Thursday, 26 July 2012

Cold Beetroot Soup and Beet Crisps


This is not the London I know.

The London I know does not have clear blue skies and glorious sunshine for five days in a row. It's even 30 degrees today. I've stripped down to the barest layers I can get away with while staying fairly decent but I'm still melting away into a puddle. I know I grew up in a country where the temperatures hardly ever go below 30, but that country is also pretty much air-conditioned everywhere a roof exists. With no aircon, and no fan too actually, I'm stuck wondering whether I should have been praying that hard for the sun last week.

So it is pretty silly, really, that I'm still making my weeknight staple of soup. A warm bowl of soothing soup and a hearty chunk of sourdough bread to dip into and mop up all that creaminess--delicious usually, but for this weather, no. But I'm a creature of habit, and I have to have this week's soup night. Enter cold soup. You could call it gazpacho, but as I've strayed from the usual Spanish tomato-stale bread base, I shall just call it, well, cold soup. This is my ingenious answer to the fickle British summer-- a soup you can enjoy both cold and warm.



I got a random mix of ruby, golden and lovely striped ones from the farmer's market, and I meant to just throw them all into the soup pot with my favourite spices but I really couldn't bear to when I saw the beautiful psychedelic patterns inside. I do love beetroot. I loved it before I even first tasted it. So I've made some light crisps to top that velvety soup. And just to look at.

(Cold) Roasted Beetroot Soup
serves 4
Ingredients
3-4 large-ish red beets
1 clove garlic
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp fennel seeds
about 300ml homemade vegetable stock
unrefined sea salt, black pepper to taste
2 tbsp melted coconut oil

to finish
organic plain thick (full-fat please!) yogurt

Method
1. Preheat oven to 170 degrees celsius.
1. Scrub beetroots, bash garlic (leaving skin on), and then toss with half the coconut oil. Cover tightly with foil and roast for about 1 hour or till tender. Leave to cool and both should slip out of their skins quite easily; chop the beetroot up roughly.
2. In a pot, add the rest of the coconut oil. Toast the spices for a couple of seconds to release their aroma, and then add the onions with a pinch of salt and saute until soft and lightly golden.
3. Add the beetroot, garlic and stock and then let simmer for 20 min. Leave to cool, then blend into a puree, adding water if necessary to thin till you get a smooth velvety consistency.
4. (if you want it cold) Let chill in the fridge, or stick it in the freezer for a few minutes if you want it fast.
5. Finish with a dollop of yogurt, it's a must. If you have some chopped chives, that's lovely, but the crisps below are obviously way better.

Spiced Beetroot Crisps
Ingredients
2 medium pretty striped beets
1 tsp garam masla
1-2 tbsp coconut oil
unrefined sea salt flakes

Method
1. Peel beets and using a mandolin, or a knife if you've got great knife skills, slice thinly. Pat dry.
2. Toss all over with the oil and garam masala. Lay evenly on a lined baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 min in a 170 degrees celsius oven for about 25-35 min, till crisp. Rotate the baking sheet once in a while, and turn off the oven for the last 5 min if it browns too quickly. Remove as they look finished, it should turn lighter in colour and brown slightly.
3. Sprinkle salt over, and leave to cool; they will crisp up as they cool. If they aren't that crisp, you can chuck them back into the oven for a while more, but careful not to burn them.


I roasted the beetroot because I had the oven on for the crisps anyway, but you should do it even if you don't have the crisps going. The roasting really gives the beetroot an intense caramelised depth of flavour which you just don't get with plain boiling sorry. On the same note, the beetroot crisps have a concentrated sweetness which makes them so much better than your usual bag of potato crisps, especially with the aromatic spices and that finishing salty sprinkle. Topped with the tangy creamy yogurt, which when swirled in, just rounds off all that sweetness, I think I've pretty much found the perfect way to deal with the heat. Though, just as a side note (as it's important to be prepared for a rainy day, quite literally) the soup tastes pretty fabulous warm too.

I think I've done a traditional chunky borscht before too, if you're not a fan of spices/ smoothie-style soups.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

THAT Wednesday Night

So on that fateful Wednesday, THE fateful wednesday I've been shouting about like mad for the past week, I held that very special plusixfive supperclub feast for a hungry group of 18. It's odd how nervous I felt that day. I've cooked alongside Goz before, not once, but twice, and for larger, scarier groups with that odd michelin chef or foodie of presumably harder-to-please tastebuds.

But dinner that night felt different. That dinner pretty much encompasses what I'm about, what this blog is about-- taking food grown with love by the people here, and cooking it with lots of love and lard and sambal. Everything on the menu featured the best of British summer (quote Goz "not the rain, you sillies, the produce!") but done in true Singaporean style.We had a rough menu in mind but up till the very last few hours, we were pretty much still flirting around with ideas and worrying about not having enough food to feed everybody ("Should we add a chap chye, maybe with early sweetheart cabbage and new carrots?" "Or do we have too much veggies? Nonya chicken curry? With baby new potatoes?" "Lamb satay??") so last Saturday saw my fridge jammed full of groceries from the farmer's market.

I'm glad to say everybody left rolling and groaning back home. I shall shut up now and let the photos do the talking.

For starters, we had mackerel paste hand-bashed by the lovely Christine, then wrapped in beancurd skin, fried, and drizzled with sweet sauce a la yong tau foo; chilli sardine puffs; and bowls of Mum's "old-fire"watercress soup.


Onto the mains, turmeric-rubbed fried whole sardines and mackerel steaks; braised pork belly kong bak with fennel served alongside crisp English baby gem lettuce; grilled baby aubergines with sambal; sambal beet leaves, an alternative to the Singaporean favourite sambal kangkong; and Hainanese pork chops with a cherry tomato sauce. Oh and with all these rich dishes, a pickle that everybody couldn't stop picking at, proper Nonya achar made with the best of summer's cucumbers, new carrots, cauliflower and beetroot (hence the ruby-stained juices).


A palate cleanser of shaved ice with pickled plum powder, followed by two rounds of dessert. Warm black sticky rice pudding with coconut ice cream, drizzled with gula melaka syrup and finished with toasted coconut flakes aka snazzy pulut hitam; and that childhood favourite treat, agar agar jelly two ways, clear with organic raspberries in the middle, or dyed a natural red using beetroot juice instead of artificial colouring (the pink layer comes from swirling in coconut milk).


And we were finally done. A fabulous night that ended with happy stomachs and a dirty kitchen (thank you Goz's cleaner). Photo credits to the amazing J (the good ones were by him, the not-so-good ones by me and my point-and-shoot).

Monday, 16 July 2012

Killer Sambal Grilled Aubergine Stack


Quite an ominous title I know, but I thought it best to leave a word of warning. I've just made a giant batch of my infamous sambal, and I think I might have gone a little bit overboard with the chillies this time round. If the nutcase who grew up eating raw chillies from her backyard and requesting chillies with every non-spicy dish has actually shed tears, I'm a little worried for the innocent non-tropical beings coming to Wednesday's plusixfive supperclub.

Speaking of killer aubergines, it was not too long ago that I was simply terrified of them. Their hideous purple bulbous exterior and spongy insides scared me, and a Courage the Cowardly Dog episode with evil eggplants convinced me these vegetable were not fit to be eaten. But as with many foods that you hate, I believe you slowly acquire a taste for them, usually a case of social pressure or deciding it was time to grow up, but in this case, it was simply a case of yummy aubergines. Come summer, I've had aubergines stewed in ratatouilles, eggplants stuffed and roasted, brinjals in curries, and a lot of melitzana, fried, breadcrumbed, baked or pureed into a dip. But my fondest memory of them has to be that old nasi padang standby dish of sinfully greasy terung fried with sambal belachan.


I've done it with more snazz and less slime by slicing a fat British aubergine into rounds and grilling them instead, but still smothering them with a healthy dollop of sambal. If you insist on frying them, try to get hold of the slender thin-skinned Asian aubergines which will cook quickly without sucking up your whole bottle of oil. There's no need to salt aubergines, asian or not, if you avoid the old bitter ones. And if you've got cute weeny baby ones, you can just chuck them whole or halved into the oven and roast till point of collapsing softness.

Sambal Grilled Aubergine Stack
Ingredients
1 medium young eggplant
1-2 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp unrefined palm sugar
2 tbsp of coconut oil/ oil on top of the sambal
2 tbsp of sambal tumis, less if you're chicken, more if you're mad
fresh coriander leaves, to finish

1. Slice the aubergine into 1/2" thick coins. Combine the fish sauce, sugar and oil together, and brush both sides of each slice with it.
2. Place on preheated grill for about 10-15 min till tender, turning once halfway and brushing with more oil if necessary. Or, if you have to do it in the oven, bake for about 20 min at 200 degrees celisus.
3. Once done, smear a bit of sambal tumis over each slice and enjoy or to make it look pretty, stack, alternating sambal and aubergine, and finishing with a sprinkle of coriander leaves.



The grilled aubergine takes on a delicious smokiness and dark glossy sheen to its skin, while its insides turn into a creamy pulp, a happy sponge soaking in the flavours of whatever you top it with. Feta if you're Greek, tomatoes if you're Italian, perhaps some doubanjiang for a modern yu xiang qie zi if you're Chinese, but if you're Singaporean, nothing can quite beat the sweet spiciness of a killer sambal chilli sauce.

Though, satay peanut sauce is pretty amazing too. See also:
Soy-sauce Roasted Aubergine with Satay Peanut Sauce 

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

A short heartfelt shout-out for a special supperclub

Hello, this is going to be a quickie. I'm teaming up with Goz from the crazy brilliant plusixfive supperclub on the 18 July, to bring the best of Singaporean cuisine, but with a British seasonal twist, using the best of our local summer produce!

It's not the first time I've cooked with Goz, but this is going to be one very special supper to me, because it really represents what I'm all about, what this blog and the food on this blog is all about. This is food food grown by the people here with love, and then prepared with love and greedy hands. A lot of the produce that we're using will be bought this weekend from Pimlico farmer's market (which I very happily manage), but cooked up and made a lot more exciting using the familiar spices and flavours from home.

The menu will look something like this:
Braised Soy Pork Belly, with Fennel, served on English Lettuce Cups
Grilled Aubergines with my Infamous Sambal 
Sambal Beet Leaves
Turmeric Fried Mackerel
Mum's "Old-fire" Watercress Soup
Hainanese Pork Chop with English Heritage Tomatoes
plus more, we're still thrashing it out.

This is subject to changes, as it's going to be very much inspired by what I find at the farmer's market. GET YER TICKETS NOW. We only launched it yesterday, but there's only 7 places left as I type this, and I really would love to feed you hungry Mummy, I can cook readers.

UPDATE: Sorry, tickets sold out now.
Read all about it here!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

For the love of lard


Once every few months or so, my flat fills up with the heavenly aroma of of pork fat simmering away on top of the stove, releasing its lovely golden liquid, and a couple of hours later, my fridge gets two new jars of freshly-rendered creamy, snowy lard.

I see you recoiling in horror already, trying to wash off all dirty thoughts and images of that four-letter white grease, stroking and reassuring your one-size-too-small pair of jeans that you have not given in to the evils of lard.

But fat is good for you, especially the natural, saturated fats that I see some of my friends try to peel or dab off. The doctors have finally come to realise it, but our grannies and their grannies have been eating and cooking with saturated fats all along and staying healthy, the curious French paradox isn't so confusing at all if you really think about it. It's about eating food that came from the land, fuel that came from rendering the fat of an animal, and that is by far more healthy than any "edible food-like substance" made by subjecting plants to industrial chemical processes to produce "healthier" vegetable oils like the rather vile but oh-so-popular rapeseed oil right now. The main unrefined plant oils that have been used traditionally in cooking, and hence you should be using, come from the olive, groundnut, palm, and coconut, and even then, I would save that precious bottle of extra virgin olive oil for a finishing drizzle as its delicate monounsaturated fats turn rancid at higher temperatures. The rest I love for cooking with, especially the previously vilified coconut, though I must say I have a special place in my heart for good, old-fashioned lard.
It's always been the granny fat of choice in Europe, South America, the Phillipines, and of course, the China. Even the Italians and Spanish, better known for the olive oils, have a deep appreciation for this fat in their delicious charcuteries. Really, if you had pigs, you would have had lard, and you had food cooked in lard. Before the low-fat health fads of the 70s, people ate it without guilt, and it seems it's finally gotten its good name back. It is in fact high in the same monounsaturated fats we celebrate olive oil for, though you should hopefully by now have gotten rid of your fear of saturated fat. Facts and figures aside to convince your head that all things fatty are well and lovely, you only have to listen to your heart to give that low-fat yogurt a toss. Healthy food is not only about food that nourishes the body, but the soul, and soul food has got to taste good.

Is there any other reason why my mum's homestyle cabbage tastes so fabulous and no there is no msg in it; why pie crust made with lard is so especially flaky and fragrant; why the best hokkien prawn mee is fried in lard and mee pok is finished with a flourish of golden crackling; why the meltingly soft layer of fat in slow-cooked pork belly is so irresistably unctuous? Scientists have even found fat to be the sixth taste. It was groundbreaking when they discovered umami, but it seems pretty duh to me about the fat. Fresh bread is lovely, but fresh bread slathered with  butter is another thing altogether. The same applies for when you finish a fresh salad or pasta with a glug of olive oil.

But back to lard. The only thing I would caution about lard, is to make sure you render it from fat that comes from a happy healthy pig. A factory-farmed pig cramped in a cage and pumped with antibiotics isn't going to give you the same nutrients, or from my cuckoo new-agey point of view, the same life-giving force or qi.

HOW TO RENDER LARD
Ingredients
1 kg of fat from a happy pig*
A little water

*First, find a good source of pastured pig, either from the farmer's market, or from a butcher you trust. I firmly believe a good relationship with your butcher is as important as a good relationship with your hairdresser, so make friends, shower them with love, and add them on twitter. You often can get bones and bits for peanuts if you're on good terms with your butcher/ are buying a ton of meat anyway. Re: fat, I just get normal back fat. If you want perfectly snow-white lard, you should try to get leaf lard which comes from around the pig's kidney.

Method
1. Chop up the fat into small pieces.
2. Add enough water to cover the base of a heavy-bottomed pot. The water prevents the fat from burning before it starts to melt. Add the chopped fat and simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally.
3. After about an hour, the water will evaporate and the fat will be melted, and later, the solids (white crackling) will start to sink. You can then strain at this stage and use the more or less odourless flavourless lard for baking or anytime you want a neutral cooking oil. Then let the rest of the crackling continue to go until brown and crispy and then strain again, using that savoury lard for flavourful frying.
4. Keep the cracklings, delicious salted and sprinkled over salads, or noodles (bak chor mee!) and pour the strained fat into jars. When cooled, it will become a soft creamy semi-solid, the first batch whiter than the second one. It will keep in the fridge for about 2 months, or freeze for probably a year.

CHEAT TIP
Sometimes when I make homemade stock, especially plain ones with nothing added at all, I just let the stock chill overnight and scoop out the top layer of fat. If that's a pork stock, that's lard. And if it's a chicken stock, that chicken fat is just as delicious for cooking with. This is of course not the large-batch lard described above, but a lovely tip anyway in case you're very unwisely thinking of discarding that fat.

I've seen wonderful blog posts for doing in the slowcooker/crockpot, or in the oven, with step-by-step photos, so you might want to give those a read too. Do it whichever way you choose to do, but no longer live in fear of the dreaded hog grease.


For more ramblings on how to eat, see here.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Curried Courgette Fritters



Yesterday was the Pimlico Farmer's Market big birthday bash, celebrating the efforts of all the amazing people who've been bringing in their amazing produce for the past ten years. Shuk from Flourish bakery baked an impressive giant cake, topped with the most adorable decorations that were tributes to each and every one of the producers, including the hilarious marzipan T-bone steaks. Inside, were three layers of carrot, beetroot, and courgette cake, which everyone polished off in an hour. Granted, no one resists free tea and cake, but it really was very good cake, moist and sweet from the best of this season's vegetables, grown lovingly by the very people for whom the cake was made for.

I've had carrot and beetroot in cakes before, but courgette's entirely new to me. It's probably not the most avant-garde of cakes you've had if you grew up here, or even if you grew up on the other side of the pond where it's called zucchini bread, but up till three years ago, I've never even come across a courgette before. I remember buying them in my first year, thinking they were cucumbers by some sort of  queer old-English name, and being entirely disappointed by its crunch-less, juice-less, seed-less insides. It's one of my favourite summer vegetables now though, so versatile in stews, roasts, or shaved into ribbons for salads or pseudo pasta, and now, even in cake.

I do love that false sense of virtuousness in putting vegetables together with cake, and it was very good cake at that, so I was a woman on a mission once I got home, determined to track down that courgette cake recipe which Shuk wasn't allowed to divulge. Promising Nigel Slater recipe scribbled down, courgettes all hand-shredded, oven all heated up, I realised then that I was out of flour. Five minutes of mild cursing and another five minutes of larder appraisal later, I made these (inadvertently gluten-free) curried courgette fritters.

Curried Courgette Fritters
makes about 8 3-inch pancakes
Ingredients
2 medium courgettes
1 free-range egg, beaten
2-4 tbsp fine rice flour
1 tsp garlic powder /grated garlic
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp unrefined sea salt, plus more to taste
ghee/ coconut oil, for frying

Method
1. Shred the courgettes on a coarse grater. You could use the food processor but you won't get nice long shreds and a nice arm workout. Toss with 1 tsp of salt and leave for 10 minutes. Squeeze out as much of the moisture as you can, you might be quite surprised at how drastically small your courgette pile has become, but it's important for non-soggy fritters.
2. Taste for seasoning, adding extra salt if necessary. Combine the rest of the ingredients together, adding more/less rice flour if the mixture feels too loose. Refrigerate the batter for about 10 min. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius.
3. Heat a shallow layer of oil in the frying pan, and when hot, drop heaped tablespoons of the mixture and fry over medium heat till golden brown on the bottom and edges, flipping over once. Leave to drain on paper towels, then transfer to the oven while you finish the rest. They should all have about 5-10 minutes in the oven to really crisp up.


Golden and crisp on the edges, and fluffy and moist on the inside, these fritters are not at all like the greasy takeaway pakoras that weight heavily on your stomach at the end of the meal. The spices add a kick which is a delicious especially with a soothing cucumber-mint raita, or even a tzatziki which is a pretty similar dip anyway but frankly would probably go better with a more traditional greek-style fritter with feta. Or if you're lazy, a squeeze of lemon and plain yogurt will do quite nicely. This pretty much made me forget entirely about my failed mission, though I must admit, I'm very easily cheered up by food.

For more courgette ideas, see zucchini a la carbonara.