Sunday, June 7, 2009

Kung Pao Chicken

This recipe - like so many of my favorites - is from Cooks Illustrated. It's the only website where I gladly pay for a subscription. The recipes are that spectacular.

Kung Pao chicken! What is it? I don't know. This is one of those foods that I only seem to remember when I'm trying to stay away from General Tso's. General Tso's is too unhealthy; fried chicken, grease, and sugar all glopped together. Kung Pao is my 'healthy' alternative. And it's absolutely delicious.

Pictures by Rebecca

Kung Pao Chicken (Serves 4, but this recipe can easily be halved for a couple.)

Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Total cooking time: 30 minutes

The Ingredients!

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs , trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch pieces
(NOTE: Vegetarians can replace the chicken with one pound extra-firm tofu sliced into 1-inch cubes.)
1 tablespoon dry sherry or rice wine
2 teaspoons soy sauce
3 medium cloves garlic , pressed through garlic press or minced (about 1 tablespoon)
1/2 inch piece fresh ginger , peeled and minced (about 2 teaspoons)
3 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil
1/2 cup roasted unsalted peanuts or cashews
6 small whole dried red chiles (each about 1 3/4 to 2 inches long), 3 chiles roughly crumbled, or 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 teaspoons black rice vinegar or plain rice vinegar
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 medium red bell pepper , cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 medium scallions , sliced thin

And - last, but not least - RICE.

If you're notice, there's no chicken in this picture. It wasn't allowed. That's because raw chicken is the equivalent of a hobo's tongue. It is nasty, and you don't want it touching ANYTHING in your kitchen. Keep it away from everything else, and when you're done with it, wash EVERYTHING that might have glanced at it. The knife. Your hands. Your counter. Your house.

Now, some of the other ingredients might not be in your house. Chances are, you might not want to go to the store to buy them, either. The good news is, with all the garlic and ginger and red chiles going on, you really aren't going to taste some of the subtle flavors provided by, say, oyster sauce. A few helpful hints:

* For sherry or rice wine, you can substitute more or less any cooking wine. Really; it's not like you're going to be able to taste it.

* Hoisin sauce has a very, very unique taste, so I really wouldn't recommend substituting. It's good stuff. But in a pinch, you can mix equal parts ketchup and molasses and add that. This is basically asian barbeque sauce, so I'd imagine real barbeque sauce might also work. But with all the artificial hickory flavoring in there, you might end up with smokey kung pao, and where would you be then?

* Oyster sauce: Try adding two teaspoons soy sauce and upping your cornstarch to two teaspoons.

* Rice vinegar: I used some topaz hibiscus vinegar given as a gift by my sister-in-law! Any white-wine vinegar will also do.

Ready? On with the show.

Go ahead and cook the rice now. It'll take fifteen to twenty minutes. The instructions are on the bag. The only hint I can give you: cook the rice in a tablespoon of butter for a couple of minutes before you add your water and salt. Makes it taste nice. One cup rice, one tablespoon butter, one-and-a-half cups water. Get that rice started! In fact, you may want to just finish making the rice and set it aside, still covered. Don't worry; it won't get cold. The stir fry takes all of eight minutes to make once you prep it.

Before you do ANYTHING else, prep your ingredients. You should always do all your slicing and reading before you even turn on a burner, but even moreso when it comes to stir fries. When you stir fry, everything comes together very very fast, and before you know it, you're either eating or dealing with a major catastrophe. Be prepared so that you can be eating instead of ... treating... disaster? I'm never going to be able to write motivational posters.

So - chop your chicken into one inch pieces:

And toss with the sherry and soy sauce. Set this aside at least ten minutes.

Disgusting, isn't it? Remember what I said: WASH EVERYTHING. Your mom's probably told you that already. I went ahead and got a new knife and new cutting board at this point before starting on the rest.

Mince the ginger and garlic and mix them together with a teaspoon of oil. Mmmm. Aromatics!

Also mix your peanuts / cashews (I like cashews!) and pepper flakes / dried red peppers. Don't you love all these little separate bowls? Someone's got some major washing up to do after this.

Time to mix up the chicken broth, vinegar, sesame oil, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, and cornstarch. Or whatever you plan to substitute, if you can't get some (or all) of the ingredients. Doesn't look appetizing, does it? Rebecca refused to show any pictures of it. You'll like it in the end. OR ELSE.

And, last but not least, slice up your red bell pepper into half inch squares and thinly slice your green onions. Oh, the places you'll go.

Everything's ready, right?

Now, preheat your skillet or wok to medium high, and add a TABLESPOON of oil. High heat, if you can manage it. We have a smoke alarm that goes crazy when it gets a whiff of smoke, so I have to tone it down. No, there's no way to take it off the wall. It's like soldered onto the wall. It is my nemesis.

When the oil is hot - just starting to smoke - add the chicken. Move it JUST enough so that it's touching the bottom, and then let it sit for two minutes.

Don't touch it! Let it brown. I know, you want to stir it. Don't do it. Let it get brown and delicious. Like this!

Doesn't that look nice? When two minutes is up, flip the chicken to the other side, and flip another minute and a half.

Now, add the nuts and hot peppers.

You can feel free to stir this around to your heart's content. Let it get nice and fragrant and a little brown; about 40 seconds.

Take all of this out and put it in a bowl and return your pan to the heat. Here's what it'll look like!

Oh boy!!! We're almost there. Add another TABLESPOON of oil to your pan and wait a few seconds, and then add your red bell pepper. FRY IT! Fry it up. I like it a little browned; about a minute.

Now, move the peppers around so you have a little space in the middle of the pan and add the ginger / garlic mix.

Mash it all against the bottom of the pan for the next 10 seconds, then mix it into the red bell pepper! Wow, that smells good.

Stir your broth and add it to the pan. It'll start to thicken immediately. Toss in the chicken and nuts and cook another 45 seconds.

Once it's thick and amazing, remove from heat and stir in the green onions. You're done. It's spectacular. Taste for salt and sugar and serve over rice.

Robert's take: Man, it is so good. This is straight up comfort food; a big bowl of this can beat any wrong. And it's so customizable; substitute green bell pepper or onion or snow peas for the red bell pepper, change the peanuts or cashews to ... uh, leftover pistachios... there's really nothing bad here.

Rebecca's take: YUM YUM. I like pretty much everything about this, and that's coming from a picky eater and someone who's not really big into eating meat! I can't say no to Kung Pao Chicken - it tastes amazing.


  1. im so excited about this one guys!! hey i have a question though, does it have to be thighs?
    and have y'all thought about adding the time and servings either above or below the post? just a thought! ok thanks for this one i think my hubby will be pleased! wont get to try this one till next week though because ive already spent my budget for this week and i dont have some of these ingredients! when i make it i'll be sure to take some pics posted on my blog and link back to this post! :)

  2. Hi!
    It doesn't have to be thighs - you can substitute breasts. Or tofu, if you prefer a vegetarian entree! Cooking time for the fry will be the same for either, as well as the instructions for soaking in soy sauce / sherry.

    And we agree - we're going to add cooking time / servings to this and all future entries.

    Thanks for writing, and definitely point us to the pictures when you make it!

  3. I'm a horrible cook, so I appreciate all the little details! Will definitely try with tofu... thank you guys. :)

  4. One thing with the tofu: after you've marinated it, I suggest letting it drain on paper towels (press with another layer of paper towels to get rid of some of the extra moisture) for a few minutes.
    That way, you can fry it and get it crispy on all sides!

  5. cool ok that will help me thank you guys :)
    ps i told the hubby i was making this over the weekend and dude im telling you he got excited and was like REALLY? yeah i havent been cooking at all so hes way happy haha thank you guys for inspiring me to get back in the kitchen (my budget thanks you too since when i dont we tend too eat out way too often!)


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