Friday, January 24, 2014

Cashew Chicken is our "defining food"

Doug enjoys GF Crockpot Cashew Chicken!
With the exception of a one-year sojourn in Dallas, TX, I have lived my entire life within 100 miles of Springfield, MO. I love this area of the country with its beautiful hills, its clear lakes, its friendly cities—and its cashew chicken!

One of Springfield’s claims to fame is, in fact, cashew chicken. David Leong, a chef who moved to the area in the late 50s, is generally credited for the dish, which is a combination of Ozarks fried chicken and Chinese stir-fry topped with oyster sauce and sprinkled with cashews.

In an article titled “Missouri Chinese: Two Cultures Claim This Chicken” in The New York Times  (March 11, 2009), John T. Edge outlines the history of the dish. In his story he quotes Springfield native Kelly Knauer who explains,  “Cashew chicken is a kind of inside joke in Springfield … but it’s also our daily bread, our defining food.”
After my first taste of the dish (at Leong’s Tea House) during my high school years, it definitely became one of my defining foods. I ate cashew chicken on a regular—almost weekly--basis. While my son was in architecture school at Drury a few years ago, I drove to Springfield from Bolivar once a week to meet him at Lucy’s Chinese Food, which is located on the edge of the Drury campus. Or we’d go to The Ricksha downtown or to Dragon Inn on the edge of the MSU campus. (The Times article points out that there are more than 70 Chinese restaurants in Springfield with cashew chicken on the menu—and I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many of those I’ve tried through the years!)
When I was diagnosed with celiac disease, however, my cashew chicken days were over. With its characteristic breaded fried chicken as its main feature, the dish is definitely off-limits. Alas! I have missed cashew chicken even more than I have missed cheese enchiladas from Mexican Villa. Even more than I have missed the biscuits and gravy at Gailey’s. Even more than I have missed “throwed rolls” at Lambert’s. Even more than I have missed good hamburger buns from nearly everywhere.
But yesterday I tried making my own gluten-free version using a recipe for Slow Cooker Cashew Chicken (from that appeared on my Facebook timeline a while back. And, people, I have to say that the end result was pretty amazing. Now, maybe I’ve just forgotten what good cashew chicken tastes like—but it also passed the “husband test.” Doug thought it was pretty close to the real McCoy. (I think he might even have spilled a little on his shirt—the true test of delicious!)
Here is the recipe with my modifications:
Gluten-Free Slow Cooker Cashew Chicken
            2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 4), cut into smaller pieces
            1/4 cup gluten-free flour (I used Hol-Grain Chicken Coating Mix.)
            1/2 tsp. black pepper
            1 Tbsp. canola oil
            1/4 cup gluten-free soy sauce
            2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
            2 Tbsp. ketchup
            1 Tbsp. brown sugar
            1 garlic clove, minced
            1/2 tsp. grated fresh ginger
            1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
            1/2 cup cashews

  • Combine flour and pepper in resealable food storage bag. Add chicken. Shake to coat with flour mixture.
  • Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Brown chicken for about 2 minutes on each side. Place chicken in slow cooker.
  • Combine soy sauce, vinegar, ketchup, sugar, garlic, ginger, and pepper flakes in small bowl; pour over chicken.
  • Cook on LOW for 3-4 hours. Add cashews and stir. (The mixture got a little dry before we were ready to eat it, so I added water to barely cover. Before serving I also added a heaping teaspoon of cornstarch dissolved in water to thicken it up a bit.)
  • Serve over rice. (I prefer brown rice because of its fiber and other health benefits.)

The final result was indeed wonderful, although it did seem a bit more vinegar-y than I remember. Next time—and there will be many next times--I may cut back on the vinegar and add some gluten-free oyster sauce. (I understand that Panda Brand Green Label is gluten-free. You might be able to get it at Oriental grocery stores, but I haven’t looked, yet. I did find it on Amazon.) I will also cut up some green onions and sprinkle those on at the end. Yum!

Cashew Chicken Days are here again!