February 09, 2011

Spicy Peanut Chicken

My latest creation started out as something of a Chinese-Thai fusion dish, heavy on the Chinese side, but it changed as I made it into something more Thai-flavored, though still maintaining some Chinese touches.

The recipe I originally wrote was essentially a pretty basic stir-fry incorporating chicken, broccoli, peanuts and - for an unusual touch - a bit of peanut butter stirred into a flavorful sauce.   As originally written, I'd planned to serve it over rice, but when it came time to actually make the dish, I decided to use rice noodles instead, and to incorporate them into the stir-fry, as one does with Pad Thai.    With that decision came a few others, most of which added more Thai touches to the dish.   

I'd just picked up some sweet chili sauce at our favorite Asian market, so I decided to use that in place of the red pepper flakes I'd planned to use.   With the heavier Thai influence, I also decided to cut back on the soy sauce and add in some fish sauce.  By the time the dish was on the table, it had changed so much that the only really distinctly Chinese touch left was the Szechuan peppercorns.

It's not unusual that I write up a recipe to make, then improvise as I actually make it, but it is unusual to modify things on the fly to the extent I did in this case.   You can get some idea of the extent of the changes I made at the last moment by looking at the recipe sheet I worked from.  Notice all the margin notes, cross-outs and other quick edits.   I think the changes made for a better meal, though.

This dish was quite good.   It was something like a Pad Thai, but with a more prominent vegetable and peanut presence, and the flavor managed to be unique, despite the mix of ingredients commonly used together.   The dish ended up being a mix of savory, sweet and spicy, with a strong nutty flavor provided by peanuts, peanut butter and the sesame oil.   Juli's comment was "I could eat this every day"

One downside to all that improv on the run.... I forgot one minor element, and ended up leaving something out.   Specifically, I forgot to stir in the green parts of the green onions, which I had cut very thin.   I didn't realize I'd forgotten those until I was almost done eating, but we did incorporate those into the leftovers.   The dish didn't suffer any for their absence, frankly, but I had intended them to be there and there was no point in letting them go to waste.

This is one experiment that turned out great, though quite different than expected.  Those sorts of surprises are part of what makes cooking fun, though... and particularly when the result is as good as this!

Spicy Peanut Chicken

yield = 6 servings

1             pound rice noodles
1/2          cup chicken broth
2             tablespoons fish sauce
2             tablespoons sweet chili sauce
1             tablespoon soy sauce
1             tablespoon rice vinegar
2             tablespoons crunchy peanut butter
1             tablespoon cornstarch
1             teaspoon granulated sugar
2             pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts and/or
               thighs, sliced into bite-size pieces
1             teaspoon ground Szechuan peppercorns
1/2          teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/4          teaspoon table salt
1             tablespoon vegetable oil
2             teaspoons Asian (dark) sesame oil
1             tablespoon peeled, minced fresh ginger
2             teaspoons minced garlic
1             bunch green onions, thinly-sliced, white and green
               parts separated
3             cups broccoli florets
2/3          cup unsalted, roasted peanuts
1             lime, cut into thin wedges (optional)

Place rice noodles in a large bowl and cover them with very hot tap water.   Allow them to soak 1/2 hour.

Meanwhile, add chicken broth, fish sauce, sweet chili sauce, soy sauce, rice vinegar, peanut butter, cornstarch and sugar to a small bowl.  Whisk the ingredients together and set aside.

Sprinkle the chicken pieces with ground Szechuan peppercorns, black pepper and salt.   Heat the vegetable and sesame oils in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering.  Add the chicken and stir-fry 2 minutes, then stir in ginger, garlic and the white parts of the green onions and cook another 2-3 minutes or until the chicken is no longer pink in the center. 

Add broccoli and peanuts and stir-fry 3 minutes.  Drain the noodles, then stir them into the skillet mixture and cook them 1 minute.

Pour the broth mixture into the skillet and stir to mix.   Remove from heat, stir in the green parts of the green onions.  Serve.  Provide lime wedges to squeeze over individual portions, if desired.

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