Saturday, March 25, 2006

Another Killer Meal

When it comes to food, discipline, guilt, and calorie counting are words that fail to exist in my vocabulary. Over the years I have come to learn that dieting only leads me to eat more, abstinence only makes me hungrier, and...well, my greed knows no bounds. I would much rather drag my already damaged knees through 10-kilometer runs or damage my already frayed ligaments running after a small rubber ball in a squash court than hold back on a dish or, even more unthinkable, pass on dessert.

Given my Catholic upbringing, it's nothing short of a miracle that I feel no guilt tucking into seven helpings of pan-fried foie gras at the Bar and Billiard Room's Sunday Brunch on top of close to 20 oysters and three trips to the dessert table. It's a simply a matter of mathematics, if you ask me: to keep from larding up, burn what you consume. Suffice it to say, I spend a lot of time burning.

The same principle applies to the meals that I cook. Not one to watch what I eat, I certainly don't flinch at meals such as this one where the bright (at the time) idea struck me to allow the juices (read: melted lard) of this hunk of burnin' pork belly to drip unimpeded onto the bed of shredded cabbage (the other half leftover from the coleslaw), carrots and sliced potatoes that lay on the roasting tray beneath it. The recipe (if you can call it that) for this Pork Belly Boulangere was adapted from Gary Rhode's Keeping It Simple, where the skin of the pork is scored and then the entire piece of meat rubbed with coarse sea salt and pepper before roasting under the merest heat (160 degrees Celcius, to be exact) for three hours. The resulting meat is buttery, succulent and über tender with a crunchy layer of crackling that would leave an Atkin's dieter drooling for its crunch.

After the first hour of cooking, I slotted in the tray of cabbage, carrots and potatoes swimming in chicken stock which reduced to nothing but a tasty base in the heat of the oven. By the end of the cooking time, the vegetables were richly infused with pork fat -- waaayyy too rich, actually...even for my tastes. In went a quarter cup of cider vinegar to cut through the oiliness of the fat-soaked vegetables and that did the trick. Naturally, post meal C and I only managed to lay on the sofa, turning occasionally to pick up the remote.

The next morning, I dragged myself on a 10km run, burping the flavour of roasted pork fat and cider vinegar every 500 meters or so. What price, greediness, I ask you...

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

How To Kill Yourself With One Meal

How can something so bad, be so good? Juicy chicken thighs left to steep in a marinade of buttermilk, seasoning and cayenne pepper and deep-fried to a crisp 24 hours later. The acidity of the buttermilk quite literally breaks down the proteins of the chicken flesh to render meat so succulent and tender, it oozed lovely, shiny fat with every bite. To accompany it, a classic creamy coleslaw, tangy with mustard and lemon juice and a drop of blood from whence I sliced my finger along with the cabbage (boy did that hurt). For the requisite carb, C requested his favourite corn on the cob—slathered in butter and left to cook on the grill. To unclog the arteries, a brisk walk around the block and a glass of fresh lemonade. What's not to like?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Grilled Peaches, Pashmak and Ice Cream

When I think of modern Australian cuisine, the word "fresh" leaps to mind. Perhaps it's the bevy of Aussie chefs who go on any chance they get about how fresh, seasonal produce makes for the most luscious, tasty food ("Fresh" is quite possibly Kylie Kwong's favourite word -- at one press event I heard her say the word four times in one very long sentence; Neil Perry calls his line of bottled sauces and marinades "Fresh" and he'll tell you that "just because you are time poor, doesn't mean you have to compromise on freshness and flavour"). Not that there's no truth to that. Indeed, Mod Oz cuisine truly is the finest testament that fresh, seasonal produce and flavours is well, best.

These peaches, carted home by CL's mum from their trip to Sydney, are a perfect example of Australia's bountiful harvests. Sweet, plump and perfumed, they were lusciously delicious on their own. But if there's anything I like better than fresh peaches, it's grilled peaches. I love the way the heat caramelises the sugars to render them mellower and those sexy grill marks they leave on the peaches' saffron flesh. For a luxurious touch, I spooned over a generous helping of vanilla ice cream and topped it with a handful of saffron pashmak. Pashmak, by the way, is Persian fairy floss, which CL and I adore and consume in vast quantities when either of us gets a chance to pick up a bag (or three) from Jones the Grocer in Sydney. Unlike regular fairy floss, pashmak is silkier and has a mild, elegant nutty sweetness. On this trip, CL brought three packets home in chocolate, vanilla and the aforementioned saffron. Sadly, she couldn't stay to devour the lot with me, so they sit in the darkness of my cupboard while I munch on them slowly — neat or on top of ice cream. I'm still thinking of other ways to use in them desserts. Suggestions are welcome :-)

Friday, March 10, 2006

My Short History With Shortribs

When it comes to beef shortribs, I've been a late bloomer. I had never heard of shortribs until my maiden visit to The Marmalade Pantry, when they first opened several years ago. I was about to order the Chicken Pot Pie, when a friend called out from a nearby table: "You must try the shortribs!" Given her enthusiasm, I decided I must indeed.

That first taste of shortribs was the start of an obsession that I find near impossible to shake. I went back every other week after that first visit, each time to buy a taste of that wonderfully robust, fork-tender cut of meat, braised slowly in red wine and herbs, served on a bed of mashed celeraic and topped with crunchy root chips. Many a time I left disappointed—all too often I would be told: "Sorry, but we're out of shortribs today." Several months later, the inevitable happened. I sat myself down on the restaurant's chocolate brown booth seat, crossed my fingers and spoke my order to the waiter. His reply: "I'm sorry, but the shortribs have been taken off the menu." I damn near jumped out of my seat and ran to the kitchen to confront the chef, but someone slid a bowl of root chips in front of me and I crunched my frustrations out on them before deciding that it was time to take matters into my own hands.

That weekend, I pored through my cookbooks hoping to find a recipe for Braised Beef Shortribs. No joy there. I went through my stacks of food magazines and couldn't find one that matched my idea of how rich the dish should be. Finally, I turned to the Internet and found this Charlie Trotter version and a more fuss-free one from Chef Eric C Maczko, winery chef at Napa Valley's Pine Ridge Winery. I tried the latter and it was just fantastic. The main prep for the dish is really in opening the wine bottle, searing the flour dusted shortribs and a bit of frying and stirring. Once you pop it in the oven, the dish makes its own magic, melding all the wonderfully deep flavours into an unctuous tasty sauce with achingly beautiful chunks of melt-in-your-mouth meat.

Over the years, I experimented with this dish, adding or subtracting different herbs and vegetables, and using different kinds of red wine (I find Merlots work best). Each time, the shortribs are the star of the show, always complementing whatever herbs I throw in (I like using more thyme and less rosemary) and always impressing guests, who like me, had never heard of shortribs until that first mouthful.

In this weekend dinner, I paired it with J's recipe for polenta, which was the perfect accompaniment with its rich, creamy texture and taste derived from long, slow cooking in a double boiler.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Carrot Cake

Until last week, I hadn't seen my friend CL in a little more than two years. That's a long time to be away from my closest pal and partner in crime. At the time, CL left for Costa Rica with the intention of teaching diving for a season and then travelling across Central America with her now former beau. During diving season however, CL—like all Singaporeans—began craving for foods other than beans and rice. In particular, she craved the cakes and desserts that she was spoiled for choice here in Singapore and in my kitchen. With nary a bakery in sight, CL decided to take things into her own hands and start her own little bakery in the middle of a rural, touristy beach town in Costa Rica. "I'm living your dream," she often reminds me. Bitch.

Anyway, fast forward to two years later and CL is finally back in my kitchen. Home for her sister's wedding, we have all but four days together before she's off again. One of the things she promised she would make me is her carrot cake that is one of her best-sellers back in Costa Rica.

I have to admit: I've never thought much of carrot cake. For one, it's not chocolate. And secondly, it's made of carrot. How yummy could it possibly be? The few I've encountered were mediocre at best. Nothing to write home about and certainly nothing to gush over. But CL has been keen to convert me to the pleasures of her carrot cake. So like a true friend, I indulged her. And whaddya know? The cake was really good—moist and loose-crumbed, with the mellow flavour of nutmeg and cinnamon running gently through it. The recipe called for chopped walnuts, but the closest thing I had in my kitchen that night were pecans and hazelnuts. So we chopped up some of those instead and, as it turns out, I think the cake was that much better for it. Walnuts tend to get a tad soft and ooze a wee bit of oil into a cake; the hazelnuts and pecans imparted their sweet flavour to the cake and added some bite to it at the same time.

The next day, I frosted it with a recipe for Cream Cheese Frosting from Baking Illustrated. This time, I substituted yoghurt for sour cream in the recipe and went real easy on the sugar (the recipe calls for a whopping 5 ounces of icing sugar). I'm pleased to report that frosting turned out pretty alright too.

Later that night, when I found myself with a few spare hours on my hands, I decided to try my hand at marzipan carrots to decorate the top with. They were a tad fiddly to do, but fun nevertheless. Still, the task left me a quite exhausted (I'm pathetic, I know) and I fell asleep before I could transfer the cake from its stand to the refrigerator. Hence, you'll see in the picture that the oils and colour from the marzipan oozed slightly onto the frosting (tropical heat can be a real bitch).