Category Archives: cooking

Caramelized onion and goat cheese phyllo tarts with fresh basil

Summer is in full swing, and the basil plant that I acquired a month ago has been reminding me of its bright and refreshing flavor with its bountiful jewel-green leaves. Ever since I got this plant, I’ve been in love with fresh basil. I tear up a leaf or two and sprinkle it on top of my rice when I eat my meals, and it adds a hint of fresh flavor that reminds me of eating at a Thai restaurant. When I water my basil, the smell of the leaves always reminds me of delicious appetizer skewers of cherry tomatoes with balls of mozzarella and basil leaves, all drizzled with the most luscious balsamic vinegar. And one of these days, I am going to harvest a big handful of basil to make the freshest, most flavorful pesto sauce, mmm.

fresh basil

Last week when my boyfriend was in town visiting for the July 4th long weekend, we were discussing options for a night of cooking in when I remembered a recipe for goat cheese tarts with sweet onions and thyme that I saw on the Serious Eats French in a Flash column. They sounded like the perfect appetizers to go with a pasta dinner that we were planning. I was particularly excited about the goat cheese, as I had just recently bought a small pyramid of spreadable Chavrie (goat’s milk cheese) and had not thought of a good way to use it yet. And instead of thyme, the thought of the bright taste of fresh basil paired with this tart made my mouth water. The original recipe also calls for using frozen puff pastry for the tart bases, but I had some frozen phyllo dough that I’ve been wanting to use instead, which I thought would add a dimension of lightness to the appetizer as well. My inspiration for adding honey to the tarts came from the multiple experiences I have had with restaurant appetizers that wonderfully pair the salty creaminess of cheese with the sweetness of fruit and honey, such as with baked brie and sheep’s milk ricotta. So thus was born the concept of crispy flaky squares of phyllo dough topped with soft caramelized onions, basil, goat cheese, and a drizzle of honey to bring all the flavors together.

In execution, this recipe is actually pretty straight-forward. But do plan ahead, as it takes about an hour to make these tarts, although most of the time is spent waiting, with some stirring here and there, so it is definitely an appetizer that is great to make alongside your main dish and it will be piping hot and ready to serve just when you are finishing up your cooking. If you have never used phyllo dough before, fear not! This recipe was my first time using my frozen phyllo dough as well, and although the directions on the box sounded scary and involved, the actual preparation of the dough was very easy. It would help immensely if you have a pastry brush to brush the phyllo layers with oil, but if you are a poor student like me, the back side of a big soup spoon will do just fine too :) These tarts were so good hot out of the oven, even my boyfriend who doesn’t like cheese enjoyed these. The flavors come together to be savory, the textures of the soft cheese and onions contrast with the crisp phyllo dough, and the hint of richness from the goat cheese is balanced by the brightness of the basil and the touch of honey. I will be keeping this recipe for the future when I want to serve French hors d’oeuvres at a dinner party, and I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I do!

caramelized onion and goat cheese phyllo tart with fresh basil

Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Phyllo Tarts

with Fresh Basil (makes 6 small tarts, serves 2-3)

Recipe adapted from Serious Eats


  • 1/2 large yellow onion, thinly sliced into bite-sized strips
  • 2 sprigs fresh basil, about 20 leaves
  • 1/2 tsp brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 oz spreadable goat cheese (Chavrie brand is the easiest to find at grocery stores)
  • 20 sheets of 9×14″ frozen phyllo dough, freshly thawed and cut in half (approx 9×7″, or 4 oz. by weight)
  • grape seed or olive oil for cooking and brushing on phyllo
  • honey to garnish


1. In a skillet on medium heat, gently saute onions with 1/2 tbsp of grape seed oil, stirring often, for 15 minutes.

2. Tear up the leaves from 1 sprig of basil (about 10 leaves) and add to skillet along with brown sugar. Stir to mix well, and continue to cook for an additional 10 minutes. Turn down the heat slightly if the onions are browning too quickly.

3. Remove onions from heat and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

4. Prepare thawed phyllo dough on a clean cutting board. Layer one sheet of phyllo on top of the next, brushing each layer with a light coating of grape seed oil (it does not need to coat entire sheet, but do brush enough to ensure that each sheet adheres to the next. When all 20 sheets have been layered together, use a sharp chef’s knife and cut into approximately 6 squares.

5. Line a baking pan with foil, and spread phyllo dough squares into pan. Top each square with onions, then the goat cheese.

assembled tarts ready to bake

6. Bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees F until the phyllo bakes to a golden color.

tarts done baking

7. Remove tarts and serve warm, drizzled with honey and garnished with torn fresh basil. Enjoy!

And just for completeness sake, this was the delicious main dish that followed the appetizers,  made by my boyfriend. A hearty whole wheat penne with chicken thigh, onions, mushrooms, and basil in a vodka sauce. Such a good dinner… I think he should come visit and cook for me more often :)

chicken with whole wheat penne in vodka sauce


A Duck L’Orange to mark 18 months of happiness

Dear Vox, I have a confession to make. I have been dating the most wonderful person for the past year and a half. He has been my best friend for the past 6 years, and he makes me happy like nobody else can. They say you can’t possibly know that you’ve found the one when your eyes first meet. And I can’t pretend to be quite that astute. But I will never forget the way my heart skipped a beat in my chest the day I first met him more than 6 years ago. What happened over the next several years is probably a story fit for a romantic comedy screenplay, and one that I’ll spare you the details of for now, but we found ourselves together just before I started medical school, and since that day I will never again doubt the voodoo they call true chemistry.


I am immensely lucky to have found a man who not only shares my sense of humor and cherishes my strengths and vulnerabilities, but also a man who encourages my passion for baking and cooking. Perhaps he is quite familiar with that glimmer of joy in my eyes that only a few things in my life can bring out in me. Our first official date was, as I’ll always fondly recall, a candlelight dinner that we made together. Juicy pan-seared scallops over a bed of risotto and vegetables, followed by strawberry cream puffs. Whether it was the sentiment or the food that made that night special, it will always remind me of how content I felt to be spending that evening with him. Since then, we have celebrated several special occasions by planning out nice dinners to make together. There’s something so wonderful about being able to work side by side in the kitchen to create a special dish together. Sure, we haven’t yet quite mastered the skill of keeping our finished dishes warm while we put on the finishing touches of these dinner dates, which includes slipping into nice clothes, breaking out special beverages, and taking pictures, of course, to remind us of our accomplishments. But therein lies the magic of food that you’ve spent the time and effort to make, even more so when you’ve done it together with the one you love. No matter how your dishes turn out, they still taste amazing. This effect is further magnified by the fact that I see him only once every few months, as we have been in a long distance relationship since the day we began dating. They always said, food is a powerful aphrodisiac after all!

Our most recent dinner date was to celebrate our one and a half years together (that’s 18 months), since I happened to be visiting him for Thanksgiving at the same time.  We agreed to tackle the quintessential French dish Duck L’Orange for this dinner, and poured over a handful of recipes before deciding on one that seemed to work with the ingredients we had on hand yet still sounded similar to some of the other more complicated recipes. Looking back on our kitchen escapades, I realize that we rarely ever follow recipes down to a T, and this duck l’orange was no exception. We did not have access to duck breast, so we substituted with duck legs instead. A lack of sherry vinegar was remedied with a mixture of apple cider vinegar and red wine. This improvisational cooking brings an excitment paired with perhaps nervousness, but I like to think that it makes our food that much more personal :)

This recipe does a wonderful job with perhaps the most important part of duck l’orange, the orange sauce itself. I was initially skeptical about the process, and how so few flavors could be blended together to make a complex flavor (sugar, sherry vinegar, chicken stock, and orange), but after the first sip I was sold! This sauce is simply wonderful, with just the right balance of sweet, sour, and and salty to complement the duck meat. The one thing I would change the next time I make this recipe (and I really think it would be a great recipe for guests because it looks and tastes to elegant when it is really not very difficult to make), is that I would definitely go with duck breasts instead of the duck legs. Duck legs are deceptively difficult to cook thoroughly when you are simply pan-searing them. We had to sear them on all sides and finish them off with a stint in the oven, after which point we discovered that parts of the duck were overcooked while other parts were perfectly done medium-rare. So, make things easy for yourself and go with duck breasts! I did make several stylistic changes to the recipe, but its proportions are maintained. It is fancy fare made absolutely accessible to the casual cook, and it made for a lovely dinner date that I’ll never forget.

Duck L’Orange (serves 2) Recipe adapted from

1/8 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp water
1/2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1/2 tbsp red wine
3/4 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 tbsp onion, minced
3/4 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1 large orange, sections cut from membranes
2 duck legs, seasoned with salt and pepper
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp orange zest, plus more for garnish
chopped green onions or chives for garnish


1. Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepot. Boil on high heat for several minutes, until the syrup caramelizes and turns a golden brown color. (I have to admit I had trouble with this step because my saucepot was a bit big, so the water kept boiling off and leaving me with sugar crystals. Use a small saucepot or double the amounts of sugar and water and simply just use half the syrup for the sauce). I ended up just using my syrup that had not caramelized, having only turned a light tinge of yellow, and it came out just fine.

2. Add the vinegar, wine, orange juice and onions. The liquid will bubble vigorously at first. Stir well and boil until 1/4 cup of liquid remains.

3. Add chicken stock and boil until the sauce is reduced to 1/3 cup volume. Remove from heat and stir in orange zest. Set aside until just before serving. This sauce can be made ahead of time. When it is ready to be served, add butter and warm up on medium heat, stirring to melt and incorporate butter. Gently stir in orange segments.

4. Meanwhile, prepare duck legs for cooking. Score duck skin with a knife just through the skin layer. Season with salt and pepper. Over high heat in a very lightly oiled skillet, sear the duck legs about 10 minutes on each side, rotating as needed to obtain an evenly cooked leg. If needed, finish cooking duck in a 350 degree oven to prevent outside from over-cooking.

5. Rest duck legs for 10 minutes on a cutting board, then slice through meat before plating. Drizzle with warmed sauce and garnish with extra orange zest and green onions. Reserve remaining sauce in a sauce terrine on the side to use as needed.

We paired the duck l’orange with sauteed green beans and some garlic mashed potatoes with roasted onions and red peppers. The sides went nicely with the duck, and the potatoes did not need any gravy owing to its own flavor from the chicken stock I added and some of the duck drippings from the skillet. Mmmm. And I really couldn’t get enough of the orange sauce, the flavors came together nicely and the orange zest imparted a sophisticated touch that was just right. At first taste it might seem like the sauce is a bit reminiscent of sweet and sour sauce, but the flavors are really more rich than that. The night was just perfect as I relished the dish slowly over the candlelight and wonderful company :)

Chili-topped garlic cheese grits

Story time! So I'm feeling under the weather this weekend. I thought I was getting another wave of allergies, but then my throat started to feel sore, and pretty soon I was feeling weak and mildly feverish. I realized that I must have a cold of some sort. Since I had slept my way through most of Friday night, I woke up at around midnight thinking about what I could make for a late late dinner / snack that wouldn't drain me of all my energy.

The fridge is mostly empty since I haven't gone grocery shopping in a while. But in my cupboard I had an unopened bag of fine ground corn meal that I bought back when I was getting my wisdom tooth out and thinking of making grits. Well I never did get around to using it, and now grits sounded pretty good to me. Looking online for some good recipes, I noticed that most of them were savory grits, with cheese, gravy, sausage, etc. Unfortunately for me, my fridge was so empty that I didn't even have the usual milk that goes into grits. I did, however, have a single slice of American cheese and a little bit of spam. I discussed the prospect of making spam grits with my boyfriend, who thought it sounded gross and could not find a single recipe for it online. I personally thought I could invent a really cool spam grits dish, but alas, when I went to prepare it, I noticed that my spam was spoiled. Great.

So by this point I was starving to death and really annoyed that I had water boiling for my grits, but nothing to put in it. Finally, I decided that I would make a light grits with garlic and that one slice of cheese, and eat it topped with canned chili, which would provide most of the flavor. I guess in that sense it sort of takes on the role of polenta haha. So let me tell you, this was an exercise in persistence. When my water was at a full boil, I poured in all the corn meal I was going to use, at once, before reaching for tongs to stir with. Bad idea. That corn meal puffed up in a matter of seconds, absorbing all the water and forming these giant clumps with dry corn meal still in the middle. No matter how hard I stirred it and added water to thin it out, the messy clump in the pot was just not edible. So down the garbage disposal it went…

The second time I got smarter and turned down the heat before slowly adding the corn meal while stirring, and everything came out just fine – it was nice and smooth, with no clumps. Plus, my favorite part is that using finely ground corn meal shortened the cooking time dramatically. I was done in just 10 minutes! Now that's a good fast meal I could handle any day :) It's also relatively healthy too, since I don't use any milk or cream for the grits, and the chili is quite good for you with all its beans. I used canned chili here for convenience, but I'm sure it would be even better with home-made chili, if you have the patience that is!

Chili-topped Garlic Cheese Grits       (serves 2)

1/2 cup finely ground corn meal (it's like a powder rather than little gritty pieces)
2 cups water
1 slice American cheese
1 pat salted butter
onion powder, garlic powder, and salt to taste
canned chili
chopped raw onion for garnish

1. Bring 2 cups water to boil in a small pot. Reduce heat to low.

2. Slowly add the corn meal to the water, while stirring constantly with a whisk to avoid lumps.

3. Cook on low for about 7-10 minutes, stirring often, and adding water as necessary to thin out the grits to your desired consistency (I prefer mine to be on the creamy, lightly viscous side). They absorb a lot of water so I think I added maybe an extra cup's worth of water before I reached a nice consistency. Season with onion powder, garlic powder, and salt to taste.

4. When grits is finished cooking, stir in a pat of butter and the slice of cheese, torn to pieces, stirring until melted and incorporated. Serve immediately, topped with warm canned chili and garnished with freshly chopped onions if desired.

Shanghainese stir fried rice ovals (上海红烧炒年糕)

The Chinese sure seem to know how to make dozens of starch variations using rice. Aside from white rice, there are rice noodles, rice noodle sheets, edible rice paper, rice milk, rice flour, glutinous rice and its various incarnations. One particular product, made from glutinous rice flour, you may have heard of – the nian gao. It's a sticky, chewy, popular dessert for celebrating Chinese New Year. A variation of the nian gao is a long log made out of glutinous rice flour and water, which is sliced on the diagonal to achieve thin oval slices, commonly known as "rice ovals" in English, but still called "nian gao" in Chinese. These rice ovals have no flavoring, but are an opaque white color and have a distinctive chew to them. They are usually sold pre-cut and either partially or completely dried, to be reconstituted in water before using.

Rice ovals are used in a variety of dishes and soups in Chinese cuisine. One of its most popular uses is in Shanghainese cuisine, where they are stir fried with sliced meats and vegetables in a clear sauce. My mom makes a lot of great authentic Shanghainese food at home, and she likes to make stir fried rice ovals with a brown sauce (which is called "red braised" in Chinese, even though they're not red nor braised in this dish haha). When cooked properly, rice ovals are uniquely chewy but also soft, which is an interesting way to vary the starch in the dish. The brown sauce is made thickly so that it coats the rice ovals generously, and gives them a lot of wonderful color and flavor. It's one of my favorite Shanghainese dishes, and it always reminds me of home when I think of it. Since today also happens to be Mother's Day, this recipe is my tribute to my mom's home cooking. She inspires me as a cook, and I am always amazed at how there is nothing that tastes quite like a mother's cooking, made with love and care. A woman who has made countless delicious dishes, who cannot write down a recipe for a single dish… that is a woman who knows how to cook with her heart, to harmonize ingredients rather than to follow a list of instructions.

This recipe is made with a package of partially dried rice ovals that I got from a Korean market, also available at most Asian markets. I made red braised rice ovals with beef and Shanghai bok choy (you don't get much more Shanghainese than that!). There is really no difference between using partially dried and fully dried rice ovals other than in preparation, so if you happen to get fully dried rice ovals (they'll be dry and hard, like little oval plastic chips), soak them in a container full of cold water overnight before using them. Otherwise, if using partially dried ovals, they just need to be boiled prior to stir frying.

Shanghainese Stir Fried Rice Ovals (上海红烧炒年糕)          (serves 4-6)

1 package of partially dried vacuum packed rice ovals (2 lbs) – see here for picture of what they look like
4 heads of Shanghai bok choy, washed and chopped into bite-sized pieces
8 oz. lean beef, sliced thinly
vegetable oil for stir frying
1 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tbsp rice wine
1/2 tbsp cornstarch
dash of white pepper
soy sauce and oyster sauce to taste

1. Marinate sliced beef in soy sauce, white pepper, rice wine, and cornstarch, for about 15 minutes.

2. Bring a pot of water to boil. Place rice ovals in water for 6-10 minutes, until soft and chewy. In my case, I dumped the whole 2 lbs into a small pot of water and it didn't really come back to a boil, but after about 10 minutes they were done. Rinse with cold water, drain, and toss with a little vegetable oil to prevent sticking. Set aside.

3. In a hot skillet with vegetable oil, stir fry bok choy with a few pinches of salt until soft but still a little bit crunchy, about 5 minutes. Remove from skillet.

4. Now sear the beef on each side until almost cooked through. Turn the heat down to medium.

5. Add the boiled rice ovals to the skillet, add soy sauce and oyster sauce (I can't tell you how much I ultimately used, but maybe start with 1/2 tbsp soy and 2 tbsp oyster sauce first, and add as needed), and stir around to coat rice ovals evenly. Try to separate the ovals that are stuck together.

6. Add the cooked bok choy back to the skillet and mix everything together. Heat through and adjust for taste by adding more oyster sauce as needed. The final sauce should be thick enough to stick to the rice ovals. Serve immediately, and store the rest in an airtight container, reheating in a microwave until it is hot all the way through before serving again to avoid hard rice ovals.

Enjoy and happy Mother's Day!

Yang Chow Fried Rice, Improvised

On a night when I was particularly busy trying to meet a submission deadline by midnight, I asked my boyfriend to make dinner for us (which I planned to shovel into my mouth at light speed before returning to work). He wanted to do something simple that could incorporate a bunch of ingredients and be a one-pot kind of dinner. Fried rice seemed to fit the bill! Neither of us particularly enjoys eating the soy sauce doused stuff that people pass for fried rice at greasy Chinese takeout spots. Instead we prefer Yang Chow style fried rice, which if you aren't familiar with, is a lighter and more savory fried rice that isn't flavored with dark soy sauce so the color is usually lighter, and contains certain usual ingredients including roast pork pieces, egg, shrimp, and scallions. Many times when I order Yang Chow fried rice in restaurants, they come looking pristine and white, which leads me to believe that they must be flavored with no soy sauce at all, though I'm not quite sure how to achieve that aside from using salt or fish sauce. In any case, my boyfriend decided to wing it based on skimming Wandering Chopstick's recipe (whose Asian blog I love), and thus was born his improvised version of Yang Chow fried rice:

He substituted Chinese sausage for the traditional roast pork, because it's what we have on hand and its sweet flavor is a very appropriate substitute for the roast bbq flavor of the pork. Shrimp and eggs were added, as well as diced carrots and onions for more body and flavor. For the greenery, he generously added chopped scallions and cilantro at the end of the stir frying, to keep them crisp and green. From what he tells me, he mainly flavored the rice with fish sauce and a little bit of soy sauce, as well as garlic and onion powders, salt, and sugar. He did manage to keep the rice relatively light colored though :)

I loved the cilantro here – it was so refreshingly good and crisp. To be honest, I used to hate cilantro when I was younger. In fact, I hated it up until maybe a year or two ago. But then one day something happened and I started to realize how much flavor it lent to certain dishes like Vietnamese summer rolls and Banh mi. And then it was just a matter of time before I started forcing myself to eat the cilantro that came with dishes, instead of picking them out like I normally would have. Just like that, I built up my tolerance and now I love cilantro in the right places. It perks this fried rice right up!

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