Food From Fiction 10: Taylor’s Pineapple Chicken Stir Fry

I did the last minute cooking, which the recipe said you were supposed to do ‘at the table in a sizzling wok before the admiring guests.’ A sizzling wok, my hind foot. Who did they think read those magazines?” –from The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

We have been experimenting with recipes from fiction for a while, and recently I remembered one that I just had to try. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver is absolutely chock-full of stories about good food. Actually, most of her books have a loving relationship with food. However, one of the meals was a particularly vivid metaphor for the book’s central theme of people needing to be decent to one another, which is even more appropriate given current events.

The main character, Taylor Greer, is making a sweet and sour pineapple stir fry for a party that some new neighbors will be attending. I approve of her approach to recipes, by the way-she vetoes an ingredient she doesn’t care for, and disregards some of the instructions. And the recipe turns out fine anyway, as often happens when I do the same!

During the meal, one of the characters, a child named Turtle, is having trouble with chopsticks, and cried after dropping some food. One of the other characters, Esteban, tells her about a myth of heaven and hell. In hell, people are seated around a pot full of the most delicious smelling food, but have been given spoons too long to eat it with. Everyone is hungry and angry, and the food is wasted. Heaven is in the next room, where it is exactly the same, with the same long spoons, except people are laughing and having a great time, and closed by asking why she thought that was, and then did this:

“He pinched up a chunk of pineapple in his chopsticks, neat as you please, and reached all the way across the table to offer it to Turtle. She took it like a newborn bird.”

I really believe that this metaphor for life is accurate. You can take what you have and make yourself miserable or happy depending on how you and the people around you react. And sometimes when others are unhappy you can take action to shift the balance from misery to happiness.

The Bean Trees is one of my favorite books. It is about so many of the important things in life: family, independence, interdependence, cooperation, jokes, overcoming adversity, and with every rereading I see new things.

In this particular case, however, I was merely struck by the fact that there was a depiction of a pineapple chicken stir fry I didn’t remember from prior readings.

I used to love the pineapple chicken at the local Chinese place (it was almost the only place we would eat out in my teens). However, on one of our return visits I ordered the dish only to have it appear at the table horribly and dramatically changed. The sauce went from dark and smooth to gelatinously thick and translucent, and that’s all I have to say on the matter. After all, this is supposed to be an article about something you’d want to eat! Anyway, this pineapple chicken dish from The Bean Trees just screamed out to be prepared. And it turned out very nicely, too – not quite how I fondly remember that restaurant version, but well enough.

Here is the link to the original recipe which I altered somewhat:

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into cubes
1 green bell pepper, sliced thin (I just used one color)
1 yellow bell pepper, sliced thin (I added bamboo shoots instead)
1 red bell pepper, sliced thin
1 1/4 cups sliced fresh mushrooms (normally I’d have used these, but the story explicitly stated that they were in their recipe but we’re left out, so in honor of the inspiration I did the same)
1 onion, chopped (only used 1/4 due to some overdose onion issues in our past)
1 cup teriyaki sauce (I used less, adding it gradually until it seemed about right.)
1 (8 ounce) can pineapple chunks, undrained (I used a fresh pineapple and added some water later to make up the liquid)
1 teaspoon garlic powder (half powder, half fresh cloves diced fine)
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (added at the table in deference to the five year-old)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour

Heat the oil in a wok and put in the chicken. Without stirring much (to allow for some of those nice browned bits on the meat, and to leave some to crape up into the sauce) cook about 7-10 minutes until the pieces are no longer pink inside. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside in a covered bowl. Add in the veggies and pineapple, starting with the ones that need longer to cook like onions and peppers, and ending with things that take less time, like the garlic. Add about 1/8 to 1/4 cup water with the pineapple depending on how much moisture is left in the wok, just to leave enough to cook in without submerging the ingredients. When the veggies are nearly done, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and set them aside. Mix the flour with a little water before stirring it into the cooking liquid to avoid clumps. When the sauce is thick, return the chicken and veggies to the wok to combine and reheat. Serve over rice, and share!

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