Eric Akis: Spicy chicken dish awakens senses

Eric Akis

Last week, my wife and I both had colds. Luckily, when we’re sick, we crave similar styles of food. Among our favourites are Asian-style dishes with a robust taste and aroma guaranteed to awaken the senses, even when dulled by a cold.

One of our long-time favourites is a Szechuan-style chicken dish we first tried decades ago at Chung King restaurant, on Spadina Avenue in Toronto.

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The golden bits of chicken served on an oval platter were coated with sweet, tangy and sticky orange sauce. That aromatic sauce contained garlic, ginger, slightly bitter-tasting pieces of dried orange zest and, most noticeably, numerous whole, small dried red chilies.

As with bay leaves added to soup, those fiery hot chilies were not to be eaten unless you really wanted to feel the burn. They were there to infuse their spicy taste into the chicken and sauce, creating a dish that certainly does awaken the senses.

We started making that style of dish at home after we found a recipe for it in Canadian author Cynthia Wine’s book Hot and Spicy Cooking, published in 1984.

Last week, as my wife and I sniffled, we reminisced about how much we enjoyed that recipe and realized we had not prepared it for a while.

So I took up the challenge and made an adapted version of Wine’s recipe that incorporated aspects of Chinese recipes I found for the dish.

When served with rice and a steamed green vegetable, such as baby bok choy, it yielded three servings. That meant there was enough for dinner for both of us and some leftovers for one — me! — to enjoy the next day for lunch.

Szechuan-style Chicken with Orange and Chilies

Tender bits of chicken are cooked until golden and set in a sweet and sour orange sauce infused with the spicy flavour of whole dried red chilies. The whole chilies are only added for flavour — do not eat them unless you really want to feel the burn!

Preparation time: 40 minutes, plus two hours drying and marinating time

Cooking time: About 10 minutes

Makes: Three servings

For the sauce and zest

2 very large oranges

4 tsp soy sauce

2 Tbsp granulated sugar

2 tsp rice vinegar

1 tsp Shaoxing rice cooking wine or dry sherry (see Note)

For the chicken and to finish

1 lb (454 grams) boneless, skinless chicken breast or thighs, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes

1 large egg white

1 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp Shaoxing rice cooking wine or dry sherry

3 tsp cornstarch (divided)

2 large garlic cloves, minced

2 tsp minced, peeled fresh ginger

8 to 10 small whole dried red chili peppers, or to taste (see Note)

3 Tbsp vegetable or peanut oil

• chicken broth, if needed

2 thinly sliced green onions

Preheat oven or a toaster oven to 200 F. Line a baking pan with parchment paper.

With a vegetable peeler, thinly peel off the zest from one of the oranges. Cut that zest into 3/4-inch squares and place in a single layer on the baking sheet.

Put zest in the oven for two hours, or until dry and crisp. Remove zest from the oven and set aside until needed.

Cut the orange you removed the zest from, and the other orange, in half. Thoroughly squeeze the juice out each half orange into a bowl.

Pour juice into a measuring cup until you have 3/4 cup. If you don’t, top it up with a bit of water.

Add the 4 tsp soy sauce, sugar, rice vinegar and 1 tsp Chinese Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry) to the juice. Cover and refrigerate mixture until needed.

To ready chicken, place it in a bowl and toss with the egg white, 1 tsp soy sauce, 1 tsp Shaoxing rice cooking wine (or dry sherry) and 1 tsp of the cornstarch. Cover chicken, refrigerate and marinate one or two hours.

When chicken has marinated, heat the oil in a very large non-stick skillet (mine was 12 inches wide) set over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and stir-fry until just cooked through and golden, about four minutes. Remove pan from the heat, lift chicken out of it and set on a plate.

Mix the remaining 2 tsp cornstarch into the orange-juice mixture until dissolved. Set skillet back over medium-high heat. When hot, add the garlic, ginger and whole chili peppers and stir-fry 30 seconds.

Add the orange-juice mixture and dried orange zest to the skillet and bring sauce to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer sauce one minute, or until it lightly thickens.

Return chicken to the skillet and heat in the sauce one to two minutes. If you find the sauce has overly reduced, add a bit of chicken broth to thin it. Toss in the sliced green onions and serve.

Note: Shaoxing rice cooking wine and bags of small whole dried chili peppers are sold at food stores in Victoria’s Chinatown and in the Asian-foods aisle of some supermarkets. If you can’t find whole chilies, you could substitute 1/8 to 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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