Monday, January 29, 2018

Cajun Cashew Chicken

Y'all....I invented something.  I know so many of the things I cook are just recipes from a cookbook or Pinterest...but I actually had an ORIGINAL thought.  Trust me--I checked the internet.

I was laying in bed, having trouble falling asleep because I drank caffeine too close to bedtime.  And somewhere, somehow, a lateral train of thought took me to "I wonder if I could make a Cajun version of cashew chicken?"

If'n you're not from Missouri...specifically Springfield, Missouri... y'all.  Springfield, Missouri is famous for exactly two things.
1) It's where the original Bass Pro Shops is located and headquartered, and 
2) It's where "Springfield-style" cashew chicken was invented.

In 1963, David Leong created this dish for a supper club, and the entire city went bonkers.  His family's restaurant is still famous for it, and there isn't a single Asian restaurant in town that doesn't have a version of cashew chicken on their menu---even some non-Asian restaurants, as evidenced by the cashew chicken poutine served by Lindberg's Tavern.
So...what is it?  Well, it's awesome.  Tasty little deep fried morsels of chicken, served with either a light brown garlic sauce or a darker, thicker brown gravy made with chicken stock, oyster sauce and soy....and then topped with cashews.  It's basically fried chicken & brown gravy, served with rice (usually fried rice).

So somewhere in the lateral processes of my brain, something clicked:  how is cashew chicken all that different from all the rice & gravy dishes in Louisiana?  Can I make something that honors both the original dish, and a Cajun dish, while still tasting amazing?  

...well...why not?  After all--it's the experimental dishes that are the most fun to make:  like Primo's crawchos and red beans & fries, and the bacon-wrapped boudin jalapeno poppers.

So--this dish has four components:
1) Fried chicken - the secret to great Springfield style chicken is the fry batter, which uses cornstarch, so we're not going to mess with that.  But...what if we brine our chicken with a crab boil mixture first?
2) Brown gravy - Anyone who's followed this blog for a while knows my love of Tony Chacheres's brown gravy & instant roux mix.  While I catch a lot of flack for using this shortcut instead of making my roux's from scratch, you just can't deny the fact that this stuff makes a great quick gravy.  So...let's use that as a base, and then tinker a bit to bring in some of the traditional cashew sauce elements.
3) Rice - white rice just seemed too vanilla for this adventure. So what's the closest thing Cajun country has to fried rice?  Why...that's dirty rice, son.
4) Cashews - because it's freakin' cashew chicken. did it go?  Well, my first attempt was a little salt heavy.  The chicken was great, but rice and the gravy both came out with too much salt, which really took away from my enjoyment of my new invention.  And I was testing out a new recipe for the dirty rice, using my Instant Pot instead of something tried and true--so the rice was on the mushy side, rather than more like a "pilaf" like dirty rice should be.  Also...I completely forgot to buy cashews and green onions, so my topping game was not on point. I wanted to make Tabasco-spiced cashews using their Chipotle sauce.  So instead we had dried green onions and some spicy peanuts. *shrugs*
I think it requires a do-over.  Next time, I'll thin the sauce out more and lower the salt, and then use a dirty rice recipe that I know works.  Oh--and make sure I have cashews and green onions.

Ingredients: (makes 4-6 servings)
2 large chicken breasts, cubed into bite size pieces
Brine for Chicken
4 cups water
1/2 cup salt
1/2 cup crab boil seasoning (I used dry--you could use the liquid instead, but will likely need to add more salt)
1 Tbsp cajun seasoning
1/4 cup Steen's cane syrup
1 Tbsp black pepper
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce

Batter for Chicken
DRY: 1 cup flour, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 Tbsp cornstarch
WET: 2-3 eggs, whisked

4 Tbsp Tony Chacheres instant brown gravy mix
2 cup water
2 Tbsp oyster sauce
1 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
additional water as needed to thin gravy to desired consistency

Dirty Rice (link to recipe here)

Cashews & Green Onions, for serving

First--brine the chicken at least 24 hours in advance. I chunked up the chicken pieces first to increase surface area, since there's a lot of debate as to how much aromatics and flavoring components really penetrate when brining/marinating.  I put all the brine ingredients in a gallon ziploc, and then added the chicken, and placed it in the fridge (inside a large bowl, in case of leakage) overnight.

Then, the immortal words of PooPoo Broussard: "cook sum rice". (NOTE: I think leftover dirty rice tastes better than "fresh", so feel free to make this the night before.) I decided to make this in the Instant Pot because...well...I own an Instant Pot. (I also made it with brown rice, because that's what we had on hand.)  Next time, I'll probably try something different, like my usual range-top recipe (linking to save space in this post).

Now, start the gravy--you can get this simmering in the background while you focus on frying the chicken.  We happened to have some brown gravy in the fridge from a meal earlier in the week, so I re-heated that, and then added the oyster sauce, low-sodium soy sauce, sesame oil, and then about 1/4 cup of water.  This resulted in a thick, tasty, but salty gravy--so if I had a do over I would have added more water to thin it out.  The flavor (aside from the salt) was very good.  Once your gravy is done, set it aside on Low, just to keep it warm--don't let it keep reducing or you'll end up with the salt issue, too.

When you're ready to cook the chicken:

1) heat up about 2-3 inches of peanut oil in a high-sided pot.  Have a splatter guard handy.  You want to make sure your oil is good and hot to fry the chicken--otherwise it's going to soak up a lot of the oil and be greasy and not as good, but not so hot as to scorch the coating. 365*F is a good target temp.
2) Drain the brine by pouring the chicken into a colander and letting the excess drain off.
3) Dip in the chicken in the flour mixture first, then the egg, then back in the flour.  Stage finished chicken on a cookie sheet until you're done with all of them.
4) Drop into the hot oil, and let fry for about 3-4 minutes.  Use a spoon or chopstick to flip the pieces about halfway through.
5) When golden brown, pull the chicken out and let it drain on paper towels or an elevated rack.
Serve up a scoop of the dirty rice, pile some chicken next to it, then add gravy, and top with the cashews and some sliced green onions.

Note: If you've never had original Springfield-style and want to try David Leong's original cashew chicken, here is his recipe.  

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