The only time it’s ok to judge something by its cover

Pasta puttanesca
I’m a sucker for nice packaging. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering I spent the first six years of my branding/advertising life focusing solely on packaging design.

A great piece of packaging tells a story. Contrary to the ethos of (business-minded) effective design, it is not always about being the most impactful or loudest item on shelf. Strong packaging design speaks for the ingredient/food in ways that the actual product cannot, conveying an alluring story on taste, heritage, origins, and values. So sometimes although the most elegantly subdued design on shelf may not win the race to the check-out aisle, it can single-mindedly draw the shopper into the world of the product. Great design leaves you wanting more. For some strange reason, I have always been fascinated by the retro designs of most anchovy tins. There is something so alluring about how these tins use typography and illustrations to proudly shout out to the world that they have not moved with the times. A nicely packaged anchovy tin imbues authenticity, signalling a sense of defiance to hold on to traditional methods of preparing exquisite ingredients, rather than relying on modern technology and mass production.

After spotting this little gem at a food bazaar, I was immediately transported to an idyllic seaside village, where local fishermen still went out to sea, returning with their daily catch to their wives who would prepare the anchovies with an old-age secret family recipe. True enough, after some research on the product, I found out that the Arroyabe brand of anchovy fillets are hand-packed in Spanish olive oil according to traditional methods, using carefully selected fish harvested off the Cantabrian Coast in the north of Spain.

What does one do with a gorgeous tin of anchovy fillets? A pasta puttanesca of course. Anchovies are the piece de reisistance in this pasta dish, adding a hint of rich tangy-ness to complement the combination of spicy chilli flakes, capers, olives, oregano, tomatoes and fresh parsley. This is one of my favourite pastas to cook as it is so easy to assemble (perfect after a long, crappy day at work). Not forgetting that a big plate of pasta is always ever-so comforting to overcome any work frustrations. So why not re-create your own idyllic seaside getaway. Pop open a cheeky bottle of white wine on a Thursday night, a hot pipping bowl of pasta puttanesca, put your feet up, leave the stress of work behind, and life feels the way it should be.

Pasta Puttanesca for one

The Ingredients
A handful of spaghetti (you can use any type of pasta, I used linguini that I had lying around my cupboard), can of tomatoes, chilli flakes, good quality anchovy fillets (for a serving for one I used 3 fillets), a teaspoon of capers, pitted black olives, dried oregano, chopped parsley, olive oil, chopped onion, 2 cloves of chopped garlic, and pepper. Oh and parmesan cheese, lots of it.

The Preparation
1. Cook pasta in a pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Save some of the pasta water.

2. Sautee garlic and onion with olive oil.
3. Add chopped anchovy fillet and cook for 3 – 5 minutes.
4. Add can of tomatoes and cook until sauce starts to simmer gently. Add chilli flakes, oregano, capers, and sliced black olives. Season with pepper. 
5. Add cooked pasta, if sauce is too dry add in some of the pasta water.
7. Add chopped parsley.
8. Serve with a generous handful of shaved parmesan cheese.

Farewell tuna, hello tilapia

Grilled tilapia with breadcrumbs & parmesan
Grilled tilapia with ginger and coriander
Cheese baked tilapia
Today marks one full year and 20 days since my return to KL. It has certainly not been the smooth sailing I was initially expecting when I decided it was time to say farewell to my London town. Some initial difficult adjustments, crazy challenges, and difficult realizations…  I myself am quite surprised that I’m still here, patiently waiting to see my relationship with the City of Lights blossom. 

Despite it all, every moment of confusion, heartache, and uncertainty has led to a new sense of acceptance and clarity. Two weeks before my 31st birthday, I attended a life-changing training session that has opened up my eyes to the fact that I am fully responsible for every single decision I make. You either make the best of out of a situation or you make a change. Rather than blaming the circumstances around you, you have the ability to respond to any given situation. So I can either wallow in the things that I miss about my London town or I can get with the programme, embrace my decision to come home and make my time in KL the best that it can possibly be.

In a ‘self-pity session’ prior to said training, I was trying very hard to recall everything that I missed about London. Summer days (although limited), random walks around the city, easy access to healthy food, work-life balance, a sense of liberated independence knowing that you only have yourself to count on (no family around), art, theatre, supermarkets with affordable produce, artisan farmers’  markets, and oddly enough out of nowhere fresh tuna popped into my mind. Good quality, juicy, meaty, and does not cost an arm and leg tuna steaks. That’s when it hit me that I have not enjoyed a nice tuna steak since I stepped foot in KL since fresh tuna, which is always imported, is too crazily expensive here. When forced to choose between the two, I always opt for salmon as it is a bit more wallet friendly compared to the smallest piece of tuna fillet. 

Rather than pine away at my long-lost food joy,  I need to happily accept the fact that I may not be able to enjoy certain things as much as I did in London. So the necessary adjustments need to be made. Instead of paying a ridiculous amount amount for tuna, I’m opening up my palate to the joys of the local, less costly tilapia. Tilapia is a fresh water fish and its meaty white flesh makes it ideal when served as fillets. Unlike tuna, tilapia is not too ‘fishy’. Its subtle taste ensures that it easily imbues the flavours of its surrounding ingredients, working well in both Western and Asian dishes. Best of all, unlike many local fishes, when filleted correctly you will not get any pesky bones interfering as you enjoy your meal. I have been experimenting with the Asian flavours of garlic and coriander to slightly more Western inspired assembles of breadcrumbed tilapia and cheese-baked tilapia (I am a firm believer of seafood + cheese = freaking delicious, hello seafood gratins?). Three recipes using the same fish in the span of two weeks? The best part is that I’m only at the very beginning of my adventure with tilapia. 

Grilled tilapia with breadcrumbs & parmesan (from Something Savoury)

The Ingredients
Tilapia fillet, a big handful of grated parmesan, breadcrumbs, zest of one lemon, chopped coriander, juice of half a lemon, and salt & pepper. For the orzo: 1/2 cup orzo, broccoli, sliced mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, a handful of parmesan, and salt & pepper,

The Preparation
1. Pat the tilapia fillets dry using paper towels.

2. Combine  cheese, bread crumbs, lemon zest, coriander, salt & pepper.
3. Coat tilapia fillets with mixture and bake fish for 10 to 15 minutes at 475F.
4. Squeeze fresh lemon juice on the fish before serving.
5.  To make the orzo, bring water to a boil and add salt. Add orzo.
6. When orzo is 3/4 cooked add the mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. Cooking should take a total of about 10 to 15 minutes. Once done and all liquid has absorbed, add parmesan cheese and seasoning.
7.  In a separate pan steam the broccoli.
8. Add broccoli to orzo mixture and top with the breadcrumbed tilapia fillet. 

Grilled tilapia with ginger and coriander

The Ingredients
Tilapia fillet, 1 garlic clove, 1/2 inch fresh ginger, 1 green chili, 1/3 cup chopped coriander, 1/4 cup white whine, 2 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tsp sesame oil, shiitake mushrooms, spring onion and extra coriander to garnish. 

 The Preparation
1. Pat fillet dry with paper towel and lightly season with salt and paper. Lay in a glass baking dish while heating the oven to 475F.
2. Blend garlic, grated ginger, chopped chili, and coriander in a food processor with white wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil. 
3. Pour sauce over the fish and add sliced shiitake mushrooms.
4. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes.
5. Once cooked (fish fakes easily), serve over a bed of brown rice. Garnish with chopped spring onions and additional coriander.

Cheese baked tilapia served with sautéed spinach and cherry tomatoes (inspired by How Sweet It Is)

The Ingredients
Tilapia fillet, 1 tbsp butter, 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese, 1 clove of garlic, thyme, salt & pepper, and lemon slices. For the spinach and cherry tomatoes: 1 clove of garlic, olive oil, baby spinach, cherry tomatoes, a squeeze of lemon juice, and salt & pepper

The Preparation
1. Pat tilapia dry and season with salt & pepper.

2. Lay on a baking tray (either use a non-stick spray or a bit of olive oil rubbed behind fish so it does not stick). Bake for 10 minutes at 400F. 
3. Mix butter, garlic, thyme and parmesan cheese.
4. Remove fish from oven and gently flip. Top fish with the mixture and baked for another 5 to 10 minutes until cheese is golden and bubbly.
5. Heat olive oil and sauté garlic. 
6. Add baby spinach leaves and cherry tomatoes. Season with salt & pepper and squeeze of lemon juice. Cook until leaves have wilted and cherry tomatoes and popped.
7. To serve, plate the tilapia on top of the spinach leaves and cherry tomatoes. Serve with slices of lemon.  

On spontaneity and avocados

Grilled cheese & guacamole bagel
I have always considered myself a rather adventurous and spontaneous person. I’m game for new discoveries. I keep an open mind to new possibilities. I live my life with a passion for new foods and flavours. I’ve spent my life moving from place to place, with an open arm to welcoming new experiences. However post birthday celebration, the slight anxiety of leaving my lovely twenties even further behind, and multiple comments of “you always go for the same, exact thing all the time” on my lunch choices have led me to take a closer look at how carefree I really am.

The actual truth is that I may have an audacious ‘go-with-the-flow’ spirit, however in practice I pretty much tend to sick to a familiar comfort zone. And you know what, I do love my predictable routines. I get cranky when I fall short of my required number of runs per weeks and generally try to plan nights out based on whether I am going running the following day. At one point weekends were religiously dedicated to yoga but hey when you fall in love your priorities sometimes change. I still try to be strict about Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoon yoga sessions. When I do miss these classes, I become the most whiney un-zenlike person to be around. 

The biggest of all ironies is that my attitude towards food is engrained on the familiar. Having my own food blog and experimenting with new recipes on a weekly basis, you would think that I love trying new dishes and new restaurants. Wrong. I only enjoy the latter IF I can have a pretty certain guarantee that it will be a good experience. I try out new recipes when I cook at home as the elements are within my control (I know my kitchen, I know the ingredients, I know the flavours that I like). On the other hand when it comes to dining out, I tend to stick to places/dishes that are familiar and that I know for certain I will enjoy. To me, a meal time is sacred and one of the worst things that can happen is to have this special time be ruined with average, crappy food. So I will stick to the same restaurants or the same rice with sweet sour fish and tofu veg for my work lunch (when I’m not bringing food from home) day in and day out because it feels familiar and will minimize my chances of a negative experience. To add to the food neurosis, I spend the weekend planning out my meals for the following week to make sure I buy all the necessary groceries required to prepare dishes on my ‘menu-for-the-week’ list, which I obsessively refer to on my moleskin as the days go along.  

Recent inspirations though have taught me to breakaway from routine, to really go out and embrace things that may seem scarily unfamiliar. Try go-karting instead of that usual weekend yoga class or a spontaneous night out during the week to let-go of stress (‘run extra over the weekend’ I’ve been told). Best of all, be open to trying a new restaurant that I have not obsessively studied through various food blogs. If you have a crappy meal, at least you’ll have something to laugh about and your next meal will only seem more magnificent. Don’t plan meals or grocery shopping, buy what you feel inspired by at the supermarket rather than being led by a predetermined list. 

So today, in my first attempt to be more spontaneous, I crossed out my ‘meals list’ and decided to entertain my sudden craving for avocados. Genius that I am forgot that in Malaysia, spontaneity and avocados do not go hand-in-hand. You need to plan your enjoyment of avocados in advance since the majority of supermarkets DO NOT for some strange reason sell ripe avocados. Cold storage, Jaya Grocer, Jusco, or Carrefour all require you to let the avocados ripen for at least 3-4 days. As I stood in front of the stack of hard avocados at a chaotically busy Jaya Grocer in Empire cursing myself for not having a list to fall back on (‘what do I cook now that there are no avocados?!’), I remembered my little secret (well after this no longer a secret) of only ever finding ripe avocados at Village Grocer in Bangsar Village. And in the name of spontaneity, me and EP got in the car, drove through traffic just to buy some lovely ripe avocados to satisfy a craving. And trust me, ripe avocados are perfection, worth the half an hour standstill along Federal Highway. If following an act of randomness can lead to the blissful moment of enjoying a creamy ripe avocado, then it is worth letting go of the comfortable routine once in a while. I started off the year trusting in the magic of the unexpected, so I’m embracing this philosophy to take me through what will hopefully be an exciting few years enjoying the 30s. 

Grilled cheese & guacamole bagel

The Ingredients
1 ripe avocado, a handful of cherry tomatoes, a quarter onion, 1 clove of garlic, 1 lime, chopped coriander, bagel, a slice of mozzarella cheese, bagel, salt & pepper, salad/rocket leaves to serve on the side. 

The Preparation
1. To make the guacamole, mash avocado, cherry tomatoes, chopped onion, chopped garlic, coriander, and lime juice. Season with salt & pepper.
2. Spread guacamole  on bagel and top with sliced cheese.
3. Grill in pan until cheese has melted.
4. Serve with a side salad.  

Good morning Vietnam

Grilled chicken summer rolls
Holidays = new discoveries, cultural revelations, enlightening moments, and best of all foodie adventures. A recent trip to Vietnam has reignited my appreciation for meals containing fresh, minimally cooked veggies. Vietnamese cuisine in comparison to the offerings of its South East Asian neighbours, by far contains some of the healthiest and wholesome dishes. Unlike Indian food that cooks down veggies into an unrecognizable pulp or Malay food that drowns greens into a soggy mess, the natural texture and flavour of veggies is often the centerpiece of Vietnamese food. Vegetables tend to be eaten fresh to preserve their original textures and colours – if they are cooked, they are boiled or only briefly stir-fried.

The renowned gỏi cuốn (summer rolls) are packed with crunchy (non cooked!) herbs while even the traditional pho is always accompanied by a plate of fresh bean sprouts and even more herbs. Peek into a Bánh xèo (omelette) and you will surprisingly be greeted with an array of colorful, light veggies (instead of grease and onions a la the Malay omelette). Some of my travel buddies even pointed out that the Vietnamese seemed to consume a garden with each meal! This healthy approach to their meals is reflected by the fact that Vietnam has one of the highest life expectancy rates out of the developing countries within South East Asia, complemented by a low obesity rate (although obesity amongst children is becoming a trend in the more developed areas of the country). 

In an attempt to prolong the celebration of light, fresh, and wholesome food, I recently created my rendition of the favourite Vietnamese summer rolls (recipe inspired by Taste for Adventure). These veggie-packed parcels were my constant London summer picnic basket staple. Not only are they perfectly refreshing on a hot, sunny day, it is also so easy to impress guests with this dish as everyone always seems surprised that I would go through the effort to assemble all the ingredients and delicately fold the rolls. Here the traditional prawns are substituted with a marinated grilled chicken since I wanted a protein fix to help fuel a much overdue post-holiday run. I also substituted the usual ingredients (bean sprouts and basil) for whatever I had left in my fridge – rocket leaves and red peppers – a slightly Western twist to a Vietnamese classic!

Grilled chicken summer rolls

The Ingredients
 Chicken breasts cut into thin slices, vegetable oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, rice paper sheets, 1 cup glass noodles, 2 carrots – shredded, 2 cups rocket leaves, 1 red pepper, coriander, 1 tsp brown sugar, lime juice, salt and pepper.

The Preparation
1. Marinate chicken with vegetable oil, sesame oil, soy sauce, and minced garlic. Season and leave in the fridge for half an hour. Grill.

2. Make sure all ingredients are ready to go – carrots are shredded, red pepper sliced thinly, glass noodles hydrated, and coriander is chopped. 
3. Fill a shallow dish with warm water and add a rice paper sheet one at a time for about 5 to 10 seconds. Remove from dish and place on a flat surface. Top with glass noodles, red pepper slices, shredded carrot, sliced chicken, and coriander leaves. Fold both ends and roll the sheet tightly. 
4. For the dipping sauce combine soy sauce, sesame oil, brown sugar, lime juice and chopped coriander. Serve with summer roll.
5. Folding the spring rolls can become a tad boring after a while – if you give up half way, combine all ingredients into a bowl, add sliced cherry tomatoes and thinly sliced mangoes for a refreshing salad!

The faithful classic

Egg sandwich with creme fraiche and horseradish
Egg sandwich with avocado
The omelette sandwich
Ahhh… the almighty egg sarnie. Some things are so quintessentially English that just a single bite of a perfectly luscious, velvety egg mayo filling topped with crisp watercress on brown bread transports me back to the Motherland of tea and scones. Except in my opinion, some of the most memorable egg and bread concoctions were best served at simple builders’ cafes rather than posh tea houses. The classic egg sandwich has kept me company on numerous occassions – during rushed work lunches (Pret how I miss you), the dreaded penny pinching days at the end of the month before payday (a loaf of brown bread, a carton of eggs, and jar of mayo go a long way), and aplenty morning after sessions following a big night out. Let’s face it, an omelette sandwich is pretty much the veggie alternate to the bacon buttie when it comes to alcohol quenching properties. 

I know certain schools of cooking that believe the egg sarnie is so classically sacred one must never mess around with the ingredient combination – perfectly boiled eggs (not overdone with the yolk still moist and orange), salt, pepper, butter, and mayonnaise. I for one do not abide by this. I absolutely love the fact that using a set of basic and familiar fridge staples, one can experiment with a whole world of textures and flavours. Most people will have bread, eggs, mayo and salt & pepper in the kitchen. Such simple, honest ingredients that complement each other perfectly, you can never go wrong with the trusted combination of eggs and bread provided you stick to sane, rational kitchen rules. 

So here it is, my list of favourite egg and bread combinations in no particular order:

The classic – eggs with creme fraiche & horseradish

The Ingredients
2 eggs, 3-4 tbsp creme fraiche (you can use mayo but I prefer the lighter texture of creme fraiche, plus it has less calories than mayo!), 1 tbsp horseradish, chopped capers, chopped spring onions, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1. Boil egg for 5-7 minutes
2. Smash cooked eggs with all ingredients. Season with salt & pepper. 
3. Serve in-between wholemeal bread with lettuce or watercress.  

Egg sandwich with avocado

The Ingredients
2 eggs, 1 ripe avocado, salt & pepper. 

The Preparation
1. Boil egg for 5-7 minutes
2. Smash cooked eggs with avocado. Note: you don’t even need to use mayo with this due to the already creamy richness of the avocado.  Season with salt & pepper. 
3. Serve in-between wholemeal pita with side salad.   

The omelette sandwich

The Ingredients
2 eggs, half an onion, splash of milk, tomato sauce, salt & pepper, any other ingredients you may want to add to your omelette – i.e. mushrooms, spring onions, peppers, etc, cheddar cheese, and olive oil.

The Preparation
1. Beat eggs and add milk. Season with salt & pepper.
2. Heat pan with olive oil, at this stage sauté any of the additional vegetables. Once cooked pour in egg mixture and let this settle.
3. Top with cheddar cheese.
4. Once omelette has complete formed served on top of brown bread with lettuce or rocket and a smearing of tomato sauce.

In pursuit of happiness

Orzo with chicken, asparagus, and red pepper
And so it’s finally June. Halfway through the year. The month has been off to a bit of an emotional start for me due to a number of reasons. There’s the dreaded date of turning another year older looming round the corner. June also marks one year of my move back to KL. What an adventure is has been so far from surrendering myself to work and its chaos, reconnecting with old friends, swearing off men forever, to discovering a renewed passion for cooking. I’m trying my best to focus on the positive rather than drowning in the depressing, existential thoughts of whether I achieved what I had set out to do with my move back home from KL. Was it worth it all?

Despite certain setbacks, KL is still one big journey of discovery, so I’m choosing to practice positive thinking. Focus on the good side of things and everything becomes an exciting opportunity or blessing. Wallow on the negative and defeat takes over in an instant. Happiness is a state of mind. It’s all about the little joyful moments of enlightenment that make it all worth it. I’m applying this philosophy to food as well. It’s a known scientific fact that certain foods act as natural anti-depressants and have the ability to alter moods. The dish below contains two key ingredients that have been proven to raise the spirits and banish the blues. Asparagus has high levels of folate and tryptophan. Tryptophan is used by the brain to make serotonin, which is one of the brain’s main mood-stabilising neurotransmitters. At the same time, asparagus replenishes the body’s levels of folate – low levels of folate have been linked to depression. The bold red hues of ripe red peppers instantly brings images of warm sunshine-filled days. Guaranteed to bring a smile to my face. 

So move over June blues, I banking on good, happy food and positive thinking to get me through the month. 

Orzo with chicken, asparagus, and red pepper (inspired by BevCooks)

Basic Ingredients
Orzo, 1 onion, 2-3 cloves of garlic, olive oil, chicken breast, asparagus (trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces), sliced red peppers, chicken stock, chopped spring onions, parmesan cheese, 1 lemon, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1. Season chicken with salt, pepper and a bit of olive oil. Either pan fry or grill until cooked.
2. Blanche asparagus. Drain and set aside. 
3. Sautee chopped onion and garlic in olive oil. 
4. Add orzo and cook for about 3 minutes to toast.
5. Add a ladle of chicken stock and stir until this has absorbed into the orzo. Keep repeating this technique of adding stock and stirring, as if you were making a risotto. 
6. When orzo is three quarters cooked add asparagus, peppers, and spring onion. Keep stirring.
7. When orzo is al dente, add parmesan cheese, juice of 1 lemon and zest of lemon.
8. Season and serve  

Hello summer

Chicken burger
So I got my homemade burger in the end. On a sunny KL day lazing in the garden. Summer on a plate. A tribute to the start of sunshine-filled days and shorter evenings on the other side of the world, my other home. Perfection. 

Chicken Burger (recipe inspired by Bev Cooks)

Basic Ingredients
Minced chicken (about 1 pound – I prefer buying chicken breast meat and having the butcher mince this so that mean is lean rather than the fatty pre-minced packets), 1 red onion, 2 cloves of garlic, spring onions, coriander, 1/4 cup soy sauce, juice of 1/2 a lemon, lemon zest, 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs, red pepper flakes, salt & pepper, olive oil, slice of cheese of choice, ciabatta bread, rocket leaves, avocado, tomatoes, thai chili sauce, mayonnaise, mustard. 

The Preparation
1. In a large bowl mix minced chicken, soy sauce, chopped garlic & onion, spring onions, coriander, lemon juice, lemon zest, breadcrumbs, red pepper chili flakes. Season.
2. Form mixture into patties (not too large or they will crumble when grilling). 
3. You’re supposed to let the patties rest in the fridge for about an hour, I placed these in the freezer for 15 minutes to allow them to firm up.
4. Grill on fry pan or BBQ until meat is done (10 – 15 minutes depending on the size of the patty)
5. To serve – grill cheese on ciabatta. On one side smear with the sauces – thai chill, mayonnaise, mustard. Add rocket. Add cooked burgers. Top with sliced avocado and tomatoes. Initially I was skeptical about the avocados going into an inspired flavored meat patty but the combination works!
6. Bite. Dig in. Say hello to summer. 

Home cooking how I’ve missed you

Grilled lemon salmon with spaghetti
The snowball effect of holidaying, immediately coming back to an insane week that saw me living out of my laptop bag and car for 4 consecutive days with no office desk time as I rushed between production houses to stressful client meetings, and just general work worry has left me feeling very unsettled recently. By the end of week, I could not shake off the feeling that I was losing a part of myself. I did not mind so much that my social life was non-existent (I’ve lost track of the number of social outings I’ve cancelled this week) nor the fact that I have not gone for a single run in the past two weeks. The thing that has bothered me the most is knowing that i have not be in very good control of my own meals since the start of May. I loved the food in Vietnam (fresh veggie heaven!) and obligingly closed an eye towards my tendency to over indulge on food when overseas  (hey I was on holiday!). However now back in KL, post-holiday bliss all gone, the eating out has not stopped. I have been greeted with takeaway, fast-food meals (with not so fresh veggies) while trying my best to not bring out the inner diva in me by turning down whatever food that has been kindly offered to me at meetings. 

Without wanting to sound overly dramatic, I have been feeling like an addict that has been denied whatever substance necessary to keep me grounded. Cooking is a necessity to me, without it I feel like I’m losing control of the things around me. I rushed out of work at midnight yesterday grateful that it was Friday not because I could get some much deserved sleep this weekend. To me, the start of the weekend meant that I could finally say hello to my kitchen. I went to bed last night dreaming about chopping garlic. I woke up this morning troubled about what seemed like the biggest dilemma in the world – do I cook pasta or chicken burgers for my first home cooked meal? Forget brushing my teeth, the first thing I did this morning was check out my usual blogroll of food sites for my foodie hit. I even contemplated skipping yoga so that I could start cooking earlier. At the supermarket, I was slightly neurotic rushing from one aisle to the other, grabbing ingredients to shove in the basket before removing them to replace with other ingredients (the burgers vs pasta question was still racing through my head!). I was one of those annoying shoppers who spend 15 minutes analyzing the firmness of the cherry tomatoes because goddamnit, for my first home cooked meal in two weeks I want the sweetest and most succulent cherry tomatoes the supermarket has to offer.

And oh my god, the feeling of contentment as I laid the groceries out on the kitchen countertop and started preparing the meal. I felt complete. Whole. Myself. In the end I opted for pasta as I wanted to stay away from anything that resembled the takeaway meals that I had been bombarded with all week. Homecooked pasta is the ultimate comfort food that nourishes the soul, making you feel that despite all the craziness, everything will work out alright as long as there is pasta in the world. Thank you spaghetti and grilled lemon salmon for restoring my sanity. 

Grilled lemon salmon with spaghetti 

Basic Ingredients
Spaghetti, salmon fillet, juice of 1 lemon, oregano, spinach, cherry tomatoes, chili flakes, 4 garlic cloves, capers, parsley, olive oil, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1. Cook spaghetti in salted water until al dente. Reserve some of the cooking liquid.
2. Marinate salmon with juice from 1/2 of the lemon, a bit of olive oil, and oregano. Season. Grill salmon and leave fillet to rest.
3. Sautee chopped garlic with olive oil.
4. Add chill flakes and halved cherry tomatoes. Cook until tomatoes are soft.
5. Add spinach and cook until the leaves have wilted. Season.
6. Add spaghetti and stir through a bit of the pasta liquid and remaining lemon juice.
7. Add chopped capers.
8. To plate, place salmon fillet on top of a serving of pasta. Sprinkle chopped parsley. 

Not quite as cheap as chips but close enough

Cous cous with pan fried garlic & chilli prawns
Grilled chicken with quinoa, spinach, tomatoes, and feta
One of the many food myths that I love to set straight is the fact that healthy food is too expensive to make on a regular basis. Yes I admit that it is impossible to compete with what you would pay for a bowl of hawker style fried noodles. However in comparison to the cash that you would need to fork out for a meal at many evil fast food chains, you will be better off spending your money preparing a wholesome dish that will not only keep you full over the next few hours but will also nourish you as well. Imagine paying a hefty RM 11.50 for a large McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets set to only suffer the inevitable sugar/additives crash in a few hours. No contest for me.

I’m always surprised when people tell me that the food that I cook is realistically not financially sustainable on a long term, daily basis. Apparently I only feature ‘posh’ food. This is far from the truth! Perhaps my obsession with food presentation is rather deceptive (yay I guess that means I’m getting a little better at arranging food) but I am just as wallet conscious as most people. When I moved back to KL, yes I was shocked that healthier ingredients were more expensive than what i would pay in the UK. Since then I have learned to adapt by substituting local ingredients to still make my favourite home-cooked meals. Through many trial and error shopping sessions, I have realised that omitting expensive imported ingredients is the key to keeping my weekly shopping bills from hitting the roof. Some tips to consider- use Thai asparagus instead of the European variety. Shiitake mushrooms are just as flavourful as many of the Scandinavian forest-sourced gems (oh how I miss chanterelle season though!). Canned (cheaper!) and freshly pitted gourmet olives don’t have that much of a difference to my average taste buds and neither do I need to indulge in RM 29 for a measly ball of buffalo mozzarella cheese on a regular basis – feta is so much cheaper here and will go a longer way. 

The two dishes below when broken down to costs per individual serving both amount to less than what you would pay for a Large set at McD’s while using unprocessed, fresh, local, healthy ingredients.  So put down the nasty brown fast-food tray and pick up a shopping basket at your nearest supermarket. Wholesome food can be cheap, tasty, and easy to make! 

Cous cous with pan fried garlic & chilli prawns

Basic Ingredients & pricing
Cous cous (RM 5.50 for a packet of 5 servings, each serving = RM 1.10), chicken stock made from cube (RM 6.00 for a packet of 12 cubes, each serving = RM 0.50), tiger prawns (RM 5.00 for a packet of 6 prawns), 2 cloves of garlic (RM 3 for about 2 garlic bulbs and about 6 cloves per bulb = RM 0.50 for 2 cloves), 1 red chili (RM 4 for a packet of 6 red chillies = RM 0.66 per chili), 5 cherry tomatoes (RM 5.50 for a packet of cherry tomatoes containing 3 servings = RM 1.83 per serving), coriander (RM 2.50 per bunch and I used I sprig so an estimating about RM 0.50), juice of 1/2 a lemon (RM 6.00 for a packet of 5 lemons, works out to RM 1.20 per lemon = RM 0.60 for half a lemon) whatever oil you have lying in the kitchen, salt & pepper. Total per serving: RM 10.69

I didn’t include the pricing for kitchen basics like oil, salt and pepper as I figure these are kitchen staples that most kitchens are bound to have.

The Preparation
1. Cook cous cous with a chicken stock made using stock cube and hot water.

2. When cous cous looks about halfway cooked, add halved cherry tomatoes.
3. Marinate prawns in red chili, a bit of oil, and lemon juice. Season.
4. Saute garlic with a bit of oil.
5. Pour in marinated prawn mixture.
6. When prawns start to turn pink, scatter chopped coriander and serve with cous cous. 

Grilled chicken with quinoa, spinach, tomatoes, and feta
Although this dish is approximately RM 4.00 more than our McNugget meal index, check out the amount of fresh veggies in this healthy mix. 

Basic Ingredients & Pricing
Quinoa (RM 15 for a packet of quinoa that has about 5 servings = RM 3 per serving), grilled chicken (RM 7 for 3 medium chicken breasts = RM 2.33 per chicken breast), half a packet of baby spinach (RM 6 per packet = RM 3.00 per serving), shiitake mushrooms (RM 5 for a packet of 3 servings = RM 1.67 per serving), chicken stock made from cube (RM 6.00 for a packet of 12 cubes, each serving = RM 0.50), 2 cloves of garlic (RM 3 for about 2 garlic bulbs and about 6 cloves per bulb = RM 0.50 for 2 cloves), 5 cherry tomatoes (RM 5.50 for a packet of cherry tomatoes containing 3 servings = RM 1.83 per serving), coriander (RM 2.50 per bunch and I used I sprig so an estimating a generous RM 0.50), juice of 1/2 a lemon (RM 6.00 for a packet of 5 lemons, works out to RM 1.20 per lemon = RM 0.60 for half a lemon), feta cheese (RM 10.00 for a block of Apetina cheese that will get me through 6-8 servings = RM 1.25 per portion), whatever oil you have lying in the kitchen, salt & pepper. Total RM 15.18

The Preparation
1. Pre-grill chicken with a bit of the oil, salt & pepper.
2. Cook quinoa with stock made from chicken cute + hot water. Season.
3. In a separate pan sauté garlic with a bit of oil. Add shiitake mushrooms, halved cherry tomatoes, and spinach until leaves have wilted. Season.
4. Add veggies to the quinoa mixture.
5. Drizzle lemon juice.
6. Add cubed feta cheese.
7. Sprinkle with coriander 

On a springtime Saturday

Poached eggs over smoked salmon and asparagus
Waking up early with a smile on your face. Lazing in bed knowing there is a slight drizzle outside but enjoying the comforting thought that you are not under any pressure to get up anytime soon. Reading your favourite food blogs for inspiration while sipping on a hot, strong, cappuccino. The perfect breakfast. I can’t think of a better way to start off a springtime Saturday.

So maybe it is not exactly spring in Malaysia considering we only have two types of weather – scorching hot and thunderous rainy days. Birds continuously chirp and trees flower pretty much all year round here. However while going through my usual blogroll and soaking in the entries dedicated to the fresh seasonal produce during this time of the year, I could not resist the urge to join the bandwagon in celebrating the arrival of spring in many parts of the world. Think a wonderful array of green and yellow – asparagus, peppery rocket, watercress, radish, chicory, heirloom tomatoes. The foodie spring fever has certainly kicked in with many features on light, bright, and fresh dishes to honour the season of new life. They May asparagus month is always one of my favourite times of the year. These lovely green spears require absolutely minimal cooking as the main standout is in its natural flavour. I always rejoice in the fact that the inclusion of asparagus to any dish invariable adds a touch of class, transforming a simple home cooked dish into an elegant, gourmet meal. Luckily for me  (but not so for the carbon footprint), asparagus tends to be available throughout the year since this is imported from various locations.

Inspired to bring the joyful spirit of spring to my tropical kitchen in Malaysia, I started off a wonderful Saturday morning with poached eggs, lightly grilled asparagus, smoked salmon topped with a yoghurt hollandaise. Such a simple breakfast with minimal cooking time and yet you come away feeling like it is a grand celebration of a special occasion. Guaranteed to put a spring in your step to welcome the weekend ahead.

Poached eggs over asparagus and smoked salmon
with a yoghurt hollandaise sauce

Basic Ingredients
Asparagus, smoked salmon, eggs, half a ciabatta, butter. 
For the sauce: onion, garlic, small single portion tub of natural yoghurt, 1 tbsp dijon mustard, dried thyme, juice of 1 lemon, olive oil, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1. Toast ciabatta
2. Trim off their ends and blanche asparagus spears in boiling water for about 1 minute. Following this, pan grill with a bit of butter for about 2-3 minutes to add a bit of smokiness.
3. For the sauce – sauté onion and garlic with olive oil. Add yoghurt, dijon mustard, lemon juice, thyme, and season. Let sauce reduce.
4. Poach eggs.
5. To plate, line ciabatta with asparagus and smoked salmon. Top with poached eggs and a drizzle of the yoghurt hollandaise.