THE VELVETY SECRET OF GREAT STIR-FRIED CHICKEN
Have you ever wondered why the stir-fried chicken you eat in Chinese restaurants often tastes better than anything you try to stir-fry in your own kitchen? The chicken in the restaurant version usually has a soft, tender, delicate flavor and texture that you just can't imagine achieving yourself.
Well, you can achieve it. And I'm happy to share with you the secret behind such sublime results: a technique Western cooks refer to as "velveting."
All you have to do is mix together some egg whites, cornstarch, oil and Chinese seasonings, coat the raw chicken pieces with it and let them marinate for at least half an hour. The result is chicken meat (or any meat) with an absolutely tender texture and a coating that is so soft it feels like velvet in your mouth.
As soon as the chicken has been velveted, you should continue with stir-frying so you enjoy the results at their best. At my Chinois restaurants in Santa Monica and Las Vegas, my guests enjoy velveted chicken in Kung Pao Chicken, a popular, spicy dish that pays tribute to the 19th-century Szechwan governor Ding Baozhen, who was known as "Kung Pao," the palace guardian.
Serve this great stir-fry for a special casual weekend dinner, along with steamed jasmine rice. And be sure to warn your guests that, like many Szechwan dishes, it includes hot red chilies that they should avoid actually eating — especially if they want to appreciate fully the wonderful results of velveting.
CHINOIS KUNG PAO CHICKEN
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
2 egg whites
2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 tablespoons peanut oil, plus more for cooking
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
Peanut oil, for deep frying
6 tablespoons light soy sauce
6 tablespoons rice vinegar
4 tablespoons Chinese rice wine
4 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons hoisin sauce
8 small dried red chilies, stems removed and discarded, pods cut in halves
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled, thinly sliced, and smashed
2 garlic cloves, smashed
2 green onions, white parts cut into 1/2-inch pieces, green part cut into thin julienne
1/2 cup shelled and skinned roasted peanuts
4 tablespoons cold canned chicken broth plus 1 tablespoon cornstarch, stirred
together until the cornstarch dissolves completely
First, prepare the chicken. Thoroughly trim the chicken breast halves. Cut them crosswise into slices 1/4 inch thick. In a nonreactive bowl, whisk the egg whites until slightly frothy. Add the rice wine, 2 tablespoons peanut oil, soy sauce, cornstarch and salt. Stir until thoroughly combined and the cornstarch has dissolved completely. Stir in the chicken pieces, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to several hours. About 45 minutes before serving, remove the chicken from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature.
About 20 minutes before serving, in a large wok, heat 2 to 3 inches of peanut oil to a temperature of about 300 degrees F. Stir the chicken pieces in their marinade, then remove them from the marinade, letting excess liquid drip off, and very carefully add them to the hot oil, taking care not to splash. Using long cooking chopsticks or a wooden spoon, stir the chicken gently to separate the slices, and cook only until they turn uniformly white, about 20 seconds. Immediately remove them with a wire skimmer or slotted spoon and transfer to paper towels to drain.
In a small mixing bowl, stir together the sauce ingredients.
To stir-fry, carefully pour off all but about 4 tablespoons of oil from the wok, wiping the side of the wok with paper towels to eliminate any drips. Return the wok to high heat. As soon as the oil is very hot and fragrant, add the chilies, ginger, garlic and white parts of the green onions. Stir-fry briskly until the chilies turn dark red, 30 to 40 seconds.
Immediately add the chicken and continue stir-frying until the pieces are completely cooked and light golden, 1 to 2 minutes more. Stir in the sauce and cook until it reaches a boil. Add the roasted peanuts, drizzle in the broth-cornstarch mixture, and stir gently until the sauce turns glossy and thick enough to coat the chicken, about 1 minute more.
Transfer the stir-fry to a serving plate and garnish with the strips of green onion. Serve immediately.
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