My best friend moved to Belgium last year. She has been my best friend for 18 years. When I call her, her cellphone says Best Friend. When she calls me, my cellphone says Belgium.
My friend, never a fleshy person except when pregnant, has lost a lot of weight since she moved to Belgium. She’s a picky eater, and hates everything that counts as food over there. I’m not sure why. She has always liked my cooking. I don’t know if it’s because I cook well, or just because she loves me and trusts food that comes from my hands.
She said to me the other day (thank goodness for Skype) that if I could just write something, describe some food to her, then maybe her husband would cook it, and she would like it. He is good like that. I love my best friend. So here is a recipe. It has chicken breasts, always sacred in her food pantheon, and northern European vegetables. I’ve added pepper flakes. She used to put Tabasco on everything.
My mother was one of the first Caucasian women in America to buy a wok. I’m sure of it. I can still remember the Taylor and Ng cookbook in our kitchen. So I am carrying on a tradition of sorts. Except that in my experience cooking rarely resembles the narrative in cookbooks. So this one, from Nina Simonds, is somewhat, um, deconstructed. It’s delicious, I promise. It’s for Belgium.
Flash-Cooked Chicken with Leeks – Adapted From Spoonful of Ginger, Nina Simonds
1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast. You will be slicing it in a certain way so don’t buy pre-sliced “stirfry” chicken.
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine or sake
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 1/2 tablespoons high heat cooking oil (peanut, canola, corn)
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes*
10 cloves of garlic, sliced very thin
8 cups of leeks (about 3 large leeks), both ends trimmed, thoroughly rinsed, and shredded or cut into thin strips about 1/4 wide and 2 inches long.
2 tablespoons rice wine
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons Chinese black vinegar if you can find it, or Worcestershire sauce
Big chef’s knife or cleaver
Wok or large cast iron skillet
Big heavy bowl – for chicken
Little bowl – for sauce
Wooden spoon – for stirring
What To Do
1. You will want the chicken to be partially frozen for easiest slicing, so put it in the freezer for a few hours. Go watch TV. Or play with the kids. Or anything you want. Then go back into the kitchen and make sure you have everything.
2. Make the sauce in a little bowl and put aside.
3. Mix the marinade ingredients in a heavy bowl large enough to hold the chicken once it’s cut into little pieces.
4. Arrange the chicken breasts on a cutting board. Now start to shave thin pieces of chicken off the frozen breasts, cutting across the grain where you can, to create a pile of pieces that are each maybe 1/8 inches thick and 2 inch by 1 inch in size. Embrace the irregularities of the pieces, ignoring any secret OCD tendencies.
5. Dump the chicken slices into the marinade and toss to coat.
6. Wash your hands. Struggle with the fact that you have possibly got deadly chicken bacteria on your fingers and therefore turn the faucet with your elbow, causing water to spray down the front of your shirt. Knock over a bottle of dishwashing liquid into the sink and squeeze it with the same elbow. Rub your hands in the resulting soap and then wash them obsessively. Repeat.
7. Wash the cutting board.
8. Wash your knife.
9. Breathe sigh of relief at your narrow escape from chicken poisoning.
10. Slice the garlic. First smash each clove with the flat side of your knife to break the papery skin. Top and tail each clove. Slide the papery skin off the cloves. Then take a clove and slice off one side. This exposes a flat surface. Put the clove onto its flat surface and put your fingers in a claw shape to hold the clove, pushing your knuckles towards the knife. Put the point of the knife on the cutting board, and then use it like a paper cutter, with your knuckles as a guide touching the knife above the sharp blade. This protects your fingertips from getting sliced off. If I have failed to describe this cutting technique adequately, don’t worry. Just do what you usually do. Slice all 10 cloves of garlic very thinly. Stay focused, even though this is rather a lot of garlic. Breathe a sigh of relief at escaping the danger of slicing off part of your finger or thumb.
11. Next you will cut up a LOT of leeks. Slice off the root end and the woody dark green end. Slice each leek in half. Rinse the leek halves in a colander. Obsessively rinse out all grit and dirt from between the slices. Then slice leeks into the appropriate size and shape. Some strips will be white, some will be light green.
12. Heat a wok or a large cast iron skillet, add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil and heat until very hot. To test, throw a few drops of water onto the hot surface and see if it skittles around. Now cover all your exposed flesh with heat-protective materials. Long mitts are good. Unless you find assorted burn scars to be decorative. You should see my right arm.
13. Add half the chicken, and stir-fry over high heat about 2 minutes, or until the meat changes from pink to white and is just cooked. Empty the chicken into a colander and drain. Reheat the pan using another 1 1/5 tablespoons of the oil, heat, and cook the remaining chicken. Drain in a colander and and clean out the pan. You can just wipe it, as long as the burnt parts are off.
14. Reheat the pan, add the last 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil, and heat until very hot. Add the Seasonings and stir-fry about 1-2 minutes, tossing over high heat. Add the rice wine and continue cooking, until the leeks are tender, about 1 more minute. Add the Sauce and the cooked chicken, and stir to combine the ingredients evenly. If your sink is not next to your stove, some drops from the chicken may fall out of the colander onto the floor. I have no solution for this except to get yet another bowl dirty by dumping the chicken out of the colander.
15. Serve. With rice. Maybe some steamed broccoli, or gai lan if you have access to an Asian market.
16. Eat. Exclaim at how delicious it is. Go buy Spoonful of Ginger. Immediately. Or China Express, Ms. Simonds cookbook of even simpler Chinese cooking. The recipes are a) authentic enough b) simple enough c) do not require you to eat chicken feet, duck necks, or jellyfish, all of which would be quite reasonable if I weren’t such a Westerner in my food preferences. In neither book is there any nonsense about cutting oneself, or burning oneself, or chicken poisoning.
*There are no pepper flakes in the Nina Simonds recipe but my best friend likes spicy food.