Sunday, April 3, 2016

Take a Wok on the Wild Side (a kickass recipe from a kickass book)

Today's Specials:  Hard Rock and Hot Woks.

Set to the tune of Electric Eel Shock's "Japanese Meets Chinese in USA"

I love me some Asian food.

I mean I love it.

Sushi, Kung Pao, Pho, Kimchi, duck with the darkest glazed skin you'd swear it was simply painted with lacquer, tiny dried out things in bags you can't name's all going in my face hole.  And this week I had a hankerin' for some home-cooked fare of my own.  I wanted it simple, light and my women.  Kidding.  Maybe.  Anyway, I wanted some damn Chinese food!  Which got me thinking about some of the recipes in the library of cookbooks that I'd yet to make.  One of those would probably do the trick.  I looked at a few and I came across a gem that, frankly (and embarrassingly) I'd forgotten all about.  It was a recipe out of one of my favorite books.  Stir-Fried Chicken Szechuan Peppercorns as adapted from Grace Young and Alan Richardson's wonderful book, The Breath of a Wok.  We'll get to the recipe in a second, but I wanna tell you, my dear Braisers, why this book kicks so much unholy ass.

From the get go, Grace tells us about her father who ritualistically made the family sit at the table closest to the kitchen (notoriously the worst seat in the house) whenever they went out to eat at their favorite Chinese restaurants.  This was to ensure that the dishes would still contain 'wok hay'; the elusive and seemingly mystical essence of authentic wok cooking.  Her father knew that wok hay only lasted a few moments, so the seat nearest the kitchen would garner a few extra seconds of the fleeting, intoxicating aromas and flavors.  And so with that childhood education about Chinatown, she embarks on a journey through the streets and rice pattys of China to convey to us the essence of real wok cooking.  Along the way she talks to wok-makers, street chefs who's food is half culinary, half performance,.  She teaches us how to select and season what may be to many of us our very first wok, and how to restore a neglected wok back to it's intended luster.  She explains why it's so difficult to achieve wok hay in the home because of the extreme heat used abroad and in US Chinese restaurants (she also teaches us how to overcome some of these obstacles and how some immigrant cooks in the US have done so).  Not only does she cull some of the most celebrated Asian wok chefs (Susanna Foo, Kevin Chuk, and Martin Yan among many others) for the compilation of the recipes and detailed cooking instructions, but also members of her own family and the nostalgic significance of the dishes prepared.  Great recipes, great stories and all of it artfully illustrated by the photographs of Alan Richardson.  If I had any complaint about the book, it's that a few of the recipes call for some exotic (duh) ingredients which some people here in the US (esp in Kansas) would have some trouble finding easily. While most can be procured at the local Asian market, it's very disappointing to not be able to find a giant hunk of Lotus Root, am I right, ladies?  However an extensive glossary and a list of substitution suggestions minimizes the hassle.

Which brings me to why I chose this particular recipe.  When I first got the book, I was determined to work my way through it starting with the first recipe and progressing until I'd cooked the entire book.  So I opened it up, found the first recipe (Stir-Fried Chicken w/ Szechuan Peppercorns) and immediately ran into trouble.  What the hell are Szechuan Peppercorns?  Turns out, they're not related to peppercorns at all, but are in fact a seed hull and a member of the citrus family.  Oh, and also they were banned in the US up until 2005.  So, naturally, I wasn't able to find them and wasn't able to make the dish properly (as no substitute exists).  They've subsequently been un-banned (that's a real word), and available at Penzey's among other retailers and are becoming more common by the hour.  So I figured I'd grab a container and head to work.

After I opened the little glass jar and sniffed the contents I was immediately flooded with all the possibilities!  It had a definite 'peppery' aroma going on and an earthy richness punctuated by almost floral tones.  I could see it being pared easily with all kinds of meat, the more flavorful and bitter greens, all sorts of root veggies, and you could do worse for a sweet/savory dessert sauce.  This was gonna be fun....

Stir-Fried Chicken w/ Szechuan Peppercorns
*adapted from Chef Kevin Chuk, instructor at the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute, Hong Kong*

yer gonna need:
12 oz Skinless, boneless Chicken Thighs, cut into 1/2 in cubes
3 Tsp Rice Wine
1 Tsp Corn Starch
3/4 Tsp Salt
1/4 Tsp White Pepper
1 Tsp Black Soy Sauce
1 Tbl Chinkiang (use Balsamic Vinegar if you can't find Chinkiang)
2 Tsp Sesame Oil
1 Tsp Sugar
1/4 Chili Oil
2 Tbl Chicken Stock
1 Tbl Vegetable Oil (may substitute peanut oil, if preference dictates)
8 small Dried Red Chilies
1 Tsp Ginger, thinly sliced
1/4 Tsp roasted, ground Szechuan Peppercorns
1 Scallion, chopped

1, In a medium bowl, combine chicken 1 tsp of the rice wine, the cornstarch, 1/4 tsp each of the salt and white pepper.  In another bowl combine the black soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, chili oil, broth, the remaining 2 tsp rice wine, and the remaining 1/2 tsp salt.

2, Heat a 14in flat bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water dropped into it evaporates within 1 to 2 seconds.  Why a flat bottomed wok?  Because they make the rockin' world go round.  Swirl in the vegetable oil, add the dried chilies, and carefully add the chicken, spreading it evenly in the wok.  Cook undisturbed 1 minute (DON'T FUCKING TOUCH IT), letting the chicken begin to brown.  Then using a metal spatula, stir fry 1 to 2 minutes or until the chicken is browned on all sides but NOT cooked through.  Transfer to plate and set aside.

3, Add the ginger, garlic, ground szechuan peppercorns, and scallion, stir frying in the dry wok for only about 15 seconds at most.  Don't burn that garlic, y'all. Return the chicken to the wok.  Stir the sauce mixture and swirl it into the wok.  Stir fry 30 seconds or until the chicken is just cooked through. Discard the chilies.  

Photo courtesy of Jenn Grace
And I was right.  It WAS fun.  

Simple...elegant....just enough spice to raise a few beads of sweat and a very interesting infusing of flavor from the peppercorns.


I like to garnish this with Thai basil.  But you do you.  Also this is a medium hot dish.  You can increase the heat by increasing the chili oil...or you can decrease the heat by reducing or even omitting it entirely if you wanna be a sissy about it.

I highly recommend it and recommend Grace's book.  I know, I know, I know....fuckin sellout right?  Sure, kid, whatever you want.

 But seriously....get this book.