Chicken and plum stir-fry

The day I raided the plum tree, I asked a few kitchen-inclined friends for suggestions on what to do with them. There were the usual recommendations–freeze them, jam them, bake them in pie–but then my friend Sandy threw me a curveball. “Stir-fry,” he said.

So I stir-fried. And I’m very glad I did.

It might sound odd to put stone fruit in a stir-fry. But it really works. Think of it as a fresh summer spin on the sweet-and-sour thing. Toss a few wedges of plum into a hot pan at the last minute, and they slump and half-melt into the sauce, adding pockets of jammy sweetness to an otherwise savory jumble. Some of the skins come loose, draping chicken and vegetables with a thin tart bite. The juices filter into every crevice, coating the vegetables and pooling thickly in the bottom of the pan. (More on that later.) It’s not quite like any other stir-fry I’ve ever made, and not coincidentally, I think it’s the best one I’ve ever made.

Part of the reason this stir-fry is so good is the plums; part of it is the chicken. There’s a trick to this, which Chinese restaurants use to keep meat–especially lean, easily-overcooked meat like chicken breast–juicy and tender. It’s called velveting, and it’s the only way I’ll stir-fry meat from now on. First, the sliced meat is marinated in a foamy slurry of egg white, cornstarch, and rice wine. Then it’s par-cooked in boiling water, drained, and finished off in the stir-fry pan. I don’t know what kind of sorcery takes place between the marinating bowl and the water pot; all I know is that it produced the plumpest, softest, most luxurious chicken breast meat that’s ever come out of my kitchen. The meat fairly glistened in the pan–you can see it in the photo below. This is one of those instances where taking the extra step is extraordinarily worth it, even if it means dirtying an extra bowl and pot.

I’m normally too lazy to cook rice for stir-fries, but I’ll make an exception here: you must serve this with rice. The reason for this is the plum juices, which filter to the bottom of the pan and thicken over the heat. Then there’s a simple hoisin sauce mixture, which mingles with the plum juices to form a soft purple sauce, rich and oozing, but without the gumminess of starch. The flavor is deeply plummy, a little salty, a little sweet, a little spicy. You’ll want to mop up every last purple streak of it. Trust me.

chicken plum stir-fry

Chicken and Plum Stir-Fry (serves 4 with rice)

Velveting instructions adapted from Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, via the Seattle Times

For velveting the chicken:

1 large egg white

1 tbsp cornstarch

2 tsp rice wine, dry sherry, or unseasoned rice vinegar

1 tsp soy sauce

1 lb chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch strips

1 tbsp peanut, vegetable, or canola oil

For the sauce:

2 tbsp hoisin sauce

2 tsp rice wine, dry sherry, or unseasoned rice vinegar

1 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp brown sugar

For the stir-fry:

1 tbsp peanut, vegetable, or canola oil

1 tbsp minced or finely grated fresh ginger

2 large or 4 small garlic cloves, minced

1 bird’s eye chile, thinly sliced OR 1/2 tsp crushed red chile flakes

1 small red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 small green bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes

4 medium plums, pitted and cut into large wedges

Cooked white or brown rice for serving

In a medium mixing bowl, combine egg white, cornstarch, wine or vinegar, and soy sauce, and whisk until smooth. Add chicken and toss to coat. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, while you prep the other ingredients. (This step can be done a day ahead.)

While the chicken marinates, combine hoisin sauce, wine or vinegar, soy sauce, and brown sugar in a small bowl. Whisk to combine, and set aside.

Bring a pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add 1 tbsp oil and reduce the heat to low, so that the water is at a bare simmer. Add chicken and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Drain the chicken thoroughly, and set aside.

Place a large skillet or wok (not nonstick) over the highest heat the pan can handle. Heat until the pan is very hot–a drop of water flicked on the surface should sizzle and evaporate within a second or two. Swirl 1 tbsp oil into the hot pan, then add ginger, garlic, and chile, and stir-fry for about 10 seconds. Add bell peppers and stir-fry for 3 minutes, or until the peppers are just barely tender. Add chicken and plums and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add sauce mixture and stir-fry for 1 minute more, or until the chicken is cooked through and everything is coated with sauce. Spoon over rice and serve immediately.

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