From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Monday, February 16, 2015

All About The (Chicken) Baste

Perhaps as far back as anyone can determine, and maybe as old as the Chinese culture itself, there are reports about the use of chickens. However, the earliest usage has nothing to do with eating these birds; or does it? As a food item, they were written about as being consumed during the Zhou Dynasty (1066 - 221 BCE). Pictures of them are found on pottery. Some sculptures of chickens have been located and dated circa 3,000 BCE. And, chicken bones themselves have been found in both Han dynasty Tombs #1 and #2. These were radio-carbon dated circa 5,000 BCE. Were that not early enough, there are bones dating chickens circa 6,500 BCE in the north of China.

While chicken was the first fowl to be domesticated in China, it is believed that they were first valued not for food, but for waking folks up. Goose may have been the first fowl consumed. Eating chickens came later, or that is what some historians seem to believe. One of the main reasons given is that the very early Chinese did lots of hunting for goose, an animal not domesticated until long after the chicken was. Considering chicken’s popularity now, it is hard to think of a time when the Chinese did not eat this bird.

There are no guarantees as to when chickens actually were first consumed. It used to be thought that colonization in the Pacific some five thousand years ago was a probable time. But chicken remains have been recovered from domestic sites such as the Hemandu site in Southeast China some seven thousand years ago. It is hard to believe they were not consumed there, at least by some of those people.

Archeologists and historians know that chickens were one of the six domestic animals reported about and reared as livestock before Zhou Dynasty times (1046 - 221 BCE). The other five animals first domesticated were the horse, ox, sheep, pig, and dog. These important animals were written about very early on as were the first five grains that included two kinds of millet, soybeans, wheat, and rice. No one believes they were not eaten that early. As to chicken consumption, they were eaten thousands of years ago in other places in Asia, so the same is probably true in China.

It is only natural that they made their way to the table and were an easy-to-consume food item. After all, there are many reasons to keep/raise chickens. Most particularly, raising and keeping them is easy as they are scavengers who find their own food. Keeping them provides lots of valuable excrement, as theirs is excellent fertilizer. Their feathers make great bedding material. These birds are easy to slaughter, and it is virtually effortless to salvage their blood for medicinal and culinary purposes. Other reasons include that there is no need to worry about spoilage after killing a chicken because all their meat can be consumed quickly even by very few people. The chicken is a small bird so slaughtering one is a quick job.

Keeping chickens is a regenerative process. That is because they lay lots of eggs when young, more than two hundred and fifty in the first year, fewer each year thereafter. Those that are fertilized can hatch and lay more eggs. The Chinese know that when older, long after their laying-egg-life is over, chickens make great soup. For eons, the Chinese have considered chicken feet a great delicacy, and they cut and cook all large pieces of meat, and easily use all wings and giblets. Chicken fat is appreciated as are all of this bird’s bodily components.
In the 'Year of the Rooster' and in all years past and present, since they began eating them, it is believed that the Chinese use all parts of the chicken. In the countryside, most raise their own and kill them as needed. City folk prefer buying theirs alive, then having them slaughtered. Many save the blood, have the feathers removed, the bird gutted, and all organs given to them with the whole chicken, head, feet, tail, and all left attached to the bird’s body.

Chinese purchasing their own chickens always wanted the head left attached to the body. Once I asked a lady why and she said the brains in it would make her kids smart. She also said the blood was gelled and used in soup and other dishes including what I now know are very early recipes for hot and sour soup and several stir-fry dishes.

Chickens are very versatile. The Qing Dynasty poet Yuan Mei (1716 - 1797 CE) once wrote about two that he used to make a ten-course meal. Qing Dynasty emperors. (1644 - 1911 CE) reportedly liked their chickens fat. They smoked them, boiled them, and fried them. And on the eve of Chinese New Year, they ordered them made into a soup. The fat and blood, both considered strengthening foods, may have been why they wanted theirs fat and alive.

For those living in the Yuan Dynasty (1280 - 1368 CE) and wanting a popular recipe for chicken, recipes indicate making one with salt, soy sauce, vinegar, fennel, and Sichuan pepper, and roasting it over hot coals. Near and during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE) the chicken dish of delight was boiled bones from chickens made with cardamon into a soup. During that same dynasty, chicken was cooked with sheep stomach, sprouted ginger, carrots, eggs, and spinach, and seasoned with coriander. This melange they thickened with ground sunflower seeds. Popular, closer to the end of the Ming, Chickens were roasted after stuffing them with apricot kernels, onions, and vinegar.

It’s not always all about the baste…

Until then, good eating, Friends…

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Friday, February 6, 2015

Easy Wok Fun

Some of the most fun I have while cooking is in a busy kitchen at dinner time.  That pales in comparison to what I have experienced in the restaurant industry.  One of the most active professional kitchens you'll see is in a busy Chinese restaurant at lunchtime. The woks will be fired up and, even if the eatery only has few of them, the cooks will be able to whip up a large menu of offerings faster than you can say "kung pao chicken."

Wok cooking is quick cooking, and same rules apply, whether it takes place in a restaurant or in your home.

If you peek into a busy Chinese restaurant kitchen or frequent one like I do that has a window looking into the kitchen, you'll see bowls and containers of chopped and ready-to-cook ingredients, sauces and other items the cook can use to create a dish quickly.

When cooking in a wok at home, follow this technique and don't turn on the stove until all the ingredients needed for your dish are chopped, measured and ready to go. If you do so, you can focus on cooking your dish to perfection, and not be distracted by chopping an ingredient while the others blaze away in the wok. In a good Chinese restaurant you'll also notice how precisely things such as vegetables and meats are cut, which ensures they will cook evenly.

Wok cooking is often high-temperature cooking, so be sure that the wok is sufficiently heated before starting to add ingredients. If you add them to the wok when it's just barely warm, foods will steam rather stir-fry. In a restaurant they usually have powerful, gas-fired woks that heat up in seconds. At home, though, your wok might take a few minutes to heat up, particularly on a electric range.

I like to use vegetable or peanut oil in my wok because they have a high smoke point, the temperature at which they start to burn. After the oil is added to the wok, allow it to heat up before adding the food, evenly swirling it around the bottom and up the sides of the wok. When starting to add your ingredients, move them around so that all come in contact with the hot surfaces of the wok.
Wok cooking often involves cooking ingredients in stages and then combining them at the last minute. Doing this ensures you are not trying to cook too great a volume of ingredients at once, which in turn ensures foods get properly cooked and nicely colored.

I use this technique in most of my recipes, where the vegetables are quickly stir-fried and then removed from the wok. Marinet slices of meat are then added to the wok and cooked through. A sauce mixture is added to the wok and brought to a simmer, and then the vegetables are returned to the wok for a quick heating. This dish tastes great served over steamed rice.

It makes for easier cooking than most realize.  Until next time, Good Eating, Friends...

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