[ Click above to embiggen: I took a photo of the orange chicken in the pan when it was done the last time I made this, and that's how it looks when the dish is finished. I think the yellow and orange peppers not only give the dish crunch but also add a visual element that brings home the "orange" in the chicken...and I like the whole pieces of orange segment that are scattered around the pan to give little bursts of orange flavor when eaten. You can see the seasoning on the chicken from when it was broiled, which is a peppery taste I like as an extra addition to the flavor profile. ]
Orange Chicken is my boyfriend Justin’s favorite dinner…but over time I evolved it from what’s typically found in Chinese restaurants so it’s also a little bit French “a l’orange” too. I also added a lot more color in the form of yellow and orange bell peppers and made it healthier than normal by not using anything fried (the way Chinese restaurants typically bread and then fry chicken for this dish). A lot of time I’ll have something in a restaurant and come home and try to make it for us in our apartment…and then I’ll change the things I didn’t like about the restaurant version and amp up the parts of it that Justin and I loved the most. It is a creative license that all cooks use…and it’s also a way to make things similar to what you like when you eat out but with whatever you happen to usually have in your kitchen.
When I make Orange Chicken, there’s enough for three meals for Justin and myself:
1. The first night we eat this over brown rice
2. The second day, we have an orange chicken sandwich (by just slicing open and toasting some baguette and then adding the orange chicken cold as a sandwich filling…you can heat it up too, if you want, but it’s great cold).
3. The last day I make us Orange Chicken lettuce cups by just using the leftovers as the filling of lettuce cups (literally, peeling off large leafs from a head of iceberg lettuce and then adding the warm orange chicken to it).
* Chicken breasts (when I make it for Justin and myself, I buy one of the big Value Packs of chicken that have between 6-7 breasts; since this lasts us for 3 days I think if you want to make it for just one night then use only 2 breasts…but it’s more cost effective to just make a 3-day batch).
* Oranges (you can use fresh or canned Mandarin oranges…or clementines if you’d rather use tangerines…the little “cuties” oranges they have in the fall are nice too).
* Bag of colored peppers (you should have this where you live…a bag in the produce aisle that has orange, yellow, and red peppers in it; use the orange and yellow ones for this dish and leave the red ones for something else another day or for snacks later).
* Orange marmalade (for the sauce)
* Your favorite kind of Asian-style sauce (I use whatever’s cheapest at the store: Panda Express Orange Chicken Sauce…Safeway Brand’s Sesame Orange Sauce…or any other Orange Sauce in the Asian foods aisle at your store).
* Brown rice (or the rice you like)
I think what’s fun about making Orange Chicken this way is that there’s a lot of flexibility to get into your own groove; you can really put your own personal spin on this, particularly when it comes to the sauce.
How to Make It:
Step One: I start the chicken off first, because that takes the longest. This is especially true if you are making the chicken in your Crock Pot (in which case, just do that the way you normally do and when the chicken is ready just pull it apart with your fork so it’s in bite-sized chunks). I only recently acquired a Crock Pot and have always made the chicken in the oven at 350 degrees for as long as it takes to cook it. Before it goes into the oven, I sprinkle it with Lemon Pepper seasoning from Grill Mates (but you can use any seasoning you like for the chicken…I just think the lemon pepper spice is nice later on with the orange flavors). I also add a little chicken broth to the broiling pan and then cover it for the first half of cooking.
Step Two: Make the brown rice. It takes forever, depending on the kind you get. The good thing is that the Orange Chicken can wait for the rice to be done if your timing is off. The final Orange Chicken dish actually tastes even better if it has time to rest and for the flavors to develop.
Step Three: Notice that I don’t cut the chicken up into little pieces before it’s cooked. That’s largely because I think doing that is gross and it always leads to a giant mess. So, I cook the chicken breasts first and when they are done I cut them up into little pieces for the Orange Chicken. When I took Chinese in school my teacher told us that the reason food in Chinese culture is cut into small pieces is so that knives do not need to be placed on the dinner table; this is supposedly because the war lords and feuding generals wouldn’t want anyone to have a knife handy at dinner time to make trouble…so all the necessary cutting was done in the kitchen. I like making food bite-size as much as possible because it means washing less silverware later. It also makes it so much easier to portion food and also set things aside for later. The chicken’s pretty much doing its own thing for a while while it cooks so I do the other stuff I need to do while this is going on.
Step Four: This is when I make the sauce for the chicken. In a large pan on the stove I plop four large, heaping tablespoons of the orange marmalade. This will add sweetness to the sauce and will also eventually coat random pieces of chicken with orange peel that’s in the marmalade. This saves me from having to zest oranges and try to get that orange peel myself. The marmalade does all that for me, which is awesome. Once the marmalade is in the pan, I then pour in some of the Panda Express orange sauce or the Safeway brand orange ginger sauce. I buy these when they are on sale and so there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll be using one or the other every time I make this. The price point for buying the sauce is when it’s $2.99 or so…which happens at least once a month for either of them. Sometimes, Dominick’s (which sells the Safeway store brands) has the sauces 2 for $3…and then I stock up. The reason I add the marmalade to the sauce is because I don’t think the orange sauces out there have enough orange flavor to them…but I also don’t like Orange Chicken without the pungent tang of the Chinese style sauces. Without that tang, then the dish tastes too much like chicken a l’orange (which isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it’s not Chinese style then). The sauce part of this dish is where you can really tailor things to your taste. Adding more marmalade makes the sauce sweeter and more orange-flavored…but adding more of the Panda Express or Safeway prepared sauce makes it more tangy and savory. It’s up to you what you like best.
Step Five: I turn the flame on very low for the sauce while I head over to chop up the orange and yellow peppers. Cut the tops off first (where the stem is) and then slice them all in half so you can scoop out the seeds. Then I cut them so they are little square shapes. I don’t like using long slender strips of peppers for Orange Chicken and think the little square pieces look nicer in the final dish. When you’ve got them all chopped up, add them to the sauce in the pan on the stove.
Step Six: Let the peppers simmer a little but turn the fire off if they start getting too much heat. You want them to be somewhat crunchy so they add a nice texture to the finished dish…and not cooked all the way through.
Step Seven: When the chicken is done, take it out of the oven and cut it up into little pieces. This is where if you’ve used a Crock Pot instead you can just pull the chicken apart with a fork into pieces and then you add it to the pan with the sauce and the peppers. I like to add the chicken into the pan a few pieces at a time and then stir everything around…then add more chicken…stir some more…etc. until all the chicken is added and everything is evenly coated with sauce. There’s no need to have too much sauce because the flavors will be very strong. I swear it took me like 30 years to learn this, but less sauce is actually better. Let the flavors of the chicken and the oranges and the peppers come through and not have everything drowned in sauce. If food is a superhero, then sauce is the cape…the cool accent that makes everything soar, but not an oppressive burqa that hides the food underneath from the world. Once everything has been stirred together, I turn the flame on high for a few minutes which makes the sauce stick to the chicken and for the whole thing to have a cohesive flavor. I stir everything around a few more times and then I let it all rest for 5 minutes.
Step Eight: While the Orange Chicken is resting, I peel roughly 2 oranges and divide them into segments…then I cut each segment into half if it’s a big orange. Justin is a very picky eater, so I have to make sure all the white tendons from inside the orange are removed and the segments are all clean. If you are using Mandarin oranges from a can, then just drain them of their juice and add them to the Orange Chicken that’s cooling on the stove as-is. If you are using small tangerines or little “cuties” oranges, then use about 4 of them. I like putting them on top of the Orange Chicken at the end so that they absorb the warmth from the food around it but they don’t cook and don’t burst (as they would if you added them when there was a flame under the pan). I like the orange pieces to be whole like this because they add little flavor explosions here and there when you’re eating the dish later. I always make sure people get an even helping of the orange pieces when I dish up the food into the bowls and I save a few orange pieces for garnish on the plate too. Presentation really is a big part of any meal. You can make the most inexpensive food taste “expensive” by just elevating your presentation a little and always making sure you have at least three different colors in every plating (in this case, I have yellow and orange from the peppers and then the white of the chicken…and I’m tempted to serve this dish on a plate with broccoli or green beans sometimes because I love having that brilliant green color on there too). Food really is art, and when you are cooking you are an in-house Picasso.
Step Nine: Before I plate anything up, I clean all the pans and dishes I used to make the meal and all the utensils that got dirty up to this point. This way there’s no mess later for me to deal with after we eat.
Step Ten: I dish up the brown rice (which I planned to be ready right now) and then on top of it I add the Orange Chicken: one bowl for Justin and one bowl for me. I then divide the remaining Orange Chicken that’s in the pan into two separate bowls: one for tomorrow’s cold sandwich version of this dish and the other for the day after’s lettuce cups. The only thing I’ll need to stretch this meal over three days instead of one is a French baguette and a head of lettuce. I’ve found that dividing the remainder after I’ve plated up dinner that first night is the best way to stretch what I’ve made over the next two days because I’m not relying on something being “leftover” since the plan was always to do that stretching from the beginning. This is also a way to portion control if you are watching your food intake so you don’t overeat.
Neither Justin nor I use chopsticks and we just eat this with a fork. I make a hot tea to drink with it, like I’d get at a Chinese restaurant, but Justin likes his Diet Orange pop. Another fun thing you could do is add a little orange juice to a glass of club soda and you could make a bubbly orange drink to complement the chicken dish. I don’t drink anymore, but if I did I’d serve this with Blue Moon or another such beer that has an orange-y zing to it. I think a wine that would be nice with this is a Riesling because of its sharp sweetness. Another good pairing is an Italian Prosecco, which some people think is just for the summer time but is super cheap in the fall and winter as a result of that misconception. A sparkling Prosecco with some orange chicken is a very nice combination for people who enjoy alcohol in moderation.
I really don’t like ordering Orange Chicken from Chinese restaurants since I started making my own version because they fry their chicken and bread it, which are two things I avoid by roasting the chicken in the oven (or cooking it in the Crock Pot). I also like the crunchiness that the bell peppers add to my version…which Chinese restaurants don’t do. Even though I do like Panda Express’s Orange Chicken and its sauce, I miss the vegetables that I put in mine and I also like the extra orange flavor that the marmalade brings. A few times I tried making this dish with carrots in addition to the peppers, but it was overkill in my opinion. The carrots also had a weird flavor with all the orange notes around them…so while I do add carrots to the Hawaiian chicken I make, I don’t put the carrots in my Orange Chicken. You can try them if you like, or if you can’t find any orange or yellow bell peppers…but I think you’ll find that the carrots are weird in this.
What I love most about making this Orange Chicken is how CHEAP it ends up being; there’s a Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood that we love called Ping Pong, but we can’t walk out of that place without spending at least $50 for the two of us for one meal. Here, I can make a better version of Orange Chicken that feeds us for three days for less than half that price.
Cost of Ingredients:
Here’s the list of ingredients and what they cost to make Orange Chicken in Chicago the last time I made it (November 2012):
* Chicken Value Pack: 7 breasts of chicken for $12
* Oranges: “Cuties” box of little oranges for $6 (and I used about $1 worth of the oranges by taking three of them for the dish) = $1
* Pack of Colorful Peppers: $5 (and I used 2/3 of them, so about $3.50 worth of yellow and orange peppers) = $3.50
* Marmalade: $3 (and it’s enough to make this dish three times, using 1/3 of the marmalade each time…so one use is about $1) = $1
* Panda Express Orange Chicken Sauce: $4 (and I used 1/3 of it, so each bottle is good for making this dish three times)= $1.50
* Brown Rice: $1 (I used the Uncle Ben’s quick-brown rice that comes in a big pack of around 5 bags…so I think this was about $1 each) = $1
So, that was a total of $20 and the Orange Chicken will be used for 3 meals, so that’s less than $7 for the first night’s meal. The next day’s sandwich bread costs $2, so that’s about $8 for that meal…and the lettuce head is $2 or so, so that’s another $8 for the third day. That’s $23 to feed two men for three days.
We’ll actually eat the cuties oranges and the leftover red peppers as snacks for the next two days, too, so nothing will go to waste. The sauce and the marmalade leftover will be used the next time I make orange chicken. Between Justin and I, we’ll finish off the French bread and the lettuce head the day we eat those meals…so yet again we reach my goal of bringing dinners in under $10 and only throwing away plastic bags and packaging into the garbage and never, ever wasting or tossing out good food.
If you decide to make this dish, please let me know how it turns out for you in comments below. If you have your own twist on Orange Chicken I’d love to hear that too.
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© 2012, Kevin DuJan. All rights reserved.
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