Farewell tuna, hello tilapia

Grilled tilapia with breadcrumbs & parmesan
Grilled tilapia with ginger and coriander
Cheese baked tilapia
Today marks one full year and 20 days since my return to KL. It has certainly not been the smooth sailing I was initially expecting when I decided it was time to say farewell to my London town. Some initial difficult adjustments, crazy challenges, and difficult realizations…  I myself am quite surprised that I’m still here, patiently waiting to see my relationship with the City of Lights blossom. 

Despite it all, every moment of confusion, heartache, and uncertainty has led to a new sense of acceptance and clarity. Two weeks before my 31st birthday, I attended a life-changing training session that has opened up my eyes to the fact that I am fully responsible for every single decision I make. You either make the best of out of a situation or you make a change. Rather than blaming the circumstances around you, you have the ability to respond to any given situation. So I can either wallow in the things that I miss about my London town or I can get with the programme, embrace my decision to come home and make my time in KL the best that it can possibly be.

In a ‘self-pity session’ prior to said training, I was trying very hard to recall everything that I missed about London. Summer days (although limited), random walks around the city, easy access to healthy food, work-life balance, a sense of liberated independence knowing that you only have yourself to count on (no family around), art, theatre, supermarkets with affordable produce, artisan farmers’  markets, and oddly enough out of nowhere fresh tuna popped into my mind. Good quality, juicy, meaty, and does not cost an arm and leg tuna steaks. That’s when it hit me that I have not enjoyed a nice tuna steak since I stepped foot in KL since fresh tuna, which is always imported, is too crazily expensive here. When forced to choose between the two, I always opt for salmon as it is a bit more wallet friendly compared to the smallest piece of tuna fillet. 

Rather than pine away at my long-lost food joy,  I need to happily accept the fact that I may not be able to enjoy certain things as much as I did in London. So the necessary adjustments need to be made. Instead of paying a ridiculous amount amount for tuna, I’m opening up my palate to the joys of the local, less costly tilapia. Tilapia is a fresh water fish and its meaty white flesh makes it ideal when served as fillets. Unlike tuna, tilapia is not too ‘fishy’. Its subtle taste ensures that it easily imbues the flavours of its surrounding ingredients, working well in both Western and Asian dishes. Best of all, unlike many local fishes, when filleted correctly you will not get any pesky bones interfering as you enjoy your meal. I have been experimenting with the Asian flavours of garlic and coriander to slightly more Western inspired assembles of breadcrumbed tilapia and cheese-baked tilapia (I am a firm believer of seafood + cheese = freaking delicious, hello seafood gratins?). Three recipes using the same fish in the span of two weeks? The best part is that I’m only at the very beginning of my adventure with tilapia. 

Grilled tilapia with breadcrumbs & parmesan (from Something Savoury)

The Ingredients
Tilapia fillet, a big handful of grated parmesan, breadcrumbs, zest of one lemon, chopped coriander, juice of half a lemon, and salt & pepper. For the orzo: 1/2 cup orzo, broccoli, sliced mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, a handful of parmesan, and salt & pepper,

The Preparation
1. Pat the tilapia fillets dry using paper towels.

2. Combine  cheese, bread crumbs, lemon zest, coriander, salt & pepper.
3. Coat tilapia fillets with mixture and bake fish for 10 to 15 minutes at 475F.
4. Squeeze fresh lemon juice on the fish before serving.
5.  To make the orzo, bring water to a boil and add salt. Add orzo.
6. When orzo is 3/4 cooked add the mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. Cooking should take a total of about 10 to 15 minutes. Once done and all liquid has absorbed, add parmesan cheese and seasoning.
7.  In a separate pan steam the broccoli.
8. Add broccoli to orzo mixture and top with the breadcrumbed tilapia fillet. 

Grilled tilapia with ginger and coriander

The Ingredients
Tilapia fillet, 1 garlic clove, 1/2 inch fresh ginger, 1 green chili, 1/3 cup chopped coriander, 1/4 cup white whine, 2 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tsp sesame oil, shiitake mushrooms, spring onion and extra coriander to garnish. 

 The Preparation
1. Pat fillet dry with paper towel and lightly season with salt and paper. Lay in a glass baking dish while heating the oven to 475F.
2. Blend garlic, grated ginger, chopped chili, and coriander in a food processor with white wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil. 
3. Pour sauce over the fish and add sliced shiitake mushrooms.
4. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes.
5. Once cooked (fish fakes easily), serve over a bed of brown rice. Garnish with chopped spring onions and additional coriander.

Cheese baked tilapia served with sautéed spinach and cherry tomatoes (inspired by How Sweet It Is)

The Ingredients
Tilapia fillet, 1 tbsp butter, 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese, 1 clove of garlic, thyme, salt & pepper, and lemon slices. For the spinach and cherry tomatoes: 1 clove of garlic, olive oil, baby spinach, cherry tomatoes, a squeeze of lemon juice, and salt & pepper

The Preparation
1. Pat tilapia dry and season with salt & pepper.

2. Lay on a baking tray (either use a non-stick spray or a bit of olive oil rubbed behind fish so it does not stick). Bake for 10 minutes at 400F. 
3. Mix butter, garlic, thyme and parmesan cheese.
4. Remove fish from oven and gently flip. Top fish with the mixture and baked for another 5 to 10 minutes until cheese is golden and bubbly.
5. Heat olive oil and sauté garlic. 
6. Add baby spinach leaves and cherry tomatoes. Season with salt & pepper and squeeze of lemon juice. Cook until leaves have wilted and cherry tomatoes and popped.
7. To serve, plate the tilapia on top of the spinach leaves and cherry tomatoes. Serve with slices of lemon.  

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. 

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 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.  

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. 

In seven years time…

Grilled aubergine, spinach & feta salad
One of the worst things that can happen in the kitchen is the gas tank dying on you midst cooking a meal to satisfy the insane hunger pangs following an intense run. What is a famished person to do with a pan of half-cooked pasta sauce?! Note to self, always have spare emergency gas, particularly during the holiday season.

With none of the usual gas suppliers around because of the CNY period, I spent the entire week trying to prepare meals that did not require cooking on the stove. One Thursday I pulled together a tuna niçoise salad for my work lunchbox, pleased with myself for remembering that canned tuna is godsend for those lazy days when you cannot be bothered to fire up the hob. As I sat down to eat, I realised that I actually have not eaten tuna for quite some time now. With each forkful, I found myself having to force down the bites and it soon became obvious that I have actually gone off my canned fishy friends. The smell, the texture – everything about the tuna put me off. And this is coming from someone who used to live off tuna sarnies or tuna topped jacket potatoes! I suppose it’s only natural for your taste buds to evolve and your association to once familiar foods can change over a period of time. My attitude towards chicken is similar. Having binged on chicken breasts as the default choice since I do not eat any other meats other than seafood, I can no longer stand the stuff (unless I absolutely have no choice and do not want to come off as a picky eater). 

On the other hand, there are certain foods that I previously would have cringed in horror at but now wonder why I have deprived myself of them all this time – smoked salmon (I shockingly could not stand the slimy texture), sashimi (I questioned why anyone would want to eat raw fish), spinach, aubergines (I was not a fan of having sweet veg/fruit in my savory dishes and till today am not too thrilled at the thought of Moroccan tanginess), and probably the biggest wtf-factor of them all, avocados! I now can’t imagine a life without any of these beautiful ingredients. I read somewhere that this evolution of tastes is natural and can be attributed scientifically to your bodily cells regenerating every 7 years. Others say this is a myth. I think the changes in your tastes boils down to age and experience. Excessive repetition leading to boredom or a bad incident with a particular food will only eventually lead to a disinterest (i.e. me and chicken). However exposure to new foods cooked in exciting ways beyond what you are used to does wonders to expand your taste buds.

Another salad that I pulled together durning my no-stove cooking week contained two ingredients I previously could not stand – aubergines and spinach. Despite my earlier aversion to the sweetness of aubergines when used in savory dishes, I now love their versatility and their ability to easily soak up the flavours of other ingredients surrounding it. Aubergines are also one of the few vegetables that taste completely different depending on how you cook them. I’m extremely thankful for my new love for the ‘king of the vegetables’ and look forward to what taste surprises the next 7 years will hold! 

Grilled aubergines, spinach & feta salad

The Ingredients
Spinach leaves, aubergine, pine nuts, feta cheese, salt & pepper. Additional ingredients that I threw in to bulk up the salad – sliced mushrooms, croutons, and leftover quinoa.

For the dressing – olive oil, lemon juice, dijon mustard.

The Preparation
1.  Slice aubergines and place in a tray drizzled with olive oil. Season the top sides of the aubergines and grill until they have softened. When they look cook, flip aubergines and grill the other side.

2. Pan fry pine nuts (I placed mine in the oven!)
3. Combine the spinach leaves, pine nuts, crumbled feta cheese, sliced mushrooms, croutons, and leftover quinoa.
4. Whisk dressing ingredients and drizzle over salad.

Mission teetotal = mission total fail

Homemade cheats pizza
Confession, mission teetotal did not last as long as I thought it would. I fell off the wagon after two measly weeks! I want to be able to blame it on a crappy client meeting, a big event ie best friend’s birthday/wedding, or even peer pressure. But I can’t. There is no one else to fault except myself. What can I say, nothing beats a glass of vino  (or errr a can of Tiger) on a Friday night after a very long week. To avoid slipping into total hermit isolation in the run up to June, I’m going to revise my plan from completely shunning drinks to moderate consumption. Just as long as I do not get drawn into the out-till-6am-scoffing-down-a-plate-of-greasy-maggi-goreng Friday night outings so that I can still have a long, productive training session the following day.

Over the weekend I found myself craving a pizza but I was keen to avoid succumbing into yet another food vice and wanted to hold on to some semblance of  an ‘eating for training’ regime. I really do enjoy creating healthier versions of my favourite foods, especially if the better-for-you replicas retain all  the intended flavours, avoiding the ‘what have you done, it now tastes like cardboard’ trap. It’s amazing how a simple swap of ingredients can make such a difference in terms of overall nutritional content. The idea of using wholemeal pitta bread as a pizza base was originally my sister’s and it’s perfect for people like me who cannot be  bothered to go through the process of making my own dough (translation: I am ashamed to admit the fact that I am a crappy baker). A great thing about pitta bread in Malaysia is that it is circular in shape, rather than the English oblong pittas, so it lends itself perfectly as a base to whatever crazy topping combination your heart desires. Not only does making your own pizza allow you to incorporate nutritious veggies more than some of the store bought options, it also allows you to be a bit more experimental with your ingredients. For the pizza’s below, I made three different types for the family to share: 1) A classic mushroom, tomato, basil & mozzarella 2) Roasted aubergines, basil & mozzarella 3) A florentine inspired spinach, pine nuts, feta, and caramalised onions (I have developed a recent obsession with caramalised onions and am on a mission to include this in just about everything that I cook!).

I guess moral of the story is that you can still enjoy your favourite foods while training but the little swapping tricks will ensure that you do not make too much of a dent to the healthy eating mission. Now if I could only find a healthy substitute for my vino.

Homemade cheats pizza

Basic Ingredients
Wholemeal pitta bread, tomato paste, dried oregano, salt & pepper, a bit of olive oil.

Topping option 1:Cherry tomatoes, basil, sliced mushrooms, mozzarella cheese
Topping option 2: Sliced aubergines, chilli flakes, basil, mozzarella cheese
Topping option 3: Sliced onions, spinach, pine nuts, feta cheese

The Preparation
1. Mix the tomato paste with the dried oregano and season.

2. Spread paste mix onto the wholemeal pitta breads
3. Arrange toppings accordingly:

Mushroom, cherry tomato & basil
Top the pizza with sliced mushrooms, halved cherry tomatoes, basil leaves, and grated mozzarella cheese. Grill until cheese has melted.

Aubergine & basil
Slice aubergines and place in a baking tray that has been drizzled in olive oil. Season aubergine tops. Grill. Top grilled aubergines onto pitta, add basil leaves, and mozzarella cheese. Grill until cheese has melted.

Spinach, pine nuts, feta & caramalised onions
Saute sliced onions with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. Until onions have caramalised. Blanch the spinach leaves and drain. Toast pine nuts until golden brown. Top pizza with spinach, onions, pine nuts and crumbled feta cheese. Grill until feta has browned.


Just like the old days part 3

A twist on eggs florentine
The final chapter in my tribute to the London foursome, I’m dedicating this to the member who is always my partner in crime when in comes to foodie adventures. This lovely lady, who is still holding down the fort in London town for us, was the one person I would immediately turn to when I was on a mission to find the best of the best. These constant quests to find meals that would surpass a previous discovery made the whole experience of eating in London incredibly exciting. We hunted down the best Red Velvets – after one too many cupcakes, sugar highs, and to avoid bursting the seams of our jeans we conceded Hummingbird Bakery (still) holds the crown. There were numerous Sunday brunch dim sum trials (I am a Royal China loyalist) and stomach bursting Greek restaurant sessions (the jury is still out for Retsina of Belsize park vs Lemonia in charming Primrose Hill). Probably the most significant search of them all – the best eggs benedict/florentine. We cracked (cue drum cymbal) through a dozen different brunch places, even attempted making our own, but absolutely hands down this award goes to Raouls in Maida Vale. The eggs here were out-of-this-world, enormously golden orange yokes poached to perfection. At the risk of sounding like a broken record from previous posts, I hate non runny eggs and poached eggs with overcooked yolks are a sacrilege (this explains why I refuse to step foot at Bangsar’s Plan B – RM 16 for well done poached eggs, I don’t think so). 

I cannot have an eggs benedict or florentine without missing this lovely lady. Our egg-scapades powered us through catchups on life, morning-afters bitching about how all men in the world suck (or were sweethearts depending on the day), weekend escapes from insane flatmates, and celebrations such as Will and Kate’s nuptials, where she made gorgeous homemade eggs benedict in our little commoner’s party for the royals. 

When making eggs benedict or florentine at home, I tend to tweak the recipe to make the dish a tad less sinful. I cannot bring myself to make my own hollandaise sauce knowing how much butter and additional egg yolks are required. My version of hollandaise uses natural yoghurt and dijon mustard for a similar creamy sauce with a tangy hit. The spinach is also cooked in the sauce for extra lusciousness. When I’ve made this recently, a wholemeal roll was used as base because for some reason English muffins bought in Malaysia taste a tad cardboard like? The eggs you see below were poached using a nifty device from John Lewis that are meant to be quite easy to use. The eggs sit in the pouch, hovering over a pot of boiling water. Before you know it, ben’s your uncle and you should technically have poached perfection. I don’t seem to have a problem with the runny yolks, it’s more the egg formation that can get extremely messy even with additional help. Lucky for me, cameras can hide certain angles. I will not say more. I have officially added ‘perfectly poach an egg’ to my list of things to do before turning 35 to compensate. 

No competition to Raoul’s but still a reminder of our lovely food quests and catchups. To our foodie adventures, weekend brekkies are not the same without you Nana. 

Eggs Florentine

Basic Ingredients
Two eggs, wholemeal roll, spinach, half an onion, 1/2 cup natural yoghurt, 2-3 tsp dijon mustard, half a lemon, olive oil, salt & pepper, spring onions to garnish.

The Preparation
1. Poach eggs (or in my case attempt to poach eggs).

2. Make the sauce by sautéing onions with olive oil. When onions start to brown add natural yoghurt and dijon mustard. Season. Before sauce is about to boil, squeeze in lemon juice and reserve some sauce to pour over the eggs.
3. Add spinach leaves to remaining sauce in pan. When leaves have wilted take off the heat.
4. To assemble place a layer of the spinach mixture on top of a halved, toasted roll. Top with poached egg, drizzle extra sauce, and garnish with chopped spring onions.
5. Serve with a simple side salad of spinach leaves and cherry tomatoes.  

Mission clear out the fridge

Stuffed portobello mushrooms with tofu & spinach
Every now and then there is a little game I like to challenge myself with. It involves scavenging for leftover (sometimes wilting) ingredients in the fridge and trying to turn these into a scrumptiously inventive meal, rather than letting them end up in the bin. I absolutely hate food wastage. Living in London while paying an insane amount of rent each month meant that I felt (the pain of) every single cent of the 5 quid Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference cherry tomatoes. You learn to value every precious juicy ball of goodness in the pack, racking your brains to find new ways to use the tomatoes to avoid them wasting away past their expiry date.

There’s nothing more satisfying than finding a creative way to transform leftover ingredients into a new, exciting dish. Maybe it’s just me, but it sure feels like hitting the jackpot when I’ve managed to completely clear out my fridge without throwing anything away. I tend to rely on the following transformation templates:

  • Carrots, sugar snaps, generally most green leafy veg are great used up in stir fries
  • Potatoes, celery, leeks act as useful base when blitzed into heartwarming soups
  • Last night’s grilled salmon will turn into yummy fishcakes for lunch
  • Cold rice is actually the best fried rice while risotto makes decadently cheesy arancini balls
  • Extra quinoa/cous cous/pulses can significantly bulk up a salad or soup
  • A frittata works wonders to swallow up any remaining ingredients into a filling brunch
  • Just about anything can be tossed into a pasta style dish – a can of sweet chopped tomatoes hides many sins
I made the dish below, Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms with Tofu and Spinach, last night when i was determined to finish off some portobello mushrooms, remaining shavings of mozzarella cheese, not so crunchy spinach, and a half block of tofu. This actually makes for a pretty filling meal with a side serving of quinoa. With this dish I’ve also learned another useful fridge straggler clearing tip – you cannot go wrong with a blanket of cheese on anything. Ever. 

Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms with Tofu and Spinach

Basic Ingredients
Portobello mushrooms, tofu, spinach, onion, tomato puree, Italian dried herbs mix, salt & pepper, mozzarella cheese, quinoa (optional)

The preparation
1. Remove mushroom stalks and finely chop

2. Pan fry tofu until golden brown on all sides
3. Saute onion with olive oil. Add tofu and keep stirring to break this up into small pieces. Add spinach, chopped mushroom stalks, tomato puree, Italian dried herbs, and season.
4. Scoop mixture into portobello mushrooms. Top with mozzarella cheese.
5. Bake until tops are golden brown.
6. Cook quinoa (with chicken broth) and serve on the side.  

Visit Love Food Hate Waste for some resourceful ideas on what you can do with leftovers.

To new beginnings

Vegetarian breakfast fry-up
The first day of a brand new year always unfolds a fresh wave of optimism, hope, and excitement about the endless possibilities the next 12 months hold. 
At the stroke of midnight it feels as if your slate is magically wiped clean of any past grievances, opening the door to reinvention and new experiences. 

I’m not one for making new year’s resolutions.  I tend to set my goals and achievements as and when I am inspired to do so rather than at the beginning of the new year. However I do believe in having a clear mantra each year, which I use as point of inspiration to understand any key decisions, occurrences, or challenges I am faced with. Establishing my own philosophy based on pure intentions that I can relate to, helps me to become a more grounded (and hopefully honest) person. I would like to hope that with each mantra I set (and as the years go by and I get a little bit wiser!), I’ll be a step closer to understanding the universe and why it has led me to where I am at that point in time. 

To welcome 2011, I toasted with a nice glass of champagne (they do it in style in Dusseldorf!) to ‘new adventures and new chapters’. I knew 2011 would be a pivotal point in my life with my move to KL and turning 30, so everything I set out to do was with the intention of transformation and testing my comfort zone. And what an experience 2011 has been, to the extent that I had maybe just one too many adventures. This realisation kicked in after I was pulled over by a police car for running a red light (on justifiable grounds might I add) and an expired road tax all on the same night (not to mention mowing down my gate a couple of days beforehand).

So for 2012, I’m opting for a mantra that is perhaps a little less exciting but more appreciative of everything that is around me. For me, 2012 is about seeking positive energy and joyful moments in everything I do. Surrounding myself with positive people that can inspire laughter, a sense of understanding, and the tendency to see life with a ‘glass half full’ attitude will naturally bring out the best in me to acknowledge all the small moments that matter.    

As I opened my eyes for my first morning of 2012, I was thankful that I absolutely had no plans  – no runs, no yoga classes, errands, or commitments. It’s been a while since I’ve intentionally planned to have no plans. Usually when I don’t feel like doing anything, this is a forced response to having to recover from a big night out or sheer work exhaustion. When you have the luxury of time on your hands, one of the best ways to start the morning is preparing a long, self-rewarding breakfast that helps set the right tone and mood for the rest of day. My vegetarian breakfast fryup was extra special today as I prepared the meal with family in the kitchen. What was possibly more miraculous was the fact that my dad freely volunteered to eat something I had prepared when he normally shuns my cooking as hippie food. To appease him, I was slightly more decadent with my treatment of the portobello mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and spinach (I don’t normally use a lot of butter or cream in my cooking). In this case, the richness of the herb butter on the portobello mushrooms was not overpowering and actually helped integrate and accentuate the flavours of the other ingredients. I absolutely love cherry tomatoes that have been slightly over roasted, where the slightest bite easily triggers an explosion of sweetness. So with family in the kitchen, lovely over roasted cherry tomatoes, and buttery portobello mushrooms, my 2012 is off to a positive and joyful start. 

Vegetarian breakfast fry up (portobello mushrooms with herb butter, cherry tomatoes & rosemary, spinach and scrambled eggs)

Basic ingredients
Portobello mushrooms, butter, mixed herbs (I use dried), cherry tomatoes, rosemary, spinach, garlic, eggs, sour cream, salt & pepper.

The joy begins with
1. For portobello mushrooms with herb butter – mash butter with mixed herbs and seasoning until the butter has quite a smooth consistency to make it easier to apply. Spread mixture into the portobello mushrooms (I actually like leaving the stalks on my mushrooms, especially in Malaysia when the size of portobello mushrooms are TINY!). 

2.  For the roasted cherry tomatoes & rosemary – halve cherry tomatoes and drizzle with olive oil, salt, and rosemary. Grill with the portobello mushrooms so that the juices from both have a chance to amalgamate (lovely to soak up with some bread!!). 
3. For the spinach – sauté garlic with olive oil. Add spinach and cook until the leaves have wilted, season. Before taking off the heat, add a tablespoon of sour cream to the pan and mix. 
4. Serve all of the above with scrambled eggs and toast. I poured the juices from the roasted vegetables onto the plate as well.
5. Appreciate the moment.