Home cooking how I’ve missed you

Grilled lemon salmon with spaghetti
The snowball effect of holidaying, immediately coming back to an insane week that saw me living out of my laptop bag and car for 4 consecutive days with no office desk time as I rushed between production houses to stressful client meetings, and just general work worry has left me feeling very unsettled recently. By the end of week, I could not shake off the feeling that I was losing a part of myself. I did not mind so much that my social life was non-existent (I’ve lost track of the number of social outings I’ve cancelled this week) nor the fact that I have not gone for a single run in the past two weeks. The thing that has bothered me the most is knowing that i have not be in very good control of my own meals since the start of May. I loved the food in Vietnam (fresh veggie heaven!) and obligingly closed an eye towards my tendency to over indulge on food when overseas  (hey I was on holiday!). However now back in KL, post-holiday bliss all gone, the eating out has not stopped. I have been greeted with takeaway, fast-food meals (with not so fresh veggies) while trying my best to not bring out the inner diva in me by turning down whatever food that has been kindly offered to me at meetings. 

Without wanting to sound overly dramatic, I have been feeling like an addict that has been denied whatever substance necessary to keep me grounded. Cooking is a necessity to me, without it I feel like I’m losing control of the things around me. I rushed out of work at midnight yesterday grateful that it was Friday not because I could get some much deserved sleep this weekend. To me, the start of the weekend meant that I could finally say hello to my kitchen. I went to bed last night dreaming about chopping garlic. I woke up this morning troubled about what seemed like the biggest dilemma in the world – do I cook pasta or chicken burgers for my first home cooked meal? Forget brushing my teeth, the first thing I did this morning was check out my usual blogroll of food sites for my foodie hit. I even contemplated skipping yoga so that I could start cooking earlier. At the supermarket, I was slightly neurotic rushing from one aisle to the other, grabbing ingredients to shove in the basket before removing them to replace with other ingredients (the burgers vs pasta question was still racing through my head!). I was one of those annoying shoppers who spend 15 minutes analyzing the firmness of the cherry tomatoes because goddamnit, for my first home cooked meal in two weeks I want the sweetest and most succulent cherry tomatoes the supermarket has to offer.

And oh my god, the feeling of contentment as I laid the groceries out on the kitchen countertop and started preparing the meal. I felt complete. Whole. Myself. In the end I opted for pasta as I wanted to stay away from anything that resembled the takeaway meals that I had been bombarded with all week. Homecooked pasta is the ultimate comfort food that nourishes the soul, making you feel that despite all the craziness, everything will work out alright as long as there is pasta in the world. Thank you spaghetti and grilled lemon salmon for restoring my sanity. 

Grilled lemon salmon with spaghetti 

Basic Ingredients
Spaghetti, salmon fillet, juice of 1 lemon, oregano, spinach, cherry tomatoes, chili flakes, 4 garlic cloves, capers, parsley, olive oil, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1. Cook spaghetti in salted water until al dente. Reserve some of the cooking liquid.
2. Marinate salmon with juice from 1/2 of the lemon, a bit of olive oil, and oregano. Season. Grill salmon and leave fillet to rest.
3. Sautee chopped garlic with olive oil.
4. Add chill flakes and halved cherry tomatoes. Cook until tomatoes are soft.
5. Add spinach and cook until the leaves have wilted. Season.
6. Add spaghetti and stir through a bit of the pasta liquid and remaining lemon juice.
7. Add chopped capers.
8. To plate, place salmon fillet on top of a serving of pasta. Sprinkle chopped parsley. 

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.

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. 

Always hopeful, never defeated

Prawn pasta
While driving home listening to Coldplay’s Shiver on repeat for the fifth consecutive time in a row, it still amazes me how when it comes to matters of the heart, this song articulates my exact feelings, better than I could ever formulate my emotions into words. Time and time again, I turn to this gorgeous song about longing, unrequited love, falling in that scary kind of way, invisibility, patience, and never giving up hope (all this in a dreamy 5 minutes!). Every single time I hear Shiver, it’s almost as if Chris Martin physically manifests himself in front of me, like a genie from my deafening car speakers, plunges his fists into my heart to read everything I am feeling in that instant. He pens the song just for me, in the full knowledge that I will continue to bottle up my sentiments, never having the balls to verbalise them to anyone, so Coldplay volunteer to do all the pleading on my behalf.

During that same hazy drive home, it came to me that in addition to having a go-to soul bearing song, I also have a meal that I turn to for comfort when love has disappointed me. All I could think about was making a hearty bowl of prawn pasta. My emotional connection to this dish is equivalent to the stereotypical image of ‘girl bawling eyes out over tub of ice-cream or box of chocolates’ in the hopes that these simple indulgences will act as an opiate to numb the broken heart. My version is probably less glamorous with a messy plate of tomato based pasta. Crying while slurping long strands of spaghetti is not a pretty sight! So personal (or unattractive!) is the attachment that I feel quite uncomfortable cooking this meal for people as it feels as if I’m serving up my heart on a plate for the world to see.

I can’t really pinpoint what it is about the prawn pasta that draws such a protective/trusting reaction – maybe it’s the creaminess of the sauce promising to soothe any feelings of rejection or possibly its hopeful Italian associations to the purveyors of passion and amore. Everything about this dish from the way it is put together to the presentation is haphazard, random, spontaneous – a free fall. It encapsulates the whirlwind of emotions when you lose a piece of yourself to someone else. Everything feels a bit blurry, confusing, but so right.

But while Coldplay willingly choose to continue waiting, for my own sanity (and to avoid a carb & cream overload), I have chosen to let go, hoping that every bite brings me closer to leaving feelings of defeat behind, so that I can always remain hopefully optimistic. I started 2012 on a mission to seek positive energy, so it’s time to move on.

Prawn pasta

The Ingredients
Spaghetti, prawns, 1 x can of chopped tomatoes, splash of white wine, single cream (or creme fraiche), sliced red chillies, garlic, drop of balsamic vinegar, cherry tomatoes, olive oil, salt & peppper.

The Preparation
1. Cook spaghetti until al dente. Reserve some of the pasta liquid.

2. Saute garlic and red chillies in olive oil.
3. Add halved cherry tomatoes.
4. When tomatoes look partially cooked and garlic starts to brown, add a splash of white wine and can of chopped tomatoes.
5. Cook until tomato sauce starts to bubble then add in drop of balsamic vinegar and season. I find that the balsamic vinegar neutralises the tartness of the tomatoes.
6. Add prawns and when prawns have started to turn slightly pink add in cream, followed by pasta.
7. Serve topped with rocket leaves.