Friday, August 24, 2012

Singapore chili chicken on toast

Exoskeletons do not fit comfortably into an observant Jewish diet.  With the exception of a few species of locusts, which some Yemenites eat, Jews who observe the dietary laws refrained from eating Arthropoda which includes crustaceans  ( shrimp, lobster, crab, prawn  etc) as well as insects and spiders.   While few miss the grasshoppers ( chapulines in Mexico, served w tortillas and guacamole as well as in many other preparations) many consider forgoing shrimp, lobster and crab and act of true self-denial.  For me, the taste of the flesh is almost beside the point.  What I miss is the joy, experienced in its purest form in an Asian, especially Malaysian restaurant, or in a Maryland crab house, of sucking spices off shells.  If you are like me, this dish is for you.  Even if you aren't, and eat lobster and crab all the time,  it is very good, and cooking chicken is a whole lot easier than cooking crab or lobster.

This dish is inspired by the Chili Crab with Toast of the Fatty Crab and Sam Sifton's Fathers' Day interpretation with lobster from the New York Times, neither of which I have had, both of which I occasionally dream about.  Chicken, especially the backs, substitute very nicely for the crustaceans and give lots of spice-sucking pleasure.  To mellow out the sauce, rather than the obscene (in a good sense) amount of butter that is called for, I use light coconut milk, which avoids the meat-dairy prohibition (not to discuss here the issue of why chicken is considered meat like a milk-producing mammal).  The total experience is different (I assume) but still more than satisfying. It is a mess in the best sense of the word.  Lobster bibs would not be amiss, and use lots of napkins.
The dish looks harder than it is and takes about an hour, beginning to end.  the chicken is browned in the broiler or on the grill after simmering (what I call Filipino Adobo-style) which makes it a lot easier, and gives you nice crisp and tasty skin at the end. We experimented with several different garnish combinations, and thought that the mint and salty roasted peanuts were the best.  We also tried a variety of breads and did not come to a consensus, so I discuss this at the end.  The recipe below serves 8.  You can halve it and just use the chicken, but you may want to throw in some wings or backs if you have any around for the chewing pleasure.

To drink, beer is the logical choice, but some reds could stand up to it, like a good Aussie Shiraz or a Monje Tinto Tradicional from Tenerife on the Canary Islands -- we are talking serous terroir here.  A truly beautiful pairing is Cassis, not the black currant liqueur but the white wine from Provence. This would go particularly well with  Vietnamese red cabbage salad, though the pecans are optional and the grilled chicken or tofu unnecessary.

Singapore Chili Chicken with Toast

  • 1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 inch piece ginger, finely chopped
  • 2-3 stalks of lemon grass, outer leaves removed and cut into two inch pieces
  • 30-50 fresh curry leaves (optional but highly desirable)
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 15 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 chicken, about 3 pounds, cut into eighths
  • 3-4 pounds chicken backs and wings
  • 12 ounces tomato paste (one large or two small cans)
  • 2 cups white wine or vermouth (you can substitute water, just add more lime at the end)
  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce; if not available substitute 3 tablespoons brown sugar and an additional tablespoon of soy)
  • 4-6 tablespoons Sriracha sauce
  • 2 cans  light coconut milk (you can use regular)
  • juice of two limes
  • bread:   8-12 large slices peasant bread, lightly toasted and rubbed on both sides with garlic (see below)
  • 1/2-1 cup roasted, salted peanuts chopped
  • 1/2-1 cup chopped fresh mint
  1. Heat the oil is a very large pot on medium heat and add the ginger, lemon grass and curry leaves.  Saute for two minutes until fragrant.
  2. Add the onions and saute on high for 5 minutes until soft and just beginning to brown around the edges.
  3. Add the garlic, turn heat down to medium and saute another minute.
  4. Add tomato paste and saute with the aromatics until glossy.
  5. Add the vermouth or water and stir until you have a saucy consistency.
  6. Add the chicken and the parts, and stir well to combine.  Simmer for about 10 minutes on medium covered.  It is not necessary to brown the chicken.
  7. Add the soy, kecap manis, coconut milk and  4 tablespoons of Sriracha.  The chicken should be just about covered, if not add more water.
  8. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat to medium-low and simmer for 30-40 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes.  The chicken will be done when the meat and skin starts to pull away from the bones.
  9. While the chicken is cooking, prepare the toast and garnishes.
  10. Remove the chicken to a large baking or broiling pan (lined with foil if you want to make clean up easier)  with skin side down to start.  Broil about 6 inches from the heat until well browned, between 5 and 10 minutes. Turn the chicken over and broil on the skin side until well browned.  Turn off the oven if the sauce is not finished.  If you have a gas grill, through the chicken on that on high heat and grill until well browned on all sides.
  11. Meanwhile, boil until the sauce is very thick , about 10-15 minutes.
  12. Add the lime juice.  Taste the sauce and add more Sriracha if you want.  You may find that the coconut milk has blunted some of its edge.
  13. To serve, take one or two very large, deep platters and put half of the toasted bread on the bottom.  Arrange the chicken on top of the bread and pour the sauce on top.  Arrange the remaining toast around the edges so that it remains crisp.  Sprinkle with chopped mint, then the peanuts.  (I like the larger amounts of garnish, esp. the mint.)
  14. Serves 8 generously.

The bread:  My son and I thought that this was best with a plain white peasant bread.  We were fortunate to have a loaf from the Terranova Bakery, which is in the Arthur Avenue neighborhood of the Bronx.  They also make nice pepper frissell, which are hard biscuits, which is what my wife preferred.  No need to toast these. A toasted sourdough would also be good.  I would avoid any bread that is too sweet, or a whole-grain bread.

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