Thursday, December 20, 2012

Northern Chinese don't roast chickens... or do they?

Roasted meats are rarely found in Chinese homes mainly because ovens have traditionally been reserved for restaurants. Be that as it may, they do exist, and sometimes they exude a startling originality. 

I immediately think of Cantonese cooking whenever roasted Chinese things are mentioned, but once in a while there are surprises along the way, as today's dish from Shandong in northern China: this is one of the “three roasted dishes of Qingdao,” the other two featuring fish and meaty pork ribs.

It was created by the local famed chef Pan Xiaoliang in the early years of the last century. His original recipe called for a young rooster to be marinated in salt, rice wine, and soy sauce before being quickly fried in very hot oil. The bird was then roasted with such things as green onions, ginger, and Sichuan peppercorns and then served in its juices. You can see how Shanghai finagled its way into this dish from Shandong’s coastal area, the green onion oil giving away its secrets with an almost giddy glee.

A more modern interpretation eliminates the frying, and as you’ll see, that dip in the oil is truly unnecessary because the skin crisps up beautifully in the oven while the meat stays moist and flavorful. A nest of lettuce leaves protects the chicken from drying out, and it also cooks down into a wonderful accompaniment after an hour in a very hot oven.

Spatchcocked & ready to go
That very hot oven is one of the secrets here. Start your oven as soon as you begin working on this dish, as it needs to get as hot as possible, usually 550°F on most American ovens. The super-hot air seals the juices in by shrinking and crisping the skin, and then a merely very hot oven (425°F) finishes the job.

You’ll notice that the chicken is split up the back and laid flat on top of the lettuce. This cuts way down on the cooking time since there’s no cool cavity to deal with. This is called spatchcocking or butterflying a chicken. You can, if you like, completely remove the backbone, but I’m a sucker for both the back and the tail, so I leave it in and just cut down one side of the spine.

Master this recipe – both the hot, hot oven and the spatchcocking – and you’ll soon be making variations on it in no time.

Crispy chicken roasted on lettuce 
Kǎo xiǎochújī 烤小雛雞 
Serves 4 to 6 as an entree 

Fried green onions add flavor
½ cup Green Onion Oil, with some of the crispy green onions
1 whole fryer (about 3½ pounds)
Spray oil
1 small head or half a large head of romaine lettuce
8 thin slices fresh ginger, lightly mashed with the back of a cleaver
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
1 teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
¼ cup filtered water
¼ cup regular soy sauce

1. If you don’t have Green Onion Oil on hand, fry the onions in oil as directed in that recipe while you are working on the chicken. Place a rack in the lower third of your oven and heat it to 550°.

2. Rinse the chicken, pat it dry, and pull out any pinfeathers you see. Place the chicken on its breast and use a sharp cleaver to cut down one side of the spine to split it open. (If you want, you can cut out the spine and save it for stock.) Clean out the inside of the chicken and remove any extra fat. Turn the chicken over and tuck the wings underneath themselves.

Smashed ginger slices
3. Spray a 10- to 12-inch wide ovenproof dish with oil. Rinse the lettuce, shake the leaves dry, and lay them whole on the bottom of the dish, breaking a few as necessary so that the entire bottom of the dish is covered. Scatter the ginger over the lettuce. Place the chicken in the dish skin-side down and rub it with some of the rice wine and Sichuan peppercorns. Flip it over and lightly rub the rest of the rice wine and Sichuan peppercorns into the skin. Pour the water and  green onion oil into the dish from the side so that they don’t wash off the peppercorns. Then, pour the soy sauce all over the chicken, trying to hit as much of the skin as possible; the onions will turn black if left on top of the chicken (which is quite beautiful, so there is a trade off), so nudge them into crevasses, if possible. Place the dish on a baking sheet and place the chicken in the oven.

4. Lower the heat (without opening the door) to 425°F and continue to roast the bird for another 40 to 50 minutes, or until the skin is browned and crispy and the juices run clear when the thigh is pierced deeply with a knife. Remove the chicken from the oven and let it rest for about 10 minutes. Cut up the chicken as desired and serve it with the roasted lettuce and the juices. All that is needed is hot steamed rice or steamed buns. 

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