General Tso’s Chicken + Cookbook Giveaway

I have been kind of obsessed with General Tso’s Chicken since last spring, when I sat in my dark living room and watched The Search for General Tso on Netflix, and on an empty stomach. I think General Tso’s is the kind of thing that is a phenomenon in the US; in Canada we have our own interpretation of “Chinese food” – did you know that Ginger Beef was invented in Calgary, Alberta? Anyway, it looked delicious and I needed to get into it right away. I wish I could see people doing yoga and react with the same sense of urgency.

General Tso’s Chicken is not served at dim sum, which is how we most often enjoy Chinese cuisine, and though it appears on the occasional take-out menu, it’s never in the combos (we’re a Dinner for 2 B family, with its chicken chow mein and red saucy sweet-and-sour pork). For too long, there was no opportune time to get to know the General. No time, that is, until this past Saturday.

Thanks to Food Bloggers of Canada and Clarkson Potter, I was offered the opportunity to review a copy of food writer Kian Lam Kho‘s cookbook, Phoenix Claws and Jade TreesIn order to fulfill my part of the deal, I was tasked with preparing a dinner with a few of the dishes from the book. To get a sense of the variety of recipes, I read the whole thing in a single evening, shouting excitedly at Nick about all the wonderful things we would get to have once he cleaned the kitchen and figured out how to get me eight pounds of nontoxic pottery clay (Beggar’s Chicken, page 314).

This book is beautiful. The writing is clear and well-paced; the photos are stunning and often demonstrate multiple steps in a single collage. Everything about it says “cooking Chinese cuisine unlike anything you’ve seen on a North American take-away menu is easy and fun and you should do it right now. Right now!” And while I can’t speak to the ease of obtaining the ingredients just anywhere, in Vancouver it was only as challenging as deciding which T&T to go to (Renfrew & 1st Avenue won out – free parking).

Within an hour, I had gathered all of the ingredients to prepare six recipes from the book for a Mid-Autumn Festival feast for three friends. The ingredients were very affordable. I think I spent $53 on the entire meal (including a very cheap and sort of embarrassing rosé), and we had leftovers for two days.

We had:

  • General Tso’s Chicken (page 174, recipe below)
  • Red Cooked Lion’s Head, a braised pork meatball with water chestnuts and greens (page 198)
  • Mapo Tofu,  a mix of beef and tofu with chili paste and fermented beans (page 211)
  • Black vinegar and garlic vinaigrette (page 327 served over steamed yu choy that I had chilled before serving)
  • Cucumber salad with garlic (page 336)
  • Spicy lotus root salad with Szechuan pepper, chilies and cilantro (page 338)

There were so many intriguing dishes in this book, and a good mix of challenging dishes to prepare when you’ve got the time and quick, straightforward recipes you could make on a weeknight or for company.

The best thing about this book, at least for me, is that most of the recipes are designed to make two servings: this way, I can make enough for Nick and I for a weekend lunch or weeknight dinner, or make a dinner party of multiple dishes without going overboard on quantity. I also love that so many of the dishes are so inexpensive to make; the Mapo Tofu, for example, called for a quarter-pound of ground beef and two dollars’ worth of tofu.

Once you build a pantry of some of the book’s more frequently used ingredients, you can make the recipes quickly and cheaply. I’ve already used the Szechuan chili paste from the Mapo Tofu twice more since Saturday. It brings boring old steamed broccoli or scrambled eggs to LIFE.

My dinner guests were split on their favourites – one liked the Red Cooked Lion’s Head: “I’ve never had this dish before,” she said, “but the flavour reminds me of something similar I might have eaten as a child.” Another was quite keen on the black vinegar and garlic dressing, which I’ll agree is incredible, especially for how simple it is.

I fell in love with the Mapo Tofu, a dish I have been fond of for my whole life in Vancouver – this version was so simple, but so perfectly spicy and salty and balanced. And General Tso’s Chicken? It’s not too sweet, with a lot of garlic and a little bit of vinegar and heat: in short, it’s everything I hoped it would be.

General Tso’s Chicken

Makes two servings.

Marinade

  • 2 tbsp. Shaoxing cooking wine
  • 1 large egg white
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. ground white pepper
  • 1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

Sauce

  • 3/4 cup chicken stock or water
  • 1/4 cup Shaoxing cooking wine
  • 2 tbsp. Chinkiang black vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. hoisin sauce
  • 2 tbsp. tapioca starch
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 4 cups vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup tapioca starch
  • 3 tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp. minced fresh ginger
  • 1/4 cup dried red chilies
  • 1 tbsp. roasted sesame oil
  • 1 tsp. sesame seeds, toasted
  • 2 tbsp. thinly sliced scallion greens

In a medium bowl, whisk together marinade ingredients. Add the chicken cubes, and, using your hands, work the marinade into the meat so that all pieces are well-coated. Set aside for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix sauce ingredients together in another bowl. Set this aside too.

Put the tapioca starch into a bowl.

In a wok or Dutch oven, heat the vegetable oil to 375°F, or until it shimmers. Dredge the chicken pieces through the tapioca starch until well-coated. Working in batches, fry chicken pieces in the hot oil until golden brown, four to five minutes. Remove chicken with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels.

Pour off all but two tablespoons of the cooking oil, then return your wok or pot to the stove and add the garlic and ginger, cooking for about 30 seconds; do not let these burn. Add the chilies and cook for another 30 seconds. Give the sauce mixture a quick stir, then add this to the wok or pot and cook for about a minute, until the sauce has thickened. Return the chicken to the wok or pot and toss the pieces in the sauce. Add the sesame oil, then toss again.

Garnish with sesame seeds and scallions. Serve with rice and a cold salad.

The giveaway

To win a copy of Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees from Clarkson Potter, leave a comment below describing your favourite Chinese dish. You can leave comments until 11:59 PST on October 2; on October 3, I’ll put all the names in a hat and draw a winner. The winner will be notified by email on October 3.

Please note that this giveaway is for Canadian readers only; watch redcook.net after September 14 for information on giveaways for American readers.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for free. However, I really like the book and would buy it for myself if it wasn’t offered to me first. No one pays me money for my opinions, which is probably for the best.

Advertisements

Velvet that meat.

Stir-fried asparagus with velvet porkLet’s talk about velvet. As a verb.

IMG_1175If you’ve ever paused mid Beef & Broccoli to wonder how Chinese restaurants get their stir-fried meats so silky and tender, you may be intrigued by the concept velveting and its implications in your kitchen. This is something I’ve been playing with for a while, as I’ve got one of these small people who finds the texture of meat challenging.

Velveting meat is a gentle approach to meat cookery, and one that prevents the fibres of the meat from tightening and toughening.

Have you ever sat beside someone while they chewed a single bite of hot dog or chicken for 45 minutes? It’s just a marathon of wet mouth noises. There’s no bouncing back from that, and a little piece of you will die as your exhortations to “please, please swallow that right now” become increasingly frantic. Misophonia is a thing, and toddlers are known to aggravate it. And so the resourceful home cook will find that velveting becomes more than just a neat kitchen trick, but a matter of life and spiritual death as well.

IMG_1176Velveting is not terribly complicated. At its most basic, it’s a bit of raw lean meat that’s thinly sliced, marinated in a mix of egg white, salt, acid and cornstarch. This mixture serves to tenderize the meat, create a barrier between the meat and the heat, and to create a coating that will improve sauce adhesion.

It is then gently poached in oil or water (I prefer water poaching for cost and clean-up reasons) before being added to a stir fry, and the effect is meltingly soft. I’ve seen variations on this idea that don’t include egg white; if you’re dealing with egg allergies, you could certainly skip it. But I like the sort of slick layer the egg white leaves on the meat – it adds an extra element for your sauce to cling to, and the result is a lot of flavor with not a lot of effort.

Once you get into the habit, I mean.

If velveting meat is something you want to try at dinner, be prepared that there are multiple steps and though they are not difficult, they may add up to an additional 45 minutes or so to your dinner prep. This is annoying. Fortunately, you can do it ahead of time.

IMG_1179Because the steps are simple, I’ve found that if I time things correctly, I can prepare the meat for tomorrow’s dinner tonight. The advantage to this little bit of forethought is that you can have dinner prepared in about ten minutes, depending on how fast you chop your veggies. You can also deep-fry velvet meat.

(You can deep fry anything.)

Velveting meat is a Chinese technique and therefore suited to Chinese cooking, but it’s also something you can do in quick stews or pasta dishes. My favourite application of this is to add a few pieces of velvet chicken to a briny puttanesca sauce – the coating gets clingy with the olive oil and capers and tomato juices, and the chicken remains tender and does not compete texturally with the other elements. I bet it would lend something extra special to chicken piccata.

So, how do you do it? The following is a general set of ingredients, and you can substitute what’s listed for whatever you have or flavours you’d prefer. To make this more Mediterranean, for example, one might replace the rice vinegar with lemon juice or wine vinegar, and the soy sauce for coarse salt. You could replace the sesame oil with olive or grapeseed oil.

Velvet pork or chicken

  • 1 lb. lean meat, such as pork tenderloin or chicken
  • 4 tsp. cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp. rice vinegar
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tbsp. coarse salt
  • 1 tbsp. sesame oil

Pat the meat dry using clean paper towels. Slice your meat as thinly as you can while still keeping each slice intact.

Whisk together cornstarch, soy sauce, and rice vinegar until no lumps remain. Add egg white, and whisk until thoroughly combined but not frothy.

Pour the egg white mixture over the meat. Squish the mixture together with your hands so that the meat is coated well. Cover, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, up to one hour.

Bring four cups of water, salt and sesame oil to a boil in a sauce pan. Working in batches, poach pieces of the meat for about 30 seconds each, removing these from the pot with a slotted spoon into a colander. Let the water come back to a boil between batches.

From here, you would either refrigerate the meat for another use, or add it straight to your current dinner preparation. To brown the meat, fry it quickly before adding your veggies to the pan. For best results, toss the meat in the pan and coat it in the sauce before adding veggies.

Plated asparagus and velvet pork