I don't know what it is about chicken and nuts, but they seem to go perfectly together. Other than pork with peanuts, no other meat gets the same natural pairing, at least with whole nuts. There's a well-known chicken dish for just about every kind of nut out there, from Kung Pao chicken to chicken with cashews, all with different sauces and slightly different preparation methods.
Almond Chicken is another winner to add to that list. It was a pretty popular dish starting around a century ago, served alongside egg foo young and chop suey at Chinese restaurants in the U.S. From the 1940s through the 1960s, cookbooks aimed at American housewives printed recipes to allow them to recreate the popular dish at home. Why its popularity waned (at least on the East Coast!), when cashew chicken and walnut chicken are still Chinese menu standbys, is a mystery for the ages.
This recipe for almond chicken is adapted from Ken Hom's Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood. He writes that the more old school Chinese-American restaurants serve the dish with a "dark-brown sauce, a sort of ready-made gravy that is artificially colored to make our American customers more comfortable with Chinese dishes."
The recipe he offers, however, has a much lighter sauce that is still delicious, despite the minimalist ingredient list. The chicken is first velveted, a technique in which the chicken is marinated with egg whites and cornstarch, then blanched in water or before being stir-fried. This method locks in moisture; the finished texture is silky and extremely succulent. Really, you don't miss the heavy brown sauce at all. I changed the recipe a bit by using almond slivers instead of whole almonds, and added frozen peas for color and to make it a more well-rounded dish.
Chinese Almond Chicken
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast or thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 egg white
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 scallion, chopped
- 1/2 cup frozen peas
- 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
- 1/4 cup roasted slivered or sliced almonds
- In a medium bowl, combine the chicken with the egg white, salt, and cornstarch. Stir until the cornstarch is fully dissolved. Let sit for 10 minutes.
- In a small pot, bring about 1 quart of water to boil. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to the water. Add the chicken, and blanch for 1 minute, until the chicken is white on the outside but not cooked through. Drain the chicken well and set aside.
- In a wok or large skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat. Add the chopped scallions and stir-fry briefly until aromatic, about 20 seconds. Add the chicken and frozen peas and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the soy sauce and sherry and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle in the almonds and stir so they are well-coated with the sauce. Transfer to a plate and serve.