Work with what you’ve got

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Lemongrass roast chicken (gai yang) with stir-fried water morning glory, rice, and chili and tamarind sauces

Although I’ve tried to become something of a connoisseur of ethnic groceries, first in DC, now in Boston, I admit that stepping into them still feels like a gamble. I revisited Phu Cuong grocery this weekend, with a shopping list for Andy Ricker‘s gai yang in hand. Knowing that I’d need two small chickens, I made my way over to the butcher case and found “light fowl” on sale for about $1.60 each. Such cheap meat was suspect, but I decided to chance it anyway, rather than making a separate trip to buy overpriced organic birds at my local mega-market.

A better shopping strategy might have been to let my senses guide me and pick whatever looked good. But coming out with enough groceries to make a coherent meal never seems to happen this way. Had I gone with my instincts, I would have opted for the beautiful ducks nearby with their heads still attached and made Peking duck. But instead I promised myself to return to the store another time, knowing that when I do, it’s not guaranteed that there will be ducks for sale at all.

My mystery fowl turned out to be rather thick skinned and tough – perhaps useful traits in a person, but not for my dinner. That didn’t really matter, however, because Ricker’s method, with long periods of brining and marinating, gave flavor to each and every part, from bone to tip. I think that nowadays there’s a trend toward letting the ingredients speak for themselves, with an emphasis on provenance and cultivation. This leads to the fetishization of certain foods – the current vogue for oysters is a good example. But it seems that there’s just as much to be said for turning humble, perhaps less-than-stellar bits and pieces into something masterful with know how and determination.

The recipe itself accompanies a self-reflective article written by Ricker in the most recent issue of Lucky Peach, in which he claims that he has only tried to “recreate what [he] ate in Thailand as literally as possible.” This approach, even if it takes little shine to creativity, is more directed at simply honing in on what works well. In the end, I think it produces much more meaningful meals than those made with local/heritage/hand-raised ingredients that create statements before even reaching the hands of chefs. I imagine that gai yang has been made many times with more hardened fowl like my own, yet still come to life through careful preparation. These successes are a call to work with what you’ve got.

EDIT: I started watching this episode of Julia Child (for an unrelated assignment). Of course, at about four minutes in, she explains that fowl actually does refer to older chickens that are best for stewing. No wonder the meat was so tough. I also feel foolish for assuming that the market didn’t know how to use its words and merely slapped a label on, when in fact the label was quite descriptive. I’ve only got my own ignorance to blame.

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