Friday, 6 July 2012

Canada Day Weekend and General Tso Chicken

SmartCooks here.

I had this entry -- with a recipe for  General Tso's Chicken -- all ready to post right after the Canada Day Weekend but some technology gremlin zapped the entire thing just as I finished the last keystroke.  Like Grrrrrr.  I spent the rest of the week trying to retrieve it, to no avail.  So... here's the reconstructed version before we get to another fantastic (but HOT) weekend and focus on a few simple dishes that match the HOT weather.  

Ottawa's Canada Day Weekend

Canada Day weekend in the Nation's Capital was glorious.  Husband and friends are always bemused at my exuberance for celebrations. I get into them big-time. I don't do the crowds on the Hill or try roaming the streets popping off firecrackers (rhetorical question: so why do *they* do this with kids in strollers nearby?).  No, I go for the individual 'wow' moments... and there were a few over the weekend.

The weekend featured a couple of fabulous BBQs at friends' places -- one at a beautiful waterfront chalet about an hour from Ottawa with its unbelievable views of Ottawa forestry; the other was at the house of good friends with its fabulous gardens full of plants and flowers in full, cheerful bloom.

Both events meant a bike ride to the Ottawa Farmer's Market near Carleton University to buy produce to prepare for the BBQs.  The early spring, hot weather has led to an abundance of produce brimming over the market stalls -- so I had my pick of onions, carrots, zucchini, asparagus and strawberries. Good thing my bike has limited capacity for transport; it helps curb the enthusiasm for buying everything on offer.  

It was noon as I was riding back from the Market on Sunday and I just happened to stop at the juncture of Colonel By and Echo Drives and look upward toward Parliament Hill.  My timing was perfect.  Coming at me over the horizon was a fleet of Snowbirds, all in perfect formation.  As they neared me, they broke apart and dipped their wings, first  on one side, then the other.  I figured they were waving at me!  I was so taken with the sight I forgot to snap a picture so this one is courtesy of the Ottawa Citizen.

Later that night, I went back to the same spot for front-row viewing of the Canada Day fireworks.  They were good but not as spectacular as the past few years when the Royals were in town and Ottawa was putting on the 'glitz and 'ritz.  

The lack of Royals also meant that the  crowds streaming off the Hill toward cars and their homes were much more subdued than in previous years.  This was a huge relief as we sat outside with neighbours guarding our properties, especially in our case our new pondless waterfall recently installed in the back garden.  It adds a nice, quiet Zen touch to the back deck atmosphere.  

Appetite for China 

Along the way, I continued my e-tour of chicken recipes from around the world and chanced upon one I have wanted to try for quite some time -- General Tso's Chicken (there's a number of variations on the spelling of the name of course).  It comes via one of the best cooking websites that I've found -- Appetite for China -- written by an almost 30s young woman who clearly loves to research the history of various Chinese dishes.
General Tso's Chicken may or may not have been named after a Chinese general and may or not have started off as a Hunan dish.  That part of the history seems a little murky.  But what is known is that it became popular in the Western world via Taiwanese chefs who opened Hunan restaurants in the US beginning in the 1970s. 

Hunan cuisine traditionally did not include sweet flavours but as it adapted to Western culture the dish became a mixture of spicy flavours, smoky chilies, crispy crunchy coatings and sweet sauces.  I've included a New York Times article on the history of the dish and here's the link, which also contains the more traditional recipe.  

Appetite for China gives a recipe for the more Westernized version, but it tastes unlike anything you would find on a Chinese take-out menu.  And if you don't have or don't want to buy all the ingredients, In an innovative twist, they have teamed up with a new company -- Grub Kit -- to offer everything needed to cook classic dishes like this one (as well as Pad Thai and Kung Pao chicken).  They will soon be able to ship to Canada, according to their website.  It's an option for $20!  Enjoy! 

(Serves 3-4 people)

Ingredients for Marinade:

1 T low-sodium soy sauce
1 T Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
2 egg whites
Ingredients for Sauce:

1/4 cup chicken stock, or substitute water
1 1/2 T tomato paste (I used it from a tube rather than open a small can)
1 T low-sodium soy sauce
1 T unseasoned rice vinegar
1 tsp hoisin sauce
1 tsp chili paste
1 tsp sesame oil
1 T sugar
1 tsp cornstarch
Other Ingredients:

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts sliced into 1-inch cubes, organic if possible
1 1/2 cups cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 cups peanut or vegetable oil for frying, plus 1 T for stir-frying
8 dried whole red chilis, or substitute 1/4 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp white sesame seeds, for garnish
Scallions, green parts thinly sliced, for garnish

Prepare Marinade:
In a large bowl, combine the low-sodium soy sauce, rice wine, and egg whites. Coat the chicken to the marinade mixture and let sit for 10 minutes.

Prepare Sauce: 
In a small bowl, combine the chicken stock (or water), tomato paste, sugar, low-sodium soy sauce, unseasoned rice vinegar, hoisin sauce, chili paste, sesame oil, sugar, and the 1 tsp of cornstarch. Stir until the sugar and cornstarch are dissolved. Set the sauce aside.

Prepare Dish:
In a large bowl, toss 1 1/2 cups cornstarch with the salt and pepper. Coat the marinated chicken in the cornstarch and shake off any excess before frying.

Heat 3 cups of peanut or vegetable oil in wok or deep skillet until it registers 350°F (I used my meat thermometer). Working in 2 or 3 batches, add the first batch of chicken cubes and fry until golden brown on the outside and cooked through, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the chicken.

Drain the oil and wipe the wok with a paper towel to remove any brown bits. Reheat the wok or skillet over medium-high heat. Add another 1 T of oil and swirl to coat the base and sides. Add the dried chilis and garlic to the wok and stir-fry until just fragrant, about 20 seconds. Pour in the sauce mixture and stir until thickened, about 1-2 minutes.

Return the chicken to the wok and stir well to coat with sauce. Transfer the chicken to a serving dish. Garnish with white sesame seeds and scallions.

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