Every year, my sister Karen renews my subscription to Cooks Illustrated at Christmas time. Over the years, I have tried and usually adapted many of their recipes—I am frequently at odds with some of their philosophies of cooking. In the October 2006 issue, they presented a recipe Stir-Fried Chicken with Bok Choy and Crispy Noodle Cake.
While I first made this recipe fairly close to the original, over time I have made some major adjustments. The original recipe used bok choy. Not the good small, green Asian kind, but the big, white, watery kind that you can only see in Western supermarkets.
While the choice of bok choy is alright for the first meal, this dish is such a production that I try to make enough for several leftover meals. I find that both types of bok choy tend to get a little bit slimy, if you happen to overcooked them even a little. I prefer to use a hardier green gai lan, which stands up better to reheating.
You might find this vegetable called Chinese broccoli. It is a hearty green full of vitamins and flavor. Between the leaves and the stems you get two vegetables for the price of one.
This has become my family favorite dish. A spicy sauce with chunks of chicken, dark green crunchy vegetables and crispy-chewy noodles. It is not one I make too often, because it is a bit of a time consuming challenge to cook.
You have to prep everything and then fry each bit separately, before bringing it all together at the end. It is definitely not the kind of dish that you set to cooking and then join your friends for a glass of wine. However, it is a stand out memorable dish.
Note: I had to think about why I felt this dish is difficult. The prep work is not extraordinary, the final stir-fry is actually fairly easy, it is the frying that is the bear. You can not put the noodles in the pan and loose focus. Depending on how thick you make your noodle cakes there can be, at least, half an hour of mindful frying—making sure the noodles and chicken does not stick, get turned over in time, or burn takes your full concentration—it is worth the effort, but it is not easy.
I have posted variations of this dish—Karl’s Sichuan Chicken and Pan Fried Noodles and Tofu, Garlic Stem and Lettuce Stem Stir-fry with Pan-Fried Noodles—but I find that I have never posted the original. After Dinner last night Myr said that she had friends who were demanding the recipe that she kept describing with such fondness.
Korean style fresh noodles (guksu or mian) are sold in packages of 4-5 bundles of folded-over 16 inch noodles. Depending of the thickness of the noodles, each bundle is about half pound. Figure one quarter of a pound of uncooked noodles per person when you are preparing your meal. However, there is no such thing as too many pan fried noodles. They make a great cold snack all by themselves.
Karl’s Spicy Chicken with Pan Fried Noodles
6-8 chicken thighs (or 2 chicken breasts or firm tofu/tempe for Vegan)
2 Tbs. Hoisin sauce
1 Tbs. light soy sauce
1 Tbs. dark soy sauce
1 tsp. shaoxing (rice wine)
1 tsp. chili garlic sauce
2 tsp. garlic, finely crushed
1 tsp. fresh ginger grated
1 tsp. dark sesame oil
½ tsp. sugar
2-3 Tbs. corn starch
¼ cup Hoisin sauce
1 Tbs. light soy sauce
1 Tbs. dark soy sauce
1 Tbs. chili garlic sauce
1 inch ginger root, cut in slivers
3-4 bundles Korean style fresh noodles (udon)
2 tsp. dark sesame oil
1½ lb. gai lan (Chinese broccoli)
1 large yellow onion
peanut oil, as needed, separate uses
8-10 cloves garlic, sliced
Note: This is one of those recipes where it is very important to have all of the ingredients prepared, measured, chopped and ready-to-hand before you start cooking. Once you start frying you cannot take time to cut up your vegetables or measure your sauces. You will first fry several pans full of the noodles, and then go on to frying, usually, two pans of the chicken, followed instantly by sautéing the vegetables in a wok. There is barely time to grab a sip of your drink, let alone stop to prep something you forgot.
1. Remove any lumps of fat and cut the chicken into large, bite-sized pieces.
Note: I personally prefer using chicken thighs for this recipe, because they stay more juicy after they are fried. 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.
2. Mix the marinade ingredients in a cover-able bowl (like Tupperware) and add the chicken pieces.
Tip: Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes or up to two hours.
3. Measure and mix the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set it aside.
4. Untwist each bundle of noodles and pull them in half.
Tip: Shorter noodles are easier to handle when you are frying them.
Note: Fresh noodles are sold in packages of 4-5 bundles of folded over 16 inch noodles.
5. Separate and fluff the noodles.
Tip: If there was not enough flour around the noodles they may have stuck together in a mass on the shelf. A little clumping is OK, but you do not large lumps of dozens of noodles stuck together when they hit the water.
6. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the noodles.
Tip: Stir the noodles immediately and frequently.
Note: The raw noodles will have a tendency to settle to the bottom of the pot and stick there. You want all of your noodles free floating, so they have hot water on all sides.
7. After 4-5 minutes the noodles will float to the surface.
Tip: If the pot threatens to boil over add ½ cup of cold water.
Note: You want to cook your noodles just to al dente—done but firm. Pull out one of the noodles and bite off the tip. If there is a white spot in the center of the noodle continue boiling them for one more minute. You do not want to over boil your noodles, as this would make them mushy and hard to fry.
8. Pour the noodles into a colander and run cold water over them to keep them from over cooking.
9. Drain the noodles well and fluff them with your hands.
Tip: If they are too hot to handle you need to cool them some more.
10. Pour the sesame oil over the noodles and toss to coat. Set them aside.
Tip: Until you are ready to fry your noodles, you want to fluff them occasionally, so that they do not clump together.
11. Rinse, trim and cut the leaves from the gai lan.
Tip: Examine the large outer leaves for discoloration and blight. Discard any that you would not want to put in your own mouth.
Note: If your gai lan is not super fresh you might wish to trim the ends and set them in a bowl of cool water to freshen for an hour.
12. Stack the leaves and cross cut them into half inch strips.
13. Put the leaf shreds into a bowl of cool water and set them aside.
14. Cut the stems into 2 inch pieces, cutting the thicker pieces into planks length wise, and set them aside.
Tip: While the flower heads are edible, I usually remove them as they tend to get stuck in my teeth.
Note: The tapered gai lan stems may be 4-8 inches in length. The thicker ends may be from ⅜ to almost an inch thick. Cut them so that all the pieces are about the same thickness, so that they will cook evenly.
15. Sliced the onion, pole to pole, into half inch wedges.
16. Separate the onions leaves and set them aside.
17. Slice the garlic and set it aside.
Note: Now the real cooking starts! Everything before this has just been prep.
18. “Fluff” the noodles, so that they are not a solid mass.
Tip: You want your noodles slightly oily, but loose and dry for the best results.
19. Pour a tablespoon of peanut oil in a large non-stick sauté pan and place it over a medium high heat.
Note: You have a decision to make in the next step. Do you add a lot of noodles to the pan to make a thick noodle cake or just enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Lots of noodles produces a cake that is tender on the inside and crispy on the outside. It is also has the advantage of being a lot less frying. A thin noodle cake is more crispy than tender. It takes more time and effort, but there are those who prefer their pan fried noodles that way.
20. When it oil is hot and shimmering, add enough noodles to cover the pan.
Tip: I usually make mine in a layer about half an inch thick.
Note: Shake the pan to make sure that the noodles are not sticking. If your pan is not hot enough, when you put in your noodles, they will grab onto the skillet and not let go. I use a wooden fork to poke at the noodles when I think it might be sticking to the pan.
21. When the noodles have set into a mass and are starting to brown on the bottom, flip the noodle cake and shake the pan to distribute the remaining oil.
Tip: I use a pancake flip, but a spatula will sort of work—the noodle cake is big, hot and fragile.
Note: This is the most difficult step in this recipe to get right. There are many factors that affect how your noodle cake 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).
22. Fry the noodle cake on the second side until crispy and brown.
Tip: You may keep flipping and frying until both sides of the cake are done to your satisfaction.
Note: Ideally, you want your noodle cake to be an even crispy golden brown on the outside and soft chewy goodness on the inside.
23. When your first noodle cake is done slide it onto a baking sheet and place it in the over to keep warm (about 180° F).
Tip: Do not set you oven too high. You want to keep the noodles warm, not toast them in to hard sticks.
24. Repeat frying your noodle cakes until all of your noodles are done and in the oven.
Tip: The number of noodle cakes you will have depends on your quantity of noodles, the size of your pan and the thickness of your noodle cakes.
Note: If you prefer less crispy noodles (or you are impatient) you may make each noodle cake thicker than half an inch—you can even mix it up and do cakes of different thicknesses.
25. Without cleaning the sauté pan, add some more peanut oil heat it over a medium high heat.
26. When the pan is hot, add about half of the chicken pieces and spread them out in a single layer.
Tip: It is not important if your pieces of chicken are sticking together—in fact, it make them easier to handle.
27. Fry the chicken until they are well browned on the first side, about 4-5 minutes.
28. Flip the clumps of chicken and fry them on the second side, until browned, about another 3 minutes.
29. Break the chicken pieces apart and stir fry them for another 2 minutes.
Tip: Until there is no damp cornstarch paste left.
30. When the chicken pieces are done, remove them to a small baking tray in the oven to keep them warm.
Tip: Preferably not the same tray as the noodles.
Note: You do not want to cook the chicken all the way through at this point. The pieces should be slightly raw in the middle.
31. Fry the second batch of chicken and put it in the oven with the first batch.
32. Drain the gai lan greens and let them dry a bit.
Tip: You do not want them adding too much liquid to the pan when you add them.
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 30 minutes to an hour. You may use this time to prep the vegetables, if you need to, or to spend a few minutes with your company. You can 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 rock hard rather than crisp.
33. Heat a wok, or very large pan, over high heat and add some peanut oil.
Tip: I prefer using a wok for this step, because when you have added all of the ingredients, it will be quite a lot and a shallow pan might not be enough. The greens especially will have a lot of volume, until they cook down.
34. Add the onions and stir fry them until soft, about 5 minutes.
35. Add the gia lan stems and stir fry for another 5 minutes.
Tip: Until the gai lan stems are almost cooked through and the onions are starting to pick up some color.
36. Pull the vegetables to the sides of the pan and add the garlic to the bare spot in the middle.
37. Cook the garlic for one minute, until fragrant and then mix them into the vegetables.
38. Remove the chicken from the oven and add it to the wok along with any juices that have seeped out.
39. Stir in the gai lan greens and continue stir frying until the greens have mostly wilted.
40. Add the spicy sauce from the bowl and stir fry for 2-3 minutes.
Tip: You generally will not need to add a cornstarch thickener with this dish. the cornstarch coating the chicken will generally be enough.
41. Remove the noodle cakes from the oven and cut them in quarters. Fluff them slightly to break up the noodles.
42. 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.
Note: For a family meal, I leave the noodles next to the wok of stir fry on the stove. People bring their bowls to fill and then return to the table. If you put everything on the table, everyone would eat too much and there would be no leftovers. By leaving it on the stove, you have to make the conscious choice to get up to take more—this is comfort food par excellence, but subject to the “just one more bite syndrome.”