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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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.

Going back to the start

Good old stir fry noodles
Self doubt spreads like wildfire. One minute you’re confident, grounded, strong, certain. When the barrage of doubts start to rear its ugly head, within an instant it permeates itself into every inch of your being. Your sense of self wavers and you begin to reassess every aspect of your life – your worth, decisions, abilities, how you fit into your surroundings, relationships, and even down to trivial matters like appearance or running speed.

Every now and then this doubt manifests itself into my safe haven, the kitchen. Recently in the name of being adventurous, I experimented cooking with pearl barley. I should probably explain that I have always had a negative perception of barley, having been forced fed hot barley drinks as a constantly ill child. Growing up, I always associated barley as something you would eat only when you were sick, never understanding why anyone would voluntarily, without a gun to their head, order a barley drink at the mamak. But that was years ago, since then my taste buds have evolved. In an attempt to expand my repertoire of wholesome ingredients, I cooked the grain in a risotto inspired dish. I was excited at this potential new discovery, throwing in an abundance of different mushrooms – portobello, enoki, shiitake, and porcini. I was even more generous than usual in my sprinklings of parmesan cheese, reassured in the knowledge that I could afford the indulgence since pearl barley is a nutritional powerhouse in comparison to the standard Arborio rice. Unfortunately, too much enthusiasm and perhaps a wee bit of over confidence lead to an epic recipe failure. The dish bombed. Badly. I haven’t had a kitchen disaster this bad since my attempt at spicing up a pasta dish led to a whole bottle’s worth of pepper sinking into the sauce (and was forced to eat the meal because my then boyfriend, bless him, still said it was the best pasta he’s ever had, yeah right!). At least the pasta-pepper fiasco dish was edible. The barley risotto turned out looking like mushed up cat food and I found the chewy texture of the barley incredibly disturbing. It’s very rare that I consciously make a decision to throw away food and not force myself to eat what I have cooked.

With a wasted pot of ‘superfood’, my cooking ego was slightly bruised as I questioned my ability to experiment and go beyond my cooking comfort zone. Am I doomed to cook the same thing over and over again? Maybe I should stick to being a safe cook and not be adventurous with food? Or shock horror, could it be that I am really not as good a cook as I think I am? In the last several months, self doubt has been a regular visitor. New environment, new job, new people, new experiences, new wavelengths – I can’t help but question how I fit in amidst all this newness. The culmination of all these elements (some good, some not so great) have left me debating the consequences/outcomes of my decisions. In times when I break into a cold sweat, begging the universe to unfold its master plan to me, I always find that it is best to take a deep breath and remind myself of my original intentions (i.e. I moved back to Malaysia wanting a change in my stagnant London life). Going back to the start, to what I know is true and honest always pacifies any overwhelming surges of self doubt. 

The same logic can be applied to the kitchen. The best way to get over a kitchen disaster without any dents in confidence to your cooking abilities is to go back to making that dish you know you kick ass at. A day after the barley incident, I turned to the first thing I ever learned how to cook, my fail safe stir fry noodles. So I created a monster of a dish with pearl barley but my stir fry noodles are idiot proof, taste good, and no matter what goes wrong when experimenting with ingredients, I know I can fix it. It’s comforting to know that when life starts feeing a bit unfamiliar and questionable, I can always rely on a delicious plate of stir fry noodles to fall back on, reminding me that I am fine and (sort of) know what I am doing, the craziness will pass, everything will be ok. 

Stir fry egg noodles with prawn and tofu

Ingredients
Egg noodles, prawns, tofu, fish balls, shiitake mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, cabbage, olive oil, soy sauce, nampla (fish sauce), garlic, onion, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1. If using dry noodles, cook them in some boiling water. Set aside.

2. Sautee garlic and onion in olive oil.
3. Add both types of mushrooms, fish balls, tofu, and prawns.
4. Pour in soy sauce (about 3 tbsp) and nampla (2 tbsp). Season.
5. Add in cooked egg noodles and cabbage. 

I choose life.

Quinoa with grilled tomatoes & caramelised onions and grilled halloumi
Grilled prawns with avocado & rocket salad
Being in a new environment, on a number of recent occasions I have found myself in the position of defending my approach to a holistic lifestyle to reassure everyone that I am not a mental nutcase with control issues. Yes, I admit my dedication to healthy eating, running, and yoga dictates my choices, how I spend my free time, and the social decisions I make. These three integral elements define who I am so they are naturally going to take priority over other things around me. However, I reject all accusations of me being a ‘health/fitness freak’ in that obsessive calorie counting ‘I’m going to spend hours at the gym and not eat anything until I lose weight’ attitude. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that my love for food means that I can eat like a horse. A very hungry race horse. In fact, portion control is probably something I need to work on in 2012! 

Rather than focusing on a weight loss goal or having abs (or buns) of steel, I make conscious decisions on what I eat and what I do with my spare time because it is a lifestyle choice. It boils down to the simple fact that healthy, home cooked eating and exercise makes me feel better. It gives me focus and a passionate drive. Despite years of growing up in a nutrition centric household (to this very day condensed milk is banned from our home), this epiphany was inspired when I discovered running and yoga. With regular practise of both activities you become more attune to every single tingle and sensation (both good and bad) that your body exudes. Having this strong awareness encourages me to actively choose foods that will help nourish me to make me stronger, spark positive energy, and achieve a greater sense of clarity. 

I love having like-minded people who share this attitude and find it inspiring to be able trade healthy recipes and workout advise (funny, I would have never thought there would be that many similarities between yoga and circuit training!). For a recent recipe swap dinner, I introduced a dear friend of mine to the joys of quinoa by cooking the grain with roasted tomatoes and caramelised onions, topped with grilled halloumi. A side salad of grilled shrimps with rocket and avocado, along with grilled lebanese bread to mop up any juices completed the dinner. We experimented with the food layout to show that you can recreate restaurant style meals using wholesome ingredients prepared lovingly from your kitchen. See, healthy eating does not equate to food depravation (that is fad diet territory). It is about choosing the right mix of nourishing ingredients to create a delicious, filling, and nutritious meal. And I’m going to continue down this path so that I will still be happily doing headstands and ‘mental’ running sessions for the next 10, 20, and hopefully 30 years. 

‘Your outlook on life is a direct reflection of how much you like yourself.’
-lululemon

Healthy can be pretty – Quinoa with roasted tomatoes and caramelised onions topped with grilled halloumi

Grilled prawns with avocado and rocket

The Ingredients:
Quinoa & halloumi: 1 cup of quinoa, chicken stock, red onions, cherry tomatoes, dried italian herbs, cumin, paprika, salt & pepper, olive oil, halloumi

Prawn salad: prawns, olive oil, chill flakes, avocado, rocket leaves, and for the dressing – lemon juice, dijon mustard, salt & pepper, olive oil

The Preparation:
Quinoa & halloumi

1. Sautee onions with olive oil and a pinch of salt until onions have caramelised. Set aside.
2. Halve cherry tomatoes and sprinkle with italian herbs and a pinch of salt. Roast and set aside.
3. Cook quinoa with chicken stock and cumin. When grains are cooked sprinkle paprika.
4. Combine all ingredients above into the quinoa.
5. Grill halloumi – the trick to ensure the cheese does not stick onto the pan is making sure that you place the sliced cheese on a very hot pan.
6. Top grilled halloumi on quinoa mixture. 

Grilled prawn salad
1. Marinate prawns in olive oil and chilli flakes. Set aside for 15 minutes.
2. Grill prawns until they turn a coral pink and serve on a bed of rocket and chopped avocados.
3. For the dressing whisk olive oil, lemon juice, djion mustard, salt & pepper. Drizzle over salad.

A headstand a day…

Vietnamese prawn & dill soup
Keeps the doctor away. I don’t believe in falling sick. For the record, I don’t mean unfortunate (and cruel) medical illnesses that often strike without proper reason or purpose. I’m talking more about the niggling colds, flues, fevers and aches.

For a while now, I’ve shunned away from the idea of doctors or taking any form of medication (even paracetamol to sooth a sore head after a night out!). This is possibly a rebellious reaction to growing up in a family that believes Panadol is the miracle cure to everything (Me: ‘I think my heart is broken’ Parent: ‘Have a Panadol!’) After a bad experience of going through the winter flu several years ago by myself and regressing into shameful case of self pity à la Man Flu (the I-can’t-get out-of-bed-there-is-no-one-to-cook-for-me-my-life-is-miserable type whinging), I now try my best to prevent falling sick in the first place.

For the past year and a half, in addition to healthy eating, yoga has played a significant part in this. Apparently yoga practitioners are less likely to come down with the sniffles and on the rare case that they do, they have a much faster recovery rate. Yoga is known to regulate the immune system to keep it strong and healthy, allowing the body to withstand infections. Shirshasana (headstand) is possibly my favourite yoga pose – coming into it you really do see the world in a new light. Being upside down increases the amount of blood flowing to the head, creating a greater oxygen flow to the brain to reduce overall stress levels (a main contributor to the pesky cold/flues). Not wanting to jinx anything, I can safely say that I have not had a cold/flu or been on MC for the past year and a half.

So at any indication of feeling under the weather (like today’s annoying fever and ache), rather than pop a pill, I choose to go into headstand. Lots of water, sleep, and a bowl of Vietnamese Prawn & Dill Soup for dinner will also help. I love this recipe for when I feel the symptoms kicking in – its nourishing broth and abundance of veggies help revive the senses and remedy aches. The original recipe is from BBC Good Food, but I’ve tweaked this slightly to include more vegetables so that it becomes a nutritionally full-proof meal to kick the cold in the ass.  My  version includes broccoli since this nutrient-packed miracle food is known to help shield from illness/disease.

I really do believe that the right combination of foods, exercise, and a yoga class has more mileage than any guy in a white coat keen to write you off with a costly prescription of antibiotics for just about everything.

Vietnamese Prawn & Dill Soup

Basic Ingredients
Chicken stock, oyster mushrooms, prawns, dill, broccoli, fish balls (optional), 1 lime, quartered tomatoes, nampla, wild rice

The Prep
1. Heat chicken stock (can use chicken cube and water). Season.

2. Add in broccoli and cook until tender. Add oyster mushrooms, fish balls, grated lime peel, lime juice, splash of nampla, quartered tomatoes, chopped dill.
3. I add in the prawns last to avoid overcooking them.
4. Once soup starts boiling take off heat.
5. I usually serve this with some wild rice that I cook normally and just add this into the soup for a more satisfying meal. You can also use any type of noodles.