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. 

 

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. 

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.