April 11, 2014

Kung Pao Chicken with Cashews

Kung Pao Chicken with Cashews
Kung Pao Chicken is one of my favorite Chinese dishes, what about you?  I like that it is spicy, with those pieces of chili peppers actually in the dish, and the crunch of the peanuts is very satisfying.  While we don't have any peanut allergies, I thought it might be helpful to show the dish with another nut, cashews.  I'm also told by one of my very chic friends in Washington D.C. that cashews are apparently very hot right now!  Many chic hipsters that live in her apartment building are drinking cashew milk these days...  Hooray for the cashew, then!

If you've never made Chinese food yourself, I think you'll be pleased to see that it is not impossible, or incredibly complicated.  You'll find that there are many ingredients that are used often, these include soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger root, chili peppers, sichuan peppercorns (a variety of peppercorns that come from the province of Si Chuan, which means four rivers), cornstarch, and vinegar (if you're a BBQ maker, that should sound reasonable- vinegar is AWESOME, right?)  The cornstarch is used in two ways, one way is in marinades, which is part of why the pieces of meat in Chinese food seem to have a nice coating (although this isn't as thick a coating as some of the Chinese dishes you'll be familiar with), and it's used in the sauce, to give it a nice, thicker consistency.  With a little bit of prep work, which you can do ahead of time, I think you'll find this is easy and fast, cooking Chinese food is very quick, because it's done at a high heat.  So, this can be a wonderful weeknight solution for you and your family, or a weekend treat, because it is that good!  Enjoy!

Kung Pao Chicken with Cashews
2 to 2.5 lb. Chicken breast tenders (or skinless, boneless chicken breasts)

Chicken marinade:
4 tsp soy sauce (sometimes called shoyu)
3 tsp cornstarch
2 Tbsp water
1 tsp sea salt (I like Hawaiian alaea red sea salt)

Other ingredients:
6 garlic cloves (mine were large so I used 5)
ginger root (eyeball the same amount once it is peeled)
7-10 green onions, roots and wilted green parts removed
8-16 Thai red chiles, dried
2 tsp sichuan peppercorns

Sauce:
2.25 tsp cornstarch
6 tsp soy sauce
3 Tbsp malt vinegar
3 tsp sesame oil
1.5 Tbsp water

3 handfuls of cashews

Kung Pao Chicken Marinade
The first thing I like to do is made the marinade for the chicken.  I combine the marinade ingredients in a bowl large enough to hold the chicken.  The salt and cornstarch won't dissolve right away by themselves, so using a whisk to make it smooth is helpful.  I like to use chicken breast tenders because they save me some time in cutting up the chicken, because they are already cut into strips for you.  What actually works pretty well is freezing the chicken breast tender packages, and then only slightly defrosting them before cutting them into pieces- firmer chicken is easier to cut.  The pieces of chicken should be bite sized, this is about no larger than 1" pieces.  Once you've cut your chicken pieces, put them in the bowl with the marinade and mix them together to cover all the chicken and coat it nicely.  Set it aside while you prepare your other ingredients.

Small Le Creuset dutch oven making rice
About this time, once the marinade is made and the chicken is already in there, I like to get my rice started.  I use Jasmine rice that takes 15 minutes to cook on the stove.  If you have a rice cooker and would like to use that, absolutely do, whatever you're comfortable with is terrific.  I don't have one, so I make it on top of the stove.  For about 4-6 people, I boil 3 cups of water, once it's boiling I add 1 1/2 cups of Jasmine white rice, and a little bit of canola oil (less than 1 Tbsp).  I stir it once, cover it, and reduce the heat to low.  I let it cook for 15 minutes and then I turn off the burner.  I use a small Le Creuset dutch oven with a lid for this.  The canola oil seems to be helpful in terms of preventing the rice from sticking to the bottom.

Let's get our other ingredients ready- I peel and chop the garlic- putting it through a press would make the pieces too small and they would burn.  The garlic I had had really, really large cloves, so I used only 5 instead of 6.  Chop is as finely as you can.

Chopped garlic for Kung Pao Chicken
Next, prepare your ginger root.  If you've never worked with fresh ginger root before, it's nothing to worry about.  All you need to know is that you peel it, discard the peel, and use the inside.  It has a fibers which make it a little more challenging to cut into small pieces, but they break down.  I just use a vegetable peeler for ginger root, although I do have an instrument called a ginger peeler- it is similar- but a vegetable peeler works just as well.  For the knobs and places you can't peel away, just cut them off with your knife, trying to save as much interior root as possible.

Peeling ginger root with a vegetable peeler

Ginger root chopped for Kung Pao Chicken

Next, we chop the scallions or green onions.  Get rid of any unsightly bits, remove the roots and the ends that are not too robust looking.  Chop coarsely (they do not have to be the same size as the garlic and ginger).

Scallions or Green Onions for Kung Pao Chicken

Now for the chili peppers.  These are the chiles I use for this dish.  They are Thai chiles that are dried.  They are small, red and fairly hot.  Depending on your sensitivity, you may want to wear gloves while you handle them.  I usually wear gloves when I work with chili peppers.  For a relatively mild version of this dish, use about 8, for a hotter version, use up to 16.  Take the chili peppers and cut them into pieces a little smaller than the scallions.  Remove some of the seeds, this will  make them less hot.  For a mild version of this dish, I used 8 chili peppers with 1/2 the seeds removed.  For a very hot version, use 16 peppers and keep all the seeds- you get the idea and know your own preferences, so you can adjust accordingly.

Dried Thai Chiles for Kung Pao Chicken

In a small bowl, combine the cut chiles and seeds with the whole sichuan peppercorns.  These will be cooked at the same time, so I put them in a container together.  Sichuan peppercorns have a lovely, distinct aroma.  I encourage you to find these and use them- you may also use them in another La Dolce Duchessa recipe:  Sichuan Beef with Carrots and Celery

Chopped dried chiles and sichuan peppercorns for Kung Pao Chicken

Finally, prepare the sauce- combine the sauce ingredients in a bowl and set aside.  That goes in last.

Sauce for Kung Pao Chicken

I don't have a wok, but if you do, by all means use it!  I use a large Le Creuset dutch oven, the cast iron makes it heat evenly and stay very hot.  Heat about 2-3 Tbsp of canola oil (something with an ability to withstand high heat) over medium high heat.  Depending on your burner, you may need to go hotter or colder.  You don't want anything to burn, but you want it to cook pretty fast, and some browning is ok.  Once the oil is hot, add the chili peppers and sichuan peppercorns.

Chili peppers and sichuan peppercorns added to oil for Kung Pao Chicken
Stir, you don't want them to burn.  It should smell fragrant after about 30 seconds to a minute, after you see a little browning and it's fragrant, add the chicken, and any marinade that is still in the bowl.

Chicken added to chili peppers and sichuan peppercorns for Kung Pao Chicken

Stir it fairly frequently, you'll begin to see the chicken start to cook.  After about 2 minutes of constant stirring, add the garlic and ginger.

Garlic and ginger added to Kung Pao Chicken

Stir that as well for about 1-2 minutes.  You want the garlic and ginger to have a chance to cook a little.  After about 1-2 minutes, add the green onion or scallions.

Green onion added to Kung Pao Chicken

Keep stirring that for another minute, then add about 3 handfuls of cashews.  I just use the Costco cashews.  They are already salted, so if you want them to be less salty, rinse them off and drain them beforehand.  Just add them in and stir, these we like to keep nice and crunchy, so adding them at the end is great.

Cashews from Costco for Kung Pao Chicken

Cashews added to Kung Pao Chicken

Finally, add the sauce and stir and heat for about 1-2 additional minutes.  You want the sauce to have a chance to thicken a little from the heat.  You are finished!  Doesn't that look delicious?  Your rice should be ready at about the same time, enjoy your Kung Pao Chicken with Cashews over rice.

A note about kids and this dish- it can be spicy.  What I do when I make it is make a very small portion excluding the chili peppers and sichuan peppercorns.  But, everything else can go in.  That way, you don't have to make them a separate dinner and they're eating nearly what you're eating.  Both my children ate the less spicy version and enjoyed it, and one of them is a relatively picky eater.

Thank you so much for reading!

xo  Jessica at La Dolce Duchessa