Viet-inspired Chicken Rice

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I was so inspired by the Viet chicken rice in Hoi An that I absolutely had to make my own. I started off on a typical Hainanese chicken rice base. Not having access to the type of chicken (most likely cornfed) that coloured the rice yellow, I improvised by adding turmeric to the rice base. For the chicken, I poached it the Hainanese way. However, the toppings were very much improved with plenty of typically Vietnamese herbage. Even in the absence of Hainanese chilli sauce, I thought this was a winner. It also passed the family test: every grain of rice was gobbled up even though I deliberately cooked more in the hope of leftovers. I can imagine it being even more magical with Hainanese chilli sauce.

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Ingredients:

2 cups rice

1 chicken
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sesame oil

2 tbsp oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1 thumb-length ginger, chopped
4 cloves, optional
1 star anise, optional
1 thumb-length turmeric, pounded

½ carrot, shredded
Thai basil
mint
daun kesom (laksa) leaves
kaffir lime leaves, very finely sliced
big limes, cut into wedges

Method:

  1. Wash rice and put in rice cooker pot. Measure out how much water you’d put in and keep that amount in mind for the stock to use, about 450ml. (I use the “equal finger” method: stick your finger in the rice, and add water to the same level above the rice.) Now drain the rice and set aside.
  2. Put chicken in pot and cover with water. Heat gently till just boiling and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off fire and leave for 30 minutes.
  3. Remove chicken and set aside. Keep all stock and juices from chicken. When cool, rub with salt and sesame oil.
  4. Fry garlic, shallot and ginger in oil till fragrant, then add cloves, star anise, cinnamon and fry for a few seconds more. Add rice and fry till it’s dry and glistening.
  5. Transfer to rice cooker and and chicken stock. Squeeze the pounded turmeric over, discarding the dry turmeric pulp. Season with a pinch or so of salt. Cook as normal.
  6. Chop chicken and prepare herbage for serving.
  7. Before eating, arrange chicken on top of rice and top with carrot shreds and herbs. Squeeze the lime over and tuck in.

Serves 4.

Another Quick Lunch Salad: Brown Rice and Fish

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As you can tell, I haven’t had a great deal of time to cook lately. It’s mainly been work, and keeping up with the various bits and pieces that make up a full life. Am also juggling a new personal project that I hope I can share at some point soon. Unfortunately, cooking has taken the, um, back burner. Today I only managed to quickly rustle up some lunch out of bits and pieces in the fridge and it turned out pretty well!

I knew I wanted something healthy, so it was brown rice and cracked buckwheat. There was leftover romaine, cabbage and basil in the fridge, together with some fish slices. I was inspired by a version of nasi ulam Mum made a few weeks back where she shredded fried wolf herring into rice and local herbs and squeezed plenty of lime juice over it. This time, I wanted a Western version of it and did the lazy thing of combining it all with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It turned out pretty well!

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Ingredients:

¼ cup brown rice
2 tbsp buckwheat
1 cup water
1 small fish fillet, sliced
1 small head romaine lettuce
1 handful shredded cabbage
25g basil leaves
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

Method:

  1. Cook the brown rice and buckwheat together with the water in a rice cooker.
  2. When cooked, fluff the rice mixture and stir in the fish slices. Turn off the cooker and leave the fish to cook in the residual heat.
  3. Prepare the vegetables (wash, slice, chop).
  4. Combine the fish and rice mixture with the vegetables and tear the basil leaves gently over.
  5. Stir in the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, top with a few grinds of salt and pepper to taste. Toss and serve.

Serves 1.

June in Thailand: The Stir-Fry Fireball and Other Cooking Adventures

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The highlight of Chiang Mai was something I hadn’t planned: cooking classes. I was intrigued by the large number of courses on offer at the various guesthouses. Cooking classes seemed as popular as day treks to the hilltribe villages. Tom and I decided that we just had to go for one. We chose The Best Thai Cookery School, run by the inimitable Permpoon “call me Perm” Nabnian, not just because of the price but also because of the almost shameless self-promotion on the brochure.

The morning started off from the back of his pickup truck, a nicely converted vehicle with fairly comfy seats at the back. He picked us all up personally, squeezed us all in the truck, and took us on a tour of a little local market. Here, he took us through the entire encyclopedia of Thai vegetables and herbs. Being Southeast Asian, I thought I’d be familiar with all he’d show us, but I was surprised when he showed us another version of ginger I didn’t know. Of course there was the regular ginger, there was blue ginger (galangal) and yellow ginger (turmeric). But there was also something called lesser or finger ginger, which he’s holding up on the left hand side of the picture. I also learned that Thai basil and holy basil were different plants, both also quite different from the sweet basil used in Mediterranean cooking.

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Aside from that, it was lovely to see the great variety of herbs and vegetables available in the Thai market. Seeing the cute rotund green brinjals made me want to set up kitchen there straight away. Along the way, Perm dispensed little tips like don’t be crazy like the Westerners and go for the largest eggs: buy only small eggs because they’re much tastier.

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And the mushrooms! I don’t know why, but fresh straw mushrooms just aren’t available in Singapore. I love this stuff in soup, especially tom yam. It really is just too bad that so far I’ve only found this good stuff in Thailand and China.

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Whirl round market over, we bundled back into the pickup and went to his house in the suburbs for the cooking lessons proper. First, we learned how to make mango sticky rice. I was surprised that it was made by steaming instead of the typical boiling my Chinese heritage is familiar with. I’ll share the recipe once I get round to making it at home.

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After a round of demonstrations, we were all obviously itching to go. We weren’t issued the aprons and dish cloths for nothing! We’d each chosen a stir-fry dish: I wanted the minced pork fried with holy basil and Tom went for the fried morning glory. The ingredients were all prepared for us and all we needed to do was a bit of minor chopping.

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After getting the food prep out of the way, we were ready for the most exciting part of the course! We took turns with our partners to do our respective dishes, for safety and also to make sure that there was a photographer to document the momentous occasion. First, we got our ingredients ready and stood by the hot woks. Perm came round adding the oil and checking our work stations.

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At his signal, it was time! With a great roar, the flames leapt up together with lots of smoke and exclamations from the more timid of the lot.

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It’s just too bad that the pictures didn’t really do it justice because the flames really went pretty high.

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They only truly died down when I added in the sauce ingredients.

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And there was my minced pork with holy basil replete with plenty of wok hei. Now this is how you do it!

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Next, Perm taught us how to make papaya salad (which I’d already learned by observing the people at the street stand in Laos!) and deep fried banana spring rolls.

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The fun tip I learned here was to use a cut up banana like a glue stick to seal the spring roll wrappers. In my greed, I later forgot to take pictures of them, so no you can’t see the finished product. However, what you can see is me grinning maniacally while making my spring roll.

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We proceeded on to making our own curries and carb dish. I made jungle curry and khao tom. Didn’t quite like the jungle curry but loved the khao tom. And I realise now that khao tom is all about the right kind of soy sauce and also the sprinkling of chinese parsley on top. Tom made a very yummy massaman curry and pad thai. Look at his pleased expression cooking it up! He had rather a short-lived (5 minutes to be exact) of going back to Wales to set up a Thai restaurant.

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As a bonus, Perm also very generously taught Tom and me to make coconut and banana soup. It’s pretty much the same as the soup we make further south in Malaysia and Singapore, just that I think our version is slightly better because we use the more fragrant gula melaka rather than white sugar. Nonetheless, we assembled all our cooking out in the patio and shared the food. It was all very very good, especially since many of my classmates were cooking for the first time. Just goes to show how good Perm is!

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Of course I had to have a parting shot with the chef himself. He was industriously preparing for the evening class already and I had to catch him at the back before he drove us back to town!

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Quick Roasted Vegetable Couscous

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Some evenings I go for a post-work run and want to come back to something quick and good. One night I popped some mushrooms and cherry tomatoes into the oven and went out. By the time I got back, the tomatoes were on the verge of drying out and the mushrooms prettied much burnt in the toms’ charred juice. Do as I say, not as I do: only leave the vegetables in the oven for max 15 minutes! I suppose you can try this with any other non-leafy vegetable. Think eggplant, courgettes, peppers and the like.

The couscous was very easily done: some vegetable stock (I use an organic no-msg stock powder) and a quick buzz in the microwave, then top with chopped basil and the grilled vegetables and it’s good to go. If you feel like you can’t do vegetarian, try adding a chopped anchovy or top with a grilled chicken breast. Quick and cheerful for a weekday dinner.

This recipe of course has way too much couscous. Keep the rest for another meal.

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Ingredients:

handful mushrooms, I used oyster mushrooms in this recipe
as many cherry tomatoes as you like, I used yellow ones here
olive oil

¾ cup vegetable stock
½ cup cous cous
handful basil leaves, finely chopped
1 anchovy fillet, finely chopped
1 wedge lemon

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line a roasting tin with foil and set the mushrooms and tomatoes on. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Roast for 10 minutes or until the vegetables just start to brown.
  2. Heat up the vegetable stock and pour over the couscous. Microwave for 2 minutes on high. Set aside for 5 minutes and fluff with a fork.
  3. When the vegetables are done roasting, pour it and any pan juices onto the couscous. Stir in together with the basil and add salt and pepper to taste. If you’re using chopped anchovies, add them here too.
  4. Top with the lemon wedge and serve.

For 1.

Mid-Week Herb Pasta

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As always, I hoped to finish up some things languishing in the fridge. I had two sad lemons and some fairly fresh coriander waiting around. A quick trip to the supermarket got me basil instead of the flat-leaf parsley I was hoping for, but rooting around in the freezer got me some butter and chopped shallots. I meant to have some kind of meat with this but was too tired to sort that out, so it was just chopped herbs and butter in this simple clean-tasting pasta. I’m sure this would go amazingly with some grilled fish, although DC thinks it’ll be phenomenal with lamb rack. We’ll just have to try both out before deciding!

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Ingredients:
linguine
1 generous knob butter
2 tbsp chopped shallots
good splash of dry vermouth, sherry or white wine
1 pack basil leaves, finely chopped
1 pack coriander leaves, finely chopped
zest of 1 lemon

Method:

  1. Boil the linguine in plenty of salted water till just approaching al dente.
  2. In a hot pan, melt the butter then gently saute the onions till slightly coloured.
  3. Add the vermouth, turn up the heat and bubble till reduced by half.
  4. Toss in the pasta, chopped herbs and lemon zest. Stir over low heat. If the pasta is not yet al dente, add a little of the water used to boil the pasta and stir till ready.
  5. Check seasoning and serve garnished with a lemon wedge and a sprig of basil.

Serves 2.

March in Laos: Eating in Luang Prabang

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Laos in general and Luang Prabang in particular had lots of great food. Siamesecat and I started off one misty morning with a glass of thick, sweet and strong coffee chased down with a glass of steaming hot tea. Sitting on a wooden bench watching the morning bustle while sipping hot robust coffee was one of those subliminal moments of the trip.

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After having our caffeine and sugar fix, we table hopped to the next stall and tucked into the typical breakfast of foe (yup, almost exactly like Vietnamese pho). I don’t know how they make it so tasty, but thin flat rice noodles with hot broth, topped with herbs and raw vegetables to your preference hit the spot for me every day.   This morning the noodles came with pork strips and tomato. I could have noodles three times a day and not get sick of it. The trick was to experiment with the toppings provided at the table. They typically have salt, sugar, msg and chilli powder but there’s normally lime, basil, coriander, mint, sweet chilli sauce, various types of belachan (fermented shrimp paste) and fish sauce. I especially liked trying out the pongy variations of belachan at the different places.

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Foe is normally served in really small portions, which was fine with us because it gave us all the more reason to snack along the street. Here I’m stuffing my face yet again at a barbecue stand selling grilled animal parts like spicy minced pork patties, water buffalo jerky and belly pork. It was all mmm good.

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For lunch, we again had noodles, the one here a beef version with popped rice cracker-cakes on the side. If you look carefully you’ll spot the two small tubs of belachan on the table. One was the typical shrimp one and the other made of tiny river crabs. We noticed a lot of Lao people take a chilli padi, dip it in belachan, take a chomp and double dip it while waiting for their noodles. I guess the heat from the chilli kills the germs.

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Heavily fortified by all this food, Siamesecat and I proceeded to wander the streets. It was evening when we came across this vampire-phobic cat lying on a bed of garlic. It was obviously bed time.

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It looked incredibly satisfied at the end of that yawn!

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As the sun began to set, Siamesecat and I decided that we really should have something quite special. While we both loved noodles and never got tired of them, we had to try the slightly fancier food too.

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We found a restaurant along the Mekong and enjoyed the view while waiting for our food.

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This place served mainly set menus catering to tourists. We figured that it was as good as any other. Not having any locals to take us to truly authentic places, at least this would allow us to try a bit of everything.

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The set dinner started with watercress salad, a fresh minty salad with sharp watercress and other herbs dressed in a type of mayonnaise. Then it progressed to dried pork sausage with very spicy buffalo skin dip. The pork sausage was like a slightly less fatty salami with lovely smoked overtones while the dip had strips of rather tough buffalo hide bound by a fiery chilli paste. Crispy sheets of dried riverweed with sesame seeds helped to balance out the fire but the extremely spicy beef stew didn’t help things out.

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Siamesecat and I then hit the night market for incredibly cheap buys like a beautiful silk and cotton mix pair of fisherman pants for about USD2.50. There were pretty handicrafts and all sorts of ethnic and hill tribe knick knacks on sale. Apparently a lot of these items were brought over the border to Thailand for sale in their own tourist markets.

I stopped to buy something that couldn’t be exported easily to Thai tourist markets: more food. Supper that night was baguette filled with ping kai (barbecued chicken) and lettuce. It was up to me to choose my sauces again. This time it was at least three kinds of chilli sauce, two of which had some kind of fermented seafood incorporated within, and two types of soya sauce. Amazing.

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A Civilised Lunch at The Marmalade Pantry

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The Marmalade Pantry is one of those places to go to when I need a civilised lunch where the food and service are consistent, one of those days when I don’t want any surprises yet want the option of being a bit adventurous.

Having woken up late from a night of whisky, I thought I’d skip breakfast and go straight for lunch then shopping. I went for The Ultimate Beef Burger, medium done. It was a substantial burger, made from scratch not one of those pre-made frozen patties. It had charred cherry tomatoes, pickle and a generous spread of mayonnaise on the soft toasted bun. The french fries were well made, crisp on the outside and softly grainy on the inside. They were soaked in salted water before frying. I prefer them as is so I can sprinkle salt on top instead as I like the little bursts of salt on the tongue better.

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The burger itself was alright, though I felt that it was slightly too done for medium. Even though there were plenty of juices  oozing out as I cut into the patty, it was somehow rather dry in the mouth. The beef was probably too lean. I also found it too salty and there wasn’t a lot of flavour to it. It tasted rather generic, nothing special.

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My mum had the Pan Roasted Red Snapper with Almonds [sic] Herb Crust & Chickpea Salad. She liked it a lot. It’s a perfect light lunch, healthy from the fish and vegetables. It was also great that the complex carbs came from chickpea, a better source of protein and fibre than most grains. The fresh fish went well with the mustard in the  herb crust and the squeaky-crunchy sweet peas.

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For dessert, we had Basil Crepes with Caramelized Bananas. The crepe itself was an almost luminous green from the basil, reminding me of kueh dadar. I was surprised that despite the many flecks of basil in the pancake, there was hardly any basil flavour at all. Nonetheless, the banana and the caramel worked. You can’t go far wrong with soft banana pulp and sweet buttery caramel. The rich vanilla bean ice cream helped a lot too.

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We rounded off the meal with coffee. Check out the cool fern pattern on my caffe latte. I sipped at it carefully, keeping the pattern until about halfway into the cup. The hot coffee flavoured milk was a nice end to the meal.

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The bill came up to $82.85. It’s pricey but that’s what you pay for the decent food, genteel ambience and the Orchard road location.


The Marmalade Pantry

Unit B1-08 to 11
Palais Renaissance
390 Orchard Road
Singapore 238871
Tel: 6734 2700