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!).


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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. 

The search for the signature dish

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quinoa patties

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

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

Roasted aubergine salad

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

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

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

You really are what you eat

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

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

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

Brown rice salad with tofu, grilled aubergines and zucchini

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

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

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.

Mission teetotal = mission total fail

Homemade cheats pizza
Confession, mission teetotal did not last as long as I thought it would. I fell off the wagon after two measly weeks! I want to be able to blame it on a crappy client meeting, a big event ie best friend’s birthday/wedding, or even peer pressure. But I can’t. There is no one else to fault except myself. What can I say, nothing beats a glass of vino  (or errr a can of Tiger) on a Friday night after a very long week. To avoid slipping into total hermit isolation in the run up to June, I’m going to revise my plan from completely shunning drinks to moderate consumption. Just as long as I do not get drawn into the out-till-6am-scoffing-down-a-plate-of-greasy-maggi-goreng Friday night outings so that I can still have a long, productive training session the following day.

Over the weekend I found myself craving a pizza but I was keen to avoid succumbing into yet another food vice and wanted to hold on to some semblance of  an ‘eating for training’ regime. I really do enjoy creating healthier versions of my favourite foods, especially if the better-for-you replicas retain all  the intended flavours, avoiding the ‘what have you done, it now tastes like cardboard’ trap. It’s amazing how a simple swap of ingredients can make such a difference in terms of overall nutritional content. The idea of using wholemeal pitta bread as a pizza base was originally my sister’s and it’s perfect for people like me who cannot be  bothered to go through the process of making my own dough (translation: I am ashamed to admit the fact that I am a crappy baker). A great thing about pitta bread in Malaysia is that it is circular in shape, rather than the English oblong pittas, so it lends itself perfectly as a base to whatever crazy topping combination your heart desires. Not only does making your own pizza allow you to incorporate nutritious veggies more than some of the store bought options, it also allows you to be a bit more experimental with your ingredients. For the pizza’s below, I made three different types for the family to share: 1) A classic mushroom, tomato, basil & mozzarella 2) Roasted aubergines, basil & mozzarella 3) A florentine inspired spinach, pine nuts, feta, and caramalised onions (I have developed a recent obsession with caramalised onions and am on a mission to include this in just about everything that I cook!).

I guess moral of the story is that you can still enjoy your favourite foods while training but the little swapping tricks will ensure that you do not make too much of a dent to the healthy eating mission. Now if I could only find a healthy substitute for my vino.

Homemade cheats pizza

Basic Ingredients
Wholemeal pitta bread, tomato paste, dried oregano, salt & pepper, a bit of olive oil.

Topping option 1:Cherry tomatoes, basil, sliced mushrooms, mozzarella cheese
Topping option 2: Sliced aubergines, chilli flakes, basil, mozzarella cheese
Topping option 3: Sliced onions, spinach, pine nuts, feta cheese

The Preparation
1. Mix the tomato paste with the dried oregano and season.

2. Spread paste mix onto the wholemeal pitta breads
3. Arrange toppings accordingly:

Mushroom, cherry tomato & basil
Top the pizza with sliced mushrooms, halved cherry tomatoes, basil leaves, and grated mozzarella cheese. Grill until cheese has melted.

Aubergine & basil
Slice aubergines and place in a baking tray that has been drizzled in olive oil. Season aubergine tops. Grill. Top grilled aubergines onto pitta, add basil leaves, and mozzarella cheese. Grill until cheese has melted.

Spinach, pine nuts, feta & caramalised onions
Saute sliced onions with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. Until onions have caramalised. Blanch the spinach leaves and drain. Toast pine nuts until golden brown. Top pizza with spinach, onions, pine nuts and crumbled feta cheese. Grill until feta has browned.


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.