Cooking and the Lack of Time

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It’s not easy to cook on a weeknight, particularly when cooking for two. The tough part is in not doing the same thing over and over again. In my previous life of cooking just for me, a work night dinner tended to be noodles or leftover rice thrown together with stone soup (AKA whatever’s hanging around in the fridge). With two of us, I realise that DC may not appreciate having random bits of strange soup every time I cook. So I had to think of something different from my default dishes.

One night, I had some leftover tinned sardines in olive oil. Enough to make a pasta for one, but not enough for two. After a little rummage in the larder, I realised that we had plenty of Thai curry spice paste packets. For some reason, only the ladies fingers in the organic section called out to me and this odd sambal dish emerged. It was rich and spicy, reminiscent of the soupy gravy of Penang laksa condensed into a thick sauce and served piled high on blanched ladies fingers. This is so easy it doesn’t need a proper recipe: just stirfry in the olive oil from the sardine tin some chopped shallots, the Thai curry spice paste and some chopped chilli for more fire; then add the flaked sardines and fry till you get a smooth paste. Pile on top of the blanched vegetables and squeeze on some lime juice to taste.

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I put together a quick stirfry of cabbage and mushroom with ginger and miso sauce, and that became my second dish. All I needed to do was to combine that with reheated leftovers and rice I’d already started cooking and we were all set.

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Tom Yum Soup

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One of my favourite soups to make at home is tom yum soup. I learned a version of it at the Chiang Mai cooking school and never looked back since. It’s dead easy to make from scratch and even adding tom yum paste is optional. Granted, the ingredients aren’t the easiest to find, but I’m finding that more and more shops are stocking them. Some of my local supermarkets even sell tom yum starter packs with lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, shallot, lime and chilli in them. What  I normally do is buy a bit more of the herbs when I see them, prepare them and chuck them in the freezer. With a bit of forward planning, a fragrant spicy soup can be made from frozen to tummy in minutes. If you’d like the soup a little spicier, there’s no need to add more chilli, just pound the chilli padi into smaller bits.

For today’s soup, I had some seafood and plenty of prawns and their shells. I also had some spare chicken bones and made a lovely stock from boiling the bones and the prawn shells and heads together for about 10 minutes. The prawn heads, especially when I squeezed out the orangey guts, gave the stock an intensely briny prawn flavour. You can make the soup with plain water, it’ll still be fragrant but not as robust.

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Ingredients:
15 prawns, shelled
1 large squid, prepared
1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled
1 shallot, peeled
2 thick slices galangal
2 kaffir lime leaves
3 stalks lemongrass, cut diagonally into thick slices
1 chilli padi, smashed

1 small punnet cherry tomatoes (about 16)
1 small bag oyster mushrooms (about 12), torn into large chunks

juice of one big lime
2 tbsp fish sauce

1 bunch coriander, leaves only

Method:

  1. Make stock from the prawn shells and head by boiling them in 2 litres of water for 1o minutes. Strain the stock into a separate pot for making soup.
  2. Add the garlic, shallot, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and chilli padi to the stock and bring to a boil. Next, add the prawns, squid, tomatoes and mushroom and bring to the boil again.
  3. Off the heat, add the lime juice and fish sauce sparingly, tasting as you go along, till you get the right balance of sour and salty.
  4. Serve, garnishing with coriander leaves.

Serves 4.

Quick Eats: Hot Tomato

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I went to Plaza Singapura for a quick lunch one weekday with a colleague and headed to an old favourite: Hot Tomato Express. I love how no-nonsense both the food and the prices are, and how the service is friendly and flexible. The set menu included either hot tea or pre-mixed iced lemon tea. Not only were they good enough to give us hot tea with ice instead of the usual over-sweetened iced tea, they also gave us lemon in the tea without us needing to ask. Plus, they even provided extra ice in case one glassful wasn’t enough. Now that’s what I call good service.

The food’s good and cheap too. I liked the lamb chop with aglio olio spaghetti. It costed only $13 for the set including soup and tea. The soup that day was tomato soup, a thick chunky version served with crisp garlic bread on the side. On to the lamb chop. It came with two generous chops, both nicely seared and browned on both sides. They were on the fatty side, so not for diet days, but the fat made such a difference! The brown sauce on the side made the (again!) generous serving of spaghetti very yummy and the green salad on the side was yet another bonus.

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In short, a great place for quick, cheap and very satisfying food.

Hot Tomato Express
68 Orchard Road #B2-40 Plaza Singapura
Tel: 6341 9162

15 Minute Stir-Fry Dinner

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When I’m tired from a hard day’s work but don’t want to cop out by having instant noodles, I go the wholesome route by doing a quick stir-fry. This time, a quick run through the supermarket got me some organic choy sum, mixed agro-tech mushrooms, ginger and some pork shoulder. Once I got home, I washed and cut the vegetables quickly, then sliced the mushrooms, ginger and pork. (I can never be bothered to wash them.) That takes about 10 minutes and then the stir-fry itself takes 5 minutes. If there’s leftover rice in the fridge, then a 2 minute microwave sorts out the rice. If not, it’s a 5 minute boil of noodles. No, the minutes don’t add up to 15 because a lot of them are done simultaneously. After that short time of quick work, a piping hot and very home-cooked satisfying dinner.

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Ingredients:
1 tbsp oil
6 thin slices of ginger
handful mushrooms, cut into chunks
small piece pork, sliced
good splash Chinese shaoxing wine or dry sherry
salt to taste
soy sauce to taste

Method:

  1. Heat your wok over the highest possible flame. Coat the wok with the oil and allow to get as hot as you dare. Make sure all your ingredients are ready.
  2. Slide in the ginger (gingerly!) and stir. Just before the ginger burns, toss in the pork. Stir rapidly till just about cooked, then add the mushrooms and keep stirring furiously. Now add the vegetables and keep going till the leaves are completely wilted.
  3. Splash in the Chinese wine and add salt and soy sauce to taste. Turn off the heat and serve over rice or noodles.

Serves 1.

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.

Quick Meals: Bacon, Mushroom, Chilli and Parsley Linguine

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This is another dish inspired both by hunger and by the need to clear out stuff from the fridge! I had a few button mushrooms that were getting past their prime, lots of curly parsley and a red chilli that was slowly drying up in the fridge. Being very hungry, I only had time enough to boil pasta and make sure the sauce was ready by the time it was al dente.

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Ingredients:

linguine
2 rashers streaky bacon, cut into strips
3 mushrooms, sliced
½ cup curly parsley, chopped
1 red chilli, chopped coarsely

Method:

  1. Boil the pasta in plenty of salted water till al dente.
  2. In the mean time, fry the bacon in a non-stick pan till browned. Add the mushrooms and keep frying till brown.
  3. Toss in the chilli and cook for half a minute, then add the parsley and stir for a few seconds.
  4. The pasta should be cooked by now. Toss in the pasta and stir till pasta is well coated. Add a bit of cooking liquid if it’s too dry. Alternatively you can add oil if you’re not watching your weight.
  5. Season to taste. Hurry up and eat already!

Serves 1.

Note: If you prefer, either leave out the chilli or remove the seeds to make it less hot.

Quick Eats: Parklane Zha Yun Tun Mee House (North Bridge Road)

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Parklane Zha Yun Tun Mee House at North Bridge Road serves pretty decent wanton noodles. This branch is just at the bus stop opposite Bugis Junction. It’s a great place to have a cheapish meal in the area.

The best part is the deep-fried wanton. The crispy and savoury bites are pretty addictive. While the char siew tastes good and is charred about right, it’s a bit too dry. The noodles are acceptable, though not as “Q” as I’d expect for wanton noodles. I like the chilli sauce and mix loads of it into the noodles. The soupy wanton are forgettable.

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$4 per plate is worth paying if you’re in the area. Better than food court.