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The toast with the most

Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's not burnt! Those are the delicious parts!
Right, I've finished Kafka's Soup, written and illustrated by Mark Crick, which I first mentioned in a previous post. The book is subtitled: "A Complete History of Literature in 17 Recipes" and what fine recipes they are. Crick is a "literary ventroloquist", writing in the voices of famous authors, including Jane Austen, Marcel Proust, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens. You don't have to have read books by those writers but being familiar with how they write, I think, makes reading Kafka's Soup more enjoyable.

Each story starts with a list of ingredients, but the instructions must be garnered from the narrative that follows. Very clever. And the recipes seem highly workable.

I tried the cheese on toast because I like cheese, grilled or otherwise, and sandwiches. Now, I have to admit I didn't have any pesto, which was called for in the recipe, nor any of the ingredients to make it. But I did have some leftover olive paste and used that instead. I didn't have any fresh oregano either so I left it out ­­– I don't think dried would have worked as well.

Also, while "Harold Pinter" presents his recipe in a short one-act play, preparing the actual sandwich takes awhile since there are a few things to prepare and to be grilled.

This literary sandwich is prepared by a young man who lives in a rather shabby dwelling and shared with an older man with a tramp-like appearance ­­– one may presume they aren't well off, even if the young man wears a leather jacket. Yet this is a meal whose ingredients they can afford. Over here in Malaysia, most of the items are imported and considered "premium" ingredients and they wouldn't be everyday cooking items.

But so what if this sandwich cost me the price of three normal rice-meat-and-two-veg meals. It was delicious!

Makes 2 large open-faced sandwiches

1 loaf of ciabatta, cut in half lengthwise
1 aubergine, finely sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
200g mozzarella, sliced
2 teaspoons fresh oregano, chopped
  • Put ciabatta under the grill to warm.
  • Heat some oil in a skillet; put in the aubergine slices. Remove slices when they are golden.
  • Spread a thin layer of pesto on the cut side of the warmed ciabatta. Lay the aubergine slices on top of the pesto. Lay the mozzarella slices on top, drizzle with olive oil and  sprinkle with oregano. Place ciabatta back under the grill until the mozzarella has turned brown and golden in places. Cut each half into pieces and serve.

Knife+clod=(almost) disaster

Thursday, November 26, 2009

This is the story of a clumsy knife-wielder whose guardian angel must have been working overtime to prevent her toe(s) from being sliced off.

My latest acquisition for the kitchen was a 15cm (6-inch) Tescoma AZZA chef's knife made from Japanese stainless steel.You can see it at the top of the picture. It has a good weight and fits well in my hand.

Since its steel, I assumed only the mightiest sledgehammer could do it damage. But all it took was a fall from the kitchen counter to turn the tip of the knife at a 90-degree angle. I do not lie -- the last 1cm was bent at a right angle, which was terribly upsetting, as you can imagine. A wonky knife can't be much good in the kitchen, plus it could even be dangerous.

So I got my hammer out and tried to knock out the crook, but as you can see in the other pictures, the tip is not perfectly straight, boo-hoo.

But that's not the whole story.When the knife was falling, I reacted by putting my foot out to stop it from hitting the ground -- a reflex action that works for falling cushions; for sharp objects... er, not so much. Fortunately, I wasn't quick enough.

When I told this story to Veggie Chick, colleague and co-producer of the Don't Call Me Chef cookery column (see link above), and that I was happy I managed to somewhat repair my new knife and avert disaster, she gave me a horrified look, and asked, "That's what you're happy about?" Well, when your face has been splashed with boiling oil, your finger cut almost to the bone, and burning yourself is a regular occurence in the kitchen, NOT slicing off a toe isn't a catastrophe.

I hope my mother isn't reading this...
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Raw and waiting to be ravished

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Some of the ingredients that go into spring rolls 

The plate above was the biggest one I had but that was all I could fit on it for the picture. I left out the ingredient that makes a spring roll for me -- fresh mint leaves. And there also needs to be lettuce. This time I used lollo rosso; they have a nice round shape and fit perfectly on the circle of rice paper.

I also usually put in crushed toasted peanuts but having just got over a cough, I'm staying away from things that irritate my throat for a while. Those sleepless nights were not funny.

A lot of recipes tell you to rehydrate rice paper by dunking it in hot water or wiping it with a hot damp towel. All I do is run the whole disk under the cold water tap for a second or two and leave it on a large plate. In just a minute, it's soft and ready to be filled.

Of course, the dipping sauce -- fish sauce, palm sugar, sesame oil, rice vinegar and that not-so-secret ingredient, wasabi -- just makes a fresh spring roll all that much better. Here's how it looked after the rolling.

Now, this is the kind of food that I like -- one that requires no recipe!

With pom(p) and ceremony

Sunday, November 22, 2009

To make up for that atrocious picture I took for my last post, I thought I would use pomegranate seeds in another recipe. This time they're baked into muffins and because of that, they've lost a bit of their lovely ruby colour but the crunch and taste remain.

For the uninitiated, there are a number of ways to de-seed a pomegranate.You could score the rind, soak it in water for a bit, then remove the seeds, or simply cut open the fruit and scoop out the seeds or use the water method, or hold each half over a bowl and knock out the seeds. The latter method is my favourite because none of the juice is wasted and it's fun to do. You need to protect your clothes though because if that juice gets on them, it won't be easy to get the stains out.

Savour the seediness
Makes 9 (1/2 cup) or 12 small (1/3 cup) muffins

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup caster sugar
1/2 cup minced crystallised ginger
3/4 cup milk
1 medium egg
1/4 cup butter, melted and cooled
1/4 cup buttermilk
Seeds from one pomegranate (about 1 cup)
Soft brown sugar
  • Preheat oven at 200°C. Line a muffin pan with paper cups.
  • Sift flour, baking powder and salt together. Mix in sugar and ginger. Make a well in the centre
  • Mix milk, egg, melted butter and buttermilk together. Pour into dry ingredients with the pomegranate seeds and mix with a fork until combined. Batter will be lumpy.
  • Spoon batter into prepared pan, filling to the rim. Sprinkle each muffin with with 1 tsp brown sugar.
  • Bake until lightly browned, about 16 minutes for large muffins and 13 minutes for small ones. Test for doneness with a skewer. Remove muffins from pan immediately and set on a rack to cool. Store in an air-tight container. Best eaten the next day.

Too much yum-yum

Friday, November 20, 2009

Whatever's been said about TV chefs -- they're only on TV because of the way they look, etc -- they obviously can cook. But when they go weak at the knees and make all those appreciative noises while eating food they've cooked themselves... now, that's narcissism.

Nigella Lawson does it all the time and so do a few other ladies, but recently I watched Roger Mooking eating his meatloaf with a bit too much relish -- and I don't mean the condiment. A bit unusual for a guy.

I have to say, however, that  I am hankering for some of his Coriander Meatloaf. It looks good and will make a good dish for Christmas lunch with my family.

On a different note, here's a picture I took of some potato and pomegranate salad I made. It looks terrible, doesn't it? It was taken under those awful fluorescent lights at the office. I tried to doctor it but wasn't able to do much to improve it. At least you know there's no photographic trickery involved.

The dish was tasty though -- like a potato salad with a mayonnaise dressing and with delicious ruby pomegranate seeds thrown in. Perhaps another new addition to the Christmas lunch menu.

From wilted to wonderful

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

In the November edition of Don't Call Me Chef, we wrote about using whatever was in the fridge or pantry to make a dish. I actually do that a lot at home. Yesterday, I noticed a couple of carrots that were already sprouting new babies and some wilted coriander (cilantro) in my vegetable crisper. So I threw them together, added some spices and made a sauce for rigatoni (regular visitors will notice I eat a lot of pasta). The root ginger adds a soothing heat (I have a cough and it was good for my throat) so I did not add any pepper. The carrots don't need to be peeled and except for the root part of the coriander, everything was used. Economical, delicious and, if this is your thing, healthy too.

Rigatoni with Carrot-Coriander Sauce
Serves 2

2 medium carrots, finely diced
1 tablespoon red lentils
2cm piece fresh root ginger, shredded

Large pinch of cumin seeds
1 small bunch fresh coriander
Large pinch of dried rosemary
1/2-3/4 cup vegetable or chicken stock Salt to taste
3 handfuls of dried rigatoni, cooked

Tear off the leaves from the coriander and roughly chop. Mince the stalks.
Heat a little oil in a medium saucepan and add the carrot to sweat. Add lentils, root ginger and cumin seeds and stir for 1 minute. Add coriander stalks and rosemary, and enough stock to cover the carrots. Put on the pot lid and simmer until carrot and lentils are soft, about 15 minutes.

Take off heat and blend till smooth. Return to heat and bring to the boil; season to taste. Toss in rigatoni and sprinkle with coriander leaves.

Existentialist cooking

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pages from Kafka's Soup: A story 'written' by John Steinbeck with a recipe for Mushroom Risotto.
Some years ago, in my cookery column at another publication I worked at, I imagined Meurseult, a bachelor and the anti-hero of Albert Camus' The Outsider (here's an interesting article about the book), cooking a meal for one when he decides, "I thought maybe that I ought to have some dinner."

Not much is said about the actual meals Meurseult eats - although he has lunch at Celeste's almost every day - but there is mention of him frying some eggs and eating them straight out of the pan because he has run out of bread. Also, on the Sunday after he buries his mother, he buys some bread and pasta for dinner, does his cooking and eats standing up.

I'm reading Kafka's Soup by Mark Crick now (the book has received some favourable reviews and here are a couple from The Independent and Curled Up), and it reminded me of the dish I imagined Meurseult preparing. Living in a dive, probably with just a small prep area, one hob and no refrigerator, he wouldn't bother with too many ingredients or carefully chopping things up. Mushrooms would be easily available and he would always have some cheese and wine on hand, so all he would need to get was a can of beans, using half now and the rest for another meal, probably eating them straight out of the can.

Serves 1

2 tbsp olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
A handful of mixed fresh mushrooms (do not used canned!), thickly sliced
2 tbsp dry white wine or water
½ can black beans, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly cooked pasta to serve
Grated Parmesan cheese and chopped fresh parsley
  • Heat oil in a frying pan and fry garlic and mushrooms for 3-4 minutes.Pour in the wine and season with salt and pepper to taste.
  • Stir in the beans until warmed through. Toss in the pasta and sprinkle with Parmesan and parsley. Eat straight from the pan if desired, and standing up if you must.

Salmon? Aye, mon!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Salmon and vegetable mash in a Thai sauce from The Mash Tun Whisky Bar in Abelour, Scotland.

Even with my amateur photography skills, this dish has to look appetising. Salmon on vegetable mash in a Thai coconut sauce was one of the items on the menu at The Mash Tun Whisky Bar, a traditional pub in Aberlour, Scotland. I took a pamphlet but now can't find it and must have left it, along with a pair of little silver hoop earrings, in Scotland. Some people leave their heart in places they visit, I leave jewellery. Oh well. Fortunately, the pub has a website.

The pub is of course named for a mash tun, the container in which the ingredients used to make whisky are allowed to ferment. I got to see the whole process recently on a press tour of a couple of Chivas Brothers distilleries in Speyside, where much of Scotch whisky is produced. And that is also where I had my first real taste of the drink.

Now, I am not a drinker. I don’t stand up well against any sort of alcohol, metaphorically or literally.

But to better understand whisky – and it’s more than just about having a tipple on special occasions, as a nightcap, or to yam seng (a Chinese ‘Cheers’) with (I should mention that what we were dealing with here was a PREMIUM brand) – there would be quite a bit of drinking involved and I sat facing the ‘fire water’ with great trepidation at the two tastings.

The first tasting session was of blended whiskies and the second, single malts. But the procedure was the same: look at the colour, smell it, and finally taste it, neat and with water added. I took the tiniest of sips from each glass (there were five at each tasting, of different age), and while everyone was ooh-ing and aah-ing, I was trying hard not to cough or show disgust on my face.

At the end of the two tastings, I still had no clue about the drink. What was so great about whisky that singers sing about it, TV shows have it as product placement and connoisseurs have lengthy discourses on it? Where were the floral and woody notes? Why didn’t I taste vanilla or hay?

And then, on our last night in Scotland when everyone dressed up in kilts for dinner and haggis, I got it.

There was a ceremony to go with the haggis course and it involved drinking whisky from a small metal goblet. Now, you had to down the whole thing – and really, it was only about 30ml of 12-year-old whisky – because you would then have to upturn the vessel and place it on your head.

So down it went in one gulp. And that was when I realised why good whisky was appreciated the way it was. It did not tickle my nose or burn my throat as those tiny sips had. In a complete reversal, drinking the whisky was pleasurable it warmed me up, but more importantly, it was heartwarming, which is an odd thing to say about a drink, but I can’t think of a better description for the feeling I got.