Monday, February 13, 2012

Cooking 101: Chicken Teriyaki

Time to get pumped, cheflettes..we are ready to cook again! Using the basic ingredients and tools of cast iron skillet cookery as we discussed here and building on the experience we gained with our starter meal explained here, we are ready to careen off in a bold new direction. 

Today's menu is a Chicken and Vegetable Teriyaki Stir Fry. 

Yes, we are going to cook an Asian dish. But that's not a big deal. Billions of people cook Asian cuisine every day and think nothing of it. We call them Asians.

No, we are not going to use a wok. It's not because wok cookery is difficult; it's actually quite simple. But we are exploring the versatility and range of our humble cast iron skillet so let's stick with the boy who brung us to this dance and see what he can do.

Trust me, we are definitely going to keep it simple. For example, you will need only three ingredients, as shown here:

A package of veggies prepared for stir-fry, a bottle of soy sauce (you don't need to get the King Kong-sized version if you don't want to) and a bag of boneless skinless chicken breast tenderloins.

For this meal, brand names are unimportant. You can find prepackaged vegetables under other names - some stores even make their own packages of fresh veggies for stir-fries and sell them at the meat counter. Ditto for the chicken; as long as you are buying a bag of some sort of frozen boneless skinless tenderloins, you are good. Kikkoman rules the soy sauce world but grab any bottle that looks right. I found my ingredients at Target so if you really want an exact match, go there.

1. Preheat your oven to 420 degrees. 

2. Grab your trusty skillet and that bag of frozen chicken. And a pair of scissors. Or your knife.

Alright, my reluctant chef, time to face your fears. We are cooking raw meat. But here is the little secret that makes this all bearable...we are cooking FROZEN raw meat. 

That's right. No drippy juices, no squishy things to touch. Think of these bits of chicken as protein popsicles and fear not. 

Now that you are breathing calmly again, cut the top off that bag (or saw it off with the knife..I'm not proud) and pour about half of it into your skillet.

Ok now stop and think. First, notice that you didn't even have to lay a single finger on the meat. Stop fretting about salmonella and the germ-laden juices that you fear are spreading to every surface in a ten-foot-radius. I won't lead you there, I promise.

Secondly, think about your desired balance of veggies to chicken. Look at the veggies still waiting in their bag; look at the amount of chicken in the skillet. Does that seem like the right proportion of veggie to chicken? You can adjust the balance by either shaking a few more pieces of frozen chicken into the skillet or (if you dare) grabbing some of the pieces in the skillet and throwing them back in the bag. Or you can stay with what you've got. 

I opted to add some extra chicken to the skillet because I can always use a few pieces of extra chicken in another day's menu. I ended up using about two-thirds of the bag. So you may see more chicken in my pan than you have in yours. It will be fine.

3. Add three or four tablespoons of olive oil to the chicken; add salt and pepper till it looks nice.
Remember our rule of thumb - one tablespoon of olive oil (or anything else) looks about like the puddle of ketchup you get from one McDonald's packet.

4. Plop the skillet into the oven; don't worry about the height of the rack. Set the timer for 20 minutes and begin your job of tending. 
Remember, the fine art of cooking is honed by learning to see, hear and smell how your food is cooked. Once the timer goes off, check on your pan and stir things up. You are looking for the chicken to be soft enough that you can cut it in half with your spatula. If it's not ready yet, just set the timer for 10 more minutes and keep checking. Repeat as needed.

5. When your chicken is spatula-tender, cut the tenderloins into chunks.
Yes, "chunks" is a highly subjective term...but I would describe a chunk to be a piece that you will cut into two or three bites while you are eating it. It should look appetizing and friendly. We shall use this as another opportunity to apply one of the basic rules of cooking: it doesn't matter so much what size your pieces are, as long as they are more or less the same size. 

Notice that we are NOT removing the now soft-and-drippy chicken from the pan. All the cutting will take place in the skillet. Just hold the pan steady and use that spatula to do the dirty work. You shall remain germ-free.
Right about at this point, the battery in my Nikon died and I had to switch out to my camera phone. Sigh. 
You may have noticed that a lot of liquid has suddenly showed up in your pan. Weird. Where did it come from? Well, the frozen chicken people put it there; back in the factory, they injected the chicken with extra broth, to keep it from drying out in your freezer. Now that the broth has cooked out of the chicken and into the bottom of your skillet, you get to make another decision. If you would like your finished dish to be more juicy than crispy, leave that broth right where it is. If you are thinking crispy would be better, use a big spoon and a random bowl to scoop out about half of that broth. Save the extra and keep an eye on your pan; if you get to the point where there is absolutely no liquid in the bottom of the skillet, you can add a few tablespoons back in. 

6. Pour on some soy sauce - somewhere between 1/2 cup to a full cup, depending on how much you like it - close the door and keep tending your dish in 10 minute intervals. 
You're waiting and watching for signs that your chicken is almost done. It will look firmer and deeper in color as it cooks; you can always cut one of your chunks in half and look inside to see if it looks like something you would want to eat. 

7. When the chicken looks close to being done, pour the bag of veggies into the skillet and stir it up. Keep tending and look for signs of done-ness.
A lot of cheflings panic at this stage. They worry that they are pouring in the veggies too soon or too late in the process. Well, guess what. It doesn't really matter that much. Because here is the deal: if you mess up the timing and realize that either the veggies or the chicken are going to be done WAY sooner than the other, and they will burn if you leave them in much longer, you can always take them out!! Crazy concept, I know. 

If you find yourself in that position (and someday you will) just grab a serving bowl and a big spoon and start fishing out the early achievers. Once you get them collected safely in the bowl, slap a pan lid over the top and set it in your microwave (unless you're using it for something else), which doubles as a perfect incubator for dishes that need to stay warm. Don't run the microwave, just let your ready-to-eat food wait in the insulated comfort while the rest of your meal hurries to catch up. 
See how the chicken looks almost good enough to eat?
The color is dark, the edges are starting to look firm and dry. The time is ripe for pouring on the veggies.
These veggies have cooked for a while, but I can tell they aren't done yet. See how the pea pods are still stiff, and the cut edges of the broccoli stems look crisp and firm? These guys still have a way to go.

The easiest way to tell if food is ready to eat is that it LOOKS ready to eat. I don't need to explain that to you; you already know. Trust yourself to handle this; I know you can. 

8. When the chicken looks roasty and firm, and the veggies have softened and mellowed in color, your work is done.
Use two hot pads to pull the skillet out of the oven and set in on your range top. Serve it up as soon as you are ready. 

Notice how the chicken is looking browned and crisp (this pic is a bit washed out; the chicken in the lower left corner shows the nice golden look that I was going for) and the veggies look soft and tender.

Also, see how there is still a quite a bit of liquid in the bottom of the skillet? I opted for the juicy method; if I had gone crispy, the skillet would be almost dry. 

I paired this meal with some leftover white rice; a loaf of crusty white bread is another easy option.  
Enjoy the deliciousness!

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