One of my biggest culinary influences was when I was about 8 or 9 and my dad got into Chinese cooking. Armed with his brand-new wok, Chinese cookbooks, and exotic utensils, he’d toil all Saturday afternoon to whip us up several courses that night: egg rolls and won tons, hot and sour soup, beef with oyster sauce…his experiments seemed endless. The biggest impression it left on me (besides discovering that fresh vegetables were nothing like canned, and that I might actually want to eat them) was that aside from the labor-intensive goodies like egg rolls, great food could be made from scratch quickly and deliciously. Maybe most of the “Chinese food” we had wasn’t exactly authentic, but it certainly had a lot of flavor and love go into it: Dad never used “instant” mixes or sauces. He couldn’t- this was before they were available in your local grocery store, and I have great memories of traveling with him to the Asian market to pick up supplies.
Sadly, Dad doesn’t do much of this cooking anymore. I think it has to do with one fatal evening that mixed entertaining friends, a distraction, and boiling-hot oil spilled onto his hand (which got as cooked as the won tons he had just deep-fried). But I do have one hold-over of his favorite stir fry recipes that my sister and I couldn’t get enough of as kids. It may not be Chinese per se, but it is so simple, quick, and good that it’s been in my stable of sure-fire recipes for years: Pineapple Chicken. Now, you can tweak a lot of things to your own tastes with this recipe, but as far as I’m concerned, garlic is essential. Lots of it. In fact, I have the original recipe that calls for a mere 2 cloves; I’ve found double this is my minimum, or the dish is just “missing something”. I can also say from experience that this dish tends to be “kid approved”, despite the garlic content. And because of the speed of preparation, it’s a great weeknight fix.
1 1/2 lbs. chicken breasts, cut into short strips
1Tbsp. corn starch
1/8 tsp. pepper
1Tbsp. toasted sesame oil
1 14-15 oz. can pineapple chunks, in their own juice, drained but with juice reserved
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp. cooking oil (canola or vegetable)
For the sauce:
6 Tbsp. soy sauce
4 Tbsp. water
8 Tbsp. reserved pineapple juice
2 Tbsp. corn starch
Marinate chicken in the corn starch, pepper, sesame oil, and sherry for at least 15 minutes. In another bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, water, reserved juice, and cornstarch (2 Tbsp.) and set aside. Heat vegetable oil in a wok or well-seasoned frying pan on high heat until smoking. drain chicken and stir fry for 3 minutes, until no longer pink. Add pineapple, lower heat, cover and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove chicken and pineapple to a bowl and set aside. In the same pan, add garlic and saute until just fragrant, about 1 minute. Add sauce mixture, and stir until thickened. Add chicken and pineapple and stir fry until well-coated and heated through, about 3 minutes. Serve hot over rice or noodles.