This gong bao chicken (also sometimes written as kung pao chicken) with peanuts is the second new thing I’ve cooked since Avi was born. The first was that amazing pot roast from Deb that I’ve been making entirely in the slow-cooker. There’s also been some light cooking happening, mostly of old favorites and quick weeknight meals that can be made in advance and reheated, or meals that come together in a flash. And I’ve gone so far as to make Marcella Hazan’s bolognese while Andrew’s mom helped to watch Avi. But what I’ve stayed away from was opening cookbooks and learning something new. It was as if my brain was incapable of processing new information. In a way it was — I wanted to write today about postpartum anxiety, which I was diagnosed with a few weeks ago — but I’ll save that for another day, for another post. I’m doing better, I think, than a few weeks ago, but it’s something I definitely want to talk about here in hopes that it might help another new mom or make us all more informed collectively. This parenthood thing is not for the faint of heart.
In a little over a week and a half, on April 21, I go back to work, and I can’t wait. It’s strange to realize that I love my work so much, I have been missing it over the last ten weeks. I also miss the routine and control over my schedule. I’m excited and nervous about striking a balance that works for me; but I’m also a little sad to leave Avi — right as he’s getting more interesting and fun – I have to leave him. I’ve been thinking a lot about the US maternity leave (and how much it is lacking compared to other developed countries), and there’s not much I can add that hasn’t been said before by people far more eloquent than me. It’s a funny conundrum: While I’m ready for more structure, I wish, at the same time, there was more time to see how Avi develops and changes. He’s currently into being sung and read to, likes having a conversation while getting his diaper changed, seems to love both Dvorak and Dr. Dre, and gets really mad when you take the bottle out of his mouth mid-feeding. And I mean, furious! Overall, he is smiley and wiggly, and is turning into such a fun little guy. Also, that hair!
The stir-fry here came out of a desire to recreate a pre-assembled dinner kit that comes with our grocery delivery service, Fresh Direct. Our friend and neighbor, Nicole, told me of this weeknight dinner staple at her house. Now, Nicole is no slouch when it comes to cooking, so hearing her recommend a pre-chopped kit got my attention; plus I figured there will be nights when I’ll come home from work and have exactly ten minutes to get dinner on the table, prep and all. And lo, the dinner kit was good – delicious even. But of course, it made me want to recreate it on my own, see if I can prep it ahead and assemble my own dinner kit if you will.
I’m happy to report that it’s possible! And even if you don’t prep ahead, this is a quick and easy weeknight meal that you can pull together in about half an hour start to finish (music to the ears of working and commuting moms and dads everywhere)! I got the original recipe from an excellent cookbook that Luisa recommended awhile back: Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice. For months it sat on my bookshelf, untouched, but a week ago, I decided to leaf through it, and what a treasure it is: full of accessible, delicious-sounding recipes that are meant to be cooked at home. I’ve bookmarked almost two dozen (and those were the ones I wanted to make immediately!) This stir-fry is only the beginning.
One thing to keep in mind though is that you’ll need to build up your pantry of Chinese ingredient staples like dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, and Sichuan peppercorns. The list that Dunlop provides is short and attainable, but if you’re unfamiliar with these ingredients, even one new item can sound intimidating. Don’t be scared off by these, and just build up your Chinese staple pantry or use some good substitutes. I didn’t have the necessary Chiankiang vinegar, so I used my unseasoned rice vinegar, and I think the results were pretty great. If you don’t have Sichuan peppercorns, try black peppercorns instead. The final result will not be as fragrant, or fiery, but it’ll still be delicious. Best of all, I feel like I’ve broken the seal on “new” recipes, and I am only optimistic about what’s next. I’ve some beautiful new and about-to-come-out cookbooks written by dear friends that I’ve marked for cooking. I hope to tell you about them next week! In the meantime, happy weekend to all – may it be restful and delicious.
Gong Bao Chicken with Peanuts
Adapted from Every Grain of Rice, by Fuchsia Dunlop
While I stayed pretty faithful to Dunlop’s recipe, I added the vegetables to mimic the stir-fry kit from Fresh Direct. I quite like the end result with the vegetables, and you may want to swap in others if you prefer them: snow peas, Chinese broccoli, bok choy – there’s no limit. If you like water chestnuts, toss them in for added texture. I have prepped the chopped vegetables a few days in advance, and the sauce and marinade the day before (and kept in the fridge). I’ve marinated the chicken overnight to great results; and I’ve also marinated for 20 minutes with fantastic results as well. What I like here is flexibility, ease, and convenience. It doesn’t hurt that it’s fairly healthy to boot. We serve this over steamed brown rice, but you’re certainly welcome to swap in the rice or grain of your choice. I imagine it being good over quinoa or barley as well.
For the Marinade:
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
1 1/2 teaspoons potato or corn starch
For the Sauce:
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon potato or corn starch
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinkiang vinegar (I didn’t have this so used rice vinegar)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon chicken stock or water
For the Stir-Fry:
2 boneless chicken breasts with or without skin (10 to 12 oz / 300 to 350 g in total)
5 to 10 dried chiles, or to taste (start with fewer if you prefer your food mild)
2 tablespoons cooking oil (I used grapeseed)
1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper (start with 1/4 teaspoon if you prefer your food mild and build up)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
an equivalent amount of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1 bunch scallions, trimmed and chopped
1 medium zucchini, chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
A handful of roasted unsalted peanuts
Steamed rice, for serving
1. In a medium bowl combine the marinade ingredients with 1 tablespoon of water and set aside. In a small bowl combine the sauce ingredients and set aside.
2. Cut the chicken as evenly as possible into 1/2-inch (1 1/2-cm) strips, then cut these into small cubes. Add the chicken to the bowl with marinade and toss to combine. Set aside while you prepare other ingredients.
3. Snip the chiles in half or into section and discard the seeds. Heat a seasoned walk over a high flame. Add the oil with the chiles and Sichuan pepper, and stir-fry briefly until the chiles are darkening but not burned – this can happen in seconds – (remove the wok from the heat if necessary to prevent overheating).
4. Quickly add the thick and stir-fry over a high flame, stirring constantly. As soon as the chicken cubes have separated, add the ginger, garlic, and scallions, and continue to stir-fry until they are fragrant and the meat just cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes (test one of the larger pieces to make sure). Add the zucchini, peppers, and celery and cook until just warmed through, about 1 minute.
5. Give the sauce a stir and add to the stir-fry, continuing to stir and toss. As soon as the sauce has become thick and shiny, add the peanuts, toss, and serve immediately over rice.