There’s many a time when [gasp!] I don’t really feel like cooking.
It’s too hot, I don’t want to heat up the house.
Ugh, I don’t know what to make. Where’s my magical and perky sous chef?
I’m too tired from cleaning the house, gardening, saving the universe… to sauté anything.
Normally this would be when you would go out to eat but in a city that doesn’t believe in reservations that can create its own hardships too. This dish fits the bill when I’m too overwhelmed to come up with anything else because it’s quick, easy, doesn’t heat up the house much, and most of the ingredients are usually already in the pantry. The fact that it’s delicious and healthy are just icing on the fish cake.
You may have noticed that I seem to have a penchant for mirin and you’d be right. Although it is a staple in Japanese cooking, it also goes well in a variety of stir-fry sauces as well as marinades dressings, and glazes. Mirin is made from rice wine and hon mirin (literally “true or real mirin”) contains ~14% alcohol versus sake which is ~20%. Mirin also has a sweetness which works very well when you want to create a sweet-savory flavor combination so I find it goes well with most Asian cooking as sweet and salty go hand in hand like chocolate and marzipan 🙂 Sometimes, the easiest way to highlight flavors is by providing contrast, sweet with salty, bitter and sweet; similar to how a penlight can provide a magnetic point of brightness on a dark moonless night. Another added benefit of mirin is that it can cancel some of the fishy-ness of seafood as well as adding a glossy appearance to sauces. Since it’s composed of 40-50% sugar mirin can burn easily, especially with high heat wok cooking, so it’s best to add it toward the end of the dish.
Now after expounding upon the value that mirin can add to your pantry, what if you can’t get ahold of it? Nyah, nyah, tough cookies! Not to worry, you can do some reasonable (taste wise) substitutions. If you have sake, you can do a 3:1 ratio of sake to sugar (3 tbsp sake + 1 tbsp sugar) which will give you a decent approximation in terms of flavor. No sake for you? Sweet sherry or even marsala can also be used in a straight substitution with the volume of mirin.
Tips for the tipsy:
1) Cooking on high heat means once you start adding ingredients to the wok/pot, everything follows at warp speed so make sure all your prep work is done before you start cooking otherwise you may end up with burnt bits and mushy veggies 😦
2) Not all mirin is hon mirin. 塩みりん shio mirin (“salt mirin”) contains salt and 新みりん shin mirin (“new mirin”) also sometimes called mirin-fu chomiryo (“mirin-like seasoning”) is made with corn syrup, amino acids with chemical flavorings and has <1% alcohol and about as much flavor. So look at the ingredients label or look for the kanji 本みりん meaning "true mirin."
3) Is there a vegan alternative for this dish? Sure, but it will taste different as I've yet to find a good tasting vegan/vegetarian fish sauce. Substitute 1:1 light (color not sodium altho reducing your sodium intake is never a bad thing) soy sauce for the fish sauce and either tofu or tempeh will work well for the protein component. If you're cooking gluten-free, look for wheat-free tamari soy sauce which can be found in the Japanese section of the Asian market.
4) If you can’t find roasted cashews, you can toast the cashews in the wok on med-hi heat without oil before cooking the chicken ~2 minutes. Just be careful to watch over the cashews and avoid the temptation to multitask as nuts can burn very easily.
2 + 2 tsp vegetable oil
12 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast (or tofu or tempeh if eating vegan) cut into 1 inch cubes
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 small sweet onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2 inch strips
1 tbsp (3 cloves) crushed garlic
1 tbsp (3 inches) crushed ginger
2 tbsp mirin
2 tbsp fish sauce (use light soy sauce if eating vegan), I prefer Three Crabs brand fish sauce
1/2-1 tsp Sriracha hot sauce depending on how spicy you like it (optional), I like Huy Fong brand with the rooster on the bottle
1/2 c low-salt chicken broth or water
1 tbsp fresh (1 tsp dried) basil, chopped
1/2 c unsalted cashews, roasted
2-3 c steamed rice
Season chicken (or tofu/tempeh) with salt and pepper.
Heat 2 tsp oil in wok or a large heavy pot on high heat. Add chicken and brown ~ 1 minute per side. Remove chicken from wok and set aside in a small bowl.
Lower heat to med-hi and heat remaining 2 tsp oil. Add onions and sauté till soft and translucent ~ 2-3 minutes. Mix in garlic and ginger and sauté till fragrant and golden ~ 2 minutes. Add bell pepper and sauté till tender but crisp ~ 2-3 minutes, they will still have a bright red color.
Increase heat to high and mix in fish sauce, mirin, broth (or water) and basil. Cook till sauce is reduced by half ~3-4 minutes. Return chicken and its juices to the wok and add cashews. Remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over rice. Makes 4 servings.