Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Mum's Cooking

There is nothing quite like a regular fix of mum's cooking to make my tum feel all warm and satisfied. On my Tuesday night dinner visits, she indulges me with all my favourites - itek dim (ducked soup with salted vegetables), prawn sambal, sweet potato leaves stir-fried with chilli, babi assam (pork stewed in a dark tamarind sauce)...the list, no doubt, goes on.

Last night, she served up yet another favourite of mine - mee siam. I've been meaning to learn how to make it for the longest time, but I always manage to find an excuse not to. You see, like many Asian dishes, mee siam is a rather painstaking process, which involves peeling more than 40 shallots, grinding it with a bagful of chillies, making the rempah (spice paste), soaking the noodles, frying the noodles and tofu in the rempah (separately), chopping chives, boiling eggs, peeling and boiling a heap of prawns, plucking the stems off bean get the picture.

But I figured it was high time I learned and so I got mum to take me through it step by step. Now it all sounds easy enough - watching someone cook and asking the right questions. But it is the responses of your teacher that have everything to do with how well you fare.


Me: How many onions do you use, mum?
Mum: Three dollars worth
Me: How many chillies?
Mum: Forty cents
Me: How much water and tamarind?
Mum: Oh, about this much (she picks up a handful of tamarind and a small tub of water)

As you can see, measurements are not quite my mother's thing. So unless I go to the very same market stall from which she buys her onions and her chillies (come to think of it, I could have just sat there and counted them, couldn't I?), or grab that handful of tamarind and insist she drop it onto the weighing scale, I'm afraid, it's going to be a case of trial and error for me.

Mercifully, mum's still around to make it for me. So until I finally do it on my own AND get it right, I am unable to post a proper recipe (okay, my mum's recipe). So for now, I'm afraid the picture above will have to do.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Quick Elegant Lunch

Since I work from home, lunch is usually a solitary affair. Which means it often constitutes easy-to-make dishes or leftovers from the night before. This White-Cut Chicken Salad is one of my favourites. It is light, tasty and extremely elegant at the same time. The chicken was left over from last night's Hainanese Chicken Rice dinner - a dish almost all Chinese Singaporeans will tell you is the ultimate comfort food. I laid it on a bed of fresh baby spinach and made an Oriental-ish dressing of light soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, olive oil and a few drops of sesame oil. A handful of chopped red chillies and spring onions sprinkled over the top anoints the salad with a dash of colour and a good dose of heat.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Spotted Grub Grabber

Meet Oxford, my three-year-old canine companion who hoovers up the crumbs in the kitchen quicker than you can say, "Suck it up". Of course he has other talents too - like rubbing himself in the sand, swimming and annoying our two cats. When he's not stalking me in the kitchen, he finds comfort on our (now very worn) couch, where he snoozes till it's time for his next walk.

I've posted another picture of him at Sweet Nicks Weekend Dog Blogging #11.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sephardic Chocolate and Almond Cake

I've had Chantal Coady's book Real Chocolate on my shelf for almost a year now, but I only began dipping into it recently. What sparked it off was my friend Angie's search for a "baked chocolate mousse cake" recipe, which another friend had made for her. Despite Angie's many pleas, he refused to share the recipe. In my book, such selfishness when it comes to food is simply unacceptable, so I made it my mission to find Angie that recipe, which turned out to be a pretty easy task.

Once she was done describing it, I was pretty sure Angie was referring to the famous River Cafe Chocolate Nemesis. I haven't had the pleasure of tasting the original, but I've heard and read plenty about it. While I don't own a River Cafe cookbook, I remembered seeing the recipe in Real Chocolate. According to Ms Coady -- who owns the celebrated Rococo Chocolates in London and co-founded the Chocolate Society -- she thought the original Chocolate Nemesis to be (while deliciously sublime), a tad too sweet and buttery. So she tweaked the recipe for her book with the blessing of The River Cafe's owners. I am pleased to report that our rendition of Ms Coady's River Cafe Chocolate Nemesis Revisited was a success -- moist, soft, decadently chocolatey, but not too sweet. Unfortunately I didn't have a camera on hand that day and so couldn't take a picture. I'll try to post one next time I make it.

Today, feeling in the mood for chocolate again (oh, alright, I'm always in the mood for chocolate), I decided to attempt Ms Coady's recipe for the Sephardic Chocolate and Almond Cake. A variation of Claudia Roden's recipe, the dense cake is rich with almond meal and the best quality dark chocolate (I used Valrhona 70%, although I think something stronger -- 75% to 80% -- wouldn't be bad either). Dusted with cocoa, it is the perfect, decadent slice of tea cake that will satiate any chocolate craving in a flash.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Weekend Herb Blogging

I'm new to this whole food blogging thing and recently signed up at Food Blogger S'cool where I came across hosted by Kalyn's Kitchen. I figured I'd take part, if anything to make some new food blogger friends. (If anyone has any advice or comments for a newbie, please post them here or email me!)

It was opportune since two weeks ago, I was forced to send my basil and lemon balm plants to the grave because they were hopelessly infested by white flies. I mourned a little -- it was my first ever attempt at growing herbs, and how they thrived! Damm those white flies!

A week later, feeling brave, I went to the hardware store and picked up a couple of seeds. I chose mint because it's really, really hard to buy beautiful mint from the supermarkets or markets here. They are usually wilted with blackened leaves -- so not ideal for garnishing or crushing into drinks. The only place I've ever come across really clean, fresh mint stalks was at Tekka Market, which is a bit of a journey from where I live. Hence, a pack of mint seeds went into my shopping bag. The other was a pack of coriander seeds - because well, coriander goes with everything... in Asian cooking at least. And, as I recently discovered, coriander root is the secret ingredient in some of the best Asian dishes. I've posted an easy laksa-based recipe, which features coriander root and mint leaves at the bottom of this post, adapted from Nigel Slater's Appetite. It is a spicy, rich and comforting, treat on cold days like today.

I can't begin to tell you how excited I was when five days from when I first planted them, the seeds began to sprout. Now, two weeks have passed and they are fuzzy little baby leaves with so much potential. The picture at the top is of my mint, and here's a picture of my fast-growing coriander.

Heartened by the experience, I decided to get another basil plant -- they grow up quick and they taste yum. I bought a small plant from the supermarket and then transplanted it. Alas, basil and the sun are great friends and this being the end of the year, the sun has been rather elusive of late. And my new basil plant is all the weaker for it.

I'm trying to talk it out of its misery and feed it lots of water, but if the sun doesn't come out soon, I'm not sure it will last.


Serves 2

For the spice paste:
4 to 5 hot red chillies
3 cloves garlic, peeled
thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and shred
3 lemon grass stems (the tender, innermost leaves), sliced
a few coriander seeds, ground or crushed
a handful of coriander leaves and their roots, scrubbed of dirt
1 tsp ground tumeric
vegetable oil

For the soup:
2 cups chicken stock
1.75 cups coconut milk
the juice of 1 lime
Thai fish sauce
a handful of mint leaves

To finish:
Noodles - egg or rice (chor bee hoon) noodles
Crabmeat and prawns (or chicken, or whatever you fancy, really)

Throw all the ingredients for the spice paste (except the vegetable oil) into a food processor and blitz. Add the vegetable oil a little at a time to help this mixture go around and turn into a dry paste.

In a fairly deep pan, over moderate heat, add the spice paste and fry, moving it around the pan for a minute or so, then pour in the stock and coconut milk and let it come to a boil. Turn the heat down and let the soup simmer for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, cook the noodles briefly in boiling water and drain.

Pop the crabmeat and prawns (or whatever meat you've chosen) into the soup. Let them cook quickly. Season with lime juice, salt, a dash of fish sauce and some mint leaves. Divide the noodles into bowls and serve.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

An Italian Birthday Meal

Several weeks ago I enjoyed a wonderful tasting dinner with two food writer friends at a new Italian restaurant called Ristorante Da Valentino. It was a bit of a drive (to say the least), given that I was coming from the East Coast, but when we finally got to the neighbourhood trattoria in Jalan Bingka (off Rifle Range Road), it was almost like we had stepped into some quaint Italian town.

The restaurant is run by Chef Valentino Valtulina (formerly of Cantina) and his immediately family. Yes, that means mama, papa, brother-in-law and sister, plus a couple of delightfully knowledgeable waiters. Everything we had ate that night was simply fantastic and so on my birthday last week, when my partner C asked where I would like to be taken to dinner, I naturally chose Valentino's.

I was dying to taste the beautiful squid ink pasta with crab meat and cream sauce (it is chock-full of fresh crab meat and a lovely light sauce), and I really wanted C to try the pizza with parma ham and rocket (it was the best I had ever tasted). Chef V also managed to convince C to order a veal tenderloin and cream sauce dish which, as expected, was exquisitely delicious.

We eventually had to pack three-quarters of our pizza to go and though I didn't have much room for dessert, I ended up ordering these fantastic chocolate salamis to take home. The salamis come in either the disc shape shown in the picture, or sausage-like shapes as their names suggest. Indeed, they don't look like very much, but bite into their biscuity interior and you'll be gasping for more.

When I got home, I rifled through my cookbooks desperate to find a recipe for the chocolate salamis (even if it's not the same, some tweaking can be done later). I finally found one in A Cook's Tour Of Italy called Salame Di Cioccolata Con Salsa Allo Zabaglione, or Apollinare's Chocolate Roll with Zabaglione Sauce. I'm hoping to try it out next week when I get some time.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Dim Dim Sum

Sunday brunch is one of my favourite meals of the week. It is lazy, it is decadent and, in our household, it's best taken in our favourite dim sum haunt, The Paramount. This weekend however, we decided that it might be a good idea to do something different. So we went for dim sum somewhere else.

Like The Paramount, Tea House is owned by the Tung Lok Group and I remember that on my last visit (oh, about four years ago when it first opened), the food was decent. I remember liking something called the Heavenly Bun - a steamed pau stuffed with lotus seed paste and peanut butter.

Anyway, Tea House has since relocated to the third floor of China Square Food Centre. Once we entered, its staff practically formed a line to offer us steamed and fried goodies from their trolleys. The speed with which we were served was just about the only good thing about our meal yesterday morning. Because the food, well, sucked.

The ingredients were less than fresh, the dim sum skins were hardly refined and there was nary a har gao in sight. How can a dim sum restaurant not have har gao on its menu/trolley/whatever? I also ordered a portion of siao long baos which were really pork meatballs wrapped in a crude skin. There was no broth in the siao long bao. 'Nuff said, I think.

In the end, we skipped dessert (we never skip dessert) and vowed to stick with tradition. No prizes for guessing where we'll be headed next Sunday afternoon.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

A Quick Introduction

Some of my sharpest childhood memories involve food - the eating of it, the making of it, the fighting over it and the recovering from it. Indeed, for me, food is inextricably linked to my emotions. I eat (and cook) to celebrate my happiness, sadness, successes and failures. One emotion could set in motion an appetite for various things - for example, happiness is usually accompanied by a hankering for fresh oysters and foie gras, while sadness usually draws a taste for potato chips, cheese and ice cream. On days when my world feels blissfully at peace, I crave the slow-cooked comforts of mee siam, itek dim or beef short ribs braised in red wine.

I guess as a first post, an introduction is necessary. I am a writer living in Singapore, who has been described by her friends as a small girl with a big appetite. When I'm not eating, cooking or thinking about eating and cooking, I spend much of my free time doing sport - running, swimming, biking, squash, Pilates, yoga...Indeed, given the vast amounts of food I consume each day, all that activity is certainly warranted.

I don't believe in small portions. I eat heartily and I make no apologies for it. On one occasion, while ordering lunch with an old friend, he turned to me and said, "You sure eat like a man." We both laughed. Many a true word said in jest.