Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Take-out/make-in

Cashew Chicken

I make no apology for trying to duplicate Chinese take-out food at home. The sad fact is that Milwaukee offers almost no edible Chinese food of any sort, northern, southern, fancy, homestyle, whatever. So if you want it done right or even just passably, you do it yourself.

I have been using my new pan, a 12-inch cast iron skillet, quite obsessively. It's like when you get a new pair of Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars and you wear only them for weeks on end to give them that lived-in sneaker look. Seasoning a pan is a continual effort and the more you use it the better it gets. There's still a spot off to one side that hasn't gotten black yet, and I will not rest until it's slick and inky.

I might as well state for the record that I don't believe in woks. I certainly haven't tried every kind, still it seems quite unlikely to me that in the absence of the searing heat of a commercial kitchen, a home cook can get the same effect. Stovetops are flat and flat pans pick up their heat; they're designed just for that. I refuse to believe that, absent the BTUs the pros have, the shape of the pan makes any difference. Having said that, I meekly await your crucifixion. If I recall, Barbara, whose picture is in the current issue of Time magazine (yes, that Time magazine) accompanying an article on the virtues of eating local, insists on woks even at home and she knows worlds more than I do about Chinese cookery. (Yes I have seen today's Times article about pans and I don't have much to say about it. I have enough pans.)

Now a word about recipes. M.F.K. Fisher writes in With Bold Knife & Fork, pp. 20-21:
A recipe is supposed to be a formula, a means prescribed for producing a desired result, whether that be an atomic weapon, a well-trained Pekingese, or an omelet. There can be no frills about it, no ambiguities...and above all no "little secrets." A cook who indulges in such covert and destructive vanity as to leave out one ingredient of a recipe which someone has admired and asked to copy is not honest, and therefore is not a good cook. He is betraying his profession and his art. He may well be a thief or a drunkard, or even a fool, away from his kitchens, but he is not a good cook if he cheats himself to this puny and sadistic trickery of his admirers, and no deep-fat kettle is too hot to brown him in.
I don't think I like to write recipes of the sort Ms. Fisher prefers. I like to write descriptions of how I cook but I don't believe that recipes really function as formulas or that cooks tend to follow recipes faithfully. If I were making an atomic weapon, I would use exactly what the cookbook said. But when I make salad or stew or cashew chicken, I prefer to make things up as I go along, to "feel" my way through it. And I tend not to measure ingredients even when following other people's recipes. But she's right, as ever; any cook who omits an ingredient does deserve to fry.

Cashew Chicken

For the chicken/marinade:
The breast meat of a 4 lb fryer, cut into bite-size pieces
a few drips of soy sauce
a few drips of mirin
a pinch of salt
a pinch of white pepper
about a tbs of corn starch

(Some people think Chinese cooks use soy in place of salt. It ain't necessarily so. Soy can be a strong flavor, so I often use a little bit of soy and also a little bit of salt.)

The rest of it:
3 stalks of celery, cut into diamond shapes
1 medium yellow onion, sliced in broad strips
two cloves of garlic, minced
an olive-size piece of ginger, minced
half a cup of cashews (authenticity be damned, I used Planter's roasted and salted nuts)

A sauce:
half a cup chicken stock
2 tbs or so Shaoxing wine
a big pinch of sugar
2 tbs soy sauce
2 tbs oyster sauce
half a tsp white pepper
1 tsp corn starch

peanut oil for frying

Marinate the chicken an hour ahead of time (you can add the corn starch at the last second since it's not a flavor ingredient).

Heat a pan or wok until very hot. Drizzle in a small amount of oil, let it get hot. Dump the chicken in, spread it out so every piece is touching the pan, and don't touch it for at least 45 seconds. Then turn the pieces that have browned nicely. This whole step shouldn't take more than two minutes. When the chicken is almost fully cooked (it's ok if there are still pink spots here and there) remove to a plate.

Let the pan get hot again and add another drizzle of oil. When it's shimmering, add the garlic and ginger and as soon as you can smell them, perhaps ten seconds, add the celery and onion and cook over high heat, stirring continuously to avoid burning the garlic. If it seems like it's too hot in the pan, add a splash of water. After a couple of minutes, when the veggies have softened a bit, return the chicken to the pan, add the cashews, mix to combine, then pour in the sauce. Mix well, turn down the heat, and cook just until the sauce is thick and coating all of the pieces of meat and veggies and nuts.

Serve with plain white rice.

***

Links!

Interview with Anthony Bourdain at Bookslut: "It's the death of pleasure when your waiter takes ten minutes to tell you the bloodline of your tomato."

Sara Dickerman reviews Buford. Very positive. I'm not going to read it, though, as I've already seen much of it in the NYer and didn't love it.

Mayonnaise, a video, probably NSFW and definitely in bad taste.

4 Comments:

Blogger Kalyn said...

Sounds yummy. I think using a wok on an electric stove is rather futile, for the reasons you mention. Most gas stoves have a way to turn up the burner flame (maybe hard to figure out if it's a relatively new stove). If you can do that, you can get great results on a gas stove. Meathenge showed me how to do it (over the internet) on my 1940's gas stove and I have one burner turned super high just for stir-frying. But the pan you're describing sounds like it would also be great.

8:17 AM  
Anonymous Stacie said...

I like Emperor of China on Brady, and I used to like Peony but it's declined. But you're largely right.

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Barbara said...

For an electric stove, you can use a flat bottomed cast-iron wok--that is the way to get wok hay--or what I used to call, "wok taste" until I knew the Cantonese for that phenomina.

Now, that said, a good cast iron skillet works just as well to get wok hay. The difference, to me, is that I always spew ingredients all over the place trying to stir fry in something other than a wok!

So, now you know--I don't care if you use a wok or a skillet to stir fry in. I am just biased toward woks because I make messes if I use something as shallow as a skillet! If you can manage not to make awful messes all over your cooktop with a skillet--you get on with your bad self!

The key to good stir frying is to get your cooking vessel as hot as possible and have all your ingredients ready, and to cook them in batches if you have to so you don't cool off your cooking vessel.

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Mark H said...

Woks. The key is to get a heavy duty steel wok with metal handles. The aluminum, stainless steel or coated woks are useless.

Mine is 20 years old, but unfortunately they seem impossible to find now. I tried to get one for my girlfriend for her birthday with no luck.

If you can find a real one you won't use a pan for chinese cooking again.

11:53 AM  

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