I often have discussions with a friend over the theory of allowing perfect to be the enemy of good – meaning it’s often better to share something good with the world instead of keeping it under your hat until you’ve perfected it (which, let’s face it, rarely happens). I’ll admit I fail miserably at this. I want every blog post I write to complete blow a reader’s mind with its immense wealth of knowledge and enlightenment, and I want every dish that comes out of my kitchen to bring friends and family to tears it's so damn good. Which is why I do not post as often as I should, or have dinner parties as often as I need to. Shame on me.
Don’t worry. Therapy is going well. I’m working on it.
But there is, unquestionably, a high demand these days for the perfect dish, for the perfect dining experience. “The ten course tasting menu with wine pairing was amazing, but it took them FOREVER to get my glass of water – you know I’m totally trashing them on Yelp before I even leave the restaurant.” (If you happen to be that douchy person, we’ll never eat out together. FYI.)
Perfection in food may never be attainable, but I still like trying. It’s why I invested in Thomas Keller’s “Ad Hoc” cookbook and adhere to his mantra when I’m in the kitchen: “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.”
Everyone knows you can’t please everyone. But what if, as a cook, chef, restaurant owner, you got as close to perfection as you could by totally nailing one dish? All of your focus, love and attention could go into producing the single best dish you possibly could, and your diners would know what to expect as well.
Perhaps this is what Sheridan Su and Jenny Wong, owners of Flock and Fowl in Las Vegas had in mind when they opened their second restaurant (you may know them from the wildly successful Fat Choy in the Eureka Casino) which singularly highlights Hainan Chicken Rice. Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese goes on record in his new cookbook ("The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook") as saying “Hainan chicken rice is the best way to eat chicken.” He includes his recipe in the book, Lucky Peach includes a more traditional version (with a few tweaks) in their latest cookbook ("Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes"), and most recently Saveur featured “Flight of the Wenchang Chicken” in their April issue.
Hainan chicken rice is a brilliantly simple chicken dish that has been around for a very long time. It is a dish adapted from early Chinese immigrants originally from the Hainan province in southern China and you’ll find it throughout Southeast Asia in any country where there are Chinese immigrants. The method is simple and universal – poach a chicken stuffed with aromatics, then use that cooking liquid (and some chicken fat) to make the rice. Known as com ga hai nam in Vietnam, khao man kai in Thailand, and bai mon in Cambodia, the sauces and aromatics might vary slightly, but the final result wherever you have it is undeniably seriously good chicken.
Flock and Fowl will come right out and admit they’re obsessed with serving you the perfect plate of chicken. I had to take them up on this and stopped in for a visit on my way to LA this past February. Hidden in a tiny little strip mall just off the strip on Sahara, you’ll find Sheridan and possibly one more cook in the back, and Jenny up front – smiling and greeting folks, taking their orders and hand-delivering plate after plate of perfectly poached chicken with sauces made in-house.
They have daily specials and special treats like fried chicken bao and Thai Caramel chicken wings, but you should start with the traditional Hainan chicken rice if you know what’s good for you. Since it was my first time, I went old school with poached chicken (which they debone for your eating pleasure) but you may also request buttermilk fried chicken tenders or roasted spring chicken with your rice as well.
Don’t miss the a la carte items which round out your chicken dish – feel free to add a farm fresh organic egg, a 63-degree egg, a side of Chinese sausage, or side of fried chicken skin. All chicken rice plates come with house made ginger scallion sauce, house made chile, house made soy sauce and marinated cucumbers and preserved mustard greens which cuts through the rich fatiness of the dish.
Flock and Fowl is small and special, so be prepared to hurry up and wait for a table (it’s worth it) and keep in mind they’re only open for lunch, really, from 10:30am – 3:30pm, Tuesday through Saturday.
Hainanese Chicken Rice can be an extremely difficult dish to nail if you’re lazy or try to take shortcuts. This is not the dish to go rogue on. The chicken should be just cooked through (a little pink at the bone is a good thing) and you don’t want to skip the step of shocking the chicken in an ice-water bath while the fat and the juices are still trapped under the skin. This is what produces a lovely gelatinous texture that is a Hainanese chicken trademark.
Try to use the best possible ingredients here which translates to organic for the veg (the health benefits are scientific guys) and preferably free-range + organic for your bird. Look for a smaller bird, one that is three pounds or a little less. For my first attempt at Hainanese Chicken Rice I opted for Lucky Peach’s recipe. It’s pretty traditional with the addition of lemongrass to perk up what can be a pretty luxurious and heavy dish. Feel free to check out Danny’s rendition that they make at Mission Chinese, and of course there’s the recipe in this month’s Saveur as well – lots to try!
Hainan Chicken Rice
Recipe by Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes
1 whole chicken (3lbs, preferably organic and free range - they taste best!)
12 c water
salt and pepper
4 scallions, chopped
1 (1") piece of fresh ginger, halved and smashed
2 garlic cloves, smashed
4 garlic cloves
1 piece (1") fresh ginger
1 piece (1") lemongrass
2 c Jasmine rice
2 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 piece (1") fresh ginger, sliced
2 t sugar, or more to taste
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Dave Chang's Ginger-Scallion Sauce
Makes 1 cup
1 1/4 c thinly sliced scallions
1/4 c finely minced fresh ginger
2 T grapeseed or neutral oil
1 t soy sauce
1/2 t sherry vinegar
1/2 t salt
Mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if necessary. It's best if served 15-20 minutes after mixing and will last for a day or two in the fridge.
2 T soy sauce
1 T sesame oil
+ chopped scallions, cilantro, cucumber slices, sambal oelek, ginger scallion sauce
Prepare the chicken - trim off any visible fat around the cavities of the chicken and set aside.
Fill a large pot with the water. Salt it lightly and bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, rub the chicken inside and out with salt and pepper. Stuff the scallions, ginger, and garlic into the cavity of the chicken. Use a toothpick to seal the skin flaps and seal everything inside.
Once the pot of water is boiling aggressively, put the chicken in the pot, breast side up. The chicken should be submerged. Cook the chicken for 10 minutes, then turn the heat off. Cover and let the chicken sit submerged in the pot with the heat off for 45 minutes.
Set up a large bowl of ice and water. Remove the chicken (save the poaching liquid) and plunge it immediately into the ice water. Let the bird sit in the water for 10 minutes, then remove and dry completely. It should feel like a rubber chicken. Don't skip this step!
Make the rice: pound the shallots, garlic and ginger together in a mortar and pestle. Give the lemongrass a few hard smacks with the side of a knife.
Heat the reserved chicken fat in a large pot over medium heat for a few minutes to render the fat. Note: I did not have a lot of fat on my chicken, so I substituted with a tablespoon of duck fat. Add the aromatic paste and lemongrass to the pot and cook, stirring, until everything is fragrant and browned on the edges. Add the rice and stir it around the pot to coat it in the chicken fat and aromatics, about 2 minutes. Add 2 1/2 cups of the reserved poaching liquid (reserve the remaining) and the bay leaves to the pot and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer the rice undisturbed for 20 minutes. Then turn off the heat and let the pot sit for 10 minutes.
Make the soup: Add the garlic, ginger and sugar to the remaining poaching liquid and boil for 5 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and additional sugar to taste. Dilute with water if it's too salty. Strain. That's your soup. A quick note here about perfection and me never able to attain it: for some silly reason, when I took the chicken out of the poaching liquid and let it rest in the ice bath, I watched myself grab the pot and pour nearly all of the poaching liquid (the soup! the base for the rice!) down the kitchen sink. It all happened in slow motion and I couldn't seem to make myself stop! I have no idea where my brain went, but it certainly wasn't in my head. Luckily I salvaged the 2 1/2 cups I needed to make the rice. I hope you have better luck with your soup!
Break down the cooked chicken into white and dark meat. There are fantastic videos on YouTube that will show you how to do this if you're not a whiz at carving a bird. Traditionally the breasts and thighs are sliced into pieces.
To assemble: Rice goes on the plate first, then pieces of chicken. Drizzle with the soy sauce and sesame oil so every piece gets a hint of soy and sesame. Sprinkle with scallions and cilantro if desired. Serve with fresh (or marinated) cucumber slices, sambal oelek, and the ginger scallion sauce.
If you managed to make the soup, ladle the soup into individual serving bowls and stir in some scallions and cilantro before serving.