Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Anise Chicken

I came across a sampling of Mrs Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook on the web and was immediately smitten. It is a series of stories told by Mrs Chiang about growing up in Szechwan province and the food her mother prepared - though even in the introduction there is no explanation of who Mrs Chiang is - she is simply a given. There was a book of her recipes published in 1976 (which now sells secondhand on Amazon for £34.67) but I can find no other trace.

To begin there is a detailed look at Chinese food generally and Szechwan cuisine specifically, giving context and explanations for much more than ingredients in an attempt to create a vocabulary with which to understand this food because even now it is foreign, in part because the western view of food is so different, based largely on taste and then perhaps aroma and the visual presentation. The intro explains A Chinese gourmet is far more sensual. Each dish is considered not only in terms of its taste and fragrance, but equally in terms of its texture, appearance, and nutrition. Each aspect is analyzed with astonishing sensitivity and great clarity. You need to understand that I think before it is possible to cook this food well.

The rewards are enormous. Since I started cooking with Fuchsia Dunlop's book I feel that I have commenced on a new path, I have begun to understand and create inherently different food, amazing things that are like being transported to a parallel kitchen that eats away at my ignorance. For no reason I thought almost all Chinese food was cooked fast and served hot, nothing worse than eating it cold. Anise chicken is proof of how wrong I was. Chicken is slow cooked in an anise spiced broth then served, at the very least lukewarm but preferably room temperature and best of all after a day or two for the flavours to develop.

I cooked it early Sunday - the hottest day of the year! - and we ate it in the evening with sesame noodles and crisp raw greens and it was fabulous. Next day for lunch it was better.

Anise Chicken
10 dried black mushrooms - from Chinese grocery
2 cups boiling water
1/4 cup dried tree ears - from Chinese grocery
1 cup boiling water
4 spring onions
1 1/2 lbs/700g chicken pieces, preferably breasts
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or cooking sherry
1 piece of ginger about 1"/2.5cms
1/4 cup peanut oil
5 dried red chili peppers
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
4 whole star anise, or the equivalent in pieces
2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or cooking sherry
6 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste, if necessary

Rinse the mushrooms thoroughly, then put them in a bowl and pour over the boiling water. Leave them to soak the mushrooms for about 20 minutes, or until they are soft, then cut off the hard stems and cut the larger mushrooms in half. Do not discard the water in which they soaked; you will use it later for cooking. Put the tree ears in a small bowl. Pour the boiling water over them and let soak for at least 10 minutes.

Cut 2 of the spring onions, both green part and white, into 2"/5cm lengths. Tie the remaining spring onions, whole, into a bunch.

Pull the skin off the chicken, but leave the bones in. Chop the chicken, bones and all, into 2"/5cm cubes, roughly the size of a walnut. ( Mrs. Chiang is always careful to make sure that all the pieces are about the same size. ) Put the chicken in a shallow dish and add the cut-up spring onions and the wine. Set aside to marinate for 15 minutes.
Peel the ginger and cut it into 4 slices.

When the tree ears are soft and slightly gelatinous, rinse them thoroughly and pick them over carefully to remove any impurities, such as tiny pieces of wood, that may still be embedded in them.
Heat your wok or pan for about 15 seconds over a moderate flame, then pour in the oil. The oil will be hot enough to cook with when the first tiny bubbles form and a few small wisps of smoke appear.

When the oil is ready, quickly throw in the ginger,dried chilli peppers, sugar, whole spring onions, and chicken mixture, making sure you stir the ingredients well while you add them. Continue to stir-fry for about 30 seconds, using your cooking shovel or spoon to scoop the ingredients from the sides of the pan and then stir them around in the middle, so every piece of chicken is exposed to the hot oil.

Add the star anise, then reduce the heat slightly, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 more minutes, until the chicken stiffens and turns white.

Add the wine and the soy sauce, bring to a boil, and continue to cook, over a moderate flame, for 3 minutes more. Now add the mushrooms and the water in which they were soaked, and pour in enough additional water to barely cover the chicken; you will probably need about a cupful. Wait until the liquid boils, then lower the heat, half cover the pan, and let the chicken simmer slowly for l hour.

After this period, the chicken should be very soft and the sauce should be reduced to almost half its original amount, At this point add the soaked tree ears and let them cook with the chicken for about 5 minutes more. Finally, add the sesame oil and stir thoroughly.

Because the soy sauce has become so concentrated during the cooking process, the chicken may not require any additional salt. Make sure that you taste the sauce before you add any.
Note : this dish can be prepared way ahead of time and then brought to room temperature, when it is actually at its best, just before serving. It can also be kept for several days in the refrigerator without harm.

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