Monday, December 18, 2017

Deli style soy sauce chicken

We have a favorite place we go to whenever we want to indulge this wonderfully flavorful and juicy way with chicken. (It's Ming Kee, if you're in the mood right now.) 

But the thing is, it’s far away in San Francisco. And although still we make a point of picking up a bird or two whenever we are in the Ingleside neighborhood, we had to come up with an easier fix. This is it.

The name alone doesn’t inspire flights of fancy. It’s sort of on the order of “meatloaf” or “pot roast,” when it comes to the utter lack of imagination that must have been involved in its christening. I would have much preferred “spice infused” or “sweet mahogany” to plain old “soy sauce.” However, I was not consulted in the matter.

Nevertheless, I think I’ve figured out all the angles on this classic braised bird. The secrets are many, so I’ll run through them for you one by one.

Spice ball & tea bags
Do note that it looks terribly complicated with lots of ingredients, but don’t get discouraged. You really only have to make this sauce once, and then you can freeze it for the next batch and the next and the next. If you don’t have room in your freezer for this, it’s time to throw out all of those ancient popsicles and baby peas, kiddo, and make room. Second, all you have to do is simmer the sauce ingredients, plop in the bird, and let the residual heat cook it through. Couldn’t be simpler.

First, let’s talk about the minimal cooking involved here. The Cantonese have truly cornered the market on ease when it comes to braised birds. Place the chicken in the pot, weight it down with something to keep it submerged, simmer it on high heat for 10 minutes, cover the pot, and let it sit overnight. The initially high heat of the cooking liquid is thus given the chance to work its way down into the bones of the bird without boiling out the juices or toughening the meat. If you play your cards right, you will find a little layer of clear jelly hiding under the skin when the chicken cools. Extraordinary. (Note: In imitation of my favorite Cantonese delis, I like to dry the skin with a fan before cutting it up, as that makes the surface slightly tensile, but this is optional.)

The spices are really important here. You could, of course, toss in whatever you have and hope for the best, but really you need to hit up a Chinese grocery store, dry goods shop, or herbalist in order to season this correctly. Sand ginger (which literally is what shājiāng 沙薑 means), for example, is a genuinely iconic flavor in southern Chinese cooking.

I have a couple of recipes in All Under Heaven that put the spotlight on sand ginger, and they all entail chicken. A magical alchemy occurs when these two ingredients get together, and I’m sure that they must have been made for each other. As always, get little chunks of this dried spice, rather than the ground stuff, which rarely has much star power. You can use those chunks in a slow braise like here or easily grind them up into a fine powder for dishes like salt-baked chicken or paper-wrapped chicken. And your mind will be properly blown.

A trusty lid to keep things submerged
Other important seasonings to have on hand here are licorice root (gāncăo 甘草), star anise, and regular anise. These all possess definite licorice notes, but they also have enough individuality that they combine to form an incredible aroma. You’d think that you would only need one of these, but no, you need all three. And finally, that cured tangerine peel (chénpí 陳皮, or “aged skin”) has an incredible scent. Totally different from homemade dried peel, this is another flavor that should rock your world. 

Ok, on to the other main ingredients: Soy sauce. Don’t use the Japanese version—it’s too light and salty. Get good Chinese soy sauce, please. Taiwan has a couple of great brands that aren’t at all expensive, like Kim Lan and Wan Ja Shan and Orchid, and I scoop up the gallon jugs since I use so much of the stuff. Always buy the regular soy sauce in volume, not the ones labeled “light” or “dark,” and don’t buy anything labeled “ponlai,” which is a lower commercial grade.

As for sugar, I love brown slab sugar here for its suggestion of molasses, but yellow rock sugar is also excellent. Don’t use granulated sugar, which will leave a sour taste in the back of your mouth. And spring for a good chicken, something free-range and organic and tasting of a short but happy life.

A chicken like this lasts us about four days, as we dole it out to extend our pleasure. It freezes well, and you can heat it up in the microwave. It’s definitely tastiest when it’s warm, rather than cold, but a chilled breast shredded for something like mouthwatering chicken is divine. The bones make a lovely stock. The giblets make great little tidbits. What’s not to love?

Soy sauce chicken
Chĭyóu jī  豉油雞
Serves 4 to 6 as an entrée

Aromatic brew:
1 cup | 60 g dried licorice root
¼ cup | 30 g dried sand ginger
20 pieces | 40 g star anise
¼ cup | 25 g anise seeds
12 cups | 2.8 liters water
Fanning away surface moisture

Braising stock:
All of the aromatic brew and spices
2 cups | 500 ml regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
3 whole pieces | 225 g slab sugar, or rock sugar to taste
6 tablespoons | 90 ml oyster sauce
2 teaspoons sea salt
½ cup | 120 ml mild rice wine (like Taiwan Mijiu)
2 pieces cured tangerine peel, soaked
1 stick canela or cinnamon
¼ cup | 60 g thinly sliced fresh ginger

Chicken:
1 fat organic, free-range chicken, cleaned and left whole
Boiling water, as needed

1. Start this recipe at least a day before you plan to serve it. First make the aromatic brew: Measure out the licorice root, star anise, and sand ginger into a colander and rinse well. If you want, pack these into as many mesh spice balls, tea balls, or braising sachets (see Tips) as needed, close them up, and add them to a braising pot, preferably one that is taller than it is wide, as this will help keep the chicken submerged in Step 4. Rinse the tiny anise seeds in a strainer and then pack them into another tea ball or sachet before tossing it, too, into the pot. Cover the spices with the water, place the lid on the pot, and bring it to a full boil. Lower the heat to maintain a lively simmer for around 30 minutes.

2. To make the braising stock, add all of the braising stock ingredients to the aromatic brew. Bring the liquid to a full boil uncovered, and then let it simmer on low for at least 1 hour. Taste and adjust the seasoning, as every soy sauce is different. This liquid can be made far ahead of time and either refrigerated or frozen.

3. Wipe the chicken clean. If you want a uniform color to your bird when it’s done, rub off the thin layer of membrane on top of the skin. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine and twist the wings underneath themselves so that they lock in place. If you want to add the giblets to this (please do), prep them, too. You want to blanch the chicken before braising it, so bring a separate pot of water to a full boil—just enough to submerge the chicken fully—and then slide the chicken in. Gently turn the chicken over and around in the hot water, reducing the heat as necessary to maintain a simmer. This step will both tighten up the skin and release any impurities in the bird. After about 10 minutes, discard the water. Rinse off and drain the chicken. Strain the braising liquid and discard the solids.

4. Slide the whole chicken and any giblets into the braising stock. The chicken should be fully submerged by a couple of inches; if not, add equal parts boiling water and soy sauce as needed. Weight the bird down with smaller, heavy, heatproof lid to help it cook evenly. Bring the liquid back to a boil and then lower it to a very slow simmer so that the chicken poaches, rather than boils. After 10 to 15 minutes, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let the chicken sit overnight to cook through of its own accord.

Saving me a long trip...
5. Test the chicken’s doneness by piercing the thickest part of the thigh with a small knife. Go all the way down to the bone. If it slides in like the bird was made of soft butter, and no blood oozes out after a minute, the chicken is done. If not, bring the liquid to a full boil again, turn off the heat, cover, and let the chicken sit another 15 minutes or so. Remove the chicken and giblets from the braising liquid to a rimmed plate, and pour any juices that accumulate underneath it back into the pot.

6. I like the skin to be a bit dry on the surface, and if you feel the same, add this step: When the chicken has cooled off completely, place on a cake rack set on a rimmed plate. Use a table fan to dry the skin: set it about 1 foot | 30 cm away and direct the fan at the chicken. When one side of the chicken is tacky to the touch, turn the chicken around to dry the other side.

7. Just before serving, chop it up into pieces as desired. You can reduce the liquid, if you like, and serve it either on the side or drizzled over the chicken. This is especially recommended if you are serving a plate meal of a mound of rice topped with some chopped chicken and a pile of simply blanched iceberg lettuce. Life doesn’t get much better than this.



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