A Very Comforting Stew

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It’d been raining quite a bit and I decided that I needed something warming and comforting for dinner instead of having leftovers. A quick whizz through the supermarket and scrounge in the fridge later, I’d assembled a whole bunch of root and other vegetables that completely overshadowed the meat. Let’s see, I had butternut squash, mushrooms, an onion, celery, carrots, potato and basil. The squash was an excellent addition as it added a lovely sweet dimension to the stew, I didn’t need to tweak the seasonings much at all. Lastly, the belly pork worked well as I didn’t have time to really stew it properly till melting soft and falling apart. It was tender enough after the one hour cooking time, though it definitely could have benefited from a stint in the slow cooker. I cheat a bit by adding some Marigold organic vegetable stock powder that I get from the UK. It helps give that extra little oomph. Lastly, adding basil at the end just before serving gave it a lovely fresh herby lift. Serve with bread, rice, or whatever carbs you have leftover in the fridge.

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Ingredients:
1 tbsp oil
300g pork belly, cubed
20g butter
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 onion, chunked
1 large carrot, chunked
2 sticks celery, chunked
2 potatoes, peeled and cubed
butternut squash, cubed
250g button mushrooms
1 tsp organic vegetable stock power, optional
2 tbsp or a good splash dry vermouth

Method:

  1. Heat the oil in a large pot and brown the pork belly on all sides in batches. Set aside in a dish.
  2. Turn down the fire and melt the butter in the residual oily juices and toss in the peppercorns, bay leaf and garlic. Cook gently till fragrant, then toss in the onion, carrot and celery. Stir to coat with butter and cover. Let sweat for about 5 minutes.
  3. Toss in the potatoes, squash and mushrooms and stir. Add in the pork and turn up the heat. Keep stirring.
  4. Mix in the stock powder and splash in the vermouth. Bring to a boil then turn down and simmer for at least one hour. If available, transfer to a crock pot and finish off the cooking there.
  5. The stew is done when the vegetables are soft and the pork is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 3-4.

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Favourites at Changi Village

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One of my favourite hawker centres is the one at Changi Village. There’s just so much variety and plain good food there. The only problem is that the ventilation is bad and some stalls are either sold out or worse – closed – if you arrive too late. The beef noodles are a case in point. Arrive too late and they’re likely to be sold out of the dry version. The soup rendition is pretty decent, but oh how the dry one beats it hands down! The gooey starchy brown sauce is flecked with bits of finely shredded beef, showing how much good stuff goes into the stew. Order it “mixed” so under the dark velvety sauce you’ll get lots of melt-in-the-mouth tendon, chewy tripe, tender braised beef and fresh beef slices. Squeeze over the lime, toss in the chilli sauce, mix and eat with the pickled onion-chinchalok accompaniment. All together, it makes for a lovely bowl of bliss.

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Just a few stalls along the row is another firm favourite. Guang Xing is hardly open when I’m there in the evenings, so make sure you have it for lunch. Once when DC and I weret there for Sunday brunch, I spied it just opening and immediately jumped at the chance for my favourite fried noodles with fish head. Even though the stall had only just opened, the wait was still at least 30 minutes long. Even though we spoiled our appetites during the wait with inferior nasi lemak and other assorted snacks, we managed to wallop the whole $10 plate of noodles. (In case you’re wondering, yes we are greedy but no $10 is really the minimum order.) We saw other tables of 3 or 4 going for the samd $10 plate so you can imagine how good it is. This dish has flavourful chunks of juicy and slightly cartilageous fish head  as well as thick beehoon fried in plenty of onion, garlic and ginger as well as spring onions, caixin and bitter gourd and finished off with some black bean. There’s plenty of wok hei and intense flavours. Accompanying it with the special sambal brings it to a whole new level. Notwithstanding having to spit out bits of snapper bone, gristle and scale, this stuff is my holy grail of fish head beehoon.

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Changi Village Beef Kway Teow Mee
#01-19 Changi Village Hawker Centre

Guang Xing Original Taste Fish Head Mee Hoon
#01-16 Changi Village Hawker Centre

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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Mutton Stew and Sincere Service

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I like Jacob’s Cafe for the great laid-back atmosphere, the chicken curry and the fab Hainanese mutton stew. The last time I was there with a friend, we almost came to blows over ownership rights of the mutton stew. This time, I learned my lesson and brought my mum instead. She hates mutton.

Before I go on about the food, I want to tell you how much I love the service here. I had the sincerest service ever. Our servers were all incredibly smiley and attentive. Water was topped up before we realised it, special requests were obliging accommodated. Sure, there were small glitches, but you know what? I felt so much that they just wanted to please that there was nothing to forgive. Call me a sucker for good service but where they serve you with love,  surely they also cook with great love.

Knowing that the mutton stew would be full of meat, I ordered a small garden salad to balance it off. It was a just-right portion of lettuce variations, pea shoots, carrot, red and green peppers, Japanese cucumber, tomato, cherry tomato, sundried tomato and onion rings, topped with vinaigrette dressing. (I’d asked for the dressing to be on the side, but the salad came dressed and with extra on the side instead!) With so many and such fresh ingredients, it was  all good. You can’t go far wrong with a fresh salad.

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Next came my mutton stew. True to the homespun cooking style, there wasn’t much to recommend it for its looks. It was simply mutton slow-cooked with black fungus, tau kee (dried tofu skin) and bamboo shoots. The mutton was  tender the way you can only get by cooking the right cut and the right way. It reminded me again of how stewed mutton really beats the more expensive beef in terms of texture and taste so often. The fungus, tau kee and bamboo shoots added lots of texture to the stew: gelatinous, chewy, crunchy. I sopped up the thin flavourful juices with the crispy baguette pieces. It was all fantastic with the homemade garlic chilli sauce. As there was way too much meat by my standards, I took away half my portion. Had it with mee sua for breakfast a couple of days later. Still good.

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My mutton-hating mum steered clear of the stew and went for the Europa sausage plate because they didn’t have chicken curry that day. The Europa plate had two sausages, the nurnberger and a veal sausage, with french fries and a side salad. The sausages were decent though I felt that the veal one had too much flour in it. I wasn’t too keen on the too-soft texture. Mum liked it all though, especially the french fries.

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The damage was $37.60. Pretty expensive considering the location, but go for the specialty dishes like the mutton stew and the chicken curry and you’ll be happy.

Jacob’s Cafe
Blk 5 Changi Village Road #01-2049 S500005
Tel: 6543 1106