Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Farewell, my little hero (and How to make your own Sourdough starter)

This is a sad post.

I love my sourdough starter. I care for it like a baby, feeding it a couple of tablespoons of flour and water everyday, scooping off any nasty grey bits once in a while, keeping it warm by the oven or slow-cooker when I bake or make stews. The day feels better when I see it happily bubbling away or smell its sour scents in the morning.

The past summer, I smuggled it back to Singapore despite the liquids allowance for hand baggage, because I didn't want it to die of suffocation or extreme manhandling in my check-in luggage. I didn't realise it until after I cleared security, but I was actually holding my breath, praying the bored officers wouldn't ask about that odd jar sitting in my handbag, and then opening it up to reveal.. toxic gunk that could be used to start a (stink)bomb. And then I had to smuggle it back to London in fall. I know, I'm nuts.

This time though, I FORGOT. How stupid can I get! I've been feeding it hearty meals the past few days to get it healthy and fit for the journey (and to use up my whole spelt flour). AND THEN I FORGOT. I doubt any starter, even one as strong and happy as mine, can survive 3 months in the British summer without a feeding. Yikes.

What to do?

I'm making a new starter. It's actually pretty simple. You only need 2 ingredients- flour and water (plus 1 optional secret ingredient).

How to make your own sourdough starter
wholegrain flour (as fresh as possible. rye is especially easy to start with.)
water (filtered or spring or at least dechlorinated by leaving tap water out for a few hours for the chlorine to evaporate)
natural pineapple juice (Star tip from The Fresh Loaf! The wild yeast you want to capture from the air prefers a slightly acidic and sweet environment.)

1. Day One: Mix 2 tbsp of flour with 2 tbsp of pineapple juice.
2. Day Two and Three: Repeat. Just add on. You should get a bubbly mixture that smells slightly yeasty.
3. Day Four: Scoop out and discard some of the mixture, leaving behind about 1/4 cup (no need to be exact). Feed now with flour and water. You can feed maybe 1/4 cup of each daily, or 2 tbsp of each twice daily (I find this more effective.)
4. Repeat till you get a bubbly lively yeasty smelling sourdough starter that slightly expands (i.e. you see holes in it), usually by Day Seven. It may die or go flat halfway but it'll spring back to life ultimately. A warm kitchen is the optimum environment.
5. You can now use it for your baking or cooking, or just leave it in the fridge and take it out once every week to feed with a bit of flour and water for a couple of days to keep it happy. (I have even left mine in hibernation for a month before and it's bravely survived.) But since it's still a baby, I suggest keeping it out for a couple more weeks with daily or two-daily feedings to boost its flavour and strength.

It will take a while of pampering for it to be as brilliant as its predecessor. The best sourdough starters have been passed down for centuries, from baker to baker's son to baker's grandsons. I'll leave my future generations a jar of sourdough starter ("you mean that's all there is in Grandma's will?!" )

Meanwhile, here's one of my favourite recipes which my little hero has made with me in the past:

and bread of course, but I've not done a post on that.

Sourdough Honey Whole Spelt Loaf

Thank you, and farewell.

This is part of Simple Lives Thursday.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Baked Herring with Gooseberries, Chilli and Star Anise

I'm going back to Singapore tomorrow, can't wait to finally see my family and friends after almost a year, and can't wait to eat fried carrot cake and nonya food and of course, my mum's cooking. But I'll be missing London too, especially the ready availability of fresh produce (Singapore is such a small island that there is no farming land at all, so almost all our groceries are imported.). And weird as it may sound, I'll definitely miss waking up at 5am on Saturday to get to work at Pimlico farmers' market.

I thought I better get my hand on some very British fruits or vegetable that I wouldn't have the chance to cook with in Singapore, so I ended up with a bag of gooseberries. As perfectly normal and even boring as it may sound to some people, gooseberries are really very new to me. I've never seen them before coming to London, though I've heard of them, but only in Enid Blyton storybooks. I tried some for the first time last year when I went to a pick-your-own fruit farm in Kent, and I fell in love with these juicy sour berries. They're often sweetened with sugar and used in puddings and pies, but I thought it'd be fun to use them in a savoury dish instead, Mackerel and gooseberries is a classic combination but I thought I'd try it with another oily fish, herring, which is also in season.

Baked Herring with Gooseberries, Chilli and Star Anise
Ingredients (serves 2)
1 whole large herring, cleaned and gutted with head and tail intact
2 handfuls of gooseberries
1 tbsp dried chilli flakes (or 1 red chilli, chopped finely)
1 star anise
few sprigs of thyme
1 tbsp soy sauce (traditionally brewed tamari is good)
1 heaped tbsp unrefined palm or cane sugar
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius.
2. Score the skin of the herring lightly on both sides to help the seasoning penetrate better and cook evenly. Season with soy sauce and chilli, stuffing some thyme and a few gooseberries into the cavity.
3. Place herring on a baking tray lined with baking parchment and scatter the gooseberries around the mackerel, tossing everything with the oil. Sprinkle the sugar over the gooseberries, and the remaining thyme and chilli all over, with a splash of

4. Seal with aluminium foil, and bake for 25-30 min (timings may vary a bit with the size of your fish) till the fish is just cooked and the flesh is opaque but still soft and flakey.

Herring and gooseberries is a great combination, as the tart juices bursting from the gooseberries help to cut the richness of the herring. But I couldn't resist adding the chillies and spices for an added kick. It may sound odd, but I knew it'd work somehow, the sour-sweet gooseberries work kind of like tamarind in the Southeast Asian recipes I'm familiar with, which is often combined with soy sauce and chillies for a perfect balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy. The star anise and thyme added a nice sweet aroma to the dish. The best part about it was that it was so easy, just chuck everything together, and there's hardly any cleaning up to do ;)

Ah, gooseberries and all you weird British foods, see you 3 months later ):

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Zucchini a la Carbonara

One of Rome's signature dishes is spaghetti a la carbonara. I'm sure you know it. Everyone knows it. It's one of the three pasta variations Italian restaurants all over the world serve--the other two being bolognese and aglio olio. But I recently had my best carbonara experience in Rome. Being a bit of a geek when it comes to food, I did some research. Authentic carbonara is made only with bacon (or to be more authentic, guanciale, cured pork cheek), cheese (hard Italian cheese, parmesan or pecorino romano), and eggs. Yup that's it, no cream at all. The creaminess comes purely from the egg and cheese mixture, which coats the hot pasta perfectly with a delicious but not cloyingly-rich sauce.

Authentic Pasta a la Carbonara
Ingredients (serves 2)
200g dried spaghetti, or more/less according to your appetite (I used fresh pasta before, see below, but I think dried works better in this recipe, because you want the wheat-y flavour and texture of dried durum wheat semolina pasta.)
2 slices of guanciale/ pancetta/ bacon (in order of preference; in reverse order of accessibility)
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
about 3/4 cup grated pecorino romano(or parmigiano reggiano cheese. Rick Stein says only pecorino, but I think it's ok.)
lots of freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp evoo

1. Bring a pot of water to boil, add a pinch of salt, and throw in the spaghetti to cook.
2. In a hot pan, saute the bacon pieces in the olive oil with lots of black pepper until slightly crispy, then add about a ladle-ful of pasta water which should quickly sizzle upon hitting the pan.
3. Meanwhile, mix the grated cheese with the beaten egg, with a few grinds of pepper.
4. The spaghetti should be cooked to an al-dente stage (about 10 min). Drain the spaghetti (not fully well as the pasta water will help the sauce the cling onto the strands), add to the pan and toss with the bacon.
5. Remove from heat and pour the egg-cheese mixture over the pasta, tossing and stirring quickly to emulsify the sauce (or you'll end up get scrambled eggs for your pasta sauce instead). Don't worry, the residual heat from the hot pasta will cook the eggs!
6. Top with more grated cheese to serve.

This was with fresh homemade spelt sourdough pasta that I did a long time ago.

Don't be surprised by the drier-than-normal (normal being your "Italian" restaurant chain) outcome, the sauce is clinging to the pasta, just enough to coat each strand perfectly. Look at this great video by Chef John from foodwishes for a clearer idea. He's possibly the funniest chef on youtube, and I love and trust 90 percent of his recipes just from seeing the way he cooks (and eats). Or a more chef-y version by Gary Rhodes.

Anyway, yes, zucchini a la carbonara. I was inspired by a Jamie Oliver recipe which added zucchini (or courgettes in the UK) to the usual pasta carbonara. And then I saw some blogs shredding these courgettes into ribbons to make noodles, and decided I would make a vegetable dish instead of a pasta one, but with the same delicious carbonara sauce.

Zucchini a la Carbonara
3 medium-large courgettes
2 slices of guanciale/pancetta/bacon (or pancetta. Or just bacon, like I did.)
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
about 3/4 cup grated pecorino romano
lots of freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp evoo

1. Using a vegetable peeler, press down firmly onto the courgettes and peel to get fat courgette ribbons, and then julienne to get noodle-y strands.

2. Bring a pot of water to the boil and blanch quickly, like 15 seconds in the hot water. Drain, not fully well again and toss with the bacon, this time omit the extra ladle of cooking water, because the courgette is quite wet.

3. Follow as per above, Serve immediately with some good crusty bread (I had a rye sourdough loaf) to mop up any leftover sauce and make it a full meal.

I love how elegantly simple and satisfying this dish was. The delicious bacon-y creamy sauce is not overly rich, and in fact, more-ish. I could have this everyday. You don't even have to worry about getting the seaasoning perfectly right because the cheese and bacon do the work for you. Ah the Italian mamas will pooh pooh this, but I'd love to try this on other vegetables too, maybe a potato or leek a la carbonara instead of cream sauce?

This is part of Full Plate Thursday, Hearth and Soul Blog Hop, This Chick Cooks and Tasty Tuesdays.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

When in Rome, eat as the Romans eat

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've just gotten back from a short trip to Rome, and loved it. This was a country not afraid of fat or carbs, the villians according to modern day "healthy" diets. Well, too bad. They say, in Rome, do as the Romans do. So I did.

I have long been enlightened about the need for saturated fat in a healthy balanced diet, and easily devoured the proscuitto with their delicious white specks of fat, the full fat mozarella balls, the juicy crispy guanciale amidst the mound of noodles in my carbonara.

Yes, the mound of white spaghetti noodles. And pizza at that.

At home, I religiously soak my brown rice and bake with my sourdough starter. But outside, I have no qualms about eating white grains, rather than wholegrains which, although full of nutrients, are also full of anti-nutrients. And it's not just that. I believe health is about so much more than just what you put into your mouth. It is about enjoying and loving life, and striking a balance between being aware and concerned about your body and being a weirdo that isolates herself from good food and friends.

I see the Italians happily tearing pizzas apart,

Traditional wood-fired pizza with sausage and mushrooms. Perfectly charred crispy crust.

The Al Marmi chefs making and firing the pizzas

licking gelatos,

all-natural pisatchio and chocolate and mint gelato

and slurping pasta.

Fresh handmade perfectly al dente pasta needs nothing more than tomatoes and olive oil. This was so so good it made our eyes widen.

Yummy handmade raviolis with beef ragu, worth the grumpy waitress and long wait.

And far from being elephants, they looked fit and healthy. I'm no serious researcher, but I reckon what keeps them in such great shape is how they see food as something to be enjoyed, savoured, and lovingly prepared with proper real ingredients.

Italian old man we met at Trattoria di Augusto, an eatery that's rough and homely, overflowing with locals at lunchtime. This man knows and loves his food.

Map he drew for us to get to the "best pizza in Rome", which we dutifully hunted down.

It was a bit of a culture shock at first when we tried in vain to find a supermarket in Rome on the first day (Of course, we did find one in the end. They exist, just not every 100m away.) One day, we did as the Romans do. We visited a market, a local favourite called Camp0 di Fiori, picked up fresh fruit and vegetables,

freshly baked pizza ,

Pizza al taglio, baked in rectangles instead of traditional round shapes and cut up and sold by weight. The Italian idea of fast food style bakeries.

Famous pizza bianca at the bottom

cheese and ham,

I died and went to heaven

and enjoyed one of the best lazy mornings with an Italian picnic.

(anti-clockwise from bottom left) Pizza bianca- fantastic bread with olive oil and rosemary; Pizza rossa- with tomato sauce; buffalo mozarella; tuna; cherries; mortadella with olives; the sweetest cherry tomatoes I've had.

I have never bothered with calories, but in Rome, I learnt to really let go and simply appreciate food for what it is. Too often when we focus on healthy eating, we start to think too much and see food in terms of their nutritional exploitations. But food shouldn't be tiring. It should be simple and fun and intuitive.

I hope this post made you (salivate and) think a bit about the the way you look at food too. It's great to eat healthy, but I don't eat what I eat purely for the sake of health. I still will never stick a Mars Bars down my throat or guzzle a can of Coke, because those aren't food, those are just processed garbage trying to pass off as food. But I don't demonise any food groups; bring on the carbs, the proteins, the fats! I eat what my body wants to eat, I eat what tastes good. I read and listened to this researcher Matt Stone talk about intuitive eating a while ago, and how many people's health problems actually go away when they start to impose less diet restrictions on themselves because the body is freed of unnecessary stresses and mental interventions. I see that in the way the Italians eat, in the way they love good food and life.

What about you? Are you the kind of person who meticulously calculates the calorie content in her food, or who strictly follows a diet cutting out carbs or saturated fat or the latest criminal ingredient, or do you just eat and enjoy?

Best deep-fried eggplant parmesan. I know it's famous for being loaded with calories, but like I said, calories is a non-existent concept to me.

Here are some more good related reads, do take a look if you like:

And Italian (-style) recipes I've posted:

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Garlic Bruschetta with Sauteed Shiitake and Button Mushrooms

And just to show you how completely adaptable and versatile the bruschetta from my previous post is, here's one topped with mushrooms sauteed in olive oil and a touch of soy sauce and black pepper. The key to good sauteed mushrooms is not to overcrowd the pan, so they all get a nice sear and browning.

Sauteed Shiitake and Button Mushrooms
Ingredients (for one large bruschetta)
2-3 fresh button mushrooms, sliced
1 shiitake mushroom, soaked till plump, then sliced
1 tsp soy sauce (naturally brewed)
1 tsp Chinese rice wine, shaoxing huadiao (optional, but try it)
black pepper
extra virgin olive oil

1. Over medium high heat, add the button mushrooms to the pan, taking care not to overcrowd the pan so they all get seared and nicely browned.
2. Add the shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce and pepper, and saute a few more mins.
3. Add the rice wine and let it evaporate and infuse the pan with that divine smell.
4. Top over the garlic bruschetta (basically toasted bread, rubbed with raw garlic) with a handful of rocket leaves and a generous drizzle of olive oil.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Italian Bruschetta with Tomatoes, Black Olives and Rocket

I'm back from Rome, burnt and probably a good few kilos heavier, but in bliss. I've not uploaded my photos from the trip yet, but for starters (pun intended), I want to share a super easy appetiser that's really common everywhere in Rome.

The bruschetta sounds impossibly chic but is simply toasted bread rubbed with garlic, and then covered with (most traditionally) fresh tomatoes and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. This is one of the lighter dishes out of the mass of deliciously decadent pastas, pizzas and cheeeses I had in Rome, perfect for a summer snack!

Italian Bruschetta with Tomatoes, Olives and Rocket
2 or more slices of good bread of your choice (I used a delicious sourdough bread. You can try slicing ciabattas or baguettes too.)
1 clove of garlic, peeled

1 ripe tomato, chopped
handful of olives
handful of rocket leaves
sea salt, pepper to taste
extra virgin olive oil

1. Toast bread.
2. While still warm, rub garlic over the surface of the toast.
3. Add topping and finish with a generous drizzle of evoo.

The interaction between the hot crisp surface of the toast and the raw garlic infuses the bread (and subsequently, your breath) with that heavenly garlicky smell. The tomatoes freshen the dish up (be sure to use really ripe ones!) and the rocket adds some pepperiness. Yes, it's that easy, and no, it probably wasn't worth paying a few euros for ><

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Balsamic Syrup, Basil, Black Pepper and... Strawberries??

The strawberries at the farmers' market have been tempting me all these weeks with their seductive fragrance. I can smell them when I'm 6 feet away I'm not kidding. I think the best strawberries are the ones that are so ripe they're almost on the brink of going bad, when they have little patches of squidgey bits here and there, they're so sweet you don't need the extra sprinkling of sugar that some people call for.

Although the classic English combination of strawberries and (full-fat, double and raw if you can) cream is delicious, and although balsamic vinegar, basil, and black pepper seems like a recipe for a savoury something, by weird brilliant magic, they somehow work with strawberries. It's really easy to make your own balsamic syrup, no reason to fork out a fortune for it.

How to make your own balsamic syrup/reduction
2 cups balsamic vinegar (Make more at a go, they can keep quite easily in a bottle or jar. Don't buy the gourmet ones that are aged and divine because they cost the earth, but do check that it's not just normal vinegar with grape juice concentrate added. if it's from Modena, it should be relatively ok.)

1. In a heavy-bottomed, non-reactive pot, bring the vinegar to a boil and simmer until it reduces to a thick and syrupy consistency. It will intensify in sweetness and tanginess, but your kitchen will smell awful so make sure it's ventilated properly!
2. Leave to cool before pouring into a jar. You can get fancy and add lemon peel, herbs like mint or thyme, or just keep it simple which is more versatile.

Simple isn't it? You can use it drizzled as a finishing touch over cooked vegetables, as a glaze for fish and meats, or like with the strawberries, over fresh/grilled fruits and thick greek-style yogurt.

Strawberries with Balsmic Syrup, Basil and Black Pepper

(all amounts are up to you. just bung it.)
ripe strawberries, cut into halves or quarters
handful of fresh basil
balsamic syrup
freshly ground black pepper

1. Combine all ingredients, then scatter the fresh basil over. Instant summer dessert!

Strawberries have been appearing in the farmers' markets for about a month now, much earlier than expected because of the sunny weather. But I read somewhere that the unusually hot and dry weather's not doing wonders for the berries. They're out earlier, but they're going to disappear earlier too, so GRAB YOUR STRAWBERRIES WHILE YOU CAN!

Oh, the reason why I'm suddenly posting about balsamic vinegar? I'm going to Rome 2 days later! Just finished my assessment today in a state of daze because I somehow forgot my alphabets, and thought L (for LEE, my surname) came after M, and was under the impression that my portfolio was due wednesday until yesterday night. Yah, knock head. Anyway, I'll be back blogging next week, and I can't wait to share the food I eat and get some cooking inspiration!

Check back for hot pastas and Italians ;)

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Salt Grilled Mackerel (Saba) and Mizuna Cucumber Salad with Preserved Plum Dressing

Because it's spring, there are loads of salad greens popping up everywhere, and even though lettuce is great, I've been seduced by some of the more exotic ones that the salad stall(Wild Country Organics) at Pimlico Farmers' Market sells, like mizuna.

Mizuna is like rocket (or arugula) taste-wise, but milder. It even looks kind of like rocket don't you think? Although I've only had it in ramen/udon soups before, its slight mustardy pepperiness adds a nice zing to salads, just like rocket. Going with the Japanese theme, I made a dressing using preserved plum a la umeboshi, but the ones I used were Chinese ones my mum sent me, which are a less appealing brown/yellow colour instead of the pretty red umeboshi ones. Preserved plums, like all fermented foods, have probiotics which aid digestion and metabolism. I also made simply grilled (or broiled actually) mackerel (saba), which is the easiest easiest thing in the world to do with fresh mackerel, not to mention delicious and cheap.

Salt Grilled Mackerel (Saba)
serves 1 or 2
2 mackerel fillets (I got that from filleting 1 mackerel, but you could easily just buy ready-filleted fishes or get the fishmonger to do it for you)
coarse sea salt
pinch of white pepper
olive oil + a dash of sesame oil (optional)

1. Pat mackerel fillets dry with kitchen towels. Score the skin by lightly slashing the skin (if you forget, you'll get blistered skins. refer to the photo of my dish to see what I mean.)
2.Rub oil all over and sprinkle generously with sea salt and pepper.
3. If you have a grill, lucky you! If not, turn your oven to broil on a high setting and place your mackerel skin side up on a shallow tray, on the highest rack. Turn over 5 minutes later, by which the skin should be crispy and the flesh almost cooked, so let it broil for another 1-2 min on the other side.

Mizuna Cucumber Salad with Preserved Plum Dressing
serves 2-4
1 large handful of mizuna leaves
1/2 cucumber
2 preserved plums in vinegar (not the dry ones you snack on)
2 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
unrefined cane sugar (or other unrefined sweeteners)
tamari naturally brewed soy sauce
The amounts of sugar and soy sauce depends on the type of preserved plums you get. There are umeboshi pickled with honey which are a lot sweeter, so need some saltiness to balance out the flavours. Mine are saltier, so I didn't even use any tamari but rather, about 2 tsp of sugar. Taste and decide for yourself, sorry no copying heh!

1. Pit the plums and mash them. Combine with the rice vinegar and tamari/sugar.
2. Slice the cucumber into ribbons by halving them, then running a vegetable peeler lengthwise, and then slicing the strips into halves again lengthwise.
3. Combine all. Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds over.

Mackerel is so rich in flavour, that you need nothing more than a healthy pinch of coarse sea salt with that delicious crispy skin and juicy flesh. The peppery mizuna leaves and cool cucumber salad dressed in that sharp tangy plum dressing gives that bit of contrast to the oily yumminess of the mackerel. You should knock yourself in the head if you're still paying a load for saba at Japanese restaurants.

This is part of Tasty Tuesday and Full Plate Thursday.