Photo by Joseph De Leo; styled by Mariya Yufest
Once in a while, we come face to face with an irksome cooking paradox that stops us dead in our tracks. Here's one that's been bugging us lately: We're repeatedly told that lean cuts of meat (chicken breasts, pork tenderloin) should be cooked quickly over high heat, and fattier, tougher cuts of meat (well-used muscles from legs and shoulders of animals) should be cooked slowly over low heat. Nevermind that bacon is perhaps the fattiest cut of all and is seared in hot skillets every weekend, everywhere. Nevermind that thin-sliced, grilled Korean short ribs represent one of the tastiest dishes on the planet. Fattier, tougher meats are more able to withstand heat without getting dry, yet we coddle them, routinely swaddling pork shoulder and brisket with hickory smoke or braising liquids until the tension breaks and they render themselves fall-apart tender. Lean meats, however, are much more susceptible to shriveling up in the face of hot flames (and even hot broth) -- particularly if they've been relieved of their protective coating, be that the skin on chicken breasts or shrimp's shells -- yet "fast and hot" remains the prescription.
Brines and marinades go a long way in protecting interior moisture, but they're very thin. Any oil in the marinade just serves to conduct heat between the protein and the heating element, and prevent sticking. Meaning, it's not ideal armor. How can we prevent drying out the exterior of cuts like chicken breasts before the darned things are cooked through? Leave it to the Chinese, the creators of searing-hot wok cookery, to devise a simple, cheap solution for the smaller cuts, known as "velveting."
To velvet chicken, shrimp, steak, or other protein that can be cut into bite-sized pieces, egg white is traditionally mixed with cornstarch, sherry, and soy sauce to form a "marinade" that coats the small cuts of protein for anywhere between five minutes and overnight, and then the meat is removed from the marinade and par-cooked in oil or water, producing meat with a soft, "velvety" texture that merely needs to be tossed into stir-fries to warm through at the very end. The thick coating created by the egg white and cornstarch do the work here, and quickly. Any time spent marinating the protein beyond the five-minute mark is primarily for the sherry and soy sauce to impart flavor.
Now, the more we thought about this technique, the more it seemed we could eliminate the cornstarch. It certainly doesn't add flavor, and the protein in the egg white is what sets up upon contact with the heat, creating an ever-so-slightly padded barrier between the meat and the side of the wok. Away cornstarch went, along with any visions of goopy sauce.
As for the mizuna in this recipe, it may sound foreign, but you're probably more familiar with it than you think, as it's commonly included in salad green mixes. If you can't find the barely bitter, jagged-fringed leaves on their own, baby spinach makes a fine (albeit milder) substitute. Or, just use a few handfuls of mixed greens.
Wok Sautéed Mizuna with Minced Chicken
Serves 4 to 6
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1 1/2 teaspoon tamari or soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, very finely chopped
2 teaspoons canola or peanut oil
1/3 cup finely chopped carrot
1/3 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1/4 cup finely chopped water chestnuts
1/2 teaspoon chile paste with garlic
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 pound mizuna, trimmed
1/4 cup finely chopped green onions
• • • • •
With dishes that have an umami flavor element like soy sauce, it's good to have a few varietals in mind. In white wine world, Chenin Blanc and Sémillon are good choices. In red wine world, Pinot Noir and Syrah work well. This dish falls in the first realm, so try to find a white that incorporates those grapes mentioned above. Whites from Bordeaux or the Loire Valley will be good matches. Bordeaux is my preference here, as wines from the region are often blended with Sauvignon Blanc, another varietal that pairs well with all the other ingredients in this dish.
2009 Le Thil Comte Clary Blanc, Pessac-Léognan, France
Have you ever tried "velveting?" Share your cooking tips in the comments section below.
Like this post? See the Make This Tonight topic from last week: Tailgate Paella.