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 ):

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: