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Food

A Fresh, Bright Way to Stir-Fry

Posted May 1, 2018 6:01 p.m. EDT

Chicken in ginger-scallion sauce is to my friend Jade Zimmerman what bagels and lox are to me: the ultimate childhood comfort food.

Jade’s mother, Lan Hing Riggin, never had a recipe. She knew the dish by smell and feel, sensing exactly when the pan was hot enough to add the chicken, or how much ginger and soy sauce would be enough to flavor the blistering oil that she then poured over the cooked meat.

Jade, who tests recipes for my cookbooks and also does food styling for NYT Cooking photos, told me about the dish while we were talking about stir-frying techniques. A common method is to quickly cook the main ingredients (meat, fish, vegetables) in a wok, then to add the sauce to the pan, letting the liquid bubble and thicken and coat everything. This is how I’d always done it.

In Riggin’s recipe, the main ingredient is cooked separately, then the sauce — a pungent mix of hot oil, soy sauce, ginger and scallion, balanced with the tiniest pinch of sugar — is poured on top. In classic Cantonese cooking, the protein (usually chicken or a whole fish) would be steamed or poached. But Jade’s mother sometimes stir-fried the chicken, so she could use the same pan to make the sauce.

Part of the pleasure of this dish is that, unlike in a more classic stir-fry, the flavors of the sauce and the chicken are not thoroughly intertwined. In some bites, you taste only the brawniness of the bird; in others, there’s more complexity, with the tangy sauce, crisp chicken and a garnish of raw scallions together on your tongue. Each mouthful is a little different, one more compelling than the last. It is also fast to make — under 20 minutes from start to finish.

Jade’s grown-up tweak to her mother’s recipe is to add a leafy thatch of cilantro to the raw scallions on top of the chicken, which wilt when they are hit with the steaming sauce. Cilantro wasn’t something she’d ever touch as a child; she hated its aggressive flavor. But now she can appreciate the freshness and earthiness the herb brings to the mix.

I can relate: I feel the same way about sliced onions on my bagels and lox. It’s a slightly more adult take on a dish that still satisfies so many kinds of hunger.

RECIPE

Ginger-Scallion Chicken

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 15 minutes

Ingredients:

2 large scallions, trimmed

1/4 cup peanut oil, or neutral oil such as grapeseed or sunflower, more as necessary

1 3/4 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into 1-inch chunks

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, as needed

1 cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems

1 (2 1/2-inch) piece ginger, cut into thin matchsticks (about 3 tablespoons)

3 tablespoons soy sauce

Large pinch sugar

Preparation:

1. Cut the scallions in quarters lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1 1/2-inch-long pieces. You should end up with thin blades of scallions. Separate out the dark green tops from the pale green and white parts. (You don’t have to be very thorough; some mixing of colors is fine.)

2. Heat oil in a wok or 12-inch skillet over very high heat. When it’s shimmering but not smoking, stir in chicken and salt. Cook, stirring almost constantly, until chicken is barely cooked and no longer pink, 3 to 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer chicken onto a serving plate, leaving the oil in the pan. Immediately scatter cilantro and scallion greens (not whites) over hot chicken.

3. Return wok to medium-high heat. Make sure there are at least 2 tablespoons oil in the wok. If not, add more oil. Stir in ginger and cook until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Stir in scallion whites, soy sauce and sugar, and cook for another 30 seconds (if using a skillet, remove from heat). Immediately spoon the contents of the pan evenly over chicken and herbs. Serve right away.

And to drink ...

Riesling is often a go-to choice with Cantonese-style dishes, especially those bottles with light-to-moderate sweetness. Kabinett or spätlese rieslings from Germany are ideal. Their refreshing acidity, delicacy and modest sweetness will meld well with the lightly spicy ginger and scallions. Dry whites will also work, especially those without apparent oakiness or overbearing fruit flavors. Grüner veltliner from Austria is one option; herbal, minerally sauvignon blancs from the Loire Valley are another. How about sparkling wines, like a good cava from the Penedès region of Spain, or the various French crémants from regions like the Jura and Alsace? Many pétillant naturels would be ideal, too. Require a red? Mondeuse, an obscure grape from the Savoie region of France, would be delicious. Recently, I had an excellent version from California.

— ERIC ASIMOV