Monday, November 9, 2015

Mouthwatering chicken + ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns

Leftover roast or poached chicken is a gift from the food gods, as far as I'm concerned. 

In fact, I will go out of my way to ensure that there is a nicely cooked bird sitting in my fridge whenever it looks like my schedule is going to go nuts, as then I'm not as liable to eat out in hastily selected restaurants and therefore waste both money and valuable appetite space. Once you try this dish, you'll understand my hesitation to splurge on foods that are not half as brilliant as this Sichuan classic from Chongqing.

Basically, all you need is leftover cooked chicken that will be topped with standard Sichuan-style condiments. This can be something from a Chinese deli, or a bird you cooked yourself, or even a couple of frozen breasts that you poached and let cool. As long as it is of good quality (read: free range and healthy, with a modicum of attention paid to the preparation), you're going to have a great meal.

My personal lifesaver

Like the recipe for leftovers in last week's post, this is an exercise in simplicity. It even calls for many of the same ingredients, so you can see how this will easily become a go-to recipe. Plus, if the chicken's ready, you can pull dinner together in a snap. Ideal.

And if there are skin and bones (please, let there always be skin and bones), make a small pot of roasted bone broth to accompany your meal: just remove the meat from the carcass and pop the bones and skin into a small pan. Heat it in a 375°F oven until everything is brown. Sauté some sliced ginger, green onions, and garlic until golden, add the roasted bones and a splash of rice wine, and then cover them with boiling water or (even better) a box of ready-made chicken stock. Bring the pot back to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook for 30 to 60 minutes, or until it tastes good to you. Season to taste with sea salt and strain out the solids.

Okay, now that the soup is done, let's return to this dish, which is called Mouthwatering Chicken in Chinese. (I know, it literally means "saliva chicken," but we're not going there.) Traditionally this is served as a refreshing appetizer or cool summertime entree. Most restaurants serve this as a chilled poached chicken dish, but nothing is stopping you from making whatever sort of leftover bird you have on your hands nothing short of fabulous.   

Easy & oh so delicious

It's the sauce that turns this into a genuine Chongqing classic: an exciting combination of spicy, sweet, tart, nutty, and savory flavors compete for attention against an abundance of aromatics, and that is what makes this sauce so, well, mouthwatering.

Do note that this is perfect as a leftover chicken dish: You can use has much or as little meat as you want or have. And if you happen to have lots of people to feed, then just put a nice pile of julienned cucumbers and/or coarsely chopped cilantro underneath the bird, and it will turn into an even better dish. You just can't lose here.

I love to have this on hand when a big dinner looms on the horizon because the elements come together so easily. But then again, when it's just the two of us, I often make this into a casual meal of a green salad topped with the chicken, sauce, and nuts. You just can't go wrong with this, the perfect answer to "what's for dinner?"

Mouthwatering chicken

Kŏushuĭ jī 口水雞
Serves 4 as an appetizer or as a main course salad


1 whole cooked chicken, or 5 or 6 raw chicken thighs, or a couple of breasts (or, to be honest, whatever you have will be fine)

Sauce (make double if you're doing a salad):
½ teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns (see the recipe below)
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon mild rice wine
1 tablespoon pale rice vinegar
1 tablespoon black vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger

2 green onions, trimmed
¼ cup toasted peanuts (or whatever nuts or seeds you like - I've used toasted sunflower seeds from Trader Joe's here, for example), chopped if they're larger than, say, a pine nut
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

3 or 4 seedless cucumbers 
A bunch of very sprightly cilantro
A quart or so of lettuce
More nuts

Shred the chicken & onions
1. If you are making the chicken from scratch, bone and skin the chicken. Place the chicken meat in a pan, cover with water, and bring it to a boil. Simmer for about 7 minutes, remove the pan from the heat, take out the chicken, and let it come to room temperature. Shred the chicken by tearing it into thin strips, and then chill it. If you are using chicken that's already been cooked, simply remove the meat from the bones and shred it with the grain into bite-sized strips that still maintain their integrity and chewiness.

2. Heat the sauce ingredients together in a pan or wok until they boil. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired.

3. Shred the onions into very fine strips. Toss the chicken with the julienned onions and pile this into a serving bowl or rimmed plate. Pour the hot sauce over the chicken and sprinkle the peanuts and sesame seeds on top.

4. If you want to turn this into an amazing salad, combine some shredded or sliced cucumbers with lightly chopped cilantro and whatever lettuces you like. You don't need to dress these first, as the nutty sauce will do the job. Top the salad with the chicken and all of the sauce, and then toss at the table. Sprinkle with more nuts, if you're feeling in the mood.

A must-have in my kitchen
A Master Recipe!
Toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns
Huājiāo fěn 花椒粉 or huājiāo miàn 花椒麵
Sichuan and all the Central Highlands
Makes a few tablespoons; can be multiplied easily

Sichuan peppercorns are a basic seasoning throughout many parts of China. Whole peppercorns are added to many spice mixtures, especially for braises, but my favorite way of using them is when they’re toasted and finely ground into a powder. Preparing them this way allows them to supply a sensuously piney layer to a dish as it is cooked, and when they’re sprinkled on as a final touch in dishes
like today's Mouthwatering Chicken, the numbing properties of these peppercorns will fully blossom on the lips and tongue.

Toasting both heightens and softens the peppercorns’ flavor, elevating the aromas of this spice while mellowing out their bitterness. I always have a jar of these next to the stove. If you don’t use them that often, then toast only a small amount of the peppercorns so that the volatile oils don’t dissipate.
This is all you need here

¼ cup Sichuan peppercorns

1. Pour the peppercorns into a dry wok and stir them over medium heat until the seeds start to pop and send out fine tendrils of fragrant smoke. Remove the wok from the heat and pour the peppercorns into a small work bowl to cool off.

2. When the peppercorns are at room temperature, grind them finely with a spice grinder or mini-blender. You want them as fine as possible, since the seeds are very hard and can be unpleasant to crunch down on. I like to shake the powder through a fine sieve just to be sure that no surprises await my molars.

3. Pour the ground peppercorns into a jar and keep them in a cool, dark place. Making these in small batches ensures that their perfume is ready when you are. If the peppercorns don't smell delicious when you open up the jar, it's time to make a new batch.

Whole & ground Sichuan peppercorns