Kung Pao, not just chicken anymore

By Bill Colvard - bcolvard@MtAiryNews.com
Kung Pao Potatoes make humble potatoes ready for their closeup. - Submitted photo

For a lot of people, Kung Pao Chicken is a gateway drug to the Szechuan section of a Chinese take-out menu, an initial first dance with the alluring, forbidden world of “hot and spicy.”

How hot? How spicy? Remember when you didn’t know the answer to those questions. Maybe you set out on that adventure as a child, or maybe in your teens or twenties. Perhaps it took you until middle age to work up the nerve, but at some point in everyone’s life, the siren song of peanuts or cashews in an actual entrée is just too much temptation to bear.

It doesn’t take long to learn that most of the dish is not all that hot, nor all that spicy. But every few bites will blow you out of complacency with a fierce burst of fiery deliciousness. From that point, it takes no time at all to learn that the seriously warm bites are the ones with the little red Szechuan peppers in them, at which point one can search those peppers out or avoid them completely, as one’s taste dictates.

Any given Chinese take-out menu will probably have Kung Pao Shrimp or Kung Pao Beef, but chicken seems to be Kung Pao’s point of perfection. At least it was until the vegetarians stepped in and started mixing things up.

Kung Pao Potatoes anyone? How about Kung Pao Sweet Potatoes or Kung Pao Broccoli? The possibilities are endless. Stir-frying anything with peanuts or cashews, bathing it in a sweet-hot and slightly gloppy sauce and serving it over rice is just going to taste good.

Preparing Chinese food at home can be kind of daunting at first. There’s usually a long list of ingredients which looks complicated and expensive. And it is expensive the first time. But most of those ingredients get used over and over, so if you do a lot of it, it’s not so bad. And there are a few techniques that are used over and over, so once you get the hang of it, it’s not very complicated.

So try cooking your own food the first time or two on a weekend day when you have plenty of time, but it won’t be long until it can be a quick weeknight dinner solution.

And once you’ve got all of the specialty vinegars, oils, peppers and spices in your pantry, it’s not expensive. Especially if you do want to go with chicken. Boneless thighs are one of the cheapest chicken parts you can buy, they are more flavorful than breasts, and Szechuan sauces are going to show them off to great advantage.

After you’ve mastered a few Szechuan specialties, you might even be brave enough to tackle homemade Hunan.

Kung Pao Potatoes

Potatoes:

1 – 1 1/4 pounds yellow gold potatoes (5 to 6 med.), peeled and cut into ¾-in cubes and submerged in cold water to prevent browning

2 tbsp. white vinegar

1 tbsp. kosher salt or sea salt

1 tsp. potato starch or cornstarch

Sauce:

1 tbsp. potato starch or cornstarch

1 tbsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. sea salt

1 tbsp. Chinese cooking wine or dry sherry

1 tbsp. Chinkiang black vinegar or balsamic vinegar

2 tsp. soy sauce

1 tsp. sesame oil

2 tbsp. water

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

4-8 dried red chilies, heads snipped and seeds shaken out if desired

1 tsp. whole Sichuan peppercorns, crushed with a mortar and pestle

3 cloves garlic, (or 1 tsp. minced garlic)

1 tbsp. (chubby 1-inch knob) fresh ginger, peeled and minced

2 (1/2 cup) scallions, thinly sliced

1/2 cup roasted peanuts

Place the potatoes in a large pot with 6 cups cold water. Add the distilled white vinegar and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook for 4 to 5 minutes after coming to a boil, until the potatoes are just shy of tender. You should be able to pierce a piece but it should still have bite. Drain, rinse with cold water, and let sit in a colander to dry for 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and toss with 1 teaspoon potato starch until well coated. While the potatoes are cooking, make the sauce. Stir together 1 tablespoon potato starch, the sugar, salt, sherry, black vinegar, soy sauces, sesame oil, and water, and set aside. Preheat a large wok or skillet. Swirl in 2 tablespoons oil and set over high heat until shimmering hot. Fry the chilies and Sichuan peppercorns and let them sizzle for about 30 seconds, until the chilies start to darken but not burn. Add the potatoes and stir and cook until they start to brown, 3 to 4 minutes, then add the garlic and ginger. Stir and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Stir the sauce and pour into the wok, stirring quickly as the sauce thickens. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Throw in the green onions and peanuts and stir and cook for about 30 seconds until the green onions turn bright green. Take off the heat and serve immediately with steamed jasmine rice.

Kung Pao Brussels Sprouts

Would make a spectacular Thanksgiving side dish.

Serves 4

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and sliced in half length-wise

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. black pepper

2 tbsp. peanut or vegetable oil

8 to 10 dried red chilis

1 scallion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tsp. minced or grated ginger

¼ cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts

Sauce:

1 tbsp.n Chinese black vinegar, or substitute balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp. soy sauce

1 tsp. hoisin sauce

1 tsp. sesame oil

2 tsp. sugar

1 tsp. ground Sichuan pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spread the Brussels sprouts on a large baking sheet and toss with the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Once the oven is hot enough, roast for 20 minutes, until the outside leaves are golden and crispy and the insides are cooked through.

Prepare the sauce: In small bowl, combine the vinegar, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and Sichuan pepper. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and set aside. Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat until a bead of water sizzles and evaporates on contact. Add the oil and swirl to coat the base. Add the chilis and stir-fry for about 30 seconds, until the chilis have just begun to blacken and the oil is slightly fragrant. Add the scallions, garlic, and ginger and cook for another 30 seconds.

Return the Brussels sprouts to the pan, add the peanuts, and pour in the sauce. Stir just until the Brussels sprouts are well coated, about 30 to 60 seconds. Quickly transfer to a large bowl or plate and serve.

Kung Pao Sweet Potatoes

Serves 4

1 pound sweet potatoes, washed and peeled

2 tbsp. peanut or vegetable oil

8 to 10 dried red chilis

5 scallions, white and green parts separated and thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp. minced or grated ginger

¼ cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts or cashews

Sauce:

1 tbsp. Chinese black vinegar, or substitute balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp. soy sauce

2 tsp. hoisin sauce

2 tsp. chili oil, homemade or store-bought

1 tsp. sesame oil

1 tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. ground Sichuan pepper

Cut the sweet potatoes into bite-sized pieces about 1/2-inch.

Prepare the sauce: In another bowl, combine the vinegar, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, chili oil, sugar, and Sichuan pepper. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and set aside.

You may need to turn on your stove’s exhaust fan, because stir-frying dried chilis on high heat can get a little smoky. Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat until a bead of water sizzles and evaporates on contact. Add 1 tablespoon of the peanut oil and swirl to coat the base. Add the chilis and stir-fry for about 30 seconds, until the chilis have just begun to blacken and the oil is slightly fragrant. Add the sweet potatoes and stir-fry for 5 to 6 minutes, continuously stirring, until the outsides are golden brown.

By now the sweet potatoes should be golden brown on the outside, and the pan a little dry. Create a well in the middle of the pan and pour in the remaining 1 tablespoon of peanut oil. Add the scallion whites, garlic, and ginger, and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Pour in the sauce and mix to coat the other ingredients. Allow the mixture to simmer for 1 to 2 minutes to thicken. Stir in the peanuts or cashews and cook for another 1 minute. Transfer to a serving plate, sprinkle the scallion greens on top, and serve.

Kung Pao Chicken

For the Chicken:

1 -1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 3/4-inch chunks

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

1 tsp. dark soy sauce

1 tsp. Shaoxing wine or dry sherry

1/2 tsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. roasted sesame oil

1/2 tsp. cornstarch

For the Stir-Fry:

1 tbsp. dark soy sauce

1 tbsp. Shaoxing wine or dry sherry

1 tbsp. white vinegar

2 tbsp. chicken stock

1 tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. roasted sesame oil

2 tsp. cornstarch

3 tbsp. vegetable, peanut, or canola oil, divided

1 large red bell pepper, cut into 3/4-inch dice

1 large green bell pepper, cut into 3/4-inch dice

2 stalks celery, cut into 3/4-inch dice

1/2 cup roasted peanuts

2 tsp. minced fresh garlic (about 2 medium cloves)

2 tsp. minced fresh ginger

1 scallion, white and light green parts only, finely minced

8 small dried red Chinese or Arbol chilies (or substitute 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper)

For the Chicken: Combine chicken, salt, pepper, soy sauce, wine, sugar, sesame oil, and cornstarch in a medium bowl and toss to coat. Set aside for 20 minutes.

For the Stir-Fry: Combine soy sauce, wine, vinegar, chicken stock, sugar, sesame oil, and cornstarch in a small bowl and whisk together until homogeneous. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a wok over high heat until smoking. Add chicken, spread into a single layer, and cook without moving until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Continue cooking, tossing and stirring frequently, until the exterior is opaque but chicken is still slightly raw in the center, about 2 minute longer. Transfer to a clean bowl and set aside. Wipe out wok and heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil over high heat until smoking. Add bell peppers and celery and cook, stirring and tossing occasionally, until brightly colored and browned in spots, about 1 minute. Add peanuts and toss to combine. Push vegetables up side of wok to clear a space in the center. Add garlic, ginger, scallions, and dried chilies and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Return chicken to wok and toss to combine. Stir sauce and add to wok. Cook, tossing, until sauce thickens and coats ingredients and chicken is cooked through, about 1 minute longer. Serve immediately.

Kung Pao Potatoes make humble potatoes ready for their closeup.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_kung-potato.jpgKung Pao Potatoes make humble potatoes ready for their closeup. Submitted photo

By Bill Colvard

bcolvard@MtAiryNews.com

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.