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.