Not quite as cheap as chips but close enough

Cous cous with pan fried garlic & chilli prawns
Grilled chicken with quinoa, spinach, tomatoes, and feta
One of the many food myths that I love to set straight is the fact that healthy food is too expensive to make on a regular basis. Yes I admit that it is impossible to compete with what you would pay for a bowl of hawker style fried noodles. However in comparison to the cash that you would need to fork out for a meal at many evil fast food chains, you will be better off spending your money preparing a wholesome dish that will not only keep you full over the next few hours but will also nourish you as well. Imagine paying a hefty RM 11.50 for a large McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets set to only suffer the inevitable sugar/additives crash in a few hours. No contest for me.

I’m always surprised when people tell me that the food that I cook is realistically not financially sustainable on a long term, daily basis. Apparently I only feature ‘posh’ food. This is far from the truth! Perhaps my obsession with food presentation is rather deceptive (yay I guess that means I’m getting a little better at arranging food) but I am just as wallet conscious as most people. When I moved back to KL, yes I was shocked that healthier ingredients were more expensive than what i would pay in the UK. Since then I have learned to adapt by substituting local ingredients to still make my favourite home-cooked meals. Through many trial and error shopping sessions, I have realised that omitting expensive imported ingredients is the key to keeping my weekly shopping bills from hitting the roof. Some tips to consider- use Thai asparagus instead of the European variety. Shiitake mushrooms are just as flavourful as many of the Scandinavian forest-sourced gems (oh how I miss chanterelle season though!). Canned (cheaper!) and freshly pitted gourmet olives don’t have that much of a difference to my average taste buds and neither do I need to indulge in RM 29 for a measly ball of buffalo mozzarella cheese on a regular basis – feta is so much cheaper here and will go a longer way. 

The two dishes below when broken down to costs per individual serving both amount to less than what you would pay for a Large set at McD’s while using unprocessed, fresh, local, healthy ingredients.  So put down the nasty brown fast-food tray and pick up a shopping basket at your nearest supermarket. Wholesome food can be cheap, tasty, and easy to make! 

Cous cous with pan fried garlic & chilli prawns

Basic Ingredients & pricing
Cous cous (RM 5.50 for a packet of 5 servings, each serving = RM 1.10), chicken stock made from cube (RM 6.00 for a packet of 12 cubes, each serving = RM 0.50), tiger prawns (RM 5.00 for a packet of 6 prawns), 2 cloves of garlic (RM 3 for about 2 garlic bulbs and about 6 cloves per bulb = RM 0.50 for 2 cloves), 1 red chili (RM 4 for a packet of 6 red chillies = RM 0.66 per chili), 5 cherry tomatoes (RM 5.50 for a packet of cherry tomatoes containing 3 servings = RM 1.83 per serving), coriander (RM 2.50 per bunch and I used I sprig so an estimating about RM 0.50), juice of 1/2 a lemon (RM 6.00 for a packet of 5 lemons, works out to RM 1.20 per lemon = RM 0.60 for half a lemon) whatever oil you have lying in the kitchen, salt & pepper. Total per serving: RM 10.69

I didn’t include the pricing for kitchen basics like oil, salt and pepper as I figure these are kitchen staples that most kitchens are bound to have.

The Preparation
1. Cook cous cous with a chicken stock made using stock cube and hot water.

2. When cous cous looks about halfway cooked, add halved cherry tomatoes.
3. Marinate prawns in red chili, a bit of oil, and lemon juice. Season.
4. Saute garlic with a bit of oil.
5. Pour in marinated prawn mixture.
6. When prawns start to turn pink, scatter chopped coriander and serve with cous cous. 

Grilled chicken with quinoa, spinach, tomatoes, and feta
Although this dish is approximately RM 4.00 more than our McNugget meal index, check out the amount of fresh veggies in this healthy mix. 

Basic Ingredients & Pricing
Quinoa (RM 15 for a packet of quinoa that has about 5 servings = RM 3 per serving), grilled chicken (RM 7 for 3 medium chicken breasts = RM 2.33 per chicken breast), half a packet of baby spinach (RM 6 per packet = RM 3.00 per serving), shiitake mushrooms (RM 5 for a packet of 3 servings = RM 1.67 per serving), chicken stock made from cube (RM 6.00 for a packet of 12 cubes, each serving = RM 0.50), 2 cloves of garlic (RM 3 for about 2 garlic bulbs and about 6 cloves per bulb = RM 0.50 for 2 cloves), 5 cherry tomatoes (RM 5.50 for a packet of cherry tomatoes containing 3 servings = RM 1.83 per serving), coriander (RM 2.50 per bunch and I used I sprig so an estimating a generous RM 0.50), juice of 1/2 a lemon (RM 6.00 for a packet of 5 lemons, works out to RM 1.20 per lemon = RM 0.60 for half a lemon), feta cheese (RM 10.00 for a block of Apetina cheese that will get me through 6-8 servings = RM 1.25 per portion), whatever oil you have lying in the kitchen, salt & pepper. Total RM 15.18

The Preparation
1. Pre-grill chicken with a bit of the oil, salt & pepper.
2. Cook quinoa with stock made from chicken cute + hot water. Season.
3. In a separate pan sauté garlic with a bit of oil. Add shiitake mushrooms, halved cherry tomatoes, and spinach until leaves have wilted. Season.
4. Add veggies to the quinoa mixture.
5. Drizzle lemon juice.
6. Add cubed feta cheese.
7. Sprinkle with coriander 

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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. 

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.

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.