Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Post and EaT Everything WeekEnd Lame LeftoverS

This seemed like a timely post given the whole Pete Wells shananigan. While people have things like strawberries, a carrot or two, and crusty bread as leftovers, I have things like a whole container of chicken curry or the remains of some lunch dish from several days past. Straggler ingredients like the odd handful of spinach, a sole tomato, or two sticks of celery usually find their way into the dog's bowl at dinner. Either that, or they get made into some sort of cake over the weekend. Like my oven, my fridge is pretty small for one with such a huge appetite as mine, so I try as much to purge it of ingredients that will probably spawn moldy children or go limp.

Over the weekend, I rummaged through the freezer to find a Tupperware of chicken curry from several weeks ago. I figured now was as good a time as any to indulge in one of my all-time childhood favourites: Prata and curry. The prata goes by many names—the Malaysians call it Canai, some Indians refer to it as Paratha, and I've heard some Caucasian friends call it Roti (Malay for 'bread', go figure). Whatever name it goes by, the perfect prata should be flaky and crispy on the outside and soft and slightly stretchy on the inside (the result of lots of ghee and a very hot griddle). Like the doner kebab in the UK, the prata is the unofficial late-night food of Singapore, not least because most prata stalls are open 24 hours. It's also typical breakfast food, dunked in a spicy dahl-char (dahl curry) and accompanied by a steaming cup of teh-tarik. Heaven.

Strangely enough, I had to drive to three different places to finally get my hands on some prata that day. The first stall I drove to at Frankel had closed down; the second one, no doubt gaining from the other stall owner's loss, was so crowded I couldn't find a parking space; and the third had sold his last prata mere minutes before I arrived. Thankfully, not far away from that last stall, I found joy.

The chicken curry I had it with was made Peranakan/Eurasian style—with very little or no coconut milk and a few green chillies broken into it at the end. I've posted the recipe here.

I know I'm early, but the Post and EaT Everything WeekEnd Lame LeftoverS (PETE WELLS) event hosted by Tomatom kicks off on 13 March.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Cake For The Naked Eater

Anyone who knows both C and I will tell you that we simply cannot be more different from one another. C is quiet, reserved and is extremely measured in his manner and speech. Me, I'm just downright noisy. I talk a mile a minute and if you haven't already gathered from this blog, tact is not one of my virtues. When it comes to food, the same holds true. I don't like vegetable stems; C thinks they are fabulously crunchy. I adore egg yolks; C's more an egg white kind of guy. I love good food, fancy dishes and complicated desserts. All C needs is wantan mee or chicken rice and he's a happy camper. Yes, as C likes to say, he is The Naked Eater (you know, like how Jamie Oliver is The Naked Chef). Fuss-free, simple fare is all he really wants.

This might explain why I've never fulfilled my culinary potential the way my friend J has. Modern, intricate cuisine is lost on C. Hell, before he met me, he thought the word 'degustation' referred to something that happens when you eat bad fish. Once, at a Marcus Samuelsson dinner, he tossed a precious shaving of black truffle to the side of his plate and whispered why the chef would bother garnishing the dish with a shard of pencil shaving. Ok, that's just a really bad excuse. The immensely talented J is so consummate about her food and the serving of it, she makes me look like the pig farmer's daughter (ok, again I exaggerate. It's actually the vast amounts that I eat which make me look like the pig itself). But I digress.

There are days when I dream of making some fancy chocolate Pierre Herme-inspired confection. And in planning to do so, I talk C through what I think it's going to turn out like. The result of this conversation is often the same. After many words spent describing my intended confection, C would turn to me and say, "Can I just have a butter cake?" Most days, I harrumph and mutter something about pearls before swine. But last weekend, because he was darling enough to help me haul my brand new Kitchenaid home, I decided he could have the first cake to be mixed by my new prized contraption.

A simple Victoria Sandwich Cake it was. Made using a recipe for Yellow Layer Cake from Baking Illustrated and slathered with a goopy layer of raspberry jam in between. I tried to embellish it even further by serving it with a pillow of whipped cream, but The Naked Eater declined the slice, saying he just wanted the cake neat.

On another note, I wanted to say thanks to Chubby Hubby for the kind and generous mention he gave me in his fabulous and very widely read blog. As a testament to just how widely read his blog is, I've since gotten emails from friends whom I didn't even realise perused the blogosphere. I've also met some wonderful new blogging friends who dropped by based on CH's recommendations. Cheers, CH and thanks, everyone, for stopping by!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Banana Cake

I could be wrong, but as far as I know, Singaporeans are fairly unique when it comes to eating cake for breakfast. To wit, give a Singaporean family a cake (as in the buttery kind, iced or not) and someone will invariably say, "Oh, good, can eat for breakfast." Such is the case for banana cake in my family. Banana cake is one of those comfort foods from our childhood years that we never seem to tire of. Almost every fortnight, I make a huge batch of banana cake and distribute it to my family members and friends. It's a hot favourite that never seems to go out of favour (even among snobs like me who are particularly partial to French-style cakes with all that whipped cream, chocolate ganache and something-or-other mousse). Something about the sweet scent of bananas as the cakes bake in the oven makes me feel like a child in my mother's kitchen all over again. And in that same vein, I often find myself opening the oven door slightly while they bake to watch those magnolia peaks rise and turn gold. I chanced upon a particularly fabulous recipe for Banana Cakes at Chubby Hubby that turned out soft, fluffy and rich all at the same time. I found it a little too sweet for my taste the first time around and the next time I made it, used slightly less sugar. The result was simply perfect.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Luxury Fast Food

With my horrifyingly busy schedule these days, I find myself eating badly on weekdays. In my case of course, eating badly means not having proper meals at proper times, or meals sans (horror of horrors) dessert. Closet food snob that I am, I still eschew cheap frozen pizzas (I only like the Ristorante brand) and hamburgers, and instead try to inject as much luxury as I can into my quickie meals. One of my favourites means of doing this is with that little bottle of magic called Tetsuya's Truffle Salsa.

My first taste of Truffle Salsa was at Tetsuya's last year. I was lucky enough to dine there courtesy of Tourism Australia while on a press junket to Sydney. It was love at first taste and greedy goose that I am, I polished off the whole bread roll which was served before my meal with no small amount of Truffle Butter. I only regretted it slightly when I started to fill up prematurely after the fifth course. When I was told I could buy the Truffle Salsa complete with a recipe for Truffle Butter, I nearly ran to the front of the restaurant. The only thing that stopped me was the fact that the waiter had just placed a plate of that famous, sublime Confit of Ocean Trout before me. The Salsa could wait, I conceded.

To cut what could be a long story short, I took home three bottles of Tetsuya's Truffle Salsa and kept one and a half bottles for myself (the other one and a half landed in the grateful belly of my equally greedy brother). Within a month, my bottles were empty and I felt a slight bereavement for the loss of that wonderfully versatile salsa. Then several weeks later, I discovered that Culina recently began stocking Tetsuya's range of bottled sauces, including the salsa and his delicious oyster vinaigrette. Suffice it to say, I bought a bottle and it now serves as luxurious quickie meals at the end of my increasingly busy days. I usually make up a batch of truffle butter to spread on hot, fresh-from-the-oven rolls, or top otherwise ordinary scrambled eggs with a dollop of the salsa. C particularly likes the truffle salsa tossed through hot pasta with some butter and a good helping of parmesan. Now that's what I call Luxury Fast Food.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Weekend Herb Blogging #18

It's strange how the palate changes as we age. Perhaps Life teaches us that unless we try something firsthand, we'll never really know if we like it or not. Before I met C six years ago, I would never go near a raw oyster or century egg. But thanks to his coaxing, I now cannot imagine how I ever passed on those two wonderful foods. It's the same thing with coriander. Until recently, I would painstakingly pick out every last leaf or stem in the dishes that greeted me on any given table. And being Asian, you can imagine how many coriander-infused dishes have crossed my dinner plates' path. Thankfully, things have changed. In the last two years, I've begun to appreciate the robustness that coriander bestows upon the dishes it anoints. For the longest time, I never realised that coriander root is the base for countless Asian dishes including my favourite laksa. And while I still tend to hesitate before eating whole coriander leaves, I certainly won't pick them out of the dish either. I've also developled a taste for pureed coriander, like in coriander pesto for example. One of my favourite dishes these days is Grilled Coriander and Chilli Prawns, which I devour with abandon, cholesterol level be damned.

To make those, simply pile a super large handful of coriander leaves and stems in a food processor with two or three fresh red or green chillies, a thumb-sized knob of fresh ginger, two garlic cloves and a pinch of salt. Blitz it and mix in a spoonful or two of softened, unsalted butter. Then get the biggest, baddest prawns you can find, peel the shell off its middle and make a cut down the middle (but not all the way through). Now pull of the flesh sideways so that it gapes and then whack of teaspoonful of the coriander mix in. Now grill for about 10 minutes or until the prawns are cooked. Yum scrum; don't count on stopping at one!

I am also pleased to report that my once fledgling coriander plant is now a flourishing adult, giving me yet more excuses to experiment with this wonderful herb that Asians have used for centuries.

To end off, here are a few coriander facts that I recently discovered:

Coriander goes by many names: cilantro, Chinese parsley, or its scientific term, Coriandum Sativum. According to Rhonda Parkinson, the word coriander is used to describe the entire plant: leaves, stems, seeds, and all. However, when speaking of coriander, most people are really referring to the spice produced from the seeds of the plant. The leaves of the plant are commonly called cilantro, which is derived from the Spanish word for coriander.

Indeed, every day we learn something new. Hope you all had a good weekend and thanks Kalyn for hosting Herb Blogging Weekend once again!

Friday, February 03, 2006

Chinese New Year

Given that we are intrinsically Chinese, you'd think that Chinese New Year would be a grand affair. And it some ways, it is. On the night of the Eve, our immediate family (meaning mum, dad, brothers and I) sits down for our traditional Reunion Dinner, which seems relatively frugal compared to our Christmas shindigs. On the table is a giant plate of yu sheng (raw fish salad), which represents luck and prosperity; a vegetable dish made slippery with fish maw (the stomach lining of fish, another traditional Chinese New Year ingredient); and another meat dish, which bears little symbolism except to satiate our carnivorous tastes. Over the next two days, family members will drop by my mother's house to pay their respects to their elders (meaning my dad and her) and partake of her famous Nonya specialties that includes kueh pie tee, a dish of shredded turnip and bamboo shoots stewed in a dark soy prawn and pork broth, which you put into fried flour cups and top with a single prawn, coriander leaves and vinegar-spiked chilli sauce. Alas, so famed is this dish in my mother's house that we ran out after the first day and thwarted all plans I had to photograph a few on the second (less busy) day.

Like Christmas, we have our favourite traditional cookies and sweet meats at Chinese New Year. Some of my favourites include pineapple tarts made by my mum and C's mum (they are both different; my mum's version is larger and more crispy, while C's mum's are smaller and melt in your mouth); love letters (thin tuille-like cookies rolled like cigars), my mum's famous kueh bangkit (melt-in-your-mouth coconut milk cookies of which she sells more than 80 bottles every festive season); and of course, bak kwa (barbequed pork jerky for which you have to brave long queues to acquire during the Chinese New Year period).

Another traditional Peranakan festive dish is Buah Keluak. In appearance, the Buah Keluak resembles a Brazil nut. When raw, the insides of the nut are a pale cream colour. But once cooked, a good buak keluak turns oily and black like tar. Yes, tar. Indeed, like the durian, buah keluak is an acquired taste. It is bitter and very robust, and lends its ebony hue to the curry it is cooked in. Most people know the dish as Ayam Buah Keluak (which means Chicken Buah Keluak). In fact, many Peranakan restaurants and homes only serve Ayam Buak Keluak, in which the black insides of the nuts are scraped out and then mixed with minced chicken before being shoved back into the nutshells and cooked as a curry. However, really authentic Buah Keluak is cooked with pork ribs and the insides of the nuts are served neat, in all their bitter glory. The resulting curry is literally black, with a slight orangey sheen of oil that you either love or hate. This is the way my mother cooks it. If you so much as suggest that she tone down the nuts with the addition of minced chicken, you run the risk of her chasing you out and banning you from her house forever more.

Personally, I am no fan of the dish. As proudly Peranakan as I am, I've never acquired a taste for the black gastronomic tar. I do, however, love the taste of its curry gravy. When we were kids, my mum would save the gravy for us and serve it at breakfast to be mopped up with a few sticks of you tiao (fried dough fritters). Like otak toast, this is yet another Peranakan breakfast of champions that made my childhood that much more special.

I still have a bowl of my mum's Buah Keluak sitting in the freezer in anticipation of the weekend, when I will spend a lazy Saturday morning soaking you tiao in its rich, black gravy and pondering how one can love and dislike a dish with such passion at the same time.