On spontaneity and avocados

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

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

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

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

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

Grilled cheese & guacamole bagel

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

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

The faithful classic

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

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

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

The classic – eggs with creme fraiche & horseradish

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

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

Egg sandwich with avocado

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

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

The omelette sandwich

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

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


It’s all in the family

Vegetarian fried brown rice
Green chicken curry
Chili & spring onion omelette
A good friend of mine once fairly pointed out that although he has found a few recipes on my blog that he could not wait to try for himself, I did not have any dishes that would help him when it came to cooking for a family. Actually, this thought is pretty spot on. Although I am absolutely passionate about cooking for loved ones and introducing people to new foods, I must admit that preparing dishes to suit the more conventional Malaysian family palate (my very own Aziz clan included) is not something I am very good at. In fact, for someone who spends most of her time in the family kitchen, I have NEVER cooked a proper, traditional meal of rice and accompanying dishes for my family. The honest truth is that my strengths as a cook lies in solo centric dishes or more experimental wholesome meals that I try to convert close friends to. The only person in my family brave enough to indulge in my kitchen adventures is my dear mom who has an open mind when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle. On the other hand my dad, who enjoys his meats, spices, and rice generally will not touch any of my dishes with a ten foot pole. 

My focus towards solo experimental cooking can be traced back to my early teenage years when I proudly (well bordering arrogantly in that ‘everything I say is right’ teen way) proclaimed to my parents that I was denouncing meat to become vegetarian. I can still remember the smugness running through me as I held back from saying “bow down you lowly carnivores, vegetarianism is the true way. PS Please still cook for me.” I stood in front of them naively waiting for reassurance from my mom that she would still cook vegetarian versions of my favorite dishes. To this day, I have no idea why I thought my mom would happily volunteer to slave through the extra effort of cooking additional meals for her demanding daughter. No such luck of course. My mom raised an eyebrow and countered with a “No problem. I denounce cooking for you then.” And she was not kidding. From that point onwards I was forced to learn how to cook my own meals. Looking back, I am so grateful she told off her bossy daughter since it was during these years that my obsession with cooking was borne. I was constantly preparing meals for myself and only in these recent years has my mom become open to the thought of someone else being in command of the family kitchen. Trust me, moms are very territorial when it comes to THEIR kitchens. I can put in a bucket of salt and my recipes still apparently need more seasoning. So having her actually enjoy my cooking now is one of my greatest accomplishments. My lovely dad however still gets the deer caught in headlights look when he thinks that my mom has passed the cooking-for-the-family-tonight baton to me. I suppose you cannot win everything.

I know that I cannot stay in my comfort zone of solo or cooking for much smaller groups forever. Times are changing, new people come into your life, and there are new families beyond my own that I want to embrace and show my love for by cooking. Two weekends ago, I surrendered myself to a traditional rice and accompanying dishes meal that included the mandatory meat, kuah (gravy), and additional condiment. I made a spread of fried rice, green chicken curry, and chili & spring onion omelette for a very special family. Like I said in Head over Veggies, cooking for others should not be an avenue to show-off your culinary skills by imposing that you think they should eat. To me, the joy of cooking is derived from combining the ingredients you love with what you know others would love to eat. Having said that, there’s no reason why I can’t add a Tasha twist to the experience though! 

Vegetarian brown fried rice (recipe inspired from The Year in Food)

Basic Ingredients
2 – 3 cups cooked brown rice, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, tofu, 2 eggs, spring onions, onions, grated ginger, onions, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt & pepper. 

The Preparation
1. Sautee onions with sesame oil on high heat until onions become crispy. Set aside.
2. Beat eggs and fry with a drop of sesame oil. Once omelet begins to form, set aside and slice thinly.
3. Sautee mushrooms with a little sesame oil. Once cooked set aside.
4. Sautee garlic and ginger with sesame oil. Add in cooked mushrooms, diced carrots, sliced tofu, brown rice, eggs, and soy sauce. Season. When rice is thoroughly mixed with the other ingredients, add in the slice spring onions.
5. Sprinkle pre-cooked onions on top of dish before serving. 

Green chicken curry
Chili & spring onion omelette (aka telur dada)

Basic Ingredients:
For the green chicken curry: chicken breast, aubergines, cherry tomatoes, peeled & quartered potatoes, coriander, yoghurt (or coconut milk), salt & pepper, spice mix containing: 3 green chillies, 1 red onion, 3 cloves of garlic, ginger, galangal, 5 kaffir lime leaves, a bunch of basil leaves, and olive oil.

For the omelette: 3 eggs, sliced red chillies, onion, spring onions, a splash of milk, olive oil, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
For the green curry:
1. Place all spice mix ingredients into a food processor and blend.
2. Place chicken breasts in a cooking pot and marinade with blended spice mix  for half an hour.
3. Following this, bring pot to the heat and add about 200ml water.
4. Add potatoes immediately since these take a while to cook. When chicken breasts are three quarters cooked add aubergines and cherry tomatoes. Allow all vegetables to cook down. Season.
5. Once curry starts bubbling and chicken is cooked, add half a small pot of natural yoghurt (if you wanted to be more indulgent about 200ml of coconut milk instead of yoghurt is heavenly).
6. Garnish with chopped coriander before serving.  

For the chili & spring onion omelette:
1. Beat eggs, add splash of milk. Season.
2. Sautee onion with olive oil. When onions are fragrant add red chilies.3. Add egg mixture and allow this to set. Add spring onions.
4. When add looks three quarters cook flip over and cook the other side.
5. Serve once the outer of the omelette starts to firm slightly and the insides are not fully cooked (I hate over cooked eggs!).


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. 

 

The pumpkin girl

Pumpkin soup
Societal labels are an interesting thing. Jock. Geek. Goth. Popular. Loser. Emo. Drama queen. We’ve all at some point or another have been wrongly or in some cases accurately defined by others. I myself am guilty of believing in these stereotypes sometimes. Looking back, those high school years were never my favourite. I went through a journey of labels – starting off from ‘the nerd with pink glasses’ in 8th grade, to ‘the shy and quiet girl’ in 10th grade, and somehow by the time I hit graduation, I had mysteriously evolved into ‘the angry goth girl’ (who got sent to the counselor for listening to Marilyn Manson).

To a certain extent labels make it easier to compartmentalise the people in your life. Sometimes a person’s quirky characteristics are better understood or are more relatable through simplified definitions. Recently a colleague of mine received a pumpkin from a client who was leaving the corporate world to venture into organic farming (lucky him). The pumpkin then went to live on my colleague’s desk for a week or two until her last day at work clear out, after which I was bestowed the honor of the organic pumpkin. She said confidently “you are the only person I know who would appreciate an organic pumpkin. You would know what to do with it. You’re the foodie. The pumpkin girl.” I would like to think that I have a close relationship with the people that I work with although the majority of them do not know me THAT well. Many of them do not even know about the existence of this blog. However it is a nice feeling that from what little they know of me, they automatically associate me with ‘Tasha the foodie’ or ‘Tasha the healthy food person’. The pumpkin girl. For once these are labels/associations that I openly embrace and welcome. I love knowing that food, wholesome home-cooked food, is so engrained in every part of me that it has become something that I automatically (and unconsciously) project in everything I do – what I say, how I act, the choices that I make – even to those who do not know me very well. This has become a defining part of who I am. 

So what did the pumpkin girl do with her organic pumpkin? Pumpkin soup of course.

Pumpkin Soup

The Basic Ingredients
One whole pumpkin, one leek stalk, 1 small potato, garlic onion, groups cumin, nutmeg, ground coriander, 1L chicken or veggie stock, olive oil, salt & pepper, creme fraiche and coriander to garnish.

The Preparation
1. Slice leeks, cube the pumpkin, dice the potato, and chop garlic and onion.

2. Sautee garlic and onion in olive oil.
3. Add the chopped veggies and cook with lid on until pumpkins are slightly tender.
4. Add stock and cook for 30 – 40 mins.
5. The pumpkin should be almost broken down at this stage, season, and remove from heat.
6. Blitz soup mixture in a blender.
7. Garnish with a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprig of coriander. 

 

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. 

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 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. 

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.

In seven years time…

Grilled aubergine, spinach & feta salad
One of the worst things that can happen in the kitchen is the gas tank dying on you midst cooking a meal to satisfy the insane hunger pangs following an intense run. What is a famished person to do with a pan of half-cooked pasta sauce?! Note to self, always have spare emergency gas, particularly during the holiday season.

With none of the usual gas suppliers around because of the CNY period, I spent the entire week trying to prepare meals that did not require cooking on the stove. One Thursday I pulled together a tuna niçoise salad for my work lunchbox, pleased with myself for remembering that canned tuna is godsend for those lazy days when you cannot be bothered to fire up the hob. As I sat down to eat, I realised that I actually have not eaten tuna for quite some time now. With each forkful, I found myself having to force down the bites and it soon became obvious that I have actually gone off my canned fishy friends. The smell, the texture – everything about the tuna put me off. And this is coming from someone who used to live off tuna sarnies or tuna topped jacket potatoes! I suppose it’s only natural for your taste buds to evolve and your association to once familiar foods can change over a period of time. My attitude towards chicken is similar. Having binged on chicken breasts as the default choice since I do not eat any other meats other than seafood, I can no longer stand the stuff (unless I absolutely have no choice and do not want to come off as a picky eater). 

On the other hand, there are certain foods that I previously would have cringed in horror at but now wonder why I have deprived myself of them all this time – smoked salmon (I shockingly could not stand the slimy texture), sashimi (I questioned why anyone would want to eat raw fish), spinach, aubergines (I was not a fan of having sweet veg/fruit in my savory dishes and till today am not too thrilled at the thought of Moroccan tanginess), and probably the biggest wtf-factor of them all, avocados! I now can’t imagine a life without any of these beautiful ingredients. I read somewhere that this evolution of tastes is natural and can be attributed scientifically to your bodily cells regenerating every 7 years. Others say this is a myth. I think the changes in your tastes boils down to age and experience. Excessive repetition leading to boredom or a bad incident with a particular food will only eventually lead to a disinterest (i.e. me and chicken). However exposure to new foods cooked in exciting ways beyond what you are used to does wonders to expand your taste buds.

Another salad that I pulled together durning my no-stove cooking week contained two ingredients I previously could not stand – aubergines and spinach. Despite my earlier aversion to the sweetness of aubergines when used in savory dishes, I now love their versatility and their ability to easily soak up the flavours of other ingredients surrounding it. Aubergines are also one of the few vegetables that taste completely different depending on how you cook them. I’m extremely thankful for my new love for the ‘king of the vegetables’ and look forward to what taste surprises the next 7 years will hold! 

Grilled aubergines, spinach & feta salad

The Ingredients
Spinach leaves, aubergine, pine nuts, feta cheese, salt & pepper. Additional ingredients that I threw in to bulk up the salad – sliced mushrooms, croutons, and leftover quinoa.

For the dressing – olive oil, lemon juice, dijon mustard.

The Preparation
1.  Slice aubergines and place in a tray drizzled with olive oil. Season the top sides of the aubergines and grill until they have softened. When they look cook, flip aubergines and grill the other side.

2. Pan fry pine nuts (I placed mine in the oven!)
3. Combine the spinach leaves, pine nuts, crumbled feta cheese, sliced mushrooms, croutons, and leftover quinoa.
4. Whisk dressing ingredients and drizzle over salad.