Monday, February 18, 2013

Beginner recipe: Nelly's easy chicken stew

Recently I've been reflecting on how hard it really is to learn to cook. I've hit the age (gulp!) where loads of my friends have married, moved out, had (or having) kiddies and I've noticed this trend. Generally, if someone has managed to learn to cook before getting married and/or having kiddies - there is a much higher likelihood that the person will continue to cook for their household after the aforesaid life changes.


Because cooking - or learning to cook - is really not as easy as it sounds. And if you're not used to having to forage for yourself day after day and plan ahead - then it just gets so much harder. I mean, I once read this saying: "if you can read, you can cook" - and now, I think it isn't really true. Cooking - even simple home cooking - is full of skills to learn, jargon to decipher.

The second reason so few people cook is because cooking - for those with kiddies and households to manage - is tiring. It generates washing up. It involves taking out appropriate pans and chopping things up. Even cooking one meal per week means you need to plan ahead and buy the right stuff. Plus if you have kids, it gets even trickier because you have to plan for toddler or child friendly meals. Plus... you're tired and have no time. Eating out gets the trick done and then you can get kiddies off the bed and plop down somewhere to nap.

Well, last week I was thinking about this cooking issue (because I am random like that) and I remembered myself about 5 years ago, just starting to cook and trying to decipher cooking jargon. During that time, I stumbled on Chubby Hubby's food blog and was amazed by his recipes. One day, when reading an especially enticing recipe filled with mysterious ingredients that I wasn't sure of, I finally plucked up my courage to send him a question - What is lemon zest?

What is lemon zest?!!

Can you believe it? I use practically every part of the lemon now but then! Then, lemons were for iced lemon tea (which came out of a can) and for scenting dishwashing liquid (we were a Mama Lemon household). As far as I was aware, that's all lemons were used for.

I am grateful to Chubby Hubby (or rather the kind Mr Koh who runs it) for being nice enough to send me a reply explaining lemon zest. I believe he may even have explained how to zest a lemon.

However, I am even more grateful that I did eventually manage to learn adequate home cooking skills. Oh I still can't do lots of stuff (what does it mean to gently fold something through batter?!) but I can manage basic stuff.  It also helped that for some time, I lived with a talented home cook - Nelly - who taught me Chinese home cooking and some baking.

This Saturday, a friend from church is flying off to Australia for a year. This is her first time having to cook for herself everyday and she was anxiously asking for recipes and whether she should buy packets of food mixes (not really necessary but a good crutch for beginners). I told her I'd write out my beginner recipes for her to try out and assured her that all of them had three steps or less. It then occurred to me that what people really need are beginner recipes - recipes with three steps or less, involving easy to obtain ingredients and basic kitchen equipment.

The very first recipe I thought of was Nelly's chicken stew which was so tremendously easy (and cheap), I cooked it nearly every week for some months. The ingredients are simple but effective and the genius is that as the potato cooks, the starch thickens the stew and therefore no other thickeners are required. The other genius of this stew is that if you add vegetables like carrots and celery, this is essentially a one pot meal.

(One pot is all bold because for tired students with limited energy and time, you really don't want too much to wash up. There is a very special place in my heart for one pot recipes of all stripes.)

Nelly's easy chicken stew


2-3 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 potato
1 onion
8-10 Mushrooms
1.5 tablespoons of oyster sauce
1 tablespoon cooking oil


1 non-stick pot/pan
1 spatula
1 knife
Chopping board

How to cook:

1. Cut up the chicken into bit size pieces (this can also be done with a kitchen scissors). Dice the onion, potato and mushrooms.

2. Heat oil in pan until bubbles start forming, then fry the onions for about 2 - 3 minutes. Add the chicken and fry until chicken is no longer pink. Add the mushrooms then the oyster sauce and cook for a few more minutes. Then add the diced potato and enough water to cover everything in the pan.

3. After adding potato and water, allow the stew to boil then turn the heat down and cover the pan so that the stew simmers gently. Allow the stew to simmer for at least 20 minutes. During this time, wash up the cutting board and knife.

4. Add pepper and more oyster sauce to taste (if you like), then serve.


In addition to oyster sauce, you can also add chinese cooking wine (this goes in just before the oyster sauce). But this is purely optional - I've only added it a few times. The stew will smell a little nicer but the taste does not change.

If you like a thicker stew, you can try adding a teaspoon of corn starch mixed with hot water.

Celery and carrots also make good additions to this stew. This was not part of Nelly's original recipe but I experimented and these two are the best fit.

Finally, this works just as well with minced pork but I'd suggest being careful with the simmering time. Normally, with chicken, I let it simmer for as long as 30-45 minutes but with minced pork, I try and turn off the heat once the potato is adequately cooked and the stew has got all nice and flavourful (15-20 minutes).

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