Saturday, 31 March 2012

Say (Feta) Cheese! -Eating in Greece

Have you ever had that feeling of just utter bliss and awe, mixed with a little sense of incredulity that such bliss and awe can exist?

I felt exactly that in Greece, watching the sun set over the horizon in Oia. We were freezing our asses off (yes, despite the sun. A case of extremely strong sea breezes, high altitudes, and over-optimistic clothing), wondering why the sun refused to set when it was already 730pm. Yet at the same time, not really caring that it's not setting yet, because the scene before us was just too beautiful. The sea, a few hundred feet below us, was so so blue, fading up into the skies, and that little glowing bubble of a sun was bathing everything in its rosy rays. And then I felt it again, standing at the top of the volcano in Santorini, watching the vast expanse of sea/sky and majestic islands stretch across my eyes. And then again, as I breathed in the salty-sweet air and felt the fine licorice-coloured sand between my aching toes at the black beach, though I may have been slightly disoriented after trekking more than 10km up and down the roads of Santorini following the crazy advice of the hostel owner.

All that worked up a giant appetite. We were two very hungry tiny asian girls in Greece.

Gyros/souvlaki, ultimate Greek fast food. Chunks of fatty lamb shaved off a rotating slab, topped with oily fries and wrapped in a toasted pita. Not my usual kind of food, but there's always an occasional place for artery-clogging yum in a healthy diet. Stressing about
"unhealthy" food is more unhealthy than just eating it.

Greece has a fabulous variety of appetisers/sides for sharing, much like the tapas of Spain, or the dimsum of Hong Kong, just that they were called mezze. Just for starters, we had

dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), tzatziki (cucumber yogurt dip), fried marrow balls, baked aubergine with tomato, horta (sauteed wild greens), the greek salad (see feta slab)

baked aubergine dish again, this time with sweet feta, and mini spanakopitas

large spankopita (spinach and feta pie)

fried Santorini tomato balls, fava dip

Looks pretty impressive, but often the dishes were really simple, giving attention to the ingredient itself, with nothing more than (lots of) Greek olive oil, herbs, and a squeeze of lemon to bring out the natural fresh flavours.

On the island of Paros, traditionally a fishing town, we of course had to order grilled seafood. At one place, the owner came out with the catch of the day on a plate, the mackerel still smooth and shiny and its eyes wide and glossy, for us to approve of its freshness. Without doubt, it was delicious later.
Mackerel, simply grilled with the aforementioned essentials, evoo/lemon/parsley.

More seafood! Shrimp and mussel saganaki, grilled octopus (I ate this for you, Susan :p ).

Aubergine (i.e. eggplant) was huge in Greece, I've had more eggplant the past week than I have had in a month, or months really, since the past wintry months haven't been the right time to find aubergines in the farmers' market. Everyone knows the Greek national dish, the signature moussaka, but there was also this amazing dish of aubergine rolls that can only be described as "wow".

Aubergine, stuffed with feta and herbs, fried in a light batter, then smothered with a rich tomato gravy and baked so the flavours and textures all melded together wonderfully

It was called 'Mama Mia'! Mama was a character herself, radiating warmth and cheekiness, exclaiming over every customer (all the ladies were "sex bombs", all the men were "my love"), much like a proud mama welcoming guests into her home. It was hard not to fall in love with her and her food. Actually, its hard not to fall in love with Greece herself. The gorgeous sights, the culture, the atmosphere, the combination of good food and greedy, giggly company.

Rice-stuffed roast peppers and tomatoes

Now stuffed and back in London, I'm already wondering where the sun went ):

General news: I'm killing mummyicancook's facebook page after my one week trial. Too much work for too few fans, sadly. Keeping twitter because it's, scarily, quite a lot of addictive, time-wasting fun.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Soto Ayam, Malay Chicken Soup (for the Soul)

When you get showers one day, sun the next, winds on another, you know the seasons are changing. Then again, that's possibly the case for London all year round. The fickle weather gives us all something in common, aside from the economy and the Olympics, to whine about at least. But also with the changing seasons, comes the snotty noses and sore throats. When I'm down with a bout of flu, or when I just need a little boost of immunity to soothe my paranoia, or even when I'm just after a comforting bowl of warmth, there's nothing like chicken soup.

The power of "Grandma's chicken soup" is not just a placebo effect. I've written about making homemade stock/bone broths before, how the slow-cooking of meat and bones draws out both delicious flavour and health-giving nutrients. Every culture has their own version of chicken soup, and back in Singapore, the Malays have their chicken soup infused with fragrant herbs and spices. Soto ayam, or mee soto (i.e. with noodles), was always a simple favourite from the school canteen in primary school.

Malay Spiced Chicken Soup (Soto Ayam)
recipe adapted from the brilliant 3hungrytummies
makes enough stock for 2-3 servings

1 large free-range pastured chicken carcass (you can use a whole chicken and double the ingredients, but this is even more so frugal)
2 litres of water
1 large onion, minced
1 cinnamon stick
4 cloves
2 star anise
1 bay leaf
1 lemongrass, bashed
unrefined sea salt, to taste

for the spice mix
1" piece of ginger
4 cloves garlic
1 heaped tbsp coriander
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp turmeric
1 tbsp white peppercorns

to serve (basic version, read below for other toppings)
rice vermicelli, soaked in cold water for 15 min
shredded chicken from above
handful of beansprouts
fresh coriander leaves

1. Pound/blitz the ingredients for the spice mix together. Rub the chicken carcass with the spice mix.
2. Saute the onion till lightly browned, then add the chicken carcass, along with the rest of the ingredients. Add the water, bring to a boil, skim off any scum that rises to the top, and then let simmer for 2h on a low heat.
3. Remove the carcass, pick at the remaining cooked meat and shred. Strain the broth to remove the spices.
4. Blanch the rice vermicelli and beansprouts in boiling water very quickly (less than a min), dish into a bowl, and pour a ladle of hot chicken broth over. Top with the shredded chicken, coriander, and crispy fried shallots, and serve immediately, with some chilli on the side if desired.

Ah, chicken soup, soto ayam especially. It's also often had with pressed rice cakes lontong, hard-boiled eggs and potato croquettes bergedil, and topped with extra chilli paste. The simplest "school canteen" version is usually just like what I've done though; noodles, beansprouts, shredded chicken, a sparse sprig of coriander because the kids remove it anyway.

Just a whiff of the fragrant asian herbs and the musky depth and aroma of the spices nourishes the soul, but a slurp of it nourishes the body instantly. I love reading about traditional (food) therapy, and traditional chinese medicine suggest warming pungent foods in spring to get your qi and blood moving, so this is actually a delicious way to get your dose of medicine.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Mint and Mustard Meatballs (they're green!)

Cumin Mustard Meatballs with Mint Pesto

It's St Patrick's Day tomorrow, i.e. a day to get merry and celebrate all things Irish and green! I unfortunately don't have anything remarkably Irish to share. I remember making shepherd's pie last year, but even then, I added lots of masala spices and called it Indian shepherd's pie, a bastardisation yes, but still one of my most triumphant recipes. I do have something green though. And involving lamb. And a bit of an alliteration.

Cumin Mustard Meatballs
300g free-range minced lamb
1 small onion, minced
1 heaped tbsp dijon mustard
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp gram flour (i.e. chickpea flour)
generous grind of unrefined sea salt and black pepper
a little ghee (or olive oil)

1. Combine ingredients together, and mix till it forms a paste. Roll into little walnut-sized balls with wet hands.
2. Fry in ghee on a medium-hot pan, making sure to get a nice sear and caramelisation on the outside, then lower the heat, flipping/rolling the meatballs as they cook. If you don't want to give them so much attention, you can probably also chuck them into the oven for 15-20 min at 200 degrees celsius.

Mint Pesto (no cheese)
2 large handfuls of mint leaves
1 small handful of toasted almonds (or pine nuts, more expensive)
2 cloves garlic
generous pinch of unrefined sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
your favourite extra virgin olive oil
squeeze of lemon

1. Combine all the ingredients except lemon in the food processor, adding the evoo as you g, enough to make a smooth paste. Finish with a squeeze of lemon. You can also do it by hand if you're enthusiastic.
2. This will keep in the fridge for a couple of days if submerged under oil, and is brilliant to dress salads or goat's cheese or as the finishing touch to soups/pastas/risotto or just with good bread.

I know they aren't perfectly and beautifully spherical, but they don't have to be; they're rough and homemade and yummy anyway. These aren't the traditional Italian meatballs that everyone associates meatballs with, made with eggs and breadcrumbs and slowly simmered in tomato sauce; think Indian kofta meatballs, bound instead with chickpea flour and with a hint of aromatic cumin. Cumin and mint go really well together, I first tried this combination with fresh peas; it was a total revelation, and I now find it almost natural to reach for cumin when I use mint. I really liked the tangy heat that mustard added, so now I may just add that to the equation too!

Happy St Patrick's Day, and Happy Mothering Sunday too (in Singapore we celebrate Mother's Day in May, but hello mummy anyway if you're reading this) !

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Jasmine Rice Pudding with Poached Rhubarb

In the farmers' market right now, and quite likely in the shops pretty soon, are the gorgeous rosy pink stalks of the first of rhubarb. It's the one other thing besides purple sprouting broccoli that's in season in this lull between winter and spring.

This rhubarb is 'forced', which sounds kind of bad, but actually just mean they are grown in darkened sheds. They are actually more succulent and prettier than the sturdier outdoor-grown mottled green stalks. Before coming to Londom, I've never seen rhubarb or even heard of them, let alone taste them, and my first try eating them plainly cooked (sans sweetener) left my mouth puckered at its sourness. But subsequent attempts roasting or poaching them with some sugar or honey changed my mind and I'm in love with this sour fruit-vegetable.

Since the cold winds and rain have returned after a week of surprisingly sunny weather, I'm not going to do anything involving sorbets or jelly, nor strawberries (oh when will you arrive?). Rice is my ultimate comfort food, whether for savoury or sweet. I don't buy pudding rice; I simply use jasmine rice, cooked much like congee, but with a rich stir of thick coconut milk instead of milk, much like I do for traditional black sticky rice pudding. I know the traditional british rice pudding is baked in the oven and has a 'skin' on top; I do't know about you but I really, don't fancy skin.

Coconut Jasmine Rice Pudding
serves 2 greedy people, or up to 4
1/2 cup jasmine rice, rinsed twice and drained
1 cup water
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup coconut cream (i.e. the thick portion floating on top)
1 cinnamon stick
pinch of unrefined sea salt

1. In a saucepan, combine rice with water, coconut milk, cinnamon and salt. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to low and let simmer, stirring occasionally for 30 minutes, till it's cooked to a soft creamy consistency.
2.Remove from heat, before stirring in the coconut cream and let cool, or you can chill extra in the fridge for a cold pudding.

Poached Rhubarb with Ginger
1 pound rhubarb stalks
250ml water
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger
3-4 tbsp unrefined cane sugar

1. Bring sugar, water and ginger to a simmer in a wide pan, till sugar dissolves.
2. Trim and cut rhubarb stalks into 1" long pieces and add to the ginger syrup. Bring to a simmer again, for just another 1-2 minutes. You want the rhubarb tender but not falling apart into a compote/mush.
3. Serve warm, or cool if you like, with the rice pudding, and you can also keep the extra in the fridge to top porridge or pancakes (sourdough crepes!) or plain Greek yogurt.

A scoop of creamy pudding with the faint fragrance of jasmine rice, the richness of coconut milk, and the sweet-sharpness of rhubarb,with just that little heat from the ginger, was all I needed on that cold rainy day. Oh, and a big warm fluffy pillow, and the temporary make-belief that I had no schoolwork due. Ah, bliss.

I'm submitting this to the One Ingredient (Rhubarb) Challenge hosted by Working London Mummy this month, and How to Cook Good Food on alternate months!

Friday, 2 March 2012

My food in print (:

East End Life Newsletter (Feb 2012)

Flavour Magazine (Feb 2012)

I've been doing a lot of "I'm 21 years old oh my god" moaning recently. I'm at the stage where I start worrying about my future and what I want to do with my life when I graduate. When I'm not thinking about food, I think about graphic design at central saint martins, and I've still got more than a year to go in my degree and to continue thinking. I do know I want to do something related to food. What that is exactly, I have no idea. But I'm happy anyway to be doing a bit of food writing for now- not paid, but it's exciting to see my food in print, and it helps generate publicity for the farmers' market. Just wanted to share this with all you lovely people who read this space (: