Monday, April 3, 2017

Red-cooked chicken chez Huang

This is without a doubt one of my husband’s favorite things to eat. 

He will get this really wistful look on his face at times, and I know what’s coming down the pike: a reminiscence about how much he loved this dish as a child. Red-cooked chicken was one of the few dishes his mother made well, and when I see that look, he will be sitting there, remembering a great meal he once had at home, getting hungrier with each passing minute. And I know what I'll have to make for dinner.

But even although this called “red-cooked chicken,” it’s not the chicken that makes him so deliriously happy here – although he certainly loves it – it’s the potatoes. Lots of potatoes soaking up lots of sauce is his personal idea of heaven. Again: Mom.

Red-cooked anything is a specialty of the Jiangsu-Zhejiang-Shanghai area. These two culinary goldmines that circle around the mouth of the Yangtze River are home to many savory delights, but red cooking is one of the most famous.

Potatoes, mushrooms, & chicken
You will require excellent soy sauce here (get Taiwan’s Wan Ja Shan or Kim Lan brands, if you can, as the flavor is excellent), as well as rock sugar, Shaoxing rice wine, ginger, and green onions. Everything else is optional.

The potatoes are courtesy of his mother, who hailed from the port city of Tianjin, which is further north along the coast near Beijing. Spuds are a much bigger deal there in Hebei than in the Yangtze area. They also turn this into a more stick-to-your-ribs dish that people in colder climes love, meaning that this is a bit of a crossbreed. But it’s a family dish that really knocks it out of the park.

Anyway, about those little tricks that make this casa de Huang dish extra special:

First, I like to caramelize the rock sugar. This is a whole lot easier than it sounds, since all you need to do is basically simmer the lumps of sugar in some oil and water until they melt and turn a golden brown. What this does is change the chemistry of the sauce – most importantly, the texture. Caramel turns thin sauces into unctuous robes that cling to meat and vegetables rather than run down to the bottom of the dish. It then combines with the soy sauce and rice wine to become a seasoning unto itself, something with great depth, delectable flavor, and divine mouth feel.

Caramel lends foods a satiny gloss that is almost impossible to duplicate. Your diners will be instantly seduced by the appearance, even before those first enticing whiffs reach across the table and grab them by the nose.

Caramel has this slightly bitter undercurrent that also cuts through the intense sweetness of the sugar, while the toasting of the sugar lends a slight taste of toffee that will echo around your mouth.

I am going to have you make more than you will need for this recipe, since it should end up changing your life, or at the very least making your food a whole lot better. A touch of vinegar in the mix amps up the acidity a notch, which will help discourage mold, since caramel syrup keeps for a couple of weeks if you stash it in the refrigerator. The little slick of oil in there also helps to tamp down colonization by foreign bodies (see Tips). I tend to store it in a covered glass bottle so that I can microwave it or set it in a pan of hot water to loosen up.
Amber goodness

There are lots of directions here for the caramel, but don’t get discouraged. It is super easy to make – you’ll see that for yourself the first time you actually do it – but it’s also so incredibly hot that I want to ensure that you don’t get burned, hence the detailed steps.

In addition, note the directions on covering the pan and not using your spoon to stir the sugar – these two steps will keep the sugar from seizing up and forming crystals in your otherwise silky caramel. You don’t want that.

If you’re short on time, go ahead and use plain old rock sugar or, if you absolutely must, regular white sugar. Rock sugar is infinitely preferable, since it will lend silkiness to the texture, and also won’t leave behind a sour aftertaste.

I toss in black mushrooms for their meaty aroma and incredible perfume. Lots of green onions and ginger add considerable zip to the dish, and the potatoes soak up all of these interesting elements. The chicken – it turns out – ends up being more of a supporting character here, as it tosses its meaty flavors and butteriness into the ring, but it’s not the star of the show. Not as far as my husband is concerned, at least.

Serve this with lots of hot steamed rice and a green vegetable. Expect applause.

Red-cooked chicken chez Huang
Huángjiā hóngshāo jī  黃家紅燒雞
Jiangsu, or thereabouts
Serves 4 to 6
Marinating chicken

Caramel syrup:
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 cup (more or less) yellow rock sugar, preferably in relatively small chunks
1 cup (240 cc) water, divided in half
1 tablespoon rice or apple cider vinegar

Chicken and vegetables:
Around 1½ pounds (700 g) chicken wings, cut into sections (or thighs, preferably with the skins on)
3½ tablespoons regular soy sauce
½ tablespoon dark soy sauce
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
10 thin slices fresh ginger
5 green onions, trimmed and chopped into 1-inch (5 cm) pieces
8 dried black mushrooms, soaked until supple, trimmed, and cut into quarters (strain the soaking liquid)
½ cup (120 cc) Shaoxing rice wine
1 cup (240 cc) boiling water,
2 medium Yukon Gold or baking potatoes (or up to 6, if you are feeding someone like my husband)

Green onions from the garden
1. To make the caramel syrup: use a medium-sized stainless steel saucepan for the caramel since it’s non-reactive (meaning it will not cause a chemical reaction, like aluminum will) and its light color will help you notice when the sugar is turning amber. Pour the oil into the pan and add the rock sugar. Heat these together over medium-low heat, gently shaking things around occasionally. The hot oil will soon start to open up the fissures between the crystals, so use a wooden spoon to lightly tap on the sugar as it heats up. When the lumps start to noticeably crumble, whack them a bit harder to encourage them to dissolve into a wet sand. (If a couple of large lumps remain, don't sweat it – they will break down later in Step 2.) Put your spoon to one side and don’t use it anymore.

2. Pointing the pan away from you so that you don’t get splattered, add half of the water. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, cover it for a few minutes to wash down any sugar crystals in the pan and give the rest of the lumps a chance to dissolve, and then uncover. Add all of the vinegar and bring the liquid back to a full boil without stirring.

3. Briskly boil it for around 10 minutes, swirling it now and then, until it starts to turn amber and caramelize. When the syrup is an even golden brown, lower the heat to medium-high and – while again directing the pan away from you – carefully add the rest of the water. The syrup will boil furiously at this point, but the water will serve to immediately lower the heat and prevent the sugar from burning. When it subsides, swirl the hot caramel around until it is smooth. Pour this into a heatproof measuring cup to cool. Makes 1 cup (240 cc).
Way too many/still not enough potatoes

4. Wipe the chicken parts with a paper towel and place them in a small work bowl. Pour the two soy sauces over them, toss well, and let the chicken marinate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

5. Add the oil to your wok and set it over medium-high heat. Add the ginger and half of green onions (reserve most of the chopped green leaves for garnish in this very brown dish), and stir these around until they brown. Scoot them up the side of the wok. Add the chicken to the wok, but reserve the marinade. Brown the chicken on all sides, getting a little caramelization going if you can (revel in the amazing aroma while you're at it), and when the chicken is browned on all sides, add the mushrooms, their strained soaking liquid, the rice wine, about ¼ cup (60 cc) caramel syrup, and enough boiling water to barely cover the chicken. Simmer the ingredients over medium heat until the meat can be easily pierced through the thickest part with a chopstick, around 15 minutes for wings, 25 minutes for thighs. (You can make the dish ahead of time up to this point. Let the chicken rest in the sauce for up to 3 days, which will only make it taste more amazing.) Use a slotted spoon to remove the chicken from the wok to a large work bowl. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning with more soy sauce or caramel or rice wine as desired.

6. While the chicken is cooking, peel the potatoes, if you like, and cut them into 1-inch (2 cm) cubes. Add these to the sauce left in the wok, add the cup (240 cc) of boiling water, stir, and simmer the potatoes until they are barely tender. Raise the heat to high, add the chicken, and rapidly boil the sauce down until only around a couple tablespoons remain and a fine gloss robes each piece. Sprinkle on the green onions, toss one final time, and serve.


If you would like a more standard dessert-type glaze with no oil, either melt the rock sugar in half of the water and caramelize it as directed above before adding the second half of the water, or else follow these directions for the caramel recipe I made to go with moon cakes.