The Best General Tso’s Chicken

The Best General Tso’s Chicken

http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2014/04/the-best-general-tsos-chicken-food-lab-chinese-recipe.html

This is probably the most complicated recipe I’ve posted about to date. It’s the first recipe I’ve tried by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt; he’s a big name in the culinary world, and after making this recipe I understand why. For someone like me, who is made happy by precise measurements, detailed explanations, and reproducible results, this is cooking at its most enjoyable.

He goes into detail about not only what to do, but also why it works. General Tso’s Chicken isn’t a super common recipe to try at home, but his is in fact very true to the take-out version we all know and love.

His primary challenge was finding a breading method for the chicken that would hold its crispy texture under the sauce. He drew from fried food techniques around the world and tested a wide variety of strategies before finding the key: he incorporates vodka into the marinade, which through some magical chemistry makes the batter crispier and more sog-resistant. Vodka, which is more volatile than water, evaporates more quickly than water would, which apparently helps the batter crisp up when frying; it also limits gluten development, which prevents the fried dough from getting leathery.

So, he’s taken care of all the experimentation, and all you have to do is follow the steps to get great results. Caveat: there are a lot of steps. It does feel a bit like a lab experiment, with many small dishes of precisely-measured ingredients waiting their turns. For me, this is fantastic; there’s no pinch-of-this, just-eyeball-that, oh-the-secret-ingredient-is-love bullshit. (This is not a criticism of people who have the gift of eyeballing! Most of my friends who cook do it this way, with great results.) But the whole reason I got so obsessed with cooking in the first place is that I suck at it. When I started getting more serious about cooking for myself a few years ago, I did not have a lot of kitchen experience; I basically had no frame of reference for any but the simplest tasks. I could boil water and flip pancakes; everything else was a mystery. So recipes that instructed me to knead or stir or simmer until the dough or sauce “looks right” were the bane of my existence. How was I supposed to know what “right” looked like?

Now that I have more experience under my belt, I can usually make educated guesses when I run into instructions like that. But having someone like J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spell out each step in precise terms is much more relaxing for me. There’s no guesswork involved in any of the amounts, times, or temperatures, and each step does exactly what it claims to do. The most magical moment comes when cooking the sauce. All of the aromatics (garlic, scallion, chilis) are heated in an oiled skillet from cold, giving the flavors time to develop and blend. Then the sauce liquid is added. The instructions say, “Cook, stirring, until sauce boils and thickens, about one minute.” For 59 seconds, it doesn’t seem like much is happening. Then, all at once, the reaction happens; a low burbling is heard, first slow, then faster, and all at once the thin sauce thickens into a dark, sticky, Swamp-Thing-esque blob. I realize Swamp Thing isn’t usually considered an appetizing metaphor, but in this case it’s a good thing; you end up with a dark, sticky, perfectly takeout-worthy sauce, exactly the right consistency for coating the crispy chicken bits.

Maybe most people who deep fry already do this, but I highly recommend using a thermometer to monitor the oil temperature. I used my new meat thermometer to keep it around 350 degrees F, and the chicken crisped up nicely in exactly four minutes, as written.

I’d never been a huge fan of General Tso’s chicken at take-out places; it was both too spicy and too sweet. But this recipe knocks it out of the park. It’s the perfect balance of sweet, spicy, and savory, and the crispy texture is impeccable. On a night when you have the time and energy to spare and feel up to a challenge, I highly recommend giving this a try. It is definitely worth the effort.

Deliciousness score: 10
Easiness score: 5

6.4 rating

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Homemade Pitas & Hummus

Homemade Pitas & Hummus

https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1016071-homemade-pita-bread?login=email (* See footnote.)

The first time I watched someone make pita bread from scratch, I was totally enthralled. My roommate in my early 20’s, a cafe manager and avid baker, would make huge batches of pitas like it was no big deal. I’d never seen it in person, and found it totally magical: the rounds of flatbread dough are tossed onto a very hot pan in a very hot oven, and within a minute or two they puff up into perfect little balloons. It’s quite captivating, and even now having done it a few times myself, it still hasn’t gotten old.

So, the key feature of pitas is the hollow pocket that forms inside as they bake, perfect for stuffing with your favorite sandwich fillings. Why does pita dough puff that way, you ask? The key is to put fairly moist, thinly-rolled dough into a very hot oven. When you do that, a couple of things happen. First, the intense heat quickly starts to solidify the outer surfaces of the pita. At the same time, it penetrates to the center, turning the moisture inside the dough into steam. That steam expands and pushes outward from the interior as it forms. And because the outer surfaces have already baked a little bit, they are solid enough to stay intact as the steam pushes on them, forming the hollow pocket.

With that in mind, these are the keys to perfectly-puffing pitas:

1) Don’t work too much flour into the dough as you knead. Just dust it with barely enough to keep it from being completely unmanageable. Too much flour will soak up all the moisture you need to create steam at bake time.

2) Roll the dough out pretty thin. The NYT recipe says to go for 1/8”. I find that a little bit unattainable; 1/4” is also a reasonable goal, or somewhere in between. If it’s any thicker, the heat won’t penetrate to the center quickly enough.

3) Place the dough onto a pre-heated object of some kind in your very hot oven. A baking stone or cast iron skillet would be great options. I don’t have either of those, so I use a cookie sheet turned upside-down. (Turning it upside-down was my fiance’s suggestion; he thinks it traps more heat underneath, and it does seem to produce good results.) Also, don’t put the next batch into the oven at the same time you take the previous batch out. I have better luck if I close the door and let the pan reheat for about one minute in between batches.

And arguably, I’d say the fourth key is: if it doesn’t puff, don’t sweat it. Some won’t. This batch I made today was my best batch to date, and I’d still say about a third of the pitas have incomplete puffs. Doesn’t matter at all; they’re still delicious.

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So, once you have your delicious puffy pitas, you need something to put in them! I love making hummus from scratch; the hardest part is finding out where your grocery store keeps the tahini. From there, you just whizz everything together in a food processor, adjusting proportions to your taste and adding whatever extras you want. My current favorite recipe is Tori Avey’s:

http://toriavey.com/toris-kitchen/2010/07/classic-hummus/

Tori Avey has done extensive research into the history of Middle Eastern cuisine; I definitely plan to try more recipes from her site in the near future. I’ve also used her tutorial on roasting red peppers (which, incidentally, are great to throw into this hummus if you have them on hand).

This recipe is a nice starting point with good proportions. I typically halve it, since two full cans of chickpeas make more hummus than I can eat in a reasonable amount of time. Or I should say, I halve everything except the garlic. Full disclosure: I love garlic. In the entire time I’ve been cooking, with all my numerous misadventures, I’ve yet to make a recipe that caused me to think, “Man, I put too much garlic into this.” (And I put a lot of garlic into things.)

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Looks about right.

But of course, this is the joy of making your own hummus – you can fine tune it according to your tastes. 😉

The point of making pitas & hummus this week is to have another way to enjoy your leftover chopped Greek salad. It’s a perfect pre-made sandwich filling; just add it to your pita along with some hummus and extra feta cheese for a quick & tasty dinner, lunch, or snack.

Deliciousness score: 8
Easiness score: 6

6.3 rating

* Note: This recipe from the New York Times does require a free account to view. I balked at this the first few times they hit me with it, but eventually signed up and haven’t regretted it; their cooking column is pretty interesting, if a bit aspirational. This isn’t an affiliate link or anything like that; I just like their pita recipe.

Avocado Toast with Chili Lime Corn Salad

Avocado Toast with Chili Lime Corn Salad

http://lovelylittlekitchen.com/chili-lime-sweet-corn-salad/

This is a dead simple little salad that jumped out at me when I was looking for something to do with my leftover cilantro this week. With only six ingredients, it couldn’t be easier to throw together, especially in summer when I’m always looking for excuses to buy corn on the cob. Just toss grilled, roasted, or boiled corn with some lime juice, butter, chili powder, and cilantro, then add feta cheese and salt to taste.  (The author recommends queso fresco, but I always have a hard time finding this in my grocery store; the feta works just fine.)  The recipe also says to boil the corn, which would be perfectly fine too, but it’s extra-amazing with grilled corn.  And you have the added bonus of not having to heat up your kitchen at all.

It’s not quite a complete dinner on its own, but it’s a perfect side dish or snack. My favorite way to eat it is as a topping on avocado toast.

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I just discovered avocado toast; apparently it’s been a big deal for a while now, but I am not hip and just tried it for the first time. I was a little skeptical when I heard this was a dish people were paying $19 for at brunch, but I have to admit it’s ridiculously good. I used this whole wheat bread recipe from King Arthur Flour to make a hearty bread for toasting:

http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/everyday-whole-grain-bread-recipe

This bread doesn’t rise very high, as many whole grain breads don’t, but it still has a relatively light texture. I halved the recipe, but still made two loaves as written, which came out very flat. Then I cut them in half vertically as well as horizontally, to get four large toast-size pieces from each loaf. Each piece is crust on one full side, which ordinarily isn’t my favorite, but it’s great for toast that you’re going to load up with toppings because it doesn’t fall apart or soak through.

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Anyway, if you haven’t tried avocado toast yet, I highly recommend it. For this one, I just mashed up 1/4 ripe avocado and smeared it on the toast, followed by the corn salad. There are basically infinite topping options; I’ll definitely be exploring more of them in the near future.

Deliciousness score: 7/10
Easiness score: 9/10 (slightly lower if you make bread for toast)

6.5 rating

Chopped Greek Salad

Chopped Greek Salad

https://www.dinneratthezoo.com/chopped-greek-salad/

If you’re a fan of Mediterranean flavors, this chopped salad from Dinner at the Zoo is a perfect, quick, refreshing way to enjoy lots of fresh veggies. The prep time is quite reasonable; there’s some chopping involved, but not a crazy amount. There’s a made-from-scratch Mediterranean dressing, which does turn out delicious and is fairly simple; most of the ingredients are pantry staples. I like to mix it up in the style of Jamie Oliver’s jam jar dressings; just throw everything in a small jar with a lid, then shake it vigorously for a few seconds. But if you’re short on time, you could easily substitute a pre-made salad dressing that you like.

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My only quibble with this recipe as written is that the dressing separated right away; the olive oil formed a layer on the bottom, topped with the vinegar and then the floating spices. I think the acid-to-oil ratio is a bit on the high side. The aforementioned jam jar dressings, which I always have great results with, are based on a 1-to-3 acid-to-oil ratio:

http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/recipe/jam-jar-dressings/

The Greek salad recipe calls for 2 Tbsp of vinegar and 1/4 cup (or 4 Tbsp) of olive oil, which is a 1-to-2 ratio. Next time, I’ll try leaving all the seasonings the same and adjusting this ratio. There are three teaspoons to a tablespoon, so for 4 tablespoons of olive oil, we’d want 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp of vinegar.

4 Tbsp x 3 tsp per Tbsp = 12 tsp of olive oil
12/3 = 4 tsp of vinegar
4 tsp = 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp

But of course you could just eyeball it. The goal is to have the dressing emulsify, so that all the acids are suspended in the oil and it doesn’t split itself into layers (at least not right away). But truthfully, even if your ratios are a little off, you’re going to mix everything up with the vegetables anyway and it’s going to taste just fine, which is what I did.

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Definitely a great summer dinner; no cooking required, lots of fresh & colorful veggies, and it’s cool & refreshing. And as an added bonus, this makes a great sandwich filling for hummus pita pockets. If you make this, let me know how your dressing experiments go!

Deliciousness score: 6/10
Easiness score: 8/10

6.2 rating.png

Vietnamese Grilled Pork Chops with Rice Noodle Salad

Vietnamese Grilled Pork Chops with Rice Noodle Salad

http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2017/06/vietnamese-grilled-pork-chops-cold-rice-noodle-salad-recipe.html

I lived in Saint Louis, Missouri for a number of years after college, and there was an unassuming little Vietnamese place in my neighborhood called Pho Grand, which remains my favorite restaurant to this day. I had my favorite dish there (lemongrass tofu), which I got 90% of the time, and my second favorite dish (some other kind of tofu), which I got when I felt like I should be more adventurous and not just get the same thing every time. I tasted bits & pieces of friends’ dishes from time to time, and I just never had a bad dish there; literally everything was good. It made me fall in love with Vietnamese cuisine.

For some reason, I’ve never tried Vietnamese cooking at home. I guess I assumed that I couldn’t recreate an authentic taste like the ones I loved from Pho Grand. But when I stumbled across this recipe from Serious Eats, it looked so tasty (and so similar to what I remembered from the restaurant) that I thought I’d give it a shot.

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Nothing about this recipe is particularly difficult, but there are a lot of steps, since there are two condiment recipes in addition to the main dish. Additionally, one of those condiments (the pickled vegetables) needs to be made in advance. I intended to make mine the night before, but forgot and ended up throwing it together the morning of. I have to admit that I was feeling a little bit grumpy as I stood in my kitchen julienning carrots (poorly) while my scone waited for me temptingly on the table. But in the end, it was 100% worth the effort.

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I couldn’t find a daikon radish at my grocery store, so I used a few regular radishes instead. While not strictly authentic, they tasted fine to me. They did turn the entire pickle jar pink, which is kind of a perk in my opinion. I also mixed up the nuoc cham dipping sauce that morning. Really, the ideal plan would be to do all this prep the night before; the pork can be marinated in the fridge for 12 hours. By the time I finished the dipping sauce, I was really feeling my scone calling to me and wasn’t up to dealing with the marinade. I just did the 30-minute option at dinnertime instead, letting the pork marinate at room temperature before putting it on the grill.

Once all the prep is done, the dish comes together quickly. While the pork is grilling, you can boil the rice vermicelli, which takes just a few minutes. Because I was using an electric grill on a chilly day, my pork took longer to cook through than expected. (I’m not a huge fan of my electric grill, at least not on cool days, when it has a hard time holding its temperature.) But it does have the advantage of keeping meats juicier than a standard grill, so even though it cooked longer, the texture was still decent.

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And the taste was seriously amazing. All the fresh, bright flavors I remembered from my old favorite restaurant were there. Lime juice, garlic, a little sugar, and the sharp pickled veggies were perfect complements to the savory pork. It’s an especially nice recipe for summer: cool and refreshing, with no oven required.

All in all, this is one of my favorite recipes of the year, and I’ll definitely be making it again. I’ve had good luck with Serious Eats in general, and am excited to try more of their dishes. (Tune in later this week for another Serious Eats find, an amazing restaurant-style General Tso’s Chicken from the renowned J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.)

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Deliciousness score: 9
Easiness score: 6

6.1 rating

Grocery List – Week 4

Ok folks, this is a really exciting menu, including my new favorite recipe: The Best General Tso’s Chicken by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.  The title is well-deserved; this Chinese take-out replica takes a little work, but it turns out amazing.  Savory and a little sweet, with the perfect crispy chicken that doesn’t get soggy in sauce – it’s possibly better than any take-out I’ve ever had.

There are also some authentic Vietnamese grilled pork chops, perfect for summer barbecuing, and my favorite homemade pita bread recipe.  If you’ve never tried making pita bread at home, it’s really worth trying at least once; you get to watch the pitas puff up in the oven and form little pockets, and it’s kind of mesmerizing.  Enjoy!


Recipes:

Vietnamese Grilled Pork Chops with Chilled Rice Noodles from Serious Eats

Chopped Greek Salad from Dinner at the Zoo

Homemade Pita Bread from the New York Times

Classic Hummus from Tori Avey

The Best General Tso’s Chicken Recipe from Serious Eats

Chili Lime Sweet Corn Salad from Lovely Little Kitchen


Shopping List:

Produce

Lemongrass – 3 stalks *
Red onion – 1
Cilantro – 1 bunch
Mint leaves – 1/4 cup
Cucumber – 1 (half for Greek salad, half for Vietnamese pork chops)
Limes – 3
Lemons – 2
Carrot – 1 large
Daikon radish – 1 medium
Red or yellow bell pepper – 1
Cherry tomatoes – 1 container
Corn on the cob (2-3 ears)
Fresh ginger (1 inch piece)
Scallions
Parsley – 1 bunch (optional – salad ingredient, garnish for hummus)

 

Shelves

Rice vermicelli (14 oz package)
Unsalted peanuts
Chickpeas (2 cans)
Pitted kalamata olives
Tahini paste
Active dry yeast
Eggs
Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
80-proof vodka
Chicken bouillon
White rice

 

Refrigerated / Frozen

1 1/2 pounds (680g) thin-cut pork chops, preferably from the blade end, or boneless country-style pork rib
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Feta cheese
Butter

 

Pantry Staples

Garlic
baking soda
baking powder
brown sugar
soy sauce
Asian fish sauce
sesame seed oil
cornstarch
vegetable oil
sugar
kosher salt
rice wine vinegar
red pepper flakes
olive oil
dijon mustard
red wine vinegar
garlic powder
onion powder
dried oregano
chili powder and/or cayenne pepper
cumin
paprika (optional)
flour

* I couldn’t find fresh lemongrass in my produce section, but they did have it in paste form.  It came in something that looked like a toothpaste tube.  This worked great and probably saved a fair bit of prep time.  You can look near the packaged herbs in your store if you want to go this route.