Thursday, July 10, 2014

Balance



I never thought I'd turn into the kind of person who doesn't know what to do with herself once she stops work. Growing up, I excelled in doing nothing. I spent my school holidays sprawled on my bed reading ... everything, drinking milo and taking the occasional bike ride. I didn't learn an instrument (something I regret now) so I never had to practice anything. On the last day of school, I'd always make this trip to a bookshop or library (sometimes both) and come home staggering under a bag load of books. I'd make milo and settle in for a good long read.

I used to think that having lots of free time was a good thing. But you know something I have learned? I've learned that it's better to spend your time doing and learning things and having some free time in between. That having just endless free time to daydream and read isn't always such a good thing. Or to put it another way, you can really have too much of a good thing.

When I started work, life got so full and I was surprised at how alive I felt. Sometimes, I think I've only been really alive for the last 5-6 years. I worked and after work, there was stuff like dance, dive lessons and church. Then there was meeting Mr Grey and getting married....  It's been a busy and happy set of years.

It's only in the last month or so that I've started having actual free time and while I didn't know what to do with myself at first, I'm now grateful for this time. Mr Grey and I.. well, we're about to embark on several things that will make us insanely, incredibly tired and busy.

I don't know if I'll keep writing here. I know that I'll probably keep posting recipes because it's just easier to have all my recipes in one place online but I don't know if there will be the wherewithal to write.

So much of life is about finding balance. If I had anything I would want to give my kids, it would be this gift of balance. To have free time to explore things and read and daydream. But to also embark on projects and learning things so that when they're old enough, they have skills and interests aplenty.

It's difficult to put into words where I am at the moment; there is the still and silence but at the same time, there are powerful changes taking place as well. It's funny because I want to grasp this time with both hands, hold it close to my heart and treasure it but at the same time, I  fully embrace what comes next because it is so necessary - for me, for Mr Grey and our marriage.

I wanted to write a little bit of it down because I know that I will never be in this place again.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Brown butter blueberry muffins

This is a recipe good enough to have been reproduced on two baking blogs. I used the version from here, primarily because the measurements are British - in grams and cups - thank goodness! Converting a recipe from American measurements to British isn't difficult but if someone has already done the work for you, why reinvent the wheel?

I've tried a couple of blueberry muffin recipes before but this is my favourite so far. It's a bit more trouble than the usual - having to do the crumb topping in Singapore isn't easy unless you have a food processor - but it yields crumbly fragrant muffins liberally studded with jammy fruit.  I promise you, with 250 grams of blueberries in them, you'll get blueberries with every bite. I hate buying "blueberry" muffins from shops only to find that there are maybe two blueberries in the entire muffin. The worst offenders are those that promise blueberries only to give you some kind of reconstituted blueberry jam and flavouring.

The real secret to this recipe is the browned butter. If you've never tried browning butter, please please try it out now. The smell alone makes the whole process worth it. If you don't know how, here is a simple step by step guide with picture. Try it out, because what isn't in the pictures is how it releases this incredibly delicious nutty fragrance that fills the entire house and makes you all happy. Also these muffins keep well too - about 3-4 days in an airtight container?

 Brown Butter Blueberry Muffins

 For the muffin mix:
105g butter
90ml whole milk
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla essence
175g plain flour
170g caster sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
250g blueberries

 Preheat the oven to 190C/375F. Put muffin liners in a muffin tin. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Keep heating it over medium heat until it has foamed up and brown bits have appeared and it smells nutty and delicious. Make sure you keep an eye on it as it happens - it takes a while but can burn quickly. Take off the heat and leave to cool slightly.

Whisk the egg, egg yolk, milk and vanilla together, then add the brown butter and whisk again. Put the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in another bowl and combine. Pour the liquids into the bowl and fold in until just combined. Fold the blueberries in. Spoon out into the muffin cups.

 For the crumble topping:
45g butter
60g flour
80g golden caster sugar

 Measure out all the ingredients into a small bowl. Rub together until you have a crumbly mixture. OR process in a food processor until you have a crumbly mixture. Divide between the muffins. Put into the oven and bake for around 20 minutes, until they are lightly browned and a toothpick comes out clean. Leave to cool on a wire rack for a bit before eating. (Makes 12)

 Note: I used normal castor sugar for the crumble topping and it was fine. If you don't want to specially buy golden castor sugar for this, you can mix in a few teaspoons of brown sugar with normal castor sugar.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Food writing and cookbooks


After discovering Claudia I looked for cookbooks by people who really knew particular cultures very well. I bought everything she had written, her book of Mediterranean food, her book on Italian food, and then I started on the American writer Paula Wolfert. Paula also immersed herself in food cultures. The first book I bought by her was about Moroccan food. After that it was Marcella Hazan, the goddess of all things Italian.

All these writers brought different things. Paula Wolfert sounded like a greedy anthropologist, Claudia like someone yearning for home, Marcella like a no nonsense but helpful and supremely capable Italian lady who would show you better than anyone else how to make pasta or risotto or ciabatta.


This is a longish piece by Diana Henry, a food writer I have only recently discovered.  It is long but worth a read not only because she writes well but also because she introduces you to so many excellent cookbooks.

Lately though, I've realised a fondness for British food writing. Looking back, I suppose it isn't so surprising. I was weaned on a great deal of British children's literature and somehow every book seemed to have rapturous descriptions of tea! cake! scones! clotted cream! treacle tart! meat pie! grilled kippers! sizzling bacon! buttered toast!

Speaking of treacle tart and children's lit, do have a look at this blogpost: it is a winning combination. It has both a recipe for treacle tart and also a selection of well chosen quotes showing that treacle tart was Harry Potter's favourite dessert.

And now if you will excuse me. I've gone and made myself hungry from reading all those descriptions and I need some milo and biscuits.





Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maple Pecan Shortbread Bars ("it's just like pecan pie mum")

I cook often and bake rarely. So when I first posted about the NYT article on food and life which featured a beef stew and maple shortbread bars, I wholly expected myself to make only the beef stew and not ever get around to the shortbread bars.

Life and a thing called Mothers' Day intervened and I have since made the shortbread bars twice but have yet to make the beef stew - although I have high hopes that there will be pockets of free time in June for that recipe.

The shortbread bar recipe yields a buttery and ridiculously sweet dessert reminiscent of pecan pie but is unfortunately expensive to make in Singapore. Much of the cost comes from just two ingredients: maple syrup and pecans. Maple syrup is easily found in supermarkets (do not be fooled by the deceptively named maple flavoured syrup - it is not the same and will not taste the same) but I had to hunt for the pecans in specialty nut shops. Both turned out to be costly which is why this is not a recipe that will be in regular rotation in my house. If it hadn't been for mothers' day and a mother who loves pecan pie, I really might not have baked this a second time.

The upside is that this is a criminally easy recipe. Only the shortbread base requires a little work. My tip for those baking this in hot weather is to first cut the chilled butter into little cubes then freeze it for about ten minutes. Then instead of cutting the butter into the flour and sugar - a process I find near impossible in the tropics - simply place the lot into the bowl of a food process and process until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.

The recipe yields bars that taste somewhat like pecan pie - but my pecan pie loving mother was not fooled. 'Why does it look like that?' was her suspicious response to my offering. I had to explain that the pecans were there, just chopped up and that this wasn't really pecan pie but was very similar. Still she liked it and ate it which is a miracle since my mother is known to be the Pickiest Eater Alive.

I have also reduced the brown sugar by a third in the recipe below. Mr Grey and I were foolish enough to put in the entire amount called for the first time we baked this and the result was so tooth-achingly sweet, we couldn't bear to eat it. Diabetes inducing, a friend called it.

(The recipe was originally named Maple Shortbread Bars but good grief, if I'm going to shell out that much money for pecans then pecans are going into the name too.)

 MAPLE PECAN SHORTBREAD BARS

Time: 55 minutes

For the crust:

2 cups flour

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled

For the filling:

1 cup packed brown sugar

2/3 cup real maple syrup

2 eggs

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon maple extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups chopped pecans.

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F. For crust, combine flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Cut butter into slices, and cut in with pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture is crumbly. If making this in the hot weather, see note above. Press into bottom and half an inch up the sides of a 9- by 13-inch baking pan. Bake 15 minutes, or until edges begin to brown. Cool on rack.

2. For filling, combine all ingredients except pecans, and mix until smooth. Pour into cooled crust. Distribute nuts evenly over top. Bake 30 minutes, or until filling is set. Cool on a rack before cutting.

Yield: 39 bars.

Note: I omitted the maple extract, it being an ingredient that just could not be found in Singapore.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Food writing


No recipe today but a food article I re-discovered.

Years ago, I read this article about the Zuni Cafe  and the memory of it has lurked in the shadows of my mind ever since.  At the time I read it, the description of the cafe and the bay area held a special significance. I read it at a time when plans for a trip to the bay area, along with certain other future plans had suddenly and quite abruptly evaporated. I read it and it caught at my heart in a certain way. It seemed to capture the smell and taste of what had been lost. I put it away quickly and tried to forget.

I found it again, this week and it caught at me again. But this time, it was different. I was different and I was better able to appreciate it for what it was.

This is an article about a lunch at the famous Zuni Cafe but unlike other food review articles which go on and on, fatuously and pretentiously, Francis Lam has managed to capture the most elusive thing - the moment. The sunlight slanting in, the family at the next table, the food.... it is all there, you can almost feel the sun on your cheeks.

*

Lately, I've had a few conversations with friends about writing in Singapore - they observed, and I agree with their observation - that a great deal of local writing is overblown, pretentious and just... too try hard.

I was once told by someone, that the way to tell if a piece of Chinese calligraphy is good is to see if the words breathe naturally. That is, to observe if the brushstrokes flow as naturally as breathing. I have found it to be quite sound advice generally and I think, in some ways, it also applies to writing.

As a reader, I wish local writers would relax a little, breathe. There is no need to try to show how clever you are in every line. There is no need to show that you can use difficult polysyllabic words. Sometimes, a bicycle ride in the rain, is simply a bicycle ride in the rain.

Extract from the article:

"I thought about the fact that all over this city, friends were already gathering in happy anticipation and, though I was alone, this family was good company to be in.

The Caesar came, nothing new and utterly perfect, bright lemon and sharp garlic, mellow anchovies, crisp greens, crunchy croutons. The burger was as tender as a you would ever want a hamburger to be, yet it had a sort of magical spring to the bite, an integrity. Its flavor was buttery, almost creamy, round and meaty but not in that bloody, mineral way. It was gentler than that. I ate it quickly, too quickly, but not out of hunger or greed. I ate fast so as not to let the spirit of it escape, vanish with the steam coming off it."


Note: The other thing about local writing of course, is that a great deal of it is abysmal in a different way. What I said above does not apply to people who cannot seem to write grammatically and who seem to have disabled the spell check function on their word processors.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Thai stir fried minced beef with holy basil and chilli


If you follow the liturgical calendar, you'll know this week is Holy Week - the last week of Lent. Do you attend a more traditional church? I don't but I attended Anglican church schools for 8 years of my life and so some consciousness of the liturgical calendar has always been present in my life.

Anyway, this being Holy week, I thought it would be appropriate to post a recipe calling for heaps of holy basil :)

I've been making this dish in various iterations for years now. I used to love ordering it in a Thai restaurant called Ying Thai in Melbourne but after I learned to make it, I stopped ordering it. I've never cooked this from a proper recipe - the one below is a mish mash of various recipes online.

This is one of the most flexible stir fries; I've made it with garlic, without garlic, with oyster sauce and without. Sometimes lime makes an appearance, more often, it does not. I've also made it for a non-chilli eating crowd by subbing in bell peppers for the chilli. It works, sort of, although obviously the chilli version is better. This dish works with minced beef but also with minced pork or chicken as well if you are cooking for someone who does not eat red meat. For vegetarians, apparently it works with tofu but I'll caveat that by saying that I've never tried it with tofu.

The essentials are holy basil, chilli, fish sauce and minced meat of some kind and a fried egg on top.

Stir fried minced beef with holy basil and chilli

200 gm minced beef
Plenty of basil - about 1 handful
1-2 large chillis sliced (adjust according to your spice tolerance)
1 tablespoon of fish sauce
1/2 tablespoon of oyster sauce
a pinch of sugar
lime wedges
1-2 eggs
Oil for stir frying
Cooked rice

Heat the oil in the pan and when hot, stir fry the garlic and the chillis until fragrant.  Add the beef and then the oyster sauce.

Cook the beef for about 2-3 minutes, then add the fish sauce and the sugar. Finally add the basil and some water (if needed) and allow the beef to cook through.

Remove from heat.

In the same pan, heat a little more oil and fry the eggs. The best fried egg for this recipe is the kind with a runny yolk but brown and crisp edges and underside.

The way to achieve this is to heat the oil until it shimmers, add the egg(s) then allow to cook only for about 2-3 minutes then turn off the heat. Allow the egg to cook a little longer in the hot pan to your desired done-ness.

Serve the beef on hot cooked rice with a squeeze of lime (if using), then top with the egg.

Note on using the same pan for the egg: I don't mind doing my dish this way because it saves the washing up and the egg picks up all the leftover beef juices and bits of chilli or basil which makes it more tasty. To my mind, since the egg and the stir fry are going to end up sharing the same bowl anyway, sharing the same pan isn't a problem. But, if you are finicky about it, by all means, use a different skillet for frying the egg.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Matthews' Lentils


There are two Matthews involved in the making of these lentils. One, the Matthew my sister brought over from Newcastle, who very kindly made vegetarian shepherd's pie and also very kindly left behind half a bag of lentils in my kitchen.

The second Matthew is Matthew Fort - whose cookbook "Cooking by Numbers" mysteriously turned up at my house one day. I seized it with both hands and, out of courtesy and guilt, I did ask random family members about its origin and ownership but nobody seemed to know anything.

Well! Finders keepers then.

So, due to the serendipity of having of lentils and a cookbook(!) turn up at my doorstep, I cooked lentils.

Lentils with Poached Egg

I made this with the last container of my home-made stock which I have written about before. They are perfect as a simple and delicious meal for a weekend night when you have some time but don't necessarily want to bother with a big show in the kitchen.

The lentils freeze well and form the perfect base for many other weeknight meals so don't be shy about making an enormous batch. The only drawback I find to making a bigger batch is that I tend to overeat - so perhaps just making a smaller batch is a good idea if you're greedy like me! Also if you've just had a week of particularly indulgent eating, this is a virtuous finish to the week that is still tasty and quite hearty.

Oh and I don't really bother poaching the eggs. I just fry them and leave the yolk runny because that's just how I like eggs or soft boil them.

1 carrot
1 onion
1 stick celery
1 leek
2 rashers of bacon (I know the temptation is to add more but be careful as it can make the dish quite salty)
about 3 tablespoons or so of olive oil
125g of green lentils (red/brown ones will not do)
350 ml chicken or vegetable stock
1 tsp Vietnamese fish sauce (optional)
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp dijon mustard
salt/pepper to taste
2 eggs

1. Chop all the vegetables finely. Slice the bacon into strips.

2. Heat the olive oil and fry the bacon. When bacon is brown around the edges and crisping, add the chopped vegetables and stir to coat with oil.

3. Cook over medium heat for 5-7 minutes until vegetables are wilted and onion is transparent.

4. Rinse the lentils in cold water then add to the pan, stirring it around.

5. Add the stock and bring to the boil. Simmer for about 25 minutes, until the lentils are tender but have not disintegrated.

(Try the lentils along the way. Matthew Fort recommended 15-25 minutes but I find that mine take a full 25-30 minutes)

6. Cool slightly and add the flavourings of your choice. Serve topped with the egg.

Note on the flavourings: The first time I made this, I didn't have any of the flavourings so I just went with salt and pepper. It was pretty good but not utterly fantastic. The second time I made them, I added Thai fish sauce, some whole grain mustard and some balsamic vinegar and it was delicious so I would recommend that you try it out with whatever flavourings happen to be in your kitchen.

Note on the leek and also the eggs: I almost never have leeks lying around so I usually omit the leek and just add 1 extra stick of celery because I love celery. It doesn't seem to have made a great deal of difference - this recipe is pretty flexible. But I'll update this if I do try it with the leek eventually.

With the eggs, you're supposed to break it up and have the yolk run into the lentils - Fort describes it as "unctuous" and it is - the yolk coats the lentils and gives the whole dish this richness.