Dalai Mama Dishes

by Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman cooks for the family

Dalai Mama Dishes

Catherine Newman cooks for the family

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Soy-Braised Chicken

Posted March 09, 2009
Find more about dinner , chicken , dalai mama
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I just ate this, and still that forkful makes me want another yummy bite. Ben brought the end of the leftovers in his school lunch.

Here are the aromatics, gathered together in front of a mysterious white backdrop.

Behind the scenes: the paper-towel holders.

Did I mention that this is one of 3 dishes Michael prepares? It is. He makes it great. Plus, he deals with the (shudder) raw chicken.

Bobbing for salmonella. Here's how it looks, before its lovely long cooking.

And after.

Afterwards it is falling-apart tender and shreddable. The children love it, despite this photograph which proves only Birdy's love of oranges.

Speaking of oranges, I wanted to show you the kind of zester I like for this recipe, which is different from the usual Microplane that I love.

So, yesterday we were skipping outside in our shirtsleeves in the mild air, and today there's three inches of slush covering our footprints. It's the cusp season, and I love it--love the geese honking home through the sky in their exhausted, raggedy vees, the chickadees at the feeder who seem to have recovered finally from their winter-long bout of laryngitis, the swollen buds of the dogwood, the snowdrops emerging shyly through the sudden brown of the ground. And yet, foodwise, there's really nothing much to show for it yet, is there? At least not in the Northeast. I just checked the New England seasonal produce calendar to confirm this, and yes, indeed, what they have to say for March is, and I quote, "apples, cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, onions, parsnips, potatoes, radishes, sprouts, winter squash, sweet potatoes, turnips." Wake me when the asparagus comes up. (Check for your area's produce calendar here.)

It's artichoke season in California (California! Whatever.), and so we will splurge on some soon and get our taste of spring that way. But in the meantime, we're stuck with the dirty root crop and withering cabbages that we are still hauling home from our farm. They haunt us, those beets and turips--I can hear them yowling neglectedly from the basement. Or those parking-lot mountains of snow, you know the ones that get filthier and filthier as spring approaches, but they never seem to melt? It's like that, only rutabagas. Hence my buying of some green veggies--broccoli, string beans, arugula--even if they were grown on Mars and sent to my supermarket via Hubble.

Anyways, where was I? Oh yes: more chicken. This is a braise, of course, and so a warming and winterish meal--but it is brighter tasting than your usual pot roasts and stews, and so lends itself perfectly to this mildening of weather, this subtle shift from snow to sleet. Plus, it's another in my series of "It's Chinese food, you love Chinese food," meals. It's true, the children love most Asian dishes: Thai curries, Japanese anything, dumplings and noodles of any nationality, Korean scallion pancakes and short ribs, absolutely any dish prepared by our friend Pengyew. (Birdy once even tried a "thousand-year old egg" at a Malaysian restaurant: she bit into its darkly translucent white and green, gelatinous yolk, and said evenly, "Not so great." Then she took a sip of water and added, "I can't recommend it.")

But your kids don't need to be great adventurers to like soy-braised chicken, which is also sometimes called "red-cooked chicken": it is tender and burnished, with that addictive soy-sauciness, which they will love, and then some unusual but pleasant seasonings including cinnamon, orange, and ginger. (And sugar! Make a big fuss about adding the sugar, if this will encourage them to try it.) The only two things you could have any trouble finding are the star anise and the Szechuan peppercorns--and you know what? If you can't find them, leave them out. It will still be delicious. But if you've got a Whole Foods or an Asian market nearby, pick up a tiny bit of each. Or order them from Penzey's, who will let you order as little as an ounce; you want whole spices, not ground. It's worth investing a bit here, because this is what's called a "master sauce" recipe: that is, after you've cooked and eaten the chicken, you strain the resulting cooking liquid and freeze it; when you're ready to use it again, you add some more broth and aromatics, and you're good to go. Like a sourdough starter, it gets better and better over time. Later you can bequeath it to someone in your will as a family heirloom!

We use skinless bone-in chicken thighs in this dish, because they are so inexpensive and delicious and the long, salty cooking seems somehow to rid them of the various ropynesses and sinewish what-all that can scare me. But you could use any skinless, bone-in parts you like: I used to have the butcher cut up a whole chicken into 10 pieces, and that was also a wonderful way to prepare this recipe. The beauty here is that you don't even have to brown anything: it all goes right into the pot and simmers away for a couple of hours, unattended. Truly easy.

Soy-Braised Chicken
preparation time: 10 minutes; total time: 2 hours

This is a version of the recipe "Master Sauce Poussin" in the late Barbara Tropp's wonderful China Moon cookbook. We always serve it with brown rice and the zested orange cut into slices, and we take a minute to shred the kids' chicken off of its bones before serving them, or else they get a preemptive case of the heebie jeebies. This is a simply, homey meal, but still if you serve it to company everyone will ooh and aah appreciatively.

3 or so pounds of bone-in, skinless chicken parts (we use a dozen thighs)
 2 1/2 cups chicken broth
2 cups soy sauce
1/3 cup dry sherry or Chinese rice wine
6 quarter-size coins fresh ginger, smashed with the side of a heavy knife
4 fat scallions, cut into 1-inch nuggets and smashed
1 1/2 whole star anise, broken into their individual points
1/3 cups sugar
1-2 cinnamon sticks, broken up a bit (don't substitute ground)
Zest of 1/2 orange
1/2 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns

While you deal with the chicken (skinning it, e.g.), bring the rest of the ingredients to a simmer in a large pot over high heat. Turn the heat down and add the chicken, then cover the pot and cook at a mild simmer for up to 2 hours; the chicken will be fully cooked after less than an hour, but we like the shreddy, salty, falling-apartness of the longer cooking. Serve the chicken with some of its sauce spooned over the rice. Refrigerate leftovers in its sauce, which will turn gelatinous when cold. When all the chicken is eaten up, heat and strain the sauce, then store it in a container in the freezer. Write this on the masking-tape label: "Master Sauce for chicken. Add 1 cup of broth, 1 cup of soy sauce, and all aromatics before using."

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Soy-Braised Chicken

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About Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman is the author of the memoir, Waiting for Birdy: A Year of Frantic Tedium, Neurotic Angst, and the Wild Magic of Growing a Family, available online and in bookstores nationwide.

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