weeks.

In other news, we are planning a little Burns supper celebration on Wednesday. Sadly, I've been forced to conclude that making our own haggis is not a food project we can pull off on short notice. I'm bummed; it was going to be so weird and fun! So, there will be no simmering of lungs, heart, or kidney. We won't be stuffing anything into an "ox bung." And there will be no sheep's windpipe trailing over the side of our stockpot so the impurities can drain out (!!!). I did investigate canned haggis, but that seemed grossly (literally) undeserving of Robert Burns' majestic Address to a Haggis. So, that's that. I know people are all inconsolably sad that I don't have a haggis recipe but, please, try to get over it. If nothing else, our Burns supper will have good whisky. Don't you worry about that.   

And now I'd like to abruptly segue to the recipe I actually want to talk about today, which is kung pao chicken. I am a total fool for kung pao/gong bao chicken, my favorite weeknight stirfry. The combination of succulent chicken and crunchy peanuts? The complex, flavorful sauce that tastes salty, sweet, spicy, tangy all at once? Oh man, it is good. When I mentioned that I want our recipe index to better reflect what we actually cook, this is one of the dishes I was thinking about. We make this at least twice a month, sometimes more. It is relatively quick -- the ingredient list and directions look long, but this takes no time at all -- and delicious. Forget take-out, seriously. And don't be afraid to try it even if you don't have all the ingredients. No Chinkiang vinegar? Try balsamic or regular distilled vinegar. No rice wine? Use dry vermouth, leftover white wine, or just omit it. No light or dark soy? Substitute regular soy. Can't find Sichuan peppercorns? Forget it. The more substitutions you make, the more of a departure it will be from the original dish, but you might like it.

Kung Pao Chicken

Fuchsia Dunlop's authentic recipe from her Sichuan cookbook/memoir was my starting point. A few changes: I prefer the juiciness of dark meat chicken to white meat, so I substitute thigh meat. I've reduced the amount of vinegar she calls for because I find it overpowering. I toast and grind my Sichuan peppercorns so their tingly flavor is evenly incorporated into the sauce. Finally, I decrease the corn starch just a bit. You need a relatively subtle-flavored vegetable dish or two to accompany: steamed gai lan is a favorite, as are wok-fried green beans with ginger. And, as I mentioned, this dish comes together quickly, so start a pot of rice before anything else.

3 chicken thighs, skinned, deboned, and trimmed of excess fat
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch section of ginger, minced
5 scallions, chopped into 1/2-inch lengths
10 dried red chiles (preferably Sichuanese)
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1-2 teaspoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 cup dry roasted peanuts

For marinade:
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

For sauce:
3 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon dark rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon chicken stock or water

Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. In a bowl large enough to hold all the chicken, add chicken and marinade ingredients. Stir and set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.

If you haven't already, prep your garlic/ginger/scallions. Heat a wok over high heat. Before adding any oil, add the peanuts and toast until warm and fragrant. Remove to a bowl. Next, add the Sichuan peppercorns and toast 10-15 seconds, stirring and tossing so they don't burn. Remove peppercorns and grind to a coarse powder in a mortar and pestle. Set aside.

Add oil to the wok. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the dried red chiles and stir-fry briefly until slightly browned and oil is fragrant. Take care not to burn the chiles; remove the wok from heat source if necessary. (Note: at this point, spice compounds in the air always make me cough. It's okay, just be mindful.) 

Quickly add the chicken with its marinade and wok-fry over high heat, stirring constantly. When the chicken is 70% done (the exterior will be brown but the inside may not be totally cooked through), add the ginger/garlic/scallions and continue to stir fry for a few minutes until they are fragrant. Stir the sauce and then add to the wok. Continue stirring and tossing until the sauce has become thick and glossy and the chicken is fully cooked. Transfer contents of the wok to a serving bowl. Mix in peanuts and the ground Sichuan peppercorns.


Rachel said...

I'm going to ignore that you used the words "ox bung" in this post and say, oh my gosh the kung pao looks awesome. It would still be good if I made this with chicken breasts and without Sichuan peppercorns and 1 chili instead of 10, right? My tastes in Chinese food are hopelessly Americanized, I know.

Liz said...

ooh, this looks good! I'm going to try this. Do I really need to find dark soy and light soy, or will it be okay if i use regular soy sauce?

Kim said...

Rachel - Yes. Using chicken breast and reducing the chiles should be fine. One thing to keep in mind -- the heat from the chiles is necessary to balance the sweetness and saltiness, so you might want to adjust the sauce, especially the sugar/soy sauce. Just dip your finger in the sauce and make sure it tastes good to you.

Liz - Sure, try using all regular soy if you like.

Joshua said...

It's impressive that you even considered making haggis. Wind pipes and ox bung, hot damn. Anyway I read Dunlop's book and really enjoyed it, so it's good to hear that her gong bao recipe is a winner. Looking forward to making this.

Jess said...

Could I use this recipe to make kung pao tofu, you think? The glossiness of the sauce is SO appealing right now (despite not being even 10am yet).

Kim said...

Jess - Sure, you could try it. I'm not sure of the best way to adapt this, because my experience is that tofu doesn't absorb marinades that well. I might lightly coat cubes of extra firm tofu in corn starch, fry until crisp, and set aside. Then, I'd combine the marinade and sauce ingredients, build the sauce in the wok, and mix in the tofu right before serving to avoid sogginess.

Another idea is to steam/microwave an entire block of silken tofu and then pour the sauce over it, ma po tofu style. It would be different, but less fuss than frying tofu.

Any other ideas?

Amy said...

It's true that tofu doesn't absorb a lot of marinade but if you increase the surface area (by cutting it into smaller pieces) you'll get more flavor than if you just marinade a block. Then again, tofu won't crisp up as well if it's full of liquid, so there's a trade-off. Of meat substitutes, I find that tempeh picks up marinade flavors way etter than tofu.

Would you add any vegetables to this? If so, which would be best and how to add them? Some recipes call for sauteing with the chicken, others for boiling first.

Kim said...

Amy - Thanks for your opinions on tofu/marinating it/seitan!

Just a personal preference, I always make separate vegetable side dishes like I mentioned. In any case, you almost always want to pre-cook vegetables before stirfrying. Broccoli or green beans need to be blanched, bamboo shoots should be sauteed, etc.

Ben said...

Made this with a few substitutions/omissions -- we left out the peppercorns, couldn't find any -- and it was AWESOME. We couldn't believe how good it was, actually. Thanks a million.