July 17, 2019

Dear friends,

Sheesh. What a big baby. Tony, coughing and hacking nonstop, poked his head into the kitchen (twice!) and whined, “What are you DOING in here?” I was coughing, too, but you didn’t hear me complaining. Eyes streaming, I just kept stir-frying those dried Sichuan peppers.

Then I heard the dog cough. Uh oh. The kung bao chicken was cooked and photographed by then. I grabbed Oscar, a wad of Kleenex and headed outside.

So fair warning: If you make the recipe below, turn on the range hood fan, position rotating fans throughout adjoining rooms, and sequester your pets on the porch.

I had forgotten how pungent the aroma of frying hot peppers can be. Later, I remembered that this is the recipe my friend Elizabeth still talks about from a cooking session in her kitchen 35 years ago. We cleared the house that time.

Well, not quite this recipe. The one Elizabeth and I made was from the little cookbook I mentioned two weeks ago. I made that kung bao recipe a few days ago and it was just OK. In 1984 or ’85, I thought it was the bomb. After a few decades of eating kung bao, I knew it could be better.

I got a few requests for the kung bao recipe after I mentioned it, but I didn’t want to drop that so-so version on you. So I turned to the most authoritative Sichuan recipe source I know, “Land of Plenty” by Fuchsia Dunlop. I bought fresh dried chili peppers and hauled out the black Chinese vinegar and Sichuan peppercorns, ingredients unheard of by home cooks when the old cookbook was written. Also unheard of was traveling to China’s Sichuan province and quizzing the chefs, as Dunlop did.

So how is her recipe? The stir fry was delicious — sweet, tart, salty and crunchy all at once. The dried peppers (carefully picked out at the table) provided an insistent but not overwhelming heat, complemented by the numbing sting of the Sichuan peppercorns. All of the Chinese ingredients in the recipe are readily available now in Asian food stores.

“It’s hot, but a good hot,” Tony said after inhaling all but my one little portion. Meaning it’s hot enough to notice but not hot enough to drown out the flavor.

The dog sat this one out.

KUNG PAO CHICKEN WITH PEANUTS

2 boneless chicken breasts, 2/3 lb. total (about 11 ounces)
3 cloves garlic and an equivalent amount of fresh ginger
5 scallions, white parts only
2 tbsp. peanut oil
A generous handful of dried Sichuan chilies (at least 10)
1 tsp. whole Sichuan peppercorns
2/3 cup roasted unsalted peanuts

Marinade:
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. light soy sauce
1 tsp. Shaoxing rice wine or medium-dry sherry
1 1/2 tsp. potato flour or 2 1/4 tsp. cornstarch
1 tbsp. water

Sauce:
3 tsp. sugar
3/4 tsp. potato flour or 1 1/8 tsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. dark soy sauce
1 tsp. light soy sauce
3 tsp. Chinkiang or black Chinese vinegar
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 tbsp. chicken stock or water

Cut the chicken as evenly as possible into 1/2-inch strips and then cut these into small cubes. Place in a small bowl and mix in the marinade ingredients. Marinate for 30 minutes if possible.

Peel and thinly slice the garlic and ginger. Chop the scallions into chunks as long as their diameter (to match the chicken cubes). Snip the chilies in half or into 2-inch sections. Wearing rubber gloves, discard as many seeds as possible.

Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl — if you dip your finger in, you can taste the sweet-sour base of the kung bao flavor.

Turn on the range exhaust fan. Heat a wok or deep, heavy skillet over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons peanut oil. When it is hot but not yet smoking, add the dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns and stir-fry briefly until they are crisp and the oil is spicy and fragrant. Do not burn.

Quickly add the chicken and stir-fry over high heat. As soon as the chicken cubes have separated, add the ginger, garlic and scallions and continue to stir fry for a few minutes until they are fragrant and the chicken is cooked through.

Give the sauce a stir and add to the pan, stirring and tossing. When the sauce becomes thick and shiny, stir in the peanuts and serve. Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as part of a Chinese meal with 3 other dishes.

From “Land of Plenty” by Fuchsia Dunlop.

GUT CHECK

What I cooked last week:
Mushroom skillet soufflé; barbecued ribs, romaine salad with mushrooms and radish and a vodka martini.

What I ate in/from restaurants:
An Olympia scramble (eggs, potatoes, beets, radish hash, etc.) at the Blue Door in Cuyahoga Falls; Sichuan stir-fried yellow squash; half a berry salad from the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland; a Chipotle salad with chicken; a bowl of Cincinnati chili, hold the spaghetti, from Dixie Chili in Erlanger, Ky.; hard-fried eggs, melted cheese and ripped tortillas (chilaquiles) with grilled chicken and salsa, two slices of fried ripe plantain and a Diet Coke from El Valle Verde in Erlanger, Ky.; beef in wine sauce, mashed potatoes, a roll, Chardonnay, Champagne and half of a lemon macaron at a wedding in Covington, Ky.

THE MAILBAG

From Mickey S.:
The Smithville Inn has closed. We always enjoyed going there. We would like to have a copy of their recipe for Creamy Noodle Casserole. Do you think you could find it?

Also, I have their recipe for Sour Cream Peach Crunch Pie. It is to die for if you love peaches. They gave it out several years ago.

SOUR CREAM PEACH CRUNCH PIE
(Smithville Inn)
1 9-inch deep-dish unbaked pie shell
2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
2 tbsp. flour
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
2 cups fresh or canned peach slices

Topping:
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup flour
4 tbsp. cup cold butter

Make the unbaked pie shell and set aside. Blend together eggs, sugar, flour and vanilla. Beat in sour cream. Stir in peaches. Pour into pie shell. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Combine sugar and flour for topping in a bowl. Cut in butter until the crumbs are the size of peas. Sprinkle on top of pie and bake 30 minutes longer or until set. Cool.

Dear Mickey:
Wow, does that sound good. Although I won’t indulge, I bet many others will.

I’m sorry I don’t have the recipe for the restaurant’s famous chicken and noodles, which I tasted when I reviewed the Smithville Inn many years ago, and again more recently with Tony. If someone who has the recipe sees this and is kind enough to send it, I’ll make sure you get a copy. It’s the least we can do for sharing the recipe for that pie.

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