The top five

We’re finally down to the last two days of 2011. It has been one hell of a year that has seen me turning my casual cooking photography into a new passion, boycotting the kitchen during my initial months in KL, and then coming full circle to start this food blog in early December. Before we bid adieu to 2011, I wanted to do a quick nod to my top five favourite moments in the kitchen this year. Yes, as lame as that sounds, I am obsessed with lists and actually remember the significance of almost all the key dishes I have cooked.  Photographing them helps imprint the memory and contextualises each meal (i.e celebratory dinner after 10KM race, soul comforting Friday night pasta after a crappy client meeting). I have had some lovely food memories this year so I’m ending 2011 on a positive and grateful note – here’s to more exciting kitchen discoveries in 2012.

So in no particular order…

1. Baked cod fillet with salsa
A healthier take on my pub grub of choice – fish & chips. Yes, yes, I know fish & chips is not the same without all the grease, however I think it is actually the quality of the fish that makes/breaks this British classic. I have such fond memories of this meal as it is a reminder of the exciting random discoveries one can encounter on a typical day out in London. In this case, a beautiful summer afternoon lazing solo in Primrose Hill led to the finding of the quaintest neighbourhood fishmonger, whose main philosophy was to provide fresh, exceptional quality, variety, environmentally sustainable, and affordable seafood. The shop owner was on a mission to inspire residents to once again trust in their local grocer. Food shopping with principles – I knew I had stumbled upon a gem. Over the next few months I became a dedicated visitor, keen to support the underdog independent seller fighting to keep his store open against the threat of the giant high street chains. Ethics aside, the freshness of the seafood at this store was worth the out-of-the-way 40 minute walk from Kentish Town to Primrose Hill.

A really good piece of fish, like the one below from said fishmonger, really does not require much preparation to it. Minimal interference will truly hero its freshness. All that is required to prepare the cod fillet is seasoning and a very mild sprinkling of breadcrumbs before baking in the oven. The cod makes a nice base to the citrus tones of the pepper salsa – a combination of chopped red, green, and yellow peppers, coriander, and lime juice. To me, this dish personifies London summer on a plate.

2. Char kway teow
And now for a Malaysian classic, the iconic char kway teow. This photograph was taken in early January 2011, the weekend before what is officially known in the UK as the most depressing day of the year. Always the third Monday in January, this is the day when the sinking realisation kicks in that party season is over, you’ve spent all your money on drinks Christmas pressies, payday is still awhile away, new year resolutions go down the drain, and it’s only going to get colder. All these factors combined is enough to make you reconsider the point of living. Succumbing to the winter blues, I attempted to recreate this signature Malaysian dish to pacify my homesickness. I say attempted because making char kway teow at home is like trying to redraw Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Basically, your classic char kway teow is a masterpiece that no matter how confident an artist/cook you are, there is just something you can’t get quite right. I have tried numerous homecooked char kway teows (including my mom’s) and they somehow do not live up to the same lip-smacking satisfaction guaranteed when eating this at a hawker stall. An intensely hot smoky wok is apparently what makes the difference (and possibly the spoonfuls of MSG). Unfazed by the impossible and craving a taste of home, I stayed up all night reading hundreds of different recipes, taking bits and pieces from various sources to concoct my own special version that both my flatmate and I absolutely enjoyed! Success was short-lived. I made the silly mistake of not jotting down the magical combination that led to smoky (not soggy) noodles and until today I have not been able to recreate this. And trust me, recent attempts have gone so very wrong. In hindsight it was probably the winter blues that made us delirious into thinking that this was the best homemade char kway teow ever but whatever the case, moral of the story, when it works – WRITE IT DOWN!

3. Watermelon & Feta Salad
No further explanation required here because I have already elaborated on the significance of this dish.  This simple salad basically revived my love for cooking during a time when I thought I had lost my mojo.

4. Grilled lemon sole with cherry tomatoes and red peppers
This is the food photo that I am most proud of to date (ok so it had a little help with Instagram effects but it’s still mine!). I find the contrast between the fish fillets and the blood red of the roasted cherry tomatoes and red peppers quite dramatic. I used lemon sole, with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, plenty of black pepper and simply oven grilled on top of some halved cherry tomatoes and chopped red peppers. This was also my first time experimenting beyond my comfort zone of salmon, cod, and tuna steaks because a fillet of cod costs an arm and a leg in Malaysia. Lemon sole is a more affordable (and just as tasty) alternative. One of the joys of cooking is improvising to best make use of what you have around you.

5. Scrambled eggs with grilled asparagus, smoked salmon, and roasted cherry tomatoes
I love this dish for a number of reasons:

Reason 1: I finally, finally got scrambled eggs right.
I am fanatical about eggs. I would like to think that I’m pretty proficient with most egg dishes – I make a mean egg sarnie (recipe to be shared soon!), my frittata and omelet combinations are creative, I know the exact time required for perfectly boiled eggs, and I can do an egg fry up with my eyes closed. BUT ask me to scramble or poach an egg and I was/am completely hopeless. In fact, I’m still useless at poaching, even with the assistance of foolproof poaching devices! Not ideal for someone very particular about her scrambled eggs because oh-my-god do I despise overcooked eggs. Prior to mastering the art, I used to force feed people (family members, flatmates, friends, randoms) into eating my overdone eggs so I didn’t have to suffer through them.

So after after much practice (and annoyance from those that live with/around me), I only got the hang of making scrambled eggs correctly THIS YEAR (slow learner!). The perfect scrambled eggs should have a rich golden colour, is lush in texture (not runny), and oozes a natural creaminess even without the addition of a tub of butter (FYI this is how most restaurants achieve to-die-for but not waist-friendly scrambled eggs). The trick is using fresh eggs and a good non-stick pan. And whatever you do, do not let the eggs settle otherwise you end up with an omelet or an overdone mess. I beat the eggs in a bowl, without any milk or seasoning – I’ve read that seasoning at this stage will affect the consistency of the end product. Add a knob of butter to a hot, pipping pan. Once the butter has melted, pour the eggs in and allow to cook for about 20 seconds. Just as the eggs begin to take form, you need to start stirring (as you would a risotto) to break up the formation. Once this is adequately broken up, let the mixture settle ever so slightly again and repeat the process of stirring furiously. Take the pan off the stove when the eggs look halfway done and continue stirring – this avoids overcooking as the eggs will naturally cook from the heat of the pan. At this stage season and add creme fraiche (optional). There’s nothing like starting the weekend with yummy scrambled eggs for brekkie.

Reason 2: I cooked and assembled the dish just for me. That’s right, for ME, solo.
When I initially shared this picture with a few people, I had comments of ‘do you actually go through all that trouble cooking breakfast for just yourself? You’re so weird!’ Well why not? It honestly was not that much effort – the asparagus and tomatoes I grilled with olive oil. Once the asparagus was cooked, I wrapped some shop bought decadent smoked salmon around the stalks to make it all look pretty. The toast took a press of a button on the toaster. That’s pretty much it. I would like to think that just because you are cooking for one does not mean you need to limit yourself to a quick fix microwaveable ready meal. Every meal you eat, either alone or with groups of people, should be a treat that you enjoy and look forward to. 
When I sit down to eat, I want to appreciate every last bite. To help break the monotony and mundane pace of everyday life, I am a strong believer in hero-ing the small moments that make the journey more joyful. And if all it takes is just a bit more preparation and consideration in my cooking to evoke these moments through a meal I’ve made, then hell yes it’s worth the extra effort. It’s about vivifying the simple pleasures in life, even if that excitement comes from a measly bite of perfectly cooked scrambled eggs.

Wishing everyone a happy new year. To more joyful moments and positive energy in 2012. x

Tis the season to be jolly

As Christmas weekend approaches, it’s beginning to kick in that one of the things I miss most about London is having a group of friends over and cooking a feast. Having your own space makes things easier and more personal (no worry of parents freaking out when the night has evolved to playing ‘i have never’) My parents are cool and open-minded but when I entertain I like to run things my way. My lovely mother has a tendency to input one too many suggestions on how I should arrange the table, change up my recipe because her way will make it better, and god forbid, the proper onion chopping techniques. Apparently I am not daughter-in-law material because I don’t chop onions correctly. Oh, so that’s why I’m still single. Right.

Moving on swiftly past a subject that I will save for another day, one of the best Christmas celebrations I had was in 2008 when I hosted my first official Christmas lunch. I was ecstatic and started planning the menu a month ahead. People were trusting ME, a semi-vegetarian who does not even eat turkey, to cook a hearty Christmas meal. Though I did have to promise that I would stick to tradition and not surprise (or scare) my guests with a new age spread of tofu turkey and cous cous, with a drizzling of goji berry dressing (though that does sound pretty yum).

Despite reading numerous articles on ‘how not to kill yourself while enduring the pressure of cooking Xmas lunch’, I went through a few panic attacks fearing that I would scar the festive traditions of the nine poor London stragglers who were already facing the sad fact of not spending Christmas with their families. A colleague recommended that I visit Marks & Spencer for  party food inspiration. Thank god for M&S, I not only left with ideas, but with my actual turkey and holy trinity of sauces all ready to go. Yes I did cheat. However, with turkey being the centre stage of all Christmas lunches, you can’t trust someone who is nauseated by big chunks of meat to clean and prep a dead bird. So I left it to the experts. All that was required on my part was unwrap bird and sauces from packaging, stick in oven/on stove, knock back a few glasses of vino, and tadaaaa Christmas feast for 9 ready to go. Oh and there was some prep work involved for the fifty million other dishes I decided should accompany the meal.

True to tradition, there was the usual mad rush Christmas morning, the pain slightly dulled by having Prosecco for brekkie while cooking (always recommended, thanks Phil). The pinnacle of it all was when I freaked out screaming ‘Why does the turkey stink?’ to which my friend Phil calmly replied ‘Because that’s how a giant turkey is supposed to smell!’ Despite the chaos, the meal went down very well. I love the way food brings people together – in that moment the outside world is forgotten as you lose yourself to tastes, flavours, (new) friends, sparks, and laughter.

Because I’m fully aware of my lack of timing and multi-tasking skills, rather than have a traditional 3 course sit down meal, I had informal standing canapes and drinks in the kitchen, followed by the sit down grand show (and more drinks), and then adjourning to the living room for dessert, games, and you guessed it, even more drinks! Christmas meals  are very personal since everyone has their own spin to them. So instead of listing down full on recipes, I’ve compiled a list of dishes that I rely on for my festive gatherings. The only recipe I’ve elaborated is Nigella Lawson’s Grilled Halloumi, which is probably one of the tastiest and easiest party snacks to prepare.

Here’s wishing everyone a beautiful Christmas filled with lots of family, friends, food, drinks, and laughter. Love, light and peace. x

All I want for Christmas is….
Start the party with 1) Bruschetta with chopped tomatoes, onions, basil, and buffalo mozzarella 2) Bruschetta with chopped mixed mushrooms, garlic, and cream 3) Smoked salmon bellinis made from pre bought bellinis topped with chopped smoked salmon, creme fraiche, chives, and horseradish 4) Nigella Lawson’s Grilled Halloumi (see recipe below) 5) Bowl of olives 6) Tortilla chips with guacomole, hummous and sour cream.

The main show 1) Turkey accompanied by the holy trinity of bread sauce, cranberry sauce and gravy 2) Stuffing balls 3) Roast potatoes and parsnips with goose fat, the way roast potatoes should be made 4) Potato Dauphinoise because you can never have enough potatoes and cheese at a festive meal  5) Glazed carrots with honey  6) Steamed brocolli with a drizzling of olive oil and a generous shaving of parmesan 7) Mashed sweet potatoes with A LOT of butter 8) All served with good company if possible.

Nigella Lawson’s Grilled Halloumi
Pan fry halloumi until it’s golden brown. Top with a dressing made from whisking olive oil, lemon juice, sliced red chillies, and pepper. Garnish with chopped coriander. It’s that simple folks and can easily be put together even when the prosecco has kicked in.