You know those occasional dark days—you’re dieting, perhaps, or on a juice cleanse, or had a bad day at work—when you drive by a Panda Express, which is unfathomably gross under the best of circumstances, and your eyes suddenly do this and you’re unable to think about anything but stuffing your face with gloriously greasy, MSG-laden Chinese food? No? Then we will never be friends. But, more to the point, despite my best intentions, I have these days, and I’m ashamed to admit that the only thing stopping me isn’t health considerations or dignity, but price. Unless it’s a super-special occasion, I physically cannot bring myself to pay more than $3 per serving for dinner. I just can’t. Especially for what’s basically a small pile of fried meat pieces of indeterminate origin. Thankfully, most takeout-style Chinese food is easy to make at home and is not only infinitely cheaper, but tastes better and is (somewhat) healthier.
Even better, I happen to prefer this recipe from Cook’s Illustrated over the real thing—the chicken coating stays crunchy, the sauce is still orange-y without being overly sweet or gelatinous, and the chicken itself is moist and flavorful without being greasy. It makes 4 large servings, with rice.
• 1 1/2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks (you can use thighs, but I think breasts taste better here and are easier to cut in large pieces): $3
• 1/4 cup chicken broth: 3 cents
• 3/4 cup orange juice, plus zest from 1 orange (about 2 oranges total for the juice): 60 cents
• 6 T white vinegar: 6 cents
• 1/4 cup soy sauce: 10 cents
• 1/2 cup packed brown sugar: 20 cents
• 3 garlic cloves, minced: 3 cents
• 1 T grated or minced ginger: 5 cents
• 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper: 1 cent
• 1 T plus 2 tsp cornstarch: 5 cents
• 3 large egg whites (garden): $0
• 1 cup cornstarch: 80 cents
• 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper: 1 cent
• 1/2 tsp baking soda: 2 cents
• 3 cups fryer oil (I still had some left over from the last few times I fried tofu)—canola or peanut works best: $0
• 1 1/2 cups dry rice: 25 cents
TOTAL: $5.21/4 = $1.30/serving
Place marinade ingredients (except cornstarch) in a large saucepan (3 quarts minimum) and whisk until sugar is dissolved.
Remove 3/4 cup of the marinade and put in a large Ziploc bag with the chicken pieces. Make sure they’re well coated. Refrigerate 30-60 minutes but no longer, or the acid in the orange juice will do weird textural things to the chicken.
Bring the remaining sauce to a boil in the saucepan. Mix the cornstarch with 2 T water and whisk into the sauce; simmer until thickened and translucent. Remove from heat.
Set up your coating station: Combine the cornstarch with the cayenne and baking soda in a bowl; put the egg whites in a pie pan and beat with a fork until frothy. At the end of the line, put a cooling rack over a baking sheet.
Cook the rice however you normally cook rice (I use a rice cooker and a ratio of 2x water to rice).
When the chicken is done marinating, drain it well and pat it dry with paper towels (DO NOT rinse). Coat each piece thoroughly in the egg whites, dredge in the cornstarch until well coated, shake off the excess, and put it on the cooling rack to dry.
In a large, heavy pot, heat the oil to 350 F over high heat. (A candy thermometer works great o make sure the temperature stays consistent.)
Depending on the size of your pot, add anywhere from 1/2 to 1/4 of the chicken pieces and fry for 5 minutes until golden, turning over once or twice with tongs to make sure they don’t burn. Remove to a paper-towel-lined plate.
Repeat with the rest of the chicken.
When finished, reheat the sauce until simmering. Add the chicken pieces to the sauce and gently stir to ensure each piece is well coated. Serve over hot rice.