Taking a Plunge

I’ve decided to embark on a new project – I will (over the course of many months, I’m sure) cook the entire “Chinese Gastronomy” – my all-time favorite cookbook. Written by the wife and daughter of my favorite childhood Chinese essayist, Lin Yutang (yes, I know – I was that kind of kid), it is an evocative exploration of the culture and philosophy of Chinese cuisine. Although I have been kicking the idea around for a while, I got all fired up today while reading “The Last Chinese Chef,” by Nicole Mones. I decided to run right out and buy a few chickens. The first actual recipe in “Chinese Gastronomy” is how to boil rice – but I’m going to take a flying leap and assume that everyone knows how to do that. So I started with Chicken Congee and Plain Chicken.

By the way, here’s a photo of my favorite Chinese cookbooks: “Chinese Gastronomy,” by Hsiang Ju Lin and Tsuifeng Lin; “The Good Food of Szechuan,” by Robert A. Delfs, and “Chinese Cooking,” from the old Time-Life “Foods of the World” series.

So – I bought a chicken and four leg-thigh pieces, with which to make the stock that the Plain Chicken will cook in. I hacked it all up so that the bones would release all their flavour. The mark of a good home made chicken stock is that when you refrigerate it, it turns solid from all the gelatin in it. I won’t get a chance to see if this is the case with mine, as it’s going right from the stock pot to the stew pot.

Here’s the pot with the chicken in it – I added a few garlic skins out of habit – garlic and onion skins add color to a stock. I tossed in 2 scallions, sliced, and a few round slices of ginger, along with 14 cups (yes, fourteen) of water. I brought it to a boil and then simmered it for 3 hours.

Meanwhile, I made the Congee. I put 6 tablespoons of raw rice (yes, that’s all) in a pot with 4 1/2 cups water. I brought it to a boil, then turned it down to the lowest flame and let it go for 2 hours (you do have to stir it frequently to keep the rice from sticking – even at that, it formed a brown crust on the bottom – this is fine, so long as it doesn’t scorch).

Here’s photo of what the rice looks like after only 45 minutes of cooking, not even at a simmer:

While it’s cooking, take two pieces of skinned and boned chicken breast and slice thinly against the grain. Pound each slice to almost paper-thinness. Put in a bowl with 1/4 tsp salt and 2 T water, and mix. Set aside until needed.

Here’s the congee after 1 1/2 hours – it’s bubbling by now, and I’m stirring almost continually to keep it from sticking:

When it’s done, take it off the heat and immediately add the thinly sliced chicken:

Mix it well and let it sit undisturbed for a few minutes, until the chicken is cooked by the residual heat of the congee. Serve it up:

Yum! It’s amazing that something so simple – just water, chicken and rice, with barely any salt – could be so good. You can do this with thinly sliced fish, also. I’ll try that at a later date (when I can buy good, fresh fish).

On to the Plain Chicken! Strain the stock – you should have about 12 cups. Put it in a large pot and place the chicken in it, breast down – the stock should cover the chicken, which may tend to float. Bring the pot to a boil, then turn off the heat. Weigh the chicken down with something to keep it submerged, and let it cool in the stock for 5 or 6 hours – by which time it should be cooked. Take it out, and chop it into serving pieces.

You can also make some sauces to dip the chicken pieces in. My favorite is very easy, just 2 T. finely minced scallions, 2 T. finely minced fresh peeled ginger, and 1/4 tsp salt. Mix it all together in a heat-proof bowl. Then heat 4 T. peanut oil until just before it begins to smoke, and immediately add it to the mixed ingredients.  Stir, and that’s it. There’s also one that consists just of 4 T soy sauce and 1 T sesame oil. Also good, but not as good as the first one. Then there’s one consisting of oyster sauce, soy sauce and sugar. I thought this one was yucky.

My chicken was done at 10:00 at night, so we didn’t eat it last night. If my husband hasn’t eaten it for lunch, I’ll photograph it when I get home from work.

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