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  

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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!).


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.

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.  

Two birds with one stone

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

Grilled chicken, avocado, and halloumi tortilla

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

Grilled chicken & halloumi with cous cous

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

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

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

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

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