Wednesday, 26 December 2012

2012 Greatest Hits

Christmas is over, and to me, that signifies the end of 2012, or at least that's the end of things to look forward to in 2012. New year's eve maybe, but the fireworks and crazy partying usually happens around midnight, which means 2013. I thought it a good time to look back at this past year before I go about setting my resolutions for the new year.

A few months ago, I looked at some of my oldest entries and almost wanted to wipe out all traces of my amateur cooking and blurry flash photographs, but then I  realised how silly it was to deny all that. I've grown a lot since I started the blog and I'm really happy for all the opportunities that this blog has given me, the people I've met, and all the stories I've told and remembered through this blog, stupid or wonderful. When I first started the blog, I really didn't think too much of it. I just really liked food, and really liked to take pictures of my food, #asian. I started cooking because a) I'm a poor starving student so I can't eat out everyday and b) I like being healthy so I want to eat real food, not cheap fast food. Not all of my attempts were successes, and I still cringe when I see the sort of throw-it-all-in stirfries I used to do. I never thought I would one day be cooking dinners for 18 (or even 50), or that I would be writing about food (and that I will have readers), but I guess the world has a funny way of makign things happen in the most incredible way.

I'm going to share some of the more wonderful moments of 2012 when I've gone "LOOK MUM!" and pray no one else decides to dig into the more stupid moments.

1. When I'm not making a mess in the kitchen, I'm making a mess in art school; I do graphic design at central st martins. This year, I decided to "apply" myself more. I don't blog as often as before but (and because) each post is more thoughtfully put together in a way that hopefully makes everything more fun/ helpful. More quirky ideas and design here, quite a few somehow food-related (I can't help myself), if anyone is interested, or if just in case you're Jamie Oliver and want me to style your latest cookbook or design your packaging.

2. I started chef-ing for the Singaporean supperclub plusixfive. One day, Goz, the person who started the supperclub, read my blog and decided “we need to meet at the nearest pub, NOW”. I refused then (it was 11pm at night and this stranger was too scarily enthusiastic) but after a rainy afternoon meeting at Monmouth with this strangely convincing ball of energy, I found myself at a plusixfive supperclub for the first time, quite dauntingly, straight in the kitchen. To my relief, the guests seemed to not hate the sambal, I didn’t break Goz’s Le Creuset, and upon Goz’s nagging/prodding, I even found myself cooking for the next supperclub…and the next…and the next… It's been a lot of crazy fun. I've fed some scary famous foodies, and even Singaporean (hence even scarier) food critic Hsueh and chef Willin Low. Besides the monthly pop-up dinners, I've been doing some insane things with the team like cooking for fifty at the Supperclub Summit.

3. Related to 1 and 2, I'm in the midst of art directing and a bit of writing for an upcoming plusixfive cookbook with Epigram Books. We're still in the early stages, so I can't say much about it, but I do know it will be fantastic and not like any other cookbook you've seen. I just wanted to share the good news here so you can all watch out for it (and pre-order, eh-hem cough).

4. I WAS ON THE NEW YORK TIMES! Ok kind of. An article I wrote for Crumbs mag online was picked up by the NY times diners' journal, for a weekly roundup of interesting reads around the net-- not as impressive as it sounded after all eh, sorry for the drama. I've been doing a bit more food blogging and illustrations outside of this blog. For Crumbs mag as mentioned, and more recently, for the Great British Chefs.

5. And food writing. I've been doing some on-off writing for Flavour magazine, and more recently, the most amazing, gorgeous food-and-travel magazine Cereal. I'll take this chance to give a shout-out to Cereal. It's completely gorgeous, ad-free, just pages and pages of gorgeous food and places with gorgeous design and stories. If you are at all a food and design geek, you need to beg/steal/borrow or just (preferably) buy a copy in a bookstore in your country (it's sold internationally).

6. I went over to the dark side. I joined facebook and twitter. Technology doesn't like me, and the feeling is mutual. I took the longest time to be persuaded to get facebook for myself back in school when everyone had it already. It was a miracle I started blogging. And for the longest time, I've resisted getting twitter (Why would anyone care what I'm doing at this minute? Why's there a word limit? What's a #? Cute bird I guess.) I was sure I would hate it, but it's been pretty fun sharing some of the more random things I do, eat, or cook that I don't blog about, so please do join me, if you like. I'm on instagram too.

7. I've met a lot of equally food-obsessed people because of 6. I've been helping out with events, photographing and pinching food, teaching drunk corporate kids how to wrap spring rolls, etc etc. Yep. It's been exciting.

I hope 2013 will be filled with more exciting adventures, other than the bits of food blogging, cooking, working at the farmer's market, and studying of course. I'm graduating soon and I'm not sure where this whole thing will take me, but hopefully, it's a place that I will love. Merry Boxing Day and Happy New Year! (And thanks for reading my blog you all :)

Monday, 17 December 2012

Christmas Tree Roast Potatoes (Yes I ate my Christmas Tree)

Yes I ate the Christmas tree.

We have a new stall at the farmer's market where I work, bringing foraged ingredients. They have the most intriguing wild herbs and weeds from the land and from the sea. I wish I had half the knowledge as Miles when it comes to identifying plants you can eat off nature. Beyond the odd stinging nettle and wild blackberry in late summer, I don't dare to pick anything for my dinner plate. The table is always laid with plants I've never laid my eyes on before, with names I've never heard of before, but last week, there was a basket of what looked vaguely familiar. This season, these branches are usually hidden behind  glittering lights and golden bobbles, but there's still no mistaking the familiar twigs and sharp needle-like leaves of the Christmas tree.
I never would have thought you could eat a Christmas tree, but what better way to add some er, Christmassy, flavour to your festive roast. They kind of resemble sprigs of rosemary, but the smell of it is quite fresh and woodsy, and upon nibbling a bit of it, the taste is quite citrusy. It's definitely a conversation starter if you choose to stuff your turkey with a few sprigs of Christmas. I decided to use them for roast potatoes. Of a traditional English roast, roast potatoes are quite possibly my favourite part of the meal. The meat and a good gravy is wonderful, but oh, a roast potato! Golden crispy edges, hot fluffy insides, none of the greasiness of a french fry or chips, but none of the dullness of a boiled potato either- it's the best way to have a potato in my opinion.

There are many theories on the best way to make a roast potato, and people actually argue over this stuff. People have put all these chefs' methods to the test, saving you the trauma of lousy roast potatoes. I've got my own favourite way of doing it, from the tips I've gathered from that Guardian word-of-mouth writer, too much TV, friends' mums, and my own trials. 

serves 2-3
500g roasting potatoes*
2 tbsp lard from happy pigs (dripping or goose fat will be good too)
2 tbsp groundnut oil*
4 sprigs of christmas tree
4 cloves of garlic, bashed but skin-on
unrefined sea salt

1. Place a roasting tin with the fat and oil on a high rack in the oven. Let it pre-heat to 220 degrees celsius.
2. Peel the potatoes, saving the peelings, and cut into roughly even-sized chunks.
3. Bring a pot of water to the boil, then add the potatoes, along with the peelings (tie inside a muslin cloth bag to make it easier to remove later), and plenty of sea salt to taste. Simmer for 10 minutes, until it becomes quite soft and fluffy on the outside.
4. Drain (you can reserve the starchy flavourful potato water for gravy or soup or something, do not waste). I give it a big manly shake in my colander to further fluff up the edges. More rough edges = more crunchy edges later.
5. Remove the HOT tray carefully. The fat will be sizzling, the oven might even be slightly smoking, so put on your oven gloves (and goggles maybe). Gently tip the potatoes into the tray, then baste them so they are all coated with the fat. Also add the garlic and sprigs of christmas tree.
6. Put back into the oven and roast for about 45 minutes, turning them over halfway, until they are golden brown and crisp. Once out of the oven, sprinkle some crushed sea salt flakes over while still hot. Eat as soon as you can. 

*Notes and tips
There are arguments over which is the best roasting potato, the common contenders being Maris Piper, Desiree, and King Edwards. I use the Maris Piper.
Save your extra virgin olive oil for your salads; they turn rancid at high temperatures. Saturated fats are best, but the results can be a bit too heavy, so I use a mix of groundnut oil, a light neutral oil that's also good for high heat cooking, and which I favour in stir fries.  

I'm a tiny Asian girl so I probably don't have the most street cred when it comes to roast potatoes, so I'm not going to boast these are the best roast potatoes in town, but, they are pretty good. Their crunchy golden outsides just collapses into steaming light fluffy insides; while the fat-oil combination provide maximum flavour without being overly rich and heavy. And, not forgetting the aroma of roast garlic (maybe I cheat here because nothing can ever taste bad with roast garlic) and the wonderful citrusy sharpness of Christmas tree of course. Merry Christmas you all!

Just a last word of caution from the foragers: Before you all go snipping off a few sprigs off your tree, do note that not all varieties are edible, and you only eat the edible pine leaves of the tree, not the wood.  You also only need a bit to flavour your cooking, so do not turn your Christmas tree bare in a moment of gluttony. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Lazy No-Knead Sourdough Spelt Bread

In the lead-up to Christmas, there's always loads of recipes for treats and cakes floating around the web and in the magazines and free papers, threatening my promise to be Santa's good girl. After two chocolate cakes in a week, I think it's time to practise a bit of self-restraint. Even with vegetables thrown in (best-ever beetroot chocolate cake recipe here), or with the flour taken out (chocolate orange almond cake recipe here), too much cake is too much cake. But I missed having the oven on-- the ritual of creating wonderful smells and something tasty from nothing; and well, frankly, the heat from the oven (it is mad freezing here)-- so I made bread.

And one would think I must be a really talented baker to have made my own bread, and by bread here I don't mean banana bread (not that I look down on banana bread, I love banana bread) but a proper artisan loaf of sourdough spelt bread. I'll be the first to admit that baking is not my thing. They come out alright when I follow the right recipe, and very often do taste good, but you would never get me making symmetrical tarts or perfect pies. So if I can do this, you probably can. If you've ever seen bakers make bread, or have ever attempted making bread on your own, everything about this dough feels wrong, but it works.

Though I usually believe good things come out of a bit of bicep work and sweat and tears, the no-knead technique surprisingly turns the worryingly wet dough into a loaf with an open crumb and large holes that many people dig. I thank the (lazy) genius who discovered this and shared this with everybody in  the original New York Times article, and the subsequent geniuses who then excitedly adapted this for other types of flour and for sourdough. This is not really no-knead, but you only need to do a series of 'stretch-and-folds' i.e. no manly muscles involved. I like spelt because it has a wonderful mellow nuttiness without the heaviness of most other wholegrains, and this ancient grain is also better digested than normal wheat and ; the sourdough method gets rid of the anti-nutrients found in the wholegrain flour, plus, sourdoughs just taste freaking good.

You do need a strong, bubbly sourdough starter to make this bread though, which really, is just a fermented mix of flour and water that you can make easily or beg/steal/borrow from your favourite artisan bakery.

(adapted from Breadtopia- he has a video too, very helpful if you're still scared; and Cheeselave.)

You can use all-whole spelt too, in total 530g, as in the original recipe. I mix it up for a lighter loaf.
350g whole spelt flour
200g white spelt flour + more for sprinkling
350g water
10 g (1 1/2 tsp) unrefined sea salt
60g (3 tbsp) unrefined sugar or honey
1/4 cup active sourdough starter (fed and bubbly, 100% hydration)

You also need
a dough whisk (makes mixing wet sticky doughs easier, but it's possible to use a very large fork...)
a large mixing bowl
a dough scraper (or some plastic card)
a proofing basket (or a colander + thin dish cloth)

The night before,
1. Add the sugar/honey to the water, then mix in the starter.
2. Mix the flour with the salt.
3. Mix the dry and wet ingredients together, using a dough whisk or the large fork. You'll realise the dough is like a very stodgy batter that's quite impossible to knead.
4. Cover with a plastic bag, and leave for 30 min to an hour.
5. Wet a dough scraper, scrape and separate the edges of the dough from the bowl just so you can lift up the dough. It's still quite slack, but you should be handling it very gently anyway.
6. Do a stretch-and-fold i.e.stretch the dough slightly, then fold each side into each other. Repeat in the other direction.
7. Repeat steps 4-6 three more times. 15 minute intervals work too if you're a bit impatient.

The next morning,
8.  The dough would have risen quite a lot*, yay! Using a wet dough scraper again, scrape out onto a floured surface, then using floured hands, gather all the sides in and pinch at the top to seal (should seal easily because the dough's quite sticky). Sprinkle more flour over.
9.  Place the blob into a floured proofing basket or dishcloth-lined colander, seam-side up. Cover with another dishcloth and leave for its final rise, about 1 to 1 1/2 hour, or till doubled.
10. 1 hour in, pre-heat the oven to 230 degrees celsius. Put the cast iron pot in (with the lid on) so it gets really hot. WEAR MITTENS when you take it out!
11. Turn the risen dough out into the very hot pot (now the seam-side is down), then place in the oven. Immediately turn the heat down to 200 degrees celsius.* Bake for 35 min covered*, 10 min uncovered to brown the crust.
12. Let cool for an hour before slicing into it. It continues to cook as it cools and become less gummy, so be patient. I know it's hard to resist warm bread fresh from the oven, but it's worth it.

Notes and tips
*How much your dough rises depends on how good your starter is and how warm your kitchen is. It will take a lot longer to rise here in dreary cold London than, say, in sunny Singapore.
*All ovens work differently so you may have to adjust the temperature and timings according to your oven. You might need to turn it down lower than 200C, or bake for slightly longer.
*The amazing thing about using your cast iron casserole pot is that the tight lid creates a steamy environment making for a crisper crust. Other recipes I've seen that use a baking stone (obviously not for a no-knead sort of bread) will put a tray of hot water at the bottom of the oven to create steam; this one has no need for that.

In Europe, bread is considered the staff of life, but if you told me three years ago that I can never eat bread again, I probably wouldn't give a hoot (I will die without rice though #asian). That was before I discovered real bread-- warm golden crusts and the wonderful yeasty smell of slow-fermented sourdough. It still amazes me that you can build something like this out of 3 basic ingredients: flour, salt, and water. Now when I need a quick bite to start the day, or a peckish nibble to break up my hum-drum day in front of the computer, I understand why one can really be happy simply with bread and butter (and a dollop of jam, or better yet, kaya, if one has it).

See also
Farewell, my hero (and how to make your own no-fail sourdough starter) 
Sourdough (Crepe), that was easy!