Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What am I doing here in a kitchen?

At the end of each lesson, our class of 15 will be divided into groups to clean the kitchen. This is usually assigned by the sous chef of the day. We learn to clean it the Sunrice school way, using sanitizers and other chemicals. We have been doing this as a routine for the past 5 weeks. Although not my favourite part of the day, I'm thankful for a team that works well together. No one tries to "tuang" during this time unlike the previous batch, as we were told. It's created a culture of co-operativeness amongst us now and I like that. 15 strangers from different walks of life learning to work together despite our wide and varied backgrounds and educational levels. I would not have normally spent so much time with someone who is a kitchen assistant if not for abandoning the corporate life. 

Today was no exception as I headed for the stewarding area to grab a floor cleaner. But halfway through, I had a rude jolt and was suddenly awakened to my surroundings and the people around me. I stared at my hands holding the stick as if they were not my own. I don't even sweep my own floor at home. Hello, what are you doing here? A voice asked in my head. I was momentarily confused and didn't know if I should continue to clear the puddle in front of me. I don't belong in a kitchen. I grew up in a corporate office, clients paid for my time and counsel, executive search firms are still calling me. 

I've not had any income for a few months now, I can see it in my bank account. I have replaced the keyboard with a chopping board and substituted media work with menial work. What happened? Who moved my cheese?

Moist heat cooking module starts today

Cubing the rump cut in preparation for a Hungarian Goulash.
I was photographed because I was using the Chef's special demo table.
Too lazy to set up my own red chopping board!

Last week, we learned dry heat cooking methods applied to deep fried dory fillets, whole fish baked in herbs and salt, tandoori chicken, stingray with sambal paste, sambal roasted chicken, and Thai wrapped chicken.

This week, we learn more about moist heat cooking methods, and today, we applied that to a Hungarian goulash, poached salmon and brocolli almondine.

Common moist heat cooking are poaching (at 71-82 degrees Celsius and good for delicate food like fish, fruits and eggs), simmering (small bubbles, 85-96C), boiling (big bubbles 100C) and steaming (100C or higher).

Using high heat to brown the beef cubes to seal in the juices.
Use tongs when browning, not a fork which may pierce the meat and you lose the juices.

Nicely browned after just a few minutes.
Add sauteed onions, leeks and carrots, sprinkle with paprika, salt and black
pepper, then pour some white wine in. 
Transfer to a Dutch oven, add stock and tomato paste,
throw in some rosemary and bay leaves and
simmer (small bubbles) for as long as you can afford the time.

Adjust seasoning and serve. Juicy and tender after 1.5 hours.
We also learned to poach salmon and drizzled it with a lemon zest dressing.

This one, I like. Brocolli Almondine. I even like the name. Very easy. Steam brocolli till tender, about 2-3 minutes. Melt butter in a saute pan, add almonds and garlic. (Chef made clarified butter for this dish.) Cook till they are lightly brown. Arrange brocolli on plate and sprinkle butter and almonds all over. Simple and delish. Power food!

So now, which dish are you going to try to make?

Word of the Week: Papillote

Papillote means"Parchment" in French and is pronounced Pah-pee-yot. It is a method of cooking in which the food is put into a folded pouch or parcel and then baked. The parcel is typically made from folded parchment paper but other materials such as aluminium foil may be used. The parcel holds in moisture to steam the food. 

The moisture may be from the food itself or from added source like water, wine or stock.

This method is often used to cook fish and also poultry. Good choice of herbs, seasoning and spices will further enhance the taste.

The Chinese use this method for medicinal herbed chicken.  I'd like to try this on pasta marinara. Here's a video link to show how it works.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Thai cuisine - whole fish baked in salt and herbs

Tilapia stuffed with oyster sauce, sesame oil, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, then coated with coarse sea salt on both sides. Grilled in the oven at 180C for about 20 mins. 
Instead of dry and flaky as you sometimes get with baked or grilled fish, this baby came out massively moist as if it was steamed. We finished it before the rice was boiled!

I talked about this last week in a post on using Western cooking method for Asian cuisine.

You can use high end Atlantic sea salt like the one I used when I cured salmon or just any coarse salt which is inexpensive. I bought 3kg coarse sea salt from the market this morning for a mere $2.

Match this fish with a typical Basic Thai salad dressing. You can also use this dressing for glass noodle salad, beef salad or steam crab and fish, so it's worth learning and doing.

Oh, the best part of this dish is the washing up, or the lack of it. Just wrap the mess up and junk it!

Basic Thai salad dressing:
4 fresh red chilli
2 garlic cloves
1 pickle garlic (garlic marinated in vinegar, sugar, salt)
2 coriander root
3 Tbsp lime juice
3 Tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp sugar (I used honey instead)
3 Tbsp water or white vinegar (water to dilute spiciness but will shorten shelf life of your dressing. Vinegar will extend shelf life for longer usage.)

Serve grilled fish with this sauce, smile and say Korp Kunp Karp. Or share this with a friend so you can do it together! Remember to write back to me and tell me all about it.

See also how my mom makes a 10-minute whole fish dish.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Pizza stone

Upgrading from this baking stone...
to this. 

To be totally honest, I need to be cooking and baking more than getting more new toys since I got my last one, a herb knife. But then again, I am a big believer in pampering myself too! Just a small kitchen joy.

A Jewish chocolate cake and more

An Israeli chocolate cake
With a beautiful layer of thick ganache.

Anyone wants the recipe for this cake? Here it is, in Hebrew!

I had to remind Eli that Hebrew is not a universal language yet. Ok, he replied resignedly and then went on to translate it for me line by line. Here's the version we all can understand, accuracy dependent on Eli's translation and what I could catch from his accent. 

45ml water
45ml brandy/cognac
50g sugar
40g cocoa powder
200g soft butter
4 yolks
200g self raising flour, sieved
160g or 5 egg whites
150g sugar

300g whipped cream
300g chocolate (66-72% cocoa)
50g butter

1. Grease a 25-35cm pan and lay with grease paper
2. Mix water, brandy, sugar and cocoa powder under heat
3. Add butter till melted
4. Add yolks and sieved flour. Set aside
5. In the mixer, beat egg whites and sugar slowly then increase to high speed till soft peaks
6. Fold into butter mixture
7. Pour into greased pan and bake at 150C for 30-45 min depending on oven performance or until a stick comes out clean.
8. Cool cake on wire rack.

For topping:
1. Boil cream, remove to cool, add to chocolate. 
2. At 40C, add butter
3. Spread topping on cake when cake is cool.

While we were at it, I asked Eli to show me the bible in Hebrew.  For those who are interested, this is how Genesis 1:1 looks. 

Eli says Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana, 2 major Jewish holidays are round the corner. Families ask one another for forgiveness during Yom Kippur, before they go into Rosh Hashana, their new year. I am thinking of organising a Bake-a-Pita session in my house taught by Eli and he can also share with us more on Jewish culture, history and politics. Ok, maybe not politics. Just food and culture. Would anyone be interested to join? Please send me a message if you are keen and I will work out the logistics and send you a private invitation. (Afternote: click here to see what we learned about Middle Eastern cuisine and Jewish traditions.)


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Saying sorry to Chef

Since I wrote about Kitchen Politics a couple of weeks ago, there have been a few more dramas in the kitchen to entertain me when I have enough of cooking and cleaning. One major outburst of loud wails and tears, one woman-to-woman claw-to-claw catfight, a faithfully latecomer to ruffle Chef's feathers and the daily gossips to spice the morning breaks.

Today Chef got so mad with the class he walked out on us. Stubborn refusal to take and follow simple instructions, insisting on doing things our own way, not adhering to safety standards and endangering others in the process - these were some of the things that irked him. In the session this morning, he spelt out very clearly, Prepare the mise en place, don't cut anything, don't pound anything. I will teach you every step. When he came back 5 minutes later, there was serious mortar pounding going on. He blew his top and decided we were smart enough to do our own cooking and he walked out, leaving 15 astonished kindergarten kids to ourselves. Everyone froze and all activities stopped abruptly.

I broke the silence and suggested to Sous Chef of the day and her assistant, the Sanitarium, to apologise on behalf of the class and ask him to come back to the kitchen. They were hesitant, so I decided to do it, and they followed after me. I chased Chef down the corridor and humbly apologised to him. Sous Chef adopted a begging approach - Please la, Chef, please, please - which I did not want to be a part of.

I repeated my apology for the unacceptable behaviour of the class. I could not promise him it wouldn't happen again. It's hard to teach old dogs new tricks. Because some of them are experienced in the kitchen, they are pretty set on how things are done. I guess it is easier for virgin chefs like me as I have nothing to unlearn. I can't cut an ingredient my own way 'cos I don't know how to cut it in the first place, LOL.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the day did eventually turn out well as you can see in my earlier posting. The sambal roast chicken was extremely succulent!

The beauty of this episode is it generated many other classroom stories from my children when I shared it with them. You ask them, How's your day in school? And you get a nonchalant, Ya, ok. But hearing my story sparked off a chain of contributions, with everyone clamouring to get more air time to talk. Make time for your children, and watch them make your day.

What practical exams look like for the diploma students

A die-die-must-try recipe: Sambal Roasted Chicken

Sambal Roasted Chicken: already half-cooked using dry, direct heat and now
second half to be roasted in the oven for half an hour at 180C. 

Lesson on dry heat continues today with Malay cuisine. Today's 2 dishes are Sambal Roasted Chicken and Sambal Ayam Bunga Kantan (Spicy Chicken with Ginger Flower). I wasn't super thrilled hearing the recipe and dragged my feet on preparing the mise en place but when the sambal (spice paste) started simmering in the pot, it had my full, undivided attention. The aroma filled the entire school! Our class of 15 agreed unanimously this is by far the best recipe we have tasted since joining this course, and I strongly recommend for you to try it. It's worth your every calorie count.

Here are pictures of most of the ingredients we used.

Galangal, also known as blue ginger or lengkuas.
It's stronger than ginger.
Candlenut or Buah Keras. Looks like macademia. It has no
flavour and is used as a natural thickening agent.
Kaffir lime leaves, also commonly found in Thai cuisine
Dried chilli. Soak in water and boil to soften.
Fresh red chilli
Fresh Garlic
Belachan or dried shrimp paste. Pungent and very salty but will add another layer of flavor to your food.
1 tsp for every 300g chicken
Fresh Shallots
Coriander seeds. We pounded this on the mortar to get coriander powder. I strongly recommend that you buy the powder!
Gula melaka or palm sugar, ie, hard sugar from coconut palm.
Good ingredient to add if your paste gets too salty.
Ginger flower or bunga kantan, also used in local rojak and laksa.
Slice diagonally and thinly. 
Turmeric powder
Top tips for a good spice paste in Malay cuisine from Chef:
1. You must have enough oil to cover all the paste when in pot. This is important in Malay cuisine. Don't be afraid of using too much oil!
2. Heat must be medium to low so as not to burn the paste.
3. Don't stir too often. Stir and let rest. The paste needs time to simmer and release the oil for aroma and taste.
4. Every part of the paste must be sizzling.

Paste is all covered in oil. 
There is a shine in the paste, meaning, oil is released. A good sign.
Don't be afraid to see oil. It gives out good aroma and flavour. " Fat gives flavour, " Julia Child.
I abandoned all notions of healthy eating for this culinary adventure.
It's worth every calorie count.
When half done, we popped it in the oven to roast for another half hour at 180C. It should look somewhat charred and "dried up" after 30 minutes.
It was supposed to be food tasting but there was nothing left after 10 minutes. The class loved this dish!
Moist inside.
I tried to plate it while others were attacking the food savagely.
On the left is sambal roast chicken, right is spicy chicken with ginger flower.

So finally, here's the recipe for both dishes. Perfect for Hari Raya next week. Ingredients are similar but the taste is distinctly different and yummilicious!

A. Sambal Roast Chicken
One whole chicken cut into half. Use kampung or free range chicken.
2 inches galangal slices
4 lime leaves
2 stalks lemongrass, bruised
200ml coconut milk (or santan)
3-6 Tbsp cooking oil
1 Tbsp gula melaka or palm sugar
1.5tsp salt

Spice paste:
8 dried red chillies, seeded and soaked to soften
6 shallots
3 garlic cloves
1.5 inch ginger
2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin 

1. Roast coriander and cumin to release oil and aroma.
2. Pound all spice paste ingredients together to a fine paste. Set aside.
3. Heat oil in pan. Stir-fry spice paste until fragrant, about 10 min. 
4. Add coconut milk, lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, salt and gula melaka. Stir well. Add chicken and cook for about 15-20 min over simmering heat, turning a few times until it's half-cooked. (Skin will blister and separate from meat).
5. Preheat oven to 180C
6. Transfer chicken to a roasting pan and pour sauce over it.
7. Roast for 30 min or until browned. Ready to serve.

B. Spicy Chicken with Ginger Flower (Sambal Ayam Bunga Kantan)

600g boneless chicken legs cut into bite-sized pieces
10 shallots thinly sliced
8 dried chillis soaked in warm water, seeded
6 fresh chilli
8 garlic cloves
5 candlenut
5 lime leaves
4-6 Tbsp cooking oil
2 Tbsp water
2 tsp belachan (dried shrimp paste)
2 stalks ginger flower, thinly sliced
0.5 tsp turmeric powder
0.5 cup tamarind juice (or assam) - for colour, taste and texture. 
0.5 tsp coriander powder

1. Pound candlenut, chilli, shallots, red onion and shrimp paste in a mortar to fine paste
2. Heat oil in frying pan over medium heat, stirring regularly so as not to burn, and until fragrant. Add tamarind juice to fluff up the paste
3. Add chicken and lime leaves. Continue cooking, stirring regularly until chicken is done, about 10 mins. Season with salt and sugar to taste. Lastly, add the sliced ginger flower, cook for 5 mins.
4. Transfer to serving plate. Serve with steamed rice.

Enjoy and Selamat Hari Raya Adilfitri!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Achieving my "wok-hei"

Can you sense my "wok-hei"? Chef said I achieved some wok-hei but I cooked the rice too long and it's a bit too dry.

Anyone can do a Yangzhou Chao Fan (Chinese Fried Rice), right? Wrong. Not if you want to get it perfect anyway. Just like the omelette, this is one of those easy-to-make, hard-to-master dishes. 

A perfect Chao Fan must have the following:

1. Rice is moist but do not stick. 
2. Each grain is a whole grain, not broken, and not lumped together.
3. You can taste the white pepper.
4. It must have "wok-hei"!

Literally translated from Cantonese, it means "the wok's air", or as I personally like to express as - the breath of the wok. Hei in Hebrew means air or smell and in the bible, it means the breath of God. God breathed "Hei" into Abram and his name became Abraham. 

Wok-hei is the flavour, taste and essence imparted by a hot wok on food during stir-frying. It is particularly important for Chinese dishes requiring high heat for fragrances such as Char Kway Teow (fried rice sticks) and fried rice.

To impart wok hei, the food must be cooked in a wok over a high flame while being stirred and tossed quickly. For this reason it requires cooking over an open flame. In practical terms, the flavour imparted by chemical compounds results from caramelization and the partial combustion of oil that come from charring and searing of the food at very high heat in excess of 200 °C (392 °F). Aside from flavour, there is also the texture of the cooked items and smell involved that describes wok hei. (source: Wikipedia)

So the key words here are "high flame" and "toss quickly". Chef from Hunan gave us a demo and I tried to catch it on pictures here but she was too fast for me. See these for what they're worth.

This woman is incredibly strong, to lift and toss that giant of a wok, and with her weaker hand!
Her rice seemed to be in the air more than on the wok. Frequent flyer rice!
She even taught us how to fold the piece of cloth in her hand for maximum protection and leverage. 
It was such a treat to watch her. The ooos and aahhs stopped when she said, OK, now your turn. Gulp!
This is Chef's wok-hei fried rice. 

Loose grains each standing on its own.

To achieve wok-hei fried rice, here are the top tips from Chef:
1. Use overnight rice. Chill it. Cold rice is less sticky.
2. Boil rice in pot rather than use a rice cooker. Rice from rice cooker tends to be wet at the bottom and dry at the top.
3. Ensure rice is gently loosened before going into the wok. "Don't kill the rice" is what she kept yelling, meaning, don't use a sharp ladle to cut the grains. That will release the starch and make them sticky. Instead, use back of ladle to press gently.
4. Wok must be hot before the oil goes in, and oil must be hot before the rice goes in.
5. Toss quickly and fully. 

I want to run off to Chen Fu Ji to taste their $25 fried rice now!