ANISE CHICKEN (hongshao bajiao ji)
When I was young our house was always full of people", remembers Mrs. Chiang. ''Our friends would come to play and stay for supper, and all the cousins who lived in my father's parents' big house across the fields treated our house as their second home. When older relatives showed up for dinner, it would be a formal occasion. We kept the family scrolls and our wooden tablets inscribed with the names of ancestors in a room next to the kitchen, and my mother would set up a table there for dinner. Children and young women weren't allowed to eat there; only the men and older women did. Everyone sat according to rank; the most honored guest faced the door, with his back to the ancestral tablets. The food was always special, meaning as many meat dishes as possible - fresh pork or fish when we had it, sausages or salted meats any time. And there was always a freshly killed chicken, usually this rich, dark anise-flavored stew. My mother's Anise Chicken
was magnificent; I always thought my uncles invented reasons to visit at dinner time just to eat it."
Anise Chicken improves with age. It should be made far enough in advance so it can be served lukewarm. Room temperature brings out the luscious favor of the dish in a much more interesting way than either chilling or heating does. We serve Anise Chicken at most of our dinner parties, too. It is delicious, it can be made a day or more ahead of time, and it is one of the few recipes of Mrs. Chiang's that can be doubled. Increasing the amount of ingredients in most stir-fried dishes means that there will be too much liquid in the pan for proper cooking, but no reasonable amount of additional liquid can spoil a slow-simmered dish like this.
Mrs. Chiang likes to use chicken breasts for this dish, as they can be cut into nice, meaty pieces of a uniform size.
10 dried black mushrooms
2 cups boiling water
1/4 cup dried tree ears
1 cup boiling water
1 1/2 pounds chicken pieces, preferably breasts
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or cooking sherry
1/4 cup peanut oil (ginger)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
(whole, tied scallions)
4 whole star anise, or the equivalent in pieces
2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or cooking sherry
6 tablespoons soy sauce
(mushrooms and their soaking water)
1 cup water approximately
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste, if necessary
Rinse the mushrooms off thoroughly, then put them in a bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Soak the mushrooms for about 20 minutes, or until they are soft, then cut off the hard stems and cut the larger mushrooms in half, Do not discard the water in which they soaked; you will use it later for cooking, Put the tree ears in a small bowl. Pour the boiling water over them and let soak for at least 10 minutes.
Cut 2 of the scallions, both green part and white, into 2-inch lengths. Tie the remaining scallions, whole, into a bunch.
Pull the skin off the chicken, but leave the bones in. Chop the chicken, bones and all, into 2-inch cubes, roughly the size of a walnut. ( Mrs. Chiang is always careful to make sure that all the pieces are about the same size. )
Put the chicken in a shallow dish and add the cut-up scallions and the wine. Set aside to marinate for 15 minutes.
Peel the ginger and cut it into 4 slices.
When the tree ears are soft and slightly gelatinous, rinse them thoroughly and pick them over carefully to remove any impurities, such as tiny pieces of wood, that may still be embedded in them,
Heat your wok or pan for about 15 seconds over a moderate flame, then pour in the oil. The oil will be hot enough to cook with when the first tiny bubbles form and a few small wisps of smoke appear.
When the oil is ready, quickly throw in the ginger, red peppers, sugar, whole scallions, and chicken mixture, making sure you stir the ingredients well while you add them. Continue to stir-fry for about 30 seconds, using your cooking shovel or spoon to scoop the ingredients from the sides of the pan and then stir them around in the middle, so every piece of chicken is exposed to the hot oil.
Add the star anise, then reduce the heat slightly, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 more minutes, until the chicken stiffens and turns white.
Add the wine and the soy sauce, bring to a boil, and continue to cook, over a moderate flame, for 3 minutes more. Now add the mushrooms and the water in which they were soaked, and pour in enough additional water to barely cover the chicken; you will probably need about a cupful. Wait until the liquid boils, then lower the heat, cover the pan, and let the chicken simmer slowly for l hour.
After this period, the chicken should be very soft and the sauce should be reduced to almost half its original amount, At this point add the soaked tree ears and let them cook with the chicken for about 5 minutes more.
Finally, add the sesame oil and stir thoroughly.
Because the soy sauce has become so concentrated during the cooking process, the chicken may not require any additional salt. Make sure that you taste the sauce before you add any.
Note : this dish can be prepared way ahead of time and then brought to room temperature, when it is actually at its best, just before serving. It can also be kept for several days in the refrigerator without harm.