Chicken with cashews is a perennial favorite on the menu of Chinese restaurants all over the world.
Being that I love both chicken and cashews, by all rights I should love it.
However, far too often in my experience, it is a disappointing dish. Overcooked, bland chicken and soggy cashews drowning in puddles of oil and sticky but otherwise nondescript brown sauce is not really something that has ever tempted my palate. I have ordered it more than once, only to be sadly underwhelmed. I finally gave up on it years ago after a particularly nasty specimen filled with barely cooked onions and overcooked green peppers and old grease that gave me a nasty case of indigestion which lasted for days.
I decided that I just plain old didn’t like chicken with cashews, and was done with it.
That was until I looked at Kylie Kwong’s version from her book. Simple Chinese Cooking.
This version, with its stripped-down ingredient list (eight ingredients, one of which is the cooking oil), made me reconsider my former prejudice against the Chinese restaurant standard. The photograph also caught my eye, with its translucent slices of cucumber folded elegantly among the slivers of chicken and cashews. There was no gloppy brown sauce, and no film of cooking oil sullying the pristine perfection of the dish which was garnished with a liberal scattering of finely cut scallion tops.
Of course I had to cook it, since I was in danger of salivating all over the glossy page.
After wiping my mouth, I headed to the kitchen, and gathered the ingredients. I would like to note that if one were to use sherry instead of Shao Hsing wine, every last one of the ingredients for this dish could come from any American grocery (and/or liquor) store; there is absolutely no need to go to the Asian market.
And yet, the results are quintessentially Cantonese in flavor.
I did add three things to the recipe the second time I made it; I think that the additions were admirable, and in no way overcomplicated the recipe. First of all, where Kwong uses a tablespoon of water in the marinade, I used a tablespoon of chicken stock. Since I froze some of my chicken stock in tablespoon portions, it was simple, but one could also use Pacific Organic Chicken Broth which comes in one-cup sizes to get that tablespoon and then put the rest in the fridge to be used in or on something else.
I also added a half-teaspoon of raw sugar to the marinade, because sugar brings out the nutty flavor of Shao Hsing wine and does magical things with chicken. Finally, at the end, I drizzled an eighth of a teaspoon of sesame oil over the dish. It was barely perceptible, but still enriched the scent and flavor of both the chicken and the cashews.
Oh, and instead of tossing the cucumber slices into the wok at the end of cooking and stirring them around, I served them piled up around the chicken and cashews. I regretted having to do so, but because neither Zak nor Morganna like cukes, I didn’t have much in the way of a choice on the matter. The portion in my bowl got mixed together and the flavor, texture and temperature contrast was delightful: the cucumber was delicate enough to complement the chicken without overwhelming it the way another vegetable might.
I did not follow Kwong’s cooking directions to use a full quarter cup of cooking oil and cook the chicken in batches, either, as my wok is large enough to cook all of the chicken at the same time. The amount of oil was in my opinion too much; however, I will place her amounts and ingredients first, with my changes in parenthesis so that you can decide how you want to cook your version of the dish.
Oh, and one more thing–do try and use the highest quality chicken you can get for this. The seasoning are so simple that the quality of the meat is crucial to the final outcome of the dish. I used locally raised free-range organic chicken breasts (because that is what I had on hand–Kwong stipulates chicken thighs), and the meat was silken and juicy, tender and flavorful.
Chicken with Cashews
1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless thighs (or breasts), cut into 1″ X 1/4″ slices
1 medium sized cucumber, peeled and seeded
1/4 cup peanut or canola oil (2-3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil)
1 cup roasted unsalted cashew nuts
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons (1/8 cup) Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
2 teaspoons (1 1/2 teaspoons) sea salt
3/4 cup finely sliced scallion tops
(1/8 teaspoon sesame oil)
2 tablespoons Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
2 tablespoons cornstarch
(1 tablespoon chicken broth or stock)
1 teaspoon (1/2 teaspoon) sea salt
(1/2 teaspoon raw or brown sugar)
Mix together chicken with marinade ingredients and allow to sit for thirty minutes.
Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, and then cut into thin slices on the diagonal. Set aside.
When the chicken is finished marinating, heat wok over high heat. When a thin thread of smoke wisps up, pour oil into the wok. If you have a wok large enough, cook the chicken all in one batch, if not, cook it in two batches.
When the oil is hot, add chicken, and spread into a single layer onto the bottom of the wok. Allow to cook undisturbed for thirty seconds to one minute–when the edges begin to turn whitish, and the chicken smells as if it is browning, start stir frying it. When 2/3 of the chicken is white rather than pink, add the garlic and the cashews, and continue stir frying until all of the chicken is white.
Add wine or sherry, salt, scallions, cucumbers and sesame oil. Give a few stirs, and then serve with steamed rice and a vegetable dish.
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