The only time it’s ok to judge something by its cover

Pasta puttanesca
I’m a sucker for nice packaging. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering I spent the first six years of my branding/advertising life focusing solely on packaging design.

A great piece of packaging tells a story. Contrary to the ethos of (business-minded) effective design, it is not always about being the most impactful or loudest item on shelf. Strong packaging design speaks for the ingredient/food in ways that the actual product cannot, conveying an alluring story on taste, heritage, origins, and values. So sometimes although the most elegantly subdued design on shelf may not win the race to the check-out aisle, it can single-mindedly draw the shopper into the world of the product. Great design leaves you wanting more. For some strange reason, I have always been fascinated by the retro designs of most anchovy tins. There is something so alluring about how these tins use typography and illustrations to proudly shout out to the world that they have not moved with the times. A nicely packaged anchovy tin imbues authenticity, signalling a sense of defiance to hold on to traditional methods of preparing exquisite ingredients, rather than relying on modern technology and mass production.

After spotting this little gem at a food bazaar, I was immediately transported to an idyllic seaside village, where local fishermen still went out to sea, returning with their daily catch to their wives who would prepare the anchovies with an old-age secret family recipe. True enough, after some research on the product, I found out that the Arroyabe brand of anchovy fillets are hand-packed in Spanish olive oil according to traditional methods, using carefully selected fish harvested off the Cantabrian Coast in the north of Spain.

What does one do with a gorgeous tin of anchovy fillets? A pasta puttanesca of course. Anchovies are the piece de reisistance in this pasta dish, adding a hint of rich tangy-ness to complement the combination of spicy chilli flakes, capers, olives, oregano, tomatoes and fresh parsley. This is one of my favourite pastas to cook as it is so easy to assemble (perfect after a long, crappy day at work). Not forgetting that a big plate of pasta is always ever-so comforting to overcome any work frustrations. So why not re-create your own idyllic seaside getaway. Pop open a cheeky bottle of white wine on a Thursday night, a hot pipping bowl of pasta puttanesca, put your feet up, leave the stress of work behind, and life feels the way it should be.

Pasta Puttanesca for one

The Ingredients
A handful of spaghetti (you can use any type of pasta, I used linguini that I had lying around my cupboard), can of tomatoes, chilli flakes, good quality anchovy fillets (for a serving for one I used 3 fillets), a teaspoon of capers, pitted black olives, dried oregano, chopped parsley, olive oil, chopped onion, 2 cloves of chopped garlic, and pepper. Oh and parmesan cheese, lots of it.

The Preparation
1. Cook pasta in a pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Save some of the pasta water.

2. Sautee garlic and onion with olive oil.
3. Add chopped anchovy fillet and cook for 3 – 5 minutes.
4. Add can of tomatoes and cook until sauce starts to simmer gently. Add chilli flakes, oregano, capers, and sliced black olives. Season with pepper. 
5. Add cooked pasta, if sauce is too dry add in some of the pasta water.
7. Add chopped parsley.
8. Serve with a generous handful of shaved parmesan cheese.

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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.  

Saved by the crouton

DIY garlic & Parmesan croutons
It is a crappy feeling when you have resigned to the fact that work has taken over your life. Everyday is an ongoing battle of desperately trying to hold on to the things that keep me sane and not letting what I do for a living completely overwhelm me. One too many canceled plans and missed yoga classes are frustrating, but I’m trying my best to wash it all away with a smile, considering I am in the position that I am in based on choices that I have made for myself.

So what does one do to forcefully chisel that smile onto your face to avoid the urge to break things when you are pulled into yet another late nighter, canceling the millionth yoga class? I cook. Yes, even at 2 am in the morning. In London I was always able to overcome any feelings of rage by running around Regents’ Park because it was safe to run at any time of the day/night (I have been guilty of a few midnight runs). In Malaysia however, this approach would run the risk of me dropping off the face of the universe, which at this point sounds like a rather viable option (just kidding, I think). So in the absence of running or yoga, I turn to the kitchen. Cooking at rather insane hours of the night is my form of defiance, to regain control and prove that I am still able to do the things I love, despite the doom and gloom of career pulling the strings.

Tonight after finally managing to leave the office a little past midnight, rather than go to bed feeling angry, disappointed, or frustrated, I decided to embark on a little escapism project of turning a leftover baguette into homemade croutons. Croutons are one of those food extras that are much more convenient when bought in-store. Life is already short and with so many other main meals to cook, who wants to waste time cutting up stale bread to turn into little cubes that are just a condiment to a salad? Despite this, I actually prefer making them. Most shop bought croutons are fried, whereas making my own means I can bake the bread (healthier!) and experiment with different flavours and seasonings. Tonight’s crunchy gems have had a sprinkling of garlic, paprika, Parmesan and dried Italian herbs to add a Mediterranean twist to any simple salad. And they did not take that long to make – I started at 1.30, was done by 2.00 am, and am about to crawl into bed as soon as I finish this writeup. Calm. Content. Who needs a life when you have a golden jarful of DIY croutons in your kitchen cupboard?

Garlic & Parmesan croutons

The Ingredients
Any bread will do, I used a baguette (good to use bread that is a day or two old for the extra crunch), olive oil, garlic, dry Italian mixed herbs, paprika, grated Parmesan.

The Preparation
1. Mix olive oil, garlic, mixed herbs, paprika and 1/2 of the Parmesan into a bowl.

2. Cut bread into squares and add to bowl.
3. Bake at 300 degrees for about 15 minutes. When bread is golden brown, pour remaining Parmesan. Bake for another 15 minutes.