Staff Favorites is an occasional series in which Washington Post writers share a recipe we turn to time and time again:
When I am served a homemade version of something that’s far superior to whatever I’ve tasted or tested before, two words line up in my head. They strengthen with the force of a rock-concert encore and cause me to blurt them out by the time I lay my fork to rest: Recipe, please!
Obnoxious or charming; you be the judge. Such requests are almost always seen as complimentary — unless the divulging of said recipe is viewed as a security threat. (Yes, I’m referring to you, Aimee’s mom. Family pound cake? I’m waiting.)
If the recipe has never been recorded, I might not leave the premises until I obtain the promise of a joint cooking session. It’s not that I mistrust the cook involved; I understand all too well the ease with which a key ingredient or step can be left out. Sometimes muscle memory makes all the difference.
So it was with great relief that I learned how to make Sheila Chang’s sweet and sour chicken, which, as you can tell from the headline, is a dish you’ll want to try.
Chang is the petite, no-nonsense, 72-year-old MIL of the Food section’s Wine columnist, Dave McIntyre. Born in southern Taiwan, she came to the States in 1970. (Her hometown of Kangshan is famed for its hot bean sauce; you’ll want to get your hands on a jar, confirm the entire McIntyre-Chang clan, and use it in lots of dishes.) Three years later, she was working as a prep cook at Ridgewells, where she spent the next 23 years in the catering kitchen. After that, she worked in the catering departments at Sutton Place Gourmet and Whole Foods. Now retired, she grows lots of peppers in her Silver Spring garden and puts on one heck of a Chinese New Year dinner, which I was fortunate to enjoy in 2011.
Her sweet and sour chicken was one of many courses at that holiday feast. It was not the stuff that adults are embarrassed to order at their neighborhood Chinese restaurant. A taste of the sauce made me giddy: It was piquant more than sweet. Definitely not cloying. And the chicken! No air pockets or outsize larvae shapes created by a heavy, battered coating. The meat had its own flavor.
Our plans finally came to fruition on a recent Sunday afternoon at the McIntyre house.
Chang already had marinated the chicken. She showed me uniformly sized pieces in a bowl she extracted from the fridge. Bits of fat were visible. “I leave some on,” she shrugged, for flavor. While the frying oil heated in a deep nonstick saute pan, she professionally dispatched garlic, ginger, red bell pepper and canned pineapple slices. She prefers the latter over fresh fruit, because of the canned juices.
The chopping of Martin Yan has nothing on this woman: “I like working fast,” she says. Things could have gone considerably faster, I suspect, had I not asked her to measure along the way.
Chang has made the dish the same way for the past couple of decades. It has become a McIntyre family favorite — so much so that Dave’s sister and a family friend were on hand for our tasting, in addition to the nuclear McIntyre ensemble. Chang had seen elements of her dish on a Taiwanese cable television cooking show. I bread my dark-meat chicken, she explained, running her fingers through a bowl of crumbs made from the crusts and innards of day-old French bread. “Don’t use batter, which makes the chicken pieces too fatty, too floury. Not crunchy.”
She fried about a third of the chicken at a time, adding the initial pieces without checking the temperature of the oil. A seasoned hand just knows when it’s ready. The pieces bobbed in a low geyser of furious bubbles for a bit; she then scooped them onto paper towels layered in a nearby colander.
The remaining prepped ingredients were stir-fried just long enough to coax out flavor and retain texture, without picking up color or caramelization. She tasted the sauce with a finger to assess the level of sweetness, tossed in the cooked chicken just long enough to warm it through and coat it. (And let’s be clear: The dish contains a fair amount of sugar.) Then she poured out the finished product onto a fish-shaped platter. It glistened, the lot of it , with more sauce than Chang usually makes, noted her observant son-in-law. That was a good thing.
Of course, she rarely cooks just one dish at a time. In the time it took us to “sample” the sweet and sour chicken and take its
picture, Chang had assembled and stir-fried: a pork dish with scallions and beech mushrooms; a vegetable mixture of trimmed mung bean sprouts (because they look better that way, she says), mushrooms, carrots, spicy red pepper and fried tofu (heart-achingly perfect, cut in matchsticks and seasoned only with salt and pepper); and her take on Peter Chang’s (no relation) dry-fried eggplant. I think she might just one-up the Sichuan master by adding garlic. The kitchen table was platter-filled and banquet-ready.
When I made the sweet and sour chicken on my own at home, it tasted like hers.
Are you silently chanting “Recipe, please!”? Here you go.
Sweet and Sour Chicken
Sweet and Sour Chicken4 to 6 servings
Serve with steamed rice.
MAKE AHEAD: The chicken needs to marinate overnight in the refrigerator. The dish tastes best the same day it is made.
For the marinade and chicken
2 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
2 thin slices unpeeled ginger root
2 tablespoons dry white wine
2 ¼ cups fresh bread crumbs (preferably from stale French bread)
4 cups canola oil, for frying
For the sauce
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 medium cloves garlic, smashed and minced (scant tablespoon)
2 thin slices peeled ginger root, cut into matchsticks then finely chopped (1 tablespoon)
½ medium onion, cut into 1-inch dice (about ½ cup)
½ large red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cups water, plus more for the cornstarch slurry
Half of a 20-ounce can of pineapple slices, cut into bite-size pieces, plus half the juice from the can
3 to 4 tablespoons ketchup
¾ to 1 cup sugar
2/3 cup seasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
For the marinade and chicken: Combine the chicken, soy sauce, ginger and white wine in a bowl or resealable plastic food storage bag. Cover or seal and marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
Line a colander with several layers of paper towels. Pour the oil into a large saute pan and heat to 250 degrees (over medium heat). Place the bread crumbs in a wide bowl.
Working with four or five pieces of chicken at a time, add them to the bread crumbs and toss to coat evenly. Carefully add to the hot oil; fry for 1 ½ to 2 minutes until golden brown and crisped. Use a Chinese skimmer or large slotted spoon to transfer the chicken to the paper-towel-lined colander to drain. Repeat to use all chicken.
Reserve the marinade; discard its ginger slices.
For the sauce: Heat the oil in a large saute pan or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil starts to shimmer, add the garlic, minced ginger. Stir-fry until just fragrant (do not let the garlic burn), then add the onion and red bell pepper, stirring to coat. Cook for 1 or 2 minutes (do not let the onions take on color), then add the marinade, the 2 cups of water, pineapple and its juices. Once the mixture comes to a boil, add the ketchup, ¾ cup of the sugar and the vinegar, stirring to form a red sauce. Taste and add the remaining sugar as needed.
Whisk together the cornstarch with just enough water (a tablespoon or two) to form a slurry, then stir into the sauce, which should thicken almost right away. Add the cooked chicken and stir to coat the pieces evenly. Remove from the heat; transfer to a platter and serve right away.