Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Blunderproof Kung Pao Chicken

With help from an especially adept sous chef, I returned home Monday tonight with a complete mise en place ready to prepare Grace Young's Kung Pao Chicken for dinner. Described by the wok guru as one of her favorite recipes from Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge - and the selected post for this week's Wok Wednesdays online event - my only task was to locate the two tablespoons of chicken broth Tim was unable to find in our typically stock-stuffed freezer.

The bags of cubes and containers of broth that often tumble from my freezer were oddly missing from sight; a signal, at long last, that it really is time to replenish. In its place I made a scant cupful of broth from a liquid concentrate, a reasonable substitute since everything else was so perfectly in place.

Or so I thought. I messed up the maestro's organization by stashing the excess broth too close to the prep station. Tim handed me each ingredient with the confident skill of a surgical nurse - scalpel! clamp! red bell peppers! - until I misspoke and asked for broth instead of the savory mix of soy sauce, rice wine and toasted sesame oil actually called for.

I didn't even look when I splashed in about 3/4 cup of light golden broth, which should have been dark and  shimmery. I realized the blunder about a minute later when the stir fry failed to gain the classic lacquered look of Kung Pao. In rapid succession, I strained off the excess liquid, added a teaspoon of corn starch and the proper sauce, then held my breath as I tossed the contents in the bubbling mix.

In just a minute or two, it assumed expected appearance and was brought to the table still steaming. A photo I posted as a preview earned admiring comments from friends who were unaware of how close I came to completely ruining the dish.

Photo @TheKitchn
Once my adrenalin rush subsided, I had to admit I went too weenie on Grace Young's recommended heat scale. I had planned to substitute the 4-8 dried red chiles with a generous shake of red chile flakes but opted instead to use two fresh jalapeno peppers in our market stash. Even with seeds, their sweet almost-heat should have been amplified by some red chile.

One ingredient that absolutely must not be messed with is the half-teaspoon of roasted and ground Sichuan (or Szechwan, etc.) peppercorns. I can't imagine anything else that comes close to the floral, almost fruity essence of this critical ingredient. Most well-stocked grocery stores carry this, as well as local and online specialty spice shops. Splurge a few bucks and get a jar; you'll be surprised how often you sneak it into favorite dishes.


  1. I agree re: szechuan peppercorns. I was going to skip them, but luckily I found some at Li Ming and man oh man am I glad I bought them. They smelled incredible! Now that I have a big jar of them I'm going to start adding them to everything.

    I'm glad you saved the dish! This was one of my favorites too - a lot of prep but worth the reward.

  2. Happy to hear this worked out for you! I (we) really enjoyed this one. I did not have any chicken broth and did not want to buy a box for only 2 tbl. so I substituted water. Still turned out fabulous!