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The Evolution of Orange Chicken

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We all harbor secret fantasies of moving away, starting a café, and feeding people. Every month, Sarah Kieffer from the Vanilla Bean Blog will be indulging us with stories and recipes from the Wolners, who own the Blue Heron Coffeehouse in Winona, Minnesota.

Today: There is hope yet for orange chicken -- just leave that can of orange juice concentrate behind.

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When I was fifteen, my mom went through a short-lived Clair Huxtable phase. After getting back my Dad’s cholesterol report, she decided that he was going to eat better, and that the whole family would have to join him in this effort at dinner time. She went out that week and bought a cookbook focused on meals without any salt. Skimming through the entire book, she settled on Orange Chicken for our first meal. The recipe was simple: "Put four chicken breasts in an oven-safe dish. Dump one can of orange juice concentrate on the breasts. Cook until the chicken is done. Serve over rice."

We mostly ate a regular rotation of tacos, spaghetti, pizza, cheeseburger helper, and the likes, and none of us were very good with change. For an entire day, my mom prepared us for this new dinner, knowing that we would probably freak out. And she was right: My siblings and I complained repeatedly about this new regime. Orange chicken sounded mildly terrifying to those of us who had never eaten outside a box. But she put her foot down, and after a whole day of listening to crabby kids, she made threats: One word in complaint of this meal and we were toast. 

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We sat down at the table that night and stared at our plates. There was a pale, dry chicken breast with a thin orange sauce lying on a heap of plain white rice. We each took a bite. No one said a word. It was as bad as we had imagined. My sister and I knew if we made a peep our lives would be over for the weekend, so we pushed the chicken off to the side and focused on the rice. To our relief, we heard a “Hmm,” from my mom, and we all looked her way, hoping she would agree. Even my Dad, who never once complained about a meal, silently pleaded with his eyes: “Please think this is awful, too.” To our relief, she did, and we all started laughing. Even to this day “the orange chicken fiasco” comes up at family gatherings. None of us have ever eaten it since.  

My latest visit with Larry and Colleen included a meal of orange-glazed chicken with broccoli and rice, and on first mention, I must admit I wasn’t very excited about it. But I knew the Wolners wouldn’t serve me anything that wasn’t worth eating, so I decided to trust their judgment. Colleen approaches this meal much differently than my mother did: Chicken thighs are cooked until golden brown, and then orange juice and zest, freshly grated ginger, tamari, maple syrup, and garlic is poured over the meat and cooked into a thick, sticky sauce. Broccoli is gently steamed in a pot nearby, and then all this goodness is served over Larry’s buttered rice. The flavors are fresh and the meal is delicious. Orange chicken has evolved, and I would even serve it to my own parents. 

Orange Pan-Glazed Chicken

Adapted from Jude Blereau's Wholefood for the Family: Coming Home to Eat

Serves 4

1 cup orange juice, plus the zest of one orange
1 tablespoon grated ginger
4 teaspoons tamari
1 1/2 tablespoons mirin
4 teaspoons maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
4 cups broccoli, broken into small florets
1 lime
Cilantro, for scattering

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Sarah Kieffer 


Tags: orange chicken, chicken, chicken thighs, broccoli, weeknight dinner