Monday, December 10, 2012

White cut chicken from Guangdong

The Chinese name and its English translation do little to express the absolute level of succulence in this dish. So, that might be the reason why the inimitable southern Chinese way of poaching chicken has remained such a secret. But that is all about to change…

Instead of actually cooking the bird in water over an open flame, some chef long ago probably was interrupted while boiling a chicken, and he or she turned off the stove and left the bird to sit in the pot for an hour or so. When the chef came back and looked inside, the chicken was done to juicy perfection, and White Cut Chicken was born. Or, at least, that’s my explanation.

The first time I had this in a Cantonese-style restaurant in Hong Kong, it blew me away. I am not a huge fan of breast meat because it is just so dry and flavorless, and it feels like penance to eat it. So I usually aim for the thighs or back where moistness and flavor reign supreme, graciously letting others chew on the white meat.

Salt the aromatics
But this dish showed me that even the breast can be great if given half a chance. Here, the meat is not cooked to pure whiteness, but rather has the most subtle shade of shell pink imaginable. You see, chicken breast – like that of a duck – is best when it still is soft. But unlike duck breast, which is actually dark meat and is superb when slightly pink, chicken breast has to be cooked, and hence the dilemma.

What is done here to achieve this perfect balance is to quickly boil the chicken for 10 minutes, and then let the whole bird sit in the covered pot for an hour off the fire. The heat then travels into the center of the chicken, slowly but fully cooking the innermost fibers while not shocking out the juices. It’s genius.

White cut chicken 
Guangdong, Hainan
Serves 8 to 10 as one of many entrées, or 4 as a main entrée

1 whole fryer (about 2½ pounds), organic and free range, if possible
1 ½ tablespoons sea salt
1 tablespoon Cantonese white liquor
Dunking the bird
Boiling filtered water
Ice water
Roasted sesame oil

Dipping sauces:
3 green onions, trimmed
2 inches fresh ginger, peeled
2 teaspoons sea salt
½ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil

1. Start this recipe at least 10 hours or even a day before you plan to serve it. Rinse the chicken under cool running water, being sure to remove all of the kidneys stuck in the back ribs. While you’re doing this, pluck out any stray pinfeathers and remove any stray viscera and extra fat. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and place in a medium work bowl. Rub the salt and white liquor all over and inside the chicken. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the chicken marinate in the refrigerator for 8 to 24 hours. Remove it from the fridge about an hour or so before you start to cook.

The ice bath
2. Cook the chicken no more than 8 hours before you want to serve it, as it should not be refrigerated once it’s done. Select a pan that is wide enough to just hold the chicken and tall enough so that the chicken can be covered by at least 3 inches of boiling water. Bring enough water to cover the chicken to boil (have a tea kettle full of extra boiling water, just in case). Lower the chicken carefully into the boiling water, adding more water as necessary to cover it by at least 3 inches. Cover the pot and boil the chicken on high for 10 minutes, and then turn off the heat. Let the chicken sit in the covered pot for 1 hour.

3. Prepare an ice bath that is large enough to hold the chicken, and then place the ice bath next to the pot with the chicken. Gently remove the hot chicken from the stock and lower it into the ice bath. (Reserve the stock for something else, like the Hainan Chicken in the next post.) Roll it around in the ice water until the skin cools and tightens. Drain the chicken well, lightly rub sesame oil all over the skin, and place the chicken on a rimmed plate to cool thoroughly. Cover the chicken lightly and place it in a cool spot, but don’t refrigerate it unless it’s absolutely necessary (i.e., your house is very hot).

4. When the chicken is completely cool, you can prepare the chicken a number of ways. If you are eating it at home with friends and family, I like to serve it whole and let everyone rip into the bird, tearing it apart like cavemen. Traditionally, though, the chicken is chopped into 1-inch wide pieces. If you are serving this at a fancier dinner, you can also remove as many bones as possible without destroying the skin or shape of the chicken; the drumsticks and wings can keep their bones, though, as they are a) hard to bone and b) help make the final dish look like chicken. Then cut each boned piece into ¾ inch wide (or so) pieces, and arrange the meat on a serving platter so that it looks like a complete bird. Place the wings and drumsticks in their appropriate positions and garnish the plate with something, if you like.
My ginger grater

5. Cut the onions as finely as possible and place them in a bowl. Add half of the salt and rub the salt into the onions to make them sweat.

6. Grate the ginger as finely as possible, removing any long fibers, and plate it in a bowl. Add the rest of the salt and rub the salt into the ginger to release its juices.

7. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat, and when it starts to smoke, pour half of it over the onions and the ginger. Lightly stir each bowl, and then serve these alongside the chicken.


As always, use the best chicken possible, but this is particularly essential in a dish like this where nothing hides the essential quality of the bird.

Some recipes call for the raw bird to come to room temperature before it is poached, but that seems like spreading a welcome mat for all sorts of bacteria to move in and spoil the meat. So, I suggest that you let the chicken just rest outside of the fridge for no more than an hour or two to take off the chilly edge.
Barely done breast meat

I don’t really like chopping up White Cut Chicken because the bones sometimes are still a bit red, and there’s nothing like blood leaking out of the marrow to ruin an appetite. So, I recommend that you just rip the meat off of the bird. It makes for happier eating because there’s no need to pause while working on the bones, and the carcass can then be tossed back in the pot for even more flavor.

Other dipping sauces can be used, but these two are the most traditional pair. The ginger and green onions can even be combined in the same bowl, and that is very good indeed.