April 3, 2019

Dear friends,
I am so hungry for Chinese food. And I am so sick of anemic-tasting stir frys a 10-year-old could make with a couple of cans of La Choy and a wok. I need to find a good Chinese restaurant. Chin’s in Highland Square and House of Hunan in Fairlawn are the only places I have found that satisfy, depending on where you land on their menus.

Tip: If you see “Bourbon Chicken” on a Chinese menu, it could be a clue the stir frys come frozen from a warehouse in Timbuktu. Bourbon chicken is a staple of Chinese buffet restaurants that buy their stir frys wholesale. Bourbon is American, folks, not Chinese.

In an effort to winkle out the decent homemade dishes on a multi-page Chinese restaurant menu, I ask the waitress which dish is the cook’s specialty. I don’t know why I do this because the answer invariably is “everything is good” or a finger pointed to a list headlined “Chef’s Specialties” that cover every region of China and are the most expensive items on the menu.

Is there a real chef in the kitchen at any of these restaurants? Maybe he or she makes something good for their families and friends, while saving the trite moo goo gai pans for their American customers.

In my reporter years, I once tried to find out if this was true. I interviewed Chinese restaurant chefs all over the area to determine their provinces of origin and get recipes for dishes they make at home. Only a couple (at Chin’s and House of Hunan, in fact) were chefs before they emigrated. The rest decided to open a restaurant and wing it after they got here.

This reminds me of the guy who phoned me at the newspaper once for advice. He was thinking of opening a Mexican restaurant and wondered whether I thought it was a good idea. “Do you know a lot about Mexican food?” I asked. “No,” he said. “I just thought it might be popular.”

Anyway, if I want to eat Chinese I must travel from Copley to Highland Square or dress up (i.e, change out of pajamas or a track suit) and go to House of Hunan or drive to Cleveland. A fourth alternative is to make some Chinese food myself, which I did last week after I tossed out a pitiful version of chicken in black bean sauce from a Norton Chinese restaurant.

“How hard can it be to make this?” I wondered. Not hard, it turns out. The most difficult part is finding the fermented black beans. Unless you have an unruly pantry like mine, it will require a trip to an Asian store.

In Irene Kuo’s excellent book, “The Key to Chinese Cooking,” the recipe for the sauce is ridiculously simple: soy sauce, sherry, sugar and water. The black beans are stir fried with the chicken, ginger, garlic and vegetables. The sauce is thickened with a cornstarch slurry and finished with a swirl of sesame oil. The result is a tawny, glazed stir fry with tons of flavor.

Kuo starts with a whole chicken that she hacks, bones and all, into 1-inch pieces. I used bone-in thighs instead but next time will opt for boneless because we didn’t like eating around all the slivers of bone. Your choice.

CHICKEN IN BLACK BEAN SAUCE

1 frying chicken, about 2/12 lbs., or 8 bone-in or boneless thighs
1 large onion cut into 1-inch squares
2 medium bell peppers, cut into 1-inch squares
2 quarter-size slices peeled ginger, minced
2 tbsp. fermented black beans, rinsed and coarsely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, chopped

Seasonings:
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
2 tbsp. dry sherry
1 tsp. sugar
1 cup water

Also:
1 1/2 tbsp. cornstarch dissolved in 3 tbsp. water (I ultimately used double the amount)
4 tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. sesame oil

Cut the chicken or bone-in thighs through the bones into 1-inch pieces. Or cut the boneless thighs into similar-size pieces. Place in a bowl and line up near the stove with the onions, peppers, ginger, black beans and garlic, all in separate piles. Mix the seasonings. Dissolve the cornstarch in a small bowl; have the sesame oil nearby. All this may be done hours ahead of time. Cover and refrigerate the chicken and vegetables, then bring to room temperature before stir frying.

Heat a large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil, swirl and heat for 30 seconds. Scatter in the onions and peppers and stir fry vigorously with the salt until they are just beginning to lose their raw edge. Remove to a dish.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the pan, heat a few seconds, and sear the ginger, black beans and garlic for a few seconds, stirring all the time. Add the chicken and toss and stir until all the pieces are yellow-whitish. Add the seasonings mixture, stir and when it bubbles, turn heat to medium, cover and let the chicken steam-cook vigorously for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Uncover, turn the heat to high, add the onions and bell pepper and stir in sweeping, tossing motions for 1 minute. Give the cornstarch mixture a big stir and pour into the pan, stirring until the chicken and vegetables are smoothly glazed. If the sauce is too thin, quickly make and add more cornstarch slurry. Add the sesame oil, give the contents a few sweeping folds and pour into a hot serving dish. Makes 4 servings.

From “The Key to Chinese Cooking” by Irene Kuo.

Note from Jane: If you don’t cook the stir fry at a high enough heat, which can be a problem with home stoves and fear of spatters, the chicken will release so much moisture that the sauce will require at least double the thickening.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
A detox green smoothie; chicken in black bean sauce, steamed rice; hamburgers; roast chicken with ginger-garlic sauce; DiGiorno’s frozen pizza.

What I ate in /from restaurants:
Half a meatball sub from Subway; bacon-wrapped meat loaf, roasted carrots, mashed potatoes and a glass of Malbec wine at Wolf Creek Tavern in Norton; a hot Italian sub at Primo’s Deli.

THE MAILBAG
From Sandy D.:
In response to your question about foods we once disliked….I will be 60 years old in June. About three months ago I started eating cottage cheese for the first time in my life. I could never stand the texture before, I guess. Now I eat it almost daily, especially since I’ve discovered Hood’s brand.

Next up I will be attempting to make my own as I do ricotta — can’t beat homemade!

From Diana H.:
When I was pregnant with my first child we had feta cheese in a salad at a Greek festival and it was AWFUL! So I never ate it for years. One day I had a Greek salad and just knew I did not like feta cheese but took a bite anyway. Then I realized how much I LOVED it! Probably pregnancy gave me funky tastebuds for feta. It tastes so good and I enjoy it every time I have a Greek salad.

Dear Sandy and Diana:
How interesting that you both once disliked a particular cheese. I can’t think of a cheese I dislike, although there’s probably one somewhere that I’d turn up my nose at. I eat cottage cheese several times a week because it’s a good source of lean protein and I like it. Feta may be my favorite everyday cheese. It is relatively low in fat and has a mild but distinct salty flavor. I use it in tacos, all kinds of salads, omelets and even on pizza.

Very few foods are on my hate list. Among them are natto — slimy Japanese fermented soybeans — and tripe, which I’ve tried to like but whose texture puts me off.

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