This is my first experiment with the Sichuan Pepper Oil I featured in a ‘Foodstuffs’ post a few days ago. I originally planned to do a cold salad with cucumber but I had some nice chicken breasts on hand and decided to do a ‘ma-la’ style dish which, readers of my Sichuan Peppercorn post will recall, uses a Sichuan recipe technique that combines the numbing ‘ma’ effect of Sichuan peppercorns with the ‘la’ spiciness of chili. There are countless ways one can throw together a mala chicken dish, of course, but I came up with what follows:
- 2 skinless chicken breasts
- 4 or 5 Jalapeno peppers
- 3 or 4 pieces of dried wood ears (see below)
- 3 tbs oil – 2 tbs vegetable oil plus 1 tbs sesame oil
- 1 tbsp chopped salted chili
- 2 tbs sliced garlic
- Sichuan Pepper oil – about 1 tbs (or to taste)
- An extra splash sesame oil, and a pinch sugar and salt (not shown)
The wood ears are a fungus used in Chinese cookery and I promise to feature them in more depth in a foodstuffs post sometime soon. They are also commonly known as ‘tree ears’ or ‘cloud ears’ and they come in two main types. They have very little flavor of their own and are added to dishes both for their unique texture and for an interesting color balance. If you do not have access to tree ears you will just have to omit them as there really is no substitute.
Now, the wood ears, and some of the ingredients you see above, will need a bit of preliminary processing….
First, you need to reconstitute the dried wood ear by immersing it in boiling water and letting it sit for an hour or so. Afterwards, when it has expanded in size by a factor of about five, slice it into strips.
Next, slice the Jalapenos in half lengthwise, remove the seeds and pith, and slice the halves crosswise into half-rings. Blanch the pieces in boiling salted water for about 30 seconds and then refresh by plunging the pieces into ice-cold water to stop the cooking. This step will allow you to minimize the final cooking and preserve the nice green color and fresh taste of the raw pepper in the finished dish.
Cut the chicken breasts in to a generous dice and then blanch the pieces in the salted boiling water you used for the peppers for about 2 – 3 minutes. You don’t want to fully cook the pieces but just cook them long enough so that the cubes are all white with no pink visible. This step can be omitted if you like, but it really improves the dish and leaves the chicken nicely succulent. Once you are done, drain the chicken and then toss it in a bowl with the splash of sesame oil and the extra pinch of salt and sugar. Let the pieces cool so that they firm up.
The Final Execution
Heat your wok to a medium high and add just a splash of vegetable oil. Add your chicken pieces and sauté for several minutes until cooked through. Don’t brown them too much – a little golden color on the edges is fine but the dish will look best with the nice snowy-white of the chicken contrasting with the green peppers and dark brown wood ear strips.
When the chicken is done, push the pieces up the sides of the wok and add the vegetable-sesame oil blend to the middle. Once the oil is hot, add in the chopped salted chili and stir until the bits break down and the oil takes on some of the red color. Next, add in the Jalapeno and sauté just until it softens a little and then add the garlic. Push the chicken back down into the center and continue stirring and tossing for another minute or so. Finally, put in the wood ear and the Sichuan Pepper oil, toss until all is hot then plate and serve.
I served the chicken with fried rice and the result was both delicious … and a bit of a disappointment. The disappointing part came from the fact that the dish was neither as numbing, or as hot as I was aiming for. A bit more Sichuan Pepper oil should have been used and the chopped chili was really too mild. Next time, I think I will use a much hotter chili oil.
The tastiness of the dish was due in large part to a surprising quality of the Sichuan Pepper Oil. In my Sichuan Pepper ‘Foodstuffs post, I mentioned that the citrus taste that some people report with the peppercorns has largely eluded me in the past. On this occasion, however, there was a very noticeable tang that really complemented the rest of the flavors very well. I didn’t get this taste from the raw oil so I think that the cooking must have released this previously undetectable quality. Whatever it was, I think this recipe is one that is worth playing with a little.