Sunday, January 29, 2012

Duck fat + no carbo = happy tummy

I have been into duck fat for a couple of weeks now and there's no sign of loosening my grip on this. I googled the health benefits of duck fat last night and read that its composition is not too different to olive oil. Animal fat is good. Fat is good! Don't be afraid of good fat!

For today's lunch with the hubby, I pan-seared skinless boneless chicken breasts peppered with tarragon and cut them into strips. I sauteed some capsicums with duck fat till they caramelised and their natural sweetness came through. My foodie son tried it for the first time and said, Oh, I didn't know this is sweet! Music to my ears. Using the red and yellow ones added colours to my food and to my weekend, which is really nice.  I also sauteed some white button mushrooms - also with duck fat (but of course) - till brown. 

It felt good on the tummy today not to have to work on breaking down any carbo or deal with any sudden surge of a sugar rush. 

Would you pay for a dish like this? 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Cooking for the Crew

I served "Chinese salsa" to my Mexican cook!
I have now volunteered about 2 months of my time at the social enterprise and am learning heaps. Just spending hours each day with cooks from all woks of life is in itself a learning journey. Today, the Executive Chef decides that I should do the staff meal. That means cooking for 20 chefs and service crew by noon time with a limited budget and based on ingredients I can get my hands on in the chiller. All by myself. *Gulp* Help me, God!

I was a little flustered just thinking about it. So many recipes flooded my mind but I had to quickly eliminate each one for a variety of reasons. I had to work within the constraints of time, budget as well as what I think the crew normally like. Heavy on carbo to fill their big stomachs and simple Chinese stir-fries to meet the budget. Definitely not my thing! Neither for consumption nor for practice. But I had 20 mouths to feed by noon and I needed to stay focused on the task at hand. 

I decided to make a "short-cut" Hainanese chicken rice. I learned later, what I call "short-cut", the Executive Chef called "Western technique". Let me walk you through what I did. 

1. On a big pot with some hot oil, I fry some minced shallots. Everything becomes more difficult when you cook for mass. I almost burnt the shallots at the side of the pot!

2. Next, I added 2 big heaps of rice and chicken stock. The amount of stock I used is as if I was cooking the rice on a rice cooker.

3. I crushed some garlic and scatter them around the rice. 

4. At the same time, I lay out 10 boneless chicken legs marinated earlier in Chinese sesame oil, soy sauce, salt and pepper. Place them all on top of the rice in one layer, skin on. 

5. Cover the pot and let the rice cook. The animal fat from the bird will melt onto the rice giving it flavour and fragrance. According to Chef, this is a Western cooking technique. He challenged me to think of what other spices or herbs I could add to the pot at this stage. Hmm...didn't think of that. I decided on a few bay leaves and 2 cinnamon sticks. Great suggestion from him!

6. About half an hour later, the chicken is cooked through. I removed them, fluffed up the rice and at the suggestion of the pastry chef (yes, by now, everyone is involved!), I bruised and threw in some pandan leaves (screwpine leaves) for added aroma. 

Chef shot me a few questions: Are you happy with the smell? Is the texture what I'm seeking? Think also of the colours on the table later. What effect do you want to draw from the diner? Huh? It's just a staff meal? No? He forced me to think about the quality of my work and to learn to adjust and improvise as I go along.

I learned to cut up the legs in even pieces and he made me think about the garnishing. We also did an ala-minute julienned ginger with hot smoking oil poured over it and used it as a glaze over the nicely poached chicken. Great on-the-spot thinking and creative improvisation. Intellectually stimulating for me!

I had to do a veggie dish as well and was not enthusiastic about stir-fries - they are such a yawn to me. But Chef made the experience very different. He made me think hard about what effect I want the eater to experience in the mouth. C'mon, Chef, it's just a plain, old stir-fry! Or is it?! This is sliced cabbage with sauteed capsicum. He instructed me to continue stirring while he drizzled a long thin line of beaten eggs. Immediately, the pan came alive for me as the colour changed from a pale yellow to a tinge of golden orange. It was the way he drizzled the egg in that caught my undivided attention. Small act, big impact. 

I finished it off with diced tomatoes (seeds and pulp removed), diced cucumber (seeds removed), marinated in Chinese dressing of sesame oil, soy sauce and a dash of salt, topped with sweet pineapples. Chinese salsa, as I say. I served this to a cook in the kitchen who is from Mexico. He said he loved it, LOL!

What an experience cooking this staff meal. I got a couple of positive and encouraging feedback. Phew. I will get another chance again next week. Stressful! But good stress and a great learning experience. Better than any cooking lessons out there.

*all iphotos so please excuse the quality!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Chawan-mushi at home

Chawan-mushi literally means "tea cup steam". It is a savory egg custard dish not too different from the Chinese steam egg except for the ingredients and toppings. As far as my circle of friends is concerned, I noticed Chawan-mushi is popular with Asians and less so with Caucasians. Is this true for you? An American friend looked at it in disgust once commenting that she expects custards to be sweet, not savory, and just could not reconcile her head with her taste bud. Yet, it is a highly popular dish in the Japanese restaurants all around the world.

Using dashi as a base for my stock, I whisked 4 eggs for 5 portions and slowly added the dashi to it. Then I strained them into the cups for steaming. Next, I prepared a few other ingredients to add to the egg.

I soaked 4 dried Chinese mushrooms for half an hour. Then I added sugar and soy sauce to the water used to soak the mushroom. Boil it with the mushrooms and cook till the flavour seeps into the mushrooms.

I'm now ready to add my ingredients. I stole some gingko nuts that my mom has painstakingly prepared for a Chinese New Year dessert. You can buy some ready made canned ones.

I also added some boneless skinless chicken breast meat diced. They are marinated with mirin and soy sauce.

Cover the chawan-mushi before steaming. You can use cling-wrap too.

This steam oven is one of my best buys, I have to tell you and sell you. It's so clean, convenient, practical and I have found that I am using it almost every day since I bought it.

Just add water into this canister and it slots nicely in. The oven lady told me chawan-mushi tastes much better using a steam oven. I did not believe her then, but now I absolutely do!

Twenty minutes of newspapre reading later, I get this.

See if you would like to try this. I did have a few utensils to wash but this dish was worth the effort.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Word of the Week: Dashi

Dashi is an essential element in many Japanese dishes and considered fundamental to Japanese cooking. It provides a savory flavour and is much easier to make than meat stock. It forms the base for miso soup, clear broth, noodle soup and other simmering liquid. 

Here, I make a basic dashi using dried bonito flakes which is available in Japanese supermarkets. 

Just boil 4 cups of water to one cup of flakes (accuracy not critical). Bring water to boil, add flakes, and when water boils again, turn off heat and let sit till flakes sink to bottom. Strain. Discard used flakes. 

Dashi can be kept in a freezer as ready stock whenever you feel like a bowl of ramen in the middle of the night. 

Dashi sounds like "da xi" in Chinese which means abundance and prosperity - how appropriate that this comes on the third day of the Lunar New Year. Gongxi, Gongxi. Dashi, Dashi! Enter the Year of the Dragon! 

Look out for the next post when I use Dashi to make Chawanmushi!

Monday, January 23, 2012

French Confit Toast

French toast with a difference - cooked using duck fat!

How more French can you get and how strange to be doing this on the morning of the first day of Chinese New Year.

I told you, I'm in a relationship with duck fat and it's complicated.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Duck fat and I

I'm in a relationship with duck fat. It's complicated.

Here's the amount of fat collected from one roast. The juices will sink into the bottom making it easier to separate them.

Use duck fat to roast divine potatoes or heavenly carrots and you'll never go without this baby ever again!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, January 20, 2012

Peek-a-boo into a Munich kitchen

This is my friend's lovely, cosy, very lived-in and fully utilised kitchen in the heart of Munich. I didn't get her permission to post this so I better not reveal her identity or she'll never cook for me again, and that's too big a loss to bear. 

And this second picture here is my favourite corner of her little kitchen. It has all the wonderful spices and herbs that she transforms into magic so we can all taste life from her perspective! Which is all about passion and love and joy and peace. My dear friend - how I miss her already.

I also found she squeezed space out of another corner for her pretty and practical utensils. She's not known to be the neatest girl around but I have to salute her for being rather tidy here, haha! She's kinda untidy in a creative yet organised way, if you know what I mean. Like, she knows where all her stuff are even though there are stuff everywhere in every nook and crook. Have you met anyone like that?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Word of the Week: Farfalle

Farfalle, a type of pasta, originated from northern Italy as far back as the 16th Century. Also known as "bow-tie" pasta, Farfalle in fact means "butterflies" in Italian. Though suitable for all kinds of sauces, Farfalle is best for cream and tomato based sauces.

I bought this pack in a little shop in Florence, the same place where I got my truffle oil. Did you see my post on all that shopping I did for my kitchen? The shopkeeper, always proud of her own products, told me the colours come from the base ingredients used to make these pasta. So, for instance, the red is from beetroot, yellow from turmeric, and green from spinach. The most interesting has to be the black - it comes from squid ink. How cool is that.

Zero preservatives, addictives, MSG, flavour enhancers… and what have you.

I will let you know about the taste when I make these for the family one of these days.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Home-cured Pancetta - Part IV. Wait, there's a Part IV?

It's been more than 2 months since I started curing this piece of pork belly. I open it up to peep at this baby whenever my curiosity gets the better of me.

On 14 November, it looked like this at the start of this interesting culinary project that has captivated me since.

After 10 days

After about 25 days

Today, I opened it again after more than 60 days and find that I could possibly use it!

I cut some very small pieces remembering how salty and rubbery they tasted the last time I tried when it was not quite ready. Scattered them over my home-made pizza and the verdict?

Does my pizza look sexy or what. Thanks to my friend Grace for a very simple recipe. 

Extremely salty but no longer as rubbery. The longer time I give it to allow for the curing process, the better the texture but it also means deep salt penetration. If salt is the key ingredient to cure the meat so that I don't die from eating contaminated raw meat, then how does one reduce the saltiness in the taste? Hmm.. need to find someone who has done this.

I can continue to use the pancetta as an ingredient for pasta and pizzas as the Italians do on a daily basis but I will have to rinse off the crazy salty on the next use.

Here's a picture of the pancetta done by the professionals which I bought in a Tuscany morning market. Doesn't it look absolutely gorgeous? I have yet to try it but will do so very very soon and let you know how it tastes.

Beautiful piece of pancetta from Tuscany now sitting in my fridge
My pancetta butcher. We used an iphone app to ask him in Italian how much it costs. We were perfect in our articulation and then were completely stunned at his answer 'cos we couldn't catch a single word he said!

For those very interested and crazy enough to waste time doing this, please read the previous posts before you attempt. And remember to write to me about it!! Adios!

Home-cured Pancetta Part I
Home-cured Pancetta Part II
Home-cured Pancetta Part III
What on earth is a Pancetta??

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Italy - a working farm

Today, we visited Luciano's working farm just 10 minutes drive from our farmhouse at Cretaiole. He had just slaughtered 2 pigs yesterday and today, he has invited us to come over at 4pm to see what he's doing with them. We walked into this what looks to me like a murder scene in a farm barge. Here, Luciano's men are stuffing pork sausages. On the left, you can see their home-bottled tomato paste.

Luciano cures his own meat - these above are more than a year old hanging next to his wine barrels.

He lifts up this netted crate to show us his cured cheese as well.

 Luciano slices off his pancetta for us to taste.

We also tasted his extra virgin olive oil fresh from the infusion and before bottling. 

It was a totally enjoyable visit and I wish I could be a farmer's wife ... maybe just for a little while!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Word of the Week: al dente

Al dente is an Italian expression that refers to the state of cooked pasta as "firm but not hard". Pasta that is cooked al dente has a lower glycemic index (GI) than pasta that is cooked soft. This means the pasta will break down more slowly, releasing glucose more gradually into the bloodstream. 

I have tried to do pasta on both extremes, just before al dente and way overcooked till limp. Overcooked pasta tastes like Chinese noodles! Our family of 5 all have varying thresholds of "al dente-ness" so I cook pasta whichever way I like which is usually a minute more after al dente, and somehow, someone will be pleased with it. I can't please them all, but I can please myself!

Click here to read more Word of the Week.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Italy - roasties by the fireplace

We are spending 6 nights here in our farmstay in Tuscany. As the temperatures are consistently sub-zero every night, one of the things we truly enjoy is the Tuscan fireplace. I find myself staring into the fire for easily over an hour or more each time. The warmth, the glow - there's something mesmerizing about it.

Well, last night, as everyone was already in bed and I was staring into the dwindling fire while thinking of what I'd be cooking in the next meal, it suddenly occurred to me that I could roast my veggies right there and then. I took the cut veggies out of the fridge, placed them on a roasting pan, put a grill over the fireplace and wahla! I was cooking in the wee hours of the night, sitting all alone there with the fire. I only drizzled some extra virgin olive oil infused by the farmer, sprinkled some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and left it there as the fire started to dwindle more.

I've done moonblush tomatoes before and this idea of energy-saving is not too different except it's over the fireplace instead of the oven. I couldn't wait to see how the roasties would look in the morning.

So, I woke up bright and early to see this - moist from the melting tomatoes (almost, almost tomato juice but not quite), the horizontally-cut garlic were soft, onions caramelized while the brocolli still retained a bit of crunch and texture. It was excellent. Except how does one serve this in the morning??! LOL. I kept it for dinner, of course, and got good reviews from the family, yes, even the teenagers.

I googled fireplace cooking and found there are some people who are absolutely crazy about this method of cooking and even offer recipes on the web. It was indeed fun and sexy! Real woodfire for the grilling purist. How primitive and rustic and romantic.

Was I glad to have the chance to do this, and boy, do I wish I could do this again!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Italy - an authentic Tuscan kitchen

Was excited to be cooking in a Tuscan kitchen in a 14th Century stone villa.
Last night, we took an overnight train from Munich to Tuscany and disembarked in a station called Chiusi. After an hour's drive, we found ourselves in a most gorgeous valley, south of Tuscany, called Val d'Orcia. Located on the rolling hills of Pienza and Montichiello, it is earmarked as a UNESCO World Heritage site and should not be missed when in Tuscany.

Pienza is located in a place so beautiful that even the Pope fell in love with the area. The landscape is of immense and incomparable beauty and has been used for blockbuster movies including Gladiator, The English Patient and Twilight. As we were there in winter, we met more locals than tourists which was really really nice.

We checked into the beautiful Cretaiole, an awesome 14th Century stone villa. For the next 7 days, the kids didn't want to leave this villa!

View from our farmhouse. 
An authentic Tuscan marble sink. The tap on the left brings spring water from the mountain into the kitchen.

The sunrise(s?) and sunsets in Tuscany were dramatic and a daily phenomenon.
Photo credit: my aspiring photographer daughter
The beautiful Creatiole - highly recommended.
Photo credit: daughter
A dish drainer that doubles as storage - now, why didn't I think of this when I renovated my kitchen?

Some of the utensils I used while cooking there. 
These were just outside the door and I helped myself to them too. 

I did an easy roast chicken with lemon and thyme. Somehow, it looked better in Tuscanware even though I did
not get to truss the chicken.
The Tuscan kitchen inspired my 2 sons to want to make something that night. One made mash potatoes and the other made egg mayo for breakfast the following day. There's just something culinary about Tuscany.

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