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.

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Getting my mojo back

Watermelon & Feta Salad
So 2011 has been pretty significant… after years of contemplating I finally decided to leave London to be closer to family and embark on a new chapter of my life. Perhaps it was the ‘I’m turning 30’ freak out kicking in as well! London was where I discovered my passion for food – the beauty of ingredients, the joy of veggies & farmers markets, relishing in the simplicity of basic flavors (i.e. not drowning your food in sauces and spices!), and basically wholesome, healthy eating. 

I was initially excited to come back home to a city that thrives on a 24-hour food culture, where delicious meals are being prepared every where you look, and where the question ‘have you eaten’ replaces the standard ‘hello, how are you?’. I thought ‘how nice to meet new people and start a conversation around food rather than discuss the weather conditions.’

To my surprise, on a food level, coming back to KL has been a slight culture shock.Yes I have visited KL once every two years and eaten my much missed Malaysian food to my heart’s content. However, coming back home on a more permanent basis forced the acceptance that it is hard to eat Malaysian food daily and still be a healthy. I was slightly disturbed by the reliance on chain restaurants, the open acceptance to fast food, MSG!!!, and the exorbitant prices for good, imaginative food at restaurants and to buy the ingredients I loved. 

These realisations (along with other big life questions) discouraged me from food for a couple of months. I lost my passion for cooking and basically stopped being inspired to try new recipes and new food in general. I pretty much lived off cereal from end of June to August. Then one day my boxes from London arrived and I stumbled across Ottolenghi’s ‘Plenty’. Flipping through the pages and being embraced by the familiar, gorgeously mouth-watering photography reminded me of what I loved most about cooking – the experimentation, seasonality, and making the best of what ingredients you have available. ‘Plenty’ also re-ignited my spark. The book was actually a gift from my lovely colleagues at piglobal. They knew Tasha = passionate and obsessed with food and food photography, so they treated me at the quaint Books for Cooks store on Portobello Road. The perfect present for a foodie. I got the lovely ‘Plenty, an eye-opening workshop on Lebanese cooking and a beautiful farewell card designed as a cook book with my food pictures! Classic! I thought to myself ‘see this is what defines me so well that everyone who truly knows me, knows that I love the magic of food.’ So I of all people should clearly know this about myself. 

Then and there, at around 8pm, I stopped unpacking and decided to try out Ottolenghi’s simple Watermelon and Feta Salad. This recipe imbues the concept of seasonality, particularly in KL where our tropical weather means that watermelons are a plenty (and dirt cheap!). The only slight splurge was perhaps the feta cheese. Thinking that watermelon and cheese is a strange combination? Well, there never has been anything so right together. And with this simple summer salad, I can safely say I’ve found my mojo back.

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Watermelon & Feta Salad

Basic ingredients
Watermelon, basil, feta, balsamic vinegar, olive oil

To assemble…
There really is not that much work involved. Just cut the watermelon into triangles, crumble feta, and drizzle balsamic vinegar and olive oil.