Hot and Sour Hunan Chicken

酸辣雞球

If Tung-An Chicken personifies Hunan’s urban refinement, then this is its sassy country cousin. Dressed up with green zucchini rounds and orange carrot coins, here is a chicken that is unabashedly gutsy. I love eating it in the summer, when I can shop for the ingredients right in the garden.

  • This is a simple dish to make. The chicken can be marinated a day or more in advance, and the whole dish assembled and served within 15 minutes.
  • Characteristically, this kind of country dish calls for a whole, bone-in chicken, cut into small chunks. However, substituting boneless breasts gives it a nice touch of class and feeds the stockpot besides.

Ingredients

  • ¾ pound skinned and boned fresh chicken breast, carefully trimmed of membranes, cartilage, and fat (weight after trimming; equal to 1 pound 6–8 ounces with skin on and bone in; for easy, 5-minute boning)

For marinating the chicken

  • 1 large egg white
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • ¾–1 pound firm young zucchini, trimmed
  • ½ pound carrots, trimmed and peeled

Aromatics

  • 1 walnut-size nugget fresh ginger
  • 4–5 large cloves garlic, stem end removed, lightly smashed and peeled
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese salted black beans
  • ¾ teaspoon dried red chili flakes
  • 4 tablespoons corn or peanut oil, for stir-frying

Liquid seasonings

  • ½ cup unsalted chicken stock
  • tablespoons thin (regular) soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • tablespoons white vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar

For velveting the chicken

  • 3–4 cups corn or peanut oil
  • or
  • 4 cups water plus 2 teaspoons corn or peanut oil

Binder

  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in tablespoons cold chicken stock

Method

Slicing and marinating the chicken

Spread the meat flat on a cutting surface and cut it into 1-inch squares. Holding your knife parallel to the board, cut the thickest squares in half through the middle (using the “flying fingers” technique detailed), so that the pieces are of a relatively even thickness and will cook to doneness at the same time.

Blend 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 for a full 30–60 seconds to achieve a rich consistency. Combine the chicken and marinade in a small bowl, stirring with your fingers to coat and separate each slice. Seal airtight and refrigerate 6–8 hours or up to 1½ days, to permit the chicken to absorb the marinade. The longer it marinates, the more tender and flavorful it will be.

Other preparations

Slice the zucchini into ¼ inch thick rounds. Slice the carrots into diagonal coins ⅛ inch thick. Sliced, the vegetables may be sealed and refrigerated in an airtight plastic bag for several hours before stir-frying.

Mince the ginger and garlic in the dry work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife. Add the black beans, then process with one or two on-off turns to chop them coarsely. Alternatively, mince and chop the ingredients by hand. Set aside on a small saucer with the chili flakes. If you are working in advance, seal the saucer airtight and refrigerate the aromatics.

Combine the stock, soy, wine, vinegar, and sugar in a small bowl. This may be done hours ahead and the liquids left at room temperature or refrigerated.

Velveting the chicken

About 10–15 minutes in advance of serving, velvet the chicken in water or oil, following the instructions.

Stir-frying the dish

Have the velveted chicken, the vegetables, the minced aromatics and liquid seasonings, the oil for stir-frying, and the cornstarch mixture at hand.

Heat a wok or a deep, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add 4 tablespoons oil, swirl to coat the pan, then wait until the oil is hot enough to sizzle 1 bit of minced garlic. Reduce the heat to medium-high, then add the aromatics to the pan, nudging the chili in last. Adjust the heat so they foam without browning. Stir until fully fragrant, about 15 seconds, then add the carrots. Stir briskly to separate the coins and coat them evenly with the oil and seasonings, then continue to stir-fry until they are slightly wilted or curly-looking around the edges, about 1 minute and 15 seconds in all. Add the zucchini and stir-fry briskly for 1 minute, separating the slices and mixing them with the carrots. Fold in the chicken with several quick stirs, then pour the combined liquids evenly over the top. Raise the heat to bring the liquids to a boil, stir 4–5 seconds to combine, then level the ingredients in the pan. Reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer and cover the pan. Cook for 2 minutes. Remove the cover, test a zucchini slice for the desired crispness, and cook several seconds more if needed. Lower the heat to medium. Stir the cornstarch mixture to recombine it, then pour it evenly over the ingredients. Stir in wide sweeping motions for about 5 seconds, until the sauce thickens and becomes glossy.

Remove the mixture to a heated serving platter or shallow bowl. Arrange several of the carrot and zucchini coins on top to highlight the dish, then serve at once.

Leftovers are wonderful at room temperature, with a nice hunk of crusty bread to soak up the sauce. You may also steam the remainders in a covered bowl over high heat until hot, though the vegetables will lose their crunch. Like all dishes with chili flakes, expect this one to be hotter on the second day.

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