Friday, April 28, 2006

Simply Thai

Last weekend, we hosted our friends, J, the domestic goddess herself, and her immensely funny partner, W, for dinner. Now what do you cook a gal who's such a whiz in the kitchen? Definitely not anything French. If you haven't already visited her amazing blog, J is quite the master of French cuisine. Or make that many cuisines.

Since I visited the cooking school at the Four Seasons in Chiang Mai several years ago, I decided to put the skills I learned to good use. To supplement the recipes I had learnt from the school, I also delved into the highly dependable, not to mention beautiful David Thompson book, Thai Food.

For starters, I served a roasted eggplant salad spiked with sliced shallots and ground dried shrimps. I attempted steamed eggs to break on top of the salad as well. But after steaming them for the stipulated 10 minutes, my yolks were fully cooked, as opposed to the lovely runny yolks that the book promised. I guess the eggs over in Mr Thompson's kitchen are a lot bigger. Also for starters, I chose the Duck and Lychee Salad (pictured above), which was wonderful. Rather than roast my own duck, I hot-footed it over to the roast duck stall at the market and picked up half a quack. The succulent, flesh of the duck melded wonderfully with the sweet lychees, spring onions and coriander. And the dressing made with plum sauce, palm sugar, lime juice, fish sauce and black vinegar gave it that perfect zing and balance between sweet, salty, sour and spicy.

Also for appetizers, I made my mother's recipe for popiah. This time i fried them and served them with her homemade chilli cuca (chilli and vinegar sauce) and sweet sauce (tee cheo).

From the Four Seasons cooking school collection of recipes that I took home, I made the Thom Kha Kai. Chicken stock infused with lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaf is heated and then coconut milk is added to it. In individual soup bowls, a tablespoon each of fish sauce and lime juice and whatever amount you please of narm prig paow (Thai sweet chilli paste), awaits. When the stock comes to a boil, you simply scoop it into the bowls and mix. Traditionally, the soup is served with chicken, but for a touch of luxe, I served it with crab claws, scallops and crayfish instead.

Also from the cooking school is a fantastic recipe for Pad Thai. The magic, I often say, is in the sauce, which is made with tamarind juice, mushroom soy sauce, palm sugar, lime juice and, of all things, ketchup. These all work together to create an excellent balance.

Finally for dessert, a slightly different take on the very Singaporean dessert, sago gula melaka. Instead of drizzling fresh coconut milk over the sago pearls and dark palm sugar, I made coconut ice cream using a recipe from Les Huynh's Blue Ginger and dolloped a scoop over the top.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Homecoming Cakes

Looks pretty good, huh? (If, um, I do say so myself). Well, it tastes bloody awful.

I made this cake for C as a welcome home treat. He'd been gone for two long weeks to Switzerland and his homecoming dish after a long trip is always Hainanese Chicken Rice from either his favourite Boon Tong Kee stall, which he's been going to since he was a child, or made by his mother. I wasn't about to compete with that, so I did the next best thing: I made dessert.

C's pretty partial to plain old-fashioned cakes like Swiss Rolls and Sugee Cake. Since my pal CL left me three bags of semolina before she went back to Costa Rica (her baggage was 13kg overweight and some things just had to go), and there was a recipe I'd been meaning to try for this Eurasian classic, the choice was clear. The recipe for this Sugee Cake, suffice it to say, was a dud. I did exactly what it said, but what I got in the end was a cake that was as dry as a desert sandbag. Dear, dear C kindly declared it: "Not that bad," and proceeded to eat an entire slice. But I know an irretrievably dry cake when I cut into one, so it was back to the kitchen, so determined I was to redeem my culinary welcome-home efforts.

Since I had some fresh raspberries in my fridge begging to be used, I decided to try a take on another of C's favourites: the Swiss Roll from the stalwart bakery on East Coast Road, Chin Mee Chin. It's as old-school as they come: a layer of raspberry jam rolled into a plain sponge cake. Inspired by J's Ispahan, I made sponge drops, cut them into neat rounds and slathered them on one side with raspberry jam. In between, a dollop of unsweetened whipped thickened cream and a couple of fresh raspberries.

Thankfully, these ones turned out successfully. They didn't last longer than a day.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pear Upside-Down Cake

This is one of those desserts I turn to when I have friends coming over for a meal and I've been a tad overambitious with the menu. Last week, it was the Oxtail Daube from Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of Southwest France that did me in (I'll do a post on that sometime in the future).

This Pear Upside-Down Cake recipe comes from Vogue Entertaining + Travel's doyenne of food, Joan Campbell. It really is a throw-everything-together cake, the only real work coming from melting butter with brown sugar and slicing up a pear or two. I usually make the batter and leave it in the fridge, baking them as baby cakes just before eating. The original recipe calls for it to be baked as a large cake, with quartered pears embellishing the top. But they really do look a lot more sophisticated as individual portions and, for some reason, the cake actually turns out a lot lighter and fluffier that way too. The addition of ground ginger and cinnamon provides a wonderful, rounded spiciness to this classic, which I served with Vanilla Honey ice cream.

Monday, April 03, 2006

My Mother's Popiah

Like all Peranakan girls, much of my childhood was spent in my mother's kitchen. My tasks were simple—stirring, plucking the tails off beansprouts, operating the hand mixer, or the most dreaded of all, peeling shallots...mountains of them. Like most Peranakan matriachs, my mother preferred to see through the entire process of cooking herself. The tasks she delegated to my brothers and I were merely well disguised disciplinary measures, meted out to keep us from trouble while she devoted herself to her woman's work. To my mother, everything about a dish—from the amount of ingredients to the way it is stirred and when—is instinctive. There are no written recipes; everything is in her head.

As a result, I am only able to make a paltry few dishes from my mother's fabulous and immense repertoire. My skills extend to the simpler stuff like babi assam (tamarind pork), temperah (fish or chicken cooked in dark soy, chilli and lime juice) or curry chicken. For the most part, I've long taken for granted that dishes like babi pongteh (stewed pork with bamboo shoots), mee siam, itek dim (duck and salted vegetable soup) and kueh pie tee are best made by my mother's hand. 'Ask and you shall receive' is a mantra that's played out in my mother's house for decades, even years after we flew the roost. Whenever any of us fancies something, my mother will happily oblige us, slogging away in the kitchen for days to put our favourite things on the table.

And if I had to name an absolute favourite dish from my mother's repertoire, it has to be popiah (fresh spring rolls). Not for any of our family members are the Hokkien popiah sold in hawker centres and food courts everywhere, with their shredded carrots, Chinese sausage and peanuts. Noooo! Nonya popiah, as we know it, should be chock full of bamboo shoots (julienned, not shredded), a deep caramel hue from the use of fine soy sauce, and infused with a rich, fragrant stock made of prawns and pork. Within the popiah should also be a generous sprinkling of fresh crab meat and sliced prawns, deep fried bits of garlic, freshly ground chilli, and a lick of Colonel's mustard for that extra kick. Even the sweet flour sauce (tee cheo) has to be a certain brand (Sin Ngee Seng)—any other, my mother will have us know, is inferior; either too thin, too thick, too sweet, or "with so much flour you can taste it". Over the years, the only popiah I've tried that's ever come close to my mother's was at the now defunct Soul Kitchen, at the hands of chef Damian D'Silva. He too shares my mother's philosophy of "the more bamboo shoots, the better" and that the bamboo shoots and turnip should never be shredded against a mandolin, but painstakingly julienned.

Faced with some free time last week, I decided now was as good a time as any to give making popiah a shot. I called my amused mother, who talked me through what I needed ("a few cans of bamboo shoots, make sure you use the winter one"; "make sure the heat is not too low"; "not too much turnip"; "do you have fresh chillies?"; "would you like me to a fry the garlic for you?"; "why don't I just make the whole thing for you?")

I guess having eaten a certain dish a certain way for as long as you've lived, bestows upon you some instinct of how a dish should turn out and what needs to be done. The thing that surprised me about making popiah is that it really isn't as complicated as I had convinced myself it would be. It's just time-consuming. But because I made it over a weekend—slicing the turnip and bamboo shoots on Saturday morning, making the stock and stewing the vegetables in the afternoon, boiling and shelling the prawns and crabs on Sunday morning and doing the rest (grinding the chillies, frying the garlic, etc) that afternoon—the whole process turned out to be less of a mission. The only thing left to do was buy popiah skins from the stalwart supplier, Kway Guan Huat, at 95 Joo Chiat Road (open daily from 9am till 9pm, ph: 6344 2875). The family has been making popiah skins for decades and it is one of the few places that my father, for all his impaired vision, can guide me to without incident (without him, I'd definitely lose my way around the little lanes and one way streets).

As it turns out, I am my mother's daughter. My virgin attempt at popiah was more successful than any complicated French daube I've attempted. In fact, it tasted just like my mother's. This my brother told me as he made approving noises at the dinner table. "Good lah," he said, "at least if anything happens to mummy, someone knows how to make popiah." Polite pause. Then, "So when do you think you'll learn to make Babi Sioh?"