The blow torch lo mein and dumplings and cucumber salad weren’t enough. Ann wanted one more dish to complete a larger, China-inspired meal to celebrate her daughter Annabelle and the 17th anniversary of “Gotcha Day,” the day Ann adopted Annabelle.
We had recently been to Shun Lee West, that stalwart Manhattan restaurant across from Lincoln Center. I first dined at Shun Lee in the 1980s with my Manhattan-born girlfriend and her parents. I ordered the cashew chicken. Tender chicken with big, fat cashews, gorgeously sauced and served in a big cup of iceberg lettuce. I was over the moon about it. But during the next three decades I’ve never been able to recreate the dish.
Ann’s request gave me just the opportunity I needed to give it another go.
When I make a stir fry, I wing it, using a base of hoisin and black bean sauce and any number of other sauces and seasonings. But as I looked at the pile of diced boneless chicken—well, it was just too much to throw a bunch of jarred sauces onto the chicken. Too heavy and sticky.
And the small revelation came to me.
Fusing different cuisines has been going on since well before Norman Van Aken coined the term fusion cuisine in the 90s. Van Aken did it to create his New World Cuisine. Jean-Georges brought Asian ingredients and techniques to French cuisine in the 1980s.
Of course, I thought. I’ll make a chicken velouté, chicken stock thickened with roux, ubiquitous in classical French cuisine, and season it with Chinese ingredients. It worked like a dream:
I cooked 1 tablespoon of flour in a tablespoon of butter, then whisked in 1 cup of chicken stock. After it came to a simmer I removed it from the heat and added:
1/2 cup hoisin
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons of Golden Mountain Seasoning Sauce (a killer Thai seasoning)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
And I took one more step: velveting the chicken.
Velveting chicken—marinating the chicken in egg white, some wine, soy and corn starch, then gently poaching it in oil to par cook it—keeps this lean meat, which can get tough if overcooked, incredibly moist and tender. Once the sauce and velveting were done, the stir fry, with bell pepper and water chestnuts, came together in five minutes. With the Asian-French sauce, it was as close as I was going to get to Shun Lee’s chicken with cashews.
Ann thought my desire to serve it in a cup of flimsy iceberg lettuce was ridiculous. But I really loved the cool crunch the lettuce brought to the dish. So when I tested the recipe again this past week, I decided to serve it on a bed of julienned lettuce. To me, the dish was perfection. But it was my idea to use a velouté as the base for the sauce that really satisfied.
A few words about velveting…
Not well versed in the art, I did a little looking into velveting and found that wunderkind Kenji Lopez-Alt, has discussed this at length. Kenji, as ever, knows the whys of cooking as well as the hows.
He explains that the egg white and cornstarch protect the chicken and keep it from over cooking. It enhances the texture of the meat. He even adds some baking soda to the marinade because the increased alkalinity also enhances the texture.
But even better, for the home cook, he recommends poaching the chicken in water rather than expensive oil. The difference between the two is indistinguishable. Kenji learned this technique from Shao Zhi Zhong, a writer for Serious Eats, a column he was editing. It works great.
More wok cooking and wok making links…
Read the article about water velveting in Serious Eats, by Shao Zhi Zhong, a native of Guangzhou, China.
Watch Kenji’s video of velveting chicken for a classic Chinese-American sweet-and-sour chicken (sauce: pineapple juice and ketchup!).
Kenji also writes about this technique in his outstanding new book, The Wok: Recipes and Techniques (highly recommend).
Before the pandemic, Ann and I traveled to Charleston, SC, for a book event for Pâté, Confit, Rillette. Even before we got to the hotel, though, we met up with my old Le Creuset pal, Will Copenhaver. He left Le Creuset to join a small start-up making artisinal cast iron pans, called Smithey. The pans are fricking gorgeous. They’ve gotten into carbon steel as well, and now make carbon steel woks. Here’s a great video about how they make them.
Chefs: What I’ve Been Listening To…
I tend to pick up books about chefs, and most chef memoirs, reluctantly, if at all. Not because I don’t think they’re good. Some are extraordinary (see Blood and Butter). But a couple weeks ago, I got the audible edition of Andrew Friedman’s Chef's, Drugs and Rock & Roll. I thought it was a fascinating exploration of the evolution of the American chef starting in the 1970s. There were a lot of stories I didn’t know, such as the opening story on one of the founders of California Cuisine, Bruce Marder. Marder is still in the business at Capo in Santa Monica. And I got to hear extended remarks on the evolution of the chef from chefs I know and admire, such as Norman Van Aken, Jonathan Waxman and Thomas Keller.
I especially appreciated the stories of the female chefs, who were the true ground breakers, Cindy Pawlcyn, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, for instance.
The book might not have gotten the attention it deserved when it came out in the spring of 2018 because, as Pete Wells noted in a grudgingly positive NYT review, we were in the midst of a “full-on reckoning with sexual harassment in the restaurant business.” Wells faults the long blocks of quotes from the chefs—it does at times read like an oral history—but I loved it all.
The book is a valuable and pleasurable addition to the stories about chefs.
And interestingly, for research on a current project I’m working on, I’m listening to the Michael Symon section of my Soul of a Chef. Quite the opposite of cringing while listening, I’m finding that it stands up really well. I’m actually proud of myself—it’s really quite good, if I do say so!
Speaking of Audio Books …
My wife, Ann, above in studio, has just finished the audible version of her new memoir, Fly Girl, about her years as a TWA flight attendant. She began in 1978 when air travel was elegant and people dressed up. She finished in 1986, after deregulation changed flying and hostile-takeover king Carl Ichan took over TWA, promising to “decunt and recunt” the airline. (Yes, he actually said that; I repeat the crude comment here to remind us that some people actually used to get away with language like that. And some people still do.)
Ann was on the picket line toward the end, but she had just sold her first novel, Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine, and was ready to begin her life as a writer. Ann got her Master’s from NYU while she was working; I love the image of her coming to class, late from a delayed flight, in her flight attendant outfit and roller bag, to the mystification of the other students. (Ann, did you wear one of those cute caps?) She lived with her boyfriend on East 7th between Avenues B and C, in the 80’s, a neighborhood so bad at the time some cabbies wouldn’t take her home. (I would have liked to have seen that, too.)
The book’s out in May: pre-order it here! Great stories about being a flight attendant. Ann loved the work. So much so, I heard her say to a friend two days ago, “I’d probably still be flying if they hadn’t laid me off.”
What we’ve been drinking…
I mentioned this cocktail last month, but I find it so beguiling, and such an effective ratio, I have to mention it again: the Clover Club. This was a late 19th century, early 20th cocktail originating in Chicago, that was destroyed by Prohibition. A 1934 Esquire article proclaimed it one of the 10 worst cocktails, period. But the craft cocktail movement brought it back, happily. And by 2008, when Julie Reiner opened a bar called Clover Club, in a then-sketchy neighborhood in Brooklyn, it was assured a renewed life.
Its main sweetener defines it: raspberry syrup. It’s easy to make and worth the effort. Both Reiner and bartender Jeffery Morgenthaler have recipes online. And they both add a smidge of dry vermouth, which smartly accents the drink. It has become one of my favorite sours.
For two (because you don’t want to drink this special cocktail alone):
4 ounces gin
1.5 ounces lemon juice
1.5 ounces raspberry syrup
1 ounce dry vermouth
1 egg white
Combine all but the twists, mix until frothy (in a shaker, with whisk, however you wish), add ice to chill it, pour into chilled coupes or over ice in old-fashioned glasses, and garnish with the lemon twists.
What Ann’s reading…
As I am reading what Ann has already read and mentioned, Oh William!, by Liz Strout (superb), I’ll let Ann speak.
One unusual night, my beloved went to sleep before I did and I read the gem of a novel that is Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan. When I finished, I read it again immediately. It’s small in size and enormous in brilliance.
After reading The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut, I set about reading everything he’s written. Next up was The Promise, which won the Booker Prize last year. Reading him is like a history lesson on South Africa, in the best possible way.
Links we’re loving…
Here are several great reads that we’ve both loved, most of them thanks to Ann’s voracious internet scouring.
In the must-read category: a lovely tribute to George Plimpton by his son Taylor, which focuses first on the writer-reporter-editor’s literal voice, that un-imitatable archaic New England aristocratic accent, and then by what that voice could and could not say (“great good fortune” and “a gracious plenty,” yes; “shit” and “I love you,” no).
Ann also sent me this excellent David Sedaris essay about his mother, which I missed when The New Yorker published it in 2017, and her alcohol addiction. It begins, oddly, with his Carolina beach house, and other dwellings, before moving into the actual subject. This oblique entry into the essay shows why he’s such a virtuoso of the form. He’s also a deeply humane man. I hope I meet him one day.
A Cambridge University librarian received notebooks, wrapped in plastic, with a note reading, “Librarian, Happy Easter, X.” Charles Darwin’s stolen notebooks outlining and sketching the theory of the origins of our species.
Our friend across the pond, the lovely Elizabeth Irvine, sent me this Guardian piece, as we journalists like to call then, on the renewed popularity of cocktails in the UK.
McDonalds is going gourmet, with a new sandwich on a sourdough roll with truffled mayo. (“Instead of fries, could I get that with a Mediterranean quinoa salad, please? And the wine list …”)
Can you hear John Wayne, in his John Wayne drawl, say the word “pilgrim”? Did you ever wonder why? Pilgrim is an insult, referring to someone from the East Coast who finds themselves out of their depths in the West.
See you back here in a couple of weeks!
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