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.

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  

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. 

Pesto power

Grilled chicken with pesto pasta
I love weekend afternoons spent at BSC’s centre court. It’s as close as I will get to the Borough Market experience here, with its cosy bakeries, luring delis, and wonderfully quirky artisan products. The prices of these products however can often be not as enticing. A recent Sunday afternoon stroll admiring the aisles lined with beautifully packaged homemade looking jams and condiments had me stopping dead in my tracks after spotting a 100g jar of pesto, apparently crafted from a secluded town tucked away in the lush Italian hillside, selling for RM 45! That’s barely two not-so-generous servings of pesto in a pasta dish at such a wallet damaging price!

Determined not to be duped into paying exorbitant Bangsar prices, I accepted the challenge of creating the comforting joys of homemade pesto without leaving a hole in my wallet. A quick stop at the neighbouring supermarket and I was armed with a shopping bag of necessities for my own DIY blend, spending the same price I would have paid for the rip-off-in-a-jar. The main difference? I could make enough pesto to get me through my cravings for the next three months (fresh pesto is freezer friendly) and would still be left with a surplus of ingredients for lunch over the next few days (think pine nuts and Parmesan shavings to garnish a salad – yum).

Lesson learned that while it may be nice feeling of escapism to enjoy a taste of traditional Italy via fancily packaged jars of imported products, the true artisan root of cooking often starts in your very own kitchen.

Grilled chicken with pesto pasta

Basic Ingredients
For the pesto: 2 bags of fresh basil, 2-3 garlic cloves, a handful of pine-nuts, grated Parmesan to your heart’s content, olive oil, salt & pepper.
For the pasta: spaghetti, cherry tomatoes, grilled chicken (I marinated the chicken with olive oil, lemon juice, salt & pepper and grilled this), creme fraiche (or sour cream of creme fraiche is too crazily priced where you live), chili flakes, onion, garlic, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1. To make the pesto: Chop the basil and garlic. Blend in a food processor. Throw in  a handful of pine nuts and Parmesan to your liking. Keep adding olive oil until pesto becomes a thick but moist consistency. Some people like more olive oil in their pesto (makes the mixture more runny) whereas I prefer my pesto still quite thick and less oily. Season.
2. Cook pasta in salted boiling water. Once pasta is al dente, drain but reserve some of the cooking liquid.
3. Saute garlic and onion with a bit of the olive oil. Add chili flakes.
4. Add cherry tomatoes. Cook until this has softened.
5. Add pasta, grilled chicken, 4- 5 tbsp of the fresh pesto mixture, creme fraiche/sour cream, and season. Add reserved pasta cooking liquid so that dish is not too dry.
6. Tadaa – a taste of Italy on a plate.

Plenty of joy

Pasta with aubergines, tofu, and mango
I love Yotam Ottolenghi. I absolutely love everything about his philosophy on food – from his regular column with The Guardian (The New Vegetarian), his deliciously inspiring restaurants, to his breathtakingly beautiful cookbooks. I was fortunate enough to work round the corner from the flagship restaurant in Notting Hill. Although the occasional treats at inflated Notting Hill prices would leave numerous dents in my wallet, this did not stop me from my daily food-window-shopping-mouth-drooling ritual. Every morning while on my way to the office, I would peek into the store to salivate over the gorgeous display of cakes and pastries, while trying to constantly remind myself that it would be absolutely sinful to start the morning with brownies, even if they were London’s very finest. Stepping into any of Ottolenghi’s restaurants, whether it is to enjoy a meal or ogle, transports you into a world of food where where fusions of flavours know no boundaries.

The thing I love most about his style of cooking is that it is so very distinctive. There are certain unique flavour combinations that automatically scream Ottolenghi. Some of my favourite Ottolenghi signature combinations are featured in his book Plenty. This is without a doubt one of my all time classic books – flipping through the pages of recipes and mesmerising photography, you completely forget that Plenty only features vegetarian dishes. The book is pure storytelling at its best as readers are taken on a journey chapter by chapter celebrating the different varieties within the vegetable kingdom. One of the most enjoyable sections is where the humble aubergine is transformed into the king of all vegetables, with creations such as Lentils with Grilled Aubergine, Aubergine Tricolore, and Aubergine Croquettes. The best part about the recipes in Plenty is that they are not designed to be vegetarian alternatives to popular meat based dishes. Here, vegetarian dishes are heroed and revered in their own right, without any lengthy discussions on the absence of meat. 

The dish below is one of the star standouts from Plenty. Originally the recipe calls for soba, but I figured it was a safe swap using wholewheat spaghetti since I am deathly allergic to buckwheat. The substitution still works to allow the meaty aubergines to infuse the sweetness of the mangoes and tart dressing. This vibrant dish helped brighten up a long and dreary Thursday after a very long, tiring week. I am looking forward to more joyful discoveries as I make my way through the palate changing journey that is Plenty

Pasta with aubergines, tofu, and mangoes

Basic Ingredients
Wholewheat pasta (or soba noodles), ripe yellow mango, aubergine, basil leaves, coriander, red onion. For the dressing: 1/2 cup rice vinegar, 3 tbsp sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 garlic cloves, red chill finely chopped, 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil, grated zest and nice of 1 lime, 1 cup sunflower oil. 

The Preparation
1. In a saucepan, warm the vinegar, sugar, and salt for up to 1 minute until the sugar dissolves. 
2. Remove from heat and add garlic, lime zest and its juice.
3. Heat up sunflower oil and shallow fry aubergines. Once golden brown, remove to a colander and sprinkle with salt and leave to drain.
4.  Cook pasta in salted boiling water until al dente.
5. Cut tofu into small rectangles and pan fry (I did not use oil).
6. In a mixing bowl, toss the noodles with the dressing, diced mangoes, aubergine, basil leaves, coriander, and thinly sliced red onions.
7.  Set aside for 1 to 2 hours. When ready to serve add the rest of the herbs and mix well. 

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.  

Always hopeful, never defeated

Prawn pasta
While driving home listening to Coldplay’s Shiver on repeat for the fifth consecutive time in a row, it still amazes me how when it comes to matters of the heart, this song articulates my exact feelings, better than I could ever formulate my emotions into words. Time and time again, I turn to this gorgeous song about longing, unrequited love, falling in that scary kind of way, invisibility, patience, and never giving up hope (all this in a dreamy 5 minutes!). Every single time I hear Shiver, it’s almost as if Chris Martin physically manifests himself in front of me, like a genie from my deafening car speakers, plunges his fists into my heart to read everything I am feeling in that instant. He pens the song just for me, in the full knowledge that I will continue to bottle up my sentiments, never having the balls to verbalise them to anyone, so Coldplay volunteer to do all the pleading on my behalf.

During that same hazy drive home, it came to me that in addition to having a go-to soul bearing song, I also have a meal that I turn to for comfort when love has disappointed me. All I could think about was making a hearty bowl of prawn pasta. My emotional connection to this dish is equivalent to the stereotypical image of ‘girl bawling eyes out over tub of ice-cream or box of chocolates’ in the hopes that these simple indulgences will act as an opiate to numb the broken heart. My version is probably less glamorous with a messy plate of tomato based pasta. Crying while slurping long strands of spaghetti is not a pretty sight! So personal (or unattractive!) is the attachment that I feel quite uncomfortable cooking this meal for people as it feels as if I’m serving up my heart on a plate for the world to see.

I can’t really pinpoint what it is about the prawn pasta that draws such a protective/trusting reaction – maybe it’s the creaminess of the sauce promising to soothe any feelings of rejection or possibly its hopeful Italian associations to the purveyors of passion and amore. Everything about this dish from the way it is put together to the presentation is haphazard, random, spontaneous – a free fall. It encapsulates the whirlwind of emotions when you lose a piece of yourself to someone else. Everything feels a bit blurry, confusing, but so right.

But while Coldplay willingly choose to continue waiting, for my own sanity (and to avoid a carb & cream overload), I have chosen to let go, hoping that every bite brings me closer to leaving feelings of defeat behind, so that I can always remain hopefully optimistic. I started 2012 on a mission to seek positive energy, so it’s time to move on.

Prawn pasta

The Ingredients
Spaghetti, prawns, 1 x can of chopped tomatoes, splash of white wine, single cream (or creme fraiche), sliced red chillies, garlic, drop of balsamic vinegar, cherry tomatoes, olive oil, salt & peppper.

The Preparation
1. Cook spaghetti until al dente. Reserve some of the pasta liquid.

2. Saute garlic and red chillies in olive oil.
3. Add halved cherry tomatoes.
4. When tomatoes look partially cooked and garlic starts to brown, add a splash of white wine and can of chopped tomatoes.
5. Cook until tomato sauce starts to bubble then add in drop of balsamic vinegar and season. I find that the balsamic vinegar neutralises the tartness of the tomatoes.
6. Add prawns and when prawns have started to turn slightly pink add in cream, followed by pasta.
7. Serve topped with rocket leaves.