Cooking Well Starts with Observing Well—Part Two
What we can learn from J. Kenji López-Alt (Bonus: Velvet Chicken with Snap Peas and Lemon-Ginger Sauce from The Wok: Recipes and Techniques)
[If you have not read Part One, you should read it first; otherwise, what’s below this line is not going to make a lot of sense.]
I have known Kenji and been a fan of his work for over a decade. And like most people who respect him, I am in awe of his ability to define X in every context clearly, then take people from the point where they don't know how to cook X to the point where we can cook it well. If you ask Kenji’s fans why his work helps them, I think most will say that it’s because he experiments and tests relentlessly until he arrives at the best way to cook something and then explains it in a science-backed and yet fun and engaging way. That's all true. But I’d like to think that long before Kenji begins to recreate something—long before he starts testing a recipe—Kenji has already done some detailed observations. He already knows what his X looks, tastes, and smells like; he already knows where his bull’s-eye is, and he’s not shooting aimlessly.
You may not like some of his Xs, or you and he may prefer the same X when it comes to a certain dish but disagree on the best way to achieve it. That’s fine; it only makes for lively and mutually edifying conversations. But pore over his Serious Eats articles. Dive into his first book, The Food Lab. Spend time reading his column in the New York Times. And you’ll see what I’ve seen: Kenji is a masterful observer.
This is someone who stares at and documents pepperoni curling and cupping, someone who ponders what a good biscuit or a good boiled egg looks like—someone who thinks, like, a lot about how to make burgers the way he likes them. The list goes on.
How did he get to be so good at observing things, and how can we hone that skill? That's what I asked Kenji, and the following is what he said to me via email (edited for clarity).
On describing X
"It's all about tasting very analytically and keeping notes. I'll often try and think of various textures and flavors in a dish in orthogonal terms. For example, if I'm tasting soup dumplings, I'll take bites and filter out everything from my brain other than the texture of the broth. Is it sticky? Is it thin? How does it coat my tongue? How does it coat my lips? Is it oily or fatty? Et cetera. While I'm thinking about that, I consciously try not to think about the flavor or aroma—or the texture of the dumpling skin or filling. Those are things I can think about with the next one.
"It's sort of like describing a person you know. When I see my daughter, I instantly recognize her even without thinking about individual parts of her face or her expressions, such as the shape of her nose or the color of her cheeks—or whether she shows her teeth when she smiles or not. I just know her in the same way I could pick out my mom's dumplings in a blind taste test.
“But if I were to try to describe her to someone, I would need to home in on specifics and describe her one feature at a time. I'd have to think about the curve of her chin, the length of her eyelashes, and whether or not she shows her teeth when she smiles. Similarly, I'd have to explain that my mom's dumplings have a beef filling with lots of ginger, that the filling is firm but not dry, and that they almost always have bits of frozen spinach throughout them."
On recreating X—a specific X
"With many recipes, hitting primary sources is an important step, too. For example, if I wanted to exactly replicate Starbucks' egg bites, I'd definitely start by tasting them, but I'd also do research and try and talk to someone involved in their production. I was able to do this with McDonald's french fries and Chick-fil-A sandwiches, for instance, simply by reaching out to people who work for the company that makes McDonald's fries (Simplot) and interviewing former Chick-fil-A employees. In other words, good old-fashioned research and journalism. If I can't do that, I'd at least get the specific ingredients lists so that I have an idea of what goes into them and in what proportions."
On recreating various Xs from different culinary cultures
"It starts with good research. When I'm interested in working on a recipe, I always start with cultural and contextual research. This can take place in a number of ways. Ideally, it's going to ground zero and tasting as many versions of an existing dish as I can so that I have a good cross-section of what is out there—for instance, going to eleven pizzerias in twelve hours when I was in Naples, or speaking to local experts about where to find the best representations of a particular dish, say, asking a Bangkok expert where to get the best mango sticky rice. I want to find out what a dish means to people so that I can be sure that whatever my stated end goal is, it's one that I can contextualize and back up. For example, I need to know that carbonara means something very different to a Roman than to an American. That needs to be addressed adequately no matter what version of the recipe I'm aiming for.
"If I can't actually taste something from the source, I'll rely on the consultation of multiple experts, and I'll look up as many different existing versions of an existing recipe as I can to see what different people find important in a given dish. This latter bit is a practice I picked up at Cook's Illustrated, where recipe development always starts with a "Five-Recipe Test," that is, a test cook will cook five existing recipes for a given dish that represent a cross-section of techniques and goals in order to synthesize a sort of platonic ideal to strive for. By researching dishes like this, you can start to glean what people look for, and from that, you start to pick up the language that describes textures and flavors and aromas."
Tangent thoughts on the previous point
"It's always fascinating to me how different cultures and languages develop different vocabularies that are more or less granular depending on the particular interests of the culture. For example, in Japanese, there are a half-dozen different onomatopoeic ways to describe the texture of foods that, in English, we'd only be able to describe as "crunchy" or "crispy." Growing up, I'd use the wrong word with my broken Japanese, and my mom would have to correct me, "No, lettuce is not kari-kari; that's chips. Lettuce is more saku-saku." Or there's a specific word to describe the texture of chicken cartilage (which I can't remember now) just because it's so commonly eaten. In English, I'd have to come up with a good simile to try and describe it to someone who's never had it. "Cartilaginous" is only a useful word for people who know what cartilage feels like between the teeth.
“When talking to my wife's Colombian family, I've also found that our perception of different colors and where one color starts and another ends are different. For instance, azul translates to blue, but it also spreads over into colors that I'd definitely describe as more greenish or cyan in English. I have nothing but anecdotes on this stuff, but I've always meant to look for research into the language of colors and how it affects the perception thereof by different cultures if such research exists."
On building observational skills
"Ultimately, observational skills come down to practice. I've spent the better part of two decades working in recipe development, so the skill of tasting something and noticing or parsing the details of its texture, flavor, aroma, et cetera, is somewhat second nature at this point. You build up a personal vocabulary to describe foods in your head, and the more words you have in this vocabulary, the richer your observations can be."
Kenji's new book, The Wok: Recipes and Techniques, came out last month. It's not only a handbook on cooking techniques but also a compendium of recipes that you can—and should!—make in a wok, the tool Kenji considers "the most versatile pan in your kitchen." It's a great book, which took him years to write.
One essential technique that it covers is how to velvet meat. This alone is worth the price of admission.
Whether or not they know such a technique exists or have the vocabulary to describe it, a skillful observer will notice that the sliced meats in various stir-fries at their favorite Chinese restaurants have a distinct, velvety texture. They may not know what chemical process has taken place for the meat to end up with that texture or what it’s called, but they notice and remember that texture. And when someone tries to sell them a recipe that doesn't produce meat with that texture, a good observer knows to look elsewhere.
Velveting is a way of preparing fresh meats, usually lean, white meats, so that they stay tender and juicy despite the intense heat necessary to create a proper Chinese-style stir-fry. Kenji explains it all in the book. And this recipe, Velvet Chicken with Snap Peas and Lemon-Ginger Sauce, which I've made a few times already, is one of the most delicious ways to reap the benefits of this technique.
Buy the book. It will serve you well for life.
Oh, and try this recipe.
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Velvet Chicken with Snap Peas and Lemon-Ginger Sauce
“This simple stir-fry showcases the effects of velveting on chicken, which comes out moist and tender with minimal fuss,” writes Kenji in The Wok. “Unlike some meatier stir-fries, the chicken should get no color at all from Maillard browning.”
The recipe may look long, but that’s because Kenji explains the techniques involved along the way. After you’ve made this dish once, you’ll see how easy and quick it really is. I see myself making it all the time. This dish is so good.
Adapted from THE WOK: Recipes and Techniques by J. Kenji López-Alt. Copyright © 2022 by J. Kenji López-Alt. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Velvet Chicken and Blanched Snap Peas:
1 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into ¼-inch-thick slices1
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 large egg white
2 teaspoons cornstarch2
1 pound sugar snap or snow peas, trimmed
1 tablespoon light soy sauce or shoyu
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
¼ cup low-sodium homemade or store-bought chicken stock or water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
3 tablespoons peanut, rice bran, or other neutral oil
4 strips3 lemon zest removed with a vegetable peeler, about 2 inches long and 1 inch wide
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
3 green onions, cut into ½-inch pieces
Kosher salt, to taste
Place the chicken in a medium bowl, cover with cold water, and vigorously agitate it. Drain through a fine-mesh strainer set in the sink and press on the chicken with your hands to remove excess water. Return the chicken to the bowl and add the salt, wine, baking soda, egg white, and cornstarch. Stir vigorously with your fingertips or chopsticks for 30 seconds. Let marinate in the fridge for at least 15 minutes and up to 8 hours.
Bring 2 quarts of salted water to a hard boil in a small saucepan or wok. Add the snap peas and simmer until bright green but still crisp, about 45 seconds. Using a spider, transfer the peas to a wide plate in a single layer and set them aside to cool. Let the water return to a hard boil.
Add the chicken, dropping it in a piece at a time to prevent sticking. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the water returns to a brief simmer and the chicken is mostly cooked through, 30 to 60 seconds. Transfer the chicken to a rimmed baking sheet using a spider and spread it into a single layer to dry. Set aside. Dump out the contents of the wok and wipe clean.
Make the sauce: Combine the soy sauce, wine, chicken stock, lemon juice, sesame oil, and sugar in a small bowl and stir together until homogeneous. Set aside. Combine the cornstarch and water in a separate small bowl and stir with a fork until the cornstarch is dissolved.
Get all the components ready. Arrange them near the stove.
Heat a wok over high heat until lightly smoking. Add the oil and swirl to coat. Add the lemon zest, garlic, and ginger and stir-fry until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Immediately add the scallions, snap peas, and chicken and toss thoroughly to combine. Stir-fry until the chicken is just cooked through and the snap peas are tender-crisp, about 30 seconds.
Stir the sauce and add to the wok by pouring it around the edges. Stir the cornstarch slurry and add a splash. Cook, tossing, until the sauce thickens and the chicken is cooked through, about 30 seconds longer. Adjust the sauce consistency with more cornstarch slurry if it is too thin or a splash of water if it is too thick. Transfer to a serving platter and serve immediately with steamed rice.
I sliced the chicken breasts against the grain and, to create as much surface area as possible (still within the confines of being “bite-sized”), on a very sharp angle.
I ran out of cornstarch, so I used tapioca starch. The sauce would have been a bit clearer and glossier had I used cornstarch, but tapioca starch works well.
I used 8 strips. I can’t help it. I LOVE LEMONS. The lemon strips aren’t there just to lend their scent to the dish; you can eat them. And I ate them all lol. They’re not bitter if you’re careful not to slice into the bitter white pith.