Eilene is graduating from High School today and last night I decided to make one of her favorite dishes, spicy chicken and pan fried noodles. We lived in Chengdu, Sichuan, P.R. China for a year and a half back in 1988-90. While I have tried to replicate many dishes that we had during that stay, this recipe is closer to one from Cook’s Illustrated. I have wandered far from that original recipe.
Usually I make this with Chinese broccoli, gia-lan, but today I had some fresh green beans that I wanted to use. The green beans lead me to Sichuan Pickle. A local Chinese restaurant, that we frequent, uses them in their Dry Cooked Green Beans. Eilene doesn’t think much of Sichuan pickles when they are cold, but she loves them warm. That seemed like a good addition.
My decision to include leeks in this dish was also influenced by a second restaurant. South Legend is the real deal and they make their Twice Cooked Pork with leeks, instead of green onions. The first time we went there, we were the only Westerners in the place. After we had ordered, the women sitting at the next table leaned over and said, “You order like you’re Chinese!” It turned out that she had been going to the university that we had been teaching at the same time we were there in 1988. South Legend is where all of the local Sichuanese go for a taste of home.
This is one of the most complicated dishes I make, because there are four rounds of cooking involved. First, boiling the noodles (and in this case blanching the green beans), then pan frying the noodles, next browning the chicken, and then finally stir frying the vegetables. In particular, the pan frying of the noodles is something that is very finicky and that takes a lot of practice to get right.
I use about a third of the oil that a Chinese person would use in making this dish. Even with the chicken breast this is not a low fat meal. There is a lot of frying and at each stage you need to add oil to keep things from sticking.
All the cooking may be done in a large wok, but I find it easier to boil the noodles in a large pot. I do the frying of the noodles and meat in a large sauté pan. While I have seen it done, doing a “pancake flip” with a wok is a bit of cooking theater that is beyond me. When the noodles and meat are cooked, they go on to separate baking trays in the oven to keep them warm. Finally, I use my large wok for the final stir frying of the vegetables. This makes a lot dishes to clean up, but the finished product is definitely worth all of the effort.
Note: I personally prefer using chicken thighs for this recipe, but Jan likes the breasts because they are lower in fat. If you wish to make the recipe Vegan, you may use extra firm tofu or tempeh instead of the meat.
Karl’s Sichuan Chicken and Pan Fried Noodles
2 chicken breasts (6 thighs or firm tofu for Vegan)
1 inch ginger root, cut in slivers
¼ cup soy sauce (total with the marinade)
¼ cup hoisin sauce
1 Tbs. chili garlic sauce
1 lb. green beans
1 lb. leek (one large leek)
8-10 cloves garlic, sliced
3.5 oz. preserved vegetables (Sichuan pickle)
1-2 lbs. Korean fresh noodles (udon)
2 tsp. dark sesame oil
¼ cup peanut oil, separate uses
2-3 Tbs. corn starch, separate uses
1. Cut the chicken into large, bite-sized pieces.
2. Mix the marinade ingredients in a coverable bowl (like Tupperware) and add the chicken pieces. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes or up to two hours.
3. Mix the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
4. Trim and cut the green beans and leeks into 2 inch pieces. Slice the garlic and open the preserved vegetables. Set aside.
5. Fresh noodles are sold in 16 inches long bunches, folded in half. Open up each bunch and break them in half.
Note: Korean style udon is usually sold in trays of four half pound bunches. Figure one quarter of a pound of uncooked noodles per person. Remember you may want some pan fried noodles left over to snack on later. A little season salt, yum!
6. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook for three to four minutes. If the pot threatens to boil over add ½ cup of cold water.
Tip: Take a noodle from the pot and cut it in half. If there is still a little white spot in the center of the noodle it is not quite done.
Note: Normally I would just pour my noodles into a colander. Today, however, I am reserving the hot water to blanch my green beans.
7. Remove the noodles to a colander and reserve the hot water. Run cold water over the noodles to keep them from over cooking.
8. Pour the sesame oil over the noodles and toss to coat. Set aside.
9. Add the green beans to the hot water and blanch them until they turn dark green, about three minutes.
Tip: You do not need to return the pot to the stove. The residual heat of the water is enough to do the job.
10. Drain the green beans and put them in a bowl of ice water to prevent them from continuing to cook. Set aside.
Note: Now the real cooking starts! Everything before this has just been prep.
11. “Fluff” the noodles so that they are not a solid mass.
12. Pour a tablespoon of peanut oil in a large non-stick sauté pan and place it over a medium high heat. When it oil is hot, add enough noodles to cover the pan in a layer about half an inch thick. Shake the pan to make sure that the noodles are not sticking.
13. When the noodles have set into a mass and are starting to brown on the bottom, flip the pancake and shake the pan to distribute the remaining oil.
Tip: This is the most difficult step in this recipe to get right. There are many factors that affect how your pancake comes out (the idiosyncrasies of your stove’s heating element; any rough spot on your pan that will cause it to stick; not enough oil; too high a heat; too low a heat; how you hold your mouth while you’re cooking it). Ideally, you want your pancake to be an even crispy golden brown on the outside and soft chewy goodness on the inside.
14. When your first pancake is done slide it onto a baking sheet and place it in the over to keep warm (about 180° F).
15. Repeat steps 12 and 13 until all of your noodles are fried and in the oven.
Tip: The number of pancakes you will have depends on your quantity of noodles, the size of your pan and the thickness of your pancakes. If you prefer less crispy noodles (or you are impatient) you may make each pancake thicker than half an inch.
16. Drain the excess marinade from the chicken and reserve it for the sauce.
17. Lay the chicken pieces on a large plate and sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons of corn starch over them. Toss to distribute the starch evenly.
18. Without cleaning the sauté pan add some peanut oil. Fry the chicken pieces in batches over a medium high heat until browned on both sides. When the chicken pieces are done, remove to a small baking tray in the oven to keep them warm (preferably not the same one as the noodles).
Tip: You do not want to cook the chicken all the way through at this point. The pieces should be slightly raw in the middle.
Note: You are now ready for the final stir fry. This is where the theater of cooking may come in. You may actually put everything on hold at this point for 20 to 30 minutes. You may use this time to prep the vegetables, if you need to, or to spend a few minutes with your company. You then invite them in to watch you do a quick stir fry, like it was just a few minutes work to produce a restaurant quality dish. The real time limit on this pause is the noodles in the oven. If the heat is too high and you wait too long, they will dry out and become tough.
19. In a wok, or very, large pan, add some peanut oil over high heat. Add the leeks and green beans and stir fry for 4-5 minutes, until the greens are starting to wilt and pick up some charring.
20. Pull the vegetables to the sides of the pan and add the garlic and preserved vegetables to the bare spot in the middle. Cook for one minute and then mix them into the vegetables.
21. Remove the chicken from the oven and add it to the wok along with any juices that have seeped out.
22. Add the sauce from the bowl and any remaining marinade to the wok and stir fry for 2-3 minutes.
Tip: Depending on how thin your sauce is in the bottom of the wok you may need to add some corn starch to thicken it. Add one tablespoon of corn starch to one quarter cup of cool water to make a slurry. Add just enough to thicken your sauce and let it cook for one more minute.
23. Remove the noodle pancakes from the oven and cut them in quarters. Fluff them slightly to break up the noodles.
24. Serve the noodles on the side for your guests to take as much as they wish and then pour the stir fry over the noodles.