Monday, 28 May 2012

Chive Flower Tempura

Saturday saw a random surge of people at the farmer's market, people who were passing by on their way to the Chelsea Flower Show, one of the major events of the British calendar. Even before I'd rung the bell to signal the start of market, people were eagerly stroking and eyeing the sweet pea flowers and the other pretty delicate blooms in their myriad of wedding pastel shades.

I've never understood the way most women fawn over flowers. I do agree they are beautiful, and beautiful things are good to look at, but then what? I remember back in my giggly schoolgirl days, receiving roses for Valentine's day and being at a loss at what to do with them. I know many of my friends get all excited and stick them into makeshift vases of water, to try to extend them a little past their short life span; I, unfortunately, just stuck them into the bin. I just don't get the whole fuss over flowers, they're pretty but also pretty useless. I know, I'm probably the most unromantic girl out there. I'm not a horrible plant-hater though, I love plants, the way they bring colour and life to the earth; I especially love them if they can be eaten too. And so the only flowers that got me excited at the market were the edible ones.
While people were tucking precious bouquets into their shopping baskets, I was happily stuffing a bundle of chive flowers into mine. Chive flowers are just chives that have blossomed. The flower has gorgeous purple pom-pom petals, and if you sniff it, you get a decidedly un-floral and unfeminine scent of onions. I popped one into my mouth raw-- the familiar flavour of chives/spring onions, but on a much milder level. I decided I liked it.

I've lost all urge to cook or bake recently, because someone up there decided to switch on the sun and it's been ridiculously hot the past few days, so I made a simple salad with them first, tossed in a light vinegarette and sprinkled with some sesame seeds. Really quick but really good. Also really good in ridiculously hot weather, is ice-cold cider (I cannot bring myself to like beer) with a handful of crispy something, in this case, purple onion-y blossoms encased in a light tempura batter. The idea is not mine, I saw it on Veggie Belly's blog. I followed the absolutely brilliant way she did it, just holding the ends and dipping the blossoms into the oil. My tempura batter, however, comes from here.

1 bundle of chive flowers
1/2 cup of fine rice flour*
1/2 cup of ice-cold* beer or cider  (or fizzy water. But if you happen to have a bottle open anyway..)
1/2 tsp unrefined sea salt + a pinch, to taste
oil for frying*

For the dipping sauce
good soy sauce (naturally and traditionally fermented)
rice vinegar
some chive flower petals or snipped chives

1. Make sure your chive flowers are dry. Season with a little salt. Prepare your dipping sauce now so the chive flavour can infuse.
2. Mix up your batter just before you're ready to get frying, you don't want to leave the batter to rest or settle. The tempura batter should feel quite runny, much runnier than a pancake batter, and don't worry about lumps as it should be a little lumpy.
3. When the oil is hot (190 degrees celsius), dip your flowers into the batter, holding the other end, and then straight into the oil for no more than a few seconds. (I got the hang of it after the first few slightly more, er, coloured ones.) Do only a few at a go as too many will lower the temperature of the oil and they might end up sticking together.
4. Leave to drain on a rack. When all are done, serve up with the dipping sauce, and enjoy with friends and cold beer/cider/Pimm's.

I've seen people use normal wheat flour, but rice flour makes it extra crisp, plus share-friendly with gluten-intolerant friends if you skip the beer.
* Ice-cold is the keyword. Many recipes just use water, but something fizzy will give it that extra airiness and crispness. I think it might be less authentic though. 
* Saturated fats like pastured lard, coconut oil, palm oil are much better suited for  healthy deep-frying as they don't go rancid at high temperatures. Groundnut oil is alright too. No vegetable oil, and don't waste your extra virgin olive oil on this.

I've not made or eaten much tempura to consider myself an expert in the Japanese art of frying, but this one was crisp and light as air. What's even better is the burst of chive flavour and aroma when you bite into the inside. It reminded me of some tempura-ed spring onions I once tried, but because the chive flowers have a tender fluffier texture, and come in a convenient popcorn-like shape, they make for a mouth-popping-friendly experience. These went quick.

That's the way I like my flowers.

This is going into this month's Floral-Inspired Tea Time Treats, hosted by Lavender and Lovage and What Kate Baked.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Stinging Nettle Saag

Green gunk spiked with spices. That may not sound, or look the most appetising of things, but saag is one of my favourite Indian curries. Saag is most often made with spinach, in which case it's also called palak, though purists would insist it be only made with mustard greens (read this brilliant, if slightly intimidating post by Shaheen of Allotment2Kitchen on the difference). I didn't grow up in an Indian household, so I perhaps get a bit of leeway and flexibility here. For me, saag is a delicious way to use up a lot of fresh greens in something other than soup.

Such as stinging nettles. I had never tried them before (nettle tea made by infusing dried leaves don't count right), but curiosity had me excitedly loading more nettles than I realise into the bag. I blame the gloves.

Once back, I had to figure out how to deal with these stinging monsters. Google, ever reliable, says that nettles lose their sting once cooked, so the second thing I did was to plunge them into boiling water. The first was to get them out of the bag using heavy-duty fluoresecent yellow gloves (the only ones I could find in the house). I had a bite, it tasted kind of similar to spinach but with a stronger taste of iron, which I quite like. What I didn't fancy though, was the rough, furry texture, which got me to blend/pound it up into a puree, which then got me thinking about saag. Saag can be made with mutton or whatever meat, but since it's also National Vegetarian Week, I made the curry with crispy cubed new potatoes, a cross between saag aloo (with potato) and saag/palak paneer (with fried cubes of Indian cottage cheese).

(inspired by two of my favourite Indian chefs on youtube, Vahchef and Chef Harpal Singh)

4-6 new potatoes, depending on size (jersey royals at their best now that it's spring)
4 large bunches of stinging nettles
1 handful fresh coriander 
8 cloves of garlic, minced 
1 onion, minced
2 green chillies, chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tbsp coriander
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 cup organic, whole (full-fat please) yogurt
squeeze of lemon
unrefined sea salt
2 tbsp of ghee 

1. Cook potatoes in boiling salted water for about 5 min, or cooked till just tender. Drain then cut into fairly equal-sized cubes. Over medium heat, add half the ghee, and fry the potato cubes, flipping till crispy on all edges.
2. Blanch nettles in boiling water for 1 min, uncovered. Drain. Refresh with cold water. Puree with the fresh coriander.
3. Over medium heat, add the ghee. Toast the whole spices. Add the onions plus pinch of salt, garlic and green chillies, and saute till the onions turn translucent, but aren't browned, before sauteeing the ground spices till fragrant. 
4. Add the pureed nettles, season and bring to a boil, before adding the yogurt and simmering gently for a couple more min. Return the fried potatoes to the pan, remove from heat, and gently toss to coat. 
5. Finish off with a squeeze of lemon (granny says that helps in the digestion of greens, and grannies are always right;) ) and a a pretty drizzle of yogurt if you remember to save some.

Cooked this way, the stinging nettles melted into a lush green sauce, rich with flavour and fragrance from the spices. This curry isn't creamy enough to run off the spoon, instead it has a slight body and thickness to it that allows it to cling nicely to the surface of the crispy potatoes. You could very well do this with spinach, or most leafy greens, if you can't get hold of stinging nettles. There's also an earthier note to this saag; and for lack of a better word, a certain "weedy" taste from the nettles.

I do recommend people try it, or any so-called weed, really. I got these free but I didn't exactly go picking them myself, though I've always loved the idea of eating these unloved wild plants and eating off the land. According to that same Google search, stinging nettles are rich in iron and have a history of being used medicinally for women's health, and as a herb for all sorts of inflammatory diseases, so it's even more reason to get past your fear of stings and needles. And have I mentioned they're free?

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Cooking for the Plusixfive Supperclub

"Eh, don't be late."
"Eh, where are you, can you go get cabbage and tomatoes?"
"Eh, your phone answering skills epic fail."

"Eh, time check, three more hours to go." 
Another loving message from Goz, the chef behind the plusixfive supperclub as I fiddled around stuffing puff pastry squares with the chilli sardine filling. Last Sunday, in a sunny flat filled with quirky street art, a terrific collection of chairs, and the buzz of houseflies hiding from the unusual outdoor heat, I experienced my first supperclub, not as a diner though, but as a guest chef/kitchen assistant/front-of-house. Peeling and frying 18 hardboiled eggs for my sambal telur was an ordeal for someone used to cooking for one, but the delicious smells wafting from the bubbling sambal, fish head curry, and Goz's wok of fried beehoon aka "Singapore nooodles"more than soothed my distress. Call it kitchen therapy if you will, but it is in the kitchen where I find myself happiest and the most relaxed, a perfect antidote (or rather, temporary distraction) to the stressful pre-assesment weeks of school.

As I was up on my feet most of the day and night, I don't have a real idea of the dinner as a dinner itself, but these other food bloggers have already beat me to it, check them out for a brilliant writeup of the evening. Goz himself has also done a writeup about it here. Many of the people there were foodies hungry for some proper Singapore grub, a mix of food bloggers and their adventurous/cluelessly-pulled-along friends. It was amusing and slightly comforting seeing people whip out their cameras or iPhones, snapping away; I'm not weird after all.

It was a fishy feast, and if you know us Asians, we don't waste anything. I've mentioned countless of times how much I hate wasting any part of the animal, it makes a lot more sense, sustainably and economically, to cook with and enjoy all of what's been sacrificed, from nose to tail (or in this case, lip to tail).   See mum's tips on homemade stockXO fish head noodle soup/ soy-braised pig's ears etc. So for starters, Goz served up fried fish bones and skin, with a chilli-kaffir lime yogurt dip, which everyone happily munched away like crackers/scratchings with mugs of beer. And later on in the night, the star of the show, the fish head curry of course, tangy with tamarind and aromatic with spices.

I was pretty amazed at everyone's spice tolerance levels. My sambal tumis isn't one shy of flavours or heat, intensely packed with the pungent 'stench' of belachan (fermented shrimp paste) and the hottest dried chillies I have; indeed I got Christine (the other front-of-house) crying for beer. I had the strangest sadistic joy looking at people mopping their foreheads or asking for more rice while still licking the addictive sambal off with their already burning tongues. It is after all my first time presenting food to such a large food-obsessed crowd, and so I get a cheap thrill from things like that, and was pretty much over the moon hearing people requesting for sambal-making lessons.

There were also chwee kueh-- steamed rice cakes with a spicy preserved radish topping fried in lard and soy sauce-- and the real "Singapore noodles", served in true Singapore fashion on top of brown grease paper. I've tutted disapprovingly at the non-existent yellow-stained rice vermicelli dish before, sharing the kind of fried beehoon we really have at home; Goz's version is the kind we have in hawker centres, complete with fried luncheon meat (aka spam) and unglamorously smeared with sambal chilli paste. I myself am not a fan of spam because I like knowing where my meat comes from, and to be honest, I just don't go weak in my knees for the texture or taste of it, but this brought back childhood memories for sure. We all had a good argument and laugh after the dinner, as some gushed about their love of spam to the raised eyebrows of others. As a cheeky post-supperclub tweet went "I can't believe you got James Lowe (of Young Turks) to eat spam! Or did you push that aside chef?" Kudos for cereal prawns, that tze char favourite in Singapore coffeeshops, so wrong but so delicious.

So concludes my first experience of a supperclub. The food was brilliant-- I did manage to sneak bites in between service, and the day after from my little tupperware containers of leftovers-- but I thought the best part about the evening was the congregation of greedy stomachs and conversations.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Boiled, Fried, Sambal-Smothered Eggs (Guest post for plusixfive supperclub)

Boiled eggs were the first few things I learnt to cook and till now I love these simple little things. Indeed there’s nothing better than cutting into a hard-boiled egg from a happy hen to reveal orange yolks that are still slightly creamy. Well, nothing better except that same egg, deep-fried to create a crisp golden jacket, and then smothered with my must-have sambal chilli paste

This is a guest post for Goz, the crazy chef behind the crazy brilliant plusixfive Singapore supperclub. And now onto the exciting news, this is going to be part of the menu for this Sunday's supperclub. And onto more exciting news, I'll be cooking alongside Goz, or rather under Goz's command and barking orders.