My Favorite Chinese Dish: Kung Pao Shrimp
May 2005: I just finished cooking, photographing and sampling [REVELING IN!] my very first attempt at Kung Pao…and Sweet Mother of God! it was far and away the best Chinese food I have ever made, nay, dare I say it?… the best Chinese food I’ve ever EATEN! Words cannot describe the perfect peppery spice and velvety texture of the sauce, the lingering crispness of the fresh vegetables, and the pearl-pink luxury of the extra large prawns. The only thing missing was someone to share it with. While my new and improved monthly cooking agenda is much more relaxed, with it spread evenly throughout the month instead of happening in an all-in-one stress-fest each time, but sometimes I find mysef all alone in the kitchen preparing and sampling the most sumptuous of dishes.
And having had a little time to reflect on why this particular recipe turned out so much better than any other I’ve made, I think it’s all about CONTROL. And for a Type-A gal like myself, that’s music to my ears. Just last week, on a whim, I made a wok-ful of stir-fry vegetables to serve with Grilled Chinese Five Spice Pork Loin. And while it was delicious, since I just tossed everything together in the wok with out measuring or planning, I was somewhat disappointed at how lackluster the fresh vegetables turned out. And I know from experience how easy it is to mishandle and overcook delicate prawns. So this time, I took a totally different approach.
I washed and chopped all the fresh vegetables in advance and had them standing ready to add to the stir-fry at just the right moment. The prawns were deveined with the shells intact, and I mixed up the Kung Pao sauce ahead of time, instead of adding all the ingredients separately to the busy stir-fry and trying to get the balance right on-the-fly.
To start, I put a little sesame oil in the wok and stir-fried the prawns in the shell until they were just pink but not completely done, knowing that they would cook a little more when all the Kung Pao components came together. At just the right moment, I removed them from the wok and set them aside on a plate. Next I added all the chopped vegetables and stir-fried them until they were just beginning to get tender, which is precisely the moment I chose to add the pre-mixed Kung Pao sauce. As soon as the sauce began to thicken, I added water a little at a time until it reached just the right velvety consistency. To finish, I turned off the heat under the wok, added the still-warm prawns and tossed with the vegetables and sauce just enough to coat and integrate them into the gestalt of the dish.
The Result: Kung Pao WOW! Here’s the Recipe:
Kung Pao Shrimp
1 pound large shrimp, cleaned and deveined, shells intact 1 can water chestnuts, chopped 2 scallions, thinly sliced 1 carrot, thinly sliced 2 stalks celery, thinly sliced 1 clove garlic, finely minced 1/4 cup unsalted cashews or peanuts 1 tsp Chinese chili garlic sauce 3 tablespoons sesame oil 1 cup water (more or less as needed) Steamed Rice
Kung Pao Sauce: 2 teaspoons cornstarch 2 tablespoons water 3 tablespoons soy sauce 2 tbsp. rice wine 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar 1 tablespoon sugar 2 teaspoons sesame oil 1 clove garlic, chopped 1 teaspoon ginger, finely grated
Combine all sauce ingredients in bowl and set aside. Wash, trim and chop all fresh ingredients and set aside. Heat 3 tablespoons of sesame oil in a wok. Add shrimp and stir-fry until just pink but not completely done and set them aside on a plate.
Add all the chopped vegetables and nuts to the wok and stir-fry until just tender. Add the Kung Pao sauce and toss with vegetables to coat. When sauce begins to thicken, add water a little at a time until the sauce reaches a velvety consistency, being careful not to overcook the vegetables. To finish, turn off the heat under the wok, add the prawns and toss with the vegetables and sauce just enough to coat and integrate them into the stir fry. Serve with steamed rice.