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 

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Saying no to the golden arches, but yes to golden grains in three ways

Quinoa with caramelised onions and mushrooms
Quinoa salad with grilled halloumi
Bulgar wheat with spiced aubergines
Following in the footsteps of the novel Eat Pray Love where main character Elizabeth Gilbert challenges her friends to describe their respective cities in one word, I  have been thinking about the word that defines KL. In the book, the city of dreams New York is full of “ambition” while sensuous Rome exudes “sex”. My beloved London town is apparently “stuffy”, to which I would wholeheartedly disagree. Spontaneous would be more like it.

So what about KL, the garden city of lights? During my initial months, I thought KL was “chillax”. There is A LOT of casual (almost apathetic) chilling out and everything seems to move at a slower pace, even the lazy speed that most people (annoyingly) choose to waltz at (sorry, walking speed is a big pet peeve of mine!). Fast forward eight months later to insane rushed deadlines and chaotic traffic, chilled out would be far from describing the city.

Ask me today and I would describe KL as being the land of “quick-fixes”. It seems that just about everyone is after an easy way out to all their problems. Extremely bad pot holes on a road? Cover it up with cheap, low quality tar to solve the problem for a week before it resurfaces again. At the slightest tinge of a cold, many people I know rush off to the doctors demanding a mountain of pills and antibiotics. No time to cook or just plain too lazy? Order McDonald’s delivery. Yup the heart attack in a wrapper can be delivered to your very doorstep. Even after 8 months, I am so incredibly amazed at the acceptance of the local fast food culture. Quick, easy and most importantly cheap food is everywhere. It is often the default choice, creating a difficult battle with myself to try to resist and turn it away. Under normal circumstances, I cannot even begin to understand how KFC or McD’s can count as part of the consideration set when trying to decide what to have for a proper meal. However upon getting numerous disapproving “you psycho, snobbish health freak” looks when I turn down a lunch/dinner invite to the Golden Arches, I sometimes wonder whether my food decisions will result in a loss of friendships and social invitations. Is taking an active stand to reject fast food really worth the risk of ostracizing yourself from the people around you who see food as something to be enjoyed and not taken so seriously? How do I not offend someone by turning away his kindhearted gesture of buying me a shop-bought sarnie made with processed white bread laden with a tub of mayo and fake cheese? 

To a certain extent, I have already isolated myself from colleagues who have given up on asking me out for a quickie lunch knowing that I would without hesitation turn down an offer for crispy fried chicken in favour of a lonely lunch at the pantry with a cold quinoa or bulgur wheat salad. Sadly, I am quite comfortable with this setup because I know that every now and then you do meet like-minded people who appreciate the importance in making the right food choices. My lovely yoga teacher left me with a glimmer of hope. Following a class this evening, he pointed out “you have just detoxed yourself so please don’t go wasting that away by putting toxins into your body”. So there are people who understand. Sorry Ronald, you will not take this away us, no matter how convenient your patties of meat are are or how your damn drive through lights entice me during my late night drive home after leaving work past midnight on an empty stomach. So long as I am still passionate about food, I will choose to cook my golden grains at 2am, thank you very much. 

Spiced aubergines with bulgar wheat salad

Basic Ingredients
Olive oil, smashed garlic cloves, 2 tsps cumin, 1 tsp ground coriander, paprika, 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon, red pepper flakes, salt & pepper, aubergines cut into circles, bulga rwheat, vegetable stock, small red onion thinly sliced, coriander, toasted pine nuts, and lime juice.  

The Preparation
1. Mix oil, garlic, cumin, coriander, paprika, cinnamon, red pepper flakes, and salt & pepper. 

2. Brush spice mix onto aubergines – score aubergines with diagonal crisscrossing lines so that the marinade soaks in. Roast until soft and tender, about 50 minutes.  
3. Cook bulgar wheat with vegetable stock.
4. Once cooked stir in onions, coriander, pine nuts and lemon juice. 
5. Serve with aubergines once cooked. Drizzle with olive oil to finish.  

1. Quinoa salad with grilled halloumi (top)
2. Quinoa with caramelized onions and mushrooms (bottom)

Basic Ingredients
Recipe 1: Quinoa, vegetable stock, 2 tsp red wine vinegar, a sprinkling of brown sugar, small garlic clove chopped, red pepper flakes, salt & pepper, cucumber, spring onions, parsley, lemon, halloumi cheese, and rocket leaves to serve.

Recipe 2: Quinoa, vegetable stock, sliced red onions, sliced button mushrooms, halloumi cheese, butter.

The Preparation
Recipe 1: 
1. Whisk together red wine vinegar, brown sugar, garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt & pepper. Add cucumber and spring onions to this mixture and let it stand for 15 to 20 minutes. 
2. Cook quinoa with vegetable stock. Season.
3. Add olive oil and lemon juice to the quinoa. Once cooled at parsley.
4. Grill halloumi until golden brown, squeeze a little lemon juice over the cheese.  
5. Combine quinoa, halloumi, and marinated cucumber and spring onions mixture to serve.

Recipe 2:
1. Cook quinoa with vegetable stock. Season. 
2. Saute onions with a bit of butter and salt until caramelized. Set aside.
3. Pan fry mushrooms with a bit of olive oil and seasoning. Set aside. 
4. Combine quinoa, onions, and mushrooms to serve. 

 

Head over veggies

Fried beehoon
Mushroom fritatta and tofu & long beans
Baked pasta with mushrooms, red peppers, spinach and aubergines
Bulgur wheat with tofu & broccoli

I love cooking for people I care about. For those within my inner circle of people I cherish, preparing a meal takes on a new, meaningful challenge. I love dedicating an insane amount to recipe brainstorming. How do I naturally integrate WTF (Weird Tasha Food) with the type of food I know the other person loves to eat?

Recently, a colleague has been taking a very close interest to my food habits. His curiosity towards my almost veggie and ‘strangely’ wholesome diet has led him to decide to become vegetarian several days a week for Lent. This is a big deal coming from someone whose diet is mostly comprised of meat based Asian (Malay) dishes. Trust me, there was an earthquake of jaws dropping to the floor in sheer shock when he announced his mission. I on the other hand, cannot even begin to express how excited I am to introduce him into this new world of food. 

To guide him on his mission, I now cook extra lunchbox portions to ensure he has easy access to healthy vegetarian dishes. My first challenge was planning a weekly menu to ensure a gradual transition to this new diet without scaring him on Day 1. For me, planning an ongoing menu is a very big deal. It carries the same weight as putting together an ultimate playlist of songs to guarantee the success of an event (i.e road trip, party, Sunday blues pity party). The following must be taken into utmost consideration:

1. Understand what the listener (or in this case eater) is already familiar with and enjoys
You would not start off a playlist for someone who thinks metal is devil music with a Slipknot track right? Same thing here. Does the person generally like vegetables? If the answer is no, then jumping straight into the deep end with more alien ingredients such as artichokes, beetroot, or even the lovely swiss chard will without a doubt lead to a complete rejection to these unfamiliar ingredients. In this case, baby steps with potato centric dishes (rostis, lentil dahl with potatoes) or tomato based sauces (pastas) may be required. However if the eater already consumes vegetables beyond potatoes as part of his everyday diet, even if veggies may not necessarily always take centre stage to his meals, more adventurous legumes can be introduced earlier on.

2. What is the context to which they will be listening/eating?
If the listener is going through a devastating heartbreak then songs about being absolutely in love or the perfection of relationships are probably best left off the mix. For road trips, out of courtesy to the driver so he/she does not fall asleep on the long drive, slow songs are an absolute no-go. Similarly, if you know the eater will have a stressful, hectic week filled with back to back meetings or late nights in the office, then a wilted spinach salad with a sprinkling of pine nuts and feta will not cut it for lunch. For such chaotic times, a salad may just cement the image that veggie food is for rabbits since it does nothing to fill the human tummy. Being able to predict their mood will help you plan for a more substantial (or lighter) menu. 

3. Transition is key!
One of my pet peeves is a playlist where the transition between songs is not considered at all. The surreal sounds of Jose Gonzalez’s ‘Heartbeats’ immediately followed by the lets-get-the-party-started beats of ‘Empire State of Mind’? Fail! The intention of a good playlist is to take the listener on a journey thus the change between each song must build up to tell a story. In the case of food introductions, a gradual transition that starts off with more familiar flavours which slowly but eventually leads to newer ingredients is essential to ensure that you do not lose the person while on this new adventure. 

In the colleague’s case I started week one of his mission by creating veggie versions of his favourite dishes. I prepared a lunchbox of stir fried rice noodles with plenty of vegetables for Day 1 and on Day 2 brought rice served Malay style with accompanying side dishes of a mushroom fritata (my healthy take on the oil drenched Malay telur dada) and tofu with green beans. I immediately scored brownie points since he already loved green beans. More importantly, I secured his trust that vegetarian food was palatable and flavour filled, rather than scaring the bejesus out off him with the odd looking black rice. For week two, I stepped it up a notch but venturing away from Asian dishes to cook a baked pasta with mushrooms, spinach, red peppers, and aubergines. This cheese filled, but healthy, meal still fell in the realm of comfortable Western fast-food territory. It is amazing how a hot layer of melted cheese can camouflage the absence of meat (I kept getting asked ‘this is vegetarian?!’). Finally this week, I was brave enough to incorporate bulgar wheat on the menu. I was initially worried that he would scoff at the dish and we would have to grab a backup veggie sarnie from Subways. Amazingly though, out of all the dishes I had cooked, the bulgar wheat with tofu and broccoli was by far his favourite! I made sure to include the recognisable Asian/curry note to the bulgar wheat by cooking it with cumin to minimize any sign of foreignness – he loved it! Apparently it reminded him of nasi goreng. Not quite, but I’ll take that comparison over a rejection. 

So our Veggie for Lent mission continues for a couple more exiting weeks. I am enjoying trawling away for new recipes to surprise him with. Who knows, I may just have him reciting the different varieties of quinoa by heart by the time Easter Sunday comes around. 

Stir fried rice noodles (Beehoon Goreng)

The Basic Ingredients
Rice noodles, sliced baby corn, sliced red peppers, sliced shiitake mushrooms, long beans cut into finger sized strips, tofu, 1/4 cup of veggie stock, soy sauce, kicap manis (sweet soy sauce), chopped chillies, chopped coriander, salt, pepper, onion, garlic, ginger.

The Preparation
1. Blanche the rice noodles in a pot of hot boiling water. Once cooked drain and run under cold water.

2. Saute onion, garlic, and ginger with some olive oil.
3. Add in the baby corn, red peppers, long beans, and mushrooms to the wok. Season.
4. Stir fry for several minutes and add the soy sauce and kicap manis.
5. Stir in rice noodles and add in veggie stock to avoid from drying.
6. Top with sliced red chillies and coriander.  

Rice with mushroom frittata and tofu & long beans stir fry

The Basic Ingredients
For the frittata: onions, enoki mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, chili flakes, 3 eggs, a splash of semi skimmed milk, soy sauce, salt, pepper. For the tofu & long beans: tofu, long beans, 1/2 cup water, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 tbsp tomato paste, 2 tsp balsamic vinegar, 2 tsp brown sugar, crushed red pepper, coriander, 1 tsp corn starch, garlic, ginger, salt & pepper. 

The Preparation
Mushroom frittata
1. Saute onions, chili flakes and mushrooms until golden brown. Add soy sauce.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk eggs and a splash of milk. Season.
3. Pour egg mixture into the pan and cook until eggs have set.

Tofu & long beans stir fry
1. Whisk 1/4 cup water, soy sauce, tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, sugar, red pepper and 1 tsp cornstarch in a small bowl. Set aside.
2.  Pan fry tofu until each side is golden brown. Transfer to a plate.
3.  Sautee garlic and ginger with olive oil. Add green beans, remaining water, soy sauce mixture, and tofu.
4. Top with chopped coriander.

Baked pasta with mushrooms, red peppers, spinach and aubergines 

The Basic Ingredients
Penne, sliced mushrooms, sliced red peppers, spinach, aubergines, 1 can of chopped tomatoes, 2 tbsp tomato puree, oregano, a splash of balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, grated mozzarella cheese, onions, and garlic.

The Preparation
1. Cook penne in salted boiling water until al dente. Drain pasta when cooked and set aside some of the liquid.
2. Cut aubergines into cubes and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Slice red peppers. Place both under grill until vegetables are slightly charred.
3. Saute onion and garlic. Throw in mushrooms and all grilled veggies.
4. Pour in can of chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, pasta liquid (about 1/4 cup).
5. Once sauce has started to bubble add oregano, balsamic vinegar and season.
6. Add cooked pasta and mix well.
7. Transfer into a baking dish, top with grated cheese and bake until cheese is golden brown.

Bulgar wheat with tofu & broccoli

The Basic Ingredients
Bulgur wheat, vegetable stock (1.5 – 2 cups stock to 1 cup of bulgar wheat), onions, paprika, cumin, tofu, tomatoes, broccoli, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1.  Saute onions with olive oil. Add bulgar wheat and cook for 2 minutes.

2. Pour in vegetable stock and allow to cook for 10 – 15 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes.
3. Once most of the liquid has been absorbed, add in paprika and cumin. Season. 
3. Blanche broccoli.
4. Pan fry tofu until golden brown on each side.
5. Mix cooked bulgar, broccoli, and tofu.
6. Serve warm. 

To farewells and inspiration

Grilled salmon with black rice
Having moved around from place to place all of my life, I thought I would be used to saying goodbye to people. When I was younger, I trained myself on the art of detachment so when it was time to leave a country, bidding farewell became effortless with minimal tears. “I’m leaving on a jet plane” became a sort of sarcastic theme song that I would constantly sing to myself to help ease the pain of parting.

In the last few years though I’m noticing that as I grow older, it is becoming harder for me to say goodbye. It’s funny really. With relative financial security and a paying job, I can hold on to the comforting thought that the people I love are only an affordable plane ride away. However I’m finding that each new farewell leaves a bigger dent in my heart, making room for insecurities of loneliness to take over. I suppose with age, you meet enough people to recognise that absolute true friends who help define you as a person are few and precious. With this important realisation, you will do anything to hold on to these friendships.

Two weeks ago I bid adieu to yet another dear friend who left to pursue his exciting journey of self discovery. This friend was my rock that ensured my sanity during my first few months of adjusting to the realities of living in KL. He introduced me to my safe haven that is our yoga studio. He would listen to me consistently whine about the chaos of working life. He patiently offered a shoulder to cry on as I chased a stupid ‘I told you so’ path but was never judgmental. He was the first person I would call when I was successful at a new yoga pose and when I discovered that aubergines with cumin were a match made in heaven. My first moment of enlightenment in 2012 was with him as we drove through the KL night, car top down, wind in our faces listening to the beautiful sounds of The Album Leaf. Philios leaving KL has left me with a heavy heart. Not only is he no longer a quick phone call/drive away, I am at absolute loss as to who to call to discuss the joys of discovering new uses of quinoa. 

I cooked this Black Rice and Grilled Salmon recipe in honor of our wonderful conversations on food, strange ingredients, wellbeing, and to our constant quest for inspiration. The recipe is inspired by Nigella Lawson’s Prawn & Black Rice Salad. I swapped the prawns for the salmon that I had lying around in my fridge, still achieving the fusion of Asian flavours and the dramatic effect of the black rice against the bright coral of the salmon (that’s Nigella speak for you – i.e. translation it looks interesting!). Be prepared though, black rice has a tendency to turn everything in sight a shade of purple so it might be safe to consider darker colored utensils when handling the rice.

Happy birthday Philios. Here’s to friendships that inspire you and believing that goodbyes are never permanent.

Black rice with grilled salmon

The Ingredients
2 cloves of crushed garlic, 2 red chillies, grated ginger, 4 tbsp fish sauce, 2 tbsp lime juice, 4 tbsp water, 2tbsp sugar, black rice, salmon, teriyaki sauce, coriander, salt & pepper, and lemon juice.

The Preparation
1. Make dressing by mixing the garlic, red chillies, ginger, fish sauce, lime juice, water, and sugar. Season.
2. Cook black rice as per packet instructions.
3. Grill salmon with teriyaki sauce, salt and pepper.
4. Once rice and salmon have cooled, spoon the dressing of the rice and flake grilled salmon through the rice.
5. Add chopped coriander.
6. You can serve this either warm or cold as a rice salad. 

I choose life.

Quinoa with grilled tomatoes & caramelised onions and grilled halloumi
Grilled prawns with avocado & rocket salad
Being in a new environment, on a number of recent occasions I have found myself in the position of defending my approach to a holistic lifestyle to reassure everyone that I am not a mental nutcase with control issues. Yes, I admit my dedication to healthy eating, running, and yoga dictates my choices, how I spend my free time, and the social decisions I make. These three integral elements define who I am so they are naturally going to take priority over other things around me. However, I reject all accusations of me being a ‘health/fitness freak’ in that obsessive calorie counting ‘I’m going to spend hours at the gym and not eat anything until I lose weight’ attitude. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that my love for food means that I can eat like a horse. A very hungry race horse. In fact, portion control is probably something I need to work on in 2012! 

Rather than focusing on a weight loss goal or having abs (or buns) of steel, I make conscious decisions on what I eat and what I do with my spare time because it is a lifestyle choice. It boils down to the simple fact that healthy, home cooked eating and exercise makes me feel better. It gives me focus and a passionate drive. Despite years of growing up in a nutrition centric household (to this very day condensed milk is banned from our home), this epiphany was inspired when I discovered running and yoga. With regular practise of both activities you become more attune to every single tingle and sensation (both good and bad) that your body exudes. Having this strong awareness encourages me to actively choose foods that will help nourish me to make me stronger, spark positive energy, and achieve a greater sense of clarity. 

I love having like-minded people who share this attitude and find it inspiring to be able trade healthy recipes and workout advise (funny, I would have never thought there would be that many similarities between yoga and circuit training!). For a recent recipe swap dinner, I introduced a dear friend of mine to the joys of quinoa by cooking the grain with roasted tomatoes and caramelised onions, topped with grilled halloumi. A side salad of grilled shrimps with rocket and avocado, along with grilled lebanese bread to mop up any juices completed the dinner. We experimented with the food layout to show that you can recreate restaurant style meals using wholesome ingredients prepared lovingly from your kitchen. See, healthy eating does not equate to food depravation (that is fad diet territory). It is about choosing the right mix of nourishing ingredients to create a delicious, filling, and nutritious meal. And I’m going to continue down this path so that I will still be happily doing headstands and ‘mental’ running sessions for the next 10, 20, and hopefully 30 years. 

‘Your outlook on life is a direct reflection of how much you like yourself.’
-lululemon

Healthy can be pretty – Quinoa with roasted tomatoes and caramelised onions topped with grilled halloumi

Grilled prawns with avocado and rocket

The Ingredients:
Quinoa & halloumi: 1 cup of quinoa, chicken stock, red onions, cherry tomatoes, dried italian herbs, cumin, paprika, salt & pepper, olive oil, halloumi

Prawn salad: prawns, olive oil, chill flakes, avocado, rocket leaves, and for the dressing – lemon juice, dijon mustard, salt & pepper, olive oil

The Preparation:
Quinoa & halloumi

1. Sautee onions with olive oil and a pinch of salt until onions have caramelised. Set aside.
2. Halve cherry tomatoes and sprinkle with italian herbs and a pinch of salt. Roast and set aside.
3. Cook quinoa with chicken stock and cumin. When grains are cooked sprinkle paprika.
4. Combine all ingredients above into the quinoa.
5. Grill halloumi – the trick to ensure the cheese does not stick onto the pan is making sure that you place the sliced cheese on a very hot pan.
6. Top grilled halloumi on quinoa mixture. 

Grilled prawn salad
1. Marinate prawns in olive oil and chilli flakes. Set aside for 15 minutes.
2. Grill prawns until they turn a coral pink and serve on a bed of rocket and chopped avocados.
3. For the dressing whisk olive oil, lemon juice, djion mustard, salt & pepper. Drizzle over salad.

Going beyond the salad

Aubergine Bruschetta
One of the resolutions that tends to crop up at this time of the year is to eat less (or completely no) meat. No one can argue about the extensive health, environmental, and ethical benefits of adopting a vegetarian diet (you can read about this
 here). I’m not going to preach about this subject since at this point in my life, I myself am not completely vegetarian. For 8 years I followed a very strict vegetarian lifestyle (of which I was completely vegan for 2 years). At this stage though because of the amount of running that I do, I have had to turn to seafood and on the very rare occasion, chicken, as additional sources of protein. 

The majority of my cooking still tends to be mostly non-meat based. The funny thing is that I am now more excited about cooking veggie dishes compared to when I was actually a practising vegetarian. Back then I was less willing to experiment with food and relied on the trusted basics of potatoes, lettuce, mushrooms, tomatoes, and pasta. This meant a repetitive cycle of meals centred on salads, jacket potatoes, and bland spaghettis. However in the last couple of years, I have become more adventurous with the vegetables, grains and pulses I rely on. This attitude has opened up a whole new world of cooking for me.

I wanted to write this post to reassure people that a vegetarian meal does not have to be boring and and restricted to the plain salad. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love salads. I recently got a new salad cookbook as a Christmas pressie, which reaffirms there are endless of possibilities that you can create, as long as you are willing to experiment to go beyond the generic iceberg lettuce/Caesar salad combination. 

The recipe below for an Aubergine Bruschetta is entirely vegetarian and guess what, not a leafy green in sight! Fine, it uses mint leaves but this is treated as a garnishing rather than a main component. This dish is proof that a vegetarian meal can be excitingly bold in flavours – from the slightly tangy and sweet salsa (sweet tomatoes and salty capers), to the meaty juiciness of the aubergines. The presentation and explosion of flavours remind me of the slightly strange but glorious experimentations by the veggie restaurants Brighton is so famous for (how I miss Terre a Terre). The original recipe from Smitten Kitchen, one of my favourite food blogs, uses ricotta but I’ve substituted this for feta (more value for money in Malaysia). To make this into a more filling meal, I serve the aubergines with bulgur wheat simply cooked with onions and tomato puree to help enhance the tomato tones in the salsa. This dish works just as well without the bulgur wheat, as a starter/canape that is a lighter take on the standard bruschetta.

So if your new year’s resolution is to go vegetarian or simply eat less meat, then read, learn, experiment, get excited, and expand your repertoire of ingredients. Otherwise you risk failing miserably in two months after your fifth Caesar salad or jacket potato! 

Aubergine bruschetta served on a bed of bulgur wheat

Basic Ingredients
Aubergines, tomatoes, red onions, capers, mint leaves, olive oil, red wine vinegar, bulgur wheat, onions, vegetable stock, tomato paste, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1. For the aubergines – cut into thick slices. Drizzle about 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil on a baking tray and layout the aubergines. Season with a generous amount of salt & pepper. Grill until the aubergine flesh is dark, smoky in color and soft to the touch. Flip slices and grill to match the other side.

2. For the tomato salsa – de-seed tomatoes (I used cherry tomatoes so this was a rather extensive process!). Add the remaining chopped ingredients to the tomatoes – mint leaves, capers, red onions, and crumbled feta. Drizzle some olive oil and red wine vinegar, season.
3. For the bulgur wheat – sauté sliced onions in olive oil. Once onions have browned, cook bulgar wheat with vegetable stock. When bulgur wheat looks 3/4 cooked, season with pepper and add a dollop of tomato puree (roughly about 1 tsp).
4. To serve – scoop salsa onto grilled aubergine slices and serve on top of the bulgur wheat.

Food to fuel the soul

Quinoa salad with broccoli, cherry tomatoes, tofu, avocado & feta
I’ve recently developed a slight addiction to all things grain and seeds – cous cous, bulgar wheat, barley (as a replacement to arborio rice in risottos) and best of all, quinoa. In fact, I’ll happily choose grains over rice, pasta, and noodles. Shock, horror, because most people will know about my emotional attachment to the carbs goodness of pasta as the ultimate comfort food. I was (and still am) a staunch sceptic of the Atkins diet. A life without (good) carbs is not worth living!

Back to the point, what I love most about grains is their versatility. You can just about toss any combination of vegetables (or meat if desired) and the dish is transformed into a new, exciting meal. At the moment I’m having quite a lot of fun experimenting with what I can whip up with quinoa. To my amazement quinoa can easily be found in the organic section of most supermarkets in Malaysia. The types of quinoa available are also far more extensive than London!

I was first introduced to this superfood when I was trying to cook meals that could sustain me through a 10km run on the weekends. Just a few random facts – quinoa technically is not a grain. It’s a seed from a grain-like crop that was prized by the ancient Incans as being sacred as they relied on the seed to keep their people and armies strong. Quinoa became known as ‘the gold of the Incas’. These little gems are a nutritional powerhouse, packed with a higher protein content than most grains, eggs, or dairy products. It is ideal for the dieter as well as it’s a good source of complex carbohydrates that has a low glycemic index to avoid any blood-sugar surges. Your standard quinoa salad provides a meal high in vitamins, minerals and protein, while low in fat and calories. In addition to its detoxifying properties, a cup of quinoa is also known to help increase the delivery of oxygen to the blood, boosting energy and brain power. So food to make you skinny and smart? 🙂

You can imagine that this combination of energy fueling carbohydrates and nurturing protein (runners need protein for muscle growth and repair), makes this superfood a runner’s dream. I find that having quinoa before a run ensures a significant improvement to my performance. Not only can I have a pretty big serving without worrying about a stitch as a result of being too full or weighed down, I also feel so much more energy, see an improved breathing pace, and have more stamina to run for a longer duration. Fatigue does not become an issue as I feel almost impervious to the distance I’ve covered. You can literally feel the strength kick in, as if the superhero mode in you is all of a sudden unleashed. This was easily my meal of choice to power me through my half marathon earlier this year. 

One of my favorite combinations is quinoa with broccoli, cherry tomatoes, tofu, avocado, and feta. So easy to put together, it’s the perfect fusion of Asian and Western ingredients. This blend of magic food and veggies is pretty much wholesomeness and goodness personified. 

Quinoa salad with broccoli, cherry tomatoes, tofu, avocado & feta

Basic ingredients
The name of the salad pretty much sums up the list of ingredients! Easy. You’ll also need some grated ginger and chicken stock.

The magic
1. Cook quinoa (ideally soaked for 2 mins in water before cooking) with chicken stock and grated ginger. The way to tell if they are cooked is to check if the seeds have split to reveal an almost tail-like shape. Season.

2. Pan fry tofu to hold its shape and so it does not disintegrate into the salad. 
3. Add cooked quinoa to boiled broccoli, halved cherry tomatoes, sliced avocados and feta. That’s pretty much it. The spiciness of the ginger and creamy textures of the avocados and feta does not even warrant additional dressing but you could always drizzle with some lemon juice and olive oil before serving.

An ode to Sunday brunches

Bulgur Wheat, Puy Lentils  Mushroom & Caramalised Onions Salad
I can easily say that hands down, today has been the best Sunday I’ve had in KL. I broke away from the usual routine of isolating myself at the yoga centre to feast on the brunch buffet at the newly opened Acme Bar & Coffee at The Troika. Their Sunday brunch setup reminds me so much of Ottolenghi’s cafes in London – platters of wholesome salads, imagination, fusion of ingredients, and odd combinations that work so well together. I loved the fact that there were various moments of ‘oh wow this is good’ as we sampled new dishes. 

Not only was there delicious food, but great company as well. Today reminded me of how Sundays should be spent – lazily eating copious amounts of good food, over an extended period of time with great people, and surrounding yourself with conversation and laughter. The usual Sunday blues (well more like panic attack) of going back to work after being on leave for 2 days last week seemed like a distant memory once the food coma kicked in. 🙂 

Returning home after spending three and a half hours feasting away, I was not in a rush for my next meal but was inspired to try out the recipe below for tomorrow’s work lunch – Bulgur Wheat, Puy Lentils, Mushrooms & Caramalised Onions. This is slightly inspired by the Acme Bar & Coffee Bar’s Bulgar, Quinoa & Onion salad but I was out of quinoa and had to improvise! I’ll be tucking away into this and thinking of my perfect Sunday when shit hits the fan at work tomorrow. 

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Bulgur Wheat, Puy Lentils  Mushroom & Caramalised Onions Salad

Basic ingredients
Bulgur wheat, portobello mushrooms, puy lentils, spinach, slivered almonds, cumin and paprika for the bulgur wheat, chicken stock, onions, butter, feta cheese (*at the time of the picture taking I had completely forgotten to add in the feta so this salad can easily work without it as well)

The magic
1. Cook the bulgur wheat with chicken stock and cumin. Season with paprika and pepper.

2. Sautee the portobello mushrooms with olive oil.
3. Boil the puy lentils in some salted water.
4. Toast the almonds. 
5. Now this is where the magic ingredient comes in – the caramelised onions is what makes this dish. I loved the fact that the Acme Bar & Coffee had lovely sweet onions in their salad. Sautee onions in butter until they have caramelized. 
6. Mix all the above ingredients together with the spinach.
7. Top with crumbled feta cheese as a bonus.  

Seven easy steps to get to the goodness of ‘forget Sunday blues’ in a bowl.

Two birds with one stone

Grilled chicken, avocado, & halloumi tortilla and Grilled chicken & halloumi with cous cous
Best example of what has been a recent obsession of mine – trying to make a variety of interesting meals using the same set of ingredients. Let’s face it, while I would love to be able to grocery shop everyday in KL to cater to my daily (random and ever changing) cravings, food costs are expensive here. Gone are the days where I could quickly pop into Sainsbury’s and buy ingredients to assemble a healthy and flavorful lunch for a fiver. In KL for a decent healthy meal, don’t expect a bill less than under RM 20. In fact, I still have heart attacks when I’m faced with what I have to pay at the till!

Grilled chicken, avocado, and halloumi tortilla

Factor in the fact that I absolutely hate food wastage, I started up this project to see how many different dishes I could make using the same base ingredients. I must admit that this mission was also an attempt to disprove the myth that cooking for the one person meant being doomed to eating the same leftovers again and again over the next few days. So here’s to cooking (and eating) solo, but still being able to enjoy variety.

Grilled chicken & halloumi with cous cous

Base ingredients & preparation
Chicken breast, halloumi cheese, cous cous, tortilla wrap, avocado, cherry tomatoes, red pepper, cucumber, rocket, capers, lemon, natural yoghurt.

Grill the chicken breast with paprika, cumin, yoghurt and chill flakes.
Pan fry halloumi until golden brown

And now for the assembly…
Tortilla
I like to spread a thin layer of dijon mustard on the tortilla for a bit of a kick. Line tortilla rocket leaves, the sliced grilled chicken, sliced red peppers, halloumi (sliced vertically), and avocado. Serve with the natural yoghurt.

Grilled chicken & halloumi with cous cous
Cook cous cous with chicken stock and ginger. Once all the liquid has absorbed, run a fork through the cous cous to avoid the grains from sticking. Sprinkle some paprika into the cous cous. Season. Top with grilled chicken and halloumi slices.

For the salsa I just finely chop some cucumber and cherry tomatoes. Throw in a few smashed capers for a kick and serve with a olive oil and lemon vinaigrette.