Loosely inspired by Fuschia Dunlop’s book on Sichuan cuisine, Land of Plenty. Liberties taken with regional traditions are Lynne’s, not hers. There should be a tingle of chile to this sauce.
Touching immortality with a chicken? A sauce you include in your will? We can’t resist a good story. That’s what first roped me into master sauce chicken. The recipe kept Sally and me coming back for more.
The Story: I read that in China you cooked in a sauce, using it again and again for different meats, until it was your personal ambrosia. Then, in your final hours, you passed it on to your kin. The sauce never died, it went on for decades, and it was always becoming something more - at least that was the story.
The story was true. Master sauce, under different names, changes from one part of China to another, but all share a quintet of soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, star anise and sugar. In the traditional Canton-style sauce of Chinese author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s, the quintet joins up with a caravan of spices including a nutmeg-like Chinese seasoning, licorice root and Sichuan peppercorns along with a big piece of pork shoulder for extra richness.
This simpler Master sauce chicken is one place to begin. Utterly uncomplicated, this is the chicken for all seasons — the do-ahead Chinese feast dish, your summer picnic chicken, and the bird you do once a week for sandwiches and salad.
As for your bid for immortality, freeze the sauce between cooking meats, poultry and hard-cooked eggs in it. Replenish ingredients as needed. You’ll want a separate master sauce for fish.
Cook to Cook: The two essentials in this dish are a pot that holds the bird snugly so the sauce barely covers it, and keeping the liquid at the lowest bubble possible. You should be able to count slowly to 4 between each eruption. You may need to put the pot on a flame tamer to mute heat transfer.
For “light” soy sauce, use the easily found Kikkoman brand (yes, it is Japanese, but it strikes the right balance). Do not use “lite” soy or low sodium types. A brand of double or dark soy we like is Koon Chun, which is popular in Asian shops.
Resist the temptation to boil down the master sauce. It is as it should be straight from the pot.
Wine: The color of this sauce will tempt you to go for a red wine, but don't be fooled. The haunting sweetness of that star anise needs a wine to match. Look for an off-dry reisling from old world sources, Alsace, Germany or Austria. They will be your most reliable bet.
2. Bring to a boil. Using a long fork or cooking chopsticks in its cavity, carefully, so as not to splash yourself, slip the breast-up chicken into the liquid. Tuck it down into the pot so the liquid almost covers the bird. Add more water if needed. Baste the liquid over the breast 3 or 4 times. Adjust the heat so a bubble surfaces every 4 or 5 seconds. In so many words, have it at the barest simmer.
3. Cover the pot (don’t worry if the lid doesn’t seal) and cook 20 minutes. Put the pot on a work surface and turn over the chicken from top to bottom using the fork or chopsticks in its cavity. Try not to break the skin. Cook at the barest bubble another 10 to 15 minutes, or until an instant-reading thermometer inserted in the thigh reads 160ºF.
4. Take the pot off the heat and let cool, covered, for 20 minutes, or until thigh reads 170ºF. Refrigerate the chicken in its sauce 12 to 24 hours. Baste and turn every few hours to have the chicken color evenly. The chicken keeps about 3 days, but if left in the sauce that long, it overwhelms the meat. So remove the chicken from the sauce after 24 hours, strain the sauce, and refrigerate the two separately.
5. Serve the chicken close to room temperature. Warm gently in the sauce to just heat through. Cut it into quarters, then slice each breast crossways into 4 or 5 pieces. Separate the legs and thighs. Assemble the pieces, skin side up on a platter. Sprinkle with the sliced scallions. Spoon about a 1/3 cup of defatted master sauce over the meat. Accompany with rice and optional sauces below.
Saving the Master Sauce: Strain the sauce, chill, and remove the fat. Then freeze. Cook any meat, whole eggs, or poultry in the sauce, replenishing ingredients as needed. Fish should be cooked in a separate master sauce.
From The Splendid Table®'s How to Eat Weekends by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift (Clarkson Potter, 2011), © copyright 2011 American Public Media.
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