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Wrapped Thighs is Copyright © 1998 by Ralph Robert Moore.

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This is an expensive dish to make, because it calls for a slew of ingredients you probably don't have readily at hand.

I recommend it, but if your budget is tight, you may want to wait until you're at the point where you no longer keep a mid-aisle tally of how much you've spent.

Be careful with the cleaver.

friends before food
wrapped thighs

It's so nice to have something doing something for you while you're doing something else.

Lounging in bed, weight of your body mattressed, cock of your head pillowed, right hand raised, thumb underneath and four fingers above the black oblong of the remote, you click through TV stations, noon news to Jerry Springer to old repeat to Jesus! while the dishwasher down the hall, in the kitchen, sprays soapy water across silver and china. Your phone rings and your voice from last year answers with recording instructions while you sit silent at the kitchen table, tabulating bills. What's that? You want to hear a cycle of songs while you walk on your haunches around the kitchen floor like a big, clothed duck, opening oak cabinet doors, looking for the roast pan? The End Of The Innocence fills the room like aerosol freshener.

Mary and I like it very much that while we're at work doing something, our cats are able to stay home and do nothing. Except be there. Their presence on our settees, in our halls, puts a part of us there, too. Our home remembers us through them, while the windows wait for our return.

An excellent something that can be doing something for you while you're doing something else, plus you get to eat it afterwards, is marinade.

Marinade is a method of treating food before it's served, often before it's cooked. Although marinades can be dry, such as a spice rub, most often they're wet enough to splash around in, or at the very least clingy. Marinades serve different purposes. Chinese restaurants often soak fish in club soda to neutralize the flavor, while in American restaurants raw chicken frequently waits in a bowl of milk, so the cooked breast has a moist interior. Acidic marinades, made with vinegar, wine or citrus juice, can be used to tenderize tough meats or, as with seviche, a scallop dish marinated in lime juice, to 'cook' the food by transforming its texture.

Probably the most common use for marinades, though, is to add flavor.

Wrapped Thighs is based on Jee bow gai, a deem sum ("heart's delight") that used to be served at the Yank Sing Restaurant in San Francisco. The original recipe, plus many other excellent ones, is available in Classic Deem Sum, written by Henry Chan and Yukio and Bob Haydock, published in 1985 by Holt Rinehart Winston.

The dish itself is not difficult to prepare, but it does require buying a number of items you probably don't have at hand, and probably won't be using afterwards. For that reason the recipe below is for a larger quantity than most of the recipes here, simply to use as much of the purchased ingredients as possible. The thighs freeze well, left in their packets and shuffled into a large freezer bag. Or you can simply half the recipe or quarter it, or make the whole recipe and eat it all in one sitting.

The quantities below produce 24 wrapped thighs.

You'll need:

12 chicken thighs
quarter cup ground bean sauce
3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon plum sauce
5 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shao Hsing (a Chinese wine. You can substitute dry sherry)
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
4 teaspoons minced ginger root
packed quarter cup minced scallions (you can substitute green onions)
packed quarter cup minced coriander
third of a teaspoon of five-spice powder
eighth of a teaspoon of ground white pepper
one and a half teaspoons salt
half a cup of sugar
24 nine-inch squares of heavy duty aluminum foil
Oil for deep frying

Half the fun of this recipe is just trying to locate some of these ingredients, which can send you on a scavenger hunt all over town. You're best off buying most of the bottled ingredients at a Chinese grocery if you're fortunate enough to have one where you live. The prices will be much lower, and the flavor much richer, than what you'll find in the supermarkets.

These recipes are read by people with different levels of cooking experience (we once saw a couple at a seafood counter asking for oyster sauce), so let me add these notes to try to save some of you some grief. Ground bean, plum and hoisin are thick, dark sauces sold in jars-- they're not sauces you would normally make yourself, just as you wouldn't normally make mayonnaise or ketchup yourself. They're available at Oriental groceries, or the Oriental section of a supermarket. Sesame oil, sometimes called sesame seed oil, is a flavoring oil rather than a frying oil, and is also available at Oriental groceries or the Oriental section of supermarkets, where you'll also find five-spice powder. Ginger root and coriander are sold in the produce department. Buy fresh ginger root rather than canned, candied or jarred. It's sold in large, pale yellow corm shapes, but feel free to snap off a crisp section and drop only that section in your vegetable bag. No one expects you to buy the whole corm. Hang around by the ginger long enough and you'll see other people doing the same thing. Coriander is usually in the parsley section, and is sold in bunches like the more common curly parsley popular for so many years in American markets. It's sometimes also referred to as Chinese parsley or Mexican parsley.

Don't make this dish if you can't find all the ingredients. Don't substitute ingredients or add extra ingredients.

Okay. So now you're home, in your kitchen, standing at the counter with all these jars and bottles and produce, cutting board in front of you, splay of measuring spoons to the side, ready to go.

The first thing you do is take out all the chicken thighs, rinse them under cold water, set 23 of them somewhere to drip dry, and place the 24th one on the cutting board.

You need to chop each thigh in half, through the bone.

The best way to do that is with a Chinese cleaver. If you get some of your ingredients at a Chinese grocery, chances are the grocery sells cleavers as well (a cleaver is the King Kong of knives, with a large, rectangular blade about the size of a paperback book. It can be used for everything from chopping up a cow to mincing garlic). If you buy your cleaver from a Chinese grocery, you'll find the price surprisingly low. Mary and I bought one a few years ago from a grocery in San Antonio, Texas for about four dollars. It came in a long, flat, cartoon-blue box which announced on the lid the cleaver had been built at the Sharp Weapon Factory in mainland China.

It may take you a couple of thighs before you perfect your swing. While you are swinging, please remember this advice: (1) Be very careful. Don't steady the thigh with your free hand. Keep your other hand out of the way. Better to be poking around behind the appliances on your counter looking for where the thigh skidded than looking for where one of your fingers skidded (2) It's not the end of the world as we know it if the two halves of a thigh aren't the same size. That won't affect the recipe. (3) After chopping each thigh in half, examine where they separated and make certain the bone hasn't splintered. If it has, pull out the ruby-marrowed splinters and discard, and wash off any little red pieces of bone on the raw chicken meat (4) Generally, the bone won't splinter if you're able to pop the thigh apart with one chop. It's when you only get partway through that splintering occurs (5) If you're splintering a lot of thigh bones, try having the end of the blade closest to the handle land atop the thigh. There's more weight at that end, which will help you (6) Don't start your swing with the cleaver raised somewhere behind your head. You don't need that much strength behind the blade. Start each time with the cleaver a foot or two above the poor thigh. Once you get the swing of it, you should be able to pop each thigh apart with a swing somewhere between casual and forceful.

Place all the ingredients except the chicken, foil and deep-fry oil in a large glass bowl, stirring well to get them all blended. Dunk down the split thighs so they submerge in the mixture over their head, like a mass drowning (alternatively, you can place everything in large plastic bags if you don't have a glass bowl). Cover the lid of the bowl with plastic wrap, using your palms to smooth the wrap sealed around the hip of the bowl.

Refrigerate for two days (48 hours).

Twice a day during the marinating process, while all those rich, deep flavors are doing something for you while you're doing something else, bump a wooden spoon around in the mixture a few times to stir everything up (this probably isn't necessary, but it does increase your anticipation, and the smell is wonderful).

After 48 hours (or 24 hours, or 36 hours), bring your bowl out, back to the counter where it all began, and pull off the plastic wrap.

Place a square of aluminum foil on the counter. Put one piece of thigh (in other words, half a thigh) in the center of the square, and top the piece with a teaspoon of the marinade (you may find you don't have quite as much marinade as you started with two days ago. That's because the thighs have absorbed some of the mixture).

Fold the foil as follows (this is going to be like trying to describe how shoelaces are tied): (1) Position the foil so it's in front of you shaped like a diamond. Since the foil is a square and the chicken is in the center, it doesn't matter how you do this. (2) Looking at the diamond of foil, you can see it has four corners. Take the corner farthest from you (in other words, the corner opposite the corner pointing at your stomach), and fold it forward so the point of that corner is now also pointing at you. Where should the fold or crease in the foil be? Just behind the thigh piece. Push this top flap (the one you just folded forward) down against the chicken piece, molding it slightly atop the piece, flattening the flap's foil on either side. (3) Okay. You're doing fine. Fold the rest of the foil as if it were an envelope, slip the final corner through the flap that's formed, and then do the other 23 pieces. Let's eat! (Just kidding). (4) We'll pick up where step 2 ended. You're now going to fold in the two sides of the diamond (the flap you folded forward in step 2 was from the top of the diamond). Take the corner of the diamond to your left, and fold it to the right, starting the fold or crease in the foil an inch or so to the left of the chicken piece. Take the corner of the diamond to your right, and fold it to the left, starting the fold an inch or so to the right of the chicken piece. The two sides of the diamond are now folded inwards, criss-crossing each other, maybe even getting in each other's way. (5) Looking at the folds you've completed so far, the foil should at this point look somewhat like an upside-down envelope, with the flap you seal once your letter is inside still pointing at your rumbling stomach. (6) Take this final flap (the one pointing at your stomach) and fold it back, so the point now points away from you, at a wall socket or sniffing cat. Start the fold on the near side of the chicken piece. (7) If you examine the package you've formed, you'll see that the two sides of the diamond, once folded inwards, have created a double-layered flap by their criss-crossing. The flap is on the far side of the chicken piece. (8) Hold onto the piece of foil that's pointing to the wall socket or meowing cat, and tuck the point of it, and about half its length, into the flap. This will take some practice, at least with your first one, and you may have to make some adjustments to how the foil is folded to get it right. Once you do have it right, mold the whole envelope loosely around the chicken within (by 'loosely' I mean don't squeeze the foil so tightly against the palmful of chicken you rip the foil).

The reason why you're doing this is to create a package which won't allow the marinade to seep out while the package is deep-fried. As an alternative, if after a number of valiant attempts you, the cat and whomever is with you are splattered with marinade, and ruptured foil packets are laying on their sides everywhere, some of them tossed in the sink while you cursed my existence, you might want to simply roll the chicken piece up in the foil as best you can, twisting excess foil tight around the thigh to effect a seal.

However you arrive at it, you should now have 24 bright aluminum foil packages ready for deep frying. Wash your hands, apologize to whomever is with you, mop up the counter and the floor, and heat about six cups of oil to 350 degrees (you should have enough oil in whatever container you're using to accommodate three or four packets at a time).

Once the oil has reached 350 degrees, and assuming you're through cleaning up, place three or four packets in the oil. Leave them in there about 7 to 10 minutes. Smaller pieces might cook a little quicker; larger pieces may take a little longer. Once you've made your first batch, you might want to open up one of the packets to make sure the chicken is cooked, to help you judge how long to leave each batch in the popping oil (but 10 minutes should do it). The foil will sometimes take on a root beer patina towards the end of the cooking, which is fine. That's from the marinade.

To eat, pile six or so silvery packets on a plate. Be careful opening each one that you don't get burned. Since Wrapped Thighs are a finger food, you might want to serve them with a vegetable also eaten with the fingers, such as sugar snap pea pods, raw or parboiled (boiled only a few minutes at the most, not long enough to cook them, just to bring out their color), and then chilled. Serve those with a chilled dip, such as Ranch dressing (as they were at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, California where Mary and I honeymooned). Your favorite rice preparation makes a nice side dish, something you can look at thinking, I'll have a forkful of that next, as you gnaw the delectable thigh meat off another bone, as the dish washer does your dishes, as another telemarketer is stepped in front of by your answering machine.