Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Fussy food, and ABC Soup

The clocks turned back a day ago. And just to make sure we all realise, it turned into winter overnight. The cold drops of rain (snow for those up north, yucks) have been falling, and the icy winds have ganged up with the rain clouds by beating my useless umbrella up so that I get home wet, cold and tired. And hungry. It's on nights like this when I dream of getting into the hot shower for a full hour, and coming out to piping hot noodle soup, or a comforting bowl of congee. In my dream, that soup or congee would be prepared lovingly by my mum (or a cute boy. or any other person but me, really), so I need only worry about getting into my thickest jumpers and pyjamas bottoms. Alas, the three years here have taught me that soup will not magically appear on my table however tight I shut my eyes and cross my fingers. It will, and can appear after my shower, if I muster enough energy to do five minutes worth of chopping.

Five minutes is eally all it takes for homecooked magic. And I don't even mean five minutes of crazy chinese wokking or Jamie Oliver-style triple tasking or working an overpriced machine. I get weird stares from my friends when I say I cook every day, but I can't imagine not. I know not everyone sees the fun in peeling onions and inhaling steam from the pot. But even if you cook for the sake of sustenance, it doesn't really take much to deliver good food into your belly.

Perhaps the most basic soup that I loved as a child, and that I first dared to cook after I first moved to London, is the ABC soup. It's not a creative acronym, and I didn't make the name up. Mums called it ABC soup because it's as simple as ABC; simple equipment, simple skills, and simple ingredients you can find no matter which side of the pond you dwell. Potatoes, onions, carrots and pork ribs, all in a pot for a couple of hours, done. Yet the soup is lovely and hearty, the broth naturally sweet from the vegetables and pork. I've now taken to calling all soups that are made in that same fashion ABC soup. What I used here is a mix of winter roots that I picked up from the farmer's market that day, and all in all there are more than a few changes so I don't know if you would still call it the same thing, but it's just as unfussy as ABC soup should be.

makes enough to feed yourself at least twice, depending on how hungry
2 large carrots
1 medium turnip
1 large onion
1/2 a medium celeriac
1/2 a medium swede
4 cups of homemade Asian stock*
1 tbsp butter from happy cows
2 tbsp white (shiro) miso
lots of freshly ground white pepper
chopped fresh parsley and coriander

1. Wash, peel and chop all the vegetables up into rough large chunks, no need for geometric accuracy.
2. Put all the vegetables into a pot with the stock and bring to a boil, then cover and let simmer for the length of your shower i.e. 30 minutes.
3. Remove from heat. Dissolve miso in a bit of the broth and then stir in evenly. Also stir in the butter. (Because butter makes everything better. And because miso and butter together are delicious, if you have not yet been enlightened.)
4. Finish with a generous sprinkle of pepper and herbs. Eat.

The root vegetables are all sweet but in different ways, so you get different layers of flavours as they cook; the nuttiness and fragrance of celery from the celeriac, the slight pepperiness from the turnip, the earthiness from the swede, and the mellow sweetness from the carrot. I like that they are all left in huge rustic chunks because then you get to appreciate the different textures, and of course, it means no ninja knife skills or blender is needed.

You could also add rainbow chard or some other seasonal greens towards the end, but then you would have to stagger the timing, and this soup is about bunging it all in at the same time, save for my final seasoning and sprinkling of herbs. *Because this was a soup that that I wanted right out of the shower, I used stock instead of pork ribs, although if you went for water on this one, I assure you the soup does not lack in flavour, especially if you do as I did, stirring in a mild miso at the end for some shortcut creamy salty umami.

But again, this is ABC soup; it's meant to be as simple as you like and if you've only got salt and pepper and nothing else in your kitchen cupboard, so be it. No fuss.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Black Pepper Beef, and My Top 8 Spices

My kitchen is in need of some serious re-organising. My spice cupboard, especially, is threatening to burst open. It has come to the point where I get ambushed by a packet of cloves whenever I open the cupboard door so, much as I hate packing, it's time to stop pretending that the kitchen elves will sort it out for me. My problem is, I can't really throw anything out. Like my dad, I'm a hoarder, just that instead of hoarding old newspapers and books, I hoard pretty plates and ingredients. In my own defence, I do use almost all of these spices. I do use my star anise for a soy braise, my coriander for a rempah or satay, my cinnamon for puddings, and my turmeric to stain everything golden. And as for the rest, I do need them all for a curry or biryani. So I really can't throw anything out. See?

Funnily, the one spice I don't really use much is perhaps the most basic spice that every cook has and uses most often- black pepper. Perhaps because of my mum's influence on my cooking, I reach for white pepper more often than I do black. The flavour of the white is less harsh and bitter than the black,  and it generally rounds out the asian flavours of soy sauce or ginger much better. But even for mashed potatoes, I quite like using white just so I don't see the random flecks of black and I've also recently taken to using white pepper when I make the best scrambled eggs for breakfast.

That said though, there are times when I want the more earthy, gutsy kick of black pepper, and not just for the very non-asian things like meatballs. Black pepper beef is a classic tze char hawker favourite back home. It's one of the only few instances you'll see a Chinese chef using black pepper instead of white, and liberal amounts at that, and it's also the reason why black pepper made the top 8 in the end.

serves 2-3 as a side

200g beef flank (or sirloin if you're feeling particularly generous)
1 large brown onion, sliced 
1 inch ginger, sliced thinly
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp of groundnut oil 
2 large dried red chilli, soaked and deseeded but left whole (optional, for extra heat and colour. If in summer, feel free to use bell peppers)

For marinade 
1/2 tbsp good (traditionally brewed) soy sauce
1/2 tbsp Chinese rice wine
1 tsp homemade stock, or water
1 tsp (yep. not a pinch) freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp unrefined sugar
1 tsp tapioca/ cornstarch
few drops of toasted sesame oil

For sauce
3 tbsp of homemade stock, or water if desperate
1 tbsp good soy sauce
1 tsp of Chinese shaoxing rice wine 
1 tsp Chinese black vinegar
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 tsp unrefined sugar
1tsp of tapioca/ cornstarch mixed with 1 tsp water (to thicken)

1. Slice the beef thinly against the grain, at an angle. Mix well with the marinade and then leave it aside for 30 min.
2. Meanwhile, you can prep your ingredients, like chopping onions and mixing the sauce ingredients (except the cornstarch and water) so you can have a relaxing stir fry later.
4. Add oil to a screaming hot wok and flash-fry the beef for 1 min, the outsides should be seared but the insides still pink. Remove from the wok and let drain and set aside.
5. Add the onions and fry till translucent and slightly softened. Push aside and add the dried chilli, ginger and garlic to the hot oil and fry till fragrant. 
6. Add the sauce, which should help deglaze the pan. Let it come to the boil, then reduce the heat.
7. Stir in the cornstarch slurry a little at a time till you get the consistency you want. It will thicken after it cools, so don't go pouring everything at a go!
8. Return the beef to the wok and stirfry for 2 min or so, making sure everything's coated. Serve hot with steaming bowls of rice.

See my old post on secrets to a chinese stirfry if you are one of those kids who have to know the "why" behind each step.

The black pepper here isn't sprinkled on as an afterthought; rather than a seasoning, think of it as the main flavour of the dish itself. Slightly bitter and nutty, it goes really well with the sweet, charred onions to give a very earthy sort of heat and flavour to the beef. I used the brown onion here, not because I have a couple of papery ones crying to be used, but because they stand up to the strong black pepper better than their milder spring onion cousins. If you have a wonderfully pristine spice cupboard with nothing but salt and pepper, and an equally bare fridge with no fresh vegetables in it, you could still make this.

That's not to say I can survive on just salt and pepper in my spice cupboard though. I will get on with the packing.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

My own apple day (Visiting Chegworth Valley)

It will be Apple Day this Saturday, October the 21st. There will be a nationwide celebration of orchards, with all manners of apple-y events from large fairs to little festivals at the farmer's market. Last year, I was tying apples to strings and coaxing kids to apple-bob, or crushing buckets of apples with whatever superhuman strength that a puny Asian girl has for the cider-pressing show. This year though, I've heard there's a bit less apple worshipping going on. The very wet spring has caused a very sad harvest, so in many places, Apple Day's been cancelled. But whether or not the apple festivities are going on in your area, we can all still celebrate. I've been fondling (apples) and digging up old photos, resulting in a tamarind applesauce recipe, and a long-overdue peek into Chegworth Valley.

Most Londoners probably know of Chegworth's famous juices, and their wonderful variety of lovely organic apples. They stock some of London's best restaurants, like St John's and Bea's of Bloomsbury, and have a dedicated following at the farmer's markets that they do. It's while working at the farmer's market that I became good friends with the owner Linda, and after a few months of prodding and wheedling for me to come visit her, I finally made my way down to Kent one hot sunny day in May with a friend in tow. I remember it was right after an intense bout of deadlines from school, so it felt almost as if I was being rescued from a horrible land as Linda whisked me away to the farm in her van.

It was spring then, so the apple trees were bare, but we trudged through the orchards anyway, Linda half-cursing at the stinging nettles that were not-very-gently tickling our legs, and half-gushing happily at the apple blossoms, expertly giving forecasts on the varieties of apples that were going to do well later this year. I've never come across apple trees before, and was a little surprised that they weren't very tall at all. I've always had a mental image of a rather big tree, big enough for a boy to sit under and get the idea of gravity knocked into his head by a falling fruit, but Linda explained that the trees are kept at a height that makes it not crazy impossible to pick.

We also walked up the slopes to where the salad leaves and soft fruits were being grown. Those were being grown in polytunnels, practically saunas what with the over-enthusiastic sun, but everybody at the farm cheerily went about their tasks with their shorts and sunscreen on. That was when the first of the strawberries were starting to appear, so I pretty much had the first pick of these luscious red jewels. Fresh off the branches, they were the sweetest, juiciest things ever, but I may be slightly biased with my parched throat and stupidly thick jeans and boots.

As an excuse to step away from the sweltering heat, we went to take a look at the last of the apples, kept in cold storage since their harvest last season. Chegworth apples aren't at all the smooth, uniform beauties that you find in a bag of apples from the supermarket; some are smaller than others and some have odd bulges, which I find just adorable. When they first started the farm, they found they had to comply to the supermarkets' ridiculous standards of shape and size, and that these people cared nothing at all about the actual taste of these apples, or what farming methods they used as long as they got their unnaturally perfect apples. They very stubbornly refused to give up on their farming ethos, determined to produce fruit with the best flavour, and to deal with people who were equally passionate about the quality of their produce i.e. people like the dear old lady who comes to the market, rain or shine, and tuts when her favourite early-season Discovery apples run out.

It was a beautiful day that ended with a pitcher of chilled Chegworth apple juice and newfound respect for these mad people and their mad passion and pride in what they do. As a tribute to Linda and Apple Day, I've got a special applesauce recipe to share.

600g English apples*
1 tbsp tamarind pulp, soaked in warm water
1 stick of cinnamon
2 cloves
unrefined cane sugar, to taste

*I know most people go for the tart Bramley cooking apples, but I like using eating apples so you don't need to add much sugar at all. Here I used a mix of the very sweet, nutty Russet apple, and the king of traditional English apples, the Cox, for a tart fragrance to complement the tamarind. 

1. Peel, core and dice the apples.
2. Tip into a pot, together with the tamarind water and spices and bring to a boil. Cover and let simmer on low heat for about 20 min or until the apples break down into a soft mush. Remove the spices and add sugar to taste.
3. You can puree it or strain it but I do it real rustic and just roughly mash up more with a fork for more texture. It's ready to serve hot or let cool, before storing into jars, great for gifts if you decide not to eat it all up yourself.

It's such a simple recipe that I feel quite embarassed to share, but it's so delicious and versatile I find it quite selfish not to enlighten people who actually fork out money to buy overpriced jars of applesauce. My good friend likes to use applesauce to replace oil and eggs in her fat-free baking, but for the fat-fearless, this is especially wonderful with homemade ice cream or a crispy roast pork belly ;) I don't like fusion for the sake of it, but here, the tamarind adds a delicious tart-sweetness that really complements the apples and the aromatic spices.

Here's to the imperfect English apples and their mad growers!

Monday, 8 October 2012

Bunny Biryani

Before I start, I'm sorry, Rachel and Christine, two of my best bunny-loving friends. I should be sentenced to a diet of carrots for the rest of my life to make up for my sin, for laying my hands on these innocent, long-eared, wide-eyed creatures. But, let me try make a case for myself and all the generations of rabbit-eaters before me.

Wild rabbits are actually one of the most sustainable, ethical, and wholesome things you could eat. Put aside all thoughts of the Fluffy you cuddle at night. They are in fact farmers' pests, feeding enthusiastically on and damaging millions worth of crops. And the country is teeming with them. If you paid attention to Miss Chng in Biology class, you would have learnt that they breed with ferocious passion and gusto. Rabbit has been a British staple for centuries, especially during the World War, because it was cheap and plentiful, but it fell out of favour when people could better afford other sorts of meat, especially as factory-farmed beef and battery-caged chickens came into the picture. Horrible mass-produced meat aside, even the most humanely-reared, corn-fed, free-range chickens put an extra strain on the Earth's resources. The rabbit population, on the other hand, needs to be controlled to maintain the balance in nature.

To make you feel even better, their truly free-range lifestyle and wild diet mean that their meat is very lean, healthy and flavoursome. You can do your bit by plopping them into your pot of stew or curry, or in this case, making biryani out of them. I find chilli and spices a must when I cook game because I'm not the biggest fan of gamey smells (see chinese-style braised venison and pot-roasted pheasant with kimchi). 

This biryani here is made in a very similar fashion to the Indian hyberbadi biryani, but is really more inspired by fond memories of the nasi biryani my mum would buy me when she picked me up from school. The 'nasi' here is a Malay word for rice, and 'biryani' an Indian word to explain the cooking process, another sign of the culinary mishmash of cultures in Singapore-- one that is described as mamak cuisine back home.

Biryani has a notorious reputation of being difficult to cook, but really, it's a very convenient one-pot dinner that will happily feed the masses, old and young. The ingredient list is long I admit, but once you have them, it's just a matter of bunging them all together. The most difficult bit is perhaps, convincing them to eat Bugs Bunny. I've tried my best, but if all that still doesn't convince, you could replace the rabbit here with lamb, or chicken, which is what it tastes like anyway, just with less fat and a stronger flavour. It's too yummy to pass up.

(with help from a mamak stall owner and the ancient Indian chef that Padma Lakshmi interviewed)
1 whole wild rabbit, on the bone (about 800g)
3 cups basmati rice, soaked for 30 min or more and drained
1 tbsp sea salt
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
3 tbsp melted ghee  (i.e. clarified butter, preferably from happy cows)
2 handfuls of fried onions
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint and coriander
pinch of saffron, soaked in warm water or milk (this colours and flavours the rice golden. I don't like to use artificial colourings, so there's no jovial mix of fluorescent orange and yellow in my biryani)

for the marinade
1 cup whole organic yogurt
2 tbsp ginger-garlic paste (to make, just blend a 50-50 mix of each)
1 cinnamon stick
2 cloves
10 cardamom pods
1 tbsp red chilli powder
2 tsp turmeric
2 green chillies, finely chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint and coriander
juice of 1 lemon 
handful of fried onions, crushed
2 tbsp melted ghee
1 tsp sea salt

1. First, if the rabbit's not already jointed, watch this brilliant video 3 times and joint your rabbit. It's in fact easier to joint than a chicken.
2. Coat the rabbit pieces in the marinade and leave overnight in the fridge. The next day, remove from the fridge and let it come to room temperature before proceeding.
3. Bring a pot of water to the boil, with the salt, bay leaf and cinnamon. Parboil the rice i.e. it should be only 70% cooked. Drain.
4. Pre-heat oven to 170 degrees celsius. In a heavy-bottomed oven-safe pot with a tight lid, place the marinated rabbit at the base of the pot. Cover with a layer of about half of your par-cooked rice. Then scatter half the fried onions, mint and coriander over. Repeat the layering, and then finally finish by drizzling ghee and the saffron liquid all over.
5. Cover tightly (traditional purists will even seal with a blob of dough) and let cook in the oven for 45 min.

When ready, uncover and fork through, tossing the succulent meat together with the golden rice to release all that steam and spicy aromatic fumes. I know the ingredients list seems daunting, but there is not much actual work involved, and most of the time required is really just for the rabbit to sit, tenderise and absorb all the deliciousness from the marinade. And if you must grumble about that 15-20 minutes of active kitchen time, just think of the end results. Scrumptious rabbit, and of course, the real star of the show, the rice-- loose and flowing and filled with the perfume of spices and flavour from the meat (and bones).

Now if that whole paragraph above couldn't convince the bunny-eater in you, I hope this biryani does.

This was also posted on the Great British Chef blogfacebook page, and sparked up a happy debate and more ideas on cooking rabbit. 

Monday, 1 October 2012

Crispy Steamed Pumpkin Cakes

The chilly winds are relentlessly knocking on my window, and I actually have got the heater on now. It’s a far cry from less than a week ago when I was sweating just sitting down doing nothing. Yes, I’m back in London.

I’m not going to whine or moan about the weather, I’ve done it too many times. I actually really do like fall—the golden carpet beneath my feet, the cool crisp air, and most of all, the food of fall. Tonight* I’ll be cooking up a mid-autumn plusixfive supperclub feast with Jason and Christine- Singaporean classics with a British seasonal twist, think venison rendang, nonya grilled rabbit, sambal rainbow chard, pear sago, and fried pumpkin cakes. It’s this fried pumpkin cake that I’m going to be sharing now.

These pumpkin cakes are very different from the ones you read about in Harry Potter’s. At least I don’t think the traditional wizarding community ate crispy steamed rice cakes with chunks of pumpkin and nuggets of dried shrimp and shiitake mushrooms. These cakes are actually closer to the Cantonese fried carrot (radish) cake, or the steamed yam cake, a Teochew favourite in Singapore. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, I wake up to the smell of my mum gently pan-frying pre-steamed yam or pumpkin cakes to warm them up, and then if for some reason these aren’t all finished up by me and my sisters, they are then had as dim sum for when we’re peckish around tea time.

The pumpkin that I’m using here is actually called the Crown prince squash, one of my favourite British varieties of pumpkin/ winter squashes. It’s got a great texture, is sweeter than other pumpkins, and stores well sitting on my kitchen table, all the while looking like a pretty still life with its jade green skin.

makes enough to feed a supperclub of 18
300g rice flour
1 tbsp tapioca flour
300g of crown prince squash, peeled and diced
4 shallots, sliced thinly
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 heaped tbsp dried shrimps, soaked for 10 min
6 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked for 30 min or till soft
600 ml of water in total (i.e. including soaking water)
3 tbsp good traditionally brewed soy sauce
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp five spice powder (optional)
2 tbsp lard from happy pigs (or groundnut oil, but I like it old-school and healthy)

1. Fry shallots in the lard, till crispy. See here for fried shallots and shallot oil. Drain and set aside. 
2. Drain the shrimps and mushrooms and chop/ slice finely, saving the soaking liquid. In half the oil, stirfry the garlic, shrimps and mushrooms with 1 tbsp soy sauce and the white pepper till very fragrant. Set aside with the shallots.
3. In the remaining half of the oil, stir fry the diced squash with 2 tbsp soy sauce and the five spice powder. Add enough water to the shrimp and mushroom soaking liquid to make 300ml and add to the squash, and let simmer for about 5 min till cooked. Towards the end, mash up roughly so you have a mix of pumpkin puree and cubes. 
4. Mix flours with salt and 300ml of water and stir till you get a smooth batter. Add this rice batter, along with the shrimps, mushroom, garlic and shallots, to the simmering pot. Remove from heat and continue stirring to mix well. It will start to thicken slightly to a worrying gloop.
5. Pour the gloopy mixture into a greased pan or steamproof container. I used an old empty tin of Christmas cookies. Cover and set over boiling water, steam over high heat for about 1 hours.
6. When done, let it cool for another hour before cutting. It will firm up as it cools. If you're impatient you'll just end up with a sticky knife and raggedy edges. This is why I like to do this a night in advance.
7.  Cut off the hardened surface layer (discard into your mouth) and then the rest into pretty rectangular bricks. You can steam to warm up again and serve with fried shallots, but of course that would be plain boring. Pan fry lightly in a medium hot pan with some lard/oil, on both sides, till golden and crispy on the surface.
8. Serve with a sweet chilli sauce (simply boil pureed chillies, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, all to taste, and reduce till thick) or weirdly, chilli ketchup (especially if homemade) goes brilliantly. 

The cakes are fragrant, with a natural mild sweetness from the Crown prince squash and bouts of umami hit from the dried shrimps and shiitake mushrooms, What I like most about it is its texture, crispy on the surface, but delightfully squidgy-springy on the inside. And as with all dim sum, it touches my heart. I may be back in the cold, grey London,  but I can still wake up to fried pumpkin cakes for breakfast. 

*It was last night. I didn't have time to upload the photos because I was too busy freaking out. Try feeding Singaporean food to a Singaporean food critic and an acclaimed Singaporean chef in a half-jetlagged state just three nights after coming back. It went brilliantly though, phew and hurrah!