Monday, January 31, 2005

Recipe: Cajun Asian Chicken stir-fry

This is an oft-requested, semi-weird variation on a basic chicken stir-fry, using our old favorite Louisiana Hot Sauce as a major ingredient. (Yes, that’s the same brand-name stuff you’ll remember from other postings.) Since you can stir-fry anything, creating any kind of flavor you wish, this is just a starting point. And, truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever done this exactly the same way twice. So have fun! Add, subtract, alter, adjust, and then eat very, very well . . .

here's what you'll need . . .
boneless skinless chicken breast, about 1 per person (2 big ones will serve three people, 3 big ones for four or five people . . . )
‘cheap’ peanut oil to cook with
sesame oil
soy sauce
Worcestershire sauce
Maggi seasoning sauce
fish sauce (Tiparos is great)
black bean paste (if you’ve got any)
Louisiana Hot Sauce
½ of a fresh lemon and/or lime
white wine
fresh coarse ground black pepper (Tellicherry, of course)
1 or 2 peeled garlic cloves
veggies et. al. (any combination of at least 5; 10 is even better).
We like carrots, yellow onions or green onions or vidalia onions or even red Spanish onions, red bell peppers, green bell peppers, yellow bell peppers, hot peppers of any ilk, snow peas, sweet peas, green beans, wax beans, zucchini, summer squash, broccoli, cauliflower, black olives, ordinary tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes, plum tomatoes, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, ordinary mushrooms, shitake mushrooms, straw mushrooms, bok choy, cabbage, lettuce, previously cooked potatoes, and/or anything else you have hanging around that you’d like to get rid of . . . !

Here's how you do it.

The first secret of a successful stir-fry lies in the contrast and combination of the various ingredients in terms of color, flavor and texture. The meat or fish part of the meal is but an accent; artistry lives in the rest of the choices. I’m not sure where I heard it, but somebody once said a classic Chinese stir fry had to include at least 5 colors. Certainly sounds like a good idea to me . . .

The second secret is to chop, slice, and dice all the ingredients so they are bite sized. I’ve been told that in Chinese households, it is considered a great insult to serve food that cannot be picked up with chopsticks and eaten without any further cutting.

But there’s a practical side to the size of the whacked up tidbits too; cooking time can be controlled.

I happen to be a proponent of the ‘layered flavors’ approach to cooking most everything. I like to add one ingredient, then ‘layer on’ the flavor of the next and so on. But if circumstance (or just plain curiosity) requires, you can toss everything in at once – as long as you’ve sized your bits appropriately. Cut them up so the longer cooking items are the smaller pieces and the quicker cooking items are the larger pieces, and everything will finish in the same amount of time.

To prepare this meal my way, you need to have all the veggies cut up and distributed on a variety of plates (by cooking time) before you start. The chicken needs to sit in its marinade for at least 20 minutes (up to an hour or so is even better) before you cook it. And rice takes 30 minutes (after the water boils) to achieve perfection. If you’re cooking for two and you’re Zorro’s cousin with a blade, you can start the rice, cut the chicken, get the marinade built, cut all the veggies and be ready to cook before the rice is done. If you’re cooking for a crowd or you’re a little hesitant about whirling Chinese knife blades, take the slow road; do the marinade first, then chop the veggies, then start the rice.

Stir Fry ingredients

The marinade is very simple. Whack up the chicken and distribute it, one layer deep only, on as many plates as required.

Stir Fry chicken

Pour a Tbsp. or so (per chicken breast or two) of sesame oil on the chicken and massage it in so that all sides of every piece get well coated (your hands are going to stay messy throughout this procedure, so remember to uncap all the bottles before you start!) You’ll have to adjust the quantity of oil so that all the chicken gets a coating without leaving (much of) a puddle in the bottom of the plate.

Then sluice the coated chicken with the soy. Once again, massage it in. Then spritz the chicken with the Worcestershire suace and massage it in. If you’re going to add some citrus, squirt it on now and stir everything around. Same with the black bean paste – now’s the time. I like about ½ a lemon or lime and about ½ tsp. of bean paste.

Next, douse the plate with Louisiana Hot Sauce. For the first blast, coat the entire top surface of the chicken until it’s red. Massage it in. Then put another coat of hot sauce on, and just leave it sitting on the surface. Finally, grind some fresh black pepper on top and let the chicken stand - up to an hour at room temperature. If you want to prepare the chicken and marinade far in advance, let the chicken sit in the marinade for 30 minutes at room temperature, then refrigerate. Take it out and let it warm up to room temperature when you start the rice (about 30 minutes before cooking time).

Stir Fry marinade

For this meal, it’s generally better to cook the veggies first, then the chicken. The chicken marinade tends to burn and over-flavor the veggies if you do the chicken first. Depending on the quantity, it takes 5-15 minutes to cook the veggies; about the same for the chicken; and another 3 - 5 minutes to complete and thicken up the sauce.

Before you start wokking things, uncork the white wine (you’ll need it for the final sauce) and stir 1 tsp. of cornstarch into 3 or 4 ounces of cold water.

Now if you’re really paying attention, you may be wondering, “But what about that Maggi stuff and the Tiparos?” Good catch. Now why an Italian product, Maggi sauce, has become a staple in Asian cooking is beyond my ken. But it has. And the flavor is wonderful. But it is salty, just like the Tiparos is salty. So adding even more salt to the already salty (soy sauce) marinade doesn’t seem like the best idea.

Instead, I like to put about ½ tsp. of the Maggi sauce in the rice water. And I like to squirt the Tiparos all over the tomatoes on the veggies plate. And as long as we’re spritzing things, how about a blast of sesame oil on top of the mushrooms! There. Now we’re ready . . .

Here’s our routine. About 15 minutes into the rice cook time, put the wok over high heat. Count to 37.5 and pour 1-2 Tbsp. cheap peanut oil into the bottom of the wok and swirl it around. Toss in one peeled garlic clove and wok it around with your cooking spatula for about 60 seconds and then remove it (if it starts to burn, take it out sooner - all you want to do is flavor the oil.) Start tossing in veggies. If you use carrots, begin with them. Wok them around till they’re half done, and toss in the next veggies.

Stir Fry veggies

My usual sequence is carrots, onions, peppers, mushrooms, broccoli, water chestnuts, squash & zucchini, bean sprouts, tomatoes & black olives (I think I’ve got 5 colors in there . . .) When the veggies are done, scoop them out to a serving bowl and keep warm in a 150 - 200° F oven.

Stir Fry wok veggies

Replenish the cheap peanut oil in the wok; toss in another garlic clove and do the same thing to it that you did to the last one. As soon as you get the garlic clove out, start putting chicken in the hot oil (yes, your hands will get messy again!) Stir the chicken around as you slide each load in, and try to get it all into the wok within about 30-60 seconds (if you have three hands, the whole process works more smoothly; if you have only two hands, don’t worry about it, just do the best you can.)

Stir Fry chciken

Wok the chicken around until it’s done. We like our chicken pretty well done, so we keep wokking it until it begins to get ‘grainy’ (when you can see striations like wood grain on the surface of the cubes).

Stir Fry wok chicken

When the chicken is nearly done, scrape the rest of the marinade liquid into the wok, pour in a good sploosh of the white wine, wok it around for 30 seconds or so until you can smell the white wine and then start adding the cornstarch/water mixture.

Stir Fry wok sauce

Start small! 1 or 2 tsp. at a time. The idea is to get a nice shiny glaze to the chicken and the sauce, not to turn the sauce into dumplings. Wok the sauce around for at least 30 seconds between each addition of the cornstarch/water mixture, to see how thick it’s going to get. (If it starts getting too thick, thin it down with some more white wine or plain water or even more Hot Sauce.) When the sauce reaches your preferred thickness, turn the heat under the wok off; serve the rice; stir the sauce once more; scoop it all out into another serving bowl; get everything to the table as fast as you can. And eat. Very, very well.

 Asian Cajun stir fry served

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