The book: Every Grain of Rice, by Fuchsia Dunlop (Norton, $35)
The recipe: Vegetarian gong bao chicken
Why I tried it: Gong bao ji ding – the standard Gong Bao chicken recipe – was a staple in my household as I was growing up, and it’s one of the things I wanted to learn early on when I first started cooking. I wondered if a vegetarian version could hit the spot the same way. And I thought portobellos, the meatiest mushrooms, were probably a pretty good bet as a protein substitute.
Why I loved it: Vinegary, spicy, a little sweet, those gong bao flavors are unstoppable. The mushrooms aren’t just a stand-in for chicken – they’ve got that spongey, chewy texture of their own which I sometimes genuinely prefer. Combined with crunchy shards of peanuts everywhere, I think they’re just the cat’s pajamas. You will again find me sucking the chiles afterward.
Estimated preparation time: Just over 30 minutes, if you don’t lollygag about and if your stove can bring a pot of water to a boil in less than 15 minutes.
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Vegetarian gong bao chicken
Serves 2 as a main course with rice; 4 if you add a side or two and throw in one more portobello.
When I don’t have the potato flour Dunlop suggests, I use corn starch. Also, you can use mushroom soy for the dark soy – same idea.
3 large portobello mushroom caps (11 oz.)
8-10 Sichuanese dried chillies
3 cloves of garlic
An equivalent amount of ginger
5 spring onions, white parts only
About ¾ cup vegetable oil
1 tsp whole Sichuan pepper
3 oz. roasted peanuts
For the marinade:
¼ tsp salt
1 ½ tbsp potato starch
For the sauce:
3 tsp sugar
1/8 tsp salt
¼ tsp potato flour
½ tsp dark soy sauce
2 tsp light soy sauce
3 tsp Chinkiang vinegar
Bring a panful of water (about 2 quarts/2 litres) to the boil. Trim the mushrooms and cut into 3/8-3/4 in (1-2cm) cubes. Blanch the mushroom cubes in the boiling water for about a minute, until partially cooked. Drain, refresh under the cold tap and shake dry. Add the marinade ingredients and mix well.
Cut the chillies in half and shake out and discard the seeds as far as possible. Peel and thinly slice the ginger and garlic. Cut the spring onion whites into 3/8-inch sections. Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl with 1 tbsp water and mix well.
Heat the oil in a seasoned wok to about 300 degrees F. At this temperature, you should see small movements in the oil, and the surface will tremble slightly. Add the mushrooms and fry for 30-60 seconds until glossy, stirring gently. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Drain off all but about 2 tbsp of the oil.
Return the wok to the heat with the chillies and Sichuan pepper and sizzle briefly until the chillies are darkening but not burnt and the oil is wonderfully fragrant. Add the ginger, garlic and spring onions and stir-fry briefly until you can smell them. Then return the mushrooms to the wok and stir into the fragrant oil. Give the sauce a stir and add it to the wok, stirring swiftly as it thickens. Finally, stir in the peanuts and serve.
Reprinted from Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop. Text copyright © 2012 by Fuchsia Dunlop. Photography copyright © 2012 by Chris Terry. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc..