After our Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Arlington, my husband proclaimed, “There is really excellent Chinese food, and then there is everything else.” Apparently, our duck and ginger noodles fell into the latter category. A meal I had a few days later at Szechuan Gourmet in Manhattan fell into the former category.
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And then, there is orange chicken. This dish has long been a favorite of my kids, who have religiously ordered it everywhere from Panda Express at the Tyson’s Corner mall food court (No judgment! I almost start crying every time! But there is a good Indian take out place there. Just sayin’.) to pretty much every Chinese restaurant where it has been available between Washington and Los Angeles.
I began to wonder if this is a dish that can be emulated at home.
According to my exhaustive internet research ten minutes ago, orange chicken -- essentially fried chunks of chicken in a slightly gloppy orange sauce -- is a made-in-America Chinese dish, similar to General Tso’s chicken. Both translate from Chinese as basically "old peel chicken" because the sauces uses citrus peel.
I confess when I first saw the list of ingredients, I wondered if this was really a weeknight dish. But the truth is, you’re making a pretty simple boiling sauce, frying up a little chicken, which gets finished in the oven and dumped into the sauce. I skipped the vegetable, water chestnuts and garnish components, just to speed it along.
For the chicken, I used two large boneless breasts from my farmer guy, fresh and lovely, chopped into even pieces. This recipe gave me a chance to revisit rice flour, purchased for a fish frying attempt several months ago. I love how evenly and nicely it coats protein, how evenly it fries, with none of the glopping and burning I sometimes get with regular flour.
Once your chicken is lightly fried and headed for the oven, turn your attention to the sauce. The smell of the boiling orange peel, juice, ginger and soy sauce is pleasantly familiar. Some of you will no doubt be offended by the corn starch used to thicken this sauce, but it really is what makes it authentically Chinese takeout-ish.
Once my chicken was cooked through, I tossed it into the sauce with some steamed broccoli, for the crunch and color. As you read the rest of the recipe, you will see that I skipped basically the whole second half.
My kids proclaimed this version, which all told took about 30 minutes, “as good as the restaurant kind and a little spicy.” This is probably because of the fresh ginger, which I assume does not make an appearance at the mall.
So in conclusion: Orange chicken. It’s not for everyone. But if you’re a fan, this is a very good home version, and I assume a good deal healthier than the takeout version, too.
By day, Jennifer Steinhauer, aka Jenny, covers Congress for The New York Times. By night, she is an obsessive cook.
Photo by Nicole Franzen
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).