Thursday, 19 January 2012

Scrumptious Sweet and Sour Chicken

I am a total city-girl, so it goes without saying that I lurve my Chinese food. That's right; not love, LURVE. But I confess that lately, my favorite places to get Asian food fixes have been very disappointing. Like this sweet and sour chicken that was rubbery and way too sweet. Not to mention the overabundance of mushy bok choi. Everywhere. And may I ask why dishes like General Tao chicken need to be fried twice? Once wasn't enough? Granted, the Chinese food that is very popular here is considered street food over there, which is never a very healthy kind of sustenance. But there must be a way to improve on the quality of the dish without sacrificing the bold flavors I love so much!

Such deep philosophical thoughts have led to me to experiment with making classic take-out dishes at home, where I can control the frying and the bok choi. And the first wrong I decided to make right was the aforementioned sweet and sour chicken.

As much as I love pineapple, I am usually not a fan of their presence in savory dishes. Maybe it's the Italian blood in me, but pineapple on pizza gives me nightmares about people in grass-skirts invading Rome. So, so wrong. However, when you want some pucker-your-lips sweet and sour-goodness, I have to admit pineapples infuse the dish with an unmistakable and exotic charm. So I make an exception and use plenty of the lovely fruit in this recipe. But there has to be more than pineapples to make this dish awesome! I give you sweet and sour chicken alla Gabriela, with 3 ways to cook the chicken: that way, you choose how much you clog your arteries!

Serves 4 to 6.

2 cups rice wine vinegar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup cold water

In a medium pot, mix vinegar, sugar, ketchup and soy sauce together; bring to a low boil on medium heat. In a small bowl, mix cornstarch and water, then gently stir into the boiling pot. Cook and stir until thickened, about 10 to 15 minutes. It may seem like it's taking a long time, but just keep stirring until you've good a nice gooey consistency. Cover and set aside.

Now for the stir-fry:
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into cubes
Peanut oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 fresh chile, chopped
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 cups pineapple chunks
Sesame seeds, for garnish

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large wok. Sauté the garlic, chile, ginger and onion until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the chicken and pepper to the wok and fry until the chicken is well cooked, about 10 minutes. Pour the sauce in the wok along with the pineapple chunks. Mix well, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the flavors well blended. Serve over jasmine rice and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

You can also choose to fry or bake your chicken, in which case you will need the following:
1/2 cup cornstarn
1 egg, lightly beaten

Roll the pieces of chicken in the cornstarch and drown in the egg.

To fry, heat some peanut oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, fry the chicken in batches, until lightly browned and cooked through. Place on some paper towels to absorb the oil and reserve. Proceed with the recipe.

To bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Brown the chicken in the frying pan, just to seal the meat. Then place the chicken pieces in a single layer in a large baking dish. Bake for 1 hour, turning the pieces every 15 minutes, and proceed with the recipe.

The downside of this recipe (if you don't consider chopping lots of stuff up a downside) is that the sauce requires an entire regular bottle of rice wine vinegar, which isn't the cheapest condiment out there. You can substitute it for regular white vinegar, which is much more affordable and comes in rather big bottles. I can't lie: the taste will be a bit different, but the dish will still be very good. However, if you love cooking Asian food, I highly recommend hitting the grocery stores in Chinatown, where you can get a huge bottle of rice wine vinegar for an excellent price. It's a sound investment for stir-fry addicts!

Don't be shy to use pork or tofu cubes instead of the chicken. All three cooking techniques work well for those proteins, too!

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