Back in 1981, I was watching the movie “The Four Seasons” when the camera focused in on a wok with shimmering hot oil. Straight translucent strings were plunged into the oil and instantly crackled and puffed up into wriggly opaque white sticks. I gaped in wonder and knew that someday I would have to make what I had just witnessed.
I do not remember the rest of the film. I learned later that rice stick noodles, when immersed in very hot oil, expand within seconds into puffy sticks. After draining on paper towels they can be eaten like popcorn or added to salads for a crunchy fillip. And that’s what had captivated me on screen.
Not too long afterward, I began working as national spokesperson for Cuisinart and traveled the country teaching cooking classes. I devised a chicken salad with Chinese flavors as the basis for showcasing rice stick noodles. I wanted the audience to thrill with excitement the way I did as I watched the movie, and their reaction to the puffing, expanding and crackling rice sticks always brought down the house.
The real secret to this recipe, however, is the correct cooking of the chicken. I’ve found that the best way to produce extremely tender chicken is to poach it slowly over very low heat. The liquid – chicken stock – should never come close to the boiling point. If the poaching liquid does boil, the chicken proteins knit together very quickly and squeeze out the water from the protein network, leaving dry, rubbery chicken. Follow the instructions carefully to avoid this problem.
The chicken may be poached a day ahead and refrigerated, as can the peanut dressing. You can also cook up the rice stick noodles a few hours ahead. Preparing the vegetables doesn’t take much time, and putting the salad together takes only minutes.
This main dish salad is great anytime. Feel free to multiply it for a large gathering.
Chinese Chicken Salad with Rice Stick Noodles
This makes a great dish for a party. All components can be prepared ahead of time, in stages to fit your schedule. Only the final assembly needs to be done just before serving. Make sure you buy the thin, twig-like rice stick noodles and not the wider fat ones. Package sizes vary, but you’ll need about 5 ounces. Look for them at the Good Food Store and in the Asian section of supermarkets. All other Asian ingredients are available in well-stocked supermarkets.
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1/2 cup peanut oil, preferably unrefined
1 1/2 tablespoons oyster sauce
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Asian sesame seed oil (dark and toasted)
1/3 cup smooth peanut butter
1 1/2 pounds boneless and skinless chicken breasts
4 cups chicken stock, homemade or store-bought
Oil for frying such as peanut, grapeseed, or safflower
5 ounces rice stick noodles
1 pound Napa cabbage
1 pound Romaine lettuce
6 large scallions
1 large red bell pepper
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
Making the dressing: Put the red wine vinegar, sherry, peanut oil, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and peanut butter into a blender jar and blend until smooth. Taste carefully. The dressing should be tart. Once it is combined with the salad ingredients it loses much of its bite. If you feel it is too tart, add a teaspoon or two of brown sugar, blend and taste again.
Cooking the chicken: Put the chicken breasts and stock into a large skillet. The stock should just barely cover the chicken. Cover the pan and set over very low heat. In 10 minutes, turn the chicken pieces over. Re-cover the pan and continue cooking over very low heat for another 10 minutes. Check your heat source frequently to make sure the liquid never even reaches a simmer. After the second 10 minutes, press the chicken to feel how springy it is. It should feel firm, not mushy, and barely spring back when pressed with a fingertip. If the chicken needs a few more minutes of cooking, turn the pieces over again, cover the pan, and continue cooking for about another 5 to 10 minutes. Check the chicken frequently during this time, and do not overcook. When the chicken is ready, remove it from the stock to a plate and let cool. When cool enough to handle, cut the breasts crosswise into thin slices, about 1/8 inch thick. Put into a bowl and add 1/2 cup of the dressing. Toss to coat the pieces of chicken well. Add more dressing if you feel the chicken needs it. (Chicken may be dressed 1 to 2 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate.)
Preparing the noodles: Heat 2 inches of oil in a Dutch oven or 2 to 3 cups oil in a wok over high heat to a temperature of 400 degrees. A bit higher is OK, too. Break the rice stick noodles into 2-inch sections and drop half of them into the hot oil. Stir rapidly with chopsticks as the rice sticks puff to crispy, curly threads in just a few seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. When the oil returns to 400 degrees, fry the remaining noodles. Set aside at room temperature. (Noodles may be cooked several hours ahead.)
Preparing the vegetables: Remove the core from the cabbage and slice the cabbage crosswise into shreds about 1/4 inch thick. Trim ends off the washed Romaine leaves. Stack the leaves and cut into shreds like the cabbage. Trim ends off the scallions and cut the scallions into thin slices. Core and seed the red bell pepper and cut the flesh into 1/4-inch strips.
Preparing the peanuts: The peanuts should be chopped. The easiest way is to put the peanuts into a zip-top bag and pound them gently with a meat pounder to break the peanuts into coarse pieces.
Assembling salad: This should be done just before serving to preserve the crispness of the rice stick noodles. Combine the Napa cabbage, Romaine, scallions and red bell pepper in a large bowl. Add most of the dressing and toss together. Taste. Add more dressing if you feel the salad needs it. Add the chicken with its dressing, half the peanuts, and half the noodles. Toss to combine well. Mound the salad in the center of a large platter, arrange remaining noodles around the border, and sprinkle remaining peanuts on top. Serve at once.
• Makes 6 to 8 main dish servings.
Greg Patent is a columnist for the Missoulian and Missoula magazine. Please visit his blog at thebakingwizard.com and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.