Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Fried Little Yellow Fishes

There are many foods that I believe you need to acquire a taste for. I'm still working on broad beans, and probably to the horror of many, macarons, meringues and beer. I used to hate spring onions, peas, aubergines, which I now love. And I've even taught myself over the years to like sashimi, which I once thought of (stop reading if you're Japanese) as the equivalent of jazz in the food world-- it's cool but few people actually really like it. I love fish now, but as a child, seafood in general wasn't my favourite sight on the dinner table, and the raw, fishy taste of cold slabs of fish wasn't the best way to convince me.

Long before I discovered I like fish, these fried little fishes were the only way my mum could get me and my sisters to eat fish. She might steam an expensive cod with superior soy sauce, wine, shreds of ginger and spring onions, or braise a fresh whole carp with black bean sauce,  and we wouldn't touch it. Funnily, we went for the cheapest of fishes, cooked in the simplest of ways, just seasoned with salt and turmeric, and fried till crisp and golden. The cheap little fish is called ikan kuning in Singapore,  often one of those many simple accompaniments to the fragrant coconut rice nasi lemak. I can't find kuning in London so I've gone for another cheap little fish that deserves more attention and love- sardines.

These small oily fishes are full of flavour and the same healthy omega 3 fats that we celebrate the popular, expensive, and over-fished cod or salmon for, and because they're little fishes that are lower in the food chain there's less mercury accumulation. I used to complain about its 'fishy' smell, which I realise is no issue when you get fresh sardines. I used to complain about the little bones in them too, but I've found a way to get most of the bones out in two seconds, and the ones remaining I just crunch down, tasty calcium. If you really don't fancy sardines, try mackerel, my other favourite oily fish (no bones, cheap, sustainable, also in season now), filleted first or perhaps cut crosswise into little steaks, like my mum would with the bigger mackerels we get in Asia.

Fried Little Yellow Fishes
serves 2 as a side
3-4 whole fresh sardines
generous pinch of ground turmeric
generous pinch of unrefined sea salt
oil for frying (I use coconut oil)

1. To prepare sardines, snip along belly and scrape the guts out. You can snip head off too if you're scared but I kind of relish seeing the head on my fish. Run the dull edge of a knife lengthwise against the skin to remove scales. Wash well, pat dry.
2. Season generously with salt and turmeric, especially rubbing inside the belly.
3. Add enough oil to cover the base of a frying pan. Over moderate heat, fry the sardines, flipping over once, till crispy and golden on both sides, about 2-3 min per side. Leave to drain on paper towels.

Turmeric doesn't have much of a taste or aroma, but it lends just a little hint of Asian spice, and more than just a little hint of colour. I'm not sure why it's even there really, maybe some sort of granny/mummy wisdom; it's apparently found to be a natural miracle, anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, anti-oxidant, anti-(insert health threat). There's usually a touch of it sneaked into many of Southeast asian curry pastes rempahs, fresh or dried.  It's also what separates this from other fried little fishes, which is actually pretty common across the street/peasant food of many cultures.

This couldn't be simpler, but it's good. The right way to go about eating it, is with your hands, letting the sardine's natural oils and juices run down your fingers and stain them a golden yellow; tearing through the salty, crispy skin into the warm, delicate flesh with your teeth. Now if you've also got some coconut rice, and a huge smear of sambal belachan chilli paste at the side..if not, a squeeze of lemon over will do I guess.

For another equally simple idea with sardines, try roasting them with a bit of lemon, garlic and fresh herbs 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Broad Beans in Fermented Broad Bean Paste (Doubanjiang)

I've found a latest obsession-- podding peas. It's the most therapeutic mindless fun one can have in the kitchen. Hold a fat green pod in between your fingers, squeeze it with just the right amount of pressure to make it gently pop open, and hold your breath as the inside is revealed: a row of smooth green pearls, or, a disappointing couple of lone under-formed ones? Celebrate/moan, and go on to the next one. And the next. And the next.

My roommate was getting a little worried, so just to change things up a little, I got broad beans at the farmer's market last Saturday. It might sound funny to most people, especially if you grew up here, but I've never had a fresh broad bean before.To be frank, I didn't really like it. It looked very promisingly like a paler, larger version of the pea, but had none of its sweetness. I've seen people shoving bags of them into their shopping baskets, so perhaps, its bitterness is an acquired taste, kind of like sashimi was to me at first, but right then, I sorely missed my peas.

I have, however, had (and love) broad bean in its fermented form, reborn as dou ban jiang, the powerful paste dubbed the soul of Sichuan cuisine. It's entirely reborn if you ask me, spicy, salty and wonderfully aromatic.  If I'm drawing a blank, it's the key ingredient in mapo tofu, in "zha jiang mien", in "fish fragrant eggplant", in "ants climbing the tree" (don't you just love all these translations), and all manners of southern chinese dishes. You can find it in most Asian grocery stores, where it's named hot bean paste or chilli bean paste.* I was inspired to marry the two together, some sort of warped romantic combination that allowed the broad bean to shine in its various forms.

1 bag of broad beans, in pods (about 2 large handfuls worth once podded)
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 heaped tbsp of doubanjiang*
1/4 cup of water
1 tsp unrefined cane sugar
unrefined sea salt, to taste
1 tbsp groundnut oil/ fat for cooking (I use lard from happy pigs. I prefer saturated fats for high heat cooking.)

To finish,
dash of chinese black vinegar
chopped fresh coriander

1. Pod the broad beans, then blanch in boiling water for 2-3 min. The skin, which can be tougher and leathery especially if the broad beans are the bigger ones, will slip off easily. If you have smaller tender ones, just do this anyway as it helps rid the bitter taste.
2. In a wok, heat up oil/fat. When hot, add the doubanjiang, frying for a few seconds to release its fragrance. Add the sliced shallots and continue to stir fry for half a min or so, before adding the broad beans.
3. Add the water along with salt and sugar, bring everything to a boil, and let simmer for a few minutes for the flavours to absorb. When sauce is almost dry, add a dash of chinese black vinegar, and check for seasoning.
4. Finish with a sprinkling of chopped fresh coriander, serve hot with plain rice as this dish packs a punch.

*A good one should only contain chillies, broad (fava) beans, salt, and flour. For Londoners, I get mine from Chinatown, the one that says "pixian dou ban" (Pixian being the county in Sichuan where the recipe originated). Get the one in a packet, the one in the jar form contain MSG and other unwelcome additives, same goes for the Lee Kum Kee one. 

The quick toss in the wok added just a bit of smokiness while keeping everything fresh, tender and crunchy. Most important of all, the bitterness of the broad bean mellows with cooking, so there's just a light hint of it remaining, not enough to make you cringe and stick your tongue out, but just enough to work against the intensity of the pungent dou ban jiang. A happy marriage. I might even get those broad beans over the peas again this Saturday.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

It's Sunday

I'm now sitting cross-legged on my bed, watching the clouds roll by with a proper cup of tea i.e. made in a china teapot using the last of dad's precious aged tea leaves, with my favourite sort of music i.e. a youtube cooking show playing in the background. It's been a while since I've had a Sunday just doing nothing. School's over; the last week doesn't count really, since the only event left on the timetable is a barbecue. Projects and portfolios aside though, I've also been having quite a bit of other sorts of madness going on the past few Sundays. I haven't had the chance to write about them, and frankly, have pretty much given up on the idea of writing about them. But as I was flicking through all these photos to clear my desktop, I decided I do want to after all, and even if no one is interested in reading about someone else's Sundays, it's a way for me to relive and preserve these delicious memories.

Quite a few Sundays ago, I was invited by Daniel (of youngandfoodish) to do a casual bit of photography for Roast Sunday, a pop-up event with Ben Spalding, the brilliant former head chef of Roganic. You'll notice I don't do reviews of restaurants, reason being I simply don't eat out a lot at all because 1. I'm a student living on a budget who still wants to eat well so 2. I end up cooking a lot, which, incidentally, I love, so it works out all fine and dandy. As such I don't ever get invites to hip new foodie places and free food so I guess I'm not a very smart food blogger eh? but it's okay, I like working for my food, and clicking at a camera was a lot less sweaty than than pounding chilli for my sambal belachan.

It was the first Roast Sunday event, held at Bea's of Bloomsbury at Maltby Street, now achingly popular among food-lovers searching for proper grub on a Saturday, but which I'd never been because I spend my Saturdays working at the farmers' market. And so I was late. I arrived flustered and cold from the disgusting weather outside, but thankfully, was met with a warm greeting from Daniel and delicious fumes in the kitchen. The guests weren't there yet, the tables weren't set, but already there was a general buzz of excitement. Everyone was busy doing their thing, chopping cabbage or sautee-ing mushrooms,  striding purposefully around the kitchen, while I un-purposefully wandered around trying not to get in the way as I peeked nosily into pots and pans and walk-in-freezers.

And then as the clock ticked closer and closer to the magic hour, that buzz became a full-blown flurry of activity as people started streaming in, hungry. The little rye crispbreads spread with chive butter though delicious did little to satiate anyone, in fact, probably making their tummies crave more. And more they got. Slices of proper aged Aberdeen Angus roast beef, served pink, with crispy, fluffy roast potatoes, buttery pearl barley, creamed cabbage, minted peas, and sesame glazed carrots, not forgetting of course the yorkshire puddings, and as Ben insisted, LOTS of gravy. Oh, and apple crumble just to round things up. I think I was about to faint in hunger on the spot watching the gorgeous food go past me and catching whiffs of the delicious smells without being able to actually eat the food yet. Ben and the other chefs must have noticed because they quite amusedly snuck me bites that had fallen off which only made me moan in anticipation for the second service (where I get fed) to come sooner.

It was an amazing afternoon- food, drinks, conversation and gravy-chugging competitions. I'm sorry to say that you probably can't get down to the next Roast Sunday because of my ridiculous lag in blogging, but I did hear that the other two Roast Sundays that followed were equally brilliant. You can, however, check out more photos and salivate and keep your fingers crossed for other Ben Spalding pop-ups, or check out other youngandfoodish events.

More recently, just last Sunday, I was sous-chef-ing at the  at the plusixfive supperclub. It  isn't my first time helping out, but that Sunday was a very special one. It was the supperclub's first birthday, so more a dinner party with invited guests, really, with proceeds all going to the awesome Action Against Hunger charity, and the theme for the night was pig, nose-to-tail. I've always been a fan of nose-to-tail eating, I've said it before but I'll say it again. It just makes so much more sense, pocket-wise and environment-wise, to use the whole of what's been sacrificed for our plates. Growing up in an Asian household, used to seeing heads on our fishes and bones in our meat, nothing really scares me at all about offal or other, let's just say, unusual cuts. In fact, give me intestines over a pork chop, any day. Matt the butcher (of Barbecoa) kindly sponsored us most of our meat, and as I met Goz to pick up our stash on Friday, the sheer weight of the bag holding my ribs, trotters and tails gave me an impending sense of doom. Indeed, what followed was a crazy porky weekend.

We started early, Christine obsessively making her mantous for the pork belly buns, me shaving pig's ears (why me again), and Goz peeling pig's brains (for scrambled eggs and brains). Already, though, the place was filled with delicious porky scents, the slow-brewed herbal pork bone broth bak kut teh, the Chinese preserved vegetable mui choy stew with peanuts, belly (and later the ears and stomach), and my 3-day sweet vinegar trotters and tails already cooked and simmering away to reach that stage of melt-in-your-mouth unctuousness. Also dished up that night, were Nonya chap chye mixed vegetables with pork cheeks, my bittersweet (I don't just mean taste-wise. It was an absolute nightmare slow-roasting a few kilos of ribs at 11 pm) coffee pork ribs, Wen's (of Edible Experiences) take on trotters, in a luscious red sauce made from fermented rice wine ang chowThe air had the distinct heavenly aroma of lard, freshly made from the fat of happy pigs, and indeed, everything that day was fried the proper way our grandmas would, in lard, not new-fangled 'healthier' vegetable oils. Lard also found its way into the night's dessert orh ni, a spoonful of yam paste , smoothened and enriched the way it's done traditionally i.e. with lard, sweetened with unrefined palm sugar gula melaka and topped with a golden gingko nut.

More photos here. It was another incredible night, memorable not just because of the food, but because of the people and conversations and the smell of pig that clung to all my clothes after that. (I went vegetarian the next day, and pretty much swore off pork for the next couple of weeks save for the one day I had to finish the leftover bak kut teh.)

Ok, I'm all blogged out. The clouds have gone, and the sun is making a rare welcome appearance again. I need to go water the basil plants. And maybe head out to bask in the lovely rays, or do something remotely more exciting than sitting on my bed. Or maybe I'll just make myself more tea, plus a little something more to tide me through the stretching long hours between lunch and dinner. I love Sundays.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Velvet Chicken and The Wrong Peas

We all make mistakes. I make a lot of mistakes. I'm one the clumsiest, most muddle-headed person you can know, so much so that my family and friends have stopped responding with shock and concern when I trip over myself or lose my keys and cards or split open my finger. I'm not even slightly offended because I've learnt to accept the facts and laugh at myself. What follows is yet another cause for self-annoyance/ amusement/ resignation.

I had never been a fan of peas. In fact, I was the most meticulous child you could find, painstakingly picking out all the offensive peas from her plate of fried rice before tucking in. For the life of me, I could not understand why the cook would bother throwing these wrinkly green blobs into an otherwise perfect dish, just to be carefully discarded by all the kids (it wasn't just me).   Funnily, the English pea season is now one I look forward to, even more so than the asparagus one (don't give me that look). A pea, fresh out of its pod in summer, is a beautifully formed green pearl bursting with sweetness.

But even while I was still a pea-hater, I loved its cousin, the sugar snap pea. Sweet, but also juicy and crunchy, and best of all, with edible pods. I don't mind working for my food, heck I often very happily stupidly find myself in sweaty situations/ crying even, just to satisfy my greed, but the sugar snap pea satisfies both  greed and laziness. The sugar snap pea apparently, is a cross between the English garden pea and a Chinese snow pea, the best of both worlds-- sweetness and, hmm convenience. I know now because I very daftly assumed that the sugar snap pea was just an early-season tender garden pea. I bought a load of them fresh from the market when I saw them at Ted's stall, eagerly tossed them straight into the wok with some velveted chicken thighs-- only to find the pods tough and fibrous and pretty much inedible. 

The peas inside were great though.

To soothe my feelings of disappointment and betrayal, I redid the dish with the right peas right the day after. I'm stubborn that way. The right recipe follows.

Stir-fried Velvet Chicken and Sugar Snap Peas
serves 1-2 as a side with rice
300g happy free-range chicken thighs, skinless and boneless and cut into equal bite-sized pieces
1  large handfuls of sugar snap peas
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 tbsp minced garlic
2 tbsp groundnut oil

For marinade/velveting
1 tbsp egg white, lightly beaten
2 tsp tapioca starch/ cornstarch (I prefer tapioca)
1 tsp chinese shaoxing rice wine
unrefined sea salt
1 tsp groundnut oil

For sauce
2 tsp rice wine
1 tbsp homemade chicken stock
1/4 tsp tapioca starch/cornstarch
sea salt and white pepper, to taste

1. Combine chicken with the marinade, stir well till there are no cornstarch clumps. Stir in the oil last of all, then set it aside in the fridge for 20-30 min, while you mince your ginger and garlic and combine your sauce ingredients.
2. Bring about 4 cups of water to a boil over high heat and add 1 tbsp of oil. Reduce the heat and when the water is barely simmering, carefully add the chicken, gently stirring it so the pieces do not clump together. Poach for 1 minute or until it just turns opaque but is not cooked through. Drain and set aside.
3. Heat a wok over very high heat. Add 1 tbsp of oil, and when hot, add the ginger garlic, stir-fry till aromatic. Add the sugar snap peas with a pinch of salt, and fry for about a min or until crisp tender but still bright green. Return the chicken. Re-stir the sauce mixture, swirl into the work and stir-fry for less than a min until the chicken is just cooked through and the sauce lightly thickens. Serve hot immediately with rice.

Velveting chicken is a way to get that impressively, well, velvety succulence out of your chicken. The flavours here are mild, no intense oyster sauce or chilli bean pastes, and not even anything vaguely dark, so that the textures of the main ingredients can shine. The chicken is silky smooth, juicy and so so tender, while the sugar snap peas are crisp and just bursting with natural sweetness.. A light sauce flavoured by the broth just barely clings to the chicken and peas;  nothing is drowning in a thick and gloopy pool. Now, just make sure you try this with the right peas.

See  Peppers and Cashew Chicken for a more intense and darker sort of stir-fry, and The Secrets to a Chinese Stir-fry for more tips and a photo of me with my wok on fire.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Barbecue Coffee Pork Ribs

Singapore tze-char meets American barbecue for a British summer

I started this post three days ago, seeing as it was National BBQ Week, but only managed to finish it today, and as the week draws to an end, the sun has decided to duck behind the covers of heavy grey clouds again. But who knows, there's no stopping a barbie for many people, and it is the long Jubilee weekend. I say, go ahead and plan your rockin' outdoor party! (Just be ready to turn to the horribly uncool standby, i.e. your oven, when the gloomy weather forecasts turn out to be annoyingly accurate.)

I love most things about a barbecue-- the disastrous attempts at lighting the flame, the frantic fanning of the coals, the burnt food that tries to get passed off as "lightly charred", and that very distinct smoky odour that clings to all your clothes and hair after so everyone you meet know you've just been to a barbecue. I don't love, however, the wait. A barbecue is usually a long-drawn affair. A combination of the aforementioned technical difficulties and the social politeness of passing the first few successful plates on, mean that I often go already slightly fed, just in case. It's funny though, especially since you consider the fact that most of the food cooks really quickly: steak, sausages etc, or if you're from Singapore, satay (with proper peanut sauce) and sambal stingray. My friend from the US snorts at my petty whining; apparently, the proper way to do it, is with even more time and loving attention. Think slow-marinated huge chunks of meat still with their bones in, cooked slowly over glowing (not burning hot) coal, till it becomes tender and falls apart the moment you stick your greedy fingers in. The Food Urchin wrote an article about this for the Great British Chefs blog, hop over and read, it's hilarious.

So anyway I decided to give this 'proper' barbecue thing a bit of a go. I bought a rack of pork ribs from the farmer's market, found a highly-rated recipe, promisingly called Beth's Melt In Your Mouth Barbecue Ribs (Beth is american, no less), but changed the marinade to one inspired by the highly creative tze char chefs of Singapore- coffee pork ribs. If you want to know how to do the original version, made with deep-fried spare ribs which are then coated in a gravy made with instant coffee, watch this makansutra video. The recipe that follows uses real coffee and a grill instead of a wok. (Note: There's a bit of cheating involving the oven too.)

1/2 a rack of spare ribs from a happy pastured pig (a stupid move; I should have done the whole rack)

for the rub
2 tbsp pure coffee powder (your choice of roast/origin/price, just not instant coffee processed with additives)
4 tbsp unrefined sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground coriander
generous dash of freshly ground black pepper
generous pinch of unrefined sea salt

for the glaze
leftover rub
1 tbsp strong pure coffee
1 tbsp good oyster sauce (naturally fermented, msg-free)
1 tbsp dark/blackstrap molasses

1. Peel off the tough membrane that covers the bony side of the ribs. Rub the ribs all over with the rub mixture, and leave to marinade overnight for best results.
2. Lay ribs, meaty side down, on 3 layers of foil, shiny side out. Cover with 3 layers of foil and crimp edges of foil tightly to seal.
3. Now you can place in a preheated oven at 150 degrees celsius for 2 1/2 hours, or if you want to show off your bbq prowess/ insist on doing it the authentic way, place it over low heat  (110 degrees celsius for 3 hours) on the grill, flipping over halfway through.
4. After the 2 1/2 to 3 hours, the ribs should be tender and cooked (and the inner layers of foil should be kind of burnt and you'll be glad I made you use 3 layers of foil). Now unwrap the ribs, and brush on the glaze. Place over the grill for a few min until bubbly, then repeat on the other side, then keep repeating about 5 times or till happy. (If you want to do this in the oven, broil for 2 min on each side.) 
5. Let the ribs rest off the grill for 5-10 min before carving and serving. No cutlery required, eat with hands, and lick your fingers after.

I know coffee doesn't seem like the most obvious pairing with pork, but you'll be surprised. The bitterness of the coffee strikes a perfect delicious contrast against the sweet and savoury sauce clinging to the oh-so-tender ribs (thank you america). And of course, there's that intoxicating aroma of coffee, spiked with the warm scent of the spices added. I'm not the kind of  person who goes through 10 cups of coffee a day, who loves her coffee enough to track down the Monmouth beans in town, nor can I pick out a single estate brew from Ethiopia or Columbia, but I found the ribs worryingly addictive. Skip the cake, and have your coffee with a pork rib or two (: