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Beat the Wheat: Kung Pao Chicken

Gluten-Free Kung Pao ChickenAKA: The Friday Night Special is Kung PaOMG Chicken 

For years I had a special Friday night ritual that involved a group of college and work girlfriends gathering at one of our apartments to order Chinese food, catch up on the week’s goings-on, thumb through gossip magazines, and share our latest dating horror stories and secret crushes. That lovely and much-needed ritual slowly unwound as some of the girls got married, had babies or moved away, but my need for Friday night Chinese hasn’t waned.

I subbed in Thai or Indian carryout for my Chinese fix for a while — most Thai and Indian dishes are naturally gluten-free, so it was an easy swap. Still, it wasn’t the same. And I really missed Chinese food, with the sweet and sour, the hot and spicy, the meats, vegetables, noodles and rice. I missed opening the little white boxes and watching the steam swirl up, missed eating the leftovers cold the next day. I wanted it all. Whenever I saw characters in movies or on TV calling for Chinese delivery, I’d wince. I bought a few cookbooks and a wok, but I never put them to use because it seemed like too much work. Boy, was I wrong.

Turns out, making your own Chinese food (and doing it gluten-free) is really pretty easy. You just need to have a few key ingredients in the pantry and fridge — things like mirin, gluten-free tamari (in lieu of soy sauce), gluten-free hoisin, cornstarch and sesame oil — and you’ll be well on your way to rivaling the best takeout.

These days I make my own Chinese food on Friday nights and pick up the phone to call one of the girls to catch up. This week it’s kung pao chicken — what I call Kung PaOMG Chicken because I tend to drop a handful of chiles in to let them do their magic. And to make it more authentic, I bought Chinese takeout boxes at a restaurant supply store so I can put my rice in one and my main in the other, then eat right out of the boxes. Or I can transport my own gluten-free Chinese classics to a friend’s house so I won’t feel like an outcast on nights when everyone else orders in. Those little boxes make me happy, but this Kung PaOMG Chicken makes me even happier.

Gluten-Free Kung Pao Chicken

Kung PaOMG Chicken

Adjust the chiles depending on whether you like a kung pao with a whisper of heat or a pow(!) in the palate. A super-hot pan is key to this dish being a success. If you don’t have a wok — or you have an electric stovetop that won’t fire up a wok the way you need it to — just use a large saute pan.

Total Time: Approximately 30 min
Prep: 20 min
Cook: 12 min
Yield: 2 servings as a main course
Level: Easy

Chicken marinade:
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon gluten-free tamari soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces

Sauce:
2 tablespoons gluten-free tamari soy sauce
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon gluten-free hoisin sauce (Dynasty brand is gluten-free)
1 tablespoon sugar (palm sugar preferred, but granulated white sugar is OK)
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper (cracked black pepper is fine as a substitute)

Stir-Fry:
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or canola oil
6 to 12 dried red chiles (depending on how hot you prefer your final dish!)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger (a Microplane works best here)
5 green onions, thinly sliced on the diagonal, green and white parts separated
1/2 cup dry-roasted, unsalted peanuts

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the mirin, soy sauce and cornstarch until cornstarch is completely dissolved. Add the chicken, and stir to coat evenly. Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes, stirring again halfway through the marinating time.

In a separate mixing bowl, whisk together soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, sesame oil, hoisin sauce, sugar, cornstarch and pepper. Whisk until the cornstarch and sugar are dissolved. Set bowl to the side.

Heat your wok or large skillet over high heat until a splash of water sizzles and steams away immediately.

Add oils to the wok (keep kinds away from the stove and make sure your face isn’t over the pan — the oil will splatter). Swirl the wok to coat the bottom evenly with the oil. Toss in the chiles and stir-fry for 1 minute. The chiles will start to darken and turn black.

Add the chicken and its marinade to the pan and stir-fry for 4 to 5 minutes, until the chicken has lightly browned on all sides.

Toss in the garlic, ginger and onion whites, then stir-fry for 1 minute.

Add the sauce to the wok and stir to coat the chicken; stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the peanuts, then stir-fry the entire mixture for 2 more minutes.

Transfer to a serving plate, or place into individual servings. Garnish with onion greens.

Note: Adapted from The Chinese Takeout Cookbook: Quick and Easy Dishes to Prepare at Home by Diana Kuan (Random House; 2012)

Bonus: Get a gluten-free doughnut recipe from our friend’s at DIY.

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