I am a scientist who loves to cook because there are many similarities between working in a lab and cooking in a kitchen. I love to share my cooking experience with you and to inspire others to cook.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Vietnamese Sandwich (Bahn Mi) - My way




Bahn Mi, ladies and gentlemen, is one of my top top favorite food (note the repetition for emphasis). Vietnam was once colonized by the French and, as a result, Vietnamese cuisine is heavily influenced by the French cuisine. Bahn Mi, aka, Vietnamese Sandwich is a birth-child between the marriage of French and Vietnam cuisine.


                                 Banh Mi at Banh Mi Zon in Manhattan (picture: Banh Mi zon)


Here are the elements of Vietnam and French cuisine found in a Bahn Mi:

French - French Baguette, Pate
Vietnam - meat and pickled vegetable.

 
I am not learned-student of either cuisine nor have I experienced the real deal in Vietnam. The experience that I had is based on the Anglo-American version, with each restaurant adding its own unique take. Have I tried an authentic Bahn Mi, probably not; did that take away my enjoyment of this sandwich? No.


One of my favorite Banh Mi restaurants in NYC (picture: yelp user Louis K)



I have seen many kinds of Bahn Mi, from Sloppy Bahn Mi (sloppy joe on a baguette) to Char Siu Bahn Mi (cantonese roast pork on a baguette), to minced pork on a baguette with mayonnaise sauce, to good old pate. For me, it does not really matter what they put on the sandwich as long as it meets the following criteria - a) fresh baguette, b) balance sweet and sour pickled vegetable, c) distinct flavorful meat.

Cut to the chase, I have been craving for Bahn Mi and I decided to take things into my own hands. To start, I need to make my own pickled vegetable.




Pickled vegetable
1. Start with fresh carrot, cucumber, and radish
2. Julien or slice the vegetable into fine strips with a mandoline
3. Put the vegetable into an air-tight glass container
4. Add asian rice vinegar and sugar to the vegetable
5. Store the pickled vegetable overnight in the refrigerator

How much vinegar and sugar to add? you might ask. Well, that's where you got me. Honestly, I don't know because I didn't measure. I started with maybe a quarter cup of vinegar and a few tablespoons of sugar. Then I adjusted the amount of sugar and vinegar bit by bit until I found the right balance that I want. I was told by someone experience in pickling vegetable that the ratio of vinegar to sugar should be 1:1  (ie: 1 tablespoon of vinegar + 1 tablespoon of sugar).






Meat (In this case, pork, but it could be anything)
1. I bought a piece of pork tenderloin then butterflied it, which I did poorly
2. Then I pound the pork tenderloin until it became flat
3. Transfer to an air-tight container and season with five-spice powder, salt, pepper and some soy sauce. (sorry, I wish I can give you a precious measurement)
4. Season the meat overnight in the refrigerator

Putting all together the following day,
1. I cooked the meat with my new toy - cast-iron skillet (AWESOME!)
2. Toasted some baguettes (not as fresh as I want, fresh baguette is hard to come by in my area)
3. Sliced the cooked pork and overlay it with the pickle vegetable





The result?
Not as good as the "commercial" Bahn Mi, that is for sure but it is delicious no less. The deliciousness of Bahn Mi (mine and others) can only be described in one-bite. The harmony of the sweet and sour pickled vegetable, the crunch of the vegetable, the savory flavor of the meat and the softness of the fresh bread. This, ladies and gentlemen, is marriage made in  heaven.




 Sloppy Bahn Mi at "Baoguette" in NY (picture: Flickr user Christa)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Risotto



I am not an Italian so my opinion on Italian food has to be taken with a grain of salt. The holy trinity of italian food is pizza, pasta and risotto. The availability and the "market penetration" also follow that order pizza > pasta > risotto.  Of these three, risotto is the holy grail. I don't know why, since making a good risotto is as difficult as making a good pasta or pizza, if not the easiest. There is no reason why pizza or pasta is more widely available than risotto.





For the uninitiated, risotto is a rice dish.  To be more specific, it is arborio rice cooked with rich broth. Therefore the key to an excellent risotto is to start with the highest broth quality. The second key is to use arborio rice and nothing but arborio rice.

After immersing myself, years after years, in looking at recipes, I finally stretched my hand and reached for the Holy Grail - Risotto- and the risotto that I chose to make was the most generic of the generic kind - mushroom and green peas and the broth was chicken stock.



Instructions:

To make the chicken Stock
- chicken carcass
- a stalk of celery
- a medium size carrot
- a medium size onion

I am not a stock purist nor do I have the time to cook a stock for 5 hours so do whatever you feel like doing in the manner that you deem appropriate for yourself. This is what I did:

I cooked the chicken carcass in water for about 5 minutes, then I discarded the water. I added just enough water to cover the chicken carcass. I cooked this in low heat for about 1 hour (this is not enough, I admit). Then I added the chopped/sliced/julienned celery, carrot and onion into the stockpot. As for other aromatics, it is really whatever you want. I am limited by what I can get, which is not much. Salt and pepper, that's all. Cooked this for another 45 minutes.




To make the risotto (serving size: 5-6 adults, if risotto is the main dish)
1. Cook the mushroom in a pot and take it out of the pot when it is cooked.
2. Fry some chopped onion (from 1 whole onion) until it turns translucent.



3. Add a cup of raw arborio rice to the pot and stir the onion with the rice thoroughly.
4. Once the rice is evenly coated with oil and onion, add a ladle of the chicken stock.
5. Keep stirring the rice until the stock vaporizes.
6. Add another ladle of the chicken stock, and stir the rice until the stock vaporizes.



(It is these steps that makes the risotto a risotto. The slow process of cooking the rice while you add the stock in small quantity. You achieve two things - the rice will soak up the stock and the rice will begin to release its starch to give risotto its classic goo-ey consistency).

7. Keep repeating step 5 and 6 until the rice is cooked to el dante. At some point, it will be a good idea to season the rice with salt, pepper, and butter. (some chef goes crazy with lots of butter, the effect is undeniably better).

8. Stir in the cooked mushroom and the frozen green peas at the very last minute and you have yourself a risotto.

9. As you served, add some shaved Parmesan cheese. Be liberal with the portion!



                                             Arborio rice coated with oil and onions

I haven't had many risotto in the past but if I were to give my creation a score, I would give it a 6. There is still room for improvement. The biggest place to improve is the stock. I am limited by the aromatics that I have so that's something that I can work on. I wasn't being generous with the Parmesan cheese nor do I have the best quality Parmesan cheese (read: stinkiest) so that, again, is something that I can work on in the future.



                                                     The dish is turning goo-ey

For now, I am happy with the result. The risotto is delicious, flavorful, I achieved the desired goo-ey consistency (what's the chef term for this?) and most importantly, all of my food tasters enjoyed it and that brought a lot of satisfaction.

The risotto is nothing but plain rice. It is like a blank canvass. You can "paint" this rice whichever way you want. My next risotto adventure would involve seafood. That's a teaser for you!




Here are some lessons that I learned (by no means expert opinions). These are the things that they don't tell you on the cooking show or in the recipe book:

1. I feel that the ratio of your stock to rice is about 5-6 cups of stock to 1 cup of rice. So make sure you make the stock according to the serving size. It is good to have more stock and start with the most concentrated stock.
2. The rice expands when it absorbs the stock. So start with a large pot. A cup of arborio rice can service 5-6 adults.
3. If you anticipate having left-overs that needs to be stored, make sure you set a side some chicken stock. The risotto will harden in the refrigerator. Use the chicken stock as "lubricant" when you reheat it the following day.
4. Do not underestimate/under-use the cheese and the butter.
5. Be patience. It takes a lot of patience to stir, mix, stir and mix for 20+ minutes.

have fun making this dish.


 

                                       The sight of melting cheese makes me very happy


















Saturday, January 11, 2014

Basil Chicken Asian Style with a "twist" (Three cups chicken, 三杯鸡)



This blog has come a long way since the beginning and one of the earliest posts was this dish - Three cups chicken (click on the link to see the early days of this blog). I gave it an Anglicanized name this time to make it sound less exotic.

The general idea is quite similar with several significant differences between this time and last time. Traditional "Three Cups Chicken" is cooked with lots of basil. I wasn't a fan of basil back then but I am now, so I went back to the root of this dish. Another difference is the ratio of the wet ingredients. In my previous post, I used 1:1:1 ratio of soy sauce, sesame oil and cooking wine (hence the term three cups) but now, after years of cooking, I can imagine the flavor in my head and adjust the recipe to find the right balance on-the-go (a skill that is still a work-in-progress).

The aromatics remain largely the same except a "twist" as you shall see later.



Ingredients: (serves around 6)

3 whole chicken drumsticks and thighs (bone in and skin on; you can go full-on skinless chicken breast, if that's your thing)
2 cloves of garlic
1 small piece of ginger
a few tablespoon soy sauce
a few tablespoon cooking wine (any cooking wine is fine, no cooking wine is fine too)
a few tablespoons sesame oil
a few tablespoon dark soy sauce (optional)
a few sprigs of fresh basil (stem-off) - thai basil, italian basil, whatever basil you can find
a few sprigs of cilantro (completely optional, this is just me playing with flavors)
salt, pepper, and sugar for taste

and here's the "twist"

Curry leaves, a few of these add a ton of intricate flavors to this traditional dish

Instructions:

1. Brown the chicken evenly on all sides in some oil.
2. Add the garlic and ginger.
3. Mix the wet ingredient in a bowl and add equal volume of water.
4. Pour the wet ingredients into the cooking pan.
5. Cover the pan and let the chicken simmer in the juice at low heat for about 10 minutes.
6. Uncover the pan, add a pinch of sugar, salt, and pepper.
7. Now this is when you put the basil, cilantro and curry leaves into the pan. Stuff it snugly around the chicken.
8. Cover the pan and cook it for an additional 5-10 minutes.
9. Trust your sense of taste and adjust the flavor accordingly.




The flavors of the basil, curry leaves and cilantro blended so well together that you get a hint of different flavors in every bite. I used high quality chicken so the meat stayed together, instead of breaking down too quickly, yet tender and juicy at the same. That sauce! I slurped it down like it is the most delicious thing on earth! There is no way to describe this.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Crispy hash browns

A while ago I made some oven fries and two things made me think twice about making oven fries again. 1) Time consuming and 2) Oven consumes more energy. Therefore I decided to make "non-fried" hash browns. 






It is a simple dish to make since all this dish requires is potatoes and some extra effort in prepping the potatoes. After you peeled and grated the potato, you need to rinse the grated potato to wash away excess starch. Then you need to dry the grated potato before cooking it.



Here are the seasonings that I used :
salt, pepper, and dijion mustard. I would put some fresh herbs if I have them. 

(** one thing I learned after this experience: season the hash brown with salt AFTER it is fully cooked)



Next, just spread the potato in one thin layer and cook until the potato turned brown. 




I enjoyed making this dish and the flavor is so simple and delicious. In fact, I made this twice in a week. This hash browns is as good as it gets without the hassle of baking or frying.

The only negative part of this dish is that it requires a lot, I mean A LOT, of cooking oil, in order to make the potato crispy. 

I think I will try something a little different in the future, which is a hybrid of this hash browns and the oven fries. I will spread the hash browns on a baking sheet and bake it in an oven. Perhaps that method will require less oil. 

Added bonus: Roselle drink (Agua de Jamaica)

I might had this drink when I was little but I was re-introduced to it by my friend Ant. Apparently it is an everyday, all-occassions drink in certain parts of central America. Roselle is the name of a plant that belongs to the same species as the Hibiscus plant. To make agua de Jamaica, I simply washed the flowers and cooked it with water for about 1 hour. I also added some lemon peels to make it a little different. The juice has a slightly tangy flavor and I don't think it is necessary to sweeten it. I didn't do any research but I can venture a guess that this drink it filled with nutrients and anti-oxidant. 




















Saturday, October 5, 2013

Salmon cake


I love crab cake but it is not easy to buy crab meat around here so I've decided to make salmon cake. I came across the recipe from "America's Test Kitchen" cookbook a while ago and I decided to give this a try. 

The full recipe can be found in this blog salmon cake and as usual I took the liberty to adjust the ingredients based on the availability of my resources. 


Ingredients:
(yield 4 medium size salmon cakes)
3 tablespoon + 3/4 cup of bread crumbs 
2 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro (I didn't use parsley as instructed because it is expensive here)
a couple tablespoons of lemon juice
1 small shallot, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard 
salt, pepper
1 1/4 pound skinless salmon fillet

Instructions:
1. I didn't find any bread crumbs in the store so I decided to make my own bread crumbs. I happened to have left overs whole wheat bread in my refrigerator. I toasted two slices of bread lightly, and pulverized it in a food processor. The crumbs weren't crunchy so I roasted it on a frying pan until it turns crunchy.

2. Cut the salmon into small cubes and pulverize this.


3. Combine the bread crumbs (3 tablespoons), cilantro, lemon juice, shallot, mustard, salt, pepper in a bowl and mix it with the salmon. 


4. Form the salmon into a patty (either with your hand or with a small storage container), then cover both sides of the patty with bread crumbs.


5. Heat some oil in a non-stick skillet and cook the salmon until golden brown. 2-3 minutes each side is enough. 


There are easier ways to cook a piece of salmon ie: pan-fry or steam. These dishes take zero time to prepare. Salmon cake requires a little more effort but the result is one delicious dish. It really does not take that much time, that is if you buy ready-made bread crumbs. If you don't have a food processor to minced the salmon, no worries, I think you will do just fine by chopping the fish into small pieces. 

The breadcrumbs add crunch, the lemon juice adds punch, and it is good for brunch (I have to use this word so that the sentence rhymes).  The rest of the ingredients add complexity to complement the real star - Salmon.  So make sure you start with the best piece of fish you can find. 

I only have one issue with this dish. The patty fell apart easily in the skillet when I flipped it. It does not form a solid "puck" like in some pictures. I don't know what is the secret to make everything binds. It does not bother me that I am not serving guests but if I do, I would like to figure out how to solve this issue.
















Saturday, September 14, 2013

Fresh Salad Dressing and Japanese Salad Dressing



I grew up with Thousand Island salad dressing (hmm...haven't touched that thing for eons of years). Then I became a little more sophisticated with balsamic vinaigrette and red wine vinegar vinaigrette. It is time to make my own vinaigrette.  I made my own vinaigrette in the past but it was more like tossing the salads in balsamic vinegar and olive oil instead of "making vinaigrette".

I decided to make two kinds of salad dressings because, sometimes, good things come in pairs. Don't you agree?

First salad dressing - Classic French Vinaigrette
Second salad dressing - Japanese Vinaigrette

** Can someone from Japan tell me whether "Japanese Vinaigrette" actually exist? You know, the ubiquitous salad dressing served at every America Japanese restaurant. Is Japanese Vinaigrette as Japanese as General Tsao Chicken is to Chinese?

I have decided to follow two recipe sources, as usual, as references, instead of strict adherence to "protocols".  I chose Eric Ripert's Garlic Vinaigrette and Smitten Kitchen's carrot-ginger dressing.





I started with the most challenging of the two dressings - carrot-ginger dressing. Why is it the most challenging? Try grating a carrot!!! I guarantee you will have limp-arm-syndrome at the end. Smitten Kitchen used a food processor to pulverize the carrot. I am not sure if I agree with that technique.



                                                                adding the sesame oil

Japanese/Carrot-ginger dressing
I used one large carrot, a thumb-size ginger, salt, olive oil + flaxseed oil mixture, sesame oil, rice vinegar and sugar.

Yield : 1 cup of dressing

Instructions:
1. Mix the grated carrot and ginger and add a tablespoon of rice vinegar.
2. Let this soak for 5-10 minutes (I learned this step from other websites).
3. Add a tablespoon of sesame oil and 3-4 tablespoon of olive. Mix this gently together with a spoon.

** You will begin to see the oil and the acid "bind to each other" (someone educate me with the right terminology).

** I also added flaxseed oil to balance the flavor of the olive oil because flaxseed oil has a more neutral flavor.




4. Adjust the taste with salt, sugar, salt, oil and vinegar.

** This is when you let your taste bud do the work. I went through at least 10 tastings with various adjustments to arrive at what I want. The rule of thumb is - 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil.




Garlic/French Vinaigrette
I saw Eric Ripert making this on TV. You can't really go wrong with learning how to make French Vinaigrette from the best French chef in the world.



For this dressing, I used two small pieces of shallots, two cloves of garlic, lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar, salt, olive oil + flaxseed oil mixture, high quality Dijon mustard (ain't a French Vinaigrette without the mustard)

** I don't have red wine vinegar and I don't plan on buying one since I have other vinegars at home, so I use lemon juice instead.

Yield: half a cup of dressing

Instructions:
1. Chop the garlic and shallot, place in a mixing bowl. Add some lemon zest.
2. Add the lemon juice (from 1 lemon). Marinade for 5-10 minutes.
3. Add a tablespoon of Dijon mustard. Mix.
4. Add the oil, sugar, salt. Mix it gently by constant stirring.




** as chemistry dictates, oil and water do not mix but something magical happens when you stir them long enough. The oil molecule is trapped within the water molecule.

5. Just like before, taste taste taste! Keep adjusting the flavor.

** if it is too acidic, add more oil but you don't want it to be so oily, so add sugar.




As for assembling the salad, here's my rule of thumb:
Something sweet, something crunchy, and something tangy - canned oranges, crushed walnuts, sliced tomatoes, respectively.



The carrot-ginger salad dressing is a success because I have past experiences as reference. I am a little unsure about the French Vinaigrette because I never had it before. But the flavor seems just fine.

My food tasters liked this salad and the dressings. Some of them combined both and they liked it too!

















Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tres Leches Cake (Three Milk Cake)



The literal translation of "Tres Leches Cake" from Spanish to English is "Three Milk Cake". The concept is quite simple, which is cake served with 3 kinds of milk - evaporated milk + condensed milk + whipped cream.

For readers who is hearing about Tres Leches Cake for the first time, you might pause and say "what the heck is this?!" Well, you are not alone because I was in the same boat until not too long ago.

Here's the story.

A good friend moved to a Hispanic-centric neighborhood and there is a Mexican bakery/cake shop next door. One day, he bought some tres leches cake for us to try and the experience was unbelievable and memorable. Since then, tres leches cake became a staple whenever we hang out in that neighborhood.


The awesome space where lots of tres leches cake were consumed for all kinds of reasons - birthdays, farewell parties, game nights, and "just because we can" (picture courtesy of Antelmo Villarreal)



Now before you read further, imagine this for a second - cake soak-laden in 3 kinds of milk. The cake is soggy and wet. It does not sound appetizing at all. This is a common reaction I get (including my own).

Well, let me just say this out right - it is delicious! If you live in NYC, do yourself a favor and track up to Spanish Harlem. Contact me before you go and I will tell you where to find tres leches cake.



A street view of Spanish Harlem. Looks just like any other streets in NYC. (picture courtesy of Antelmo Villarreal)


I have been dreaming about tres leches cake and I finally turned this dream into reality. Except one problem - I don't want to make a cake, so I cheated and bought a sponge cake. For experiment sake, I just want to have a proof-of-concept that it will work.




I improvised a lot since this is purely experimental, nothing is quantitative here. Assuming you already have a cake, the rest is easy:

1. I started with 3 slices of screwpine-flavored sponge cake.
2. Then, I whipped some cream and sugar until it formed stiff-peak.



3. Next, I mixed half a can of evaporated milk with half a tablespoon of condensed milk (some recipes have different ratios but I adjusted the sweetness according to the sweetness of the cake. I don't want the whole cake to taste too sweet).
4. Finally, I poured the evaporated + condensed milk mixture on to the cake. Yes, just pour and let it soak! Just make sure you have enough milk.  It is better to have excess.



5. Seal the container and let the cake soak for a couple of hours.
6. Carefully (the cake is soggy and fragile) transfer the cake to a serving dish, put the whipped cream on the cake and garnish with whatever you like. In my case, Pineapple because it is a regional fruit.


From the flavor standpoint, it is close but not there yet. I think this has to do with the evaporated milk. Apparently there are many other ingredients added to the evaporated milk. Next time, I will use the best quality fresh milk I can find, not evaporated milk. As for the cake, I don't see a reason why I can't keep using sponge cake to make my own tres leches cake. I think sponge cake of any flavor would work just fine. Except one thing, sponge cake is a tall cake and the milk-absorption efficiency is reduced at the top. Maybe I will slice the cake horizontally to make a shorter tres leches cake.

Soggy cake? A must-try as long as it is soaked in sweetened milk!!!