It's all about the chicken

The Vietnamese love eating fresh herbs with just about everything.

chicken breast 88 (photo credit: )
chicken breast 88
(photo credit: )
On a trip to Little Saigon south of Los Angeles a week ago, I visited a restaurant that specializes in chicken. But instead of the usual brown grilled or fried chicken, it serves pale Hainan chicken, said to have originated on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, which some call the Hawaii of China because of its tropical beauty. The dish is prized for its delicacy and became very popular outside its homeland in nearby Vietnam, as well as in Singapore and Malaysia. At the casual eatery where I purchased the dish "to go," it was prepared with organic, free-range chicken. The cook emphasized that they use very fresh chicken that is only 24 weeks old and cook it lightly to preserve its natural flavor. When I asked how to heat it for serving, I was warned to be very careful not to overcook it, and especially not to use the microwave. In fact, many of the restaurant's patrons eat it at room temperature, so it would not need reheating, and some insist on having their portion cooked so it is still pink at the bone, in spite of the health department warnings against eating undercooked chicken. The chicken was embellished only with whole basil leaves; the Vietnamese love eating fresh herbs with just about everything. There were also three sauce containers. One contained soy sauce; the second was a green relish, a puree of young ginger, green onions and a little oil; and the third was a reddish, more assertive sauce of chopped ginger, sugar, chili flakes and lemon juice. All were served in minute quantities to be used to season the chicken but not to overwhelm its flavor. The chicken was tender but firm, not at all mushy, and came with flavorful chicken soup, garnished only with chopped green onion and shredded Chinese cabbage. For me the highlight was the "chicken rice" - jasmine rice cooked in a rich stock made by simmering chicken bones for 24 hours. This delicate dish fits in well with the subtle cuisine of Vietnam, which boasts its own similar dishes. One, called "white chicken" by Minh Kim, author of 200 Recettes de Cuisine Vietnamienne, calls for poaching chicken in broth with fresh ginger, salt and pepper. It is served garnished with fresh coriander and accompanied by a sauce of chopped green onions, salt, pepper, sesame oil and lime juice. Binh Duong and Marcia Kiesel, authors of Simple Art of Vietnamese Cooking, call their ginger rice with chicken "plain poached chicken paired with fragrant, chewy rice." They too use the chicken's poaching broth to cook jasmine rice, and served the chicken with a ginger sauce similar to the red sauce I received in Little Saigon. This dish reminded me of Ashkenazi Jewish chicken in the pot. Although my mother always served it with matza balls or noodles, in some families it comes with rice cooked in the chicken soup. Here too, the appeal of the dish lies in the gentle flavor of the chicken. It also brought back memories of a French classic - poulet au riz, or chicken with rice - which I enjoyed when I dined at Alain Chapel, a three-star restaurant near Lyon. Chapel used the celebrated Bresse chicken for the dish and, like the Vietnamese, emphasized the importance of using naturally raised young chicken, preferably only 16 to 18 weeks old. His too was seasoned lightly to showcase the quality of the bird and was cooked by steaming in a special bag with a little Madeira wine. Madeira also flavored the light sauce that accompanied the bird, along with truffles and foie gras (liver of fattened goose). Still, most French people consider poulet au riz a homey dish, like chicken in the pot, and in home kitchens it's often prepared as simply as possible. The chicken is poached slowly in water with a few carrots, onions and fresh herbs; rice is added to the pot towards the end of the cooking time. No matter how basic or fancy the surroundings, this is comfort food. It's all about enjoying the natural flavor of a good chicken. POACHED CHICKEN Instead of poaching a whole bird, you can save time by cooking chicken pieces. Use light or dark meat; the light meat cooks faster. As soon as the chicken is tender, remove it from the liquid, which you can serve as soup or use to cook rice. It will have less flavor than regular chicken soup because the chicken cooks for less time. If you want a more concentrated soup, cook the chicken pieces in chicken broth instead of water. For a Chinese or Vietnamese flavor, omit the carrots, bay leaves and thyme sprigs, and add a few fresh ginger slices to the water. 1 onion, sliced 2 small carrots, sliced 2 bay leaves 2 or 3 fresh thyme sprigs salt and freshly ground pepper 4 cups water 6 chicken thighs, drumsticks or breast halves, with skin and bones Basil leaves or fresh coriander leaves, for garnish Combine onion, carrots, bay leaves, thyme, salt and pepper in a saute pan with the water. Bring to a simmer. Add chicken and more water if needed so chicken is just covered. Return to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat until chicken is tender, about 25 minutes for breasts, 35 minutes for drumsticks and 45 to 50 minutes for thighs. Serve garnished with fresh herbs. Makes 3 to 6 servings. CHICKEN FLAVORED RICE The better the chicken broth you use, the more flavorful the rice will be. It reheats beautifully in a covered dish in the microwave. 1 to 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil or chicken fat 11⁄2 cups jasmine rice or long-grain white rice 3 cups hot chicken broth, preferably homemade pinch of pepper 1⁄2 tsp. salt (optional) Heat oil in a saute pan or large skillet. Add rice and cook over low heat, stirring, about 2 minutes or until grains turn milky white. Add broth and pepper and salt if using unsalted or lightly salted broth. Bring to a boil. Stir once with a fork and cover. Cook over low heat, without stirring, 18 to 20 minutes, or until rice is just tender and liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Fluff it with a fork just before serving. Serve hot. Makes 4 to 6 servings. The writer is the author of Faye Levy's International Chicken Cookbook.