Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pumpkin Soup


We had a couple of pumpkin vines in our back yard and there were so many pumpkins that the people I gave them to refused my second round of the bounty so we've been eating a lot of pumpkin with dashi and pumpkin soup, the only ways I cook pumpkin. I found the last pumpkin among the leaves of my mango tree. It had dropped off from the vine but was still hanging by the string that held it to the tree. I don't know how long it had been there but the pumpkin when cut was a deep orange color, exactly the way I like my pumpkin. A deep orange pumpkin guarantees sweet, fluffy and fragrant pumpkin flesh and plenty of beta carotene, an antioxidant that is converted into vitamin A in the body.

One of my best loved cook book is San Francisco's Cooking Secrets by Kathleen DeVanna Fish from which my best recipes are adapted, including a yolkless tiramisu which has no comparison.  There are no photos in the book but it is filled with recipes for simple, elegant dishes from the top restaurants in San Francisco.

The winter squash (such as butter squash and pumpkin) soup in the book is a quick two-step recipe but makes the best pumpkin soup ever. The recipe doesn't say how much pumpkin ("a large butternut squash") so I use quite a lot so that the soup is real thick and rich without the need for lots of cream. I find the one tablespoon of ground cardamon in the original recipe too over whelming and prefer to add it in small amounts until I get the right spiking. I also reduced the butter from 3 tablespoons to a healthy 1 tablespoon only and instead of adding one cup of cream to the soup, I serve the cream separately because the soup without cream is already heavenly. A couple of slices of toasted baguettes and this soup makes a great simple snack or light lunch.

Winter Squash Soup
800 gm to 1 kg pumpkin
1/2 brown onion, chopped
1 T butter
500 ml chicken stock (Swanson's)
1/8 t freshly ground cardamons
salt & freshly ground pepper

1. Peel and cut pumpkin into small pieces. In a medium-sized pot, fry onions in the butter until the onions are soft. Add the pumpkin and cardamon (sparingly and to taste), stirring well. Add the stock, cover and simmer 15 minutes or until pumpkin is soft.

2. Use an electric hand blender to puree the soup. If too thick, add some water or stock. Season lightly with the salt and pepper. You can either add 1 cup of heavy cream now or serve it separately.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Scallion Pancakes Revisited

Scallion pancakes are best rolled very thin.  I couldn't make the pancakes too thin because the lard melted easily and made a mess, causing the pastry to break and pushing the spring onions out. On another try, I used shortening (Crisco) and the results were much better.

Recently I'm crazy about scallion pancakes, cong you bing (onion oil pancakes), sometimes called Chinese pizza. I prefer them to Korean pancakes because cong you bing are more fragrant. They are also easy and quick to make and cost very little. All you need are scallions, salt, oil/shortening and plain flour. Sesame seeds are optional. Scallions are more suitable for the pancakes because they are have thicker leaves and you can still taste them after they are cooked, unlike spring onions which are thinner and delicate. Scallions, however, do not smell as fragrant as spring onions. I have pots of spring onions in my backyard so I use those instead of scallions.  I also have a large patch of Chinese chives that have been growing perennially and they can be used in place of the scallions to make jiu cai bing. You can also add ground meat or even fried bacon bits, like I did here.

Scallion pancakes from street vendors in Shanghai are usually thick and about the size of a small saucer, handy for eating on the go. The pancakes from restaurants are twice as big, very thin and crispy and I prefer them to the vendor-type. Whether thick or thin, scallion pancakes are best eaten when hot. Once cold, the pancakes are heavy and soft.

Whoever came up with the flaky pastry for scallion pancakes was a genius. The dough is flattened into an 'ox-tongue' shape and oiled, then rolled and coiled. When fried, the pastry separates into layers, the outer pastry crispy while the inner pastry is soft. If the pancake is rolled thin enough, the whole pancake is crispy. Most recipes do not call for lard or oil in the flour but I do add some to make the pastry short.

You can mix the salt and oil with the scallions but the water in the scallions and the oil will dissolve the salt and give a general saltiness to the pancakes. I prefer to layer the ingredients so that I can taste a grain of salt here and there. I think the worst recipe I've come across is one where the salt is added to the flour. I also prefer to use shortening (lard is good too but tends to melt easily) because it doesn't wet the dough like oil does.

Scallion pancakes are best eaten as a light meal with hot and sour soup because the sourness cuts the oil and refreshes the palate. You can also eat the pancakes as a snack with a cup of hot green tea.

Scallion Pancakes (makes 5 to 6 large pancakes)
3 cups plain flour
1 1/3 cups boiling water
3/4 cup finely sliced scallions
medium-texture salt (I'm told that vendors add msg)
veg oil or lard or shortening (shortening is best)

1. Sieve the flour into a bowl, pour the boiling water in (leaving 2 T, as all flours have different absorbency) and use a pair of chopsticks to mix, swirling round and round until all the flour form lumps. Wait a minute if you can't handle the hot dough. Gather into a ball. If needed, add the remaining water. Mix in 1 heaped T shortening. Knead dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth. Add more flour if too soft, or more water if too hard. Overall, the dough should be soft-firm when you press it with a fingertip. Cover and leave 10 minutes or you can even continue without resting the dough.

2. Divide the dough into 5 or 6 pieces. You can also use the whole ball of dough in one go to make a long roll but I find that working with small pieces of the dough is easier. Roll one piece of dough into a cylinder and flatten into 'ox-tongue' shape (oblong) of about 1/2 cm thick. Brush veg oil or spread shortening over entire surface. (I prefer shortening because it doesn't melt too easily in hot weather so that the pancakes won't break so easily when rolled.) Sprinkle the pastry with a generous pinch of salt, followed by the scallions (but leave the furthest edge clear so that the scallions will not get squeezed out when rolled) and roll, tucking in snugly. Now coil the roll, the seam inside the coil so that it can't open. Sprinkle some sesame seeds over and flatten with your palm. Roll into a thin pancake, the thinner the better.

It's best to cook one pancake and taste it so that you get an idea of how much salt to use.

3. Heat up some oil (1/4 cup or less) in a frying pan and fry the pancakes one by one until crispy. Turn over once only. The oil must be quite hot so that the layers of pastry'll separate and puff. Cut pancake into wedges and serve hot with a dip of black vinegar and light soy sauce if like.



Wednesday, April 20, 2011

30 Hours In KL

Hub was going to KL for business and asked if I wanted to go. Of course I was game, provided it was a short trip.

KL is the perfect example of a defective city. The prime grouse for any tourist in KL would be the lack of good public transport. The LRT, which runs above ground about the height of a 2-storey building, is a complete nightmare, a joke.  The stations do not connect and you'll have to walk up and down and cross the road to get from point to point. KL taxi drivers are dishonest, especially the Chinese and Indians while Malays are the most honest (there you are, I'm a true Malaysian, racist about everything) and their standard excuse if you are taking a short ride is "The meter is not working" and for that they will charge you twice what you'd pay if the meter was working. I haven't tried the buses because I get weary enough already when I visit KL.

One-way streets are prevalent in KL and that's a quick-fix solution that doesn't work. The only way to ease the traffic jam in KL (and KK) is if there is good public transport. Failing that, people have no choice but to drive. The roads in KL city are so maze-like and crazy that  if drawn on paper, they will look like piles of fish scales, curving everywhere. I think it's a hopeless situation. Unless they bomb the city and start all over again, KL is a disaster. The sidewalk pavements are uneven and large sections are missing. I thought DAP would do a better job but then again I hear that they are having a hard time running the place as opposition administrators. Still, it is inexcusable that this basic amenity--good, even pavements--is not provided. The authorities should be made to walk around the city, especially at noon, to get a feel of what it's like for tourists. There are few trees and the tropical heat and humidity makes walking around the broken paths very torturous.

So why go to KL? Oh yes, there's the Petronas Twin Towers, or KLCC. The KLCC is beautiful, especially at night, but there's nothing to explore in KLCC except for shops that sell hand bags at twice the price in Europe.

KL's saving grace is its food. And so that was all we did: eat.

12 noon: We checked into our hotel and headed straight for 'mamak' (Indian Muslim food) food: chicken tikka, nasi bryani and chilled pandan coconuts, next to our hotel in the middle of the city. The memory card in my camera chose to act up just then, so no photos.

In the city, we always frequent the malls because that's where we can escape from the heat. The food court in Pavilion is Hub's favorite whenever he goes to KL because again, he wants to get away from the heat and that's the only place where he can grab a quick and cheap meal.

4 pm: Oysters omelet, Penang fried kuey teow and soy bean milk at Pavilion:



7 pm: My feet were killing me (Rockport wedges don't work) and it was either back to the hotel then or hang around and leave earlier. Hub suggested Jalan Alor for durians, the only place we knew for the fruit although I had my reservations because about 10 years ago, I was fleeced by a durian seller in the same spot and had an argument right on the street. I lost the argument because he started swearing in the foulest Cantonese I've ever heard but I just wouldn't cuss like him. Not that I couldn't. I'm Cantonese too.


Jalan Alor is now even more busy that before, with tables and chairs spilling onto the road. The crazy thing was, the road was open to traffic and the side mirror of an SUV scraped my arm as it passed by, the driver indifferent to my shouting. I think Jalan Alor is a perfect example of how badly the city is run. Why is safety compromised, with both vehicles and restaurant tables on the road? The road isn't long and can be closed to traffic after office hours. Is that so hard to do?

At the end of Jalan Alor are many Thai restaurants and the waiters who grabbed people off the street were all Thais,which was convincing enough to us so we sat down at the most populous restaurant.

Fried kang kong (RM10) was very good.

The seafood tom yum (RM18) was sweeter than sour, with very little seafood, a blah for us.

Glass noodles and prawns in clay pot (RM18) was more soy sauce-flavored. I liked it although Hub said it was too wet.

Durians are not fully in season yet and we checked out all the 3 stalls and settled on the one by the Chinese restaurant at the entrance of Jalan Alor. The maw sang wong durian is currently the most sought-after variety and at RM28 per kilo, a little baby like this cost RM36.

I was disappointed. This maw sang wong didn't taste as good as the one we had in Singapore. The flavor was intense, which was great, but the meat was squidgy and wet. Unlike most durian aficionados, I dislike bitter durians and this one tasted as bitter as bittergourd. The durian seller said that wet durians are always bitter while the drier durians are sweet. Would you like another one, he asked. I may be a fool once in  a while but I'm not always an idiot so I walked away. We realized once again that Jalan Alor is a tourist trap.

9:30 am, next day: I wanted to re-trace my old working days where I used to stay in Park Royal Hotel and ate breakfast in a corner coffee shop called Mei Sin around Jalan Imbi. I especially craved their kuey teow soup with minced pork but of all days, they were closed. That was good news for Hub, because he wanted bak kut teh right across from Mei Sin. Secretly, I was relieved too because the restaurant and the area around it looked dingy and filthy, with garbage collectors doing their job at that hour in the morning.

But it was too hot for boiling-hot soup and bak kut teh was not appealing to me in the morning. The congee looked good and can be digested quicker so that we can have lunch earlier, at the eating street in Pudu.


We enjoyed this bowl of congee  (RM30) in Restaurant Sun Fong which Hub said was like pau fun (soaked rice),  cooked rice soaked in hot boiling water which my in-laws eat when their appetite is down and which my father ate whenever he felt under the weather. I don't like pau fun but this bowl of dried oysters and pork ribs congee was tasty. However, I think I made a mistake because everybody else was eating bak kut teh, which was half the price of the congee. And the congee made us sweat just as badly. We decided that no matter how good the food is at sik gai in Pudu, we won't venture there in the boiling heat.

12:30 pm: Korean lunch at Koryo-Won, Starhill, a mall, which means air-conditioned environment:

The banchan was ordinary.

My fave Korean soup, yuk gye jang (RM30), was very satisfying. Hub may be warming to Korean food at last because this is the first time he didn't complain about it.

Beef  rib galbi, RM70, for two strips.


Although expensive, the galbi was buttery, tender, delightfully flavorful and delicious. I prefer them au natural, without marinade, dip or even the lettuce wrap.

2:30 pm: The April issue of Time Out from the hotel was great because it listed some of the best restaurants (according to them) in KL and this issue's focus was desserts. I checked out Su Yin's Delectable in Pavilion but unfortunately it was a take-out outlet only and there was no place to even stand to grab a bite and coffee. I was tempted to bring home one of her chocolate cakes but the buttercream wouldn't last the hour-long ride to the airport (KLIA is 80 km from the city, one of the furthest in the world, another stupid 'acclaim' if that makes the authorities feel better). There were other cake shops that looked really good but they were far away in Bangsar or Sri Hartamas so we checked out from the hotel, took a taxi to 7 Jalan Delima and had coffee and cake at Levain, a bakery and cafe that operated from a bungalow that had clearly seen better days.


Not bad, but didn't convince me that the cakes here are some of KL's best. About RM8 each piece.



At the airport, I bought two pieces of KFC chicken, hiding them from Hub because that's something I don't usually eat. I'm still wondering why I did that but if you look at the amount of food we ate in 30 hours, you'll know how badly and quickly the stomach rumbles the more you eat. Besides, there wouldn't be any food served on the new budget airline, Firefly. Speaking of which, I highly recommend Firefly. Nobody checks the hand luggage (unlike AirAsia) and the flights land at KLIA/KKIA. The planes are new, comfortable and the service is just like MAS'. In fact, Firefly is so much like MAS that the stewardesses slurred their announcements, especially the word 'gentlemen', just like all MAS flight attendants do. I'm just waiting for them to say "Firefry", like MAS girls say "We hope you had a great fright". Humorous, those girls.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


I busted my 23 year-old Kenwood Major mixer months ago when I absent-mindedly used the K-beater to knead a large quantity of dough. My Kenwood mixer is the second hardest-working work horse in my kitchen--the first being Vero, my wonderful helper for 16 years-- and I love it (to death, as it turns out). The mixer is so durable (23 years!) that the three (yes, three) times it fell off my kitchen counter, it continued running while lying sideways. What was equally amazing was that the plastic parts only got slightly dented, not cracked. In 23 years, it only required 2 repairs, once when the belt burnt and the other when it didn't run.  My only complaint is that the mixer moves when it works hard; I needed to stand near it to stop it from falling. I'm told that KitchenAid mixers are all-metal and too heavy to move. They (KitchenAid mixers) are also less noisy.

I will get my mixer repaired when I find the technician who can do it but I seriously need another mixer pronto.A friend insists that her friend who has both KitchenAid and Kenwood mixers prefers the Kenwood while another lady who has a KitchenAid, a Kenwood and a Spar mixer from Taiwan swears by the Spar mixer. I checked out the Spar mixer and it was as big as an oven and quite ugly. I think if I bake commercially that would be a good one to buy. I am thoroughly confused.  But I am victim to the KitchenAid ad onslaught--every celebrity chef is using a KitchenAid mixer--so I think I'll go with a KitchenAid.

But which model should I buy? The Artisan is too small for my baking. It looks like the equivalent of the Kenwood Chef. I had upgraded from a (borrowed) Chef to the Major and the latter does a much faster and better job because it's much more powerful. That's why I always advice new bakers to get the Major rather than upgrade later. I am also told that the professional series of KitchenAid mixers do not have a tilt-back head. Rather, the bowl is a lift-up type which is, I'm told, not as convenient. Or is it?

KitchenAid mixers are ridiculously expensive outside of the US. The Artisan mixer is only around USD270 in the US but in Malaysia it is around RM2400 (USD800). I can get one from the US but the voltage is different--is that a problem or is it easy to convert?

Any advice? 1) Which model and price? 2) Where to get KitchenAid in KL or Singapore 3) Adapting the voltage if I get one direct from the States.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mouth-Watering Chicken

Saliva chicken: so good you salivate at the sight of it.

Chinese dishes have very descriptive names which when translated literally can be hilarious and 'saliva chicken' is one of them. Thank God, however, that saliva chicken kou shui ji does not have saliva as an ingredient. Rather, the dish is considered so delicious that it makes you drool just looking at it. Maybe 'mouth-watering chicken' is a more euphemistic name for this hot, sweet, savory, sour, flavorful and oily dish.

English-Chinese translation can really put you in stitches. My kids like to say, out of the blue, "I can help you too much!", a phrase they read somewhere in Guilin, China which I think was supposed to mean "Excellent service". I still can't figure out what 'Boil The Meat in Vain' is or ' Fry The Rabbit Silk'. I know 'Red Oil Folds Arms' is chao shouSichuan-style won tons, only because I am blessed to know Leila, who's from Sichuan where the dish originates.  I'm sure 'The Powder Steams The Meat' is steamed meat with flavored flour, a Chinese dish that's very popular in China but less known outside of the country. But what is 'Belly of Money of One Pair of Peppers'? Or 'Duck's Palm of Safe Juice,' for goodness' sake?

Saliva chicken  is a very popular cold appetizer dish in China and you are very likely to have tasted it if you've visited China, especially Sichuan and the Jiangsu region. The dish is simply plain boiled chicken, very smooth and moist, doused with an intense sauce full of flavors and tastes such as prickly ash oil (the numbing Sichuan peppercorns which I am addicted to), sesame oil, black vinegar, peanuts, garlic, chili oil...the whole list is in the recipe below. I adapted the recipe from here, where you will need a lot of imagination if you don't understand Chinese. I added light and dark soy sauce and had to leave out the 2 teaspoons of 'grow and smoke' because I just can't figure out what they are.  The sauce can be made ahead, and the chicken too so this really is an easy dish. It reminds me of the popular Sichuan Garlic Pork. Serve saliva chicken very cold as an appetizer and you'll know why it's drool-worthy.


Saliva/Mouth-Watering Chicken

1/2 boiled chicken--recipe here

1 T freshly made Sichuan peppercorn oil 
3 T freshly made red chili oil
1 T sesame oil
1 t caster sugar
1 t sesame paste (I used peanut butter)
1 T very finely minced gresh ginger
2 T very finely minced garlic
1 T finely cut spring onions
4 t sesame seeds, toasted
2 T peanuts, toasted and chopped coarsely
1 T black vinegar
1 T Shaoxin wine
2-3 T light soy sauce*
1-2 T dark soy sauce

Garnish: red chili pepper slices and coriander leaves

* I think restaurants add msg to this dish. At home, Maggi soy sauce would give some xien or umami taste.

1. Prepare the chicken and arrange on a deep dish. Keep covered in the fridge and chill at least 1/2 hour.

2. Mix the sugar, sesame paste, ginger, onions, vinegar, wine and soy sauces in a bowl. Taste and adjust sauce to your liking.

3. Just before serving, pour the sauce over the chicken, sprinkle the sesame seeds and peanuts over, drizzle the peppercorn and chili oils over and garnish with the red chili slices and coriander leaves.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Steamed Pork Ribs With Black Beans

Steamed spare ribs with black beans, right, and with sour plums, left. The guys like ribs with black beans but mom and I prefer sour plums so this half-half dish is a compromise. I don't recommend doing both flavors in one dish though because both flavors are mixed up after a couple of digs, literally, at the dish.

This is such an everyday dish that you should skip this post unless you really need to read it.

Steamed pork ribs with black beans is a common Cantonese home dish that's so popular it's even served as a dim sum at yum cha restaurants. My dad would always place a small plate of steamed pork ribs with black beans in front of me, for me only, when the family ate dim sum out. And he would always jokingly say "Ah ----(my Chinese name), nah, you rack of ribs, eat ribs lah!" I didn't mind that he was reminding me that I was as thin and meatless as the ribs because I loved being pampered and not having to share the delicious nibbly ribs with my four siblings. My own plate of ribs was my military-trained father's rare show of affection for me and I basked in it.

For the uninitiated, steamed ribs are to be popped into the mouth and worked with the teeth and tongue to get the meat off before politely spitting the bone out, or, if you want to appear aristocratic, use your chopsticks to pick them out. Just thought that those who haven't a clue how to eat steamed ribs might want to know.

Although black beans are very salty, do not soak them or they loose their flavor. Just reduce the salt when you season the dish. You can add the sugar and sesame oil to the beans first before mixing them in with the ribs but I didn't find any difference in the taste of the beans when I did that. A different take on the dish is to fry the black beans, onions and red or green bell peppers and then add all the other ingredients (use some of the cornflour as sauce thickener at the end) and it's another classic Cantonese dish, fried spare ribs with black beans sauce.


Steamed Spare Ribs With Black Beans
400 g pork spare ribs, in bite sizes (try chicken wings for kosher/halal dish)
1 heaped T black beans, washed quickly
1/2 T chopped garlic
2 T corn flour*
1 T light soy sauce**
1/2 t fine sugar
1/2 t salt (or to taste)
a few shakes of white pepper
1 t sesame oil
1 T rice wine (optional)
1 T water

garnish: sliced red chillies

* or double this if you want the ribs well-coated and smooth.
** omit if you want paler-looking ribs, restaurant-style.

1. Put everything into a heat-proof dish and mix well. Leave covered in the fridge for at least 2-3 hours.

2. Get a pot/wok of water boiling, put the dish in and steam the ribs at high heat for 20 minutes. Serve hot. 

note: steamed spare ribs in yum cha houses taste better than home-made because msg is added. If you like more sauce, add another 2 to 3 tablespoons of water but remember that steaming adds liquid to the dish and the pork gives out liquid too so extra water is not really necessary.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Cheese Toasties And Hi

Cheese toastie  (no need for fancy names like croque monsieur) is a simple and quick-to-do cheese and bread sandwich, either toasted or fried.

Hi it's Monday and nothing I cooked over the weekend is interesting enough to tell you about. No. Wait. The stewed soy sauce pork came out better than--a bright blue kingfisher just knocked on my window, and it's 11:41 am, a bit late for calls. They usually come around 9 am--I've ever cooked ever it before. Even Hub said so when Wey shook his head in exaggerated praise. Check here for the revised version of my soy sauce pork. Where were we.

Oh yes, I told you I've nothing to blog about today so this is an excuse to say hi to all readers who check in daily. It still thrills me when readers write to tell me what they've cooked from this blog and how their families enjoy their meals. Cooking at home is without doubt cheaper than eating out (leave that for weekends and special occasions) and definitely tons more hygienic, especially in this part of the world. I know it's a lot of effort for those in big cities with what seems like 12 hours instead of 24 but if you have kids especially, get into the kitchen and cook! Even the simplest meals can be more nutritious than the economy dinners in restaurants that are only cheap because the cheapest ingredients are used. Just check out the oil they use.

My kids aren't hot about cheese toasties probably because that's mostly what they had to eat (and instant noodles, but the boys never got tired of that) while growing up but every time I eat a cheese toastie, I am surprised again at how delicious it is and I can't understand how anyone can get tired of it. So yes, this morning's breakfast was cheese toasties, (or for those who prefer, "grilled cheese sandwich") which everyone knows how to make. Come on you do. It's just melty cheese in the middle (I don't butter) toasted-fried in a frying pan with a bit of melted butter until crispy and golden on both sides (flip once only). If my thighs feel extra heavy, I skip the butter and just toast the toasties open (cheese on top of one slice of bread) under the oven grill. Get gooey cheeses like Gruyere, mozzarella, Gouda, provolone, Emmental, many. Choose the cheese for not just their meltability but also for their taste. I like all those cheeses that I mentioned but not Emmental so yes, be selective. What I used this morning was a combination of aged cheddar and mozzarella, grated coarsely because they came in blocks but slices are handier. If you like some variation, slap on a slice of ham or crispy bacon. For lunch, grilled tomatoes or pineapple or peppers make good sides for the toasties.  Or in cold weather, a thick hot soup. Yum.

Tip: be generous with the cheese.

Tilda vintage cheddar, very tasty. You can get it in 800 gm blocks with a wax covering, from Vic Mart in Melbourne. It's aged, but not too much, quite smooth and not too crumbly or sharp.

That's all for this Monday. I've said hi, now's your turn.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Shanghai Sticky Rice Sticks

Chao nien gao, fried sticky sticks.

Nien gao or sticky rice noodles--I call them sticks because that's what's printed on the packet-- are small pieces of dough made of glutinous rice flour. In China, nien gao are sold fresh and ready-cut or in blocks to be cut according to your liking. Japan and Korea too have their own nien gao and like pasta, they come in different shapes. We can't get fresh nien gao here so if we are lucky to get them from relatives visiting from China, my kids would toast them over fire, like marshmallows, and dip them in light soy sauce for a tasty snack.

I have posted this recipe before but recently I found a better way to fry the rehydrated dried sticky noodles that we get here and the result is so good that I had to re-post the recipe. This is a great dish for days when you want something simple and quick.

The difficult part about frying rehydrated nien gao is getting the rice sticks cooked evenly without sticking together. I was taught by my MIL to add some water or stock during the frying process but sticky rice sticks cooked this way are not evenly soft and the texture is a little bit grainy and starchy.

I like the texture of Fuzhou fried nien gao (bai goh gang) so recently I wondered if blanching the nien gao briefly before frying will soften them evenly. I did just that and voila!--I fried the best plate of nien gao ever. Ever. The blanched nien gao was smooth and homogeneously soft with a gentle el dente bite, just like fresh nien gao. Frying time was shortened since the blanching half-cooked the noodles and the result was the noodles didn't become sticky-starchy.

Eaten with chili oil or my fave lime-bird' eye chilies-Maggi sauce dip, chao nien gao is a dish you won't stop eating until it's all gone. But be careful. Glutinous rice can cause indigestion.


Shanghai Chao Nien Gao/Fried Sticky Rice Sticks (feeds 4 to 6)
1 x 500 gm packet dried nien gao
1 small (300 gm) Chinese napa cabbage, in 1 cm strips  
1 cup to 11/2 cups thinly sliced meat (pork or chicken), marinade with white pepper, salt & cornflour
1 small can winter bamboo, cut into thin strips
8 to 10 small dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked & cut into thin strips
1 heaped T finely chopped garlic
4 T light soy sauce (Lee Kum Kee is good)
1/2 t chicken stock powder or a few shakes of msg
salt to taste
veg oil

Note: it's best to fry this amount of nien gao in 2 or 3 batches. If you fry too much in one go, the heat of the wok will be reduced and instead of tasting like it was fried, the dish will taste like it was boiled.

1. Soak the nien gao sticks in room temperature water, running your fingers through to separate them. Soak at least 8 hours prior to using. Once in a while, check and pull apart the noodles that are sticking together.

2. Keep a pot of water boiling while you fry the dish. Put 2 T oil into a hot wok or frying pan and then add the mushrooms, bamboo shoot and about 1/4 t salt. Stir-fry for about 1 minute under medium heat. Add the meat and stir well to mix. When the meat is cooked (no more pink color), push the mixture to the side of the wok or dish onto a plate. Add 1 T oil and 1/2 T  garlic to the wok, fry for 20 seconds and add all the cabbage plus a pinch of salt. When the cabbage is cooked (either still crunchy or soft, depending on your liking), push the meat mixture into the cabbage, mix well and cover for a couple of seconds for the flavors to blend. Remove the cover, stir again and dish onto a plate.

3. In the same wok or pan that's dry, add 2 T oil and 1/2 the remaining garlic. Keep the heat low. At the same time, put all the nien gao (drained) into the rapidly boiling water, stir well to separate them, and immediately use a big slotted ladle to scoop all the nien gao out, tapping the ladle well to drain all the water away. Now increase the heat to high and put 1/2 (or 1/3) of the blanched nien gao into the hot wok, drizzle 1 1/2 T (or 1 T) soy sauce over evenly, sprinkle the proportionate amount of chicken powder/msg and stir well to mix quickly. Now add 1/2 (or 1/3) of the fried meat and veg mixture, stir-frying quickly to mix all the ingredients evenly. Taste and season. Dish onto a serving plate and serve immediately. Repeat frying the remaining noodles and meat mixture.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Beef & Mushroom (& Red Wine) Pie

Beef & Mushroom red wine pie with potato pastry.

Have always loved meat pies, probably because when I was growing up, there was only one western restaurant in town and their pies were to us what pizzas are to kids now.

I balk at making pies because there's so much work, especially since I don't like store-bought pastry. I've told you before about the pastry course I took years ago that made me suspect all pastries. Commercial pastry is made with pastry margarine, a white and waxy fat that doesn't melt easily and so make the crustiest and shortest pastry because it melts only under high heat which separates the layers of dough, unlike butter which melts when kneaded, resulting in tough dough if not properly handled (my English teacher would give that sentence an 'F'). Just think what that hard margarine does in your blood vessels. Plus, if you've made pastry before, you'll know how much fat goes into it to make it short and flaky.

I've never made potato pastry and was surprised at how deliciously short and light it tasted, partly due to the self-raising flour. The potatoes also gave the pastry extra flavor. However, the pastry was soft and crumbly and I couldn't turn the pies out so potato pastry should be used for making pot pies only. If the potato pastry is rolled too thick, the texture can taste rather cake-like so make it about 1/2 cm thin. Since this is not short crust pastry, the texture is soft and crumbly but not very crusty.

As for the meat filling, I halved the wine and it was still too much because the wine flavor was over-whelming and the meat filling tasted very tart. I had to add quite a bit of sugar. I wanted to use ground beef because I knew my mom and in laws would prefer that to beef chunks. Ground beef also cooks much faster. But the ground beef exuded too much oil when fried so I ran to the supermarket to get some beef blade to add to the ground beef. Despite cutting the beef into small 2 cm cubes and cooking until it was very tender, Wey said he found the chunks too stringy for his teeth and preferred ground beef so next time, I will get beef blade and mince the beef myself.

The recipe below is a combination of the beef and red wine pie and beef and mushroom pie recipes in Exclusively Food a wonderful website that I just found and now visit regularly for updates.

Beef & Mushroom Pie (makes 6 large or 8 medium individual pies)
1 kg beef chuck or blade or mince
2 T veg oil
2 cloves garlic
1 T plain flour
1 1/2 T tomato paste
1 T Worchestershire sauce
1/2 t dried thyme (or 1 t fresh, minced)
125 ml (1/2 cup) red wine (2 cups for red wine pies)
500 ml (2 cups) beef stock
1 cup water
1 T sugar (optional)
2 bay leaves
500 gm white cap mushrooms (I added shiitake mushrooms; cheaper), coarsely chopped
salt (about 1 t or more) & freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 T cornflour + 1 T water

egg wash: 1 egg, half the white removed & beaten well

1. In a heavy saucepan, add a small amount of oil and brown the beef in very small batches. If you fry too much at once, the beef will sweat and will not brown. I used a heavy nonstick pan (Circulon, love it) and didn't add oil to the mince and used very little oil for the chunks. Set aside. Spoon off the excess oil.

2. Add 1 T oil to the same pan, add the onion and fry until softened. Add the garlic and flour (I didn't add the flour now because I intended to use a pressure cooker) and the beef and remaining ingredients except the mushrooms. Cover and let simmer 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours (30 minutes in presssure cooker) until beef is tender. If there is too much liquid, remove cover to reduce it. However, I found that upon cooking and standing, the liquid will dry up. Pies are best when wet with sauce so do make sure the stew is really slushy. You may have to add more water if not cooking in a pressure cooker. Season.

If using mince, add the mushrooms at the same time as the beef and simmer about 30 minutes.

3. Add the mushrooms and cook another 30 minutes. Taste and season if necessary. If using pressure cooker, stir in the flour and cook 5 minutes. Thicken the stew with the cornflour water. When cool, chill the filling overnight for easier handling and for the flavor to develop.

4. Remove the bay leaves and divide mixture into individual ramekins (to the brim), or you can line the ramekins or greased baking pans with short crust pastry (not potato pastry; too soft) with the pastry overhanging the rims by about 1 cm.

5. Roll pastry tops out between sheets of pastry paper. I found the potato pastry very soft, almost like mashed potatoes, and preferred roll and then press it thin in my hands like making pizza bases. Cover the pie tops with the pastry, trim and mark rim with a fork (go here for great step by step photos).

6. Brush pastry with beaten egg and snip a cross on top to let steam out. Bake at 200 C for 25 to 30 minutes until pastry is golden.

Potato Pastry 
200 gm self-raising flour
200 gm mashed potato, cooled
150 gm salted butter

--Sift flour into a large bowl, rub in the butter, add the mash and mix lightly until just blended. Chill 1/2 hour before using.
--This amount is enough for pot pies only. For enclosed pie (pie with a base and top), you need short crust pastry for the base.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Puffer Fish

If you've been following this blog for a while, you may have noticed that I've toned down quite a bit. I don't twitter or facebook and sometimes I am tempted to post whatever I like but I'm trying to keep this blog more of a food blog. However, try as I do, I still can't help posting about things that interest me.

I think the youngest child is blessed in many ways: parents are older, wiser, maybe financially better off, but the same pros can be cons too. We've already been there and done that with the older kids. The mountains, the sea, the rivers, the pets, horse-riding, the islands, fishing. And with the large gap between the first two kids and the last, we've lost our energy and passion for things that we used to enjoy doing, like the outdoors and even board games. So we've decided to spend more time outdoors with our youngest, putting aside all things on Sunday noons. We did that straightaway yesterday, by going to the Karambunai Lagoon 40 minutes away, despite some reluctance deep inside because it was a melting, glaring 33 C afternoon.

It was too hot to fish (there's a jetty for that), so while Wey went scooping the many fishes under the jetty, his aged parents dozed under the trees. Karambunai Lagoon is great, I love it there except for the sandflies. There are no red ants and the place is well-maintained by the hotel. The water looked clear but when I got in, the sand wasn't that clean.  

We had lots of bites and Hub caught 2 small lai mung (Yi, was thinking of how you always get the first and most fish). I wasn't fishing. Everytime I dropped my line and drew it up, the bait was gone. I ended up throw the prawns into the sea, just to see the different fishes that came up to nibble. A couple of guys nearby were using fishing rods and drawing in a fish (very small ones) every 10 seconds. Then they caught a puffer fish and left it lying around because they said it'll last 4 hours out of water and they'll throw it back before they go home because they didn't want it to get on their hooks again.

It looked so pitiful, eyes all sepet (slit eyed, like me) and there were teardrop-like things at the corner of each eye.

It started to puff...

...and puff, like it was going to explode. It also made puffing noises and spewed out a jet of water.


I think it looked like a bird, with a 3-D face (fish have only 2-D? You know what I mean) and look, it had buck teeth. It looked almost human, sad and resigned.

I borrowed the fish to photograph it and after a while, I told them I had lost it. I forgot to take a photo of it deflating and swimming back to the sea.

Pasta With Fennel & Sardines


I've only ever eaten canned sardines, never the fresh ones. And I never knew we have fresh sardines in our markets!

The fish monger (seems like such an antiquated word) insisted that sardines taste better than the big-eyed scad (tai ngan chee) and the yellow-tailed scad ( wong mei chee) that I was checking out and that I'd go back for more. He was absolutely right. Sardines are savory-sweet with finer and moister texture than the scads, small fish that we shallow-fry in oil until crisp and dry outside. Small fried fish with rice and a dip of hot chili, lime juice and soy sauce were something I suddenly longed for one day last year when I was on a 2 1/2-month holiday in Europe.

I've been back to the market many times but never found any more sardines because according to the fish mongers, the sardine season is short and most of the sardines are bought by the canneries. I don't give up though, and if I see fresh sardines again, I'm going to buy a ton of them for freezing. Now that I've eaten fried fresh sardines with rice, I can't go back to the scads.

I've been saving my remaining sardines for this classic Sicilian pasta dish but unfortunately, I couldn't get any fennel. Enough of waiting, I thought, so I substituted fennel with celery. One day when I find fresh sardines and fennel, I will cook this again but I will cook the less classic but popular version, the one with tomato paste. That is, if I can save enough sardines for it because I think shallow-fried sardines with rice, soy sauce and lime is still my favorite way to eat small fishes such as sardines and scads.

You can find the recipe for this dish in most Italian cookbooks. I based mine on the recipes from Mediterranean by Jacqueline Clark and Joanna Farrow (which said to use dill, not fennel, and I wonder if it's a lost-in-translation thing) and also Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Italy. However, I later found another recipe that seems to taste better because anchovies and saffron are part of the ingredients. No wonder Yi said something seemed to be missing in my version of pasta con sarde. The kids, I can't fool them anymore.

The following recipe is an adaptation of the recipe I did, plus some improvements that I think will make the dish better.



Pasta Con Sarde
600 to 700 gm fresh sardines
1 large fennel, bulb finely chopped & feathery tops reserved & chopped
Olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
5 anchovies fillets
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup golden raisins, soaked in hot water
1 heaped t fennel seeds, coarsely bashed up
1/3 t saffron in 3 T hot water (optional)
salt & pepper to taste
2 or 3 small fresh red chilies, finely chopped (optional)
500 gm bucatini or spaghetti
1/2 cup breadcrumbs, dry-fried in a pan until golden

1. Clean sardines, remove the heads and fillet them. If big, cut each fillet into 2 lengthwise. Pat them dry with paper towels. Cut 2/3 of the sardines into 1" pieces. Leave remaining whole. Dry-fry the breadcrumbs in a frying pan until golden.

2. Lightly coat the whole sardine fillets with plain flour and fry them in a frying pan with some olive oil until just cooked. Reserve.

3. Add 4 T oil into the pan and fry the onions, fennel, fennel seeds, anchovies and chili, cooking gently in medium heat low until the anchovies are almost melted, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the cut sardines, the pinenuts, the raisins, the saffron water,  the saffron water and and cook another 15 to 20 minutes. Season to taste. Mix in a drizzle of EVOO.

4. Meantime, cook the pasta in salted water until el dente. Remove, mix in 1/2 the sardine sauce and 2 T fried breadcrumbs.

5. Divide the pasta into 4 or 5 portions onto individual plates, top with the remaining sauce and garnish with the whole sardines, remaining breadcrumbs and the chopped fennel tops.

You can also add 2 T tomato paste and 3 Roma tomatoes that have been peeled, deseeded and chopped at step 3. This sounds tastier and I will do this next time I cook this dish.

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