Friday, December 19, 2008

Bittman Meets Dunlop

An enthusiastic reader recently equipped me with a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan cooking guide, Land of Plenty, as well the ingredients to get started. He recommended that I start with one of the chicken appetizers. I did, and I can't imagine an easier or more inspiring introduction to the cuisine.

I made Hot-and-Numbing Chicken Slices from the "Four Ways of Dressing Cold Chicken Meat" portion of the appetizers section (p.141). Essentially you poach a chicken and then dress the meat with a highly flavorful and extremely easy to make sauce. It's amazing, and you'd work harder on meatloaf.

Looking at the broth leftover from the poached chicken, I thought back to Bittman's column/post/video on Hainanese Chicken and decided to merge the two recipes. This meant cooking rice in the water from the chicken and serving the meat on top of it.

Really the whole thing is just a vehicle for the Sichuan peppercorn, the flavor of which is often described as "numbing." (Can numbing be a flavor? "Timmy, what kind of ice cream do you want?" "Numbing!!!") In this dish the peppercorns, which are really the berries of the Chinese prickly ash, are lightly toasted before being ground.

Since I don't have a mortar and/or pestle, I used a jar on a cutting board, and it worked fine. While you're toasting the peppercorns, your kitchen fills with a tantalizing and baffling aroma that lies somewhere between juniper and marijuana. Maybe that's why I'm so hooked on the stuff.


Recipe: Hot-and-Numbing Chicken Slices (ma la ji pian) meets Hainanese Chicken

Adapted from Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop (W.W. Norton) and Bittman's Hainanese Chicken.

For about 1 pound sustainably raised, cooked chicken meat (about 1/2 a chicken), cooled.

salt to taste
4-6 scallions, white parts only (I used onion)
4 teaspoons white sugar (I used honey)
3-6 tablespoons chili oil with chile flakes
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1/2-1 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper (I used 3)

Poach the chicken, then cook rice in the remaining liquid.

Cut or shred the meat, sprinkle with salt.

Thinly slice the scallions diagonally, 1 1/2 inches long, to form "horse ear" slices. Alternatively, thinly slice 1 small onion into whichever kind of ear you prefer.

Stir the sugar or honey into the soy sauce to dissolve it, and then add the oils.

Serve the chicken atop the rice and the scallion or onion atop the chicken. Sprinkle liberally with the ground "pepper" and serve the sauce on the side.

Get the munchies, repeat.

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