Saturday, April 28, 2012

Word of the Week - Balsamic Vinegar

My 7-year aged balsamic vinegar from a dear friend

Balsamic vinegar is strictly not a wine vinegar. It is produced in the Modena region of Italy from reduced wine juice aged in wooden casks. Highly valued by chefs and gourmet food lovers, it gives off a smooth sweet-sour flavour and is perfect as a salad dressing, or poured over grilled meat, or paired with a good extra virgin olive oil peppered with good quality sea salt flakes as a dip for crusty breads.

There are 3 different grades of balsamic vinegar. 

1. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. This label is protected under the European Union and is exclusively used only for those produced in Modena and aged for a minimum of 12 years.

2. Condimento grade - there is some aging involved in this grade. My photo above is such an example, a gift from a dear friend who toured Napa Valley and thought of me. This bottle is aged 7 years. I love how it's suspended inside the bottle too.

3. Commercial grade - zillions of gallons are produced in this commercial grade where no aging is involved. In fact, there are colourings and thickeners used in this low grade that is produced on a mass scale. My personal recommendation is not to put your money on this category. 

Be an informed consumer and look out for these labels when you next shop for a balsamic vinegar. Without the word "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale", you know it's not aged for a minimum of 12 years.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Avocado, Orange and Almond Salad - easy peasy lemon squeezy

It's vegan Thursday with the girls again. Last week's Ratatouille was a hit. Today's will be simple and pretty. A plate of sunshine. Here are the ingredients I used:

2 oranges
2 tomatoes
1 avocado
3-4 Tbsp EVOO
1-2 Tbsp lemon juice
1-2 sprigs spring onion or 1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Black pitted olives
1 yellow onion, cut into rings
1 shallot, chopped
Salt and ground pepper
Handful of roasted almond flakes

Am packing it out to lunch and will add the almond flakes later. Looking forward  to girlie conversations.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Duck Leg Confit

I've been enjoying some good success with Ducks, and yesterday was another hit. This time, it's Duck Leg Confit. Click here to read What is Confit?

About two months ago, I prepared 20 duck legs (crazy, right?!) confit-style. The entire process involved the following:

1. Rub Maldon sea salt all over the duck legs, store in fridge for 24-36 hours
2. Remove marinade and wash duck legs under running water
3. Place damp legs into duck fat in a pot along with a marinade (eg., garlic and coriander or thyme) 

 4. Bring it to a simmer, then cover and transfer to a preheated oven for 2 - 2.5 hours at 140C. At this point, you can choose to cook it immediately by pan-searing to get crispy skin or you can let it cool and store them, soaked in duck fat, and keep them in the fridge. The longer you keep them, the more flavorful they become. Minimum 2 weeks for the flavour to infuse, maximum 6 months.

5. When ready to serve, bring them back to room temperature, then pan sear for 5 minutes on the skin, and 1 minute on the other side. 

Yes, I did the full monty.

I served one batch after soaking for one week. The flavour was good. But last night, I served another batch that has been soaking for 8 weeks and the flavour was super awesome - deep, complex flavour like nothing I've ever cooked in my life. Dare I say - I don't even get this taste in decent French restaurants. The bones broke away from one another easily, and the meat fell off the bones. That was what impressed my diners before they even tasted it.

This was taken by one of my diner friends with his iPhone. Thank God he took it 'cos it's the only picture I have from the first batch!

I grabbed my camera to take this second batch but didn't have time to fool around, so just this one shot. The taste got me so excited and distracted and took priority over photography, and rightfully so.

All that tedious, laborious, impractical French fussiness was actually worth every minute of my time and attention. Centuries of French cuisine was starting to make an impression on a personal level. Food has the power to inspire. For the first time, I went to bed full of admiration for the French. 

I am happy as a duck in water and am so going to do this again.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Beef Carpaccio, Western style

I just blogged about beef carpaccio, done Vietnamese style, this week. Well, I'm at it again today. This time, I have the butcher slice it thinly for me, so it's a much more elegant cut than the last time round. Also, I am doing a Western style based on the ingredients used.

Easy to assemble - just a bunch of fresh wild rockets (arugula) and some freshly-shaved Parmesan.

For the dressing, I simply whipped 1 tsp wholegrain mustard with EVOO, 1 tsp aged balsamic vinegar, 2 Tbsp lemon juice, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.


Click here to read What is and Who is Carpaccio.

My Banana Tree - Part 2

Remember the banana tree I told you about? See my earlier post on this here when it was just a baby. Well, here's an update of it. It looks really good and is growing up to be a fine, organic banana in my backyard. God's creativity is so mind-blowing.  How did He decide that bananas should form this way? I'm really excited to know when I can take it down.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lunch at Bark Cafe

Yesterday, I had my lunch at the Bark Cafe along Upper Changi Road North, just next to the Changi Chapel Museum. They've been there a while now but it's my first visit, and I must say, overall, I enjoyed the food. Here are some pics to share.

Your standard Caesar Salad - so long as the ingredients are fresh, I'm not fussy on this. I eat my salad "kosong", ie, with no dressing. It puzzled me that the waiter offered us a chilli sauce with this.

Escargot - flavourful and beautifully baked but it would have been better to have some bread pieces to soak up all those cheesy goodness instead of having to use a spoon.

The Mojito was way too sweet for me - looks like I have to try to make my own. For a mint-adverse person, I actually found the mint way too mild. The sugar drowned everything. Too bad.

Now, with all my duck encounters, I almost feel anyone who wants to cook duck for me must be worthy of it! I have high expectations of any duck dish and will be anal and critical if they're not cooked to perfection. This is their roasted black pepper duck breast. First impression: looks like Chinese roast pork (char siew) so I was not particularly excited. I'm looking for a golden brown, not dark brown skin. On skin crisp, I rate it 7/10. While it was crispy, it lacked the extra crunch I was anticipating as I sank my teeth into it.

In the midst of my conversation on the sorry state of education in Singapore, I ran an entire taste review at the back of my head. On my first few bites, I could taste only black pepper and nothing else. It could have been pork or chicken, it wouldn't matter. The black pepper was overpowering and I wanted to taste duck, since that was what I had ordered. But the taste grew quickly on me, and I found myself forking non-stop one piece after another - I suspect the subtle plum sauce kept me going. An ounce of sauce covers a multitude of sins, so they say.

The mash potato was lumpy - not sure if that's the intent of the chef. So that was forgettable for me, especially after that irresistible pommes mousseline I had in Mozaic, Bali.

I chose an Apple Crumble for my dessert as I found out recently through my research that it has half the sugar content and double the apples when compared to an Apple Cake. I've also just bought myself a sauce bottle to do this chocolate zic-zag so I can do pretentious food at home as well.

Our bill came up to S$97.00 - I think it's relatively fair compared with many bistros where we've condoned their practice of blatant daylight robbery. I have my usual gripe on the lack of passion of the service staff at good restaurants, but overall, I would come back here to eat again.

Now, I was in the Changi area to visit Food and Hotel Asia, Asia's largest international food exhibition and conference. But the massive jam and utter traffic chaos outside the Expo Halls put me off and I made a quick about turn - I am allergic to crowds.

I already had a good day - good friend, good food, good conversation - and was happy to go back home to find more poppy seed recipes.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sticky Lemon and Poppy Seed Cake - The Mark of Zorro

My sugar-reduced lemon and poppy seed cake - it's worth failing that drug test for.

Armed with my poppy seeds from a friend, I was eagerly on the lookout for a lemon poppy seed recipe and behold, this one popped up from Technicolor Kitchen. There's nothing really sticky about it but the lemon freshness comes through strongly, so it's a good recipe for lemon-lovers. It has a secret ingredient too - rolled oats, an ingredient that helps maintain moisture in cakes. Plus you get more fibre in your dessert. Rolled oat as you remember is the main ingredient in granolas and muesli. I should blog about the birscher muesli that I make regularly for breakfast.

Wash lemons thoroughly and grate only the yellow skin

Before baking. Think my batter is a bit too wet. 
50 minutes later at 180C. Looks like Zorro left his mark on my cake!

Recipe adapted from Technicolor Kitchen
Mine is a sugar-reduced version.

Ingredients (Serves 16)
Granulated sugar 224g (I used 150g and it's perfectly fine)
Unsalted butter 127g, softened
Canola oil 100ml
Finely grated zest 3 lemons
3 large eggs (I used 4 small ones)
Vanilla extract 1 tsp (I used 2 vanilla pods)
Hot water 60ml
All purpose flour 250g
Baking powder 2 tsp
Pinch of salt
Rolled oats, finely ground 75g
Poppy seeds, 3 Tbsp

To make the Syrup:
Granulated sugar 150g (I used half and it's still good)
Lemon juice 100ml

Preheat oven to 180C. Butter a 20cm square cake pan.
Beat sugar with butter, oil and lemon zest until pale and fluffy. 
Beat in eggs one at a time. Add vanilla.
Sift flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Whisk hot water into egg mixture until smooth, then fold in sifted ingredients, the oats and poppy seeds.
Pour into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 50 min or until golden and a skewer comes out clean. 
As soon as cake is out of oven, make the syrup. Heat sugar with the lemon juice until dissolved, poke a skewer deep into the cake dozens of times, then spoon all the syrup over the top. Cool completely in the pan over a wire rack. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Word of the Week: Poppy Seeds

I have been trying to get my hands on Poppy Seeds for more than a year. Today, thanks to a dear friend from Perth, I got more than 200g of this precious ingredient! It is a prohibited item in Singapore - silly as it sounds - because these oil seeds come from the opium Poppy. But these dried seeds are primarily for culinary uses, as a spice, a thickener, a garnish, or a condiment. They are used in many baked goods and desserts. You need more than 3,300 seeds to make one gram! Here's more of what's said about poppy seeds on this packaging.

Next post: Sticky Lemon and Poppy Seed Cake

Beef Carpaccio Vietnamese Style - A Stunning Starter

This is such a stunner to kick-off a meal in style - beef carpaccio. Read What is carpaccio and who is Carpaccio? Many people are put off by its rawness and the colour, so this is definitely not one for the faint-hearted. I would serve this only to myself and my hubster lest I be blamed for any weak guts! I've researched enough to give me the confidence that beef, at its freshest and bestest, can be eaten raw.

I stumbled upon this recipe from The Ravenous Couple, a second-generation immigrant Vietnamese-American family. Below is my recipe adapted from their site. But first, a word on lean protein.

Most beef we eat today, no thanks to commercialisation, are high in fat content. Based on my reading, it seems few cows today get to eat grass throughout their entire lives. What I thought was the norm has become the exception. I read about the benefits of grass-fed cows vs grain-fed and am convinced I need to go for the best, especially in carpaccio.

This beautiful piece of beef tenderloin (most suitable for carpaccio) is very smooth and clear, with little marbling because there is little fats in it.

Yes, somewhat pricey you may say at S$62.00 per kilogram but I would rather spend money on good food than on medical costs. Let food be your medicine.

Here's the recipe and method I used:

182g beef tenderloin (Use only premium meat. Buy from a reliable source and buy only on the day you serve the dish.)
Toasted peanuts, 2 handfuls
Fresh shallots, 5-6 small ones
Fried shallots, 2-3 Tbsp
A bunch of herbs (I used coriander and basil)
Juice from half a lemon
Juice from one lime (see how I cut my lime to get maximum juice)
Sugar, 1 Tbsp
Fish sauce, 1 Tbsp
Fresh chilli or chilli flakes, to taste

All my fresh ingredients - I like freshness to be the hallmark of my food.

1. Did I say, Buy only premium beef tenderloin?
2. Freeze the beef for about half an hour so that it is easier to slice thinly, or get your butcher to do it for you.
3. Squeeze lemon and lime juice into sliced beef pieces. Add sugar and mix well. Cling-wrap and store in the fridge for 2-3 hours. The citrus juices will cure or cook the meat. Stir and mix again after an hour.
4. Toast peanuts in a dry hot pan. We call this dry fry.
5. Fry some shallots or get ready-made ones if you are feeling lazy.
6. After 2-3 hours, the meat turns a dull pink. Drain the meat and squeeze the liquids out.
7. Rinse bowl and return meat to bowl. Add fish sauce and mix well.
8. Prepare the rest of the garnishes. Slice fresh shallots, shred some herbs.
9. Lay the beef slices out in a single layer on a large plate and sprinkle garnishes all over. Add chilli flakes or fresh chilli for colour and kick.

How it looks before going into the chiller. (I chopped up the coriander stalks and threw them in as I found its garden-fresh smell irresistible.)
And three hours later. It looks more cooked than medium rare!

Isn't this absolutely gorgeous? You can adjust the taste to your liking, add more citric juice if you prefer it tangy or a few more sugar drops for a sweeter taste. I like to minimise anything if possible so I can taste the meat for what it is. I was mighty pleased to receive a positive review from my most honest critic, yes, hubster himself, and I would be delighted to get your comments on this post.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Living Room Talk #4: We Exist Because We Think

The bamboo charcoal bread was interesting.
But her father's warm apple cake was better than the bamboo charcoal bread.
The raspberry cheesecake ice cream was better than the apple cake.
The wine was better than the ice cream.
The conversation was better than everything put together.

I had the privilege to invite Tong Yee, one of the founders of School of Thought to speak at my fourth Living Room Talk. Check him out here when he spoke at TEDx Singapore. I've since interacted with him a few times more and have found him to be an extremely progressive thinker. Every interaction with him has been thought-provoking, and I wanted to share this experience with some friends.

We spent more than 3 amazing hours sharing ideas, listening and learning. I could have gone on for another 3. There's just so much to squeeze out of his brain, and he keeps giving you more food for thought every time a question is asked or a challenge posed. The group was equally engaging and the conversation took priority over filling empty glasses. I have so much to learn from this young man. Life is one big learning journey, and the conversation on learning excited me because, you see, I have sentenced myself to learning and this is what this blog is all about!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bamboo Charcoal Bread - My Black Beauty. Almost a success. Almost a disaster.

My Black Beauty baked on Black Friday

Ta-da! My virgin bamboo charcoal bread. What a coincidence that I made this on Black Friday. Yes, the universe conspires with your passion. I remember making guacamole on the last National Guacamole Day, completely by chance. 

I first wrote about bamboo charcoal here. I also ate bamboo charcoal crepe at the Culinary Institute of America in Singapore. After researching several sites on this interesting ingredient, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give it a go on a basic soft butter loaf recipe. 

It has detox and many other health benefits.
I added 2 tsp of charcoal powder to my regular mix 
Have you seen grey flour before??
Stark black before proofing
Dark grey after 2nd proof
I decided to throw in some pecan and walnut for added colour and crunch.

Is this gorgeous or what? Do you think Rebecca Black will like this? Or maybe King Kong?

I'm going to cut them into cubes and steam them and see how gastronomically adventurous my guests are tonight. I am having my next Living Room talk tonight - which will also be my next post!

The Morning After
My black bread got nicknamed the Chewing Gum Bread 'cos it turned out to be rather chewy in the middle! In all the blogs I read on baking with Bamboo Charcoal powder, no one mentioned these  important observations which I have now made:

1. Recipes that say "bake till golden brown" is not applicable to black breads since you can't see any change in colour. Which means you have to be sure of the baking timing. In my case, my bread was actually not completely baked yet after 12 minutes but I had no way of knowing till I cut it. As it turns out, the inside was too chewy for a bread texture. So while the taste was good, the colour and texture felt odd.

2. The charcoal powder may stain your cloth or utensil, or at best, it's not easily washed off. So, do be careful when handling it.

3. You won't know when it's gone stale just by looking at it.

So, my overall verdict on this baking feat? Almost a success, almost a disaster.