Saturday, July 10, 2010

Kitchen Challenge: Spicy Stirfry Extravaganza

Three of the main challenges I face when deciding what to cook my grandmother for dinner is keeping it balanced, keeping it new, and keeping it in bounds of what she can and can't eat. While she's never loved to cook, now that she has gotten up there in years, she cooks purely out of necessity. I've tried to convince her countless times that since I love to cook, especially for others, I am only too happy to come over on a Saturday afternoon and cook us both dinner. While shopping at the local farmers market gives me a chance to try out my "mystery basket" skills, when I have a chance to plan ahead a little bit, I often go with a bit more unconventional flavors.

One of the interesting battles I play out with my grandmother on a routine basis is the argument we seem to have over the number of jars and bottles I tend to leave behind. Now, mind you, I am not leaving extra oils, vinegars, and other bottles in an already overcrowded kitchen. But, she insists that I take everything with me when I leave. The problem, from my perspective, is that it will take a couple of dinners to use up an entire bag of Panko bread crumbs or a bottle of balsamic vinegar. If I take them with me, I'll forget to bring them back the next time I need them. Especially if I am cooking off the cuff, which I do quite often.

Today when I called her and asked what she would like for dinner, she hadn't really thought that far ahead. Knowing that she can't eat rice, I suggested perhaps we do a vegetable and chicken stirfry over noodles. I had originally thought of making some egg noodles from scratch, similar to the whole wheat noodles I've made in the past, but as I was driving over to her condo, I began to ponder the possibilities. At first, I thought of doing a sweet and sour chicken. But, having done a similar sauce in a recent meal, I took a decidedly Thai twist and planned to do a slightly spicy peanut sauce instead.

When I got to Giant Eagle, I picked up some red onions and peppers, a knob of ginger and a head of garlic, a package of chicken breasts, and a few extra jars of ingredients which I knew I would need to make a successful dinner. I knew I'd have to be sneaky if I was going to leave the extra bottles at her condo without her noticing.

After arriving back at the condo, I unpacked all of the groceries and assembled the ingredients necessary for the spicy peanut sauce:

From left to right, back to front, you have smooth peanut butter, sesame oil, sweet chili sauce, reduced sodium tamari (similar to soy sauce), grapeseed oil, rice wine vinegar, ginger root, garlic, and a Persian lime. Unfortunately, as with a lot of my cooking, things are generally to taste, so I can't give you a completely accurate recipe. That being said, I can give you some guidelines:

1) I used about 1/2 cup of peanut butter as my base.
2) I minced up enough fresh ginger to give me about 2 tbsp.
3) I minced up 3 cloves of fresh garlic.
4) I added the juice of an entire lime.
5) Be careful with the sesame oil, a little bit goes a long way.
6) I added enough rice wine vinegar until the sauce had just a little bit of an acidic edge.
7) I thinned the sauce with the grapeseed oil and in the very end, about a tablespoon of tap water.
8) I added a surprising amount of sweet chili sauce, maybe as much as 1/4 cup

What you finish with at the end of all this adding, mixing and tasting is this:

It will still be thick, but it will glop off the end of a spoon. Don't worry that the flavor of garlic and ginger is strong, when you add the sauce to the stirfry at the end and toss it around a bit to coat the pasta, they will cook ever so slightly, reducing their pungency. What you are looking for in the end sauce is a balance between peanut, ginger, chili, and sesame as well as some acid from the lime juice and sweetness from the sweet chili paste. If it isn't sweet enough, add a touch of honey.

The peanut sauce finished, I set it aside and turned to the main vegetables in our stirfry tonight, the peppers and red onion:

This was a good sized red onion, so I only used one. I decided to go with a fairly large dice on both the peppers and onion since I wanted them to have a distinct presence on the finished plate. After dicing, I placed them into a bowl and set them aside for the stirfry portion in a little bit:

While I was standing in the international food aisle of the grocery store gathering the necessary ingredients for my sauce, I looked over at the Japanese food section and noticed that they were selling Udon:

Of course, calling them Japanese Udon Noodles is terribly redundant (if they are labeled udon, then they are always noodles and they can only be Japanese), but the thought occurred to me that these noodles would make a perfect replacement for the homemade egg noodles I had originally contemplated making.

My final preparation step for my mis en place tonight was to trim up the boneless chicken breast I had bought at the supermarket. While we certainly weren't about to eat nearly two pounds of chicken, I figured I would cook all three breasts that were in the package and save the other two for future meals or late night snacks. Here were the trimmed up chicken breasts:

To these I simply added some sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper. I took a moment (and I encourage all home cooks to do the same) to think about the length of time each element of the dinner would take tonight. The chicken would take 2 1/2 minutes of searing on each side, 12-13 minutes in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and then 5 minutes of resting before slicing. The package of udon stated that they needed to cook in barely simmering water for about 13-14 minutes. The stirfry of the vegetables themselves would probably take about 10 minutes.

My plan now in place, I heated up my grandmother's stainless steel sauté pan, added a bit of grapeseed oil and placed the chicken breasts, seasoned side down into the pan. After 3 minutes, I flipped the breasts to reveal a nice golden color:

I continued to sear the breasts on the second side for another two minutes or so before transferring them to a pre-heated, aluminum foil lined tray and put them into the oven to cook for the remainder of the time. It was at this point I slid in two of the udon bundles into an already simmering pot of water on the back of the stove. I quickly stirred the noodles to avoid their nasty habit of sticking together.

Not wanting to waste the wonderful brown bits (aka, the fond) at the bottom of the sauté pan, I added about a cup of tap water to the pan, returned it to the back of the stove on a extra hot burner and proceeded to scrape up all the little brown bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. They dissolved into the water and looked like this:

This I kept over high heat, reducing to almost a dark brown syrupy consistency. I figured I would add it as a flavoring sauce to the stirfried vegetables and noodles.

After getting the sauté pan deglazed, I turned my attention to the nonstick wok my grandmother had retrieved from her storage room and washed. I turned up the heat, added a healthy does of grapeseed oil (which has a wonderfully high smoke point), and added my onions and peppers:

I added a couple of glugs of the low sodium tamari and kept flipping the vegetables in the pan. As they cooked, the began to exude their moisture and reduce in size. After about five minutes or so, I added the reduced chicken jus and continued to flip them in the hot pan until almost all of the liquid had evaporated. At this point, they looked like this:

I tasted them at this point and they had a lovely soft texture and the flavor from the tamari and reduced chicken jus was very nice. It just goes to show you that you should never through away the brown bits on the bottom of the pan after cooking meat. There really is just a ton of flavor that can be liberated by deglazing the pan.

At this point, things began to move quickly, so sadly there weren't any more action shots. The timer for the chicken went off and I checked to make sure that the internal temperature of the chicken was 160 degrees Fahrenheit. It was so I moved the chicken to my clean cutting board and covered it loosely with aluminum foil. I then drained the cooked udon in a colander placed into the sink. After giving the colander a couple of taps to drain any excess moisture, I dumped the entire contents into the wok still sitting on the stovetop burner. I then scooped in about 3/4 of the spicy peanut sauce I had made earlier on top of the noodles. Between using the wooden spatula that my grandmother owned and simply flipping the entire contents in the pan, I managed to coat the noodles and vegetables with the peanut sauce as well as cook out some of the rawness of the garlic and ginger.

After everything was ready, I plated up a portion of the spicy peanut noodles and vegetables on each dinner plate. For the chicken breast, I sliced them into medallions on a 45 degree angle and then shingled them across the top of the stirfry.

Here was a shot of the finished dish:

I offered to let my grandmother use a pair of the chopsticks I had brought along, but she laughed at me and said that she had messed with them many years ago and had little success. She relied on the trusty knife and fork while I tucked in with my Asian counterparts. While I was a little apprehensive that this dish might be just a little bit too "out there" for my grandmother, about two bites into her dish she proclaimed how delicious it was. I asked her if it was too spicy and for once she replied, "Nope. It's perfect."

While I purposely gave her just a little more than I thought she would eat, in the end she did a pretty good job finishing her plate. My grandmother, always being the frugal one, wrapped the remainder in plastic wrap and stuck her plate in the refrigerator, no doubt lunch for tomorrow. I, on the other hand, finished my entire plate. While I might have liked it a bit spicier, I was happy to err on the side of caution. I encourage you to give this dish a try. While the exact recipe for the peanut sauce comes down to a matter of personal preference, when you get it right, it is absolutely delicious.

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