A few years ago I cooked a Chinese themed feast for Chinese New Year. I really went for it. There was a banquet of various dishes to choose from, rice, noodles and chips. The chips were for my brother, who refuses to entertain even the idea of rice. It took a whole day of preparation and decorating but I loved doing it.
Unfortunately, I can only remember that I made Lemon Chicken. There were at least three other dishes, but as I wasn't in the habit of recording what I cooked at the time, the rest are buried in the back of my memory. I do remember the decorations though - Chinese themed cups and napkins, lanterns, paper streamers and the little wooden ladies you see in the header. I used them as nameplate holders for each dish.
When I was first teaching myself how to cook, I rustled up a lot of Chinese food under the book based wing of Ken Hom. I never knew how to properly cook rice until Ken explained it to me. Chinese food is relatively easy to cook and is mostly preparation, which made it perfect for a novice.
The dish I cooked more than any other was Ken Hom's Garlic Chicken with Cooked Cucumbers. It made me feel like quite the expert. I came across the book the recipe came from last week and decided this would be a fitting week to see if it was still as tempting as it was when I first cooked it.
Two cucumbers are peeled and the seeds removed. Only the firm flesh is used in this recipe, but I used the soft seeds in a tuna sandwich the next day. I hate food waste. The remaining flesh is chopped into large pieces, salted and left to drain. They need to be rinsed and dried before they're added to the wok later.
Chicken breast is cut into bitesize pieces, spring onions chopped finely and garlic sliced. As with most Chinese cooking, the wok needs to be smoking hot, greased with an oil with a high flash point. I favour groundnut oil. (Not suitable for those with peanut allergies.) The chicken is cooked quickly for a few seconds before adding the garlic, onions and some chilli flakes. You could use fresh chilli if you prefer.
Before the garlic begins to colour, soy sauce, mirin and sesame oil are added to create a sauce. When I used to cook this, mirin was only available in Asian supermarkets. Now it's a standard supermarket regular. Not knowing anything about mirin at the time, I remember splashing any old booze in there as a substitute. Rookie mistake. I'd have been better just adding sugar syrup.
I like a lot of sauce in this dish, so I add a cornflower and water emulsion to stretch it out a little right at the end. Cook long enough for the chicken to lose any trace of pink and until the cucumbers soften without losing all their bite. I serve mine with sesame oil and spring onion flavoured rice. Perfectly fluffy as Ken would want it, of course.