When I think of orange chicken, I usually picture a Styrofoam container filled with a bed of rice, topped with mushy battered bits of chicken drowning in syrupy, intensely sweet sauce, maybe some peppers if I’m lucky. It’s good, in a shallowly indulgent I-just-want-to eat-something-bad kind of way, but why risk a heart attack over something that tastes just okay? Clearly, orange chicken needs a makeover. The solution: flavor, flavor, flavor, and hold the grease, please.
Last night I got home from a run right at dinnertime and suddenly had a hankering for something resembling orange chicken. I say “resembling” because one, I never cook “authentically,” and two, the stuff you buy at Chinese food restaurants just tastes bland, like it needs an extra kick–ginger, vinegar, pepper flakes, some accompaniments to the chicken other than just a few mushy orange rinds.
I’ve experimented a lot with sweet and sour sauces, a simple concept that always consists of a vinegar (balsamic and apple cider are my favorites) and a sweetener like honey or brown sugar. I also usually add a fruit juice (citrus works best) and additional spices, depending on the dish. For my improved version of orange chicken, I decided to play up the oriental flavors and add soy sauce, ginger, and rice vinegar to the mix. To add extra crunch and a contrast to the chicken’s umami flavor, I also decided to add peppers and carrots.
The key to making a good orange sweet and sour sauce is tasting. You MUST taste the sauce mindfully and add whatever seems to be lacking until your tongue no longer feels dissatisfied. If that sounds hard, all I can say is practice. It becomes an instinct after a while. Once you have the sauce tasting the way you like, go ahead and add the vegetables and let the sauce reduce until it doesn’t dribble off a spoon like water. You don’t want the sauce to sit too long or the vegetables will loose their crunch. If you find it’s taking longer than ten minutes or so for the sauce to thicken, add a mixture of cornstarch and water and stir it into the sauce until it develops a syrupy consistency.
A word on the meat: usually, the chicken in orange chicken is battered and fried. I decided to skip the batter. Why? Because it seems to me that when you add a wet sauce to cooked batter (essentially bread) what once was a crunchy exterior to your meat becomes a soggy, greasy accompaniment whose calories you are better off skipping. Just saute the chicken–LAST MINUTE or it will get dry–and add it to the sauce: boom; how simple. Now all you have to do is spoon it over rice and garnish it with green onions.
The results: I didn’t miss the batter around the chicken, though I wish I had seasoned the meat. The sauce, of course, was what brought the dish home. It wasn’t overly sweet and thick, but instead spicy, complex, and perfectly balanced with sweet and sour flavors. The vegetables were still crunchy, and the orange rinds added those bites of intense orange flavor orange chicken needs.
Here is a recipe:
- White rice (jasmine is best; if you’re a cheapo about staples like I am, plain old white rice is fine, too)
- Chicken breast, cut into bite-sized chunks and seasoned with salt, pepper, and perhaps ginger if you’re a ginger nut like I am
- Canola or peanut oil, for cooking the chicken
- Garlic, minced
- Carrots, sliced diagonally
- Bell peppers, chopped (whatever you have is fine, but green is the best in oriental cooking)
- Orange rinds, thinly sliced
- Green onions
For the sauce:
- Juice from freshly squeezed orange
- Orange juice from the carton, if needed (my sauce thickened too much and for some reason non-fresh orange juice magically fixed the flavors and thickness)
- Apple cider vinegar
- Rice wine vinegar
- Soy sauce
- Brown sugar
- Pepper flakes
…That’s it 🙂