Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Red-Cooked Chicken

"Oh my God, I think this is better than your pork belly bánh mì!" exclaimed Ann. This is high praise indeed: my bánh mì, currently on the lunch menu at the restaurant, was tops on her list of all the dishes that I have ever cooked. And for such an unassuming looking dish to assume the mantle of the-best-dish-ever is saying something. Though no stranger to hyperbole when it comes to food, Ann seemed earnest in the extreme. I can understand her excitement: this dish clearly shows why Chinese cuisine is one of the world's great treasures.

Red-Cooked Chicken: Uninspired Plating, Inspired Flavors
Unwittingly, Ann asked me to cook this eastern Chinese classic last week. As she was flipping through some or another food thing, she showed me a plate of red-cooked pork and said she wanted it. The dish wasn't labeled red-cooked but that's what it was. It's been 30 years since I red-cooked anything at home (though it is the basis of many dishes at the restaurant). I decided to lighten up the calories by going with chicken, but chicken legs instead of insipid breasts.

Red Cooking Basics
I've been red cooking dishes so long that I no longer remember the prescribed formulae, if there ever were such things, for this braise. Because of the long cook time, I put together the dish in the slow cooker the night before, so that I could remove it from the refrigerator and start it cooking before I left for work in the morning, to have it waiting when I returned.

Into the slow cooker went the three huge chicken leg quarters, 6-8 star anise pods, half a cinnamon stick, a chunk of rock sugar, a handful of whole garlic cloves, several slabs of ginger, a couple whole green onions, the peel of a tangerine, and the stems from a bunch of cilantro. To this I added about half a cup, maybe three-fourths, of soy sauce, several tablespoons of Chinkiang black vinegar, and water to just reach the top of the chicken.

To finish the dish, I put some rice on to cook, removed the chicken to a plate, and strained and defatted the braising liquid which I then reduced to the point where if I reduced it any further, it would be too salty. At the very end when the sauce and rice were done, I blanched some Chinese broccoli and we sat down to dig in.

This dish clearly belongs in the pantheon of great dishes invented by humankind. It is that good. And that simple: try it yourself. If you've never had it before as Ann had not, it will be a revelation of the best kind.

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