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, October 27, 2012

Weeknight Roast Chicken

I used to be (perhaps still am) a purveyor of the cheapest ingredient I can find. Sometimes, though, the age-old wisdom of "you get what you paid" is true. In this case, the most important ingredient in making a roast chicken is, well, the chicken. Get the best quality you can, a good quality chicken makes or breaks this dish. I can't stress this enough. The reason is simple. The only flavor you get from roasting the chicken is, again, the chicken itself, and therefore you want to start with a quality bird.

In this experiment, I followed the instructions of America's Test Kitchen's Weeknight Roast Chicken. I followed this recipe almost to the T because ATK claimed to have perfected this recipe.


Whole chicken
Butcher's twine (or if you are like me who does not want to buy a roll of butcher's twine and rarely use it, then use a regular thread, you know, the kind you use to sew button on a shirt)

(that's all? You may ask. Yes!)

1. Turn on the oven to 450F.
2. Place an empty roasting pan or a large skillet in the oven. (will explain later)
3. Clean the chicken and pat it dry.
4. It is probably not a bad idea to let the chicken sit at room temperature for 10 minutes.
5. Use your hand or a brush to apply a thin layer of cooking oil over the entire chicken.
6. Season the chicken generously with kosher salt and crushed pepper.
7. Place the chicken breast-side up, tuck the wings under the chicken and tie up the legs.
8. Remove the hot roasting pan/large skillet from the oven. Place the chicken, breast-side up, on the pan.
(As explained by America's Test Kitchen crew, putting the bird on a very hot pan gives the under-side of the chicken a head-start in cooking so that the whole bird will cook evenly)
9. Roast the chicken for 30 minutes (or up to internal breast temperature registers 120F).
10. Turn the oven off and let the chicken continue sitting in the oven for 30 minutes (until the internal breast temperature reaches 160F).
(This is the "ah-ha" moment that ensures a moist roast chicken)
11. Take the chicken out from the oven, let is rest and cool down for about 20 minutes before carving.

1. Transfer all the juice into a small bowl.
2. Remove majority of the fat.
3. Return the juice to a small sauce pan.
4. Add a pinch of salt, pepper, and a tiny splash of vinegar (adding vinegar is my own invention).
5. Bring the sauce to a gentle boil.
6. Slowly add cornstarch that has already been dissolved in water until the gravy reaches your desired consistency.

If heaven consist of two flavors, one sweet and one savory, the sweet flavor has to be Kaya, and the savory is this gravy.

Oh my word!! I have not tasted any roast chicken this moist and this flavorful on its own. Due to the quality of the chicken and the unique cooking method, this chicken is outstandingly tender. The little bit of salt and pepper is sufficient to brighten the flavor. The gravy? Superb beyond words. Pure flavor that you just can't compare to the "quick-mix" gravy. There is really no other way of making awesome gravy than to start with a roast chicken.

This dish is so easy, I am already thinking about making it again.


                                                Every limb and every breast is accounted for

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Scallops with Honey Soy Sauce

Nature blessed us with "things" that are yummy to eat. Some of these "things" take a long time to produce such as fruits and animals; some a little faster such as basil leaves and bean sprouts. There are plenty of "things" that take a while to grow but taste very very good with very very little cooking or manipulation. One of these "things" is scallop.

I went to the grocery store the other day and bought 6 scallops. It cost me more than I expected for scallops. Since the scallops weren't on the display shelf when I bought it, I have no idea how small/large the scallops are until I got home. As you can see in the picture, these scallops are HUGE. Each of them is about the size of 3 regular/small scallops that you see at the run-of-the-mill grocery stores. I felt a little vindicated by paying so much for 6 fresh, never-frozen scallops.

The following recipe was adapted from Mark Bittman's article on New York Times who adapted the recipe from Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The original recipe by JGV is a complicated 22-ingredient dish called Fried Sushi Cakes with Scallops. Since I don't have a sous chef and 3 cooks in my kitchen, I have decided to remove everything from the recipe except the scallops and the honey soy sauce. The result is a 7-ingredients dish that took me 10 minutes to make.

3 large scallops, or 6 medium scallops

1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon honey (as you shall read at the bottom, I will use less next time)
splash of rice wine (not in JGV's recipe)
splash of balsamic vinegar or any vinegar (JGV's recipe called for sherry vinegar and rice-wine vinegar; which I have neither. Raise your hand if you have both! I salute you.)
splash of sesame oil (not in JGV's recipe)
cilantro (optional for garnishing)

1. Pat the scallops dry and let it sit at room temperature for a few minutes while you assemble the rest of the ingredients.
2. Heat a thin layer of oil in a frying pan (I like to use a stainless steel pan for better browning). When the oil is hot, carefully place the scallops on the pan.
3. For large scallops, cook each side for 4-5 minutes; for small scallops, 2-3 minutes each side is enough.

(The best way to judge the doneness is the empirical way. The scallops can be easily lifted up from the pan when it is ready to be flipped. If it still sticks to the pan, leave it a little longer. I like to cook it slightly longer to get a thin brown crust)

4. While the scallops are cooking, prepare and mix the sauce in a bowl.
5. Once the scallops are finished cooking, remove it from the pan and add the sauce to the still-hot pan to deglaze.

6. Drizzle the sauce on the scallops.

One of the scallops did not make it to the dinning table. It was consumed in the space between the stove and the dinning table. If you have seen my apartment, you know that it takes 3 steps to walk from the stove to my dinning table.

I cut the scallops into tiny pieces to make it look artificial plentiful, which in all honestly, it is so yummy, I can eat 10 of these. Why, scallops, why are you so expensive????

The honey soy sauce is rich, and flavorful as expected but the 1:1 honey:soy sauce ratio that was taken from JGV's recipe is a little to much for me. I think it will be just fine if the dish includes the fried rice cake. But since mine does not, the sweetness of the honey is a little over-powering. Next time (yes, there will be a next time) I will use half the amount of honey.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Banana bread

In true spirit of scientific exploration, I repeated this "experiment" twice. Slightly different sets of recipes but very different outcomes.

I am sure many home-cooks face this conundrum at some point in their "cooking exploration" and this is - "I followed the recipe and the instructions to the T but what I made, at best, did not match what I was looking for, or, at worst, was a complete disaster."

What went wrong?

Things that I learned from my experiment of making a banana bread, which applies to most cooking by the way -- first, the sequence of adding each ingredient is crucial, and second, not all recipes are created equal. Just because the recipe from this book or that website says so, it does not mean it is correct. I am not saying that these instructions are wrong but what I am saying is that very often it takes a few explorations to find the right recipe.

I wanted a FLUFFY banana bread but the first recipe that I tried did not give a FLUFFY banana bread. It came out more like a fresh bagel. Where did the FLUFFINESS go?

If you have been following this blog, you will know by now that I am a big fan of David Lebovitz. He was a pastry chef for many years and I have used his recipe or the recipes he uses and was able to replicate success routinely.

I used his Banana Bread recipe and gave some minor tweaks.

                                              surface of Mars
A) Wet ingredients
2 tbsp melted butter (which is cooled to room temperature prior to using. You want to do this first before you start assembling the rest)

2 large eggs
3 very ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup of greek yogurt (Lebovitz asked for sour cream. I don't eat sour cream and I don't like to buy sour cream just to use half of it and have the other half sitting in the refrigerator)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

B) Dry ingredients

1.5 cups of flour
1 tsp of baking powder
1/2 tsp of baking soda  (the baking powder and the baking soda are essential for FLUFFY bread)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 cup sugar

                                              a canyon found on Mars

1. Preheat the oven to 350F.
2. Butter the 4-sides of a square baking pan and line the bottom with a "cut out" parchment paper.
3. Sift together the dry ingredients (minus the sugar) a few times. Mix in the sugar after the last sift.
4. In a large bowl, mix the wet ingredients
5. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and stir in the wet ingredients.
(note: The mixture is chunky in the beginning but it will smooth out slowly. David Lebovitz stresses the importance of "stir until just combined, but don't overstir: stop when any traces of flour disappear.)
6. Transfer the mixture into the pan and bake the cake.
(note: Don't wait for 40 minutes, as Davd Lebovitz suggested. Check the cake around 20 minutes and use the empirical test that David Lebovitz suggests which is "until the center feels lightly-springy and just done. For me, it took just under 30 minutes).
7. Let it cool then serve. 

This banana bread was definitely FLUFFY. Like most pastries or bread, this is best consumed when it is hot. The fragrance of baked, warm banana filled every inch of my apartment and it smelled like I just walked into an orchard with just-ripe fruit ready to be harvested at the most delicate moment.

There are so many variations of this cake such as adding nuts, chocolate chips, berries, citrus, etc.  I am already thinking about my next banana bread.