This is the first stir-fried dish I ever attempted, and it is an ideal place to begin if you are new to a Chinese kitchen. Subtly sweet and rich, with a classic contrast of velvety chicken, slippery-crisp vegetables and crunchy nuts, it combines every technique you need to know to produce elegant, restaurant-style stir-frys.
Trim the chicken of fat and membranes. You should have 1 pound after trimming. Spread it flat, then cut into cubes ¾–1 inch square. (If you are new to stir-frying, choose the larger size. It will be good insurance against overcooking the chicken if you are a bit slow in getting it out of the pan.)
Mix the marinade ingredients until smooth and thick, in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife or in a blender. Process a full 30–60 seconds to achieve a rich consistency. Scrape the marinade over the chicken, toss well with your fingers to coat and separate the cubes, then seal the mixture airtight and refrigerate 8 hours to 1½ days to set the marinade and infuse the chicken with its flavors. The longer the chicken marinates, the better the texture and taste in the end.
Heat a wok or heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add the oil, then heat to the slow-fry stage, 275° on a deep-fry thermometer. Reduce the heat so the temperature will not rise. Have a paper towel-lined plate or baking sheet within easy reach of your stovetop.
Add the nuts to the oil, then stir slowly and continually until they turn pale brown, about 5 minutes. Do not allow them to get too dark, as they will continue to turn a shade or two darker from their own heat after leaving the oil. Remove the nuts in one sweep with a Chinese mesh spoon or heatproof strainer, then put aside on the plate to drain. Shallow-fried nuts may be bottled airtight and kept in a cool place for several days before using.
Core, seed, and de-rib the peppers, removing any trace of white from the ribs or stem end. Cut the peppers into 1-inch cubes. You should have 2 rounded cups. Once cut, the peppers may be refrigerated overnight in a lightly misted plastic bag. Blot dry before stir-frying to prevent the skin from blistering.
Blanch the bamboo shoots in plain boiling water to cover for 10 seconds, then drain and refresh under cold running water. Cut lengthwise into spears ¼ inch thick, then crosswise into wedges 1 inch long. Once cut, the bamboo shoots may be refrigerated overnight, covered with cold water. Drain well before using.
Combine the minced aromatics on a small saucer, alongside the chili flakes if you are using them. Combine the hoisin sauce, wine, and soy sauce in a small bowl, stirring to blend. If you are working in advance, seal the aromatics airtight and refrigerate until use, up to several hours.
Velveting in oil: Have the chicken, a large Chinese mesh spoon or a large heatproof strainer to retrieve the chicken from the oil, and a bowl in which the spoon or sieve can nest and allow the chicken to drain alongside your stovetop. Heat a wok or a deep, heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add the oil and heat to the slow-fry stage, 275° on a deep-fry thermometer. Reduce the heat or turn it off entirely so the temperature does not rise. (If the oil is too hot, the chicken will turn yellow and tough.) Stir the chicken to loosen the cubes, then slide them smoothly and carefully into the oil. Stir slowly and poke at the chicken with chopsticks or a wooden spoon to help separate the cubes (do not despair if some insist on sticking together) until they are 90 percent white, about 20 seconds. At that point, scoop the chicken from the oil in one batch using the spoon or sieve. If you are in any doubt, scoop them out sooner rather than later, lest they overcook in the oil. Retrieved at the right time, the cubes will be 90–95 percent white, cooked on the outside but still raw on the inside. Hold the chicken briefly above the oil to drain, then nest the spoon or sieve in the waiting bowl to allow any excess oil to drip off.
Once velveted, the chicken should be stir-fried at once. If you need the frying pot for stir-frying, carefully decant the oil into a heatproof bowl or pot. Once cool, it may be strained, bottled and stored for future velveting or frying. If you do not need the frying pot, let the oil sit until cool before handling it.
Velveting in water: Station a metal colander in the sink, and have the chicken and a large, flat plate within reach of your stovetop. Bring the greased water to a simmer in a large saucepan, then reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer whereby the water ripples and rolls more than bubbles. (Too fast a simmer, and the chicken loses its coating and toughens.) Stir the chicken to loosen the cubes, then slide them into the water. Stir very gently to separate the cubes in the water, then allow them to cook until they are 90 percent white, about 20 seconds. At that point, drain them immediately into the waiting colander. If you are in any doubt, drain the chicken sooner rather than later. Properly velveted, it will be 90–95 percent white on the outside and still raw on the inside. Shake to remove excess water, then spread the chicken in a single layer on the waiting plate. Once velveted, the chicken should be stir-fried immediately.
Combine the peppers and bamboo shoots in a heatproof bowl. Have the velveted chicken, nuts, vegetables, aromatics, combined liquid seasonings and 3 tablespoons of com or peanut oil all within easy reach of your stovetop. Put a platter of contrasting color in a low oven to warm.
Heat a wok or deep, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add 2 tablespoons oil, swirl to glaze the bottom of the pan, then reduce the heat to medium-high. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle one piece of bell pepper, add the cubed peppers and the bamboo shoots to the pan. Stir-fry briskly until the vegetables are evenly glossed with oil and heated through, about 1 minute, adjusting the heat so they sizzle without scorching. Remove the vegetables promptly to the waiting bowl, return the pan to the heat, then add the remaining tablespoon of oil and swirl to glaze the pan.
When the oil is hot enough to sizzle one bit of the minced aromatics, add them to the pan, nudging the chili flakes in last if you are using them. Stir until fully fragrant, 15–20 seconds, adjusting the heat so they foam without browning. Give the liquid seasonings a stir, add them to the pan, and stir to combine. Raise the heat slightly to bring the mixture to a simmer, then add the chicken and vegetables. Toss rapidly to cook the chicken through, coat it with the sauce, and reduce the sauce slightly so it clings to the meat, about 20–30 seconds. Turn off the heat. Quickly taste the sauce and adjust with a bit more hoisin sauce if a sweeter taste is desired. Fold in the nuts with a few fast sweeps, then decant the mixture onto the heated platter. Pause briefly to turn some of the peppers bright side up on top, and serve.
Leftovers may be rewarmed in a steamer set over high heat or in the oven, covered tightly. The vegetables lose much of their crispness, but the taste is still delicious.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.