Tuesday, October 26, 2010


By Jennifer McCord

I am not sure when the decision to learn as much as I could about Chinese cooking occurred but I do know that it changed my cooking life.  My mother tried her hand at Chinese cooking when I was a youngster but we all preferred eating Chinese food prepared in a Chinese restaurant.  Murray, my husband, loves Chinese food. When we were dating as university students, we often spent time-sharing a meal at local Chinese restaurants.  When we married, we loved dining at Chinese restaurants and still go often.   

As I was learning to cook various kinds of foods from superb chefs, I knew the time was coming for me to find someone to teach me how to cook authentic Chinese food. I studied for many years with a teacher at a Chinese cooking school. I have my old notebook full of recipes in fading ink from my notes to remind me of the various steps and techniques.  One of the main concepts I learned in class that so changed my eating and cooking world was the proportion of meat to vegetables—less meat more vegetables Today, in any dish I make, this is still a concept that I am aware of which means that we eat lots of vegetables in our daily meals. Even my mother used the recipes that I learned in my classes to make wonderful Chinese food.

I haven’t been cooking as much Chinese food lately, so I was thrilled to read STIR-FRYING TO THE SKY’S EDGE: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, With Authentic Recipes and Stories (Simon & Schuster; $35.00; ISBN: 978-1416580577). This is the latest cookbook from Grace Young, the author of such stunning works as The Breath of a Wok and The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. Young’s essential information about the various kinds of woks, how to care for and cook with them, is worth the price of the book alone. There is a chapter on stir-frying that discusses the proper heat, stir- frying basics, and overall philosophy of stir-frying, which immediately inspired me to begin thinking of what to cook from this book. I have two woks which I have owned for over twenty years. Even so, it was hard not to buy another one just for this book.

The recipes are really instructive and the photos are guaranteed to make you hungry.  Sunday afternoon, my husband and I read through the recipes in order to decide which recipe to cook. There were lots of choices. STIR-FRYING TO THE SKY’S EDGE is divided into: meat, poultry and egg, fish and shellfish, vegetable and tofu, rice and noodle recipes. We chose Hoisin Explosion Chicken because we love hoisin sauce. We had a can of excellent bamboo shoots in the pantry, and went to the market to buy fresh chicken breasts and green pepper.  We then spent part of the afternoon, preparing the chicken, cutting the vegetables including the ginger and garlic, and measuring out the ingredients for the sauce.  Ms. Young discusses woks in great detail (she also wrote the outstanding The Breath of a Wok). Explaining that woks have various uses, with one for stir-frying or another for steaming), all of which she details here. We have two woks and were sorely tempted to add a third to our collection.  We cooked the chicken using the velveting technique, which the author describes as “velveting stir fry--helps to produce the silky, smooth texture known by the Cantonese as waat. No other cooking technique produces such light, delicate and tender succulence hence the culinary term "velveting" in English.  The marinated morsels are blanched in either oil or water, thoroughly drained in a colander before being stir fried.”  Young recommends the water blanching method for the home cook because it is less complicated and dangerous than oil blanching.

This was an added step to our usual stir-frying. The chicken was tender and moist so well worth the effort.  The aroma through the house was ginger and garlic with a touch of spice. We choose our special bowls for this delightful dish and enjoyed our dinner.

Hoisin Explosion Chicken

There are many versions of this classic recipe that combines ingredients from the far corners of China: the hoisin sauce is a northern condiment, the spicy red pepper flakes are from the west, and the rice wine is an eastern staple. Here the velveting technique is used with chicken for a full-flavored, robust stir-fry laced with heat. In addition to the egg white, cornstarch, rice wine, and salt, a little water helps to further tenderize the chicken.

12 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut
into 14-inch-thick bite-sized slices
1 tablespoon egg white, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1-12 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon Shao Hsing rice
wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
12 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 medium green bell pepper, cut into 14-inch-wide
strips (about 112 cups)
One 8-ounce can sliced bamboo shoots, rinsed
and drained

1. In a medium bowl combine the chicken, egg white, cornstarch, 112 teaspoons of the rice wine, 12 teaspoon of the salt, and 1-12 teaspoons cold water. Stir until the cornstarch is totally dissolved and no clumps are visible. Put the chicken uncovered in the refrigerator for
30 minutes. In a small bowl combine the hoisin sauce,soy sauce, and the remaining 1 tablespoon rice wine.

2. In a 2-quart saucepan bring 1 quart water to a boil over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to the boiling water. Reduce the heat to low. When the water is barely simmering, carefully add the chicken, gently stirring it so that the pieces do not clump together. Cook 1 minute or until the chicken just turns opaque but is not cooked through. Carefully drain the chicken in a colander, shaking the colander to remove excess water.

3. Heat a 14-inch fl at-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, add the ginger, garlic, and red pepper flakes, then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the aromatics are fragrant. Add the bell peppers, sprinkle on the remaining 12 teaspoon salt,
and stir-fry 30 seconds or until the peppers are bright green. Add the chicken and the bamboo shoots. Swirl the hoisin sauce mixture into the wok, and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until the chicken is just cooked through.

Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish with rice or 4 as part of a
multicourse meal.

Jennifer McCord made her first cake when she was nine years old. Even though the cake did not turn out as she expected, the experience began a life long love of cooking. She read M.F.K. Fisher in her late teens and decided to follow her advice. Cook with the cook whose food you have found delightful. Therefore, she has cooked with a host of cooks from bakers to restaurateurs following her palate and learning how to better her own cooking.  

Jennifer has her own publishing consulting company where she operates as an editor, publishing management consultant and book packager. She and her husband Murray, live in Settle, Washington. Jennifer can be reached at www.jennifermccord.com.

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