The search for the signature dish

Quinoa patties and roasted aubergine salad
My priorities in life have always been off the beaten track in comparison to most people I know. When faced with turning the big 3-0, rather than be a normal girl panicking about the fact that I am no where near walking down the aisle or popping out babies, I was hyperventilating about ‘the more important things in my life’. I still could not run 5km under 27 minutes, I had never been to an outdoor music festival, and I was no where near being able to fund my dream of spending a year traveling around the Nordic region. As I blew out the significant birthday candle, I did take a moment to rejoice my biggest accomplishment to date – touching my toes after a lifetime of inflexibility, all courtesy of yoga. So yes, my priorities in life are a little less conventional. 

Perhaps the most important goal on my bucket list was the quest for the my signature dish. As a person who cooks a lot and loves experimenting with new foods, one would think that by now surely I already have a dish I can proudly cook with my eyes closed. Wrong. I have been on this mission for years now, feeling like I was fruitlessly searching for the holy grail. You see, THE signature dish is so much more than just an ordinary meal you can comfortably cook. It’s THE DISH that best exemplifies your attitude to food and your style of cooking. I see the signature dish as an extension of yourself – it personifies your personality, character, experience, and outlook on life with every single bite. It’s THE DISH you want everyone to associate you with. THE DISH you are best known for. THE DISH people ask for when they think of you. 

For a while now I was confident that my signature dish would be a hearty plate of pasta. I even thought I had discovered it with my Prawn Pasta – it has a sense of carefreeness combined with soulful indulgence. That’s so me! Or so I thought. Don’t get my wrong,  I love my prawn pasta and without a doubt it is the dish I go to when trying to mend a broken heart or when life has kicked me in the ass. But face it, prawn pastas are aplenty. There are so many more talented cooks and restaurants that do even more amazing prawn pastas. So rather than have a mediocre signature dish, I would rather own something that is more unique to me. 

And last week, eight months post turning 30, I found it. It even sparked a term for the food that I cook. When trying to explain the dish to a friend (who is not so familiar with the world of veggie cooking/ingredients), I said something along the lines of ‘It’s just weird Tasha food.’ He then replied ‘WTF food?’ To which I sarcastically said ‘Yeah, you’ll be guaranteed to taste it, spit it out, cursing what the f**k?’ So he tasted a bite and said, ‘It’s WTF food alright – wonderful Tasha food.’ Ok so it was rather cheesy, but depending on how adventurous your taste buds are, my style of cooking can always be summed up as either one of the three 1) What the f**k? 2) Weird Tasha Food 3) Or if we’re on the same wavelength, hopefully, Wonderful Tasha Food.

The Quinoa Patties creation was a result of trying to finish off some leftover ingredients, while the Roasted Aubergine Salad was inspired by a recipe I saw on The Kitchn. Despite stemming from other recipes, I feel confident to own both dishes since I’ve tweaked them to my liking and will always insist on serving the two together. I’m ecstatic that my signature dish is vegetarian, with slightly more intriguing ingredients than the average meal because that’s what I’m about. It’s a reflection of my dedication to veggies, my passion for experimentation and ‘weird’ ingredients, late nights experimenting on flavor combinations, and my absolute commitment to healthy eating. 

And oh the absolute joy of crossing this off the ‘Things to do before turning 35 list’ (containing a mix of carryovers from the 30s list and new quirky missions). I cannot stress the importance of having a bucket list of amusing and accomplishable goals that will help make you appreciate the small, joyful moments in life. I read somewhere that many people go through a depressing life crisis between the ages of 30 – 40 as a result of setting unrealistic deadlines that place pressure on needing to be a certain degree of success, wealth, position and normal societal labels (i.e. mom, wife, have-it-all). So for now, with signature dish discovered, it’s time accelerate that marathon training to get than 5km under 27 minutes.

Quinoa patties

The Basic Ingredients
1 cup cooked quinoa, cumin, paprika, chopped red onion, chopped garlic, grated parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, chopped parsley, chopped capers, juice of 1/2 a lemon, 2 tbsp flour.  

The Preparation
1. Mix all of the above ingredients and form into patties/ball shapes.
2. Bake until patties are golden brown.

Roasted aubergine salad

The Basic Ingredients
2 aubergines, olive oil, 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon honey, paprika, cumin, 4 cloves of chopped garlic, juice of 1 lemon, 1 tbsp soy sauce, chopped parsley, chopped walnuts, feta cheese, chopped spring onions. 

The Preparation
1. Cut the eggplant into 1 inch cubes in put in a large bowl with salt. 

2. Whisk together olive oil, red wine vinegar, honey, paprika, and cumin
3. Toss aubergines into the marinade and spread onto baking sheet.
4. Roast for 40 minutes until aubergines are tender and brown. It helps to stick every 15 minutes to make sure aubergine cubes are not burning. Remove from the oven and cool slightly.
5.  In a large bowl whisk lemon juice and soy sauce. Add aubergines to mixture ad stir parsley, walnuts, spring onions, and goats cheese. 

You really are what you eat

Brown rice salad with tofu, grilled aubergines and zucchini
Tonight is absolute testament to the fact that constantly eating outside food and lack of exercise has a significant impact on the way you feel. I’m feeling like a cliched social experiment now while I lie in bed on a Saturday night with a high fever and my conscience smugly taunting me ‘I told you so’. Yes that’s right. I’m sick. Not the minor ‘I’ve got the slight sniffles’ bug but the ‘every muscle in my body is aching and it feels like someone has just submerged me into hell’ type ill. For the first time in two years. I should probably be sleeping this off but I think the temperature has slightly gotten to my head. On top of the cocky conscience gloating away, I’m also feeling a euphoric epiphany moment that my outlook towards food and life may have some truth in it (and is not a load of hippy BS as some would think). I just had to get these words down. 

These past two weeks have been a bit of a haze for a number of reasons. Blame it on the fact that I’ve been walking on cloud nine, stressful late nights at work, anxiety over the avalanche of work that has been thrown at me, and well too much partying (music festivals and visiting friends – all have been worth it though). While I’m still forcing myself to get up for my early morning runs, yoga has taken a slight back seat in priority. At the same time, despite being religious about my packed lunches,  my dinner routine has involved a lot of eat out. I do try my best to make healthy choices when I’m out – noodle soups over anything fried, stir fried veggies instead of curries, and salads over unhealthy sarnies but what can I say, when you are on cloud nine even the most oily maggi goreng will taste like a slice of heaven.

As a result of these circumstances, my track record of not being ill for two years now ends with my body feeling like it is on fire and my head wanting to explode. Despite being in pain, I do feel a sense of satisfaction knowing that the decisions I have made to eat healthily, prepare my own meals, surrendering to yoga, and running have all taken care of my body over the last few years. I did not have much of an appetite earlier tonight but was adamant to redeem myself so I made the salad below using some of the leftover ingredients that have been lying around the fridge since my Orzo lunchbox. Side note to self, a recipe that calls for grilling different veggies, cooking brown rice, and sautéing is probably not the best thing to cook when you can barely stand. Hopefully this magical concoction of veggies and whole grains will nourish me back to health. More than ever I remain committed to my philosophy of healthy eating equals a healthy self. 

Brown rice salad with tofu, grilled aubergines and zucchini

Basic Ingredients
Brown rice, tofu, zucchini, aubergine, red pepper, sun dried tomatoes, onions, butter, cumin, olive oil, feta cheese. For the dressing: olive oil, red wine vinegar, dijon mustard.

The Preparation
1. Cook brown rice as per packet instructions. I like cooking rice as I would do pasta when  using in salads to retain an al dente texture. Once cooked, I transfer the rice into a sieve, pour cold water and let it strain. 
2. Pan fry tofu.
3. Grill zucchini and aubergines with olive oil, salt and cumin.
4. To caramalise onions sauté with a bit of butter and salt.
5. To assemble salad add brown rice, aubergines, zucchini, caramelized onions, shredded tofu, chopped sun dried tomatoes, chopped red pepper, and crumbled feta.
6. Whiz dressing ingredients and pour over salad. 

The joys of the office lunchbox

Orzo salad with sun dried tomatoes, feta & grilled chicken
I am often asked why I go through the trouble of bringing a homemade lunch into work almost every single day. The puzzled faces I receive from most people (including daddy dearest) boils down to two things. Firstly, I work in a shopping mall so food choices are aplenty if you are not a fast food snob like me I suppose. Secondly, why go through all the trouble? On most days I finish work late and people assume that I have better things to do than slave away at the stove after a long day of briefs and confused clients. 

The ritual of preparing lunch for the office is a habit that I picked up in London while on a mission to save some cash. At my last workplace, it was common practise for my colleagues to bring their own meals from home rather than eating properly at a restaurant or buying a takeaway. Working in picturesque but ridiculously expensive Notting Hill did have its downfalls. During our lunchtime strolls for fresh air, most of us would imagine walking in the shoes of the posh yummy-mummy window shopping at lovely boutiques. However we were quickly brought back down to reality when faced with paying 12 quid for an artisan sarnie while on the measly salary of the creative agency industry rather than the earnings of the Notting Hill glitterati. When I did the math, bringing my own lunch equated to saving an average of £50 a week! That’s about a weekend’s worth of drinks at the pub! I was convinced and eagerly joined the lunchtime microwave queue without looking back. Those office microwave catchup sessions became something that I looked forward to everyday. From its original practical intentions, they turned into a fun occasion to find out what type of meals other people were eating, sample foods, swap recipes, suggest restaurants, discover the closet office foodie/chefs that were so excellent at cooking they could have quit their day jobs, and best of all the numerous incidents of food envy.

This outlook is something that has stayed with me despite my move to the land of cheap food available everywhere/anywhere/anytime. It’s something I’ll continue to practise even if it means cooking meals late at night or lugging Tupperwares around like a little school kid. In KL, lunch options are a heavy fare – think mixed rice, big portions of noodles, or bad carb laden sandwiches sure to have you fighting the urge to snooze at your desk during that important 5pm conference call. The typical day at the office goes by in such a chaotic haze, before you know it, it’s past midday and you are absolutely ravenous, conveniently grabbing the first meal in sight. It’s easy to make bad food decisions. By making my own lunch ensures that I carefully plan my meals to ensure that they are healthy and nutritious.

Since time is rarely ever on my side when I’m preparing food for the next day, I like to make sure that the cupboard is always well equipped with the basic ingredients. Salads are great quick fix meal but it’s a safe assumption that the average person cannot live on plain greens forever. I swear by cold salads with base ingredients such as cous cous, quinoa, and wholewheat penne to help make the salad more filling. Sandwiches like the classic egg or grilled mushrooms are always reliable. More than often, I find that my lunchbox becomes an outlet for food experimentation. I only ever get to sit down to eat my own cooking during the weekend. On the week day, by the time I get home and cook, it’s way too late for a full on dinner. So rather than eat the meal right then and there, I’ll still insist on cooking up a storm and pack up the new creations for work the next day. I try to cook a portion that will last two days as it allows a rest from the kitchen the following evening. 

Recently post my barley disaster, I cooked orzo for the first time, using it as a cold rice/pasta salad. I was pleasantly surprised at how the orzo had a light, refreshing feel unlike the usual heaviness associated with most white pastas. For this particular meal, my mom was keen to knick some of the salad for her dinner so I served this with grilled lemon & rosemary chicken though the Orzo could easily work by itself as a lovely, light summer salad. The sweet taste of a Mediterranean summer to break up the drudgery of the working day versus convenient mall food? No contest. 

Orzo salad with sun dried tomatoes, feta & grilled chicken

The Ingredients
Orzo, sun dried tomatoes (not in oil), cherry tomatoes, walnuts, pine nuts, spring onions, chicken breast, dried rosemary, lemon juice, salt & pepper. For the dressing: olive oil, red wine vinegar, a sprinkle of brown sugar.

The Preparation
1. For the grilled chicken, marinate meat in lemon juice, dried rosemary, salt & pepper. After twenty minutes grill the chicken pieces.
2. Cook orzo as per packet instructions (this is cooked the same way you would cook pasta). Drain.
3. Mix cooked orzo with chopped spring onions, diced sun dried tomatoes, and halved cherry tomatoes.
4. Toast walnuts and pine nuts and when brown, add to orzo mixture.
5. To make dressing whisk the olive oil, brown sugar, salt & pepper, and red wine vinegar.
6. Drizzle dressing onto orzo salad and top with grilled chicken.  

Looking at the sunny side up of things

Mushroom, cherry tomatoes & feta omelette
Unexpected, yet so comforting. Blank canvas of possibilities but also a trusting safety blanket. A sense of newness and so familiar at the same time. These are the words that I would use to describe one of the most simple and down to earth meals – the almighty omelette.

With the omelette comes  a world of exciting new filling discoveries (great for clearing out the fridge with various ingredient combos) but yet somehow, each and every bite always feels so right, as if you’ve known this taste forever – it feels like home. So experiment with ingredients, go a little crazy. Let the surprises sweep you off your feet. I’m holding on to the magic of the unexpected.

Cheese, feta, mushroom omelette

The Ingredients
Two eggs, splash of milk, chopped onions, sliced mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, butter, salt & pepper. To garnish: rocket leaves, cherry tomatoes, more feta.

The Preparation
1. Whisk the two eggs with splash of milk. Season.
2. In a pan melt butter, add chopped onions, and sautee mushrooms. Set aside.
3. Melt butter in a pan and pour in egg mixture.
4. Once egg has started to settle add in mushrooms and cherry tomatoes.
5. Add in feta cheese.
6. Fold omelette until it looks 3/4 done.
7. Serve with rocket leaves, tomatoes, additional feta, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.