Sunday, 29 April 2012

"Old Fire" Watercress Soup

At the farmer's market, the poultry stall also sells small bunches of watercress, gathered from the river that runs near their farm. I like that somewhat romantic notion of cooking things that were growing around each other before they ended up in my kitchen. It's not an entirely new concept, and that's probably the way people used to cook and combine flavours. Just eating in season means you often end up putting together produce that grow at the same time; but considering "where" instead of "when" can be a fun, different way to search for inspiration. 

Since the weather has been just miserable these days, I picked up a chicken carcass for some good old chicken soup. I don't often buy a whole chicken, it just doesn't make sense when you're cooking for one, and a carcass is perfect and super cheap option for making homemade stock, or bone broth. With the stock, you could probably add some watercress and blend it up with some potatoes and fancy creme fraiche for a creamy green soup a la Gordon Ramsay, but I thought of a simpler light soup that my mum often makes. My sisters and I fight over this soup. It's a deceptively clear soup that's actually rich with flavour and nutrients. This kind of slow-cooked goodness is called 老火汤 , literally translated as "old fire soup". That was traditionally what my mum would do – let the soup bubble away very slowly over a charcoal fire. 

serves 2-3
1 free-range chicken carcass (or 350g of pork ribs, or a mix)
1 large bunch of watercress
1 large carrot, chopped into large chunks
3 tbsp of goji berries (yes those dried raisin-like things in your raw trail mix, we traditionally eat them cooked)
6 red jujube dates (NOT the sweet medjool Turkish. You can find these in Asian supermarkets.)
unrefined sea salt, to taste  
about 1 water 

1. Blanch the carcass in boiling water for 5 min and drain along with any scum. This makes for clearer soup later, the hallmark of good old fire soup.
2. Add the carcass, carrot and dates into a pot, bring to a boil, and immediately reduce heat to very low and let simmer for 2 hours, or more. I just dump it all into the slow-cooker and leave it for 6 hours.
3. 45 min towards the end, remove the carcass, shredding any meat from it, and set aside. If you use pork ribs, no work needed. Add the goji berries and watercress to cook. 
4. That's it, season with unrefined sea salt if necessary, and scoop into a bowl with some chicken, and serve up with rice.

This is very light, no phwoar! of flashy flavours here, but there's something beautiful about how these delicate flavours all come together in a deliciously light broth. The watercress becomes meltingly soft, and the meat, tender and falling apart. The soup is incredibly nourishing, a perfect spring detox and antioxidant boost, and from the traditional chinese medicine point of view, blood-tonifying. A bowl or two is the Chinese mum's antibiotic to any sniffle or ache that might come with the spring showers.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Ginger-Garlic-Spring Onion Miracle Sauce

With the wonderful variety of tender salad leaves, exciting wild greens, and coveted spears of asparagus taking over our menus now that it's spring, the spring onion seems kind of dull in comparison to the rest of what this season has to offer. Sure, we do use it, but more like an afterthought, the obligatory sprinkle of greenery at the end of a dish if we happen to be cooking asian. When I was little, I used to very carefully scoop out all those "irritating green bits" floating in my soup or tangled in my noodles, grumbling.

The world works in a funny way. I'm actually making a sauce pretty much simply out of spring onions, and willingly, in fact liberally, tossing it into my noodles. A miracle. And I'm actually loving it. It really is a miracle sauce. Stupidly simple to make, with nothing more than the holy trinity of chinese cooking-- ginger, garlic, and spring onions of course. I came across this idea when I read about the infamous momofuku ginger scallion sauce. Instead of just steeping the chopped spring onions in oil, I simmered them in the oil just ever so briefly, but that few seconds of heat mellows the sharp bite of spring onions, bringing out their natural sweetness, and at the same time, it releases the wonderful aroma of the garlic and ginger.

1 large bunch of spring onions
4 tbsp of minced ginger
2 tbsp minced garlic
1 tsp good soy sauce (naturally fermented)
1/2 tsp rice vinegar
dash of toasted sesame oil
4 tbsp groundnut oil*
unrefined sea salt, to taste

To serve
a bundle of fresh egg noodles**

1. Heat the groundnut oil over a medium-high heat till shimmering, not smoking.
2. Add the garlic and ginger, and once they give off their aroma, add the spring onions and straight away remove from the heat. You'll see the spring onions wilt instantly and turn a brighter green.
3. Stir in the rest of the ingredients. That's it! To serve, blanch fresh egg noodles or pasta in salted boiling water till just cooked, drain, and toss with the sauce.

It's the simplest of ingredients, and the barest of cooking, but by some sort of miracle, this transformed into a sauce that was simply addictive. Noodles, tossed simply in this flavoursome, fragrant sauce, was good enough to eat alone. Reminded me slightly of the Singaporean samsui chicken sauce, and indeed I can imagine dipping Hainanese-style poached chicken in it. I advise you double the ingredients, this keeps for a week in the fridge and you'll finish it fast.

*You need a neutral oil that's not toxic and processed i.e. most vegetable oils. I usually go for saturated fats in cooking, lard from a happy pig would be yummy here, but admittedly less neutral, and well, less liquid.

*I used fresh handmade spelt tagliolini made by Phil from the farmer's market. I've been getting lots of free homemade pasta and pestos since I helped him with his stall revamp. I'm quite pleased with what I did, go take a look if you're curious or just want to indulge me.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Fried Beehoon with Wild Garlic ("Singapore Noodles" the way we really do it at home)

Say "Singapore noodles" to any Singaporean and you're most likely met with a withering smile and an impatient sigh. It's funny how that has become the defining dish of a country who has the most amazing array of fried noodles-- char kway teow (move over pad thai!), fried hokkien mee, mamak-style mee goreng, just to name a few for you to get your research and salivary glands going-- the worst part being, that it doesn't exist in Singapore. We do have a lot of fried beehoon (rice vermicelli) dishes though, and to be honest, it's often a simple last-minute one-pan stirfry done at home by busy mums, so simple and homey that I've never come to appreciate the art of frying beehoon. I used to end up with clumpy beehoon that stuck to the pan until I phoned mum for help. Her method involves soaking the dried rice noodles in cold water for an hour first, till pliable, before frying. I kept virtuously to her teachings until I watched a shortcut used by my favourite chinese chef which yielded the same results.

Basic method sorted, the flavours and ingredients to add are up to you, ranging from beansprouts to leftover stewed pork belly (my mum's secret weapon to her beehoon). I used dried shrimps, shiitake mushrooms, omelette strips, and wild garlic. Wild garlic's kind of like the wild relative of chinese chives. It has lush green leaves which smell of garlic, with a slight hint of onion, but is much more delicate. It's everywhere now that it's spring, and if you're a forager, go grab your free greens while you can. I was just reading about susan's wild garlic adventures, but alas, I'm not a seasoned forager nor have I gotten any tip-offs; mine were from the farmer's market.

serves 1-2
100g dried beehoon (thin rice vermicelli noodles)
1 free-range egg, beaten
handful of dried shiitake mushrooms
handful of dried shrimps
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bunch of wild garlic
1/4 cup water
1 tbsp natural dark soy sauce (I mix a traditionally fermented shoyu+ 1 tsp blackstrap molasses)
unrefined sea salt, white pepper
1 tsp fried shallot oil (or toasted sesame oil)

1. Soak the dried mushrooms and shrimps in the warm water along with the dark soy sauce. As the mushrooms plump up (30 min), they take in the sweet soy sauce juices. At the same time, this mushroom-shrimp-flavoured soaking water will form the cooking broth for your beehoon to cook in later.
2. Prepare rice vermicelli (see above). Lower into boiling water with a drop of oil and a pinch of salt. Parboil for a minute. Drain onto a dish and cover to let steam while you prep and fry your ingredients (about 5 min).
3. Make a thin crepe-like omelette. Beat egg with a pinch of salt and pepper, then pour into a small heated frying pan, let set then flip when golden. Slice into strips. Drain the mushrooms and slice too.
4. Over a medium-hot pan, fry the chopped garlic and shrimps in lard till fragrant, then add the mushrooms, stir-frying for a min or so before adding the soaking liquid, sesame oil, and plenty of white pepper.
5. Bring everything to a bubbling simmer and then add the clump of beehoon (yes it will form one bouncy lump but don't fret), keep shaking and loosening with the chopsticks* all the while as the thirsty noodles soak up all that delicious flavoured broth and finish cooking.
It will happen very quickly, be careful not to overcook or everything will end up clumping again and sticking. Watch video for mental prep.
6. Toss in the wild garlic towards the end to wilt, give a quick final toss with the omelette strips and dish up immediately.

*With careful calculations given to avoiding more washing up, you can essentially use that single pair of chopsticks from start to finish-- beating the eggs, frying the ingredients, tossing the noodles, and finally, eating your meal.

Done right, you will be rewarded with loose(松), flowing strands of rice vermicelli, each noodle plump with more-ish flavours from the broth. The tender leaves of wild garlic impart a mild oniony-garlicky element that goes perfectly with stir-fried noodles; I pronounce it a more-than-worthy local and seasonal substitute for chinese chives. This is more like "Singapore noodles" to me, a nostalgic reminder of after-school lunches, class outings, and family potlucks.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Best Scrambled Eggs Experiment

I got a lot of eggs for Easter. I had huge plans for these eggs. But I didn't manage to get over my inertia (aka the bed and youtube) and ended up with a glut of unadorned eggs. So I've been having quite a lot of eggs the past few days, enough to hold a proper experiment with controls and options. It's okay because I love eggs, especially for breakfast, fried in a sandwich, soft-boiled with soldiers, half-boiled Singapore-style with soy sauce and white pepper, in an omelette (plain and french, or stuffed and slightly burnt), and of course, the breakfast menu must-have-- scrambled eggs.

I put aside my classic standard way of making scrambled eggs and looked at different chefs' idea of perfect scrambled eggs (including a fat-free version which was simply just horrid). In the end, I managed to try permutations of the following conditions:
1. Whisking the eggs together first vs whisking them in a pan
2. Starting in a cold pan vs a heated pan
3. Stirring over very low heat constantly for very long vs over higher heat for shorter
4. Stirring like mad from start to finish vs letting sit/gently folding
5. Adding milk/cream vs just butter
6. Adding milk/cream/butter at the start vs at the end
7. Salting at the start vs at the end

If you do your math that's 2^7= 128 scrambled eggs, if I change only one variable each time. But, no I didn't do it that systematically, I didn't have that many eggs. I have been eating scrambled eggs for breakfast since Saturday though. And the conclusion?

I realise there isn't a way to make the ultimate best scrambled eggs because everyone likes their scrambled eggs different. If you like it really creamy or one might call it runny, you'll like Gordon Ramsay's (1b, 2a, 3a, 4a, 5a, 6b, 7b); if you like quite delicate curds, you'll like Bill Granger's (1a, 2b, 3b, 4b, 5a, 6a, 7a); if you like it more golden and less creamy, you'll like the classic textbook Delia Smith's (1a, 2b, 3a, 4a, 5b, 6 a and b, 7a). Mine goes a bit like: 1a, 2b, 3a, 4a and b, 5a, 6a and b, 7a.

My Best Scrambled Eggs
serves 1
2 large free-range eggs
1 knob of butter (preferably from local and happy i.e. grassfed/organic cows)
2 tbsp fresh whole milk/cream (preferably from local and happy cows)
pinch of unrefined sea salt

To finish,
freshly ground black pepper and fresh herbs like dill or chives

1. Whisk eggs together with 1 tbsp of milk/cream and salt.
2. Heat heavy-based pan over medium heat and add the knob of butter. Once almost foaming, do not let brown, add the eggs.
3. Let sit for about 10 seconds, then use a wooden spoon to start lifting and folding from the bottom of the pan.
4. Reduce the heat to low, and then keep stirring until they're just beginning to set, but not set.
5. Remove from heat and stir in the other tbsp of cold cream, and serve immediately. It may look a tiny bit runnier than expected at that stage, but note that it continues cooking a little more in its residual heat.

No matter what, always serve over generously buttered warm toast, my favourite being a sourdough picked up from work at the farmer's market. You need the toast as a bed to cushion and mop up the eggy velvety curds. Scrambled eggs that can stand stiffly on their own for you to actually cut into and scoop from the free breakfast buffet platter onto your plate, are not really scrambled eggs. I'm not being fussy, I like and eat them anyway(:

And now that I've finished the last of my eggs, I need to really get away from lazy "Sunday" brunches every morning of the week. Spring break is almost over, and my to-do-list has a worrying small number of ticks. There's going to be some major changes happening to this blog, if all goes well, this week!