Monthly Archives: July 2011

Pasta alla Norma

Trust the Italians to name a dish after an opera written by one of their own. Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma which premiered at La Scala in 1831 is that opera and also that dish.  Pasta alla Norma hails from Sicily, from Catania, to be precise. Bellini also hails from Catania, Sicily. See the connection?  Since we’re on the subject of connections, he intended the soprano part for Norma  to be performed by Giuditta Pasta who was said to have 3 distinct vocal registers. That just means a dream voice, kawan kawan, one in a million, next to Maria Callas’s.

Nino Martoglio, a fellow Sicilian from Catania was so smitten by this simple pasta dish that he compared it to Bellini’s Norma and promptly christened it thus.

We will be leaving for SE Asia in a couple of days.  The girls and I for 4 weeks and the Italian for only 2.  Someone has to bring home the bacon, you see.  I wanted to cook something memorable for the Italian as he will be on his own in Paris, no doubt, with plenty of things to entertain him and lots of work to complete.  I wanted to show him my appreciation for his dedication and support through the years and mostly, my amore.  He loves aubergines, he also loves pasta.  So nothing can be easier than Pasta Alla Norma.

Here’s the recipe:

350 g spaghetti or linguine

450g of peeled tomatoes (it doesn’t matter what brand you use, but I tend to use Italian tinned tomatoes.  You can also use fresh tomatoes which are an optimum choice. Remember summer tomatoes tend to be sweeter than winter ones.)

1 medium sized aubergine, sliced to about 1 – 1.5 cm thick

2 cloves of garlic peeled and smashed

3 fresh basil leaves or a sprinkle of dried basil

2 tbsp of olive oil

2 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar (less if you are using sweeter tomatoes)

generous amount of grated ricotta cheese or parmiggiano

Slice the aubergines into 1 – 1.5 cm thick.  Put the slices into a colander and sprinkle generously with coarse salt.  Put a a heavy dish over the slices and leave for 30 minutes to allow the vegetable slices to release their liquid. When you see a blackish puddle at the bottom of the colander, the aubergines are ready to be rinsed. Rinse carefully in cold water until you remove most of the salt.  Leave to drain, then squeeze out any excess water with kitchen towels. Set aside.

Heat some oil in your best casserole dish and fragrant it with the garlic.  Add the tomatoes and allow to simmer for 15 minutes before adding salt and sugar.  Taste to adjust to personal preference. Leave to simmer for another 30 minutes.

Bring a pan of water to boil.

Heat a good amount of frying oil in your a shallow frying pan.  Make sure the heat is low because you don’t want the oil to be too hot. When the oil is warm, not smoking, add the sliced aubergines.  Leave to fry until they are soft and slightly brown.  Remove with a slotted spoon and drain excess oil on kitchen towels. Then add half of them into the tomato sauce.

Frying Aubergines

Whilst the aubergines are frying, cook your pasta according to packet instructions.

When the pasta is al dente, drain and toss into the tomato sauce.

Serve in pasta dishes, decorate each dish with the aubergine slices that have been set aside and grate a generous amount of ricotta or parmiggiano over the top.

Would you like Ricotta or Parmiggiano

The dish will look better decorated with fresh basil leaves.  Because I didn’t have any in the fridge, I used the dried version instead.

The ricotta you see in the pic above is found only in Sicily.  It is sun dried to this bronzy hue and used instead of parmiggiano all over Sicily. They are left to tan in the Sicilian sun by individual ricotta producers in little sheds like this:

Sun Tanning the Ricotta

The chicken wire keeps the flies and insects out.  The stone prevents the family cat from getting to the cheese!

And allora, you have Pasta alla Norma:

Pasta Alla Norma

I love the aubergine/melanzana/brinjal/eggplant/berenjena/茄子 (Qiézi).
Call it in whatever language it comes in, this spongy vegetable has to be cooked just right.  I hate it when it is undercooked, hence tough and bitter.  Brinjal has to be cooked with love and patience and is normally delicious in a stew or curry. Thai Green Curries usually feature aubergines, but small grape shaped ones only found in Asia.

When frying eggplant, you can get away from using too much oil by slow frying. They are also lovely steamed and eaten with a fish sauce/lime juice and chilli dip.

Tell me about your aubergine dishes, kawan kawan.  I would love to hear how you cook them.  Look out for further posts on aubergines Asian style.


Whachya Cookin’ Baby?

When I was young and still believed in the magic of Jim Henson, I used to love the Cookie Monster.  He was my favourite Sesame Street character with a voracious appetite for, guess what, cookies.  ‘Me want cookies,’ was his usual refrain, followed by ‘Om nom nom nom’ in between mouthfuls of food.  He was my pal, my foodie compatriot and I loved him.  I think I may still have my Cookie Monster toy laying somewhere about my parents’s apartment.

Then when I got savvy with the computer, I learnt that cookies in tech talk refers to small files held on one’s computer that stores a modest amount of information belonging to a website or a person that can be accessed by that person or by users of the internet.

I mean who thought to give that name to computer files?  Afterall, cookies are small pieces of dough full of chocolaty/peanut butter/oatmeal  goodness that have been baked in the oven to be consumed as soon as they are cool enough to take a bite into. I suppose as far as metaphors go, then cookies are pieces of dough filled with nutritional information that our cells can access.

SS came home to Paris bearing gifts from London.  She had with her two boxes of cookie cutters that Senga M had sent as a belated present to RN.  They were really an appropriate gift because I’ve been wanting cookie cutters for a while but haven’t been able to locate any, even in the Parisian home ware store, BHV.  I suppose cookies are not really a Frenchy thing.  The French have learnt to eat them from the numerous Americans living in Paris, who have brought with them good old American recipes for cookies and fairy cakes.  I even found a cookie shop in St Germain des Prés one day.

Alphabet and Number Cookie Cutters

Well, as you can expect, the girls wanted to bake cookies immediately.  Today being Bastille Day, a national holiday in France, I thought it was as good a day as any to bake us some cookies.

So off the three of us trotted to the supermarché to buy the ingredients necessary for cooking making.  I know they ought to be the easiest things on earth to make, but kawan kawan, I don’t bake as you may know, if you’ve been following my posts.  Baking brings with it a certain amount of stress because it is all about science and exact measurements.  There is no room for aghak- aghakness.  As many of you may also already know, I tend to cook in this imprecise way, changing the measurements of the ingredients to suit my taste. I consider this letting my creative side reign.  Alas, with baking, one just  cannot do that.  Baking is a science which requires precision and exactitude. I failed chemistry miserably at school.  Casting my mind back, I once passed a chemistry experiment exam because I managed to cause effervescence with a teaspoon of soap powder behind the teacher’s back as the experiment that was suppose to bring about some form of effervescence had flopped.  The liquid in my test tube was as flat as a glass of Evian water, no bubbles there!  So I faked it by adding some soap powder and shaking the test tube vigorously which fortunately for me produced enough bubbles for me to pass the test.

Well, for the love of my girls, whom I have deprived greatly of baking due to my own fears, I decided to bite the bullet and do what good mothers do – bake.

Seeing that Senga M is Scottish, I chose a short bread cookie recipe from the internet.  But to be completely and precisely honest, it was also because the first recipe I found required baking powder and soda, the French equivalent of which I was unable to locate in the local supermarket.  So shortbread that does not require the baking soda and powder it is et voilâ, here’s the recipe:

3/4 cups butter (I used one that is marked doux which roughly translates to slightly salted, I think, since I couldn’t find unsalted butter.  I did not add any salt to this batch of dough since the butter already has salt in it.)

1/4 cups granulated white sugar or 1/2 cups soft brown sugar

2 cups organic flour

1 egg

1/2 cup of milk

3 drops of natural vanilla extract

1 cup of chocolate drops (optional)

Preheat oven to 350° F before mixing in all the ingredients until you form a dough.  Then roll out the dough to about 1/2 – 1/3 inches thick before cutting. Bake them for 20 – 24 minutes.

(Conversion charts on baking can be found on the internet for those who, like me, can’t see the ingredients in cup sizes!)

Here’s me mixing the dough until it has formed into a ball of dough.

Kneading the cookie dough

I added the chocolate drops after this step which is incorrect.  Be warned, kawan kawan, when using chocolate drops, add them before this process, then your dough will be evenly mixed with the chocolate buttons or drops. Unlike this:

A lot of dough and four chocolate buttons

RN loved the mixing in bit, so I let her do some of it whilst I greased the oven tray that has been lined with some grease proof paper.  When the dough has been formed, I sprinkled some flour on the dining table and proceeded to show the girls how to roll out the dough. SS is an expert, having baked on numerous occasions with Daddy Dave.  She stood by to watch and give me instructions.

Rolling out the dough

Here’s RN demonstrating her rolling prowess:

Concentrated rolling in progress

We decided that the cookies ought to be S, R, 1, 3, 5 and 0-shaped:

The cookie cutters

When not taking the photos, SS can be seen disentangling the number 3 from the mother dough.

The Older Sister doing her stuff

The when the dough has all been cut and the baking tray full of numbers and letters, it was time to bake the goodies.

Cookies in the Oven

After exactly 24 minutes, here are the cookies:

The Cookies

The girls reported that they tasted delicious.  I had a bite and indeed they were, if I can say so myself.  They tasted slightly sweet, not sickeningly and the organic flour does make a difference.  They are really shortbread biscuits and not the familiar cookies that are gooey in the middle.  In any case, they are sedap and taste of homebaked goodness.  I am rather proud of them since they actually came out edible!  I’d be hard pushed to get any dinner down RN’s throat tonight for the number of cookies that she has eaten.

YES! I can bake, kawan kawan and I will do more of it in the future. I am thinking oatmeal cookies, peanut butter ones, peanut butter and chocolate cookies and and and white chocolate chip cookies.  Kawan kawan, the curse has been broken because I felt the fear and did it anyway.  From cookies to cakes next.  My sister in Singapore has promised to share a cheese cake recipe, so look out for a future blog post featuring the cheese cake .

Let’s make it a Date night

The Italian asked me out the other day, much to my surprise!  Since the birth of RN, we’ve not had much time or energy to do the couple dating thing.  Of course, we’ve been out a few times, only when people have done the inviting or when we’ve organised a night out with friends, which by the way is really rather rare too! So what a rare treat it was for me when my husband of 6 years asked me out on a date!  I was starting to forget just how romantic he could be!

Well, I’ve been wanting to eat at Joël Robuchon for a long time.  The Italian surprised me by taking me to L’atelier de Joël Robochon  on the Champs-élysées. The dinner reservation was for 9:30 which for me is rather a late one but it was the only time slot available on a Saturday night.  We were early since the babysitter arrived at 8.  Champs-élysées is only a ten minute walk from our appartement so we grabbed the opportunity (or as the French would say, il faut profiter des bons moments) to have an aperitif at the bar next to the L’atelier which is located in the basement of a hip drug store over looking the arc de triomphe.

The summer evening was bright and the sun was still shining even way after 8 pm. However, it was a rather chilly evening for July though and I was glad that I had my Marni overcoat on me.  I dressed for the occasion, as you would expect. I dragged out my 20 year old orange and lime green Christian Lacroix summer dress; the one I wore to a friend’s wedding in Singapore many moons ago and I remember being looked twice over by the folks because this frock is really rather risqué to be seen in at a conservative church wedding.  This dress has a sash that you tie at the back which leaves some flesh showing – trés sexy, if you ask me! But maybe not appropriate for a church wedding, peut-être.

We were seated by the very friendly maitre’d and the Italian was surprised to be placed at the bar because the last time that he was there with 6 other people, they were shown to a room with tables. I quite liked being seated at the bar really because there we were right in the middle of the action.

In the Middle of the Action - the Kitchen island

I could see how the chefs prepared the dishes, all orderly and neatly with no one flapping anxiously like you sometimes see on some cooking programs.  The kitchen consisted of an island where the meat/fish/foie gras is pan fried.  They call this the tepanyaki after the Japanese style of cooking. There are heat lamps which are used to keep the dishes warm whilst they are waiting to be served.  I could also see how the dishes are plated and decorated with one leaf of salad here, a dash of sauce there, a drizzle of oil on the corner and a sprinkle of pepper here and there. The chefs were like artists, I thought, painting beautiful looking dishes with their bare hands.

Here is how our first dish looked – Le Caviar Imperial.  This consisted of a velvety chilled soup made of sweet corn accompanied by a jelly of beef stock and topped with crispy golden breadcrumbs.  I really loved this soup and the adjectives that were used to describe the ingredients, for example, the beef jelly was described as la geléé tremblotante which means, quivering jelly. It rather resembles the way the Chinese would describe their kung fu strokes or dishes – “fist of the crowning crane” or “buddha jumps over the wall soup”.

This soup was refreshing and strangely odd at the same time because I didn’t expect how chilled and sweet it actually was.  The quivering gelatinous beef stock married well with the sweet soup, leaving a mélange of sucrée/salée on one’s tongue, a taste sensation that the French absolutely love. The caviar which crowns a dollop of créme frâiche added a savoury crunchiness on the bite when combined with the thick sweet corn soup. This crunchy goodness was further enhanced by the 3 croûtons purposefully placed inches apart to decorate the soup ensemble.

Le Caviar Imperial

Our next dish was named Le Crabe which as the name suggests consisted of a portion of minced white crab meat accompanied by a bunch of crunchy French green beans. The plate is decorated with 3 dollops of wasabi flavoured sauce and a path of minced boiled eggs.

Le Crabe

A sliver of parmiggiano sits by the side of the haricots verts and this when eaten with the sliver of radish was absolutely delicious.  Just look at the chapeâu shaped potato crisp lending this dish a picture perfect perfection. It looked almost too good to be eaten.  But no regrets there – the dish also tasted as good as it looked – perfect.

La Girolle came soon after.  This is again another absolutely delightful dish. The pan fried mushrooms were served in a martini shaped glass sitting atop a frothy parsley mousse.

La Girolle

Now, this has to be my favourite dish – Le Foie Gras. This is a thick piece of pan fried  foie gras de canard served with 2 poached apricot halves and fresh almonds.  The combination of the warm  foie gras and apricots were simply sublime.  Then take a bite of the fresh almonds and you are at once in food heaven. If you’ve never tried fresh almonds before, you must! The oleaginous aftertaste of the almonds when masticated leaves you coming back for more.

Le Foie Gras

After this highlight, the next dish had much to live up to.  Le Bar was rather unexciting for me, malheureusement.  I thought that the sea bass, although very fresh, was a little on the bland side.  I am not a fan of pea soup so this dish didn’t do very much for me. The Italian felt the same way.

Le Bar

Next was a choice between the lamb  or la caille which is a type of small bird. I chose l’agneau de lait since the Italian had the bird.  The lamb cutlets were minuscule and sat in a circle enclosing a sprig of thyme and a clove of roasted garlic. These were really baby lamb chops as suggested by the name l’agneau de lait– milk lamb.  So the meat was sweet and tender with no traces of lamb at all.

L'agneau de Lait

We had two servings of dessert which I thought was one too many.  But still, we persevered and ate them even though by then both of us were really quite full. Dessert number one is aptly named le mango-mango.

Le Mango-Mango

Look, they even had a special Perspex dish made for serving this sweet.  The dessert was principally a dressed up mango mousse with a coulis of yellow fruits. I couldn’t make out what the ‘fruits jaunes’ were but I wasn’t thrilled by this dish. I thought it was very well plated and a delight to the eye more than the tongue.  I especially liked the sprig of gold leave covered chocolate that stood in for a fruit stem sitting in the scoop of mango sorbet made to look like a peach or apricot.

The second dessert – Habillé Rouge– was a meringue enrobed in a gold dusted red hue sitting on an island of wild strawberries surrounded by a caramel chocolate sauce. The crimson meringue resembled a toadstool usually found in the woods, only a prettier one.  I loved the strawberry flavoured chocolate twirl that sat on the left side of the dessert bowl.  If you’ve never had wild strawberries before, you have to try them.  They are usually hand picked and have a very intense strawberriness to their taste.  I love them immensely accompanied by chocolate.

Habillé Rouge

We’ve come full circle in terms of the colour theme at Robuchon.  As soon as we had  placed our order for the dégustation menu and our bottle of wine, we were served an amuse-bouche that consisted of a gazpacho of cherries.  It was very appetite whetting, if it did anything by way of amusing my mouth, which is the principal function of the amuse-bouche.

L'amuse Bouche

I love this L’atelier, kawan kawan.  It is really aptly named because the kitchen is opened planned where customers can see the chefs at work.  This is a fine example of a workshop and a wonderfully romantic place to go on a date night.

Egging You On!

I love how versatile eggs are, kawan kawan! I love it that  you can do almost anything and everything with eggs.

Paintings dating as far back as the 1st century still exist because they were painted with an egg tempera, making them exceedingly long lasting.  Egg tempera was a primary method of painting until after the 1500s before the invention of oil paints which then replaced and superseded egg tempera paintings.

The whites of eggs when smeared generously over a baby’s bottom act as a natural barrier that can prevent nappy rash. How cool is that?  No need for sudocream, or whatever barrier creams out there.

Eggs also make very nourishing face masks.  Egg whites are known to cleanse, exfoliate and tighten your pores whilst the yolks moisturise, nourish and smooth your skin.

A friend of mine swears by her egg yolk hair mask, which she says conditions her long blond tresses and keeps her highlights looking fresh.

Beat an egg in a metal bowl and dip your chicken juliennes in them before coating with breadcrumbs or crumbed cornflakes.  The beaten egg will bind the meat to the crumbs easily.

Wake up late on a Sunday morning, children/husband/household pets permitting, slip on something easy, like a pair of joggers and an old T-shirt and put on your best super large sunglasses, take a stroll down to the nearest bistro/café/pub, newspaper in hand, just in time for a brunch of Eggs Benedict or Eggs Florentine. If in London, ask for a side order of hash browns, or extra strips of bacon, read your paper in between mouthfuls of runny poached eggs soaked in Hollandaise sauce.  If in Paris, take the eggs as they come, don’t complain if they’re not runny enough or you’ll get the perfunctory “C’est comme ça!”, forget about a side of order of bacon because no side dish of bacon exists, relax and read your  Le Figaro, if you understand enough French and be thankful that you can even find something close to Eggs Benedict in the City of Light.

Sunday Brunch

Have you tried a type of egg cooked in an aromatic liquorice sauce made with green tea and soya sauce infused with star anise?  This is called tea eggs and is eaten widely as a snack food in China, Taiwan and some parts of SE Asia.  These eggs can be eaten hot or cold and is simply delish – sedap!

Here’s the recipe:

Boil 6 – 8 eggs in slightly salted water until cooked thoroughly and set aside. When cooled, tap lightly and crack the egg shells without removing them.

The sauce:

3 cups of water

2 tbsp dark soya sauce

2 tsp of green tea leaves

1/4 tsp of granulated white sugar

1 tsp of salt

2 – 3 star anise

1 stick of cinnamon

2 pieces of dried Mandarin peel (optional)

Put all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to boil.  Then place the cracked eggs into the liquid which should be high enough to cover all the eggs.  Simmer for up to 2 hours, adding water when necessary.  There should still be liquid left in the saucepan when the 2 hours are up.  To get a more intense flavour, it is advisable to simmer the eggs for longer than 2 hours, adding water  as you see fit.

Before eating your egg, remove the cracked shell, you’ll see before you a dappled hard boiled egg, streaked where the shells were cracked with the soya sauce that had been stewing the eggs.  Savour the hints of liquorice from the star anise and let the slight taste of cinnamon linger on your tongue.  This eggy snack can be devoured in two morsels and trust me, you’ll want another.  They taste even better the next day too.

Tea Eggs

A nest of egg feathers sitting atop a bed of garlic fried rice looks picture perfect.  I used a crêpe pan to ensure that my omelette is paper thin.  It only took a minute on each side before the omelette was done.  Then with a sharp knife, I sliced the omelette into feathery strips and sprinkled them over the rice. Et voilâ!

Egg Feathers atop Garlic Fried Rice

The Japanese steamed egg dish called chawanmushi is a delight.  It glides down your throat without making a fuss and leaves in your mouth the rest of the ingredients to be masticated and savoured.  This dish is a really tasty winning dish to wean your baby into solids.  I did for both my girls and they loved it!

Share your egg recipes with me, kawan kawan.  I would love to know what you do with your eggs.