Sunday, August 2, 2009

there are maybe ten or twelve things

What will happen eventually is that someone will ask me, "Hey, that thing you made that time, that was good, how do you make that?" and I'll say "oh, check the blog."  This signature tag is for that.  These aren't necessarily things I've concocted myself, just things I make a lot, particularly for other people.  Mostly I meander, you know -- a month of Thai food here, a summer of pretending Indiana is the Low Country there.  But there are things I come back to, and things people ask me to make again.

One of those is vinegar chicken.  I don't even remember now where I first ran across it, some eight? years ago, but I immediately saw in it -- an Italian dish -- a probable ancestor of Buffalo wings, invented in the 1960s by the Italian-American owners of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo NY.  Though nobody gets Buffalo wings right anymore -- move around the country a bit and you'll see all sorts of things, some of them (the spicy wings served with tomato dipping sauce at The Italian Pie in New Orleans, for instance) good despite their utter nonresemblance to Buffalo wings, others (hydrogenated soybean oil concoctions on battered wings) just disappointing.  Buffalo wings should be unbattered, sauced with butter and cayenne/vinegar hot sauce (Tabasco, Louisiana, Frank's, Texas Pete).

Vinegar chicken isn't Buffalo wings, so nevermind that.  It is similarly spicy and tangy, forming an emulsified pan sauce of reduced vinegar, hot pepper, and a little chicken fat.  I'm not saying it's the definite ancestor of Buffalo wings -- I've never seen it mentioned in articles about their origin -- but whether the similarity is intentional or not, it certainly acts like that dish's rougher uncle.  There is an echo here, too, of Filipino adobo, which I will make when the weather is colder.

Vinegar chicken is crazy simple.  You could damn near make it by accident, tripping on a banana peel in your kitchen or something.  The hardest thing is the first step: with a good sharp knife or cleaver, you chop up a bunch of bone-in chicken parts until you have bite or two-bite sized pieces of chicken.  Chop right through the bone.

At that point, you heat a little oil in a pan -- not too much -- brown the chicken skin-side down, flip the chicken over, add crushed red peppers like you put on pizza, add vinegar until the chicken is covered, and cook until the vinegar has reduced to near-nothing and the chicken is cooked through.  That's it, that's it, that's it.

It lends itself easily to variation -- you can use various kinds of vinegar (I've always used whatever happens to be in the house), you can make much spicier chicken by using vinegar-based hot sauce instead of the vinegar, you can add other seasonings.  Fresh-ground black pepper is a good addition, but I have found that no source of spice is better in this dish than the crushed red peppers.  That was counterintuitive for me -- I was sure fresh chiles, or other dried chiles, would be better, or ground cayenne -- but comforting at the same time.  Growing up in exurban southern New Hampshire, the first source of spice I encountered was crushed red peppers, at pizza parlors with checkered tablecloths, Ramblin' root beer, and video jukeboxes.  As dumb as it may sound -- look, kids, we didn't have cable, we had six channels on TV and one of them was PBS and another one just showed Creature Double Feature and The Courtship of Eddie's Father -- I didn't really know spicy food EXISTED, for a long time.  Not as a genre, especially.  I understood that some varieties of salsa were spicier than others.  I knew that if you put a ton of crushed red peppers on your pizza, your mouth would hurt, and that you could get hot peppers with your steak bomb.  But this was sort of like "knowing rap exists" because you'd seen that Blondie video that time.  In the pizza parlor.  With your Ramblin' root beer.

All of which explains why, the first time I cooked with habanero chiles, I added about two cups of them, coarsely chopped, to my batch of chili.  You know, about the same amount I'd use of bell pepper.

Yeah, you don't make that mistake twice.

Tonight, though, tonight we're back to the crushed red peppers, but I'm switching up the vinegar chicken otherwise.  Despite what I just told you about chopping through the bone, I'm using boneless (skin-on) chicken thighs here, chopped up -- mostly out of curiosity (in the end, I think it's better with the bone in -- you get more flavor -- but using boneless thighs is a valid solution for people without a good knife).  There's black pepper in with the crushed red peppers, and I blended black garlic up with red wine vinegar for the vinegar component.

Black garlic is well worth pointing out.  It's an aged garlic which, simply through the process of aging, turns somewhat soft (not quite spreadable, I find) and solid black.  In the process, it becomes less sharp, sweet like roasted garlic, with a sort of soy sauce umami character to it.  Great stuff, but expensive compared to other garlic.  Use it when you can foreground it.

Because of the vinegar, vinegar chicken goes best with a starch to soak up the sauce, and/or some sort of minimally seasoned green vegetable (roasted asparagus, for instance).  I went with little fried patties of smoked potato (potatoes smoked in a stovetop smoker, mashed with cream cheese and bourbon-barrel-smoked paprika, pan-fried in patties).

Black garlic boneless vinegar chicken, and smoked potato patties


  1. vinegar chicken just officially made my stuff-to-try list. will report back once i do.