Tea and Spice Smoked Chicken

燻雞

As a graduate student studying for master’s exams and deprived of most of life’s sensual pleasures, I became addicted to smoked chicken. This great, northern Chinese treat was made regularly by a broad and beaming Taiwanese woman who ran a mom-and-pop deli not far from Princeton, and while the window advertised “Italian Bangers” and a shelf of pornography magazines lined one wall, I knew that far better than all those chickens were the home-smoked ones that lay secreted behind the counter.

  • When I left Princeton, hunger overcame trepidation and I discovered that smoking chickens on my own was easy and practical, and did not fill the house with smoke. Indeed, I was disappointed. The incense from the smoking spices was so seductive that I wished it would have lingered longer.
  • Smoked chicken is very easy and leisurely to prepare. The marinating, steaming, and smoking steps require only an hour or less apiece, so this is a great choice for a cook who can steal only a bit of time each day. Begin at least 30 hours before serving, or as much as 3 days in advance, whichever is convenient.
  • Smoked chicken is delicious hot, tepid, or at room temperature, and is equally at home at a fancy dinner or a picnic.

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Ingredients

  • 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

  • 2½–3 tablespoons coarse kosher salt
  • 1–1½ tablespoons Szechwan brown peppercorns
  • ¼–½ teaspoon finely minced home-dried orange or tangerine peel (optional)

For steaming the chicken:

  • 2 medium whole scallions, cut into 3-inch lengths
  • 5 quarter-size slices fresh ginger

For smoking the chicken

  • ¼ cup dry black tea leaves
  • ¼ cup packed brown sugar
  • cup raw rice
  • 1 tablespoon Szechwan brown peppercorns
  • 3 whole star anise (equal to 24 individual points)
  • cup Chinese cassia bark, broken into small bits, or two 2-inch cinnamon sticks, broken into small bits
  • ¼ cup white or packed brown sugar, for smoking the second side of the chicken
  • 1–1½ teaspoons Chinese or Japanese sesame oil

Method

Marinating the chicken

Clean the chicken thoroughly. Blot it dry inside and out.

Combine the salt and peppercorns for marinating in a heavy skillet, using the larger amount for a bigger bird or if you enjoy a more intense seasoning. Set the skillet over medium heat and stir constantly until the salt turns off-white, about 4 minutes. The peppercorns will smoke, but adjust the heat as necessary to prevent them from scorching.

Once the salt is roasted, grind the hot mixture to a coarse powder, in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife, processing for about 2 consecutive minutes, or in a spice mill, blender, or mortar. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer to remove the peppercorn husks, then combine with the minced dry peel, if you are using it. (The peel gives the chicken skin a tangy edge of flavor which I love.)

Rub ⅔ of the spice mixture vigorously over the outside of the chicken, being sure not to miss the spots under the wings and thighs. Rub the remaining ⅓ in the cavity, turning the chicken once or twice so you reach every spot. Put the bird breast side up in a Pyrex pie plate or shallow bowl, cover airtight with plastic wrap, then set it aside to marinate at room temperature for 24 hours. Turn the bird once after 12 hours, then reseal. For a fuller flavor or for convenience, you may refrigerate the bird for an additional 24 hours, again turning it over midway through the time in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before steaming.

Steaming the chicken

(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)

Drain the accumulated liquids, then place the chicken breast side up in a Pyrex pie plate or a heatproof quiche plate or shallow bowl at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than your steamer. (I marinate and steam the chicken in the same pie plate.) Smash the ginger and scallions with the blunt handle end or broad side of a cleaver or chef’s knife to spread the fibers and bring the juices to the surface, then spread ⅓ on the floor of the cavity and ⅔ over the top of the chicken, poking a piece or two of scallion under the wings. This gives the chicken a remarkably clean fragrance as well as a nice bit of flavor.

Fill the steamer with water to within 1 inch of the steaming rack, then bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Put extra water on to boil if the steamer will need replenishing. Put the plate with the chicken in the steamer, wait briefly for the steam to gush up around the chicken, then cover the steamer and reduce the heat to medium-high. Steam the chicken for 35–40 minutes, the extra minutes for the bigger bird. After 20 minutes, turn off the heat momentarily (to quench the steam while you work), then slowly lift the steamer lid away from you and remove most of the juices surrounding the bird with a bulb-top baster if the juices are threatening to overflow the bowl. Retain the juices. Then, promptly replace the lid, restore the heat to medium-high, and resume steaming.

Air-drying to crisp the skin

Once the steaming time is up, turn off the heat and lift the lid very slowly away from you. Wearing long cooking mitts, carefully remove the bowl with the chicken from the steamer, then tilt over the juice bowl to decant the remaining steaming liquids. Remove the scallion and ginger from the top and the cavity of the chicken, using chopsticks to get the pieces lodged in the cavity, then very gently transfer the chicken breast side up to a rack to cool. Put the rack on a tray or plate to catch the drippings and leave the bird to cool and dry for 3 hours or overnight, turning it once midway to insure even drying. Once completely cool, the chicken may be bagged airtight and refrigerated 1–2 days prior to smoking. Bring to room temperature before smoking.

If you don’t have time to air-dry the chicken, simply pat it dry inside and out with paper towels, then proceed directly to smoke it. It will still be delicious.

Storing the steaming juices

Strain the reserved juices through several layers of damp cheesecloth, then refrigerate them. When the fat congeals on top, scrape it off and store the fat and the jellied juices separately in the freezer. Use them for stir-frying Chinese cabbage, making a smoked chicken noodle soup, or adding flavor to any simple dish where a seasoned fat or seasoned chicken stock would be appreciated. Be careful when using the juices especially as they are quite salty. I usually combine them with an equal or greater portion of unsalted chicken stock, tasting as I add until I get just the degree of seasoning I want.

Smoking the chicken to flavor and color it

Prepare the pot, lid, and rack for smoking as directed. Combine the smoking ingredients, then spread them evenly in the bottom of the pot. Fit the oiled rack in the pot, about 1 inch above the smoking ingredients, then place the chicken breast side up on the rack.

Put the pot over high heat. When the mixture starts to smoke convincingly in 2 or 3 spots, anywhere from 4–10 minutes depending on the stove and the pot you are using, cover the pot securely and crimp the foil loosely shut. Smoke the chicken for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat, and let the chicken rest in the sealed pot for 5 minutes without removing it from the stove. (It will still be smoking inside the pot, from the combusting sugar mixture, the heat of the pot and the residual heat of the burner.)

Once the resting time is up, carefully undo the foil seal and then slowly raise the lid away from you (ideally, with the fan above the stove turned on, near an open window, or out on the back porch). The chicken should be a rich golden to mahogany brown on its breast side. If it is not, then the heat was not intense enough to start the mixture smoking properly, and you should sprinkle an additional 3–4 tablespoons sugar around the edge of the blackened smoking ingredients and repeat the smoking process as outlined above for only half of the smoking and resting times, waiting first to see that the smoke has started in earnest before you cover the pot. If, on the other hand, the top side is nicely golden brown to deep brown—the darker color indicating a more intense flavor—then carefully turn the chicken over, breast side down, on the rack. The bird will be fairly hot, so use mitts or several folded paper towels to protect your hands while turning it. Expect while you turn it that a bit of hot liquid, built up inside the cavity of the bird while it was being smoked, will spill out of the cavity and into the pot, and don’t worry about it.

Once the bird is turned, sprinkle the additional 4 tablespoons of white or brown sugar evenly around the edge of the blackened smoking ingredients, then return the uncovered pot to high heat. Wait until the newly added sugar begins to bubble and smoke convincingly in several spots, then replace the cover as before, crimping the foil shut. Smoke the bird on the second side for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and let it rest in the covered pot on the second side for 3 minutes, extending the time by a few minutes if you learned when smoking the first side that your stove is not as energetic as it might be. When you lift the lid, the bird should be golden brown.

Once the bird is smoked on both sides, remove it carefully to a large plate, holding it evenly so that the juices inside the cavity will empty out onto the plate (where you can enjoy eating them). Wrap up the burnt ingredients in the foil lining the pot and the lid, then dispose of them in a sealed bag or outside of the house. They are the culprits in smelling up the kitchen. Rub the sesame oil between your palms, then smooth it evenly over the outside of the chicken, which should be left breast side up on the plate.

Cutting and serving the chicken

You may serve the chicken immediately after glossing it, or serve it tepid or at room temperature within a few hours of smoking. Or, you can let the bird cool, seal it airtight, and then refrigerate it for 2 days before eating, serving it at room temperature or sealing it airtight in foil and reheating it in a 400° oven just until hot.

Just prior to serving, cut the chicken Chinese-style, or in pieces to suit you. Then transfer to a serving platter of contrasting color, putting the prettiest pieces on top and hiding any tattered edges with colorful clumps of fresh coriander or a cluster of red radish fans. Once cool, it is easy to cut in very neat, clean-edged pieces. If it is hot, expect the chicken juices to run all over the cutting board and move quickly to spill them (they are delicious!) back onto the serving platter. (If they have been left behind after the guests are gone, I lap them up with bread.)

Leftovers should be sealed tightly to preserve their perfume. Eat them reheated or at room temperature, not ice cold, to enjoy the full aroma. They are also excellent shredded into a salad of crisp greens and dressed lightly with oil and rice vinegar, or added to a soup.

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