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. 

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The messy art of cooking

Grilled salmon with wilted spinach & coconut milk
Even before starting Joy Discovery Invention, I am often asked why I bother going through all the effort of making food appear ‘restaurant presentable’ if I am cooking just for myself. Why spend the extra time arranging food in the absence of someone to impress? 

The funny thing is I have never been good at anything involving arts & crafts nor do I have an eye for aesthetic detail. Leave me with the simple task of frosting cupcakes and you risk the kitchen looking like an icing explosion has taken place. Oh and cupcakes that look as if they have been decorated by a three year old. As I have mentioned previously, I cannot bake to save my life. The skills of precision, following instructions religiously, math, and attention to technical details are not my forte. For this very reason,  I have never been drawn to chefs like Delia Smith or the adventurous Heston Blumenthal. When you need to measure out 1/4 teaspoon of salt to add to your omelette to create the perfect rise, food becomes a science that is no longer fun. Instead, I relate to Jamie Oliver, Yotam Ottolenghi, and even Nigella Lawson since they approach cooking as a carefree yet exciting journey. It does not matter if things go slightly chaotic or disastrous, you can always create something completely different from what you intentionally set out to make and still have a gorgeously delicious meal. In case anyone has not noticed, I hardly ever measure my ingredients because to me cooking should not be a formula. The perfect omelette should not require counting every granule of the 1/4 teaspoon of salt – it’s about feeling, taste, what appeals to your sense, and personal preference. Hands down I would take Jamie’s messy but liberating technique of beating the crap out of a bag of almonds with a rolling pin over Delia’s precise slicing into the perfect slithers. Despite the unpolished and unlady like approach, the mess still has the potential to be turned into a meal that appears lovingly crafted to exude a genuine passion for food, flavours, and ingredients. 

The dish below is a classic example of a meal so simple (no long list of ingredients or 1/8 teaspoon of any ingredient required) yet still looks gorgeous to the eye. The spinach and coconut milk sauce is creamily messy but when paired with a hero piece of grilled salmon, the meal naturally looks like it required much more skill and time than the mere 18 minutes it actually took to assemble. For me, every opportunity to sit down to a delicious looking home cooked meal (even if it is cooked just for my lonesome self) is a reason to celebrate the simple joys in life that you can easily create for yourself. A quick 18 minutes for this simple pleasure is worth all the effort.

Grilled salmon with wilted spinach & coconut milk

The Ingredients
For the salmon: sesame oil, soy sauce, minced ginger, chopped garlic, salt & pepper. For the sauce: sliced onions, sesame oil, sliced red chillies, a dollop of chili paste, coconut milk, spinach leaves, juice of half a lemon, salt & pepper. 

The Preparation
1. Marinade salmon with sesame oil, soy sauce, minced ginger, chopped garlic, salt & pepper. Grill for 15 – 18 minutes depending on thickness of salmon.

2. While salmon is grilling, make sauce by sautéing onions in sesame oil.
3. Add sliced red chillies and cook for 5 minutes.
4. Add chili paste, coconut milk, salt & pepper, and spinach. Cook until spinach has wilted. 
5. Finish off with lemon juice.
6. Serve grilled salmon on top of spinach and coconut milk sauce.  

To farewells and inspiration

Grilled salmon with black rice
Having moved around from place to place all of my life, I thought I would be used to saying goodbye to people. When I was younger, I trained myself on the art of detachment so when it was time to leave a country, bidding farewell became effortless with minimal tears. “I’m leaving on a jet plane” became a sort of sarcastic theme song that I would constantly sing to myself to help ease the pain of parting.

In the last few years though I’m noticing that as I grow older, it is becoming harder for me to say goodbye. It’s funny really. With relative financial security and a paying job, I can hold on to the comforting thought that the people I love are only an affordable plane ride away. However I’m finding that each new farewell leaves a bigger dent in my heart, making room for insecurities of loneliness to take over. I suppose with age, you meet enough people to recognise that absolute true friends who help define you as a person are few and precious. With this important realisation, you will do anything to hold on to these friendships.

Two weeks ago I bid adieu to yet another dear friend who left to pursue his exciting journey of self discovery. This friend was my rock that ensured my sanity during my first few months of adjusting to the realities of living in KL. He introduced me to my safe haven that is our yoga studio. He would listen to me consistently whine about the chaos of working life. He patiently offered a shoulder to cry on as I chased a stupid ‘I told you so’ path but was never judgmental. He was the first person I would call when I was successful at a new yoga pose and when I discovered that aubergines with cumin were a match made in heaven. My first moment of enlightenment in 2012 was with him as we drove through the KL night, car top down, wind in our faces listening to the beautiful sounds of The Album Leaf. Philios leaving KL has left me with a heavy heart. Not only is he no longer a quick phone call/drive away, I am at absolute loss as to who to call to discuss the joys of discovering new uses of quinoa. 

I cooked this Black Rice and Grilled Salmon recipe in honor of our wonderful conversations on food, strange ingredients, wellbeing, and to our constant quest for inspiration. The recipe is inspired by Nigella Lawson’s Prawn & Black Rice Salad. I swapped the prawns for the salmon that I had lying around in my fridge, still achieving the fusion of Asian flavours and the dramatic effect of the black rice against the bright coral of the salmon (that’s Nigella speak for you – i.e. translation it looks interesting!). Be prepared though, black rice has a tendency to turn everything in sight a shade of purple so it might be safe to consider darker colored utensils when handling the rice.

Happy birthday Philios. Here’s to friendships that inspire you and believing that goodbyes are never permanent.

Black rice with grilled salmon

The Ingredients
2 cloves of crushed garlic, 2 red chillies, grated ginger, 4 tbsp fish sauce, 2 tbsp lime juice, 4 tbsp water, 2tbsp sugar, black rice, salmon, teriyaki sauce, coriander, salt & pepper, and lemon juice.

The Preparation
1. Make dressing by mixing the garlic, red chillies, ginger, fish sauce, lime juice, water, and sugar. Season.
2. Cook black rice as per packet instructions.
3. Grill salmon with teriyaki sauce, salt and pepper.
4. Once rice and salmon have cooled, spoon the dressing of the rice and flake grilled salmon through the rice.
5. Add chopped coriander.
6. You can serve this either warm or cold as a rice salad.