Casseroled Chicken with Smoky Chestnuts

紅燒栗子雞

Itinerant chestnut vendors filled the streets of Taipei in winter, animating the alleyways with their calls and the sweet, dusky perfume of roasting chestnuts, stirring in me memories of Fifth Avenue and the winters of my childhood. While Chinese, like New Yorkers, love munching them plain, a good many chestnuts find their way into poultry stews such as this one. Warming, satisfying, and seductively hinting of wine, it is a lovely dish at any time of year.

  • I like the dried variety of chestnuts found in Chinese markets. They are extremely easy to use, smoked and fragrant unlike the Italian ones, and available year round. Fresh chestnuts should be roasted or toasted before inclusion in the stew, and I offer the following recipe from a 1936 volume entitled The Chinese Cookbook: 300 Very FineNumber One Good” Recipes . . . First Class Food by Mr. M. Sing Au.

Sand-Roasted Chestnuts

Half fill a frying pan with sand, and heat over hot fire. Put in a handful of raw chestnuts. If sand is real hot, it will require about 15 minutes to cook the chestnuts. [NB: Stir the chestnuts constantly. Over gas, you may use a wok.]

  • Like most stews, this one is best made in advance and left to sit for a day or more before eating. The flavors develop, the aroma intensifies, and a good dish becomes extraordinary.

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Ingredients

  • brimming ½ cup dried Chinese chestnuts, or 1 cup freshly roasted chestnuts, peeled
  • 3½–4 pound perfectly fresh chicken, fresh-killed best (weight after removal of head, neck, feet, wingtips, tail and fat sacs)

For marinating the chicken

  • 2 medium whole scallions, cut into 3-inch lengths
  • 3 quarter-size slices fresh ginger
  • 5 tablespoons thin (regular) soy sauce (read the cautionary note regarding brands)

For stewing the chicken

  • 5 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • 3 tablespoons packed brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons thin (regular) soy sauce
  • 2 cups water or light, unsalted chicken stock
  • 6 cups corn or peanut oil, for deep-frying

Method

Soaking the dried chestnuts

Cover the chestnuts with boiling water and cover the bowl to retain the heat. Soak 3 hours, or overnight. Use a toothpick or bamboo skewer to remove any red skin trapped in the folds, then return the chestnuts to the soaking liquid until ready to use.

Chopping and marinating the chicken

Clean the chicken thoroughly as directed. Chop it into bite-size pieces Chinese-style. Discard any loose bits of bone that may result from chopping.

Lightly smash the scallion and ginger to release their juices, then combine them in a bowl with the chicken and 5 tablespoons soy sauce. Toss well to distribute the seasonings, then press the chicken flat, seal the bowl airtight, and marinate 3–6 hours at room temperature or up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. Toss occasionally to redistribute the marinade.

Frying the chicken in two batches

Discard the ginger and scallion. Stir the chicken to loosen the pieces. Have a tray lined with a triple thickness of paper towels and a large Chinese mesh spoon or a deep-fry basket near your stovetop.

Heat a wok or a deep, heavy pot over high heat until hot. Add the oil, leaving 2½ inches free at the top of the pot to accommodate bubbling. Heat the oil to the dense-haze stage, 400° on a deep-fry thermometer.

Dip the mesh spoon or fry basket into the oil to heat it through and prevent the chicken from sticking to the metal. Put one half of the chicken into the spoon or basket, then gently lower it into the oil. The chicken should foam upon contact. If it does not, remove it and wait for the oil to gain the proper temperature.

Stir immediately and gently to separate the pieces, using the rim of the spoon or basket. When the chicken turns a deep brown gold, in a minute or less, remove the pieces in one sweep, and hold them briefly above the oil to drain. Transfer to the towel-lined tray, then give the tray a shake to even out the pieces and blot up the excess oil.

Wait for the oil to regain 400°, then repeat with the remaining chicken. Expect the second batch to brown in less time, about 30 seconds.

Let the oil cool, then strain, bottle, and refrigerate it for future use.

Stewing the chicken

Combine the stewing ingredients, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

Choose a Chinese sand pot, or a heavy pot that will hold the chicken snugly. Put the chicken, the drained chestnuts, and the combined stewing ingredients in the pot. If you are using freshly roasted chestnuts, wait until the final 20 minutes of simmering before adding them to the pot.

Bring the liquids to a boil over moderate heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. If you are using a Chinese sand pot, begin with low heat and raise it gradually to prevent the pot from cracking. (You may also wish to use an asbestos pad.) Stir the contents to distribute the sauce, then cover the pot and simmer 50 minutes. Lift the lid once or twice to check the simmer and stir the stew. When it is done, taste the sauce. It should be smoky and sweet, with an edge of soy and wine. Adjust the seasonings, if necessary, to bring the flavors to fullness.

For best taste, let the stew come to room temperature, then refrigerate it for 1–3 days before eating.

Serving the stew

If refrigerated, bring the stew to a simmer and heat it through. Carry it from the kitchen in the covered sand pot or in a heated, covered serving bowl, and lift the lid at the table to inspire everyone’s appetite.

Have one or more small bowls available to hold bones. Sucking on bones to unleash their goodness is permissible in the best of Chinese society, so encourage your guests to be traditional.

Leftovers keep well and improve upon reheating.

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