As you may have gathered by now, I do not rush to embrace takeaway food, with or without a lockdown. In current times, there is no doubt that there is some fabulous food to be had out there, being produced by some of our top chefs; however, many are just sticking to their tried and tested takeaway favourites. It is here that my lip does tend to curl a little. Why? Because in many cases, the quality of the ingredients is doubtful, and many of the classic carry out meals can be made at home not only better, but more quickly than the delivery driver can find his way to yours.
Let's start with Chinese, the ultimate in fast food. It does benefit from some advance preparation; however, subject to one caveat, if you are reasonably proficient at handling your chopper, the prep doesn't take that long. I give you two classic stir fry dishes. The caveat is that I also include a recipe so you can make your own black bean sauce, which does take a while. I have made perfectly good plates of food using bottles of ready made Chinese style sauces, but once you have made your own, you will be slow to return to the manufactured gloop.
Stir fry is best done at maximum power for the most part - the heat used by a cook in a professional Chinese kitchen is truly frightening - so make sure you have everything, including sauces and seasonings, to hand before you start. Make sure the ingredients in the wok are moving the entire time to avoid burning. Shake the pan with one hand and the ingredients with a spatula in the other. Have your rice, noodles and side dishes ready, and serve at once.
Sweet & Sour Chicken
For many years I struggled to recreate this at home without resorting to ready made ingredients. The scales were lifted from my eyes when watching a Hairy Bikers programme set in Hong Kong. In it a very old Chinese lady demonstrated making sweet and sour in a tiny kitchen. Her secret ingredient - Heinz tomato ketchup. Eureka!
300- 400g raw chicken, cut into bite size portions. I prefer thigh meat, boned
For the marinade: rice wine or dry sherry; 2 cloves garlic, crushed.
For the sauce: 1 medium onion, sliced lengthways into strips about 1cm wide; 2 medium peppers (any colour apart from green) sliced similarly; 5 cm piece of ginger, peeled and cut into fine juliennes; 2 cloves garlic, crushed or finely chopped; 1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped (optional); 2 thin slices fresh pineapple, core removed and cut into 2 cm chunks; 4 – 6 tbsp tomato ketchup; 1 – 2 tbsp vinegar (white wine or cider); 1- 2 tbsp orange juice: 1- 2 tbsp chicken stock; oil for frying; salt and pepper.
Marinade the chicken in the rice wine or sherry and the crushed garlic. Cover and leave for at least an hour.
Heat the wok to maximum heat and add just enough vegetable (not olive) oil to coat. Pour off any surplus. Stir fry the vegetables with the garlic and ginger for a minute, add the vinegar and cook for another minute. Add the chicken and the marinade, cook for a minute or two further, then add the ketchup, pineapple, orange juice and stock. Reduce the heat slightly and cook until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce is to your required consistency. Check the seasoning with salt and pepper as required. You may wish to adjust the sweet and sour balance with vinegar, ketchup or orange juice. Serve with rice or noodles.
Beef with Black Bean Sauce
As the beef is cut very thinly and fried very quickly, tenderness isn't your number one criterion. Minute steak is fine; however, if you want to spoil yourself, use fillet, and cut it a little thicker than you would a cheap cut. It will need less time marinading and very little time in the wok. Be careful not to over cook.
600g beef, cut into thin strips (about 1cm in width, and no more than 6cm long); 2 medium size onions cut into bite size chunks; 1 – 2 green peppers cut into bite size chunks; 1 – 2 cloves of garlic, crushed; dark soy sauce; small jar ready made black bean sauce, or quantity of home made (see below).
Put the strips of beef in a bowl with the crushed garlic and a good shake of dark soy. Mix well and leave to marinade for an hour or more. In a very hot wok, stir fry the onions and peppers, for a minute or two, then add the beef and colour all over. Add the black bean sauce. Reduce the heat slightly and cook, stirring all the time, until the beef is cooked. If the dish is too thick, loosen with a little boiling water. Serve with rice, and vow never to return to the bottled stuff
Black Bean Sauce
80g fermented black beans, drained, soaked in cold water for an hour, then drained and rinsed; 2tbsp vegetable oil; 10 cloves of garlic, crushed; a 5cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated; 3 spring onions, finely chopped (green parts only); 180ml chicken or vegetable stock; 3tbsp rice wine (you can use dry sherry in its place); 1½ tbsp dark soy; 1½ tsp sugar; 1 tsp rice vinegar (use white wine or cider vinegar if you don’t have rice); 1 tsp Tabasco (optional); 2 tsp cornflour dissolved in about 1tbsp water.
Crush the beans in a mortar and pestle. Heat the garlic and ginger in the oil over a medium heat for a minute or two, add the onions for another minute, then the beans. After another minute’s cooking, add all the remaining ingredients, apart from the cornflour, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered over a medium heat for 10 – 12 minutes. You want to reduce by about half. Add the cornflour mixture, stir well and simmer for another minute or two.
It is recommended that you leave the mixture to cool, as this will allow the flavours to infuse. You can keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to a fortnight.