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Cooking as a Sensory Experience
Cooking as a Sensory Experience
Food & Entertaining | September 25, 2020
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What makes cooking so satisfying and gratifying? It is being able to experience the magical process of creating something whole and edible from a motley mix of random ingredients. How they come together is a fascinating exercise. And if you’re new to cooking, I promise you, once you’re hooked, you’ll want to cook more and more.

If you’re a newbie in the kitchen, banish that fear and throw it down the sink. Nothing will happen if you do not set into motion that first push, that first move, that first yes. You need to be committed. You need to appreciate the cooking process in its entirety—which entails numerous actions and endless decisions—so that you can turn what might have been a tiresome, tedious chore into an exciting challenge.

Cooking is a celebration of all our senses. | Photo from Getty

My personal goal is for you to fall in love with cooking as a creative process. And this, I hope to achieve by presenting you with the concept that cooking can be a rich, sensory experience. The most important rule to remember is that you need to be 100% present for the job at hand. There will be a series of simple and challenging tasks, but it is important to be fully engaged in whatever you’re doing. This guarantees that you will appreciate the final product—whatever dish you’re preparing—so much more.

Remember how in grade school, we were taught the five senses? We were given exercises to heighten and tune into our senses of sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch. But now, as adults, we go through our everyday business sometimes mechanically and without giving much thought to day-to-day tasks like dressing up, brushing our teeth, or even getting our things ready to leave for work.

For cooking at home, I ask that you make a serious effort to be mindful of all of your senses. Use your eyes to see, your nose to smell, your ears to hear, and your hands to touch as you do prep work, cook, season, taste, and finally, plate your masterpiece. It will make the exercise much more pleasurable and extremely satisfying. Remember, you are in charge. And your kitchen is your domain.

A Versatile Recipe

For this month’s recipe, I’m teaching you how to make Chicken Pastel with Cheddar Crust. It’s easy enough for a new cook, but special enough for someone with more experience.

The chicken filling can also be a viand without the crust if you decide not to make one.

It’s also a dish whose ingredients—both protein and vegetables—can be substituted or changed, and it will all turn out excellent. If you prefer to use a cut-up whole chicken or even all breast fillet, it’s totally fine. You may add more vegetables like celery, canned corn, or even use fresh mushrooms, too. The filling can be a light brown gravy or it can be made creamy with milk or cream. It can be served individually in small ramekins or baked in a large potluck-sized dish.

What is a Pastel?

What is “pastel” exactly? It is the Spanish word for “pastry”. In countries like Spain, Argentina, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Portugal, and Peru, pastels are savory tarts that vary in shape and form. Some are baked casseroles topped with a pie crust, others with a mashed potato crust, while some are similar to a quiche (with egg and cheese in the filling), and still other pastels may also be fried or baked handheld pies.

To us Filipinos, it is understood to be a savory baked dish that comes with a top crust. The two most common pastel dishes in the Philippines are Chicken Pastel and Pastel de Lengua, the latter being a dish of diced softened ox tongue. Recently, I made a Salmon Duo Pastel using fresh salmon cubes and leftover smoked salmon that had been languishing in the ref for a while. To blend with the seafood flavor, I used a cream-based sauce instead to enrobe the sautéed filling of onions, leeks, carrots, and mushrooms.

Foolproof Crust

Allow me to make a confession. One of my biggest pet peeves, when I see Chicken Pastel served in a buffet, is a sorry-looking, sagging crust. This could have been avoided if the caterer made sure that the filling was filled to the brim. More often than not, the crust is a thin patch of dough that is hardly ever flaky and crumbly. My recipe here teaches you how to make a really good pie crust, from scratch. No need for expensive, ready-made puff pastry here. As it should be, the crust is truly the crowning glory of Chicken Pastel.

Is Chicken Pastel a Filipino Dish?

Some of my musings have led me to something interesting about Chicken Pastel. Wouldn’t you agree that this dish reflects our colonial history and the confluence of cultures we ended up having in our cuisine? Think about it: the chicken is marinated in calamansi (Pinoy) and soy sauce (Chinese), then there’s Vienna Sausage (American), and then chorizo and green olives (Spanish and Mexican). For my crust, I use butter, Crisco, and cheddar cheese: how much more American can that be? And yet, it is as Pinoy as the balikbayan box, and as ubiquitous on the Philippine fiesta table as the lechon!

Why do we love Chicken Pastel so much? I believe it is the Pinoy penchant for having variety on their plate. With a total of seven ingredients (chicken, chorizo, Vienna sausage, potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, green olives) simmered in a rich and luscious gravy, one can have a happy rigodon of combinations—two or three of them balanced precariously in each satisfying spoonful!

Chicken Pastel with Cheddar Crust

  • 1 – 1.2 kilos chicken choice cuts (thighs or legs, or 4-5 leg quarters, cut at the joint)

Marinade

  • 2 Tbsps. soy sauce
  • 2 calamansi, squeezed
  • Dash of ground black pepper

Filling

  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • 5 pcs. small Chorizo de Bilbao, sliced diagonally into 4 (or 1 big Chorizo
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced medium
  • 2 potatoes, peeled and diced medium
  • 3 cups chicken broth* (3 cups water + 1 chicken broth cube)
  • 1 (400g) can whole button mushrooms, drained and halved
  • 1 can Vienna sausage, drained, then sliced into 3
  • ½ cup pitted green olives
  • Roux for thickening:
  • 2 Tbsps. butter or chorizo lard
  • 2 Tbsps. all-purpose flour

Procedure

1. Rinse chicken pieces in water, then pour into a colander to drain. Transfer chicken to a medium bowl and season with soy sauce, calamansi or lemon juice, and ground black pepper. Leave to marinate for 20-30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, prepare all the other ingredients. Slice chorizos and Vienna sausage, peel carrots and potatoes (soak potatoes in a bowl of water to prevent browning), halve mushrooms. Set all of these on your kitchen counter beside the stove. This is your mise-en-place.

3. Start making the filling. Pour marinated chicken into a colander set over a bowl to drain the marinade. Discard marinade.

4. Melt butter in a large frying pan or wok. Pan fry chicken pieces for about 3-4 minutes on each side, until half-cooked, in two or three batches. Set chicken aside.

5. Pour leftover butter (from frying the chicken) into a large pot set over medium heat. Toss in sliced chorizos and cook until fat renders.

6. Next, add the carrots and potatoes. Toss them into the chorizo-butter for a minute, then pour in the chicken broth.

7. When mixture comes up to a boil, add chicken pieces and mushrooms. Bring up to a boil again, cover the pot, and turn heat to low. Cook for another 20-25 minutes (depending on the size of the chicken pieces).

8. Meanwhile, in a small frying pan, melt butter or chorizo lard. Add flour and cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring with a whisk or a fork. Turn heat off and set aside. This is your roux that will thicken the sauce.

9. When chicken is cooked, add the roux, Vienna sausage and green olives. Simmer for another 5 minutes. Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Turn heat off.

“Mise-en-place is a French term which means “put in place”, referring to all the ingredients needed for a recipe. This practice makes sure that everything is ready, before the cooking process begins.”

Cheddar Crust

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp. fine salt
  • 1/3 cup cold butter, cubed
  • ¼ cup shortening (like Crisco)
  • ½ cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 3 Tbsps. cold water

Glaze

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 Tbsp. milk (full cream, low fat or evaporated)

1. Sift flour into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Stir in salt and mix until well-blended. Cut the butter and shortening using a pastry blender or two criss-crossing table knives, until evenly-sized tiny crumbs are formed.

2. Add cheddar cheese and mix well. Sprinkle in cold water a tablespoon at a time, stirring with a fork to moisten mixture.

3. Gather dough together with your hands, pressing down gently until mixture forms a ball. Knead lightly until smooth. Cover dough with plastic cling wrap and let rest for 20-30 minutes.

Assembly and Baking

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.

2. Prepare a 9” x 13” baking dish. Pour cooked Chicken Pastel filling into the dish and spread out evenly, making sure the ingredients are evenly distributed. Allow mixture to cool.

3. Next, take the rested dough and put it in between two sheets of baking paper, cut to about 2” longer than your baking dish. Press the dough down to flatten with your palms, and then using a rolling pin, flatten dough in between two sheets of baking paper. Roll to about ¼” thick, to a size large enough to cover the top of the baking dish. Use a knife to cut around the edges, making sure it is at least ½” larger on all sides. Use stray pieces to patch up the dough.

4. Gently lift top baking paper and carefully transfer dough (paper side up) over the chicken filling. Peel off the remaining sheet and fold the overhanging dough all around. Using your pointer finger on one hand, and the pointer finger and thumb in the other, crimp dough to seal the edges. Another option is to just use the tines of a fork to seal the edges.

5. Make a glaze by combining 1 beaten egg with 1 Tbsp. milk. Brush glaze over the pie crust. Use a small sharp knife to make tiny slits on the crust to create air vents.

6. Bake Chicken Pastel for 1 hour or until crust is golden brown.

Kitchen Equipment and Pantry Items Needed

KITCHEN EQUIPMENT: oven

KITCHEN CABINET: large frying pan or wok, large cooking pot, rectangular (9 X 13) baking dish

BASIC TOOLS: chopping board, knife, peeler, metal strainer, mixing bowls, tongs, wooden spoon or long spoon for sautéing

SPECIAL TOOLS: rolling pin, silicone pastry brush

PANTRY: baking paper

One of the first lessons in cooking is knowing how to select the ingredients yourself because that is already the beginning of the cooking process. If you do venture out to the supermarket or the wet market at this time (make sure you are adequately protected), take this list so you can get in and out of there as quickly as possible.

Supermarket Run

Produce

  • 2 calamansi
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 carrots
  • 2-3 potatoes
  • 1 egg (for the glaze)

Meats

  • 1 kilo chicken choice cuts or 1 whole chicken

Aisle

  • 1 small bottle Soy sauce
  • 1 can chorizo de Bilbao
  • 1 can Vienna sausage
  • 1 (400g) can whole button mushrooms
  • 1 small pack All Purpose flour
  • 1 chicken broth cube (see other recipe if making from scratch)
  • 1 small can Crisco
  • 1 small box cheddar cheese (you may also use good quality cheddar, of course)
  • 1 small tetra brik of milk or 1 small can of evaporated milk (for the glaze)

Dairy

  • 1 bar butter

Dinner for Two: Scaled-down Recipes for Couples Who Like to Cook and Eat Well

Chicken, Corn, and Mushroom Pot Pie

  • 2 medium chicken breasts (bone-in) or 4 chicken breast fillets

Marinade:

  • 1 calamansi, squeezed
  • 1 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • Dash of ground black pepper

Sauce:

  • 1 Tbsp. cooking oil
  • 2 Tbsps. butter
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • ½ cup sliced celery stalks (about 2 stalks)
  • ½ cup diced carrots (1/2 carrot)
  • 1 (400g) can whole button mushrooms, halved (or stems and pieces)
  • 1 (400g) can whole kernel corn
  • 2 cups chicken broth (2 cups water + 1 chicken broth cube)

Roux for thickening:

  • 2 Tbsps. butter-oil mixture (from sautéing)
  • 2 Tbsps. flour

Seasoning:

  • ¼ – 1/2 tsp. fine salt
  • 1/8 tsp. ground black or white pepper

1. Cut chicken meat into medium-sized chunks then transfer to a bowl. Season chicken chunks with the juice of calamansi, soy sauce and a dash of ground black pepper. Cover and set aside in the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes.

Chicken, Corn, and Mushroom Pot Pie
Medium-sized chunks of chicken work well with the recipe.

2. In a large frying pan or wok, heat cooking oil with butter. When butter is completely melted, toss in onions. Cook for 2-3 minutes until onions are soft, fragrant and translucent.

3. Next, add celery. Cook for another minute then add carrots. Simmer for 2 minutes more. Turn heat off and tilt pan to one side. Collect about 2 Tbsps. of oil-butter mixture in a small bowl. Set this aside for thickening later.

4. Get a medium sized pot, then add the first mixture of cooked onions, celery and carrots. Turn heat on again then add mushrooms and corn. Pour chicken broth and bring up to a boil. Cover the pot, turn heat to low, and simmer gently for 10-12 minutes. Taste sauce, then season with salt and pepper (amount of salt you will use depends on the flavor of chicken broth used).

Chicken, Corn, and Mushroom Pot Pie
Mix the ingredients and season to taste.

5. Meanwhile, combine collected oil-butter with 2 tablespoons flour in a small pan. Stir over low heat for about a minute, then add to the chicken and vegetables to thicken the sauce. Simmer for 3 minutes more then turn heat off.

Crust:

  • 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 3 Tbsps. butter
  • 3 Tbsps. shortening
  • 2 Tbsps. cold water

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.

2. Sift flour into a small mixing bowl and add salt. Stir in butter and shortening. Cut butter and shortening into the flour using two table knives, using a criss crossing motion, until flour resembles coarse crumbs.

3. Sprinkle with cold water and distribute moisture with a fork. Slowly gather moist crumbs into a ball and knead gently for a minute. Cover with plastic cling wrap and let dough rest for 20-30 minutes.

4. After dough has rested, flatten dough in between two sheets of baking paper. Roll out dough evenly until about 1/8” thick, to the size of a square (8×8) baking dish or any small baking dish that can hold the filling.

Assembly:

1. Transfer cooked chicken, corn and mushroom filling into the baked dish. Go back to the crust and peel off the top layer of the paper. Lay the dough over the filling (bottom paper side now facing up). Fold and crimp the edges.

2. Brush top crust with a glaze (egg yolk + 1 Tbsp. milk). Prick the dough with the tip of a knife or the tines of a fork to create air vents. Bake Chicken, Corn and Mushroom Pot Pie for 45 minutes to an hour, or until crust is golden brown.

Chicken, Corn, and Mushroom Pot Pie
Do not forget to create air vents.
Chicken, Corn, and Mushroom Pot Pie
Serve and enjoy.

A Culinary Sensorial Experience

Sure, it’s easy to use a chicken broth cube from a box. Add it to boiling water in a pot and voilà, you have instant chicken stock! 

But if you’d like to go through this sensorial exercise, and want to have in the end, some good, old-fashioned, made-from-scratch chicken stock, try this:

Chicken Stock from Scratch

In the supermarket or wet market, purchase the following: 

  • 1 kilo to 1.5 kilos of chicken backs, wings, or necks 
  • 1 large onion (white or red)
  • 3 stalks celery (or buy a whole bunch)
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 small bunch of curly parsley

Make sure you have at home: 

  • 1 tsp. fine salt or 2 tsp. rock salt
  • ½ tsp. whole black peppercorns
  • A cooking pot with a lid big enough to hold 8 cups of water

1. Open the bag of chicken parts and put them in a large mixing bowl. Add water and rinse the chicken, touching them and observing how they look: take not of the color of the flesh and skin, how much meat there is on the bones, even how the bones feel in your hands. Now pour everything into a colander (still in the sink) and let the water drain from the chicken completely. Wash your hands with soap and water (raw chicken may carry the bacteria called salmonella, which may cause food poisoning if ingested).

2. Next, prepare your aromatics, which are important because they will infuse the broth with flavor. 

Choose a large onion, one that is firm, round and heavy. Select your sharpest knife and start to peel the onions by slicing off the top and bottom parts. Look for an opening from the thin onion skin and start to peel off the outer layer. Set the onion down on your chopping board, cut side down, and slice up the onion in half. Next, place the onion half down, and chop the onion by cutting into slices and then cutting across (no need to make uniform slices). You may start to feel your eyes smarting, just seconds after you get a whiff of the pungent vapors that waft up to your nose. 

Next, take the carrot and appreciate its bright orange color and the way it feels firm and rock-solid in your hand. Get your peeler and start working that sharp blade against the carrot, peeling off thin strips of orange skin. Don’t throw away the carrot peels – they could also go into the broth. Slice the carrots into thick rounds and set aside. If you’d like, take a bite from a carrot slice to appreciate its sweet flavor and crunchy texture.

Lastly, break off two or three stalks of celery from the bunch. Wash the celery stalks, making sure the bits of soil on the root ends are washed off. Shake off the water and break off the celery leaves. Slice up the celery stalks, and listen to the crispness in each slice. Smell the celery leaves (on the cut end) and file that in your taste memory. 

cooking, ingredients, chicken recipe

Step back and inspect the three mounds of white, orange, and light green vegetables. Aren’t they pretty to look at? 

3. Now take a medium or large cooking pot with a lid (kaldero or caserola), big enough to hold 8 cups of water. Measure out 8 cups or 2 liters of tap water. Add the chicken parts, onions, carrots, celery, salt, and black peppercorns. Set this on the stove over high heat.

When making stock, always start with tap water because as the mixture comes to the boil, all the flavor essences from the chicken and aromatics will slowly meld together. When simmered (on low heat) over a period of time (at least 1 hour, but preferably 1.5 to 2 hours for chicken), will reduce into a flavorful stock. 

4. When done, strain out the solid parts and reserve chicken stock. Take note of how the chicken flesh has become white and soft, almost falling-off-the-bone. The vegetables, now limp and pale, devoid of its bright colors and stripped of its flavors. All are now happily incorporated into the golden liquid called chicken stock. 

If time will allow, refrigerate the cooled stock and remove the solidified fat that forms on the surface after a few hours. 

TIPID TIP: The frugal Pinoy home cook will save these bony chicken parts, flake the meat and use it for any of the following: chicken sandwich, Pancit Molo soup, topping for instant ramen, tossed in with Pancit Bihon, Canton or Sotanghon Guisado.  

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A proud home cook and cookbook author, Nina is in love with the cooking process. She believes there's something magical about bringing random ingredients together to create a cohesive dish that's delicious, nourishing, and satisfying. She likens cooking in the kitchen to a dance, with its many movements, rhythmic sounds, and stimulating smells, all working together in perfect harmony and synchronicity.

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