What you see in this (badly-lit, somewhat blurry) photo is the pinkish glow from the Netflix “Fireplace For Your Home” radiating from the TV, in the company of a very boozy El Presidente cocktail and a plate of homemade General Tao that my man made for us on New Year’s Eve, while Aretha‘s Ten Years of Gold and the “Best of Neil Diamond” took turns on the LP player. Thankfully, what you don’t see in this photo is the oblong coffee stain that has taken up permanent residence on our living room rug, as well as my woeful attempt to sing along to Red Red Wine, swaying back and forth – like moms do when they listen to Gordon Lightfoot, or Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman, with their eyes closed, thinking back to their high school dances.
Mom-jeans, here I come.
Obviously, this wasn’t the kind of blow-out NYE party that you see in movies, or in digital newsfeeds. There wasn’t any glittery confetti or streamers, party hats or noise makers; nor were there five dozen people crammed into a sweaty apartment, wailing the midnight countdown at the top of their lungs, while someone was being sick on the balcony.
But we did have prosecco. And there was some dressing up – I found a pair of dark suede heels and that black jumpsuit with the sheer neckline that I’d been saving. For good measure, I did my nails in something that goes by the name “Champagne Dream” and excavated my MAC lipstick called “Diva”. It was New Year’s after all. Party of two, notwithstanding.
We didn’t have anything planned except dinner – which we agreed should be something special. Or, at the very least, a step up from the Christmas leftovers we’d been stretching for a week. We thought about doing a roast, or cornish hens, but neither of those stuck. Then, my man suggested that he make General Tao Chicken from scratch (ding ding ding – we have a winner!). I was pleased in knowing that I would soon have a plate of that glossy, sticky, sweet concoction happily balanced on my knees, all without the effort of actually cooking, or ordering a disappointing hunk of lukewarm take-out, clad in Styrofoam.
I can’t claim to know much about General Tao chicken. Is it Tao? Or Tso? Does it really have Chinese roots? Hunanese roots? Was it invented in Taiwan? Or New York? None of the above? I can only tell you that the sauce from this version comes to you courtesy of the 100% non-Chinese, Québécois-caucasian cooking personality, Ricardo Larrivée, with some adaptations from my 100% non-Chinese, Canadian-caucasian boyfriend.
I can also tell you that it’s the Chinese-Canadian delicacy of your dreams. It’s exactly like the General Tao you order off the (white-people) menu at Chinese restaurants, except better. Since you’re choosing the chicken, the final result is worlds apart from the sub-par meat on offer for $7.95 at the local take-out place. (a reminder that you get what you pay for).
While I’m usually not a huge fan of making fried food at home (the trouble, the injury, the mess…), this is one of the few dishes involving frying whose homemade version is better than any other ones I’ve had in restaurants. Plus, it’s not like I was making it. He was. My job was to sip my cocktail, gaze at our (fake) fireplace and serenade him with Neil Diamond sing-alongs from the couch.
♫ Red, red wiiiiine… ♫
General Tao Chicken – sauce adapted from Ricardo Cuisine; batter from Food Retro; made with love by the boyfriend
Sauce + main ingredients:
- 6 Tbsp soy sauce
- 6 Tbsp chicken broth (or water)
- 6 Tbsp rice vinegar
- 2 Tbsp fresh ginger, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 4 tsp cornstarch
- 2 tsp paprika
- 2 tsp sambal oelek
- 1 tsp toasted sesame oil
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 Tbsp water
- 2 lbs skinless and boneless chicken thighs, cut into large cubes
- one green pepper, de-seeded and cut into thick slices (halved, then cut in three)
- 1 Tbsp canola oil (to sauté the pepper)
- 1/2 cup all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp white sugar
- 1/2 cup + 2.5 Tbsp water
- 1 litre canola oil
- deep, heavy-bottomed pot (Dutch oven or wok)
- frying/candy thermometer
- paper towels
- 2 green onions, thinly sliced
- cooked white rice (see note below)
- steamed greens (bok choy, broccoli)
1) Make soy mixture: in a small bowl, combine soy sauce, broth, vinegar, ginger, garlic, cornstarch, paprika, sambal oelek and sesame oil. Set aside.
2) Make the sauce: in a small saucepan, combine sugar and water. Bring to a boil and simmer until mixture is slightly caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add soy mixture. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Keep sauce aside, off the heat.
3) Make the batter: In a bowl, season chicken pieces with salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, mix all the batter ingredients in a medium size bowl. Add the cubed chicken and toss to coat.
4) Fry the chicken: Heat your cooking oil to a temperature of 37oF (use a frying/candy thermometer). Drop battered meat into the hot oil a few pieces at a time and fry in batches for 4-5 minutes, or until a deep golden brown and cooked through, making sure to always have about 3/4-inch of oil to fry the chicken (add oil as necessary). Break up pieces that stick together as soon as possible (chopsticks work well for this). Drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining chicken. Discard oil.
Note: try to drop the meat into the oil one piece at a time, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. If all the meat is tossed in at once, they could stick together, cook improperly, or the batter could become very greasy, as the temperature of the cooking oil would drop.
5) Pull everything together: warm 1 tablespoon of canola oil on medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the peppers and soften for about 3 minutes. Set aside on a plate. In the same skillet, heat the sauce. Then add the chicken and toss well to coat. Sprinkle with green onions and serve with white rice and steamed greens.
Note from boyfriend on rice: THIS was the rice. White. And I rinsed like crazy. Like Crazy. Until water runs clear. It’s super important.