Cindy - Column for 1/25

Pineapple Chicken

I can't even begin to contemplate how many times I've made this.

When I was in college, our dorm had a kitchen. In order to use the kitchen, there was a long, long waiting list (there was limited space, and of course, the college had a contract with Evil Cafeteria Food Inc. to provide it with X number of paying mouths every year). I put myself on the list when I was a freshman. When I was a sophomore, the Residential Life Coordinator bumped four people in front of me because she didn't think I was serious. Finally the last quarter I lived in the dorms, as a junior, I got on the kitchen plan. In honor of the occasion, that quarter I enrolled in the three classes with the least possible amount of required work ("The Universe and You - Introduction to Astronomy", "History of Buddhism" from Noel King, who was philosophically opposed to failing students and let them choose their own grades, and Tom Lehrer's class on math for the non-mathematically inclined.) My mission that quarter was to learn cooking, and I wasn't about to disrupt it with anything as tiresome as education.

I inherited a bunch of cooking equipment from my parents. Most notably a wok. A gorgeous, blackened, medieval-looking piece of hammered iron with a host of special instructions for proper washing and seasoning. It never gets touched with soap, rather scrubbed clean and heated to dry, and over years the bottom coats itself with several layers of carbon. This makes the bottom harder to stick food to, and gives the edges an uneven texture that allows you to move food out of the middle to the sides, which is useful for adding sauces or new ingredients. So like all worthwhile things in life, woks get better, more useful, and uglier with age. If I ever live through a fire, once the living inhabitants are all out of the house, it's the one thing I dash back in to get. It cannot be replaced.

Anyhow, first the wok. Next, I bought cookbooks. One big Indian cookbook (Yamuna Devi's The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking - no I had no intention of going veggie, but I thought this would teach me how to handle weird spices), one small Thai cookbook, and a used, five-inch thick Chinese cookbook called The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook. And they really weren't kidding about the thousand part, although they cheat a bit by offering three or four variations on each recipe and counting each separately.

And in this last cookbook, they had a little recipe that I looked over and said "hmm, this looks simple." Stir Fried Chicken with Pineapple II, it said. No really exotic ingredients, just a tin of pineapple, a chicken breast, some soy sauce and cornstarch.

This has been my staple dinner since I was 20. When I can't think of anything to make, I default to Pineapple Chicken. For the first three years, I made it twice a week. Then I dated a young woman for a while who didn't like it much, who thought it needed extra "stuff" added to it. I tried adding nuts and vegetables and all sorts of permutations, but it never got any better than the pure version. Eventually, I was forced to have her leave me for some guy in Albuquerque. Everyone involved was much happier that way. These days I make Pineapple Chicken at least twice a month. It's my Top Ramen. My macaroni and cheese. My tuna noodle casserole. I can make it in my sleep, and I always like it. All I need to do is make sure I have frozen chicken breasts in the freezer, cans of pineapple in the cupboard, and sauce makings in the fridge and I'm set.

Pineapple Chicken

Ingredients:

One large chicken breast or two small chicken breasts
2 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons soy sauce
One 4oz can of sliced pineapple
2 tablespoons water
1/2 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 clove garlic, diced or run through a garlic press
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Steamed rice

Directions:

Slice the chicken breast into thin, bite-sized pieces. Mix 2 tsp cornstarch and 2 tsp soy sauce in bowl, then add chicken and toss to coat.

For the sauce, combine 1 tbl cornstarch and 2 tbls soy sauce and stir to dissolve. Then add just the juice from the can of pineapple (pour off as much as you can, saving the pineapple itself for later), the water, the rice vinegar, and the garlic. Stir briefly to mix.

Cut the pineapple slices into bite-sized pieces.

Heat the wok until it will immediately evaporate small drops of water. Add the vegetable oil, and swirl around until it's very hot, but not burning.

Add the chicken. Stir fry until the chicken is white all the way through (about 3 minutes). Add the pineapple pieces, and stir until they're heated through (about 2 minutes). Remove both chicken and pineapple from the wok, and keep in a nearby bowl.

Stir the sauce once more, then add to the wok. Cook over medium heat, stirring. The mixture will begin to boil and thicken. When it begins to bubble in the middle like molten lava, add the chicken and pineapple, and stir to coat.

Serve over steamed rice.

Enjoy!

Columns by Cindy