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.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


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.


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


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.