Big Trouble, Little China: A Post in Which I Cook Kung Pao Chicken & Dry-Fried Sichuan String Beans

April 11, 2007 | By | COMMENTS

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Last year I bought a Chinese cookbook–The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young and Alan Richardson–and for a full year I ignored it, swept it under the rug, hoped it would disappear. On one hand I really wanted to attempt Chinese cooking, but then a million take-out menus, Canal street stops on the subway and frequent visits to Grand Sichuan convinced me otherwise. With so much good Chinese food readily available here in New York, why should I try to cook it? And furthermore, how could I use a cookbook called “The Breath of a Wok” if I didn’t have a wok?

I did have a mock-wok (ha, that’s a funny expression.) My friend Mark sent me one long ago; it’s a Calphalon wok-shaped pan. It’d been sitting in my drawer just as neglected as my Chinese cookbook. One day the Department of Cruelty to Food Related Products protested outside my apartment with placards that read: “Unfair To Chinese Cookbooks and Chinese Cooking Accessories.” I finally broke down and decided I would attempt something. And what I attempted is the dish you see above: Kung Pao Chicken.

It didn’t come out that great.

It says you can use chicken thighs or breasts and I couldn’t find humane thighs at Key Foods the day I made this, so I bought humane breasts. All this morality makes Chinese cooking difficult (which is why, come to think of it, ordering Chinese food is such an indulgence: we don’t have to think about where everything comes from). The breasts, predictably, made the dish less flavorful, a bit too dry.

You cut 1 pound skinless boneless chicken breasts (or thighs) into 3/4 inch cubes and then marinate the cubes in 2 teaspoons of soy sauce, 1 teaspoon rice wine, 2 teaspoons cornstarch, and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Set aside. In another bowl combine 2 Tbs chicken broth, 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar, and 1 Tbs rice wine and 2 teaspoons soy sauce.

Meanwhile toast peanuts (3/4 cup shelled, raw peanuts) in the oven, about 7 to 10 minutes at 375.

Then you heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or, in my case, a 12-inch saute pan (I didn’t use my mock-wok here because it wouldn’t've browned all the chicken at once) until “a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact.” You swirl in 1 Tbs of vegetable oil, and then add 2 Tbs minced garlic, 2 Tbs minced ginger, and 2 dried red chiles and stir fry 20 seconds. Then you add the chicken mixture, spreading evenly in the pan (or wok):

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This kind of cooking is fun because it’s high octane cooking: it all happens very fast. You let the chicken brown for a minute, and then stir fry a minute and then, when it’s browned on all sides, you transfer to a plate.

Then you swirl in remaining 1 Tbs of oil and add 2 large red bell peppers cut into 1-inch cubes and stir-fry until softened (1 minute). Then you return the chicken to the pot and add the broth mixture, which you swirl into the wok and stir fry 1 minute while scooping up all the brown bits fom the bottom. Then you add peanuts, salt, and chopped scallions, stir-fry 30 seconds, discard chiles and serve.

Actually, when I think back on this dish, it was pretty good. I think it’s unfair to judge it based on my experience because of my wok-less approach. That’s sort of like judging a DVD player based on how well it plays a VHS tape. (huh?)

The more successful recipe, though, was this one for Dry-Fried Sichuan String Beans. This is one of Craig’s and my favorite dishes at Grand Sichuan and it’s really easy to reproduce at home. Here’s what you need:

1/4 cup Homemade Chicken Broth

1 Tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound string beans or Chinese long beans

2 tablespoons minced ginger

2 ounces ground pork (about 1/4 cup)

1 Tablespoon Chinkiang or balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 Tablespoon chopped scallion

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1. In a bowl combine the broth, sugar and salt.

2. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 2 Tablespoons of the vegetable oil and add half the beans.

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[That's my mock-wok.]

Reduce the heat to medium and pan-fry, turning the beans with a metal spatula, until they have brown spots and begin to wrinkle, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate with a slotted spoon. Pan-fry the remaining beans with 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil in the same manner.

3. If the unwashed wok is dry, swirl in the remaining 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the ginger and ground pork and stir-fry until the pork is no longer pink, breaking up the pork with a spatula, about 1 minute. Stir the broth mixture and swirl it into the wok. Bring to a boil over high heat and add the beans, tossing to combine, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the vinegar, sesame oil, and scallion and remove from the heat. Serve at room temperature.

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That last picture should get you excited, especially if you’ve had the same dish at Grand Sichuan. It’s really a cinch to make at home and you’ll be glad you did.

Will I be doing this again? Ok, well next time I go to Chinatown I’m going to buy a wok. And once I have that wok maybe I will crack open the pages of this book again, to try it the right way. Unless I put the wok under my sink and the book back on the shelf and neglect them for years and years, turning instead to the menus, Canal street, Grand Sichuan. How can Chinese home cooking prevail when there’s so much Chinese goodness just a phone call or a subway ride away?

Categories: Ethnic Food, Recipes

  • gerry

    Can’t the access to good Chinese food in NYC be made for pretty much any type of food. I think cooking Chinese food is a little daunting at first because of the many number of ingredients required that the average home cook does not have on hand. These can be purchased very cheaply and once on hand throwing a meal togeteher is a cinch. Not at all trying to pick a fight, I love your site by the way. It is the first of many blogs I read at work every day.

  • http://www.theperfectpantry.com lydia

    Condiments are the key to great Chinese cooking, even without a wok (I often use a Vollrath 11-inch chef’s pan instead — available at restaurant supply stores). And with your proximity to Chinatown, finding the condiments will be easy. Once they’re in your pantry, you’ll be able to turn out authentic Chinese dishes so quickly you’ll forget your fear of stir-frying!

  • Romeo

    I would not call the beans you feature there as “Chinese long beans”. These beans look like regular green beans to me. Chinese long beans are often a foot long and you do have to cut them a bit. You do not mention any cutting and the beans look…uncut to me!

    So you used just regular green beans, right?

    Romeo

  • http://onefoodguy.blogspot.com scott

    I think the Kung Pao looks great. Nice job. And your plates look like my plates, Lindt Stymeist?

  • kati

    For great Chinese cooking techniques, check out Barbara at Tigers & Strawberries (tigersandstrawberries.com).

    I learned how to make a perfect stir-fry from her.

  • Nate

    Hi Adam, let me preface my comment by saying that I’m not trying to give you a hard time. I’m vexed by the same questions.

    You seem to insist on buying humanely raised chicken for home cooking, but when it comes to eating in restaurants, you “don’t have to think about where everything comes from.” We can probably safely assume most Chinatown restaurants (and most others, for that matter) aren’t using humanely raised meats. Why do you think many of us (me included, occasionally) accept this double standard? To put it another way, if the ethical treatment of animals is sometimes important to you, why isn’t it always important to you?

    Both dishes look great, by the way.

  • Gwen

    Adam, I admire your ambition. I have always wanted to try chinese cooking beyond the basic stir fry. You have inspired me. I LOVE the title of this post. That is one of my favorite movies. Jack Burton is a personal hero.

  • http://baixagastronomia.blogspot.com Mar

    Adam, if you start cooking with a wok you won’t stop. I got mine as a gift when I opened a saving account. Living alone I thought I’d been using it scarcely, but now I use it two to three nights a week. It’s soooooooo much more versatile than it looks like (don’t forget you can steam things if yours has one of those edge racks). And, as you said, it works really fast. The only drawback they have (being picky) is that must stuff you cook in them doesn’t freeze too well, as it obviously softens.

  • http://kitchenilliterate.wordpress.com laura k

    I have recently taken up the chinese cookery baton (er?) myself, and I have to agree with Mar–once you start in with the wok, you can’t stop. It cooks up everything so fast and evenly, and you don’t really have to worry about things like chicken not browning, because it should be ok. I got mine at Ikea for something like $7 and it is my new favorite toy. I’ll have to try out your recipe for Kung Pao; I haven’t tried that yet.

  • Lena

    i’m chinese and my mom is a fabulous cook (can’t say the same for myself, though). the secret to chinese cooking is not to stress about it. most of her best recipes just involve fresh veggies, diced pork, some soy sauce, some oil, and occasionally some vinegar. you know, the kind of throw-together recipes anyone can make. i’m usually suspicious of chinese cookbooks since many aren’t too authentic. the most authentic chinese dishes are nothing you really need a cookbook for.

  • Patty

    Mmmm. . . those dishes look great! Perhaps if you marinated the chicken longer, it would have been less dry (around 30 mins)?

  • Michele

    I wouldn’t sweat it about not owning a wok. It’s actually difficult to really get a true wok (round bottom) to work on a flat range. Even if you buy a ring, u end up elevating the cooking portion (the bottom) too much off the heat.

    M

  • http://not-a-foodblog.blogspot.com Vincci

    I agree with Lena. My mom is also an amazing cook, and a lot of her dishes are a lot simpler than you think! Once in a while she’ll use recipes for some special thing (like New Years cake or turnip cake) but I don’t think she’s ever cooked from a cookbook for dinner!

  • http://pinkhouse.typepad.com Shelley (Pink House)

    Kung Pao Chicken is one of my favorite dishes to order at chinese restaurants for a couple of years now. I’ve never tried to make it at home. I find that often things are the same at home especially chinese (I tried Chicken Lettuce Cups and they were an ordeal to make but just didn’t taste the same). Your green beans looks great. I’m going to try that. It’s similar to a green bean recipe I’ve been doing but I mince a slice of smoked bacon (instead of the pork) and don’t put sugar in it etiehr. Sounds interesting.

  • miyu

    I love to stir fry! To me, it’s pretty much the Asian version of the casserole. You can throw together odds and ends and with just a bit of knowhow and experimentation with various sauces and condiments, and end up with a great meal (in a fraction of the the time it takes for a casserole)!

    I got a few tips from a friend of mine, who’s a Chinese chef. First, you don’t really have to marinate your meat for long periods to flavor it. Just throw it in a bowl or plastic bag with the marinade and give it a good massage for a minute or so. This imparts the flavor of the marinade really well. He also beats together an egg white with a little water and corn starch and mixes it with the meat before he stir fries it. He said something about this keeping the meat tender. As for stir frying w/ chicken? I always use thighs. They’re a lot tastier and less prone to dryness if you happen to overcook them.

  • http://www.kattebelletje.com kattebelletje

    Nice post! As you said, chicken thighs would have made your Kung Pao Chicken a nicer dish as they don’t dry out as quickly. A good tip for any Chinese marinade is to let the meat or chicken sit in a mixture of soy, cornstarch and eggwhite to make it really succulent. I always fry the peanuts in oil, then take them out, then fry the veggies and spring onions in the leftover oil. Then I use new oil (not just one tablespoon, but much more, even 5!) to blast the chicken in, then add ginger, garlic, dried chiles and hot bean paste. Here are some of my pictures on Flickr about Kung Pao chicken, with some shots from China, where I keep ordering Kung Pao Chicken to see how well they make it (one of my favorite dishes!), plus my own attempts to recreate this dish at home. I also found an almost perfect photo of Kung Pao Chicken (gongbao jiding)- photographed in China. [Note the huge amount of oil!].

    About your string beans, they look good, but I think they should be drier still… I found a very authentic recipe at Madame Chiangs Szechwan Cookbook, worth checking out! Frying takes forever but the end result is spectacular! My own attempt (based on that recipe) is posted here: Dry-Fried String Beans, Sichuan style. Happy cooking!

  • http://www.dappldthings.blogspot.com Jen

    Congratulations on your chinese cooking! Your dishes really look great…but having stir-fried all my life, I’d like to give you some pointers, being Chinese American and all =). (1) Looking at your pictures, I think where you went wrong with the kung pao was letting the chicken sit there to brown. Stir-fry is high heat cooking with constant movement. Once the oil gets very very hot, throw in minced garlic to infuse, put in the meat, and quickly stir to coat each piece lightly with the hot oil. (2) You might not have used quite enough oil–an even coating of oil ensures even heat distribution, thus cutting down on cooking time. The marinade (soy/cornstarch) should coat all the pieces so that none of the meat is dry but rather glossy and flavorful. (3) Cut the chicken into smaller pieces, either strips or diced. It takes too long to cook when the meat is too big. The marinade will also penetrate more effectively this way. A few random things: (4) You could dispense with the broth entirely if you wanted to, but that is a matter of taste (whether you want your dish to be more sauce-y or dry). (5) My parents only use chicken breast meat when we make chicken stirfries, so no worries over not using thigh/dark meat. (6) You don’t actually need to have a wok to be able to make a successful stirfry, although ofc it definitley helps. : ) Good luck on your future endeavors! (Btw, I made your Mimosa Braised Chicken and it was a stunner. Thanks for a great recipe.)