May 24, 2014

Almond Chile Chicken

I almost called this "Not-Quite Kung Pao Chicken" as the primary difference is the use of almond slivers instead of crushed or whole peanuts. However, it turned out much too tasty to burden with a name that suggested it was not living up to its full potential. Another significant difference is the absence of Szechuan pepper, although it would be a great addition. This recipe makes no claim to authenticity, but it is delicious. With three sources of chile, it's also very hot.

It's helpful to allow the chicken to marinate for a little while, at the very least while you prepare the peppers and toast the almonds, but ideally at least for half an hour. You can easily add in another vegetable for an all-in-one dish green bell pepper, for example, or diced baby corn, or even finely chopped celery (to stay true to its Kung Pao roots), but don't crowd the chicken with a lot of other things. Maybe serve a simply steamed gai lan with a shot of oyster sauce, or sautéed baby bok choi with a nice dressing on the side. Serve the chicken over rice.

Almond Chile Chicken

4 Servings

400 grams boneless chicken (breast or thigh)
1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
handful of dried red chile pods
3 — 4 fresh red chiles (long, preferably)
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 tablespoon peanut oil

Marinade and cooking sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese mushroom sauce (or oyster sauce)
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce
1 tablespoon dry sherry (or Chinese wine)
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar (or black vinegar)
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

green onion, thinly sliced
cilantro, stems removed

Combine the marinade ingredients in a large bowl, and stir until thoroughly combined. Cut the chicken into bit-sized pieces, and add it to the marinade, stirring well until the chicken is completely coated in sauce. Cover and let rest in the fridge for a few hours (if possible).

Thinly slice the red onion and mince the garlic, and set aside. Toast the almonds gently in a dry skillet until they are fragrant and golden brown, and set aside. Remove and discard the seeds from the fresh chiles and julienne the pods into nice, long matchsticks. Prepare the dry chile pods by removing the stem end, shaking out excess seeds, and breaking longer pods in half (or thirds).

Prepare any additional vegetables (either for this dish, or for a separate side), and slice the green onion and roughly chop the cilantro for your garnishes.

Have a half-cup or so of room temperature (or hot) water standing by once you're ready to fry.

Heat a large nonstick skillet (or wok, if you're set up for it) over high heat, and add the peanut oil. Using a slotted spoon or spider-tool, remove the chicken from the marinade (reserving the marinade to add later). Add the chicken in a couple of batches to the hot peanut oil, and let the pieces sear for a moment before giving it a quick stir. Add the red onion and stir through, and continue to sauté for another minute. Add the fresh chiles and the dry chile pods, and stir again. If you're adding diced baby corn, now is the time to add it, otherwise add any quicker-cooking items along with the marinade in a couple of minutes.

If the chicken starts to stick, or the marinade starts to burn, add a tablespoon of your stand-by water to loosen it up. Don't add too much water, or you'll be steaming your dish instead of frying it. You can get around this by simply using more peanut oil than indicated, but that makes for a much richer dish. Continue to sauté for another minute or so, and then add the reserved marinade along with another splash (ahem, tablespoon) of water, and stir rapidly to allow the sauce to cook through thoroughly and coat the chicken once more. Give it another couple of minutes sauté time, and add the almonds. Stir though, adding another tablespoon of water if it seems too dry, although you probably won't need to. Plate immediately, and garnish with the green onion and cilantro.

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