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 

The search for the signature dish

Quinoa patties and roasted aubergine salad
My priorities in life have always been off the beaten track in comparison to most people I know. When faced with turning the big 3-0, rather than be a normal girl panicking about the fact that I am no where near walking down the aisle or popping out babies, I was hyperventilating about ‘the more important things in my life’. I still could not run 5km under 27 minutes, I had never been to an outdoor music festival, and I was no where near being able to fund my dream of spending a year traveling around the Nordic region. As I blew out the significant birthday candle, I did take a moment to rejoice my biggest accomplishment to date – touching my toes after a lifetime of inflexibility, all courtesy of yoga. So yes, my priorities in life are a little less conventional. 

Perhaps the most important goal on my bucket list was the quest for the my signature dish. As a person who cooks a lot and loves experimenting with new foods, one would think that by now surely I already have a dish I can proudly cook with my eyes closed. Wrong. I have been on this mission for years now, feeling like I was fruitlessly searching for the holy grail. You see, THE signature dish is so much more than just an ordinary meal you can comfortably cook. It’s THE DISH that best exemplifies your attitude to food and your style of cooking. I see the signature dish as an extension of yourself – it personifies your personality, character, experience, and outlook on life with every single bite. It’s THE DISH you want everyone to associate you with. THE DISH you are best known for. THE DISH people ask for when they think of you. 

For a while now I was confident that my signature dish would be a hearty plate of pasta. I even thought I had discovered it with my Prawn Pasta – it has a sense of carefreeness combined with soulful indulgence. That’s so me! Or so I thought. Don’t get my wrong,  I love my prawn pasta and without a doubt it is the dish I go to when trying to mend a broken heart or when life has kicked me in the ass. But face it, prawn pastas are aplenty. There are so many more talented cooks and restaurants that do even more amazing prawn pastas. So rather than have a mediocre signature dish, I would rather own something that is more unique to me. 

And last week, eight months post turning 30, I found it. It even sparked a term for the food that I cook. When trying to explain the dish to a friend (who is not so familiar with the world of veggie cooking/ingredients), I said something along the lines of ‘It’s just weird Tasha food.’ He then replied ‘WTF food?’ To which I sarcastically said ‘Yeah, you’ll be guaranteed to taste it, spit it out, cursing what the f**k?’ So he tasted a bite and said, ‘It’s WTF food alright – wonderful Tasha food.’ Ok so it was rather cheesy, but depending on how adventurous your taste buds are, my style of cooking can always be summed up as either one of the three 1) What the f**k? 2) Weird Tasha Food 3) Or if we’re on the same wavelength, hopefully, Wonderful Tasha Food.

The Quinoa Patties creation was a result of trying to finish off some leftover ingredients, while the Roasted Aubergine Salad was inspired by a recipe I saw on The Kitchn. Despite stemming from other recipes, I feel confident to own both dishes since I’ve tweaked them to my liking and will always insist on serving the two together. I’m ecstatic that my signature dish is vegetarian, with slightly more intriguing ingredients than the average meal because that’s what I’m about. It’s a reflection of my dedication to veggies, my passion for experimentation and ‘weird’ ingredients, late nights experimenting on flavor combinations, and my absolute commitment to healthy eating. 

And oh the absolute joy of crossing this off the ‘Things to do before turning 35 list’ (containing a mix of carryovers from the 30s list and new quirky missions). I cannot stress the importance of having a bucket list of amusing and accomplishable goals that will help make you appreciate the small, joyful moments in life. I read somewhere that many people go through a depressing life crisis between the ages of 30 – 40 as a result of setting unrealistic deadlines that place pressure on needing to be a certain degree of success, wealth, position and normal societal labels (i.e. mom, wife, have-it-all). So for now, with signature dish discovered, it’s time accelerate that marathon training to get than 5km under 27 minutes.

Quinoa patties

The Basic Ingredients
1 cup cooked quinoa, cumin, paprika, chopped red onion, chopped garlic, grated parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, chopped parsley, chopped capers, juice of 1/2 a lemon, 2 tbsp flour.  

The Preparation
1. Mix all of the above ingredients and form into patties/ball shapes.
2. Bake until patties are golden brown.

Roasted aubergine salad

The Basic Ingredients
2 aubergines, olive oil, 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon honey, paprika, cumin, 4 cloves of chopped garlic, juice of 1 lemon, 1 tbsp soy sauce, chopped parsley, chopped walnuts, feta cheese, chopped spring onions. 

The Preparation
1. Cut the eggplant into 1 inch cubes in put in a large bowl with salt. 

2. Whisk together olive oil, red wine vinegar, honey, paprika, and cumin
3. Toss aubergines into the marinade and spread onto baking sheet.
4. Roast for 40 minutes until aubergines are tender and brown. It helps to stick every 15 minutes to make sure aubergine cubes are not burning. Remove from the oven and cool slightly.
5.  In a large bowl whisk lemon juice and soy sauce. Add aubergines to mixture ad stir parsley, walnuts, spring onions, and goats cheese. 

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.

Food to fuel the soul

Quinoa salad with broccoli, cherry tomatoes, tofu, avocado & feta
I’ve recently developed a slight addiction to all things grain and seeds – cous cous, bulgar wheat, barley (as a replacement to arborio rice in risottos) and best of all, quinoa. In fact, I’ll happily choose grains over rice, pasta, and noodles. Shock, horror, because most people will know about my emotional attachment to the carbs goodness of pasta as the ultimate comfort food. I was (and still am) a staunch sceptic of the Atkins diet. A life without (good) carbs is not worth living!

Back to the point, what I love most about grains is their versatility. You can just about toss any combination of vegetables (or meat if desired) and the dish is transformed into a new, exciting meal. At the moment I’m having quite a lot of fun experimenting with what I can whip up with quinoa. To my amazement quinoa can easily be found in the organic section of most supermarkets in Malaysia. The types of quinoa available are also far more extensive than London!

I was first introduced to this superfood when I was trying to cook meals that could sustain me through a 10km run on the weekends. Just a few random facts – quinoa technically is not a grain. It’s a seed from a grain-like crop that was prized by the ancient Incans as being sacred as they relied on the seed to keep their people and armies strong. Quinoa became known as ‘the gold of the Incas’. These little gems are a nutritional powerhouse, packed with a higher protein content than most grains, eggs, or dairy products. It is ideal for the dieter as well as it’s a good source of complex carbohydrates that has a low glycemic index to avoid any blood-sugar surges. Your standard quinoa salad provides a meal high in vitamins, minerals and protein, while low in fat and calories. In addition to its detoxifying properties, a cup of quinoa is also known to help increase the delivery of oxygen to the blood, boosting energy and brain power. So food to make you skinny and smart? 🙂

You can imagine that this combination of energy fueling carbohydrates and nurturing protein (runners need protein for muscle growth and repair), makes this superfood a runner’s dream. I find that having quinoa before a run ensures a significant improvement to my performance. Not only can I have a pretty big serving without worrying about a stitch as a result of being too full or weighed down, I also feel so much more energy, see an improved breathing pace, and have more stamina to run for a longer duration. Fatigue does not become an issue as I feel almost impervious to the distance I’ve covered. You can literally feel the strength kick in, as if the superhero mode in you is all of a sudden unleashed. This was easily my meal of choice to power me through my half marathon earlier this year. 

One of my favorite combinations is quinoa with broccoli, cherry tomatoes, tofu, avocado, and feta. So easy to put together, it’s the perfect fusion of Asian and Western ingredients. This blend of magic food and veggies is pretty much wholesomeness and goodness personified. 

Quinoa salad with broccoli, cherry tomatoes, tofu, avocado & feta

Basic ingredients
The name of the salad pretty much sums up the list of ingredients! Easy. You’ll also need some grated ginger and chicken stock.

The magic
1. Cook quinoa (ideally soaked for 2 mins in water before cooking) with chicken stock and grated ginger. The way to tell if they are cooked is to check if the seeds have split to reveal an almost tail-like shape. Season.

2. Pan fry tofu to hold its shape and so it does not disintegrate into the salad. 
3. Add cooked quinoa to boiled broccoli, halved cherry tomatoes, sliced avocados and feta. That’s pretty much it. The spiciness of the ginger and creamy textures of the avocados and feta does not even warrant additional dressing but you could always drizzle with some lemon juice and olive oil before serving.