Farewell tuna, hello tilapia

Grilled tilapia with breadcrumbs & parmesan
Grilled tilapia with ginger and coriander
Cheese baked tilapia
Today marks one full year and 20 days since my return to KL. It has certainly not been the smooth sailing I was initially expecting when I decided it was time to say farewell to my London town. Some initial difficult adjustments, crazy challenges, and difficult realizations…  I myself am quite surprised that I’m still here, patiently waiting to see my relationship with the City of Lights blossom. 

Despite it all, every moment of confusion, heartache, and uncertainty has led to a new sense of acceptance and clarity. Two weeks before my 31st birthday, I attended a life-changing training session that has opened up my eyes to the fact that I am fully responsible for every single decision I make. You either make the best of out of a situation or you make a change. Rather than blaming the circumstances around you, you have the ability to respond to any given situation. So I can either wallow in the things that I miss about my London town or I can get with the programme, embrace my decision to come home and make my time in KL the best that it can possibly be.

In a ‘self-pity session’ prior to said training, I was trying very hard to recall everything that I missed about London. Summer days (although limited), random walks around the city, easy access to healthy food, work-life balance, a sense of liberated independence knowing that you only have yourself to count on (no family around), art, theatre, supermarkets with affordable produce, artisan farmers’  markets, and oddly enough out of nowhere fresh tuna popped into my mind. Good quality, juicy, meaty, and does not cost an arm and leg tuna steaks. That’s when it hit me that I have not enjoyed a nice tuna steak since I stepped foot in KL since fresh tuna, which is always imported, is too crazily expensive here. When forced to choose between the two, I always opt for salmon as it is a bit more wallet friendly compared to the smallest piece of tuna fillet. 

Rather than pine away at my long-lost food joy,  I need to happily accept the fact that I may not be able to enjoy certain things as much as I did in London. So the necessary adjustments need to be made. Instead of paying a ridiculous amount amount for tuna, I’m opening up my palate to the joys of the local, less costly tilapia. Tilapia is a fresh water fish and its meaty white flesh makes it ideal when served as fillets. Unlike tuna, tilapia is not too ‘fishy’. Its subtle taste ensures that it easily imbues the flavours of its surrounding ingredients, working well in both Western and Asian dishes. Best of all, unlike many local fishes, when filleted correctly you will not get any pesky bones interfering as you enjoy your meal. I have been experimenting with the Asian flavours of garlic and coriander to slightly more Western inspired assembles of breadcrumbed tilapia and cheese-baked tilapia (I am a firm believer of seafood + cheese = freaking delicious, hello seafood gratins?). Three recipes using the same fish in the span of two weeks? The best part is that I’m only at the very beginning of my adventure with tilapia. 

Grilled tilapia with breadcrumbs & parmesan (from Something Savoury)

The Ingredients
Tilapia fillet, a big handful of grated parmesan, breadcrumbs, zest of one lemon, chopped coriander, juice of half a lemon, and salt & pepper. For the orzo: 1/2 cup orzo, broccoli, sliced mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, a handful of parmesan, and salt & pepper,

The Preparation
1. Pat the tilapia fillets dry using paper towels.

2. Combine  cheese, bread crumbs, lemon zest, coriander, salt & pepper.
3. Coat tilapia fillets with mixture and bake fish for 10 to 15 minutes at 475F.
4. Squeeze fresh lemon juice on the fish before serving.
5.  To make the orzo, bring water to a boil and add salt. Add orzo.
6. When orzo is 3/4 cooked add the mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. Cooking should take a total of about 10 to 15 minutes. Once done and all liquid has absorbed, add parmesan cheese and seasoning.
7.  In a separate pan steam the broccoli.
8. Add broccoli to orzo mixture and top with the breadcrumbed tilapia fillet. 

Grilled tilapia with ginger and coriander

The Ingredients
Tilapia fillet, 1 garlic clove, 1/2 inch fresh ginger, 1 green chili, 1/3 cup chopped coriander, 1/4 cup white whine, 2 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tsp sesame oil, shiitake mushrooms, spring onion and extra coriander to garnish. 

 The Preparation
1. Pat fillet dry with paper towel and lightly season with salt and paper. Lay in a glass baking dish while heating the oven to 475F.
2. Blend garlic, grated ginger, chopped chili, and coriander in a food processor with white wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil. 
3. Pour sauce over the fish and add sliced shiitake mushrooms.
4. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes.
5. Once cooked (fish fakes easily), serve over a bed of brown rice. Garnish with chopped spring onions and additional coriander.

Cheese baked tilapia served with sautéed spinach and cherry tomatoes (inspired by How Sweet It Is)

The Ingredients
Tilapia fillet, 1 tbsp butter, 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese, 1 clove of garlic, thyme, salt & pepper, and lemon slices. For the spinach and cherry tomatoes: 1 clove of garlic, olive oil, baby spinach, cherry tomatoes, a squeeze of lemon juice, and salt & pepper

The Preparation
1. Pat tilapia dry and season with salt & pepper.

2. Lay on a baking tray (either use a non-stick spray or a bit of olive oil rubbed behind fish so it does not stick). Bake for 10 minutes at 400F. 
3. Mix butter, garlic, thyme and parmesan cheese.
4. Remove fish from oven and gently flip. Top fish with the mixture and baked for another 5 to 10 minutes until cheese is golden and bubbly.
5. Heat olive oil and sauté garlic. 
6. Add baby spinach leaves and cherry tomatoes. Season with salt & pepper and squeeze of lemon juice. Cook until leaves have wilted and cherry tomatoes and popped.
7. To serve, plate the tilapia on top of the spinach leaves and cherry tomatoes. Serve with slices of lemon.  

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  

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.