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. 


The rice war

Wild rice salad with cherry tomatoes, broccoli, tofu, and mange tout
It’s an ongoing joke between my dad and I that the hospital where I was born majorly messed up, accidentally giving me away to the wrong family. The first piece of evidence is me being gigantically taller than my smaller, petite family members (and not to mention other Malaysians in general). There’s also the fact that I do not look like either one of my parents, while my sister is an exact carbon copy of my mom. However in my dad’s eyes, the ultimate test of being an ‘Aziz’ – how much you enjoy rice and meat. And unfortunately for him, I’m a fan of neither. 

I have never really been a rice person, which is strange thing to say considering I am Asian and this is our holy staple to any meal. Don’t get me wrong, I do eat rice on occasion, but it is never my first choice for a carb fix. Maybe I find rice bland, but the same thing can be said for most other carbs. Furthermore, the beauty of rice is its ability to act as a blank canvas, heroing the flavours of its accompanying dishes. Oddly though, I can happily live without nasi lemak (Malaysia’s national dish of coconut rice and condiments), nasi goreng (fried rice), nasi briyani, nasi campur (mixed rice) and all the lauks in the universe, or the veggie fav banana leaf meal. But deny me of my noodles, pasta, or even (brown) bread and my world will start to fall apart! When I was living alone, a small 500g pack of rice would easily last me a full year. I was probably one of the very few Malaysians that refused to own a rice cooker – why waste limited London kitchen counter space/storage when you can cook rice on the hob with a normal pot!

Surprisingly in the last year I have developed a new appreciation for rice with the discovery of the brown and wild variety. Now many who are white rice purists will scoff at the notion of brown/wild rice as ‘hippy food’ that tastes like cardboard. However as someone who has never been hooked on white rice, I actually prefer the nutty, earthy, slightly smokey flavours and texture found in brown/wild rice. The alternative variety also has far more nutritional benefits than its white counterpart. White rice starts off brown and is processed/milled/polished to death to completely remove the bran/germ layer, reducing its original fiber and vitamin content. Brown rice on the other hand still retains its wholegrain status, since only the first outer layered is removed through milling, thus holding on to its vital nutrients. Another benefit is that brown rice has a much lower glycemic index to stabilise your blood glucose levels, keeping you fuller for longer (while reducing the risk of diabetes in the long term). Think this is great? Well wild rice is even better. Not technically rice (it is scientifically classified as aquatic type of grass), wild rice surpasses other grains in protein content, minerals, B vitamins, and folic acid. It has twice the protein content of brown rice (8 times the protein of white rice) while only containing 83 calories for 1/2 cup cooked!

I find that the chewy texture of brown/wild rice makes it more enjoyable when served cold, which is something that cannot be said about white rice. This makes it the perfect accompaniment to a salad, just like the dish below.  In London, I absolutely loved Biona’s Organic Wild Rice mix, where a single pack contained a combination of brown, wild, and red rice. Please, please, please will a supplier start distributing Biona products to Malaysia? I may just consider experimenting with a brown/wild rice nasi lemak and see if I can convert the nation. Move over Village Park Nasi Lemak!

Wild rice salad with cherry tomatoes, broccoli, tofu, and mange tout

The Ingredients
Wild rice mix (I used the last of my Biona packet! Brown rice or multigrain rice can easily be found in Malaysia in the organic section of most supermarkets – you can buy the brown/multigrain/wild (or black) rice individually and combine this yourself.)
 broccoli, pan fried tofu, cherry tomatoes, mange tout, and almond flakes.

The Preparation:
1. Cook rice mix (1 cup of rice to 3 cups of water) until the black husks have split and rice is slightly al dente. Wild rice takes slightly longer to cook than regular. Like I said, I think rice can be easily be made without using a rice cooker. The trick is to cook it on the hob uncovered and when it looks 3/4 done, place the lid on to steam the rice and lower the heat.

2. Blanch broccoli and mange tout in boiling water.
3. Sautee almond flakes until this has slightly browned.
4. Mix rice, broccoli, mange tout, sliced tofu, halved cherry tomatoes, and almond flakes.
5. Serve with dressing of choice (I find that the sesame Japanese dressing is lovely with this).  

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

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. 

Just like the old days part 1

Pak choi with tofu & oyster sauce
I had a much needed day out of the office yesterday, spending it with two out of the three individuals who became close family to me the minute we connected several years ago in London. As you grow older, it becomes harder to meet people you automatically click with on a number of levels – intellectual, emotional, outlook on life, sense of humor, and just a general sense of being comfortable in their presence to the extent that it feels natural to let go of any barriers or defenses. In my case especially, I never settled in a country long enough to make/keep a group of core close friends since my family was constantly moving from one country to another. I went through my teenage and early adult years training myself to not depend on anyone other than family. This all changed one late summer afternoon in 2008 over a ridiculous game of cards on sunny Hampstead Heath.

Yesterday was spent road tripping to Melaka, doing what we love to do best – singing to great tunes, making up even more corny games (guys if you are reading this – I won the ‘love’ game!), laughing at anything/everything, catching up on life developments, discussing life philosophies/decisions, pursuing random moments, and enjoying great food. One of the things I love about the London foursome is that we are all passionate foodies, each one with his/her own unique view on the joys of food. So throughout this week, in honour of friendships that never change despite the four of us not living in the same country, I want to cook a dish that reminds me of each one of these amazing individuals.

The dish below, Pak choi with tofu & oyster sauce, comes to mind after a conversation over a vegetarian lunch with one of the London foursome. This discussion exemplifies a London foursome moment at its best – having an in-depth and analytical discussion about food, while eating lots of food. As we were recounting our top three list of favourite world cuisines, I brought up why I personally do not like Malay food. I find that it is often not vegetarian friendly and there is a tendency to overcook vegetables, drowning them with all sorts of sauces and spices. Similarly  Overcooking vegetables not only kills their nutrients, but also ruins what makes the veggies deliciously appetising in the first place. I absolutely love the light, fresh crunch of veggies. This probably explains why Mediterranean (Greek, Turkish, Lebanese) and Chinese food are on my top 3 list (I can’t deny that my one true love at number one is Italian). With these cuisines, the vegetables are often used raw or at least treated with respect for what they are. The pak choi dish below requires a quick blanching of the greens for 40 seconds in hot boiling water. The key here is to retain the freshness of the pak choi, thus transferring it into a bowl of ice, cold water after boiling will stop any further cooking. The dish is brought together by the nutty, savoury sauce that is poured while still hot over the veggies.

It’s a lovely feeling when you can intellectualise the benefits and cooking time of vegetables into a lengthy, inspiring conversation with someone. To always finding inspiration, this one’s for you Philios.

Pak choi with tofu & oyster sauce

Basic Ingredients
Pak choi, tofu, sesame seeds, sesame oil, oyster sauce, garlic, salt and pepper

The Preparation
1. Prepare a pot of salted boiling water and blanch pak choi for 40 seconds. Following this immediately transfer the pak choi into a bowl of ice cold water to stop this cooking further.

2. Toast sesame seeds
3. Pan fry tofu until golden brown on each side, slice, and place alongside dry pak choi.
3. In a separate pan, heat sesame oil and sauté chopped garlic. Add 3 tablespoons of oyster sauce diluted with a bit of water. Add black pepper – I don’t add extra salt since the oyster sauce is salty enough. Once the sauce is boiling pour over the pak choi and tofu arrangement.
4. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.

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.