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Cooking Local Chinese Chicken and Broccoli

January 04, 2013

 

            Welcome back to the kitchen! This week’s food foray stems from a specific food craving that hit me the other night. Now, I will readily admit that many of my food cravings fall into the comfort, junk, or certainly less than healthy category.
            But for whatever reason, and very possibly because I’m still coming down off the mad sugar and fats rush of the holiday season, I am craving some green things. Specifically I found myself wanting broccoli complimented by the bite of ginger. Something sort of Asian was tickling at my imaginary palette, with promises of a quick, easy, healthy, tasty, and ethnic meal.
            Now, we’ve certainly done stir fry dishes in the past. And I’m sure we will do them again. This is because I love Asian flavors, and I love quick yet elegant one dish meals. But instead of the general throw everything you’ve got into the wok kind of stir frys I’ve done in the past, the more I thought about this meal the more I wanted to recreate the classic Chinese American dish of chicken and broccoli, which along with egg foo yung was my favorite Chinese food dish as a kid.
            It is a simple dish without too many exotic ingredients. Of course, you can add whatever additional veggies you want, complimented by a sweet, tangy, savory and garlicky brown sauce. I particularly like how the sauce clings to the broccoli flourettes and oozes out all that delicious flavor when you bite in.
            In terms of the protein for this dish, any will do (or none if you prefer, we actually tend to eat far more protein each day than we actually need). For a very healthy dish, go fully veggie and use some tofu for the protein. Skinless white meat chicken and most seafoods are nice and healthy (although sadly, some things like shrimp have a deceptively high amount of cholesterol). Pork can also be fairly lean and delicious, and beef and broccoli is another Chinese classic that is delicious but probably less healthy than those other options.
            I’m trying to limit my red meat intake a bit as I work towards a healthier new year, so I’m going to use lean chicken breast and fill up on plenty of vegetables. I will also try to use a bit less oil than some traditional recipes call for. And finally, I will serve my Chinese chicken and broccoli over whole grain brown rice instead of white, which is better for you on a number of levels.
            There are a couple of things we will need to approximately copy that yummy Chinese takeout flavor. But, surprisingly, a wok is not actually one of them. America’s Test Kitchen, an organization I very much respect, recommends against using a wok at home. This is because the rounded bottom of the wok is meant to sit on top of thousand degree flames that lick up the sides of the pan and cook everything incredibly quickly.
            These temperatures simply aren’t easily achievable at home, although I have heard of people frying a wok perched atop a blazing charcoal chimney. That might work, but it also strikes me as kind of precarious and dangerous. Instead, I’m going to take the test kitchen recommendation and use my largest flat bottom non-stick pan, because unlike the wok a larger part of the surface will be in contact with the hot burner, and things will cook more evenly and quickly. Hopefully this way we can avoid the pitfalls of a soggy stir fry.   
            One of the key ingredients to home made Chinese take out is actually a spoonful or two of humble cornstarch. This is not a particularly sexy ingredient, but it is critical. You see, the cornstarch thickens the sauce and allows it to stick to the chicken and broccoli. It also adds a certain amount of slipperiness that might sound gross, but is a big part of Chinese-American cuisine. Other than that, the ingredients are pretty simple. I’m going to reduce the sweeteners that most recipes call for by just a bit, and wing the recipe a little. But basically, for home made Chinese American chicken with broccoli, we will need:
 
-1 pound broccoli, cut into two-bite sized florettes and stem chopped into bite sized pieces (I’m sure I ended up using more than a pound of broccoli in my dish, because it was the main ingredient I was craving)
-about ½ pound of chicken (less than a pound anyway, for a recipe this size), sliced into thin strips
-1 medium onion, peeled, halved, and sliced into strips
-1 large carrot, sliced thin on a 45 degree angle
-4 or so cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
-about 1 inch or so of fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced into very thin strips
-2 teaspoons corn starch
-1 tablespoon soy sauce plus more to taste
-1 teaspoon hoisen or oyster sauce (optional)
-a dash of rice wine vinegar (any vinegar is fine)
-1 teaspoon sugar
-about ¼ cup warm water
-sriracha hot sauce to taste
-2 teaspoons peanut oil plus a drizzle of toasted sesame oil, plus another teaspoon of oil for the chicken
 
            To start out, put on a couple cups of brown rice to steam while we make up this chicken with broccoli, Chinese take out style. We are going to cook the vegetables separately from the chicken, then toss it all together with the sauce and the corn starch to thicken it all up into a delicious meal.
            As with most Chinese and stir fry dishes, we want to do this on a nice high heat. Maybe not quite full blast, but somewhere up near the high end. So we want to have all our ingredients chopped and ready to go before we start. Let’s also mix the soy sauce, hoisen sauce, sugar, rice wine vinegar in a small bowl or cup until the sugar dissolves. You can add the sriracha hot chili sauce in there too if you’d like, or save it aside for more timid eaters. Sometimes I will also squeeze some fresh lime into this sauce as well, although it is not necessarily a traditional flavor. If you do not have oyster or hoisen sauce, a splash of that classically stinky but oh so delicious fermented fish sauce would make a great addition. When the sauce is mixed, set it aside.
Heat up some of the peanut and sesame oil until it shimmers in the big frying pan, letting you know it is nice and hot. Start out by sautéing the carrots, as they will take the longest to cook. Stir the carrots fairly constantly for about 2 minutes, until they just begin to soften.
            Next add the chopped onions and the broccoli along with the chopped garlic and sliced ginger. Stir everything for another 4 minutes or so, until the broccoli changes to a darker green but is not over cooked. It will continue to soften even once it is off the heat. Turn down the heat to medium low and stir in the sauce. Pull the pan off the heat and set aside.
            In a separate pan heat up another teaspoon or so of oil on medium high and add the sliced chicken. Sautee, stirring frequently, until the pieces are just cooked but still tender. I like to splash on just a little bit of the sauce or some extra soy sauce on the chicken as well, just to give it a little umami flavor while it cooks and so it is not too bland.
            When the chicken is cooked, add it to the pan of sautéed broccoli and other veggies. Mix together the warm water with the cornstarch, making sure it is very well mixed. Pour this thickening slurry into the pan and bring it back up to a medium or medium high heat, stirring constantly for just a minute or so until the sauce is nice and thick and smooth.
            And there you have it, my at home sort of off the cuff take on Chinese takeout chicken and broccoli. If timed correctly, and that is the big trick here, the onions should be tender and cooked all the way through, but the broccoli should still be vibrant and fresh. It may take a little experimentation with your stove’s particular heat to get that just right. But in any case, this is a delicious dish. And pretty simple once you get the concept down.
            Serve the chicken and broccoli over the steamed brown rice, making sure to spoon on plenty of that nice sauce. Yum! And I swear, this dish tastes better with chopsticks.
            I’d love to hear what recipes you’ve been playing around with. Send me any questions or comments to Isaac@kohoradio.com. Cooking local in the KOHO Kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner