On spontaneity and avocados

Grilled cheese & guacamole bagel
I have always considered myself a rather adventurous and spontaneous person. I’m game for new discoveries. I keep an open mind to new possibilities. I live my life with a passion for new foods and flavours. I’ve spent my life moving from place to place, with an open arm to welcoming new experiences. However post birthday celebration, the slight anxiety of leaving my lovely twenties even further behind, and multiple comments of “you always go for the same, exact thing all the time” on my lunch choices have led me to take a closer look at how carefree I really am.

The actual truth is that I may have an audacious ‘go-with-the-flow’ spirit, however in practice I pretty much tend to sick to a familiar comfort zone. And you know what, I do love my predictable routines. I get cranky when I fall short of my required number of runs per weeks and generally try to plan nights out based on whether I am going running the following day. At one point weekends were religiously dedicated to yoga but hey when you fall in love your priorities sometimes change. I still try to be strict about Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoon yoga sessions. When I do miss these classes, I become the most whiney un-zenlike person to be around. 

The biggest of all ironies is that my attitude towards food is engrained on the familiar. Having my own food blog and experimenting with new recipes on a weekly basis, you would think that I love trying new dishes and new restaurants. Wrong. I only enjoy the latter IF I can have a pretty certain guarantee that it will be a good experience. I try out new recipes when I cook at home as the elements are within my control (I know my kitchen, I know the ingredients, I know the flavours that I like). On the other hand when it comes to dining out, I tend to stick to places/dishes that are familiar and that I know for certain I will enjoy. To me, a meal time is sacred and one of the worst things that can happen is to have this special time be ruined with average, crappy food. So I will stick to the same restaurants or the same rice with sweet sour fish and tofu veg for my work lunch (when I’m not bringing food from home) day in and day out because it feels familiar and will minimize my chances of a negative experience. To add to the food neurosis, I spend the weekend planning out my meals for the following week to make sure I buy all the necessary groceries required to prepare dishes on my ‘menu-for-the-week’ list, which I obsessively refer to on my moleskin as the days go along.  

Recent inspirations though have taught me to breakaway from routine, to really go out and embrace things that may seem scarily unfamiliar. Try go-karting instead of that usual weekend yoga class or a spontaneous night out during the week to let-go of stress (‘run extra over the weekend’ I’ve been told). Best of all, be open to trying a new restaurant that I have not obsessively studied through various food blogs. If you have a crappy meal, at least you’ll have something to laugh about and your next meal will only seem more magnificent. Don’t plan meals or grocery shopping, buy what you feel inspired by at the supermarket rather than being led by a predetermined list. 

So today, in my first attempt to be more spontaneous, I crossed out my ‘meals list’ and decided to entertain my sudden craving for avocados. Genius that I am forgot that in Malaysia, spontaneity and avocados do not go hand-in-hand. You need to plan your enjoyment of avocados in advance since the majority of supermarkets DO NOT for some strange reason sell ripe avocados. Cold storage, Jaya Grocer, Jusco, or Carrefour all require you to let the avocados ripen for at least 3-4 days. As I stood in front of the stack of hard avocados at a chaotically busy Jaya Grocer in Empire cursing myself for not having a list to fall back on (‘what do I cook now that there are no avocados?!’), I remembered my little secret (well after this no longer a secret) of only ever finding ripe avocados at Village Grocer in Bangsar Village. And in the name of spontaneity, me and EP got in the car, drove through traffic just to buy some lovely ripe avocados to satisfy a craving. And trust me, ripe avocados are perfection, worth the half an hour standstill along Federal Highway. If following an act of randomness can lead to the blissful moment of enjoying a creamy ripe avocado, then it is worth letting go of the comfortable routine once in a while. I started off the year trusting in the magic of the unexpected, so I’m embracing this philosophy to take me through what will hopefully be an exciting few years enjoying the 30s. 

Grilled cheese & guacamole bagel

The Ingredients
1 ripe avocado, a handful of cherry tomatoes, a quarter onion, 1 clove of garlic, 1 lime, chopped coriander, bagel, a slice of mozzarella cheese, bagel, salt & pepper, salad/rocket leaves to serve on the side. 

The Preparation
1. To make the guacamole, mash avocado, cherry tomatoes, chopped onion, chopped garlic, coriander, and lime juice. Season with salt & pepper.
2. Spread guacamole  on bagel and top with sliced cheese.
3. Grill in pan until cheese has melted.
4. Serve with a side salad.  

Hello summer

Chicken burger
So I got my homemade burger in the end. On a sunny KL day lazing in the garden. Summer on a plate. A tribute to the start of sunshine-filled days and shorter evenings on the other side of the world, my other home. Perfection. 

Chicken Burger (recipe inspired by Bev Cooks)

Basic Ingredients
Minced chicken (about 1 pound – I prefer buying chicken breast meat and having the butcher mince this so that mean is lean rather than the fatty pre-minced packets), 1 red onion, 2 cloves of garlic, spring onions, coriander, 1/4 cup soy sauce, juice of 1/2 a lemon, lemon zest, 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs, red pepper flakes, salt & pepper, olive oil, slice of cheese of choice, ciabatta bread, rocket leaves, avocado, tomatoes, thai chili sauce, mayonnaise, mustard. 

The Preparation
1. In a large bowl mix minced chicken, soy sauce, chopped garlic & onion, spring onions, coriander, lemon juice, lemon zest, breadcrumbs, red pepper chili flakes. Season.
2. Form mixture into patties (not too large or they will crumble when grilling). 
3. You’re supposed to let the patties rest in the fridge for about an hour, I placed these in the freezer for 15 minutes to allow them to firm up.
4. Grill on fry pan or BBQ until meat is done (10 – 15 minutes depending on the size of the patty)
5. To serve – grill cheese on ciabatta. On one side smear with the sauces – thai chill, mayonnaise, mustard. Add rocket. Add cooked burgers. Top with sliced avocado and tomatoes. Initially I was skeptical about the avocados going into an inspired flavored meat patty but the combination works!
6. Bite. Dig in. Say hello to summer. 

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. 

Going beyond the salad

Aubergine Bruschetta
One of the resolutions that tends to crop up at this time of the year is to eat less (or completely no) meat. No one can argue about the extensive health, environmental, and ethical benefits of adopting a vegetarian diet (you can read about this
 here). I’m not going to preach about this subject since at this point in my life, I myself am not completely vegetarian. For 8 years I followed a very strict vegetarian lifestyle (of which I was completely vegan for 2 years). At this stage though because of the amount of running that I do, I have had to turn to seafood and on the very rare occasion, chicken, as additional sources of protein. 

The majority of my cooking still tends to be mostly non-meat based. The funny thing is that I am now more excited about cooking veggie dishes compared to when I was actually a practising vegetarian. Back then I was less willing to experiment with food and relied on the trusted basics of potatoes, lettuce, mushrooms, tomatoes, and pasta. This meant a repetitive cycle of meals centred on salads, jacket potatoes, and bland spaghettis. However in the last couple of years, I have become more adventurous with the vegetables, grains and pulses I rely on. This attitude has opened up a whole new world of cooking for me.

I wanted to write this post to reassure people that a vegetarian meal does not have to be boring and and restricted to the plain salad. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love salads. I recently got a new salad cookbook as a Christmas pressie, which reaffirms there are endless of possibilities that you can create, as long as you are willing to experiment to go beyond the generic iceberg lettuce/Caesar salad combination. 

The recipe below for an Aubergine Bruschetta is entirely vegetarian and guess what, not a leafy green in sight! Fine, it uses mint leaves but this is treated as a garnishing rather than a main component. This dish is proof that a vegetarian meal can be excitingly bold in flavours – from the slightly tangy and sweet salsa (sweet tomatoes and salty capers), to the meaty juiciness of the aubergines. The presentation and explosion of flavours remind me of the slightly strange but glorious experimentations by the veggie restaurants Brighton is so famous for (how I miss Terre a Terre). The original recipe from Smitten Kitchen, one of my favourite food blogs, uses ricotta but I’ve substituted this for feta (more value for money in Malaysia). To make this into a more filling meal, I serve the aubergines with bulgur wheat simply cooked with onions and tomato puree to help enhance the tomato tones in the salsa. This dish works just as well without the bulgur wheat, as a starter/canape that is a lighter take on the standard bruschetta.

So if your new year’s resolution is to go vegetarian or simply eat less meat, then read, learn, experiment, get excited, and expand your repertoire of ingredients. Otherwise you risk failing miserably in two months after your fifth Caesar salad or jacket potato! 

Aubergine bruschetta served on a bed of bulgur wheat

Basic Ingredients
Aubergines, tomatoes, red onions, capers, mint leaves, olive oil, red wine vinegar, bulgur wheat, onions, vegetable stock, tomato paste, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1. For the aubergines – cut into thick slices. Drizzle about 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil on a baking tray and layout the aubergines. Season with a generous amount of salt & pepper. Grill until the aubergine flesh is dark, smoky in color and soft to the touch. Flip slices and grill to match the other side.

2. For the tomato salsa – de-seed tomatoes (I used cherry tomatoes so this was a rather extensive process!). Add the remaining chopped ingredients to the tomatoes – mint leaves, capers, red onions, and crumbled feta. Drizzle some olive oil and red wine vinegar, season.
3. For the bulgur wheat – sauté sliced onions in olive oil. Once onions have browned, cook bulgar wheat with vegetable stock. When bulgur wheat looks 3/4 cooked, season with pepper and add a dollop of tomato puree (roughly about 1 tsp).
4. To serve – scoop salsa onto grilled aubergine slices and serve on top of the bulgur wheat.

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.