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01/10/2014

~ Mel's Crispy, Deep-Fried Chinese Lemon Chicken ~

IMG_0096I am chuckling at my decision to make Chinese lemon chicken today.  Why?  If you check my January archives for the past three years, you are going to find more than a few Asian-style recipes.  It seems I have developed a pattern of wanting Asian food at the beginning of each new year and today it is Chinese.  I'm pretty certain it has little to do with celebrating Chinese New Year (the date of which is January 31st this year), and has everything to do with my wanting to "wake up my tastebuds" with something bold and bright in the doldrums of Winter!

IMG_0121A bit about Chinese lemon chicken:  While lemon chicken is a dish common to many cultures, outside of China it refers to a whole roasted chicken (or roasted chicken parts) prepared with wine, fresh lemon/juice, chopped aromatics (carrot, celery, onion and sometimes garlic) various vegetables, herbs and/or spices.  Four of my favorite ethnic versions of this type of lemon chicken hail from France, Greece, Italy and Spain.  Chinese lemon chicken is unique unto itself:

IMG_6478In authentic Chinese cuisine, lemon chicken consists of chicken breast strips which have been "velveted". Velveting is a classic Chinese technique that involves coating and marinating proteins in a mixture of cornstarch, rice wine and egg whites, then, bathing them briefly in barely simmering water or warm oil to pre-cook and tenderize them for finish-cooking. In this case, the velveted chicken gets steamed and tossed with subtly-flavored lemon sauce, producing a creamy, succulent chicken dish. Click into Category 15, or, on the Related Article link below to read my post ~ How to: Velvet (Tenderize) Meat the Chinese way ~.

In Chinese-American cuisine, lemon chicken consists of marinated, dredged, boneless, skinless breast halves, strips or pieces, that are deep-fried until golden brown with a crunchy crust. The chicken is then enrobed in a refreshing, addictive, almost drinkable, lemon sauce.  Some say chicken thighs can be used.  I disagree.  They contain too much fat and render this dish greasy.

Now we need to chat about that bright-yellow lemon sauce Americans love so much:

IMG_0082If it looks like lemon meringue pie filling, it means it contains no Chinese flavor!

PICT0053In my opinion, if the sauce I'm dipping lemon chicken into looks like lemon-merinque pie filling, it means that no authentic Chinese flavor has been added to it, namely: sesame oil, soy and hoisin sauce. All of these ingredients are brown. There is somthing just oh-so-wrong about that. We can agree to disagree on this point, but, if it's lemon pie filling you wish to dip your chicken into, omit them and substitute chicken stock.  I am not!

Part One:  Marinating the Chicken and Preparing the Sauce

IMG_9894For the chicken and its marinade:

2 1/2-3  pounds large, meaty, chicken tenderloins, cut into 1 1/2" cubes

2  tablespoons Lee Kum Kee premium dark soy sauce

2  tablespoons dry sherry

1  tablespoon firmly-packed cornstarch

1  tablespoon sugar

2  large eggs

additional cornstarch, for dredging chicken, about 1/2 cup

corn or peanut oil for deep-frying

freshly ground sea salt, for lightly salting the deep-fried chicken pieces 

PICT1120~ Step 1.  In a 1-cup measuring container, using a fork, whisk everything (except additional cornstarch), until smooth.  Pour into a 1-gallon food storage bag, add chicken pieces and toss to coat. Set aside for 45-60 minutes.  While chicken is marinating, prepare the lemon sauce as directed below:

IMG_9917For the lemon sauce:

1  cup chicken broth (Note:  I use store-bought canned broth instead of my homemade stock from my freezer.  I do this because canned broth is relatively generic, meaning, it's not seasoned with as much Western flavor as my homemade stock, which was made with rosemary, etc.)

3/4  cup fresh lemon juice, about 4 large lemons, no substitions, fresh lemon juice only (Note:  Using a microplane grater, zest/reserve 1 tablespoon of zest prior to juicing  lemons.)

1  teaspoon hoisin sauce, optional (Note:  This rich, reddish-brown sauce has has a sweet, tangy flavor that pairs extremely well with the citrusy lemons.  If you choose to omit it, which I hope you don't, add an additional 1/2 teaspoon of soy sauce.)

1  teaspoon Lee Kum Kee premium dark soy sauce

4  tablespoons firmly-packed dark brown sugar

2  tablespoons sugar

1  teaspoon sesame oil

1  tablespoon finely-minced fresh ginger

1  tablespoon finely-minced fresh scallions, light green part only

1  tablespoon finely-minced lemon zest, reserved from one lemon used above

2  tablespoons firmly-packed cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup additional chicken stock

all remaining marinade from above chicken

additional thinly-sliced green scallion tops, for garnishing finished dish

IMG_9905 IMG_9921~ Step 1. Finely mince the ginger and the scallions, then, using a microplane grater, zest 1-2 lemons, until you get 1 tablespoon of zest (if you get a bit of extra zest, that's fine, use it for garnishing the finished dish. Set all three aside.

IMG_9934 IMG_9929~ Step 2.  In a very small bowl, using a very small spoon, stir together the 2 tablespoons of cornstarch and 1/4 cups of stock, until smooth.  Set aside.

Note:  This mixture is going to thicken the sauce.  Have it ready. For it to work its magic, it must be whisked into the simmering sauce. 

IMG_9956 IMG_9943~ Step 3.  In a 2-quart saucepan, heat the sesame oil over low heat.  Add the minced ginger and scallions and adjust heat to saute until they are both tender and fragrant, less than 1 minute.

~ Step 4.  Add the chicken stock, lemon juice, hoisin sauce, soy sauce,  brown sugar and sugar. IMG_9976Stir until sugar dissolves.  Adjust heat to a steady simmer.  Slowly, and in a thin stream, whisk in the cornstarch mixture.  Continue to simmer, whisking constantly, until the sauce is slightly-thickened and will lightly-coat the inside of a spoon, about 2-3 minutes.  Do not stir in the lemon zest just yet!  

Note:  The sauce should be drizzly, not gloppy.  Turn the heat off and cover the saucpan.

Part Two:  Deep-Frying the Chicken & Finishing the Sauce

IMG_9983~ Step 1.    Preheat the oil in a deep-fryer to 360 degrees according to the manufacturer's specifications.  Line a 13" x 9" x 2" baking dish with 3-4 layers of paper towels.  In a medium bowl, place 2 tablespoons of cornstarch.  Open the bag of marinated chicken.  Do not drain the marinade from the chicken.  In a medium bowl, place 2 tablespoons of cornstarch.

IMG_9993 IMG_9988                                      ~ Step 2. Remove 12-14 pieces of chicken from the marinade, allowing the excess marinade to drizzle back into the bag.  Place them in the bowl of cornstarch. Using a fork, toss them around until they are lightly and evenly coated in the cornstarch.  Do not over-coat chicken in cornstarch.

IMG_0002~ Step 3.  One at a time, drop the chicken pieces into the hot oil in the deep-fryer. Close the lid and fry for 1 1/2 minutes, or until golden brown and just cooked through. Remove from fryer basket and transfer to the the paper towel lined baking dish to drain.  Lightly sprinkle with freshly ground sea salt.

Repeat this process until all chicken is deep-fried, using 2 additional tablespoons of cornstarch each time you place chicken into bowl.

IMG_0028 IMG_0017Note:  The alternative to deep-frying bite-sized chicken pieces is to deep-fry 3-4, boneless, skinless chicken breast halves that have been cut in half and lightly pounded (a total of 6-8 servings).  Do not over-pound to smithereens.  These will take 3 1/2 minutes each to fry.

IMG_0082~ Step 4.  Transfer all marinade from the bag to the sauce.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat, whisking frequently.  Simmer for 30-60 additional seconds.  Turn the heat off and stir in the lemon zest.

To serve, lightly toss chicken pieces with about one-third of warm sauce. Serve remaining sauce to the side for dipping or drizzling.  Garnish with thinly-sliced scallion and any additional lemon zest: 

IMG_0153Mel's Crispy, Deep-Fried, Chinese Lemon Chicken:  Recipe yields 6-8 servings and 2 cups of lemon sauce.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board, chef's knife; 1-cup measuring container; fork; 1-gallon food storage bag; microplane grater; hand-held citrus juicer; 2-quart saucepan w/lid; large spoon; whisk; deep-fryer; 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan; paper towels

PICT1189Cook's Note:  For another one of my favorite family-style Chinese meals (and one of my family's favorites), prepared in a similar manner to lemon chicken, click into Categories 3, 13 or 19 for my recipe ~ Sweet & Sour Broccoli-Orange-Cashew Chicken ~.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014) 

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