Things a Monkey Could Cook: Sweet and Sour Pork with Rice
By Jean Stites on February 08, 2011
Back when I was a ravenous resident of your average college dormitory—where the selections at the cafeteria often looked suspicious at best—those of us who might’ve found fish bones in their lasagna like I did were often waiting up into the wee hours for the blessed manifestation of the eggroll man, who’d bring whatever hadn’t sold at his restaurant that night right into the lounge, where we’d then pounce upon it with the last of our pocket change. Thus began my love affair with rice and all the tasty things that can sit beside it—starting with the eggrolls themselves, and then moving on to your classic sweet and sour pork.
Now one book I own claims that if you haven't tasted this dish, you haven't lived; and while this is going a bit too far in my book, you can see that it must be a potential crowd-pleaser well worth the effort. Also—being a classic recipe—even those cautiously new to oriental food have probably already heard of it, and so won’t suspect you of actually trying to poison them with tainted eel or something….
Plus, this is a pretty silly attitude when you stop and think about it, because if you really wanted to poison them, you’d serve them something they especially love!
Also, those new to this splendifabulous style of cuisine soon come to understand that you can deep-fry almost anything, put it under a sweet-and-sour sauce next to some rice, and make most people relatively happy; but in this case, the original recipe is for pork, and so rather than repeat myself endlessly, I’m just going to say pork in the instructions that follow. However, I wish to make it perfectly clear that you can instead use chunks of something like chicken, shrimp, or fish to achieve similarly spectacular results.
Of course, what you choose to fry will affect your timing a bit, while those quick with a knife can probably put this together in about an hour, while you can even do some of the preparation in advance if necessary. For instance, the marinade, batter, and chopped veggies can wait in the refrigerator for quite a while, but—like almost all oriental dishes—once the food hits the fire you must keep going and serve immediately. After you start cooking you’ve got to stay with this from stove to table to afterglow for maximum effect.
Hopefully helpful tip for beginners: those unfamiliar with rice cooking will find a perhaps excruciatingly detailed discussion of same below. However, the main thing to remember in terms of the timing of this particular meal is that the rice will take approximately the same time to cook as the oil for deep-frying will take to heat up, so you put the fire under both of them at the same time. This lets the rice stay on hold while you fry up the pork and of course then serve immediately, if not sooner….
Meanwhile, those adept at menu coordination may wish to whip up something more elaborate like Chicken Fried Rice to enhance the party spirit.
This recipe yields two servings, with fortune cookies highly recommended as an encore.
Now this is one of those dishes that can be done a number of ways, and is the sort of thing demented chefs probably fight over. Should you stir-fry your vegetables, steam, or simply parboil them for that bright, just-fork-tender perfection?
To marinate the pork or not? And then, does one dip it into batter, or roll it in cornstarch—or even flour—to achieve the absolute maximum in crunchy, yet juicy, pleasure?
Well, trying not to be overwhelmed by controversy, I’ve done it all, and here's what I now do most of the time—starting with the theoretically optional step of marinating the pork, which became no longer optional to me once I tried it.
Marinate the Pork
- 1 pound boneless lean pork
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons sherry
Any kind of cooking-grade sherry will do, and mine is necessarily cheap from the vinegar section of the groceteria. I don't imagine they use cider vinegar in the sweet-and-sour sauce in China either, but I am one of humble circumstance….
Mix together the soy sauce and sherry in a medium bowl.
Cut the pork into ½ inch cubes, add to the soy-sherry mixture, and refrigerate.
- 1 egg
- ½ cup flour
- ¼ cup water
- ¼ teaspoon salt
Beat the egg lightly with a fork in a small bowl, add the other ingredients—mixing well, until only slightly lumpy—and then let this batter develop in the refrigerator.
And those new to deep-frying may now wonder why the meat and the batter need to be refrigerated since they’ll shortly be exposed to searing, bacteria-exterminating heat, but in point of fact one of the secrets to success here is to have the food very cold when it hits the hot oil.
Also, it’s my understanding that small lumps in the batter are actually a good thing for creating this particular coating texture too; and I should now probably go refresh my memory as to exactly why the cold and lumpy thing works the way it does, so I could then properly explain it to you, but—Lord help me—I’m afraid I just don’t feel like it….
- 1-2 cups vegetables, chopped or sliced into small-bite-sized pieces
- 1 tablespoon peanut, canola, or vegetable oil
- 1 clove minced garlic
- ¼ sugar
- ¼ cider vinegar
- ¼ cup water
- 1½ tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
What vegetables you use are really a matter of taste and availability, but half a red or green sweet pepper, a small carrot, and a small onion or 2 green onions is pretty standard.
I usually throw in a couple of thinly sliced mushrooms—as well as a few bamboo shoots, snow peas, water chestnuts, or perhaps pineapple chunks—should I find these entertaining items on sale. However, you’ve only got two cups to work with here, so there’s really no way you can use everything. Just ask yourself what you’re in the mood for—or better yet: what looks truly fresh at the market.
Wash, dry, and chop your veggies into slightly less than bite-sized pieces.
Mix together the sugar, ¼ cup water, vinegar, and soy sauce.
Coat the bottom of a small saucepan with the oil.
Put it over medium heat for about 30 seconds, and then add the garlic. When it begins to sizzle, add the rest of the vegetables and stir-fry 3 to 4 minutes, until they're slightly softened and their color brightens.
Add the sugar-liquids mixture—stirring constantly until it reaches a boil.
Add the cornstarch-water paste and stir briskly as it thickens.
Remove from the heat—covered to keep it warm.
Deep-Frying the Pork
Well it’s now time for me to confess that deep-frying is actually one of the more dangerous operations in the kitchen, and therefore far beyond simian capability. For instance, when making pasta, you eventually have to carry a kettle of boiling water from the stove to the sink, but I would never under any circumstances suggest that you even try to move a kettle full of boiling oil. However, I just had to put this recipe into my little cookbook anyway, because it’s such a family favorite.
Important beginner safety tip: just don’t let the oil overheat and smoke, or everything will be ruined. Don't even leave the room if you can help it, especially if you have children hanging about; and don’t try to funnel your oil back into the plastic bottle for disposal while it’s still hot or you’ll soon have a major meltdown on your hands….
Which might make you ask yourself: why risk a meltdown at all? Why not skip this whole scenario entirely?
However, I’m telling you: it’s not all that bad, and it’s so darn tasty….
Deep-frying is a technique that seals in the juices to produce one of the most superlative of dinning experiences, which is why chefs all over the world employ it. Plus, done properly, it can often actually put less fat into your food than pan-fried alternatives.
Of course you can do it!
I do it in a wok, but you can get by with a large, deep, heavy kettle. Some fortunate people own actual deep-fryers, but I’m not telling you to go buy one. Just use something that sits very stable on your burner—preferably with two good handles that can be securely grabbed with potholders in a hurry.
Fill your chosen cookware with canola or vegetable oil to a center depth of approximately 4 inches, and place over medium-high heat for about 15 minutes—until it reaches 350 degrees. A test drop of batter will sizzle and float when it’s ready.
Mix the batter into the pork cubes. Don't drain off the marinade that’s left in the bowl, and don't worry if they don't seem completely coated after mixing well.
Carefully drop half the pork cubes, one at a time, from a fork into the hot oil. Work close to the surface of the oil so that you don't splash yourself. Stab the pork cube lightly with one fork, and then use another one to push the cube off and into the oil.
When they float and have turned a pale golden color, lift them carefully from the oil into a wire basket or colander to drain.
Fry the other half likewise.
Give the oil about 3 minutes to reheat, and then gently put all the pork cubes back in together for about 2 minutes more.
Mix the pork quickly with the sauce and whisk everything to the table with amazing dexterity in the heady exhilaration of accomplishment!
Basic White Rice
- 1 cup uncooked white rice
- up to 2 cups water
- up to 1 teaspoon salt
The ambiguity here when it comes to the water has a little bit to do with the type of rice you’re starting with, but more to do with the type of pot you use. A mechanized rice cooker may only need 1 cup of water because it’s so tightly sealed, and so if you don’t own one, then you search for the saucepan with the best-fitting lid. You also want it to be as deep as possible, since the loss due to evaporation is proportionate to the amount of surface area.
In general, you want the water to come about ½ inch above the level of the rice after it’s been soaking for a while, when you finally turn on the heat. Eventually you’ll get to know your pot, and how different kinds of rice cook up inside it, and then you’ll live happily ever after.
And because I’ve always feared becoming vaguely hypertensive, I’ve also always left out the salt. Plus, I feel that once it’s on the plate the rice is about to blend with the flavors of the main dish anyway, so to me it often seems somewhat redundant as well. However, if you prefer yours in a bowl on the side, you may find it too bland if you leave the salt out entirely.
Rinse your rice in a strainer under running water until the water runs fairly clear—moving it around with your fingers to rub the grains together to get rid of excess starch, among other things. This is an optional step often discouraged by those who know that in the case of fortified rice from the USA this also washes away legally mandated nutrients, but I do it anyway because I think it sticks less, and because I wash absolutely everything I can—not being willing, I’m afraid, to trust the food industry on this point.
Stir the rice, water, and salt together briefly in a medium saucepan that must have a tight-fitting lid—setting it aside to soak for at least 30 minutes before you plan to cook it. It’s even better if it sits there for an hour, which is why it should usually be the first thing you do whenever you’re making a meal that has rice in it. It’s important for superior results, since the moisture slowly penetrates almost all the way to the center of the rice kernel before the agitation provided by adding heat starts stripping away the surface, which can turn the outside mushy before the inside’s tender.
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stir, cover tightly, put the heat as low as it will go, and leave it alone for 15 minutes. If it boils over, stir and cover it again, but it probably means that your pot’s too small.
Stir your rice lightly but completely to fluff it up a bit and to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Turn off the heat and cover it again for another 10 minutes. It’ll stay warm longer than that if you leave the lid alone.
Contrariwise, some people say that at the end of the 15 minute cooking time you should just turn the heat off and not open the lid for 10 minutes—then fluff and keep it on hold—but I usually want to just compulsively take a peek.
Once again, you’ll have to be the judge.
Well, they say an artist has to suffer.
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