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Take that, airline food!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Airline food isn't great at the best of times, but the worst meal I've had on board was flying out of Hong Kong yesterday. Chicken and pasta was what I had -- the chicken had a soy sauce-based gravy and the pasta was orzo, the rice lookalike. When you fly coach, you never expect the meal to be fantastic but it should at least be edible. This was awful, even for someone who attended local boarding school for seven years and has eaten chicken with feathers still attached to the skin.

Having been away, my fridge didn't really have a lot, but there was some leftover cooked vermicelli, vegetable stock and tomato salsa. Just a little bit of each but with the baked patties in the freezer, they would make a nice pasta and meatballs for one.

There's no meat in the meatballs actually; they're made of cooked buckwheat (which is a fruit rather than a cereal), and if you toast them before cooking, they could pass off as meat (...if you really, really believe).

In the picture, the cooked patties are reheated in a sauce that's just a couple of tablespoons each of the stock and salsa, tossed through the vermicelli and topped with crushed potato chips.

I don't have an exact recipe -- I just threw a bunch of ingredients together -- and I'm really loath to provide one here but those of you who are skilled at cooking will be able to adapt it to your needs.

Buckwheat 'Meat'-balls
Makes about 12 patties

½ cup dried hulled buckwheat, toasted
½ cup toasted breadcrumbs
3-4 tbsp minced onion
2 tbsp chopped spring onions
2 tbsp chopped coriander
2 tbsp chopped chillies (any colour) or to taste
1 medium egg
Salt and pepper to taste
Plain flour
Tasteless oil (like sunflower. grapeseed or corn oil)

Cook the buckwheat. There are several ways to do this: you could cook it like pasta (in a lot of salted water, then drained) or like rice (the absorption method: twice the amount of water to buckwheat and cooked over low heat) or even in a rice cooker.

Let the cooked buckwheat cool slightly (or store it in the fridge), the mix all the ingredients except the flour. If it is too wet, add a little flour. Shape into small balls and place on an oven tray. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Turn on oven to 180°C. Drizzle the patties with oil and bake for about 30 minutes, turning them halfway through.

Lame attempt to impress

Monday, October 26, 2009

I was surfing around and came across allyoucaneatforfree -- which I will now regularly visit, I'm sure -- and saw a post that brought back memories. The writer provides an "I want this girl to like me" recipe, which reminded me of the time I cooked a chicken roulade, kind of like the one I posted on recently, to impress this guy I used to go out with a lifetime ago. This was long before I actually got into cooking and depended solely on recipes and more importantly, the pictures that went with them. The only cookbooks I had access to at the time were written in the 80s, and not wise to what would later be referred to as gastroporn, I thought the pictures in those books were the height of artful food photography. (Nowadays, we laugh at them as we do of those dresses with the pouffy sleeves.)

I remember there was tinned pineapple rolled inside the chicken, and I tried to make a sauce with the syrup that came with the fruit together with tomato puree and I don't know what else. It didn't taste right but I couldn't place my finger on it and kept adding more and more of the syrup and then more and more of the puree until there was nothing left and I convinced myself that everything was good.

Well, I finally served dinner, hoping my nice table arrangement would score me brownie points and watched the guy as he took his first mouthful. He didn't say anything as he took another bite and then I couldn't stand it any longer and asked, "Is it okay?"

"There's no taste," he said, rather too quickly.

Then it finally dawned on me -- I'd completely left out the salt.

Shake, shake, shake

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Banana mochaccino
After using one banana for the brownies that I posted about in the previous blog, there was still one more in the fridge, all black and smelling faintly alcoholic.

Feeling I would need a pick-me-up at around 11am since I was going to deal with some rather unstimulating work that morning, I made myself a banana latte that my stainless steel water bottle would keep cold for a few hours. I should have added an ice cube or two though because I didn't drink it until after lunch and it was no longer as frosty.

1 serving

1 ripe banana
½ cup strong black coffee
¼ cup milk
1 tbsp cocoa powder
Sugar to taste
Ground cinnamon, to garnish
  • Blend all the ingredients, pour out and dust with cinnamon. Shake container before drinking.
Note: When not at work ­­– or if you absolutely must ­­– splash in some Kahlúa!


Stretching the banana

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bananas are great but sometimes, even the smallest combs have too many fruit that you can’t eat them all before they start turning soft and spotty.

The two that remained from my last buy were put in the fridge where they turned black. According to my favourite banana brownie recipe, I could have used both, but something’s wrong with my oven and when I bake an eight-inch cake, the centre doesn’t cook properly. I could use a ring mould but then the pieces wouldn't look like traditional brownies. So I halved the recipe, using one banana, and made the brownies in a loaf pan. Twelve good-sized pieces came out of that quantity.

Makes 1 loaf pan

½ cup (70g) all-purpose flour
¼ tsp baking powder
1 tbsp cocoa powder
Pinch of cinnamon powder
Pinch of salt
¼ cup (55g) unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup + 1 tbsp (75g) firmly packed soft brown sugar
1 medium egg
30g chocolate (at least 70% cocoa), melted and cooled
1 medium ripe banana, mashed (about 85ml)
¼ tsp vanilla extract
½ cup (55g) coarsely broken walnuts (optional)
½ quantity Quick Chocolate Glaze (recipe follows)
  • Preheat oven to 190°C. Grease the bottom and sides of a loaf pan.
  • Sift together the flour, baking powder, cocoa powder, cinnamon and salt. Set aside.
  • In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy. Add sugar and continue beating until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and mix well. Beat in chocolate until blended, then beat in the banana and vanilla. Beat in the flour mixture until just combined. Stir in the walnuts, if using.
  • Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until brownies are just starting to pull away from the sides of the pan.
  • Cool brownies in pan, set on a wire rack. When completely cool, spread with glaze. Refrigerate before cutting into bars.
Quick Chocolate Glaze
Makes about ½ cup

60g semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 tsp unsalted butter
⅔ cup sifted icing sugar
2 tbsp boiling water (approximate)
2 tsp glucose syrup (substitute with golden or corn syrup)
½ tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp rum (optional)
  • Melt chocolate and butter in a glass bowl over simmering water or in the microwave. Off the heat, stir in sugar and water alternately, beating well (you may not need to use all the water). Beat in glucose syrup, then the vanilla. Stir in the rum, if using. The glaze should be glossy and pourable. If it is too thick, beat in drops of hot water to thin.

Bowl me over

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Often associated with cold, wet nights in the West and that thin flavoured water that one has as a side dish to rice over here, soups are often cast in a supporting role in a meal. Sure they are ideal for leftovers and odd bits, but that doesn’t mean they are simply a dumping ground for the unimaginative cook or need to play second fiddle to the meat and two veg.

You can easily tote soup over to the office for lunch in a good quality wide-mouth thermos flask. The soup keeps warm for several hours and sustains me through the afternoon without making me drowsy.

Today, I packed an onion and lima bean soup. It starts from a recipe by Jacques Pépin for Onion Soup Gratinée, but I leave out the cheese, bread slices and baking. I also used homemade vegetable stock as I was giving some of the soup to a vegetarian friend.

The onions needs to be sliced a little thinner than they appear in the picture, but this is what happens when you’re in a hurry because you’ve already turned on the stove and the oil/butter in the saucepan has started to smoke.

Also, you can’t just put the onion slices in and then forget about them. Read that new cooking magazine with all the lovely Italian recipes if you must but try to remember to look into the pot now and then or you’ll end up with burnt onions and a dark broth. Not that the soup was ruined, though it could have tasted less scorched.

In ‘The Soup Nazi’ episode, Jerry Seinfeld was referring to a bisque, if I’m not mistaken, but he could have been talking about this soup too when he said, ‘You can’t eat this soup standing up, your knees buckle.’

Onion and Lima Bean Soup
2 servings

1 tbsp butter + 1 tbsp vegetable oil
170g white onions, sliced into thin half moons
100g baby lima beans, soaked for at least 6 hours
3½ cups stock (use a beef stock cube if desired)
1 dried bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large saucepan, sauté the onions in the butter/oil over medium heat until lightly brown, about 8 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and boil gently for 20 minutes or until beans are tender but still firm. Remove bay leaf before serving.

Bacon is a spice

My last meal, if I found myself about to be executed, would be scallops wrapped in lobster wrapped in bacon.

But if the prison couldn't get the scallops and lobster, crispy fried bacon on its own would be fine.

Bacon is a great freezer standby. I divide a packet into groups of two and store them to use whenever I make soup or to use in a stir-fry and just a couple of rashers add depth to the dish I'm cooking.
This time, I had a leftover breast from a whole free-range chicken, some cream cheese that was beginning to smell a little funky and a couple tablespoons of homemade olive spread, so I thought, like my last meal, it could all be rolled up together and bunged in the oven.

Deserving of a last meal
2 servings

2 chicken breast fillets (preferably free-range organic), pound flat
4 tbsp cream cheese, softened
2 tbsp olive spread (recipe follows; store-bought tapenade is fine)
6 slices bacon
  • Combine cream cheese and olive spread. Chill for 30 minutes.
  • Preheat oven at 190°C. Lay chicken breasts on a cutting board. Spread half the cream cheese mixture on each breast. Roll breasts up, tucking sides in, and place seam side down on board.
  • Wrap each breast in 3 slices of bacon. Place rolls into an oven-proof pan and bake for 30-35 minutes or until chicken is cooked. Turn broiler on and crisp bacon about 10 minutes more, turning over half-way through. 
Olive Spread 
Makes about ½ cup

1 bottle pitted black olives (140g), drained and finely chopped
1 tin anchovies (100g), mashed together with the oil
2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
  • Mix all the ingredients together and store in a clean jar in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.

Filling the hole

We don’t get good handmade bagels here in Malaysia so the next best thing is the brand Bagels Forever. They come frozen, four in a pack and in quite a number of flavours; my freezer staples are poppy seed, onion and plain.
I’ve tried making bagels many times and with various recipes but they never seem to come out the way they should – puffy yet firm and chewy. But I shall persevere and one day, I know, I will successfully produce a bagel that will not have people chewing on it like taffy.
In the meantime, a slice of French Emmental cheese slapped inside an onion bagel gets me through the afternoon when I have no time to prepare a meal.

Eating alone isn't sad

Laurie Colwin writes in the foreword of Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen:
“One of the delights of life is eating among friends; second to that is talking about eating.”
I would agree about the second thing, but eating alone needn’t be sad. Eating and reading at the same time may be frowned upon by Emily Post types, but really, a good book can add more value to your life than a real person and idle chit-chat.
I bring a packed lunch to work almost every day. Some colleagues think I’m vegetarian because I prepare my own food; others think I’m a snob, or worse, cheap (!) for not eating food from the cafetaria.
That’s just silly. I make my own lunch because I like doing it and I know exactly what goes into it. Believe me, organic meat and vegetables are not cheap but we all deserve to eat the healthiest food we can get. You go ahead and spend RM300 on that designer handbag, I’ll take RM30 free-range chicken any day.