Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Asian restaurant knockoffs

The challenge was issued: can she make orange chicken from scratch?

The challenge was accepted.

The challenge was completed: yes, she can make orange chicken from scratch.

The challenge was issued by my dad, a picky eater who didn't eat Chinese food until he turned 38. He still doesn't eat anything he can't identify by looks alone. Anyway, I accepted my father's challenge in order to avoid eating the frozen orange chicken from Trader Joe's (which, in all fairness, really isn't that bad). I'm not crazy about that stuff, plus I remembered that I have a knockoff version of Panda Express's orange chicken. I know, I know, it's a Panda Express knockoff, and not only is Panda Express a chain, it's a fast-food chain. Sweep this out of your mind for just a moment and remember: the beauty of knockoff recipes is that the final dish is always homemade, thus giving you control over all ingredients and additives, and thus giving you the ease of mind of having prepared the food in a kitchen not infested w/who-knows-what (unless you're a real pig, in which case eating at a fast-food chain would actually be better).

Knocking off one Asian recipe that night simply wasn't good enough. What better way to supplement the Panda Express orange chicken than w/Benihana fried rice? Lucky for me, that knockoff recipe is in my collection, too! W/those two recipes at hand, I began my evening of Asian restaurant knockoffs...

Panda Express Orange Chicken

Chicken

2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken
1 egg
1 1/2 tsp. salt
white pepper, to taste
oil (for frying)

Sauce Base

1/2 c. plus 1 tbsp. cornstarch
1/4 c. flour
1 tbsp. minced ginger root
1 tsp. minced garlic
dash crushed hot red chiles
1/4 c. chopped green onions
1 tbsp. rice wine
1/4 c. water
1/2 to 1 tsp. sesame oil
orange sauce (recipe below)

Orange Sauce

2 tsp. minced orange zest
1/4 c. orange juice, preferably fresh-squeezed
1/2 tsp. sugar
2 tbsp. chicken stock
1 tbsp. light soy sauce

  • To make Orange Sauce, combine all ingredients in a small(ish) bowl. Stir. Tada!

  • Cut chicken pieces in 2" squares and place in large bowl. Stir in egg, salt, pepper, and 1 T oil and mix well. Stir cornstarch and flour together. Add chicken pieces, stirring to coat.
  • Heat oil for deep-frying in wok or deep-fryer to 375.
  • Add chicken pieces, a small batch at time, and fry 3 to 4 minutes or until golden and crisp. (Do not overcook or chicken will be tough.)
  • Remove chicken from oil with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Set aside.

  • Clean wok and heat 15 seconds over high heat. Add 1 T oil. Add ginger and garlic and stir−fry until fragrant.
  • Add and stirfry crushed chiles and green onions. Add rice wine and stir 3 seconds.
  • Add Orange Sauce and bring to boil.
  • Stir water into remaining 1 T cornstarch until smooth.
  • Add to chicken and heat until sauce is thick. Stir in 1 t. sesame oil.

Benihana Fried Rice

1 c. uncooked rice
5 tbsp. butter
1 c. chopped onion
1 c. chopped carrots
2/3 c. chopped scallions
3 tbsp. sesame seeds
5 eggs
5 tbsp. soy sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Cook rice according to package directions.
  • In a large skillet melt butter. Add onions, carrots and scallions. Saute until carrots are translucent. Set aside.
  • Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place sesame seeds in a shallow pan. Bake until golden brown (10 to 15 minutes), shaking pan occasionally for even color.
  • Lightly grease another skillet. Beat eggs. Pour into hot skillet. Cook as you would scrambled eggs.
  • Combine rice, vegetables,sesame seeds, and eggs. Add soy sauce. Stir.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

As you can tell, there were LOTS of pots and pans to clean that night. There were also lots of adjustments to the recipes...
  • I didn't use white pepper in the coating for the chicken, but rather black pepper. Why? 'Cause that's what was available.
  • I didn't add any chiles to the sauce. I may be in Arizona now, but there are no red chiles in the pantry.
  • Light soy sauce? Nah, not here. I used the regular stuff.
  • Five eggs were far too many for that recipe; I'd say that three do the trick.
  • I add sesame oil to the mix to give it a more authentic taste.
  • I used maaaaybe 2 tbsp. soy sauce. Much more than that makes the rice taste like soy sauce w/some weird, starchy bits mixed in (aka. rice). Use the soy sparingly.
  • Extra scallions are good, both during cooking AND for plating. The scallions lose their pretty brightness once cooked, so a sprinkle of cool, crunchy scallions at the end will perk up the otherwise blah-looking rice.
What it really came down to was that I didn't go out of my way to buy ingredients I did not already have. I didn't leave out anything essential like, say, chicken or rice, but rather the ingredients that add subtle nuances of flavor. Nuances often make a dish special, but in a pinch, I'm not too big of a stickler. Just don't ask me to make orange chicken w/o chicken; that's one nuance I can't substitute for.

So what did all the pot-washing, ingredient-eliding, and stir-frying get me?

Something a few steps up from Panda Express.

But how does it compare w/Trader Joe's orange chicken?

According to my dad, "It's different. It's like comparing oranges and apples." That sounded like a bunch of bullshit to me, so I asked my mom for her thoughts. Instead of a straight answer, though, I got moans and other happy noises. She was loving the rice, using the sesame-flavored grains to soak up some of the orange sauce. "It just tastes so fresh," she raved. I agreed. Unlike the orange chicken from Panda Express and Trader Joe's, this stuff was pleasantly NOT sweet. The sauces in other versions of orange chicken are overwhelmingly sticky and saccharine, making my lips pucker because of the sweetness. The fresh orange juice used in this recipe didn't have any added sugar, so the orange flavor really had a chance to shine through. And because no corn syrup was added to the recipe, the sauce didn't get thick and gooey, characteristics I had always assumed were requirements for orange chicken sauce.

My dad may not have been able to compare this chicken to the frozen, bagged stuff, but the ladies in the family were able to say that the homemade version edged out the competition. Unfortunately, I determined that the effort put forth in making the chicken was not worth the flavor. For a reasonable price, you can get a pretty good product from Trader Joe's. Sure, the packet of sauce included w/the chicken is kinda sticky and weird, but you won't be slaving over the stove for hours.

A fine compromise can be found, however, in making your own orange sauce at home and serving it w/a pre-breaded chicken product. The chicken was the messy, sloppy part of making the recipe, so by using frozen breaded chicken instead (like popcorn chicken), you completely cut out the hassles, leaving just the sauce to make from scratch.

And as for the rice? Just do it. It's easy to make and even easier to eat. Which reminds me: I think there are leftovers in the fridge...

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