Monday, August 15, 2016

Dongan chicken from Hunan

In 712, three elderly women ran a restaurant in a small town in southern Hunan. One evening, some merchants came by looking for dinner, but the restaurant was sold out. The owners quickly bought two chickens and decided they’d try something new and quick. 

They briefly poached and boned the birds, and then tossed them in a spicy sauce made with Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilies, ginger, vinegar, and rice wine. 

Their customers loved it, and word of the chicken eventually reached the county chief. He came to the restaurant, ordered the dish, found it delicious, and ended up naming it after the county where they lived: Dongan.
Simply luscious

This is one of those carefree dishes you should learn by heart. Poach the chicken in a seasoned broth like this, and then you have the makings for at least two dinners, since the chicken soup is fabulous with fresh mushrooms, a bit of greens, and some green bean noodles to round it out. And if you end up loving Dongan Chicken as much as I do, consider it as a topping for noodle soups, a plate of rice, or even a green salad. (Make extra sauce, too, while you’re at it, as it will take your salad, noodles and rice to new and happy heights.)

A really wonderful thing about this sort of preparation is that you can make this casually over a couple of days. Poach the chicken one day and chill it. Bone it another day, if you’d prefer. Then, whenever you’re up to it, mix together the sauce and toss in the chicken.
The secret? Poached chicken

Incredibly simple. Incredibly good.

Dongan chicken
Dōngān jī 東安雞
Serves 6 to 8

Chicken and poaching liquid:
1 (3 pounds, or so) small fryer
½ teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon rock sugar (a piece about half the size of a walnut)
Boiling water, as needed

Everything else:
3 to 6 small dried chilies, depending upon how hot they are and how hot you like your food
Bone the bird
1½ teaspoons ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns, or 2 teaspoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
¼ cup peanut oil
2 tablespoons ginger, finely julienned
2 tablespoons black vinegar
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ cup poaching liquid (from Step 2)
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cool stock or water
3 green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1. Start this recipe a couple of hours — or even a day or two — before you plan to serve it. Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Put the ground Sichuan peppercorns, soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar in a 2-quart stockpot, add about a cup of the boiling water, and swish this around. Add the chicken, breast side up. Pour in more enough boiling water to cover the chicken with about an inch or two of the water, place it on the stove, and place the pot over high heat. As soon as it boils, reduce the heat so that you have a lively simmer, and let the chicken cook for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until a chopstick inserted into the thickest part of the thigh goes in very easily. Let the chicken sit in the stock, and when it has cooled down to lukewarm, carefully remove the chicken to a rimmed platter and let it cool off until it is very easy to handle. Reserve the poaching liquid in the stockpot.
Necessary fireworks

2. Place another large plate or platter next to the chicken. If the head, neck, and/or feet are still attached, remove them and toss them into the poaching liquid. As you proceed to break down the chicken, you can leave the skin attached to the meat if you wish, or add it to the stockpot, too, along with all of the bones. Cut off the wingtips and back, and put them in the stockpot. Remove the bones from the wings, legs (pull out the tendons), and thighs — leave the meat in chunks as large as possible and place them on the clean plate. Slice the meat crosswise as needed into pieces about 1½ x ½-inch in size. Finally, remove the meat from the rest of the carcass and cut it into the same size as the rest of the chicken. Toss the rest of the bones into the stockpot, too. Bring the stock to a boil and then simmer it uncovered for about an hour; strain and discard the solids. Reserve about ¼ cup of the stock for this recipe, and use the rest of the stock for something else. The recipe can be made ahead of time, in which case chill the chicken and the reserved stock; they will not have to be reheated before proceeding.

3. Break the chilies in half and discard the seeds and stem ends. Crumble or chop the chilies in to smallish pieces. If you’re using whole Sichuan peppercorns, place them on the cutting board and crush them with the side of a cleaver, pressing down on the cleaver and rubbing it a bit into the peppercorns so that they break open.
Hunan comfort food

4. Set a wok over medium-high heat until it barely begins to smoke, add the oil and swirl it around, and then add the ginger and chilies. Quickly stir-fry them for a few seconds before adding the chicken meat to the wok. Gently toss the chicken over the heat for a minute before adding the ground or crushed peppercorns, vinegar, rice wine, and sugar. Continue to gently toss everything together over the heat for about a minute before adding the poaching liquid and salt. Cover the wok and let the flavors combine for about two minutes, by which time most of the stock will have cooked off.

5. Uncover the wok and pour off any excess oil. Taste and add more salt, vinegar, chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, or sugar as needed. Return the wok to medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the cornstarch mixture and toss the chicken again until the cornstarch has evenly coated the chicken and is cooked through. Toss in the green onions and sprinkle everything with the sesame oil. Serve immediately.

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