Sunday, November 1, 2009

Chinese-spiced chicken stew

This recipe is an interesting example of a dish mutating as various cooks adapt it to different purposes. It started as the classic French braised version of chicken with forty garlic cloves. Mark Bittman switched out the seasoning for Chinese flavors and, for some reason, called it a stew even though it's still just chicken in sauce. I toned down the garlic to let the other seasonings come through and made it into a proper stew.

1 Tablespoon high smoke-point oil
2 chicken thighs, bones in and skins on
1 Tablespoon minced Chinese ham, bacon or sausage (I used something labeled bacon, but it's so lean I think it's actually ham)
5 cloves garlic, peeled (halved from amount of garlic in the original recipe, so if you want to scale it back up to a whole chicken use 20 cloves)
2 Tablespoons dry rice wine or sherry
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 star anise
1/2 stick cinnamon
2 1/4-inch slices ginger (or a roughly equivalent chunk if your ginger is all dried out from too long in the refrigerator like mine was)
1/4 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns, lightly crushed
1 1/2 Tablespoons soy sauce
vegetables you've got on hand including, preferably, greens and scallions. (I keep to minimalistic vegetables off-season so I only used scallions and peppers today.)
2 handfuls fresh egg noodles

1. Heat the oil on medium high heat in a deep well-seasoned cast iron or nonstick pan or pot just large enough to accommodate the chicken. (I didn't use nonstick and, as you can, see, the chicken skin stuck.) Add the chicken, skin-side down. Cook for several minutes to brown, adjusting heat to avoid burning. Turn and cook for another minute or two (depending on where your heat level turned out) to brown lightly. Remove chicken to a plate and pour off any more fat than you started out with. (And save it. I save both chicken and pork fat for adding a little extra flavor when I'm frying up random vegetables.)

2. Return pan to fire and adjust heat to medium. Add your cured pork product and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is browned. Add rice wine, scrape bottom of pan with a wooden spoon to deglaze, then add sugar and spices. Once the sugar is dissolved, add soy sauce and a quarter cup of water (maybe a little more if the rice wine mostly boiled off when you added it).

3. Return chicken to pan, skin-side down, turn heat down to low, cover and gently simmer for 15 minutes. Turn chicken and add any tough vegetables you're using (e.g. bamboo shoots, carrots, rehydrated mushrooms, daikon, kale or other tough greens), squish the garlic to release a bit more flavor, re-cover and simmer another 10 minutes.

4. When chicken is done, remove to a plate and keep warm. Add noodles and lighter vegetables (e.g. scallions, peppers, eggplant, mizuna or other mid-weight greens) to pan. Look at the amount of liquid in the pan and taste it for flavor. Decide if you want to keep the cover off to reduce it, keep the cover on to keep it, or add some water or stock to thin it out. Simmer for three to five minutes until vegetables are tender and noodles are cooked.

5. Remove the cinnamon stick, star anise and ginger from the pot and check the thickness of the sauce. If your noodles were coated with flour like mine were or if you left the cover off the pan earlier, then it will be thickened slightly. If not, you might want to remove everything else from the pot and mix in a little cornstarch. Up to you. Also up to you is if you want to keep your chicken pieces whole or carve them up into bite-sized pieces. I went with the latter.

Serve by filling the bottom of a bowl with the noodles, layering in the vegetables, topping with the chicken, pouring the sauce over and garnishing with scallion and/or cilantro. Or mix everything together.

This is really quite lovely with flavors that are complex and understated. The sauce is sweet, but not cloying. Aromatic, but not spicy. Bright, but not salty. I'm normally not a huge fan of anise, but I like how the star anise pairs with the Szechuan pepper to compliment the chicken. I also like how the flavors in the sauce reconfigure into a notably different, earthier arrangement when they're absorbed into the noodles. The variety of textures, with the chewy noodles, tender chicken and still slightly crisp scallion, is nice too. But this is really just a test run for a more vegetable-intensive version of this dish I'll make after the CSA shares start arriving. Given the similarity to a standard red-simmering master sauce (like the one I never used again last year), it should make a good throw-in-whatever-you've-got dish. I'll report back then with how it goes.


kat said...

I'm bookmarking this one, it looks like it could be awful fun to play with.

billjac said...

Yeah, I think there are lots of interesting possibilities to tweak it with different vegetables or spices and turn it in different directions.