Wednesday, 26 December 2012

2012 Greatest Hits

Christmas is over, and to me, that signifies the end of 2012, or at least that's the end of things to look forward to in 2012. New year's eve maybe, but the fireworks and crazy partying usually happens around midnight, which means 2013. I thought it a good time to look back at this past year before I go about setting my resolutions for the new year.

A few months ago, I looked at some of my oldest entries and almost wanted to wipe out all traces of my amateur cooking and blurry flash photographs, but then I  realised how silly it was to deny all that. I've grown a lot since I started the blog and I'm really happy for all the opportunities that this blog has given me, the people I've met, and all the stories I've told and remembered through this blog, stupid or wonderful. When I first started the blog, I really didn't think too much of it. I just really liked food, and really liked to take pictures of my food, #asian. I started cooking because a) I'm a poor starving student so I can't eat out everyday and b) I like being healthy so I want to eat real food, not cheap fast food. Not all of my attempts were successes, and I still cringe when I see the sort of throw-it-all-in stirfries I used to do. I never thought I would one day be cooking dinners for 18 (or even 50), or that I would be writing about food (and that I will have readers), but I guess the world has a funny way of makign things happen in the most incredible way.

I'm going to share some of the more wonderful moments of 2012 when I've gone "LOOK MUM!" and pray no one else decides to dig into the more stupid moments.

1. When I'm not making a mess in the kitchen, I'm making a mess in art school; I do graphic design at central st martins. This year, I decided to "apply" myself more. I don't blog as often as before but (and because) each post is more thoughtfully put together in a way that hopefully makes everything more fun/ helpful. More quirky ideas and design here, quite a few somehow food-related (I can't help myself), if anyone is interested, or if just in case you're Jamie Oliver and want me to style your latest cookbook or design your packaging.

2. I started chef-ing for the Singaporean supperclub plusixfive. One day, Goz, the person who started the supperclub, read my blog and decided “we need to meet at the nearest pub, NOW”. I refused then (it was 11pm at night and this stranger was too scarily enthusiastic) but after a rainy afternoon meeting at Monmouth with this strangely convincing ball of energy, I found myself at a plusixfive supperclub for the first time, quite dauntingly, straight in the kitchen. To my relief, the guests seemed to not hate the sambal, I didn’t break Goz’s Le Creuset, and upon Goz’s nagging/prodding, I even found myself cooking for the next supperclub…and the next…and the next… It's been a lot of crazy fun. I've fed some scary famous foodies, and even Singaporean (hence even scarier) food critic Hsueh and chef Willin Low. Besides the monthly pop-up dinners, I've been doing some insane things with the team like cooking for fifty at the Supperclub Summit.

3. Related to 1 and 2, I'm in the midst of art directing and a bit of writing for an upcoming plusixfive cookbook with Epigram Books. We're still in the early stages, so I can't say much about it, but I do know it will be fantastic and not like any other cookbook you've seen. I just wanted to share the good news here so you can all watch out for it (and pre-order, eh-hem cough).

4. I WAS ON THE NEW YORK TIMES! Ok kind of. An article I wrote for Crumbs mag online was picked up by the NY times diners' journal, for a weekly roundup of interesting reads around the net-- not as impressive as it sounded after all eh, sorry for the drama. I've been doing a bit more food blogging and illustrations outside of this blog. For Crumbs mag as mentioned, and more recently, for the Great British Chefs.

5. And food writing. I've been doing some on-off writing for Flavour magazine, and more recently, the most amazing, gorgeous food-and-travel magazine Cereal. I'll take this chance to give a shout-out to Cereal. It's completely gorgeous, ad-free, just pages and pages of gorgeous food and places with gorgeous design and stories. If you are at all a food and design geek, you need to beg/steal/borrow or just (preferably) buy a copy in a bookstore in your country (it's sold internationally).

6. I went over to the dark side. I joined facebook and twitter. Technology doesn't like me, and the feeling is mutual. I took the longest time to be persuaded to get facebook for myself back in school when everyone had it already. It was a miracle I started blogging. And for the longest time, I've resisted getting twitter (Why would anyone care what I'm doing at this minute? Why's there a word limit? What's a #? Cute bird I guess.) I was sure I would hate it, but it's been pretty fun sharing some of the more random things I do, eat, or cook that I don't blog about, so please do join me, if you like. I'm on instagram too.

7. I've met a lot of equally food-obsessed people because of 6. I've been helping out with events, photographing and pinching food, teaching drunk corporate kids how to wrap spring rolls, etc etc. Yep. It's been exciting.

I hope 2013 will be filled with more exciting adventures, other than the bits of food blogging, cooking, working at the farmer's market, and studying of course. I'm graduating soon and I'm not sure where this whole thing will take me, but hopefully, it's a place that I will love. Merry Boxing Day and Happy New Year! (And thanks for reading my blog you all :)

Monday, 17 December 2012

Christmas Tree Roast Potatoes (Yes I ate my Christmas Tree)

Yes I ate the Christmas tree.

We have a new stall at the farmer's market where I work, bringing foraged ingredients. They have the most intriguing wild herbs and weeds from the land and from the sea. I wish I had half the knowledge as Miles when it comes to identifying plants you can eat off nature. Beyond the odd stinging nettle and wild blackberry in late summer, I don't dare to pick anything for my dinner plate. The table is always laid with plants I've never laid my eyes on before, with names I've never heard of before, but last week, there was a basket of what looked vaguely familiar. This season, these branches are usually hidden behind  glittering lights and golden bobbles, but there's still no mistaking the familiar twigs and sharp needle-like leaves of the Christmas tree.
I never would have thought you could eat a Christmas tree, but what better way to add some er, Christmassy, flavour to your festive roast. They kind of resemble sprigs of rosemary, but the smell of it is quite fresh and woodsy, and upon nibbling a bit of it, the taste is quite citrusy. It's definitely a conversation starter if you choose to stuff your turkey with a few sprigs of Christmas. I decided to use them for roast potatoes. Of a traditional English roast, roast potatoes are quite possibly my favourite part of the meal. The meat and a good gravy is wonderful, but oh, a roast potato! Golden crispy edges, hot fluffy insides, none of the greasiness of a french fry or chips, but none of the dullness of a boiled potato either- it's the best way to have a potato in my opinion.

There are many theories on the best way to make a roast potato, and people actually argue over this stuff. People have put all these chefs' methods to the test, saving you the trauma of lousy roast potatoes. I've got my own favourite way of doing it, from the tips I've gathered from that Guardian word-of-mouth writer, too much TV, friends' mums, and my own trials. 

serves 2-3
500g roasting potatoes*
2 tbsp lard from happy pigs (dripping or goose fat will be good too)
2 tbsp groundnut oil*
4 sprigs of christmas tree
4 cloves of garlic, bashed but skin-on
unrefined sea salt

1. Place a roasting tin with the fat and oil on a high rack in the oven. Let it pre-heat to 220 degrees celsius.
2. Peel the potatoes, saving the peelings, and cut into roughly even-sized chunks.
3. Bring a pot of water to the boil, then add the potatoes, along with the peelings (tie inside a muslin cloth bag to make it easier to remove later), and plenty of sea salt to taste. Simmer for 10 minutes, until it becomes quite soft and fluffy on the outside.
4. Drain (you can reserve the starchy flavourful potato water for gravy or soup or something, do not waste). I give it a big manly shake in my colander to further fluff up the edges. More rough edges = more crunchy edges later.
5. Remove the HOT tray carefully. The fat will be sizzling, the oven might even be slightly smoking, so put on your oven gloves (and goggles maybe). Gently tip the potatoes into the tray, then baste them so they are all coated with the fat. Also add the garlic and sprigs of christmas tree.
6. Put back into the oven and roast for about 45 minutes, turning them over halfway, until they are golden brown and crisp. Once out of the oven, sprinkle some crushed sea salt flakes over while still hot. Eat as soon as you can. 

*Notes and tips
There are arguments over which is the best roasting potato, the common contenders being Maris Piper, Desiree, and King Edwards. I use the Maris Piper.
Save your extra virgin olive oil for your salads; they turn rancid at high temperatures. Saturated fats are best, but the results can be a bit too heavy, so I use a mix of groundnut oil, a light neutral oil that's also good for high heat cooking, and which I favour in stir fries.  

I'm a tiny Asian girl so I probably don't have the most street cred when it comes to roast potatoes, so I'm not going to boast these are the best roast potatoes in town, but, they are pretty good. Their crunchy golden outsides just collapses into steaming light fluffy insides; while the fat-oil combination provide maximum flavour without being overly rich and heavy. And, not forgetting the aroma of roast garlic (maybe I cheat here because nothing can ever taste bad with roast garlic) and the wonderful citrusy sharpness of Christmas tree of course. Merry Christmas you all!

Just a last word of caution from the foragers: Before you all go snipping off a few sprigs off your tree, do note that not all varieties are edible, and you only eat the edible pine leaves of the tree, not the wood.  You also only need a bit to flavour your cooking, so do not turn your Christmas tree bare in a moment of gluttony. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Lazy No-Knead Sourdough Spelt Bread

In the lead-up to Christmas, there's always loads of recipes for treats and cakes floating around the web and in the magazines and free papers, threatening my promise to be Santa's good girl. After two chocolate cakes in a week, I think it's time to practise a bit of self-restraint. Even with vegetables thrown in (best-ever beetroot chocolate cake recipe here), or with the flour taken out (chocolate orange almond cake recipe here), too much cake is too much cake. But I missed having the oven on-- the ritual of creating wonderful smells and something tasty from nothing; and well, frankly, the heat from the oven (it is mad freezing here)-- so I made bread.

And one would think I must be a really talented baker to have made my own bread, and by bread here I don't mean banana bread (not that I look down on banana bread, I love banana bread) but a proper artisan loaf of sourdough spelt bread. I'll be the first to admit that baking is not my thing. They come out alright when I follow the right recipe, and very often do taste good, but you would never get me making symmetrical tarts or perfect pies. So if I can do this, you probably can. If you've ever seen bakers make bread, or have ever attempted making bread on your own, everything about this dough feels wrong, but it works.

Though I usually believe good things come out of a bit of bicep work and sweat and tears, the no-knead technique surprisingly turns the worryingly wet dough into a loaf with an open crumb and large holes that many people dig. I thank the (lazy) genius who discovered this and shared this with everybody in  the original New York Times article, and the subsequent geniuses who then excitedly adapted this for other types of flour and for sourdough. This is not really no-knead, but you only need to do a series of 'stretch-and-folds' i.e. no manly muscles involved. I like spelt because it has a wonderful mellow nuttiness without the heaviness of most other wholegrains, and this ancient grain is also better digested than normal wheat and ; the sourdough method gets rid of the anti-nutrients found in the wholegrain flour, plus, sourdoughs just taste freaking good.

You do need a strong, bubbly sourdough starter to make this bread though, which really, is just a fermented mix of flour and water that you can make easily or beg/steal/borrow from your favourite artisan bakery.

(adapted from Breadtopia- he has a video too, very helpful if you're still scared; and Cheeselave.)

You can use all-whole spelt too, in total 530g, as in the original recipe. I mix it up for a lighter loaf.
350g whole spelt flour
200g white spelt flour + more for sprinkling
350g water
10 g (1 1/2 tsp) unrefined sea salt
60g (3 tbsp) unrefined sugar or honey
1/4 cup active sourdough starter (fed and bubbly, 100% hydration)

You also need
a dough whisk (makes mixing wet sticky doughs easier, but it's possible to use a very large fork...)
a large mixing bowl
a dough scraper (or some plastic card)
a proofing basket (or a colander + thin dish cloth)

The night before,
1. Add the sugar/honey to the water, then mix in the starter.
2. Mix the flour with the salt.
3. Mix the dry and wet ingredients together, using a dough whisk or the large fork. You'll realise the dough is like a very stodgy batter that's quite impossible to knead.
4. Cover with a plastic bag, and leave for 30 min to an hour.
5. Wet a dough scraper, scrape and separate the edges of the dough from the bowl just so you can lift up the dough. It's still quite slack, but you should be handling it very gently anyway.
6. Do a stretch-and-fold i.e.stretch the dough slightly, then fold each side into each other. Repeat in the other direction.
7. Repeat steps 4-6 three more times. 15 minute intervals work too if you're a bit impatient.

The next morning,
8.  The dough would have risen quite a lot*, yay! Using a wet dough scraper again, scrape out onto a floured surface, then using floured hands, gather all the sides in and pinch at the top to seal (should seal easily because the dough's quite sticky). Sprinkle more flour over.
9.  Place the blob into a floured proofing basket or dishcloth-lined colander, seam-side up. Cover with another dishcloth and leave for its final rise, about 1 to 1 1/2 hour, or till doubled.
10. 1 hour in, pre-heat the oven to 230 degrees celsius. Put the cast iron pot in (with the lid on) so it gets really hot. WEAR MITTENS when you take it out!
11. Turn the risen dough out into the very hot pot (now the seam-side is down), then place in the oven. Immediately turn the heat down to 200 degrees celsius.* Bake for 35 min covered*, 10 min uncovered to brown the crust.
12. Let cool for an hour before slicing into it. It continues to cook as it cools and become less gummy, so be patient. I know it's hard to resist warm bread fresh from the oven, but it's worth it.

Notes and tips
*How much your dough rises depends on how good your starter is and how warm your kitchen is. It will take a lot longer to rise here in dreary cold London than, say, in sunny Singapore.
*All ovens work differently so you may have to adjust the temperature and timings according to your oven. You might need to turn it down lower than 200C, or bake for slightly longer.
*The amazing thing about using your cast iron casserole pot is that the tight lid creates a steamy environment making for a crisper crust. Other recipes I've seen that use a baking stone (obviously not for a no-knead sort of bread) will put a tray of hot water at the bottom of the oven to create steam; this one has no need for that.

In Europe, bread is considered the staff of life, but if you told me three years ago that I can never eat bread again, I probably wouldn't give a hoot (I will die without rice though #asian). That was before I discovered real bread-- warm golden crusts and the wonderful yeasty smell of slow-fermented sourdough. It still amazes me that you can build something like this out of 3 basic ingredients: flour, salt, and water. Now when I need a quick bite to start the day, or a peckish nibble to break up my hum-drum day in front of the computer, I understand why one can really be happy simply with bread and butter (and a dollop of jam, or better yet, kaya, if one has it).

See also
Farewell, my hero (and how to make your own no-fail sourdough starter) 
Sourdough (Crepe), that was easy!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

DIY Flavoured Sugars-- Pandan Sugar (Christmas presents, sorted!)

The lights are up, the Christmas songs are playing, and Starbucks have already rolled out their Red Cups of eggnog latte. We are less than a month away from Christmas kids!

To be honest, Christmas has never meant much to me. My family, being very traditional, has never made a huge deal of this "angmoh" (i.e. Caucasian) celebration, and the most we did was to get into my dad's car and join the traffic jam down at Orchard Road to see the Christmas lights. I remember hanging up stockings at the foot of my bed and finding, well, nothing in it the next morning. I blamed it on Enid Blyton's rubbish advice and Santa's carelessness (I was pretty sure I was a good girl), but now I just see that my poor perplexed parents were the ones responsible for my lack of presents. I never got into the habit of sending Christmas cards or buying Christmas presents even when I got older, except for specific Secret Santas/ parties/ unashamed requests, but when I moved to London, I found I could hardly get away with this.

Christmas shopping is a nightmare. All shopping is, really (I know I must be the weirdest girl out there), but the shoppers around this season are the worst; the music around this season, the loudest; and the prices, just ridiculous. Never mind the fact that you're paying 20 pounds for a useless mug, it's also a mug that 2000 other people out there have bought and that 2000 other people out there will receive. I love making my own presents because they are so much more special and meaningful. I've made jams or shit-hot sambals for friends, personalised with a cute hand-drawn label, but this year, I've got an even simpler trick up my sleeve-- flavoured sugars!

DIY Flavoured Sugar
3-4 sprigs of fresh herbs/flowers*
OR 1-2 pandan leaves 
2 cups of unrefined raw cane sugar **

1. Tie the pandan leaves into knots/ lightly bruise and crush the herbs to release their essential oils. 
2. In an airtight jar, add the sugar to the herbs, stirring to distribute and making sure the herbs are submerged.
3. Seal and leave to stand in a cool, dry place for 2 weeks (hence why you must start NOW), stirring every couple of days to evenly distribute the herbal essence and to keep the sugar from clumping (the herbs still have natural moisture in them at this stage).
4. 2 weeks later, the herbs will have started to dry out and the sugar will have absorbed the herbs' essential oils. Tie a pretty ribbon and/or stick on a pretty label and that's your Christmas present sorted!

*You can do this with any fresh herbs on hand, like mint or thyme, or perhaps lavender. I've gone for pandan, otherwise known as screwpine leaves. I smuggled a plant back from Singapore, but you can buy the leaves from Asian stores, or your own pot from some nurseries. It's not been doing well, so on a trusted plant-geek's (James Wong @botanygeek) tip, I've snipped off all the leaves to prevent further dehydration until it's (hopefully) resurrected, and so this is a brilliant way to make the most of/ preserve my crop.

Pandan is THE Singaporean/ Malaysian plant used to add fragrance to all manners of sweet and savoury dishes. I don't even know how to describe the fragrance because it's so distinct and unique. It would be like trying to describe vanilla.This is wonderful to sweeten puddings and jellies (especially those made with coconut milk) or you can even use it to give a sweet contrasting note to a soy sauce marinade for instance, with an extra whiff of heavenly pandan fragrance. **It's great to sprinkle over your puds and pies too, in which case consider icing sugar for a powdery finish or demerera sugar for a crunchy touch. 

Flavoured sugars sound like the sort of thing you might find in a posh Selfridges counter, but are so simple to make, don't  cost much at all, and can take you less time than the tube ride down to Oxford Circus. And presents are so much better when they're edible, don't you think?

These were some other pandan gift ideas I was contemplating, worth checking out:
Kaya (pandan coconut curd jam)
Wendy's pandan essence/ concentrate

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Double-boiled Pear and Almond Dessert Soup


My friend's mantra for getting through his dissertation were the two 'C's- chocolate and cigarettes. Since I don't smoke, he recommended I eat more chocolate. Maybe it's one cube of chocolate, or one late night too many, but I'm having a bit of a cough and a sore throat now. Rather than turning to the local GP, I've self-administered myself rather tasty prescriptions of lemon-honey water and pear-and-almond soup.

Growing up in asia means food has always been the first form of medicine I turn to. Back in summer, I drink barley water like it's going out of fashion (to be honest, it already is old-fashioned) but in autumn, the howling winds and crisp dry air means that the focus is on getting foods that moisten, and the ingredients in this traditional concoction all have moistening, yin qualities, and in addition, specifically target the lungs and the skin. Funnily, this concotion takes the form of dessert, or tong sui as we generally call these sweet soups. The Chinese approach to desserts is far-removed from the English or American concept of an indulgently sweet/fatty treat; it's a rather guilt-free way to satisfy your sweet tooth, or if you like to go one step further in the mental assurance thing, it's a health supplement/ medicine that actually tastes good.
The sort of 'almonds' used here are not like the 'western' almonds that we are more familiar with. I think they come from apricot kernels, or at least the kernels of a fruit similar to the apricot, and are smaller and flatter. There are also two types, one called the 'south' (sweet) almonds and the other, the 'north' (bitter) almonds, which is medicinal when prepared properly, but poison when not cooked. I'm not joking, you can DIE. You can easily find these almonds, and the white fungus (optional) in most Asian stores, but if not, I think normal blanched almonds might make a suitable, though less ideal stand-in. I used some Chegworth conference pears from the farmer's market, which is already a kind of stand-in for the traditionalAsian pears; no less delicious/ therapeutic though. Double-boiling is a method that locks in all the liquid (and hence nutrients and flavour) and keeps the delicate ingredients from disintegrating into mush especially if you like a longer slow-cooking process, but if you can't be faffed, a gentle simmer in your everyday pot will do. Don't let the almond, pear or pot be an excuse.

serves 2
1 large ripe conference pear
2 tbsp south almonds
1 tbsp north almonds
1 dried white fungus (soft, not the crunchy variety)
1-2 tbsp rock sugar or raw honey (or to taste)

1. Soak the almonds and white fungus in water for at least a couple of hours, then drain. The white fungus will plump up and become soft and translucent and kind of dirty as all the gritty bits get loosened, so rinse well and break into florets.
2. Peel, core and halve the pear.
3. Place the pear, along with the almonds, fungus, sugar, and just enough water to cover, into a little ceramic pot or deep bowl that has a tight fitting lid. Place the little pot into a larger pot (I use a ceramic slow-cooker) filled with enough water for the 2-3 hours of boiling.
OR (If you can't be faffed) 
Place almonds, fungus, sugar and enough water to cover in a pot and simmer for about half an hour till the fungus is soft but still retains a bit of bite, then add the pears and simmer until it's just fully poached through, translucent but not mushy.
4. Adjust the sweetness level if needed. The soup is quite refreshing when cool, but better warm I believe.

The soup is lightly sweet, with the honeyed fragrance of poached pears and the delicate flavour of almonds. I did say the white fungus is optional, but I like seeing its lovely blossoms strewn across the soup, and feeling its jelly-like texture as it slides down my throat. It may not look as exciting and fashionable as red wine-poached pears, but I love that it looks all pale and pure and zen. I feel better already just looking at it, and I definitely am better after having a bowl of two of this sweet medicine. Who needs cough syrup when you've got dessert eh?

Other Asian dessert therapies:
Old-fashioned Barley Water, with a few variations
Black Sticky Rice Porridge (Pulut Hitam), with red adzuki beans and coconut cream

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

(Argh) I will.

I will be focused.
I will finish the bloody dissertation.
I will get off twitter.
I will ignore that thank-you tweet about fish head noodles.
I will not decide to revisit fish head noodles.
I will stop researching noodles.
I will not make or tear noodles today.
I will not make pasta today, either.
I will put my new pasta machine on the highest shelf.
I will not climb up to reach it.
I will stop hovering around the kitchen.
I will stop 'checking on' my chicken soup.
I will wait patiently for soto ayam. 
I will stop thinking about dinner.
I will stop thinking about tomorrow's breakfast.
I will stop thinking about the best scrambled eggs for tomorrow's breakfast.
I will be zen and meditate on pickles.
I will not pickle achar today.
I will not pickle kimchi today.
I will not think about kimchi pheasant.
I will not think about mum's sesame oil chicken.
I will not think about birds at all, including that aforementioned soto ayam.
I will not crave cinnamon baked apples.
I will not reminisce about visiting Chegworth.
I will not daydream about holidays.
I will get off the Ryanair website.
I will be good and work hard this holiday.
I will be frugal and survive on peanuts this holiday.
I will stop munching on peanuts now.
I will leave them for making satay peanut sauce.
I will leave them for making satay satay peanut sauce next week.
I will eat 'healthy chocolate' instead (best weird discovery: blackstrap molasses + pure cocoa powder. Also, blackstrap molasses + good traditionally brewed soy sauce makes kecap manis with no artificial ingredients. Kecap manis makes nasi goreng. Ok stop.)
I will not eat 'healthy' chocolate.
I will not munch at all.
I will save the hand-eye coordination for typing. 
I will type a thousand words in one sitting.
I will type a thousand words for my dissertation in one sitting.
I will get off blogger now.

(back next week with more hopefully, sorry)

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Ox cheek and venison rendang

I'd totally forgotten about my freezer and its store of fantastic leftovers.

I got home cold, tired and hungry again and was getting ready to make another pot (no a bowl won't do it) of lazy ABC soup. It's been 5 days of soup, and though I've made these soups in as many variations as this country's range of winter produce will allow, I must admit I've been slurping the soup up with much less enthusiasm day by day. I know not many people can say this next satement, so I say it with smug relish: How nice then, to discover in the depths of your freezer, the last ziplock bag of ox cheek and venison rendang.

Beef rendang is perhaps one of my favourite curries from home. I say curry but for the rendang-uninitiated, they may be a bit confused by the look of this dish. It's not the usual shade of yellow, orange or red, and there's hardly enough broth to call it a curry, the liquid having mostly gone after the long hours of simmering, as the cooking process turning from boiling to frying towards the end. What remains though, is this rich, thick sauce that coats the beef, concentrated with meaty flavour and the complex aroma of spices and coconut. I guess you could call it a dry curry, but that wouldn't do justice to the meat that's so very moist and tender from soaking up all those spicy juices in that slow-cooking process. I also said beef, but for the supperclub that this dish was done for, I wanted to celebrate Singaporean food with the best of this season's British produce, and that meant game in the chilly fall/winter months.

Venison actually works great here because it's pretty similar to beef; being wild, it's as organic as you can get, but much more sustainable for the environment. Unfortunately though, wild venison is also incredibly lean, wonderful for the cholestrol-conscious but not so wonderful when you're trying to make a rich rendang. The ox cheeks here are absolutely necessary to balance the venison shanks (and don't worry, it's proven fat is good for you anyway), both these cheaper, tougher cuts transforming into melting tenderness with eight hours of patient loving care.


Recipe with help from my friend's Malay aunt, Goz and Charlene.*

serves 6-8 people, as a side

500g ox cheek from happy cows (chopped into 1 inch cubes)
300g wild venison shanks + bones* (meat chopped into 1 inch cubes, bones into pot-fitting sizes)
1 stick cinnamon (cassia bark)
4 star anise
4 cloves
6 cardamom pods, bashed
2 lemongrass, white part only, bashed and thinly sliced
12 kaffir lime leaves, bashed and thinly sliced
500ml thick coconut milk
200ml water (may top up more)
3 tbsp tamarind pulp, soaked in warm water to get the juices
about 2 tsp unrefined sea salt (adjust to taste)
about 1/4 cup unrefined palm/brown sugar (adjust to taste)
1/4 cup dessicated coconut
2 tbsp coconut oil

For the rempah (spice paste)
200g shallots (or onions)
1 bulb of garlic
4 lemongrass, white part only
2" galangal
2" ginger
12 dried red chillies, soaked in warm water and deseeded
3 tbsp melted coconut oil, or groundnut oil

To finish
chopped fresh coriander

1. Pound/blend the ingredients for the rempah till you get a smooth paste.
2. Add coconut oil to a large oven-proof cast iron casserole pot, and over medium heat, fry the rempah along with the other whole spices, stirring, till aromatic and of a delicious brown (but not burnt) colour.
3. Add the beef, venison, bones, and pounded lemongrass and saute for another 5-10 minutes. You might have to do this in batches.
4. Add the coconut milk, water, tamarind water, kaffir lime leaves, salt, sugar, bring to a boil, and then cover and let it remain cooking in the oven at 150 degrees celsius for about 7 hours. Check every 1-2 hours, give it a nosy poke and stir to make sure everything gets coated in the sauce, topping up with more water as needed.
5. For the kerisik, toast the dessicated coconut over a medium hot pan, shaking and stirring constantly so it doesn't burn. Remove from heat just as it turns a pale golden because it will continue cooking to a golden brown off the heat. Pound and grind till you get an oily paste. Stir this in midway through the cooking.

6. The meat should be tender and near falling apart when you jab at it, and the sauce, thick and rich, but not entirely dried up. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt/sugar if necessary. Finish with a sprinkling of fresh coriander, and serve with nasi lemak (coconut rice), or just plain rice really; this packs enough punch on its own.

Additional notes and credits
* Auntie told me about the spices. Although I must add, Asian cooking is very much agak-agak. And the kerisik, the toasted coconut paste that's an essential to any fragrant rendang.
* Goz turned this into a much less harrowing experience by using the oven. The oven keeps everything at a steady heat without the worry of it over-caramelising, i.e. burning at the bottom. Your electricity/gas bills might come as a mini shock though. He also uses thick sweet dark soy sauce to make the rendang darker, which I've decided not to include in the recipe, but which I did use for the supperclub.
* For a normal beef rendang, just replace the venison and bones with the same weight of beef short ribs instead of going all cheek; there is such a thing as too rich. Cheeks for the gelatinous richness, ribs (and their bones) for bite and flavour, almost like a stock. Charlene the anal Cordon Bleu graduate came up with the perfect portions of fatty cheek to ribs. (Goz argues he came up with it too. First.)

If you're a fan of rich beef stews, and a fan of aromatic curries, this is pretty much the happy intersection between the two. The spices, the toasted coconut, the slow cooking, altogether make for melt-in-your-mouth, intense flavours. It's a fair bit of work but worth every effort, especially since leftovers only get more delicious in the fridge, and ridiculously delicious when discovered in the back of your freezer when you come home cold, tired and hungry.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Fussy food, and ABC Soup

The clocks turned back a day ago. And just to make sure we all realise, it turned into winter overnight. The cold drops of rain (snow for those up north, yucks) have been falling, and the icy winds have ganged up with the rain clouds by beating my useless umbrella up so that I get home wet, cold and tired. And hungry. It's on nights like this when I dream of getting into the hot shower for a full hour, and coming out to piping hot noodle soup, or a comforting bowl of congee. In my dream, that soup or congee would be prepared lovingly by my mum (or a cute boy. or any other person but me, really), so I need only worry about getting into my thickest jumpers and pyjamas bottoms. Alas, the three years here have taught me that soup will not magically appear on my table however tight I shut my eyes and cross my fingers. It will, and can appear after my shower, if I muster enough energy to do five minutes worth of chopping.

Five minutes is eally all it takes for homecooked magic. And I don't even mean five minutes of crazy chinese wokking or Jamie Oliver-style triple tasking or working an overpriced machine. I get weird stares from my friends when I say I cook every day, but I can't imagine not. I know not everyone sees the fun in peeling onions and inhaling steam from the pot. But even if you cook for the sake of sustenance, it doesn't really take much to deliver good food into your belly.

Perhaps the most basic soup that I loved as a child, and that I first dared to cook after I first moved to London, is the ABC soup. It's not a creative acronym, and I didn't make the name up. Mums called it ABC soup because it's as simple as ABC; simple equipment, simple skills, and simple ingredients you can find no matter which side of the pond you dwell. Potatoes, onions, carrots and pork ribs, all in a pot for a couple of hours, done. Yet the soup is lovely and hearty, the broth naturally sweet from the vegetables and pork. I've now taken to calling all soups that are made in that same fashion ABC soup. What I used here is a mix of winter roots that I picked up from the farmer's market that day, and all in all there are more than a few changes so I don't know if you would still call it the same thing, but it's just as unfussy as ABC soup should be.

makes enough to feed yourself at least twice, depending on how hungry
2 large carrots
1 medium turnip
1 large onion
1/2 a medium celeriac
1/2 a medium swede
4 cups of homemade Asian stock*
1 tbsp butter from happy cows
2 tbsp white (shiro) miso
lots of freshly ground white pepper
chopped fresh parsley and coriander

1. Wash, peel and chop all the vegetables up into rough large chunks, no need for geometric accuracy.
2. Put all the vegetables into a pot with the stock and bring to a boil, then cover and let simmer for the length of your shower i.e. 30 minutes.
3. Remove from heat. Dissolve miso in a bit of the broth and then stir in evenly. Also stir in the butter. (Because butter makes everything better. And because miso and butter together are delicious, if you have not yet been enlightened.)
4. Finish with a generous sprinkle of pepper and herbs. Eat.

The root vegetables are all sweet but in different ways, so you get different layers of flavours as they cook; the nuttiness and fragrance of celery from the celeriac, the slight pepperiness from the turnip, the earthiness from the swede, and the mellow sweetness from the carrot. I like that they are all left in huge rustic chunks because then you get to appreciate the different textures, and of course, it means no ninja knife skills or blender is needed.

You could also add rainbow chard or some other seasonal greens towards the end, but then you would have to stagger the timing, and this soup is about bunging it all in at the same time, save for my final seasoning and sprinkling of herbs. *Because this was a soup that that I wanted right out of the shower, I used stock instead of pork ribs, although if you went for water on this one, I assure you the soup does not lack in flavour, especially if you do as I did, stirring in a mild miso at the end for some shortcut creamy salty umami.

But again, this is ABC soup; it's meant to be as simple as you like and if you've only got salt and pepper and nothing else in your kitchen cupboard, so be it. No fuss.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Black Pepper Beef, and My Top 8 Spices

My kitchen is in need of some serious re-organising. My spice cupboard, especially, is threatening to burst open. It has come to the point where I get ambushed by a packet of cloves whenever I open the cupboard door so, much as I hate packing, it's time to stop pretending that the kitchen elves will sort it out for me. My problem is, I can't really throw anything out. Like my dad, I'm a hoarder, just that instead of hoarding old newspapers and books, I hoard pretty plates and ingredients. In my own defence, I do use almost all of these spices. I do use my star anise for a soy braise, my coriander for a rempah or satay, my cinnamon for puddings, and my turmeric to stain everything golden. And as for the rest, I do need them all for a curry or biryani. So I really can't throw anything out. See?

Funnily, the one spice I don't really use much is perhaps the most basic spice that every cook has and uses most often- black pepper. Perhaps because of my mum's influence on my cooking, I reach for white pepper more often than I do black. The flavour of the white is less harsh and bitter than the black,  and it generally rounds out the asian flavours of soy sauce or ginger much better. But even for mashed potatoes, I quite like using white just so I don't see the random flecks of black and I've also recently taken to using white pepper when I make the best scrambled eggs for breakfast.

That said though, there are times when I want the more earthy, gutsy kick of black pepper, and not just for the very non-asian things like meatballs. Black pepper beef is a classic tze char hawker favourite back home. It's one of the only few instances you'll see a Chinese chef using black pepper instead of white, and liberal amounts at that, and it's also the reason why black pepper made the top 8 in the end.

serves 2-3 as a side

200g beef flank (or sirloin if you're feeling particularly generous)
1 large brown onion, sliced 
1 inch ginger, sliced thinly
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp of groundnut oil 
2 large dried red chilli, soaked and deseeded but left whole (optional, for extra heat and colour. If in summer, feel free to use bell peppers)

For marinade 
1/2 tbsp good (traditionally brewed) soy sauce
1/2 tbsp Chinese rice wine
1 tsp homemade stock, or water
1 tsp (yep. not a pinch) freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp unrefined sugar
1 tsp tapioca/ cornstarch
few drops of toasted sesame oil

For sauce
3 tbsp of homemade stock, or water if desperate
1 tbsp good soy sauce
1 tsp of Chinese shaoxing rice wine 
1 tsp Chinese black vinegar
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 tsp unrefined sugar
1tsp of tapioca/ cornstarch mixed with 1 tsp water (to thicken)

1. Slice the beef thinly against the grain, at an angle. Mix well with the marinade and then leave it aside for 30 min.
2. Meanwhile, you can prep your ingredients, like chopping onions and mixing the sauce ingredients (except the cornstarch and water) so you can have a relaxing stir fry later.
4. Add oil to a screaming hot wok and flash-fry the beef for 1 min, the outsides should be seared but the insides still pink. Remove from the wok and let drain and set aside.
5. Add the onions and fry till translucent and slightly softened. Push aside and add the dried chilli, ginger and garlic to the hot oil and fry till fragrant. 
6. Add the sauce, which should help deglaze the pan. Let it come to the boil, then reduce the heat.
7. Stir in the cornstarch slurry a little at a time till you get the consistency you want. It will thicken after it cools, so don't go pouring everything at a go!
8. Return the beef to the wok and stirfry for 2 min or so, making sure everything's coated. Serve hot with steaming bowls of rice.

See my old post on secrets to a chinese stirfry if you are one of those kids who have to know the "why" behind each step.

The black pepper here isn't sprinkled on as an afterthought; rather than a seasoning, think of it as the main flavour of the dish itself. Slightly bitter and nutty, it goes really well with the sweet, charred onions to give a very earthy sort of heat and flavour to the beef. I used the brown onion here, not because I have a couple of papery ones crying to be used, but because they stand up to the strong black pepper better than their milder spring onion cousins. If you have a wonderfully pristine spice cupboard with nothing but salt and pepper, and an equally bare fridge with no fresh vegetables in it, you could still make this.

That's not to say I can survive on just salt and pepper in my spice cupboard though. I will get on with the packing.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

My own apple day (Visiting Chegworth Valley)

It will be Apple Day this Saturday, October the 21st. There will be a nationwide celebration of orchards, with all manners of apple-y events from large fairs to little festivals at the farmer's market. Last year, I was tying apples to strings and coaxing kids to apple-bob, or crushing buckets of apples with whatever superhuman strength that a puny Asian girl has for the cider-pressing show. This year though, I've heard there's a bit less apple worshipping going on. The very wet spring has caused a very sad harvest, so in many places, Apple Day's been cancelled. But whether or not the apple festivities are going on in your area, we can all still celebrate. I've been fondling (apples) and digging up old photos, resulting in a tamarind applesauce recipe, and a long-overdue peek into Chegworth Valley.

Most Londoners probably know of Chegworth's famous juices, and their wonderful variety of lovely organic apples. They stock some of London's best restaurants, like St John's and Bea's of Bloomsbury, and have a dedicated following at the farmer's markets that they do. It's while working at the farmer's market that I became good friends with the owner Linda, and after a few months of prodding and wheedling for me to come visit her, I finally made my way down to Kent one hot sunny day in May with a friend in tow. I remember it was right after an intense bout of deadlines from school, so it felt almost as if I was being rescued from a horrible land as Linda whisked me away to the farm in her van.

It was spring then, so the apple trees were bare, but we trudged through the orchards anyway, Linda half-cursing at the stinging nettles that were not-very-gently tickling our legs, and half-gushing happily at the apple blossoms, expertly giving forecasts on the varieties of apples that were going to do well later this year. I've never come across apple trees before, and was a little surprised that they weren't very tall at all. I've always had a mental image of a rather big tree, big enough for a boy to sit under and get the idea of gravity knocked into his head by a falling fruit, but Linda explained that the trees are kept at a height that makes it not crazy impossible to pick.

We also walked up the slopes to where the salad leaves and soft fruits were being grown. Those were being grown in polytunnels, practically saunas what with the over-enthusiastic sun, but everybody at the farm cheerily went about their tasks with their shorts and sunscreen on. That was when the first of the strawberries were starting to appear, so I pretty much had the first pick of these luscious red jewels. Fresh off the branches, they were the sweetest, juiciest things ever, but I may be slightly biased with my parched throat and stupidly thick jeans and boots.

As an excuse to step away from the sweltering heat, we went to take a look at the last of the apples, kept in cold storage since their harvest last season. Chegworth apples aren't at all the smooth, uniform beauties that you find in a bag of apples from the supermarket; some are smaller than others and some have odd bulges, which I find just adorable. When they first started the farm, they found they had to comply to the supermarkets' ridiculous standards of shape and size, and that these people cared nothing at all about the actual taste of these apples, or what farming methods they used as long as they got their unnaturally perfect apples. They very stubbornly refused to give up on their farming ethos, determined to produce fruit with the best flavour, and to deal with people who were equally passionate about the quality of their produce i.e. people like the dear old lady who comes to the market, rain or shine, and tuts when her favourite early-season Discovery apples run out.

It was a beautiful day that ended with a pitcher of chilled Chegworth apple juice and newfound respect for these mad people and their mad passion and pride in what they do. As a tribute to Linda and Apple Day, I've got a special applesauce recipe to share.

600g English apples*
1 tbsp tamarind pulp, soaked in warm water
1 stick of cinnamon
2 cloves
unrefined cane sugar, to taste

*I know most people go for the tart Bramley cooking apples, but I like using eating apples so you don't need to add much sugar at all. Here I used a mix of the very sweet, nutty Russet apple, and the king of traditional English apples, the Cox, for a tart fragrance to complement the tamarind. 

1. Peel, core and dice the apples.
2. Tip into a pot, together with the tamarind water and spices and bring to a boil. Cover and let simmer on low heat for about 20 min or until the apples break down into a soft mush. Remove the spices and add sugar to taste.
3. You can puree it or strain it but I do it real rustic and just roughly mash up more with a fork for more texture. It's ready to serve hot or let cool, before storing into jars, great for gifts if you decide not to eat it all up yourself.

It's such a simple recipe that I feel quite embarassed to share, but it's so delicious and versatile I find it quite selfish not to enlighten people who actually fork out money to buy overpriced jars of applesauce. My good friend likes to use applesauce to replace oil and eggs in her fat-free baking, but for the fat-fearless, this is especially wonderful with homemade ice cream or a crispy roast pork belly ;) I don't like fusion for the sake of it, but here, the tamarind adds a delicious tart-sweetness that really complements the apples and the aromatic spices.

Here's to the imperfect English apples and their mad growers!

Monday, 8 October 2012

Bunny Biryani

Before I start, I'm sorry, Rachel and Christine, two of my best bunny-loving friends. I should be sentenced to a diet of carrots for the rest of my life to make up for my sin, for laying my hands on these innocent, long-eared, wide-eyed creatures. But, let me try make a case for myself and all the generations of rabbit-eaters before me.

Wild rabbits are actually one of the most sustainable, ethical, and wholesome things you could eat. Put aside all thoughts of the Fluffy you cuddle at night. They are in fact farmers' pests, feeding enthusiastically on and damaging millions worth of crops. And the country is teeming with them. If you paid attention to Miss Chng in Biology class, you would have learnt that they breed with ferocious passion and gusto. Rabbit has been a British staple for centuries, especially during the World War, because it was cheap and plentiful, but it fell out of favour when people could better afford other sorts of meat, especially as factory-farmed beef and battery-caged chickens came into the picture. Horrible mass-produced meat aside, even the most humanely-reared, corn-fed, free-range chickens put an extra strain on the Earth's resources. The rabbit population, on the other hand, needs to be controlled to maintain the balance in nature.

To make you feel even better, their truly free-range lifestyle and wild diet mean that their meat is very lean, healthy and flavoursome. You can do your bit by plopping them into your pot of stew or curry, or in this case, making biryani out of them. I find chilli and spices a must when I cook game because I'm not the biggest fan of gamey smells (see chinese-style braised venison and pot-roasted pheasant with kimchi). 

This biryani here is made in a very similar fashion to the Indian hyberbadi biryani, but is really more inspired by fond memories of the nasi biryani my mum would buy me when she picked me up from school. The 'nasi' here is a Malay word for rice, and 'biryani' an Indian word to explain the cooking process, another sign of the culinary mishmash of cultures in Singapore-- one that is described as mamak cuisine back home.

Biryani has a notorious reputation of being difficult to cook, but really, it's a very convenient one-pot dinner that will happily feed the masses, old and young. The ingredient list is long I admit, but once you have them, it's just a matter of bunging them all together. The most difficult bit is perhaps, convincing them to eat Bugs Bunny. I've tried my best, but if all that still doesn't convince, you could replace the rabbit here with lamb, or chicken, which is what it tastes like anyway, just with less fat and a stronger flavour. It's too yummy to pass up.

(with help from a mamak stall owner and the ancient Indian chef that Padma Lakshmi interviewed)
1 whole wild rabbit, on the bone (about 800g)
3 cups basmati rice, soaked for 30 min or more and drained
1 tbsp sea salt
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
3 tbsp melted ghee  (i.e. clarified butter, preferably from happy cows)
2 handfuls of fried onions
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint and coriander
pinch of saffron, soaked in warm water or milk (this colours and flavours the rice golden. I don't like to use artificial colourings, so there's no jovial mix of fluorescent orange and yellow in my biryani)

for the marinade
1 cup whole organic yogurt
2 tbsp ginger-garlic paste (to make, just blend a 50-50 mix of each)
1 cinnamon stick
2 cloves
10 cardamom pods
1 tbsp red chilli powder
2 tsp turmeric
2 green chillies, finely chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint and coriander
juice of 1 lemon 
handful of fried onions, crushed
2 tbsp melted ghee
1 tsp sea salt

1. First, if the rabbit's not already jointed, watch this brilliant video 3 times and joint your rabbit. It's in fact easier to joint than a chicken.
2. Coat the rabbit pieces in the marinade and leave overnight in the fridge. The next day, remove from the fridge and let it come to room temperature before proceeding.
3. Bring a pot of water to the boil, with the salt, bay leaf and cinnamon. Parboil the rice i.e. it should be only 70% cooked. Drain.
4. Pre-heat oven to 170 degrees celsius. In a heavy-bottomed oven-safe pot with a tight lid, place the marinated rabbit at the base of the pot. Cover with a layer of about half of your par-cooked rice. Then scatter half the fried onions, mint and coriander over. Repeat the layering, and then finally finish by drizzling ghee and the saffron liquid all over.
5. Cover tightly (traditional purists will even seal with a blob of dough) and let cook in the oven for 45 min.

When ready, uncover and fork through, tossing the succulent meat together with the golden rice to release all that steam and spicy aromatic fumes. I know the ingredients list seems daunting, but there is not much actual work involved, and most of the time required is really just for the rabbit to sit, tenderise and absorb all the deliciousness from the marinade. And if you must grumble about that 15-20 minutes of active kitchen time, just think of the end results. Scrumptious rabbit, and of course, the real star of the show, the rice-- loose and flowing and filled with the perfume of spices and flavour from the meat (and bones).

Now if that whole paragraph above couldn't convince the bunny-eater in you, I hope this biryani does.

This was also posted on the Great British Chef blogfacebook page, and sparked up a happy debate and more ideas on cooking rabbit.