Thursday, 28 March 2013

I might chuck this post

You know what, I actually have been up to a fair bit of cooking these days, and more importantly, photographing these bits of cooking. This technically means I should be up to a fair bit of blogging too, but apparently, it isn't so. I guess I'm just pretty anal about things, and especially about this blog. I photograph my food before I tuck in, like all crazy food bloggers (and Asian girls) do, but I don't have enough photos to make up a proper post. I also don't have measurements or an ingredient list to make up a recipe; I just wing it most of the time, really. Sometimes I also wonder whether food that's so simple is interesting enough, so I end up chucking it away (the post, not the food. I never chuck food.)

I do instagram, tweet and facebook all these random bits of edible adventures, so (I know this is cheeky) you could join me there; I'm happy to chuck you the rough recipe and tips if you give me a nudge. Anyway, I thought it might be a good time to give you guys a little roundup/update/peek into the edible bits of my life that have fallen through the anal shuhan filter.

1. I did a bit of food styling for a rare meats company, a mushroom book by some masterchef guy and the plusixfive cookbook. It was a nightmare finding 20 permutations of ways to photograph raw meat, a dream working with the fabulous loveleluu, and blood(cake)y fun messing about in my kitchen with James (of the Young Turks).

2. I discovered heaven exists. I borrowed 2 pans and a chopping board from there (for the above).

3. I still hate waking up at 5am in the morning, but I still love working weekends at the farmer's market. Also, beetroot in chocolate cake also makes it deliciously moist and rich, and er, 5% healthier so you can have more.

4. I confirm that everything deep-fried is made ten times better. That's a deep fried egg (for sambal telur). And that's a prawn with its head chopped off, guts pulled out, and its body scalded in hot oil (before being fried in butter with curry leaves and chilli). 

5. I dug up mum's crazily detailed, annotated, colour-coded handwritten recipes that she mailed me in my first year on Mother's Day. Recipe includes warning "only do after Skyping me". Ah, I miss her. That's Chinese savoury steamed egg and that's soy sauce over, not creme caramel.

6. I made Mum's kong bak pau recipe for a Chinese New Year supperclub. It took me 3 days from start to finish. Leftover pork belly with steamed purple sprouting broccoli was pretty awesome stuff too. This is one recipe I am forbidden from sharing because my mum is probably going to get rich and famous with it.

Right, that's it. I think I might chuck this post if I don't click 'publish' so here goes.

Stop missing out on the fun:

Monday, 18 March 2013

Naturally coloured Agar Agar Jelly

I'm not the greatest in the kitchen. I watch Nigella Lawson macerate blackberries wearing a crisp white shirt, looking all sexy and in control, and snort. My favourite white shirt is now a colourful bohemian one with pink and red splotches because of the below beetroot recipe.

That said, I do love the way beetroot turns everything it touches into a deep ruby red or lurid pink (everything except my shirt, that is). This is a great note for anyone looking into natural dyes for your Easter eggs decorating. Easter is just round the corner! (No it's two weeks away to be honest, but we need something colourful to look forward to in March when everything's grey and wet.) Please if you are making edible coloured goodies for your children don't dye them with artificial colourings, it's probably why I got so hyperactive around Children's Day and Easter.

Beetroot makes a wonderful natural red food dye. Beetroot plus a touch of milk or yogurt or coconut milk gives you pink. Blackberry gives your purple. Carrot gives you orange. Pandan gives you green. Many southeast asian puddings and kuehs are often coloured lurid shades, and traditionally those were done with the herbs and flowers in your garden. Most people don't bother anymore, which is a shame. I got the last of Sarah and Robin's beautiful cylindrical beetroot at the farmer's market on Saturday, and thought of making one of my favourite coloured desserts from home using that naturally gorgeous red colour-- agar agar.

It’s funny how agar has become the cool new toy for chefs when it's the kind of jelly I’ve grown up with all along. For the agar-uninitiated, it’s a seaweed-derived (hence vegan) substance similar to gelatin, but it sets much more easily at room temperature and gives a ‘bouncier’ bite. It’s quite often made with ready coloured agar powder with the most elementary instructions on the packet, and set in adorable moulds, so as kids, we loved making and eating these simple treats. I used plain unflavoured agar strands instead, and dye the jelly a natural ruby shade with beetroot. This is a two-layer agar agar, one a firmer clear jelly, and the other, more pudding-like with the addition of coconut milk; if you want and are patient/ anal enough, you can go ahead and do multi-layers.

Makes 20-30
14g agar strands 
1/2 cup unrefined cane sugar (adjust to taste)
1 small red beetroot, peeled and chopped
2 pandan leaves, tied into a knot
750ml water + More for soaking
75ml thick coconut milk
Pinch of sea salt

You also need:
10-20 jelly moulds (I use silicone mini cupcake moulds, makes unmoulding a breeze!)
OR a large tray with 2 inch high sides

1. Roughly snip the strips of agar and submerge them in a basin of water, soaking for about 20 minutes till softened. After soaking, drain and squeeze out the excess water and snip.
2. Meanwhile, drop the beetroot into 750ml of hot water. You really just need the water to turn red, so a couple of minutes should do. You can leave it longer if your guests are weird beetroot fans. Drain, reserving the beetroot for some other dish, like a good frugal Asian cook should.
3. Bring the beetroot water, pandan, and agar strips to a boil, stirring until the agar strips have completely melted and you see no lumps. Add the sugar, tasting and adjusting till you’re happy with it.
4. Remove the pot from heat. Scoop out 250ml of agar liquid from the pot, into a jug. Add the pinch of salt and mix with the 75ml of coconut milk (ratio is roughly 3:1).
5. Divide this mixture into the molds, filling up to but not more than halfway. Or, if you are doing it in bulk or don’t own moulds or are just plain lazy, pour this mixture into a large high tray, till it comes up halfway. Transfer the molds or tray into the fridge to allow it to set until just semi-firm. This will take only 5 minutes or so, because agar sets really quickly.
6. Lightly scratch the surface of the semi-set coconut layer with a toothpick, so that the next layer can hug/cling/bond to it. Pour the remaining agar liquid on top of the coconut layer, up to the brim of the moulds or tray.  If it looks like it’s starting to thicken and turn lumpy again, just stick the pot back onto the stove, stir, to warm it up and it will melt again.
7. Refrigerate the moulds or tray until the agar agar is fully set. 
8. To unmould, just run the toothpick around the edges and flip over; it should pop out easily, and, if you’ve followed my tips, in one piece. If you have made them in a tray, cut the agar agar up into cubes/wedges/choice of crazy creative shapes. You can keep these chilled until ready to serve, preferably cool, though these are picnic-safe too because they won’t melt away in the sun like jelly. 

You can also add fruits to agar agar. Slightly sharp fruits are best for a surprising contrast to the sweet jelly: fresh raspberries in summer, or poached rhubarb this month. Wait till the second layer of agar has turned semi-firm (about 3 min in the fridge) before adding the fruits, so it stays suspended within the jelly.

I know it seems confusing with all those measurements but you don't have to be perfectly accurate to the last ml. It does make you feel sort of like a scientist though, pouring coloured liquids and watching them turn into solids, so I think this could be a fun project for the little ones. I'm not little but I thought it was fun anyway. Best of all, agar agar is annoying light and healthy for a pudding. I popped 4 into my mouth for a snack. I'm not sure it's that guilt-free then, but I felt like a happy (but not hyper) kid again :)

Related recipes:
DIY Flavoured Sugars (Pandan Sugar) - I used this sugar actually for an even stronger fragrance
Jasmine Rice Pudding with Poached Rhubarb - In case you want to do the rhubarb agar agar
Tea Leaf Eggs - How to make natural pretty marbled patterns on eggs

You can get crazy with agar. If you mess around with the ratios a bit, you can come up with things like mousses/puddings/creams. Sissi has some glorious ideas.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Teochew Porridge and The Basics

I swore last week I'll make a proper ceremony out of every meal. I'm going to sit down (at a table, not a desk) and eat with a fork and spoon (or chopsticks). Things are still not letting up, things may never let up until I graduate (and become a jobless bum. Unless someone hires me.)

If I were to do this my mum's way, a proper meal would involve a light slowcooked soup and 3 dishes, veggie fishy and usually porky. Nothing is necessarily difficult nor does it take more time overall, but you have a got a few more dishes to wash up this way, and I hate doing dishes. I've hardly had a meal like this since I'm on my own; it's always something one-pot or one-bowl, or one-hand. But I actually love the visual feast of seeing a few plates laid out, and I absolutely relish the whole ceremony of having to pick at food from different plates. So a couple of nights last week I took the time out to make mum-style meals, rice once, and Teochew porridge the other, and already I feel like a more sane person.
Teochew porridge, for the uninitiated, is probably quite queer. This is rice porridge by the way, not oats. But rather than its better known Cantonese congee cousin, Teochew mui is plain, not flavoured at all by the stock it's cooked in; and the softened grains are still whole, not broken down completely into a thick creamy jook. The best way to describe it, is probably...watery rice. Doesn't sound very appetising I know, but this is my ultimate comfort food, especially when I'm ill (or not).

It's plain of course, hence you have this with side dishes that are often very salty. Teochew porridge doesn't really just refer to that bowl or watery rice, but the whole 'setup'. Porridge places in Singapore often come with a gazillion side dishes to choose from, but the most basic must-have is chai poh omelette, fluffy eggs fried with salted turnip. And like all good asian meals, some kind of veg; I've gone for some purple sprouting broccoli from the farmer's market, simply steamed and dressed in fried shallot oil.

And that was it, I'm afraid, Teochew porridge for one rather broke and time-starved art student. Don't judge the lack of salted eggs, steamed fish, or soy-braised pork. It was originally peasant food after all.

serves 1-2
1/2 cup new crop jasmine rice*
900ml water*

1. Rinse rice twice. Mum insists.
2. Bring water to a boil. Add rice.
3. Continue to boil over medium high heat till cooked and the water turns starchy.
*New crop rice is freshly harvested that year. You can tell this simply: the (current) year will be announced proudly on a shiny label on the bag. New rice will cook up much faster into a stickier starchier porridge. You probably won't tell the difference unless you're a fussy rice eater like me, so feel free to use old rice and a tad more water.
*I got the ratios from kitchen tigress, though I usually just eyeball now. Use about 600ml water to the first 1/4 cup of rice, and then add another 250-350ml plus minus for each additional 1/4 cup.

serves 1-2 (depends how many sides you have)
2 large free range eggs
2 heaped tbsp salted preserved turnip/radish (I love chai poh)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbsp grated carrot (optional. I also love carrot)
2 tbsp groundnut oil or lard from happy pigs
pinch of unrefined sugar
little bit of (1/4 tsp?) fish sauce
little bit of water/ shaoxing wine

1. Soak preserved radish in warm water for 5 min, then drain and rinse so you don't get kidney failure from all that salt.
2. Over high heat, fry the preserved radish and grated carrot with the garlic in 1 tbsp of oil/lard, till dry and fragrant (respectively). Use a 6 inch pan for a thicker fluffier omelette.
3. Beat eggs with fish sauce and a bit of water/ wine to loosen it up. Pour eggs into the pan. Let set for a while to brown. This ain't no pale anaemic French omelette, you want it fragrant and browned.
4. Reduce heat to medium and keep nudging the cooked edges into the middle and tip the pan to let the uncooked egg flow to the sides.
5. Once the top of the omelette is cooked, it's done! You may or may not choose to flip it to brown the other side. I did and I made a mess. Just fold in half.

Really? Must I?
Steam purple sprouting broccoli till just tender and toss in pinch of salt and fried shallot oil (i.e. mum's secret to jazzing up boring steamed food) then scatter fried shallots over.

The Teochews were poor, which was probably how mui came about-- you need less rice to fill your bowl with all that water. The rice water is my favourite part though, wonderfully bland but with the light sweet taste and scent of the grains. It's especially refreshing after a bite of something salty; two scoops of porridge to mellow and wash the intense flavours down. The chye poh omelette may not look as pristine and delicate as its French counterpart, but it's exactly how I like my omelettes, browned and fragrant on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, and in this case, spiked with random bits of salty umami from the preserved radish. As for the steamed and oil-tossed purple sprouting broccoli, to me that's simply the best way to enjoy the pure taste of a vegetable that's fresh and in season.

I know I've gone really VERY basic with this, but it is kind of in the Teochew spirit of simplicity, and I've already got 3 plates extra to wash.

Other related recipes:
Steamed Whole Flounder
Soy-braised Pig's Ears 
Steamed Eggs  (updated, now with more tips!)
Fried Carrot Cake (i.e. the chye poh omelette jazzed up with fried squidgy radish cakes)
Leftover Turkey Congee (i.e. the cantonese porridge cousin)