Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Seven Posts

I was tagged by the lovely Tina from Pinay in Texas to do this 7 posts thing, quite a few weeks ago actually. In fact, lots of people have been doing this tag thing these few weeks, and I've been having lots of fun reading everyone's old entries, so much so that I decided to stop being lazy and start choosing my top seven.

1. The most beautiful post
Sourdough Crepes with Caramelised Peaches in Ginger Syrup
There is something about a peach, that fuzzy exterior which just begs to be stroked, and that bright yellow soft and juicy flesh inside... (read more)

2. The most popular post
Masala Kheema Shepherd's Pie
How can you not love a good shepherd's pie, be it Irish or English, or Indian in this case? You can't go wrong with buttery parmesan mashed potatoes and minced meat that's coated with rich savoury gravy, but add to that the piquant flavour and aroma of spices... (read more)

3. The most controversial post
(Well, it's not necessarily controversial, but many people seem to be put off by the idea of eating feet and trotters. On the other hand, I think "cheap, great for your skin, and delicious".)
Stewed Pork Trotters in Sweet Vinegar
I thought of this Chinese pork trotter stew. It's favoured by all Chinese mothers during the confinement period because it's incredibly nourishing and soooo yummy. I love this so much I once famously said "I don't mind being pregnant just to eat all these"... (read more)

4. The most helpful post
Secrets to a Chinese Stirfry
A good Chinese stir-fry is not that easy. Even with the exact same ingredients and recipe, my stir-fry can never match up to that of my favourite tze char stalls in Singapore. But no harm trying, so here's the research compiled from surfing a lot of forums, watching a lot of Youtube videos, googling a lot of master chefs, and quizzing my mum... (read more)

5. The post that was surprisingly successful
Panfried Prawns with Glass Noodles in Thai Basil and Coriander Pesto
The next bit about this very special pesto that's sure to send the Italian mamas reeling again, is that I didn't use Parmesan, heck I didn't use any cheese at all! To keep to the Thai theme, I used fermented soybean paste to provide the savoury factor, and used toasted crushed peanuts instead of pine nuts... (read more)

6. The post that did not get the attention it deserved
Gamjatang (Korean Pork Bone Soup)
I thought it was almost spring season (well, at least according to the high street shops), but no winter refuses to budge and it got really cold in London last weekend. What better than a warming bowl of slow-cooked broth, with that bit of spice and asian flavour to remind me of home... (read more)

7. The post I'm most proud of
Sourdough Fettucine with Walnut Basil Pesto and "Sun-dried" Cherry Tomatoes
Pasta, pesto and sun-dried tomatoes- nothing special that you can put together with things you can easily get from a supermarket right? Not really, I'm most proud of this, because I made all the components- the sourdough pasta, the walnut basil pesto, and the slow-dried cherry tomatoes- by myself... (read more)

Phew that was difficult. I hate choosing. I'm surprised (but very happily surprised) at the number of posts I've accumulated over these past 9 months. And now I'm going to make 6 other bloggers' life difficult too (: It's supposed to be 5, but I'm very indecisive and again, I hate choosing. Anyway no pressure, do it if/when you want to!

Nessie from Baking= Love because she's a student like me but her food looks right at home in a posh patissiere.
Mary from Barefeet in the Kitchen because she's into natural, whole, fresh foods, made with love.
Stephen from The Obsessive Chef because he's amazing and he's been blogging since 2008!
Dom from Belleau Kitchen because I honestly would love to see his top 7.
Maya from Foodiva because she's got the most creative recipes I've ever seen.
Wendy from Table for 2 or more because her food reminds me of my mum's.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Nasi Lemak (Coconut Milk Rice, with Sambal Chilli and Crispy Roasted Anchovies and Peanuts)

Google Translate never fails to confuse/amuse. I don't know why I bother, since almost everyone knows this famous Malay rice dish, whether you come from Singapore/Malaysia or not. Well, nasi lemak literally translates to something like fat rice, nasi being rice and lemak being fat. In actual fact, lemak here refers to coconut cream, the key ingredient in this rich and fragrant Malay rice. I guess google translate isn't that far off here, because coconut milk is infamous for its high amount of saturated fat and calories-- both of which I cannot be bothered with. Saturated fat is in fact good for you, and coconut in particular is heart-heathy and figure-friendly. So, no more guilt trips by the Health Promotion Board, eat away!

There's another ingredient in nasi lemak that isn't getting the attention it deserves, and that's pandan (screwpine leaves). Pandan is used to add that very distinct and unique fragrance I can't even begin to describe, to all manners of sweet and savoury Singaporean/Malaysian food. And I have it growing in my backyard. When meant to be brought about or eaten later ie. takeaway, nasi lemak is also often wrapped in banana leaves (also in my garden heh heh), which impart even more fragrance.

Our pandan plant on the right, sparse because I've just plucked the leaves

Nasi Lemak (Coconut Milk and Pandan Rice)
serves 4-8
2 cups of long grain rice (I used white jasmine, but suggest basmati instead -see note below. Traditionally, though, it's made with broken local rice which is dry and light)
1 cup THICK coconut milk, preferably fresh
2 cups water (plus minus. for me, it's more like 1 2/3 cups. depends on age/type of rice- adjust according to the ratios you normally use, but you'll want to replace about 1/3 of the water with coconut milk)
6 pandan leaves, loosely tied into knots
generous pinch of unrefined sea salt

1. Rinse rice with water until water is almost clear. 
2. Put all ingredients into the rice cooker. Let cook. Then do the "close and wait, open and fluff, close and wait, open and breathe". It's also the same when you cook rice in a pot.
(i.e. When it's done, do not open for 10 min. Then open, give a fluff through with a chopstick or fork but no spoon. then close and let steam for another 5 min. Then open for a min or so to let excess moisture evaporate, take the time to breathe in the wonderful fragrance. You can then eat or let it stay warm in there for a while longer till you want to eat.)

Nasi Lemak actually refers to the coconut milk rice, but is often used to describe the whole dish served with its side dishes. There are many many accompaniments, from the more elaborate fried ikan (little fishes)/ chicken wings, beef rendang, otak otak (grilled fish paste in banana leaves) and achar (sweet, sour and spicy pickled vegetables), to the most basic hardboiled/fried egg and cucumber slices. All faff aside, there's just 3 things you really need, in order of importance:
1. The rice
3. Crispy ikan bilis (dried anchovies) and peanuts

We've got 1 and 2 settled. Ikan bilis is slightly different from the anchovies we're used to seeing in Italian food. These little fishes are dried but pack just as much salty flavour with less of the fishiness, and are dirt cheap in most Asian dried foods stores. Roasted along with the peanuts (also dirt cheap), this is a super addictive combination of salty nutty umami that I find myself snacking on even without the nasi lemak.

Ikan bilis, dried anchovies- you eat it bones and heads and all- excellent delicious source of calcium and iodine

Crispy ikan bilis and peanuts
1 cup ikan bilis (dried anchovies) + 1 tbsp unrefined cane sugar
1 cup raw peanuts, shelled, skin-on

1. Rinse ikan bilis, drain well and dab dry.
2. Oil roasting: Heat peanut/coconut oil in a hot wok. Add the ikan bilis and fry till crisp and golden brown, about 8 min. Scoop out to drain on kitchen towels. Dry roast the peanuts but remove from heat just after you smell their aroma because they'll continue to cook and will burn. OR
Oven roasting (less messy): Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius. Spread ikan bilis on a baking tray and bake for about 10 min, till dry, before adding in the peanuts and baking for another 15-20 min till all are crispy and golden and aromatic.

Some people like to go on to fry the roasted ikan bilis and peanuts with the sambal, but I quite like them separate so I can smear the sambal chilli over the cucumber and egg too.

Yummy no-frills nasi lemak on banana leaf

Though easy to make and nothing much to look at, nasi lemak is extremely flavourful. It's a very simple but powerful combination- the fluffy fragrant rice together with the nutty salty aroma of the roasted crispy peanut ikan bilis, and of course, that sweet spicy all-important sambal belachan chilli. But do also add the cucumbers for a refreshing contrast to all that richness and spice, and an egg just because everyone likes a fried egg (I usually go for runny, but for nasi lemak, I like it fried all over.)

Note: I had the famous nasi lemak from Adam Road again recently, and I don't know why I've never noticed that they use basmati rice, which makes for beautiful, separate, light, fluffy grains that balances out the rich coconut milk much better, but I will duly copy from now on and suggest you all do the same.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Sambal Tumis- Very Important Belachan Chilli Paste

This is not any ordinary chilli paste. Yes, you use this as a dip at the side, but you also use this as the base for creating so many Singaporean/ Malaysian classic stirfried noodles/barbeques/curries/sauces. That said, it's an extraordinary dip, and nasi lemak is not nasi lemak, fried hokkien prawn mee is not fried hokkien prawn mee, without this sambal chilli on the side.

What's unique about this chilli paste is belachan- a potent-smelling fermented ground shrimp. I still remember cooking with it last year when I was still staying in halls and my Turkish flatmate kind of flew out of the kitchen. But don't judge, because I guarantee you'll love its salty savoury flavour. Plus like all fermented foods, belachan is great for health. I would, however, suggest doing this in an outdoor kitchen, or with all your windows open, and preferably with friendly, out-of-town, or Southeast Asian neighbours.

makes 2 cups (always make extra because it takes so much effort!)

1" length of a block of belachan
400g (~2 1/2 cups) shallots
30g (~30) dried chillies
50g (4-5 large ones) fresh chillies
5 cloves garlic
2 stalks of lemongrass, white part only
8 candlenuts (if not available, can replace with macadamia nuts, or just skip it)
3 tbsp tamarind pulp, soaked in equal amount warm water
1" slice (~4 tbsp) of gula melaka (unrefined coconut/palm sugar)
1/2 cup of groundnut/ palm/ coconut oil (I know it sounds like a lot but you need to really fry the paste, and you won't be eating all that oil actually)

1. Toast the blechan in a dry pan, chopping at it with your spatula to break it up, till aromatic and powdery. You can also do this in the oven for less fuss/complaints from next door.

2. Blend/ pound the toasted belachan, shallots, chillies, garlic, lemongrass and candlenuts till you get a smooth paste.

I was so sure I'd never subject myself to such physical torture again after the Thai curry paste. But my mum insisted saying it's much easier to wash out a mortar then a blender... Right.

3. Over a medium-low heat, fry the paste, keep stirring once in a while so it doesn't burn. 10 minutes in, add the assam water.
This is to give you an idea of how small the flame should be.

5. Add the gula melaka, allowing it to melt and cook into the hot sambal chilli, and stir to combine.

6. You can stop stirring when you see the oil separating from the mixture, at least 30 minutes (yes, at least. I usually do it for 1 hour.).

The sambal will turn a deeper red and you'll see the oil oozing from it

6. Leave to cool before storing. The sambal will keep about 1 month in the fridge, with the layer of oil on top to keep it from spoiling, or freeze for months in smaller containers.

This chilli is sweet, spicy, salty, savoury, and just a tiny bit tangy, with a hint of smokiness plus an oomph of flavour and aroma from the toasted belachan. The smell of it while it slowly roasted was enough to make all that pounding and sweating by the wok worth it.

There are many variations for sambal tumis, some calling for a long list of ingredients but mine is simpler, hence more versatile, and not in any way less awesome, well at least imo and in my mum's opinion (which is rare). This is adapted from 2 sources, Mum Loves Cooking, who's got her sambal tumis to taste like her grannies (and grannies know best), and an old Malay family helper who taught my mum to use gula melaka (unrefined coconut palm sugar that adds an amazing caramel toffee-like sweetness) instead of normal white sugar.

Like most Asian cooking, everything's usually a guesstimate. You can adapt this to become sweeter by adding more gula melaka or shallots, spicier by adding spicier/more chillies or use birds' eye chillies, more pungent by adding more garlic, but for me, this recipe (sweat included) is pretty much my definite sambal tumis.

f it's not clear enough, I also made a video (cringe):


See this sambal in:
Bak Chor Mee (Noodles dry-tossed in crack)
Sambal Telur (Boiled, Fried, then Chilli-Smothered Eggs)
Sambal Grilled Aubergine Stack
Sambal Grilled Stingray on Banana Leaf
Nasi Goreng "Special" (Malay fried rice)
Nasi Lemak (Coconut Rice with Sambal Crispy Anchovies and Peanuts)

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Instant Homemade Banana Ice Cream with Warm Caramelised Bananas and Walnuts

You can't talk about crepes without thinking about ice cream. And something as posh and elaborate (ok no, fine, it's actually dead easy) as sourdough crepes needs something as luxurious as all-natural organic ice cream. So here's my homemade ice cream that's super delicious, takes just 1 ingredient (at its bare minimum), requires no time, effort or brains at all, and is actually healthy.

Too good to be true? Here's the answer:

Banana tree in my backyard in Singapore- talk about local and organic

I was watching an episode of Saturday's Kitchen with James Martin, and he shared his "instant" banana ice cream recipe. The man's brilliant. I doubt he's the first one to come up with this; I've seen this quite a few times online. To make banana ice-cream, all you really need is bananas. My initial version of banana ice cream was basically just poking a chopstick into a peeled banana, coating with melted chocolate/nut butter/nuts (optional), sticking it into the freezer, and hurray desert! The creamy starchy bananas makes for instant ice cream once frozen.

But to pimp it up a bit, you can add a bit of vanilla, or a bit of rum, or nut butter, or a bit of buttermilk (James Martin), or natural yogurt for a bit of tang and then blend it for a scoop-style ice cream.The recipe below is just to serve as inspiration- make it as vegan, nutty, or booze-y as you like.

Instant Homemade Banana Ice Cream
2 large bananas (I used over-ripe ones- no waste, plus no need for extra sweetening)
couple of drops of vanilla essence
2-3 tbsp whole (i.e. full-fat please!) organic yogurt

1. Peel and cut up bananas. Spread out on a tray/parchment paper. Place in freezer for 2 hours.
2. Blend the frozen banana chunks, and then add in the vanilla and yogurt.
3. Once it reaches a smooth, creamy consistency, you can serve it as it is for a soft gelato-texture ice cream, or freeze for a further few hours for a firmer ice cream.

But of course you want to pimp it up more.

So while the bananas are freezing, caramelise some bananas and walnuts. To go with the tropical banana flavours, I used gula melaka (an unrefined palm/coconut sugar that comes in solid cylinders, it's a favourite sweetener here in Singapore, because of its beautiful dark golden colour and distinct toffee-ish sweetness), but you can use cane sugar too, like the previous ginger caramelised peaches.

Caramelised Bananas and Walnuts
2 bananas, halved lengthwise and chopped
handful of walnuts, soaked and toasted
half a round (2 tbsp?) of gula melaka, chopped up (it comes in solid cylinders)
knob of salted butter
2 tsp water

1. Heat the sugar with the water over a medium-low heat, till melted, then stir in the butter.
2. Increase to a medium heat, add the bananas, cut side down, and cook for 1 min, before flipping over for another 30s. You will see the difference in colour (look at photo above), as the bananas take on the toffee hue and flavour of the syrup.
3. Add walnuts and toss to make sure bananas and walnuts are all coated with the syrup.
4. Remove from heat and let the hot mixture cool a little before spooning over ice cream. (I was a bit impatient as you can see..)

The ice cream started to melt shortly after I drizzled the very warm caramel juices over, so it looks like a mess, or like a very hot day (which it was). I don't know how those food photographers do it. I tried my best, then gave up after a few quick clicks, mainly because I wanted to eat it before it turned into a pool.

Looks aside, there's nothing better than an ice cream melting slowly into a warm sauce, that sweet, slightly tangy, banana-flavoured creaminess seeping into and mingling with the nutty caramel, especially against the sticky sweet bananas and crunchy walnuts. And better yet, the knowledge that it's not bad for you. Two perfect excuses to devour it fast.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Sourdough Crepes with Caramelised Peaches in Ginger Syrup

There is something about a peach, that fuzzy exterior which just begs to be stroked, and that bright yellow soft and juicy flesh inside. The thing about peaches though, is that unlike pears, they don't ripen on the counter. They get softer, especially when kept in a paper bag with ripe apples, but they don't get that much riper or sweeter, so it's best to always get ripe peaches that are local and in season.

I'm unfortunately in Singapore now, and I don't really want to buy those peaches flown in from halfway around the globe, but I was looking through my stash of food photos (I don't post everything I make once I make it, or I'll end up glued to blogger) and I came across an old photo of these ginger caramelised peaches and I thought it a waste not to share. It's summer, and the farmers' markets will be brimming with berries and peaches and nectarines. So if you have access to these beautiful fruits, do this!

Caramelised Peaches in Ginger Syrup
serves 2
2 peaches, de-stoned and sliced (I left the skin on, the skins add a bit of tartness to the otherwise cloyingly sweet peaches, not to mention vitamins)
1-2 tbsp unrefined cane sugar (adjust according to your taste)
2 tbsp lemon juice
1" ginger, thinly julienned, or grated
1 tbsp grassfed butter

To serve
4 sourdough crepes (I re-heated some defrosted ones that I've made earlier, if you make them fresh, cook longer if you want them slightly crispy like mine)
organic whole (i.e. full-fat please!) greek yogurt

1. Heat the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pan until dissolved and beginning to caramelise.
2. Add the peaches, lemon juice and sliced ginger, and toss to coat.
3. Gradually add the butter and let it cook down in the sauce till thick and syrupy and the peaches soften.
4. Place the crepe best side down, spoon most of the peaches in the centre of the crepe, fold in half (north-south) then fold in half again (east-west), to make a fancy crepe suzette-style fold, or fold whichever way you like! Top with greek yogurt and the remaining peaches, drizzling the ginger syrup over.

The tart lemon helps to cut through the sweetness of the peaches and caramel sauce, and the ginger adds that bit of zing. This is perfect for breakfast or even for tea, especially with tangy sourdough crepes to mop up the sweet lemony gingery peachy juices and smooth creamy yogurt. I opted for a thin, slightly crispy crepe rather than a soft one, for a texture contrast.

There's this chinese myth about immortal peaches and a Monkey God who wrecked the heavens to steal them. They take thousands of years to ripen (on the tree, not in a basket, see!) and only a select few immortals get invited by the Heavenly Queen Mother to enjoy, and upon so, are conferred longevity. I know you're switching off now, and I'm sorry for that lousy divergence of topic, it was a childhood favourite tale, re-enacted too many times on tv. But that was somehow what made me decide to "go east" with these peaches and cover them with ginger syrup, often used in chinese sweet soups with tang yuan, and hey you get to learn a bit of chinese mythology at the same time.

I will go on, but I've been going on too much already, so ok I shut up now.

Friday, 12 August 2011

(Sourdough) Crepe, that was easy!

I shared homemade rice noodles/ chee cheong fun a few days ago, which you can also think of as a rolled-up and chopped-up steamed rice flour crepe. And since we're on crepes..

I can go on so much about crepes,it's great ice-breaker/debate topic in my opinion (ok, maybe only among like-minded people). "Crape" or Crap"? Crispy or soft? Rolled, half-fold, tri-fold, triangle-fold, pocket-fold, or layered? Sweet or savoury? And with sweet, fruits or jam or red bean paste or ice cream or honey syrup or just plain sugar and lemon a la suzette? With savoury, cheese or sour cream or even curry and ok I don't want to get started on the possibility of fillings. Crepes are so incredibly versatile, and are in fact easier and take less ingredients or time to make than their less posh and elegant and gourmet-sounding cousins called pancakes.

My favourite crepes are sourdough crepes, simply because my starter is sitting there anyway waiting to be fed, and I hate throwing food out, even if it's just water and flour and micro-organisms that I can't see. And unlike most sourdough recipes, this doesn't even require any planning ahead i.e. I can make it whenever I want to. Sourdough crepes also offer more intense flavour, that slight tanginess that makes it so more-ish, and have wonderful health benefits.

This is also a chance for me to share an update on my new sourdough starter, which I've named The Second, after its nameless predecessor. The Second is doing well, bubbling very happily in the warm Singapore weather and has already been put to use for quick breads and such, like the sourdough crepes I'm about to share.

Sourdough Crepes
makes about 10 crepes
1 cup sourdough starter (mine was whole spelt, but you can use any type)
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup whole, grassfed, preferably raw milk (you may use more, depending on the consistency of your starter)
pinch of sea salt
2 tbsp melted butter + more for cooking
variation: coconut milk and coconut oil instead

1. Mix all ingredients till smooth and combined. Add enough milk to get a thin batter, similar to that of double cream or whipping cream. Too thick and they won't run and you get glops that are neither pancakes nor crepes. Let the crepe batter rest for at least half an hour in the fridge for better results.
2. In a 9" frying pan (or bigger, or smaller), heat the frying pan over medium heat, before adding a tsp of butter.
3. Once melted, pour in about 1/4 cup of batter, swirling and tilting the pan so it runs to the edges and coats the bottom of the whole pan.
4. Let cook for a minute or so till set and the bottom has splotches of light brown, before flipping over (with or without a spatula if you're chef-y) to cook for 30s or so more if you like them slightly crispy.
5. Now, slide out of pan and enjoy them with your choice of filling or freeze the extra when cooled.

This was breakfast when my sister came to visit me in London last summer.
Left- Overdone crispy crepe with bananas (she's crazy about anything banana) and peanut butter for her; Right- Berries and cream for me

As with all crepes, the first one or two or maybe three will be failures, but it's ok, we all make mistakes and mistakes still taste good even if they're not perfectly thin or round.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Homemade Rice Noodle Rolls (Chee Cheong Fun)

Yesterday was Singapore's national day, and so in honour of this special day, I thought I'd share a very Singaporean breakfast dish, often overlooked for the more popular and flashy nasi lemak or fried carrot cake-- chee cheong fun.

The Hongkong dim sum version is usually stuffed with prawns or meat and then steamed, but uniquely in Singapore, a favourite simple breakfast is plain chee cheong fun topped with sesame seeds and drizzled with a thick dark sweet sauce called tim jeong-- which I hated as a kid. I don't know, I guess I'm just not that keen on that sweet hoisin-ish sauce on plain rice noodles. The Penang version uses shrimp paste hae ko which I haven't tried before but which I have a feeling I'll like, but till then, I decided to tweak the basic tim jeong.

What I ended up with was a less sweet, but more salty and savoury and fragrant sauce. Oh I also added a little twist to the plain rolls by steaming it with chopped spring onions for some colour and light scallion-y flavour. I'll share the recipe for my chee cheong fun sauce before I get to the rice noodles.

My Chee Cheong Fun Sweet Sauce
makes about 1/2 cup, easily multiplied
3 tbsp soy sauce (traditionally brewed/fermented)
2 tbsp molasses (I use blackstrap-more nutritional benefits)
1 tsp toasted sesame oil + 1 tsp shallot oil
a bit of water to loosen the sauce (about 3-4 tbsp?)

Ok, on to the main star. You totally can make rice noodles using this recipe, you'd just have to cut them into strips after that. Instead, I made chee cheong fun, which are wide flat pieces of rice noodle (think rice 'lasagne' sheets), rolled up. The vietnamese version of this is called banh cuon.

The original recipe calls for wheat starch (not the same as wheat flour), which gives that smooth springy texture.There's no proper substitute for it, but I really couldn't find it and I got some tips from chowhounders that said potato/tapioca starch could serve as a (not perfect) substitute, so I went for that instead.

Homemade Rice Noodle
150g rice flour (you can use brown rice flour if you think it's healthier, but I don't really think so anymore, I'll talk more about that next time)
1 1/2 tbsp potato/tapioca starch
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp oil
450ml water
pinch of sea salt
1 stalk spring onion, green part only, chopped finely (my spring onions were unusually large, if you were wondering)

Watch this video for a clearer idea.
1. Mix the flours together, then stir in the water slowly, before adding the oil and salt.
2. Leave the batter to rest for at least an hour, before adding the chopped spring onions. (If using brown rice flour, leave it to rest overnight. The soaking will counter the anti-nutrients found in whole grains.)

3. Prepare steamer. Place a large (about 8") oiled plate/tray over and let it heat up.
4. Over boiling water, add a scoop of batter into the hot plate and swirl to let it run to the edges. After a few failed tries you'll know the amount to get a thin layer.

5. Steam for 5 minutes on high heat.
6. Let cool. I place the plate with the rice noodle 'crepe' over a basin of cold water. It's easier to remove when cool. Roll up.

7. Cut into sections. (If making rice noodles like kway teow or fun, cut into thinner strips.)

8. Top with as much sauce and toasted sesame seeds as you like.

You can see that it's not as smooth, springy and translucent as desired (see the sauce seeps into the surface instead of coating it) but hey, it did become a more versatile, accessible, and unintentionally zero-gluten recipe.. Texture aside, I thought the noodles tasted exceptionally fresh and more-ish, especially with the fragrant sweet sauce, but then again it might be the "I-made-it-myself!" syndrome, so maybe someone can try this out too and then tell me whether it's just me.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Spicy Chilli Prawns Summer Stirfry (an inquisitive comparative study)

Following that cashew chicken stir-fry to test out my research on chinese stir-fries, here's one to prove the velveting really does work, not just on meat, but also on prawns. I did it once with snow peas, the other time with yellow bell peppers (both abundant in summer right now), and am pleasantly surprised by the wonderful bouncy smooth texture of the velveted prawns the second time round. Ok I concede that it's quite a few extra steps and require thinking ahead, but it's not much more effort per se, and really quite worth it for the results you get. Then again, unless I really want to impress, I have a feeling I'll probably opt for the lazy way out, so you can ask the hongkong dimsum chef in you and decide.

Stir-fried Spicy Chilli Prawns with Peppers and Mushrooms
serves 4-5
500g uncooked shrimps/prawns (if using frozen, defrost. make sure they are fresh/freshly frozen at least or no amount of velveting will help.)
1 large sweet bell pepper (I used yellow. Red/orange is sweet too. I don't like the green one that much)
1 large handful of fresh button/chestnut mushrooms
1 large onion
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine (shaoxing/huadiao)
1 tbsp palm/coconut/groundnut oil

Chilli paste
1-2 red chillies (you can pop in a bird's eye chilli for more heat if you want, or use the normal kind. You can also use or 1-2 tbsp ground chilli powder)
1 tbsp soy sauce (I use naturally brewed tamari)
2 shallots

For velveting
1 heaped tbsp of baking soda
ice water
1 small egg white
1 1/2 tsp tapioca starch

1. Prepare the prawns first by deveining (either by slitting the back or this fantastic toothpick method). Then submerge in ice water with the baking soda for 30 min. Rinse off in cold running water, pat dry, then marinate in egg white and tapioca starch for 1h or overnight.
2. Slice the vegetables into even-sized pieces and blend the ingredients for the chilli paste together.
3. Heat wok over high heat, add oil. Add your velveted prawns and stir-fry till it just turns pink, then remove and set aside.
4. Now add chilli paste with onions into the wok, stir-fry till you smell the aroma of the chilli and the onions turn translucent.
5. Add the peppers and mushrooms, and continue stir-frying quickly till they're nicely seared, 1-2 min.
6. Add your 80% cooked prawns with the tbsp of rice wine, and continue stir-frying quickly till everything is nicely mixed and coated and the liquid evaporates. Don't overcook! Serve immediately.

Finished Spicy Chilli Prawns, Peppers and Mushrooms Stirfry

I don't know if you can tell from the photo, but the prawns were exceptionally smooth, plump and "crunchy" (what the chinese call "QQ"). It added a great contrast of textures to the crisp and tender sweet bell peppers and the soft caramelised onions and mushrooms, and of course, everything tastes better with chilli so there's no way you can go wrong.

Below is a photo of a stirfry done similarly, but using 1. un-velveted, 2. slit-in-the-back-to-remove-the-vein prawns. If you compare the photos, you might be able to see these prawns are a little less QQ (because of 1), and that they curl into a butterflied ball (because of 2).

Spicy Chilli Prawns and Snow Peas Stirfry

The dish was still really yum, especially with the natural sweetness and crunchiness of fresh snow peas, and like I said, everything tastes better with chilli. Do and use what you like for your own prawn and vegetable stir-fry(:

Friday, 5 August 2011

Peppers and Cashew Chicken (not-your average) Stirfry

Following my 101, here's a very typical chinese stir-fry, with the very seasonal sweet bell peppers and cashews for a nutty crunch. This was done using all the "secrets" to a great chinese stirfry that I've fshare here. This is not your (or my) average throw-in-too-much-into-a-small-nonstick-skillet stirfry. Nowhere near the tzechar stalls in Singapore yet, but definitely really good, and I'll get there one day I hope.

Peppers and Cashew Chicken Stirfry
serves 2
250g chicken (I used thighs, probably a better idea to use breast if you really want to test the effect of velveting)
1 handful of toasted cashew nuts
1/2 small red bell pepper, chopped into even pieces
1/2 small green bell pepper, chopped into even pieces
5-6 slices of ginger
2 tbsp palm/coconut/groundnut oil

For marinating
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp unrefined cane sugar
1/2 tsp chinese shaoxing rice wine 
1/2 tsp water (or stock)
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp tapioca/cornstarch

For sauce
1 tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp chinese shaoxing rice wine
1 tbsp stock
white pepper

1. Prepare the chicken by slicing across the fibres into even-sized cubes. 阿基師 has a tip of slicing horizontally across the thick part of a chicken breast fillet first, kind of butterfly-ing it, so you can get chicken of even thickness. Marinate the chicken for about 10 min.
2. Heat wok to highest heat, add 1 tbsp of oil to the wok. When hot, sear the chicken. Push aside.
3. Add another tbsp of oil. Add ginger, followed by the peppers and bottom thirds of the spring onion and stir-fry (keep everything moving or they will burn!) until you can smell them.
4. Add the chicken back with the toasted cashews.
5. Lastly, add the sauce, continue stir-frying till everything is cooked and coated and the sauce slightly thickens. Serve immediately with rice.

Try this! You'll be surprised how tender and flavoursome the chicken is! Perfect against the crunchy cashews and peppers. No overcooked vegetables, just nicely seared, the trinity of soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine making everything smell so Chinese-kitchen-yummy. No MSG either, or overly sweet and gooey jam-like sauce. This is real chinese food!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Secrets to a Chinese Stir-fry

Following my mum's top tip, here's more top tips for good asian food. This is a repost, an updated one with bits that I've learnt after my experiments!

Whenever people think of Chinese food, they naturally think of stir-fries. It's like the equivalent of Chinese cooking, but I think there's so much more to Chinese food. A lot of effort goes into the food, all the careful steaming to get everything done to perfection, the braising, the slow-cooking for tender and flavoursome food. It's not all quick, easy stir-fries. Chinese restaurants (or even hawkers) in Singapore are so so different from many of the Chinese restaurants in London which serve up MSG-laden sticky and oily deep-fried food.

That said, a good Chinese stir-fry is not that easy. Even with the exact same ingredients and recipe my stir-fry can never match up to that of my favourite tze-char stalls in Singapore. But no harm trying and everyone loves a hardworking student (I know, this is not exactly my schoolwork here but still), so here's the research compiled from surfing a lot of forums, watching a lot of Youtube videos, googling a lot of master chefs, and quizzing my mum.

Having fun properly stir-frying in a real wok with an open flame in an outdoor kitchen.

1. A wok
The heat distribution of a wok is quite different form that of a frying pan. If done right, that's how you get ever-elusive x factor called wok hei ("breath of a wok"). Also, because it curves in at the base, you can "deep-fry" garlic, shallots and ginger without having to use much oil.

I don't have this in London so I am forever inadequate but maybe not for long. I am seriously considering getting one when I get back in fall. It doesn't cost much, just a cheap one from Chinatown would make so much difference. My mum uses a cast iron one (see first photo; thin cast iron, not the thick cast iron Western-style casserole pots which are slow to lose heat but also slow to heat up) but a lot of people say a much lighter, cheap carbon steel one does a fantastic job for tossing your food, especially if it comes with a stick handle. You don't need a fancy non-stick one, and in fact you do NOT want a fancy non-stick one. That Teflon coating will burn at high temperatures and produce very harmful chemical compounds.

When you get a wok, you should always season it, and it'll last you forever. My mum has been using the same wok for..well, ever since she first moved into where we live now, which is almost since the day I was born, which is I guess about 20 years?

2. High heat!
That intense heat is what brings about wok hei. The Malliard reaction when you caramelise meat and vegetables and noodles over a hot flame gives you that smoky depth to chinese food at tze char stalls or restaurants.

My flat comes with an electric stove, which definitely gives less than ideal results compared to an open flame. I guess I will forever be inadequate after all, at least while I'm still staying in that place. There is however a way to mimic the high heat you get from a fire, by heating the wok at the highest stove setting for 10 min before cooking (of course, you can't control the temperature as easily with an electric stove, so have another hob ready for transferring to when you need to lower the temperature).

Sautee-ing slowly over low-heat doesn't sear the meat and vegetables the same way, everything needs to be done fast, which brings me to the next point. 

3. Fast!
It's not always the more the better, in this case, more time is not better. It always amazes me how much time goes into the prepping of the ingredients but the actual stirfry is over in a matter of minutes. The best pad thai (I know it's not chinese, but it's an example of a stir-fried noodle dish) I had was done in less than 30 seconds.

4. The Marinade
With meat, I've always wondered how Chinese chefs get the meat so tender and smooth. So anyway, Ken Hom revealed the secret to this on an episode of Saturday Kitchen:
You coat the chicken or whatever meat pieces in egg white, cornflour and some rice wine, before cooking in warm (forums say hot. but the Ken Hom says warm..) water or oil, take it out before it's cooked, because it'll continue cooking on slowly, and then add it back to the dish at the end for a final heatshock. I was so fascinated I trawled the forums and found out some people use baking soda instead too.

6 months later, after experiments with all the techniques (baking soda/eggwhite, water/oil, warm/hot, velvet/not):

First of all, I think baking soda does work as a tenderiser, but I don't really like the effect of it.. The meat can feel mushy, and really, there's no need for disguising if you start with good, well-sourced, quality ingredients. 

So, the basic marinade goes like this:
Seasoning, usually soy sauce, pepper, sometimes oyster sauce or fish sauce
Chinese shaoxing rice wine (something mildly acidic which tenderises the meat)
Tapioca/ Cornstarch. I prefer tapioca.
Sesame Oil.
And if you're doing beef, a pinch of sugar and a little stock helps it stay juicy as it reabsorbs the liquid.
And to finish, swirl in a slurry made from a combination of the above minus sesame oil to get a sauce.

I usually eyeball the amounts (like most Asian cooks do) so I can't say for sure, but look at Peppers and Cashew Chicken for a rough idea. You only need to marinade it for 10 min, usually while you prep your other ingredients. That's usually good enough, as long as you use the right cut of meat and follow the above other principles i.e. not overcooking it. Sear on high heat before tossing with the other ingredients.

Velveting is another technique to get a really smooth, glossy texture, which I reserve for more delicate combinations. Instead of marinating in dark sauces, I stick to salt (and the rice wine and tapioca starch still), so the chicken remains pristinely white. Then I toss to coat with lightly beaten egg white and oil (you only need a bit, 2 tbsp, 1 tbsp, for 500g), for about 10 more min. Instead of searing, poach it in barely simmering water with a tiny glug of oil added, till cooked on the outside. Drain, set aside, finish stir-frying your vegetables and making the sauce etc, before adding the meat back. Look at Velvet Chicken and Sugar Snap Peas

Also, you can velvet prawns. This is not just for stir-fries. Ever wondered how Chinese dimsum restaurants get super bouncy 'crystal' prawns in your chee cheong fun? Credits to rasamalaysia for her extensive research into this. Prepare the prawns by slitting the back and de-veining, then submerge in ice water with 1 heaped tbsp of baking soda, for about 30 min. Rinse off thoroughly in cold water, then pat dry. Marinate 1h or overnight in a mixture of 1 small egg white and 1 1/2 tsp tapioca starch for 500g prawn.  But again, I'm iffy about baking soda and am usually more than happy with the results from using fresh or freshly frozen prawns. Do this only if you like dimsum/have time to spare/really want to impress. See my very er scientific Spicy Chilli Prawns comparison.

5. The Cut
For meats like beef, a good sirloin or a much cheaper flank steak will do.  Slice against the grain, and slice thinly. A tip is to freeze partially so you can slice really really thinly but I don't recommend that because you're more likely to end up overcooking it. Another tip is to slice at an angle so you get what looks like a larger surface area, which also absorbs more of the marinade.
For pork, use shoulder or butt, ditto.
For chicken, slice across the fibres of the meat instead of along, so you get short fibres, making the meat nice and tender. I like the dark meat because it's much more tender, and of course, cheaper!

I can't really afford prime cuts on a student budget, so I always go for the cheaper options, or frankly, I more often just stick to stews made from all the tough unpopular cuts.

5. Not forgetting the vegetables
Stir-frying intensifies the natural flavours, textures and colours of vegetables, so cook with vegetables that are in their prime. Seasonal, local from the farmer's market means quality plus cheaper value. Some tips: Dry your veggies well after rinsing, or the moisture will turn your stir-fry into a soggy braise, plus spatter all over and scare you. Cut into as equal-sized pieces as possible so they cook evenly. Fry vegetables in order of their texture e.g. hard broccoli stems/cauliflower/carrots , before peppers/asparagus/mushrooms, before spinach/tomatoes/broccoli florets. If necessary, blanch in boiling water for a min and then drain and refresh in cold water. See Cashew Asparagus, Sprout Tops with Chilli Ginger and Chicken Fat, Top-to-Toe Radish Stirfry.

Lastly, Stir-frying to the Sky's Edge by Grace Young is a brilliant book. Everyone should go check it out. Ah I know I'm weird, but I really enjoy doing research like this.