Since I have been writing this blog, I have felt pushed to constantly upgrade my skills and recipes—new, different, better. I read Cook’s Illustrated and I get e-newsletters from NYTimes and Serious Eats—to the point that my inbox is full of posts that I do not have the time to read. I mine these posts—not so much for recipes—but as a source of new ideas and techniques.
I have been making Chinese chicken salad about once a month for years. It started as a fairly simple affair—pan fry some chicken, chop a few vegetables and throw on a dressing made with a pack of Sun-Bird Chinese Chicken Salad seasoning. Over time, I started marinating the chicken before frying, the variety of vegetables increased and Sun-Bird stopped making this dressing mix—I have been trying to recreate the flavor of this mix for years.
A couple of recent posts caused me to rethink what I have been doing with this dish. A NYTimes recipe for San Hua Kao Ji, Three-Flower Roast Chicken, gave me the idea of poaching, rather than frying my chicken. Their recipe for Chinese chicken salad made me rethink the dressing—less is more.
For years, I have looked at other peoples Asian salad dressings and I have tried a wide variety of ingredients trying to come close to the flavors I remembered in the Sun-Bird mix. While each attempt was palatable, they tended to be darker in color and flavor. The NYTimes’ chicken salad had a dressing that was closer to what I was looking for—simple, light, and elegant.
Note: A close look at the Sun-Bird ingredients list—each package contained 1¾ tablespoons of seasoning. Maltodextrin (a sugar), salt, dehydrated onion and garlic are the first four ingredients. The next ingredient listed is the ubiquitous “spices,” the secret combination of ingredients that make this seasoning different from any other (unknown, but at the very least, maybe a teaspoon of Chinese yellow mustard powder). Other ingredients in infinitesimal amounts: color (yellow), whey (a milk product that Sun-Bird has gotten into trouble for not always listing in some of their products), sesame seeds (maybe an eighth of a teaspoon at most), and sesame oil. Citric acid and xanthan gum are natural stabilizers that prevent the sesame oil from separating from the other ingredients and turning the powder into a paste. The final ingredient is “Not more than 2% silicon dioxide,” a surprising number of prepared foods include sand “to prevent caking.”
Karl’s Chinese Poached Chicken Salad
2 chicken breasts, skinless, boneless
½ tsp. kosher salt
Chicken poaching liquid
1 Tbs. hoisin sauce
1 Tbs. dark soy sauce
1 Tbs. shaoxing (rice wine)
2 Tbs. ginger, crushed
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 whole star anise
2 whole dried red chilies
½ tsp. black pepper
boiling water, to cover
¼ cup peanut oil (canola oil, if you are allergic)
2 Tbs. rice vinegar
1 tsp. black vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. fresh ginger, grated
1 tsp. dark sesame oil
1 tsp. Chinese yellow mustard, dry powered
2 tsp. white sesame seeds
3-4 cups Napa cabbage
½ cup carrots, sliced
½ celery, chopped
½ cup daikon radish
½ cup green onions, sliced
½ cup mung bean sprouts
½ cup sugar snap peas
½ cup red sweet pepper, chopped
½ cup crispy fried noodles
1. Lay the chicken breasts flat on the cutting board and slice them in half parallel to the board.
Tip: This produces four thin chicken fillets.
2. Lightly salt all sides of the chicken fillets.
3. Let the chicken rest for half an hour to absorb the salt.
4. Mix all of the poaching liquid ingredients to a medium pot and add one cup of boiling water.
Tip: Stir to mix the ingredients.
5. Add the chicken fillets, turning to coat each with the poaching liquid.
6. Add just enough boiling water to cover the fillets.
7. Set the pot, covered, on a very low heat and poach the chicken for one hour.
Tip: If the fillets are not in a single layer, half way through, rearrange the chicken, so that the pieces on the top are on the bottom layer.
Note: You want the pot to be below a “simmer.” If you use a thermometer, the liquid should be between 160-185º F.
8. Remove the pot from the heat and let it cool on the stove, undisturbed for about 30 minutes.
9. Drain the chicken and set it aside on a plate.
Tip: Refrigerate, covered, if not using within 30 minutes.
10. Strain the poaching liquid, through a sieve, to remove the solids.
Tip: Discard the solids, but save back the chilies and anise.
Note: One of my peeves is cooks who would, at this point, discard the poaching liquid. This precious flavor gold should be reduced to a sauce and added back to the chicken. While I would usually object to discarding the solid vegetable bits, green onions—cooked to a slime—is a step too far.
11. Pour the liquid through several layers of cheesecloth set in a sieve back into the pot.
Note: The first straining was to remove the big pieces and the second straining was to remove the clotted lipoproteins—the “scum.” While these proteins are edible, they would make the sauce feel “gritty” in your mouth.
12. Set the pot back on the stove, uncovered, over a medium heat and reduce the liquid to about a quarter of a cup.
Tip: This will take about 20 minutes.
Note: Stir the pot occasionally, so that nothing sticks and scorches.
13. Mix all of the dressing ingredients into a small jar and let it meld for at least 20 minutes.
14. Rinse and chop the vegetables into bite sized pieces and put them in a large salad bowl.
15. Once the chicken is completely cool, shred it into fairly fine pieces.
Tip: Break the chicken into 1-2 inch pieces and squeeze them between your fingers to separate the muscle fibers. Starting at an edge, pinch a few strands of the chicken and pull it away from the rest. You should end up with most of the chicken in shreds of an ⅛-¼ of an inch in diameter and 1-2 inches long.
16. Put the chicken shreds in the pot with the reduced sauce and toss to coat.
Tip: Remove the pot from the heat and set it aside.
17. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss well to coat.
18. Serve the chicken and noodles on the side, so diners may add as much or as little as they wish.