Chicken Tip: It Starts With A Cold Knife Tip

By Corby Kummer

On a recent Saturday I went to a cooking demo given by Ming Tsai, local celeb and pal of our Governor Deval Patrick, after a bike ride to demonstrate the benefits of Mass In Motion, diet and fitness program created by the Massachusetts department of health (I'd say an innovative program that should be a national model, but then I'd have to add that my spouse is the state health commissioner, so I'm prejudiced). It was a surprisingly loose, fun event that even yielded cooking tips and a recipe pretty much everyone there planned to use. Two in particular that yielded universal "Ooh"s from the crowd, and one that has had me wondering since I heard and saw it.

I shouldn't have been surprised at how professional and lively the results were. Tsai is a master of the TV demo, of course, and known to all--though I discovered him as the ambitious chef-owner of a brand-new suburban restaurant, Blue Ginger in Wellesley, that knocked out sophisticated suburban friends who tipped me off that I had to go and get the jump on what would be a major find. He quickly came to national fame on a cooking show that was in the works when he opened Blue Ginger, he told me; he has since built an empire you can read about at his Website . He also told me that we had gone to the same college and he'd been a squash star--a sport he now helps promote as an unlikely route to college for low-income students in Boston, through a group he enthusiastically told me about after the ride, Squash Busters .

He'd passed the headquarters on the bike ride, which ended in Jamaica Plain--center of the right-minded universe--at Bikes Not Bombs , which supplies donated and rebuilt bikes to students and communities around the world. As proof of just how right-minded, my friend and Atlantic contributor Bill McKibben had just given a lecture that a big poster promoted, and when I emailed him to marvel at the coincidenc--I live less than ten minutes away by foot--he told me he was crazy about "BNB," as its fans call it. (No, I didn't bicycle over--my excuse is that I'd come from a spin class.)

It provided a congenial setting for Tsai, who knows exactly how to project into any event high energy and a can-do spirit, to make a simple marinated chicken-breast stir fry with a couscous salad. He was assisted by a beaming, good-natured governor--and Deval Patrick is himself a renowned cook, though he amiably played celebrity sous-chef. The cameras were rolling, and we've waited to post this until the state was able to post its links to the video, and here it is :

See web-only content:
http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/06/chicken-tip-it-starts-with-a-cold-knife-tip/19813/

The recipe itself is fresh and easy, with stuff that's usually on hand like orange juice, brown sugar, and soy sauce, and things that are easy to get: Greek yogurt, mint, and fresh ginger. Tip number one that made everyone exclaim "Oh!": peel fresh ginger root with the back of a spoon.

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This is new. We all know about the ten-minutes-an-inch rule for fish, and that in the equivalent of a secret handshake chefs can gauge the doneness of fabulously expensive steak simply by prodding it with a thumb or index finger. But touching cool steel till it's warm! I sent Tsai a series of questions: How warm is warm enough? Does it work only for breasts? *Do* chefs know from feel when chicken is done, or are the bones and joints always treacherous? I called Tsai.

His further instructions: use a metal or ceramic knife and put the tip into the breast or thigh, midway but NOT at a bone, which gets much hotter than meat much faster, and bones and poultry meat can be a recipe for tragedy (or tragicomedy, as on my reality-TV show debut as a secret restaurant critic). Pull it out and count to four seconds and touch it to your lower lip--"If you had a goatee it would be there. I don't do goatees, I don't know how." The lower lip, besides being an accurate monitor of heat, can be easily wiped off in case you've just tested very underdone chicken.

The temperature needs to be better than warm--hot, he said, the kind of hot a "kid would have to blow on before putting it in the mouth." It should be as warm as the first bite of fried or roast chicken, he said.

The same method does work for steak, he said, but with beef the gradations matter more--very hot would mean "really well done," which can make for dissatisfied customers and lost money. Poultry just needs to be done, as far as I'm concerned, so I plan to use this method.

Meanwhile, this recipe is an easy weeknight supper, looked fun to make, and was fun for all the Mass in Motion/BNBers to taste--being his well-organized self, Tsai made sure there was a small plate's worth for everyone, and being a good sport, the governor himself dished it out.

Recipe: Soy-Lime Chicken Breast with Tomato-Cucumber Couscous and Ginger Raita


Makes 4 servings.

    â€¢ 4 large boneless chicken breasts, skin off
    â€¢ 2 cups Soy-Lime Syrup, plus additional for drizzling (recipe below)
    â€¢ 3 cups water, boiling
    â€¢ 2 cups (12 ounces) instant couscous
    â€¢ 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
    â€¢ 1 english cucumber, washed, cut into ½-inch dice
    â€¢ 4 - 5 large tomatoes, heirloom preferred ½-inch dice
    â€¢ Juice of 1 lemon

    â€¢ Ginger Raita (recipe below)
    â€¢ kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
    â€¢ canola oil for cooking

The night before, combine chicken and soy-lime syrup in a non-reactive bowl, cover and refrigerate. The next day, preheat the oven to 375°F. Season the chicken very lightly with salt and pepper. Heat a large, ovenproof sauté pan over high heat. Add oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the chicken and sauté until browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Turn chicken and transfer the pan to the oven and bake until the chicken is just cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the couscous: place couscous in large, heat-proof bowl. Pour boiling water over couscous, add 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Stir quickly to blend and immediately cover bowl with plastic wrap, sealing tightly, and allow to steam until couscous is tender, about 5-7 minutes. Fluff couscous with the back of a fork and add cucumber, tomatoes, lemon juice and remaining extra virgin olive oil. Toss to combine and check for seasoning. Serve chicken over couscous salad and top with ginger raita.

Soy-Lime Syrup

    â€¢ 1 (20.9 fluid ounce) bottle kechap manis
    â€¢ juice of 1 lime

Combine lime juice, to taste, with kechap manis and store until ready to use.

Ginger Raita

Makes about 1 cup.

    â€¢ 1 cup Greek yogurt
    â€¢ 2 tablespoons minced scallions
    â€¢ 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
    â€¢ ½ tablespoon minced ginger

In a medium bowl, combine all and mix thoroughly. Ideally, store in fridge, covered, for about an hour to allow flavors to develop.

Copyright 2009 Ming Tsai.

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/06/chicken-tip-it-starts-with-a-cold-knife-tip/19813/