Lunch at Ralph’s


I was invited to lunch at Ralph’s on Thursday, kawan kawan.  It was really Erica J’s idea and she organised a ladies luncheon for a bevy of 9 beauties in the courtyard of Le restaurant Ralph Lauren.  Rather, it was really a bevy of 10 beauties, if I count little Sara J who was fast asleep in her poussette so her mama could eat.  Now, that is a well trained baby!  Hmm, this makes me wonder what I did wrong as a mom when my girls were little.  SS is too old now (she’s 13 going on 14) for me to remember what she did when she was 10 months old at lunch hour when we were out and about. I have lost plenty of brain cells since having 2 children. RN was mon pire cauchmar! She was a nightmare to take out because not only would she require lots of attention (I mean 110 %), she would not sit in her poussette and let me get on with my meal.  I would be juggling baby in one arm and trying to cut up my meat with a fork in the other hand.  Not an easy feat, let me tell ya!  It came to a point when the Italian had to cut my meat up for me so that I could juggle baby in one arm and stab said meat with the fork in the other hand.  It was fine when RN was a little baby and asleep or feeding at my boobs most of the time while I ate. I figured she had to eat too so what better than direct transfusion of vitamins and minerals from my mouth to the breast milk  and to her. Things got hairy when she started to be more active and required even more attention. It was then that I really had to juggle or rather jiggle her up and down with one arm and still try to feed myself with the one free hand I had.

I had to play this role of one-arm bandit for some time until RN learnt to sit in her highchair and play with the pieces of meat or veg we threw at her.  It was such a relief to be able to eat normally again – with two hands.  During those one-arm-bandit days, I learnt to fully appreciate the fact that I have two healthy limbs on my upper body and their functions.  Imagine trying to change nappies with only one hand?

Anyway, I digress…..Excusez-moi!

Back to lunching at Ralph’s.  We were all so excited, especially me!  I’ve never dined at Ralph’s before although I’ve heard so much about it.  Being unprecedentedly warm for November, we were able to dine al fresco.  This is not something I would do usually in November.  Je préfère être à l’intérieur  at this time of the year.  So  I positioned myself under the heat lamp next to Christine B. I figured and hedged my bets that between the sunny and warm personality of Christine B and the heat lamp, I would be cosy and all warmed up.

We perused the menu between sips of red wine (Californian) and munchies of nuts and fried olives.  Now, these wine nuts and olives do top all wine nuts and olives.  The nuts which consisted of a mixture of walnuts, almonds, pecans, peanuts and hazelnuts, I seem to remember, were roasted in olive oil and rosemary, served warm and garnished with salt crystals. They were truly deeee-licious!  I heard that the Barefoot Contessa has a recipe for this.  I will have to check it out.

The wine nuts I went nutty about

It was a reasonably well selected menu with a variety of choices from starters to desserts.  The beef is airflown from America, apparently from Ralph’s own ranch.  I was very tempted by the steak and frites American style but the prices held me back.  60€ for a steak is just way too much to pay.  I just couldn’t justify the cost. I mean, what would the Italian say to that?  To him, les vaches are les vaches, whether they graze on grass in Ralph’s ranch in America or l’herbe in La Belle France!  As a compromise, I had the cheese burger instead which was good but not great!  I’m glad I didn’t order the steak then.

But I really want to tell you about 2 starters that caused a ripple of delight in my stomach.  Firstly, the shrimps with Montauk sauce.

Shrimp Cocktail with Red Sauce

I had to ask what Montauk sauce was, of course.  It was really a simple tomato base sauce, kind of a cross between ketchup and barbecue sauce. I know the Americans are as famous for their sauces as the French and personally I like cocktail and thousand island sauces.

What wowed me were the prawns (as we call them in England and Singapore). The shrimps that Americans refer to are really not shrimps as I know them to be. Shrimps are tiny little prawns whereas prawns are huge shrimps.  That’s when things get lost in translation here and we are both speaking English…..nevermind when you have to translate shrimps into crevettes and prawns into gambas….and at the end of the day, it is all a matter of size.  Where was I again?

Right, shrimp cocktail with Montauk sauce.  The shrimps were truly mums! They were cooked just right, therefore firm and crunchy and  served chilled on a bed of crushed ice.  They went very well with the Montauk.  They were such large shrimps that after 3 of them, I was actually rather full. Then again, I had plenty of delicious rosemary infused nuts and fried olives before.

Christine B shared the Sante Fe soup with her friend who was visiting from America.  Now, this soup is simply out of this world.  What was even more amazing was that in a truly American restaurant, the concept of sharing is very well understood.  The waiter served this bowl of soup portioned out in 2 small bowls, one for Christine B and the other for her friend. (The said waiter must be American trained!)  I was that impressed that I forgot to take a picture of it. Actually, I was that impressed that I was even thinking that these American visitors had better not get used to this.  It ain’t gonna happen in a French bistro, I betchya!

So, on the record, and I have proclaimed, if you ever want to share a bowl of soup properly, go to Ralph’s. No such thing as passing over the bowl with the last few spoonfuls to your friend when it’s her turn.  It is proper sharing here with the soup portioned out in two separate bowls.  There, I know you get it now…. I had to reiterate this for my own sake!  The same thing works for the burger too….. half a burger each, properly served in two separate plates….

Katie K had the Sante Fe soup too. I had asked if she wanted to share it with me but I guess she thought that it involved passing over the plate after a few spoonfuls and considered it too cumbersome to do so. She had her own!  Katie, although being American and after having lived in Paris for the past year, had simply forgotten what service really is.  I bet she was just as wowed by the separate soup bowls as I was.   Here’s her soup:

The Sante Fe Soup

The Sante Fe soup is really a bean soup made from black beans, red and pinto beans.  There are several versions of this soup but the main ingredients are these black beans that one can only find in America. The original recipe (or those that I’ve researched anyway) has ground beef in.  I guess, the vegetarians can remove that.  Ralph’s version of this New Mexican dish is served with a ball of avocado stuffed with cheddar cheese in its hollow in a base of chopped tomatoes and olive oil.  I really loved this soup.  Christine B was kind enough to let me have more than 3 spoonfuls and Katie K kindly took a picture of her version.

I’ll be making this soup, kawan kawan in the near future.  If I can’t find black beans (and they are not black eyed beans either) I may have to find me a substitute.  Kawan kawan, do any of you know what beans I can substitute for the black ones?

Ralph Lauren

173 Boulevard Saint-Germain
Paris
01 44 77 76 00

 

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Frying the Frikadeller


Kawan kawan, I’ve just returned from a visit to Denmark, where SS learnt about Viking warships and RN had a time of her life being pounced on by a French bulldog.  The said dog belongs to friends who live in Denmark.  The said dog is so happy to be in the company of RN, a little person that he couldn’t help but pounce on her every now and then.  On his hind legs, he comes to almost the same height as RN and he’s not even a big dog.  RN is a little parcel, all good and full of surprises!

In the Land of Danes, I learnt about love and family and the camaraderie of good friends.  I also learnt to make meatballs, Danish way, with glasses of red wine in between.  This recipe was passed down from Mr T’s mother to him.  She in turn learnt it from her mother who in turn learnt it from hers. Hence, if you go down far enough in the matriarchal lineage of meatball recipes, you will see a long line of Viking women guarding and passing down their recipes of frikadeller with pride.  Danish meatballs is as perfunctory as Bolognese sauce or ragù.  And I don’t mean this in a demeaning way, for anything that is made at home is done out of love, even dishes as easy as  frikadeller or ragù.  Frikadeller is something a Danish mother makes when there is a packet of mince and a couple onions lying about the house. An Italian mother would make ragù similarly if said mince and onions are about the house. She will cook and stir a pot of ragù for hours, a meat sauce she will make on a daily basis and perhaps refrigerate what’s leftover for use on another occasion.  Each Danish family has their version of frikadeller as each Italian household has its own version of ragù.

When asked what I’d like to sample in Denmark, I asked for meatballs since I’ve heard so much about Scandinavian meatballs on other occasions.  On visits to Ikea, these are my favourite things to have at their café.  I would purchase a pack or two of their frozen Swedish meatballs for emergency.  They are such good things to have in the freezer when little tykes come to play and stay for dinner.

Mr T who hails from a pure Viking line does not have any sisters.  So his mother who also comes from a matriarchal lineage of Viking women, passed her recipe down to him. He has guarded it with pride until my visit when he passed it to me. I have no claims to Viking blood except having been previously married to an Englishman whose daughter I bore, who has claims of Viking ancestry. If you ask SS, she’ll tell you that she is technically a quarter Viking!  So that makes me technically the keeper of some Viking blood which makes me technically eligible for a good frikadeller recipe, in my books!

Mr T’s version of frikadeller consists of a mélange of pork and veal mince, mixed together with 2 grated onions, a clove of minced garlic and an egg to bind the meat mixture. The tear drop meat balls, shaped by two soup spoons, are then fried in butter until browned and well done.

My version consists of:

500g of minced veal

2 white onions, grated

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1/2 tbsp of chives, finely chopped

3-4 fistfuls of oatmeal (I wear size 7 gloves, so take your measurements from there, kawan kawan)

1/2 tbsp of parsley, finely chopped

3 tbsp of créme fluide or milk

1 egg

salt and pepper to taste

I’ve never grated onions before as I’ve never had use for onions in this way.  Let me tell you this, kawan kawan, grating onions cause just as much tears as chopping and slicing them.  I was in floods of tears by the time those two onions were grated.  Even RN commented on how sad I was.  Then she saw the onions and nodded her sage little head in comprehension and promptly left the kitchen. Wise little soul!

Bowl of Grated Sadness

That done, I minced the garlic and added them to the bowl of minced veal that had already been seasoned with salt and pepper.

Garlic and Veal

The grated onions are then added into this bowl, juice and all, with the herbs and oatmeal.  The latter ingredient is very important in frikadeller as this will help keep the meat moist and succulent.

The other ingredients!

Using a kneading motion, make sure that the meat is massaged well with all the ingredients mentioned.

The well massaged veal

In a shallow frying pan, heat up some butter.  Shape the meat mixture into tear drops with two soup spoons and place them one by one gently into the frying pan. Butter browns meat beautifully and once the meatballs have been browned on one side, turn them over gently, trying not to break them.  You will know when the meatballs are done when they are firm and no longer have the tendency to break.

I had to do mine in two batches.  So lots of butter later, and if you’ve done them right, your frikadeller should look like this:

Frikadeller

I think I may have passed the frikadeller test.  But that is not for me to say, of course.  I am waiting for Mr T to comment, he being the true Viking and all.  But having said that, the Italian wolfed his down as did the girls.  Man, those friggin’ frikadellers were mums (yums in Danish)!

Cooking Thai with Jazz


Jazz has to be the most relaxing music to my ears next to Classical.  I often cook with Wynton Marsalis blowing his trumpet in the background or with Mozart’s ephemeral tunes floating into the kitchen, sometimes Maria Callas sings her arias keeping me company.

But kawan kawan, I’ve never cooked Thai with Jazz before, until I met Kochapan, that is.  She is one very jazzy (excuse the pun) Thai cook and teacher.  I had the pleasure of joining some Asian women on a Thai cooking experience in the humble abode of Kochapan M.  Her home is in the 18th arrondissement with easy access to not one but 4 Asian supermarkets.  How lucky is that?  For me to get my Asian supplies, I have to traipse all the to the 13th and back with shopping trolley and bags of Chinese greens by métro!  That is not an easy feat kawan kawan, trust me!  Bottles of soya sauce, fish sauce and sesame oil, not to forget, oyster sauce all weigh quite a bit if you are like me and cannot stop at 4 of each!  I buy in bulk, my friends, economies of scales and all that, plus I don’t have to go back to the 13th again until I run out of supplies, and at the rate that I stock up, it’s about every 6 months or so, it seems, or until I fancy fresher stuff like bak choy, kai lan and garlic shoots.

I digress, back to cooking Thai with Jazz.  Well, I signed up with AWAP for this course, organised by our very own efficient and knowledgable Shella M.  We met at the métro Marx Dormoy by the MacDonalds, all 6 ladies in anticipation of learning how to cook Phad Thai, Saté Kai and Som Tam, all dishes that we order and eat with relish in Thai restos in Paris and abroad.

Kochapan takes us on a tour of her arrondissement, showing us the Asian markets where she buys her supplies for her home and also for her cookery school.  I learnt a few new vegetables that day, discovering the stem of the lotus flower that Thai people add into their curries because its spongy flesh soaks up the sauce and becomes delectable.  But cleaning and washing this plant is difficile, cautioned Kochapan. I like it that in Asia, due to many reasons and one of them being economics, Asian people eat everything.  Who would have thought of eating the stem of the lotus flower? And bamboo shoots?  Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

At her beautiful spa like appartement, Kochapan appears, from behind a typically Thai crafted wooden door that I thought was only decorative, in her uniform.  She is wearing the generic Thai costume of somebody from central Thailand.  Her movements are graceful and elegant.

Our Host and Teacher

She gestures us to the living room where we are offered a Thai coconut, chilled with a decorative flower sitting atop a black olive.  I was in heaven, kawan kawan.  I had no desire to move back to Asia anymore.  I mentally took note that Kochapan’s husband is a French architect and can easily create this Asian haven for me, if I wish it to be, and abracadabra, I’m back in SE Asia.  I have to run that pass the Italian, for sure. We’d save tons of money on our yearly pilgrimage back to the East, if only I had an appartement like Kochapan.  Oh, and did I mention that she has a sauna too?  She’s working on the next part of her business plan where she’ll be offering a spa package including Thai massage, sauna and followed by a lunch of Thai inspired health food. You’ve heard it first from me, kawan kawan!

Welcome Drink

I’m so excited to be making Phad Thai.  This national dish of Thailand is eaten worldwide and has become the symbol of Thai cuisine.  It was first introduced and made popular by Thailand’s Prime Minister, Luang Phibunsongkhram, in his reign during the second World War.  He wanted to reduce rice consumption amongst the people of Thailand and to encourage a healthy but economical way of eating.  Phad Thai is a simple noodle dish made mainly with bean sprouts, tofu and eggs.  As food was rationed during the war, this dish provided ordinary families with a cheap and healthy option.  Through the years, this dish has been de-constructed, re-invented and spiced up with other ingredients like prawns and chicken.

We had the jazzed up version of Phad Thai at Kochapan’s.  Prawns seasoned first in garlic, soya sauce and olive oil were added, after being separately cooked, over the bed of noodles.

We each took turns to chop, mince, pound and cut the ingredients for the Phad Thai, working with Jazz tunes emanating from her CD player. There seems to be a lot of work that goes into this dish.  But the Jazz helped us relax and the chin wagging that went on whilst we all cooked created an ambience of community and sisterhood amongst us 6 Asian ladies.  We shared anecdotes from our own countries, families and cultures – one Asian/Canadian, one Filipina/Canadian, one Filipina, 2 Koreans and a Singaporean with our Thai host.

Phad Thai Sauce:

1 tbsp red onions slices

2 tomatoes

2 tbsp crushed roasted peanuts

2 tbsp tamarind juice (this is made with tamarind fruit paste that you can buy in any Asian supermarket.  Soak a handful of this paste in warm water which will become tamarind juice)

1/2 tbsp of sugar

1/2 tbsp of soya sauce

Method: Sauté the red onions and tomatoes, then mix everything in the food processor until smooth.

Thai Salted Radish

Phad Thai ingredients:

3 tbsp red onions chopped

1 piece of hard tofu, cubed

1 tbsp of salted radish, chopped. (Buy the Thai version as it is a little more sweet than salted)

1/2 pack of rice noodles.  (I buy the thicker version, the next size up from vermicelles, which are very thin rice noodles)

1 tbsp of dried shrimps, already soaked in warm water for 10 minutes

10 pieces of fresh king prawns seasoned in garlic and oil, cooked separately

2 tbsp sliced carrots

3 tbsp spring onions and chinese chives, all cut into 1 inch length

2 tbsp of crushed roasted peanuts

2 cups of bean sprouts

1/2 tbsp of garlic minced

1/2 tbsp of soya sauce

1 egg

Phad Thai ingredients

method: In a wok or frying pan on high heat, fry the red onions, followed soon after by the tofu pieces until slightly brown on each side; lastly, add the minced radish and fry some more.

In a pot of boiling water, add the noodles for about 1 minute, quickly removing them with a slotted spoon to be added directly into the mixture of red onion, tofu and salted radish.

Add 2 – 3 tbsp of Phad Thai sauce whilst mixing the noodles, making sure that the they are thoroughly coated in the sauce.

Crack an egg and add into the pan on one side. Then mix it into the noodles and the rest of the ingredients already in the pan.

Add the dried shrimps, spring onions and Chinese chives  and carrots and stir fry for 5 minutes, giving everything a good stir.

Add bean sprouts and crushed peanuts, stir fry for another 2 minutes.

Place Phad Thai in a serving dish and dress with pre-prepared king prawns and its juices to be eaten immediately with a fresh sprinkling of peanut, fresh bean sprouts and a squeeze of  lime or lemon juice.

Phad Thai with King Prawns

This can also be served with fresh cut chillis in nam plaa.

The accompaniment

And whilst you’re at it, you can also carve roses from firm tomatoes and decorate your personal dishes with them.

Rosettes for you?

Now that I can cook Phad Thai, kawan kawan, I don’t have to order it at Thai restaurants anymore.  I can now order other types of Thai noodle dishes instead. My eating weltanshauung will soon be expanded.  That keeps me happy, my friends, what about you?

aRoÏ Personalised Thaï Cooking

http://www.aroi-thaicooking.com

What is your vice?


Kawan kawan, the three cooking mamas are back in full force, this time with a new addition, GWF, otherwise known as Zen Mama.  We cooked a very simple dish from Singapore, chosen by yours truly.  This dish is called Gambling Rice and is adapted from a recipe by fellow Singaporean, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan of “Tiger in the Kitchen” fame.  The story goes that Tan’s grandmother who used to run a gambling den in her very own home invented this dish to keep her patrons gambling.

Gambling , a very Chinese past-time, is indeed very rife in post-colonial Singapore and Malaysia.  Gambling dens, although illegal, were found in almost every nook and corner of 1950s Singapore.  These dens were mostly run by matriarchs, eager to make some money on the side while their husbands toiled away as coolies, carrying sacks of rice and other goods on their bare sunburnt backs to and from the platform to the godowns found along the Singapore river.

Today, this river is a site for another sort of trade – restaurants and nightclubs. The godowns which used to store goods have been converted into trendy restaurants and nightclubs and have become a tourist hotspot.

Two years ago while on holiday in Singapore, I had the opportunity to stay in one of the 2 casino hotels that was recently opened in the city-state.  The Marina Bay Sands boasts of a SkyPark, 57 stories high where you can swim in a swimming pool the whole length of the hotel against the skyline of Singapore.  The observation deck boasts of views of the Singapore River, Sentosa Island and some other very famous sights of the city.  The view was indeed spectacular, kawan kawan, and the swim in the pool was fantastic.

With the opening of the Marina Bay Sands and the Resort World Sentosa (both since 2010), we see the official opening of Singapore’s first casinos, recognised and endorsed by the government of Singapore.  The history of legalizing gambling in Singapore has been a fraudulent one.  In 1823, it was briefly legalized in the then British colonised Singapore but this led to gambling addiction and the rate of criminality soared which led to gambling being made illegal once more within the next three years.  It is not without much debate and rancour that arose amongst the citizens of Singapore regarding the building of casinos before these casino hotels were opened.   Many groups in the city-state like the muslims and christians stood up against the legalizing of gambling in this form.  As a result, the government has levied a tax/fee on any Singaporean entering the casinos in an attempt to deter some people from this vice.  If you were a Singaporean citizen the fee to enter any of the two casinos is S$ 100 per entry and you would not be allowed to take out any credit facilities otherwise extended to non-Singpoareans.

Like Tan’s grandmother who understood that gamblers cannot bet on empty stomachs, these casino hotels have 24 hour restaurants or snack bars serving their die-hard patrons who are willing to fork out huge sums of money in the hope of making more.

Everyone has a vice, I suppose.  For some people, it is gambling, others, smoking and still some others, it may be shopping.  Whatever the case, all vices somehow involve an exchange of money, in my opinion.

Tan’s grandmother fed her gamblers rice in order to facilitate and make it easier for her patrons to part with their money so that her own pockets could be lined.  I say, “What a way to make money, Madame!”  This dish is also so easy to prepare.

Follow this link to her recipe:

Whilst preparing the ingredients, I could see the many variations this dish could take.  Instead of pork, chicken can be added.  Why not try duck too?  The dried shrimps could be substituted with fresh prawns.  Cabbage is a great vegetable for this dish so I wouldn’t substitute this at all.  And, if you are like me, without a rice cooker big enough for the proportions required for this recipe, you can use a cast iron pot or a clay pot.

Here’s my own version of this dish: I used already cooked belly pork , siew yok, instead.  I removed the crackling and diced up the meat into 1 cm cubes.  The heibi (har mai in Cantonese) or dried shrimps is a a typical condiment in SE Asian cooking.  It is used to make stock for soups or added into bland vegetables, like cabbage to enhance its flavour.  Instead of these dried shrimps which has a very distinct aroma of its own, one can also use dried scallops.

Dried Shrimps

The dried ingredients like the chinese mushrooms and fungus and dried shrimps had to be soaked in warm water first.  The mushrooms needed to be re-hydrated before being sliced into thin strips and the shrimps had to be softened before being roughly chopped into smaller pieces.

Soaking the dried goods

The bowl at the far end is the siew yok that I had cubed.  I discarded some of the crackling but kept about a handful for flavouring.

These ingredients then had to be fried separately starting with the shallots.  This flavours the oil for the next batch of ingredients like the pork and heibi.  But kawan kawan, I imagined myself the matriarch of an illicit gambling den, having to feed my gamblers asap with whatever I had in my pantry so that they would stay on gambling into the wee hours of the morning.  Did I have time to fry the shallots, remove them with a slotted spoon, put aside but leave as much oil as possible in the frying pan before frying the pork, browning it only to remove the meat to do the next batch of something?  Of course not, kawan kawan! My hungry gamblers had to be fed.  The girls and the Italian had the honour of playing the parts of my hungry gamblers. So a matriarch with hungry gamblers has to do what a matriarch with hungry gamblers has to do – fry all the ingredients at once.

RN came into the kitchen scrounging up her nose for the smell of the dried shrimps.  You’ve been warned kawan kawan, they smell to high heaven if you’re not used to aromas from a SE Asian kitchen.

But when fried altogether, the smell of these tiny prawns disappear and become mixed into the general aromas of cooking.

All the ingredients happily mixing together

The cabbage was added last.  The recipe called for soaking the shredded cabbage leaves in water before frying.  I just washed mine in a colander and allowed to stand before adding the moist leaves into the wok.

Now add the greens

These greens were then stir fried for a couple of minutes until a little wilted. Don’t over-cook the cabbage as the last part of the recipe says that the ingredients will have to be added into the rice cooker/claypot/le creuset cast iron pot with the uncooked rice and then cooked some more until the rice is done.

I used my le creuset cast iron pot because my rice cooker was pathetically too small for the recipe amount.  I would have liked to use a claypot but induction stoves don’t make for good claypot using.  So there, I had my answer and the le creuset which doubled up as automatic rice cooker and claypot.  If you were to use a claypot, a crust of burnt rice will form at the base of your claypot which is very normal. When serving from a claypot, you just have to be careful not to scrap the bottom too much.  WIth the le creuset, I had my crust of burnt rice too. This actually reminded me so much of home because when The Mother cooks her version of this type of rice dish she calls claypot rice, we actually loved scraping the bottom to get pieces of burnt rice out – it’s crunchy texture and slightly bitter aftertaste added another depth to our family dining experience.

My le creuset Rice

This dish is really a very Teochew one.  Tan’s grandmother, like my mine and my mother all come from the same province in China.  The ingredients for this dish are so typical in a Teochew household.  They are also ingredients that have long shelf lives so can be kept in the pantry for a rainy day.  Cabbage keeps for a quite a good time in the fridge.  I have a feeling that this dish was “invented” by Tan’s grandma out of necessity.  I have great admiration for such women.  Tan tells the story of her grandmother in her book ” A Tiger in  the Kitchen”.  You can follow her and read about her adventures in her blog.  Scroll down and find her on my blogroll. She is a fellow migrant soul and a wonderfully kind person.  I know that because she is friends with my baby sister which links Cheryl and I together in an uncanny way. I am truly proud of this fellow Singaporean who followed her heart and wrote a book about growing up in Singapore, sharing stories and anecdotes (some very private ones) of her extended family.

Serve the rice immediately with any type of Asian Chilli sauce.  I served mine with papa’s “secret” chilli sauce.  Just so you know, the kids loved it and the Italian even had a second helping.  Well, that’s always a good sign when an Italian digs into a Teochew risotto!  Marco Polo, grazie!

Gambling Rice - Pua Kiew Bng

When Spaces become Places


Kawan kawan, today begins the first of a series of 6 sessions of a writing course that I enrolled in.  This course is aptly named “The Migrant Soul”.  “What is a migrant soul?” you ask.  Well, it is someone who, like me, has been uprooted from their cultures, countries and homes, and has to find within a different culture and country their own cultures, make a home in yet another country – a home away from home – and to find a place in a space where they are displaced.

Displacement has been a recurring word in my psyche of late.  Being here in the City of Light brought this sense of un-belonging to the forefront yet again.  I thought that I had found a home, a place I could call home at least, in London after having lived there for a good part of 17 years out of the 20 that I’ve passed in England.  Just when I was beginning to feel comfortable, the Italian took on a job that relocated us to Paris.  It was not entirely his fault, of course as I had been making noise his way of my desire to move out of London.  The only problem was – WHERE?

Singapore had stopped being a place I call home for a long time.  In fact, every year that I return during the summer vacation with my entourage of 3 suitcases and 2 infants (ok, one teenager and one child), I feel less and less at home there. This city state where I grew up is fast becoming another faceless city to me.  A geographical location where I stop off en-route to Europe, a continent I must call home.

Home is where the heart is, many would have heard said.  Home is where I feel a sense of belonging, is what I penned today on a sheet of lined paper during a brainstorming moment in the course.  I once read a quote that goes something like this: there are two kinds of people in this world, those who want to go home and those who don’t.

When I was younger and fancying myself a groupie with no fixed abode, I never wanted to go home! Now that I’ve passed that very important milestone in a woman’s live, I’m beginning to wonder where is my home?

Is home a house, a physical space that one can touch, feel, a place made of brick and mortar?  Is home where the heart is?  Really? During my stint working in the travel industry, home was where I could lay my head, and this was usually in a posh hotel somewhere half way across the world from Singapore.  I lived out of a suitcase for a good part of almost 5 years.  Each new destination brought a new adventure and I was very fastidious about making the hotel room a space of my own.  The first thing I’d do was to lay out all my bottles of creams on the vanity area in the bathroom, then I would put my slippers in place and all the towels in a neat pile, redecorating the room a little so that I could claim it as my space.  This became a ritual, a habit of mine as soon as the door to the hotel room shut behind me.  It didn’t matter how jet-lagged I was, I would go through the motions of setting out the creams, piling up the towels and putting on my slippers before jumping into the shower and straight to bed or dinner or whatever it was that I had to do upon landing in a new city…..

This year back in Singapore,  I wanted to evoke a sense of home.  To do this, I needed an accomplice – someone who knew Singapore well.  I had the privilege of dining with an old friend, George G.  I wanted to go down food memory lane, so he obliged and took me to the East Coast, to his favourite joint for kon low mien. This, kawan kawan is a typically Cantonese dish of boiled egg noodles tossed in a mixture of soya sauce, pork fat and chilli.  Atop the mound of noodles would be slivers of char siu roast pork and blanched choy sum (a type of Chinese green).  A bowl of chicken soup with wan tons would be served on the side.

Wan Ton Noodles

I remember eating this dish as a child on wooden stools next to big monsoon drains where the chef is an old man in a torn cotton singlet behind a mobile cart tossing noodles and shouting out orders to his assistant, usually his wife or elder child, for the noodles to be served.  For appetisers, we would be given a dish of pork crackling so crunchy and oozing with such flavour that it was so hard to stop reaching for another morsel with my chopsticks.  One could also munch on sliced pickled green chillies that have been soaked in brine and sugar to whet one’s appetite.   The grand finalé is of course the dish itself…. happy sounds of slurping would be heard and sighs of content uttered from around our table.  Daddy likes his noodles kiew kiew as we say in Hokkien, or al dente, as they say in Italy. Marco Polo must’ve had a part to play there, methinks!

This dish is no longer served as I remember it.  A spate of campaigns to encourage healthy eating habits in Singapore sparked off an abhorrence of pork crackling.  One can ask for onion oil instead of pork fat these days, I was told.

Kawan kawan, what is it that makes your space a place?  For me, it will always be something food related.

How many sides are there to an Apple?


An inspirational man has recently left us, kawan kawan.  I assume everyone knows who he is.  Switching on my Apple computer on that sad day, the image of Steve Jobs in his iconic black polo and metal framed spectacles, with the years 1955- 2011 caught my eye.  He was only 56. But in his short life, he has revolutionised how the world would use the computer, listen to music, talk to friends and family and watch movies.  True to his philosophy, his obituary page on the Apple site only had his picture and the years of his birth and death.  A picture speaks a thousand words, Jobs would have told you.

This adage and concept is what made Apple so user friendly even amongst toddlers.  Ask my 5 year old how to get into any Application on my iphone and she’ll tap the relevant image.

There are very few inspirational people in this world that really make a difference.  I guess it is in the différence that make these people inspirational.

I also really admire Nigel Slater.  Slater influenced how British ate and still eat. He even made food sexy.  Toast, the movie, starring Helena Bonham Carter as Slater’s step-mother and arch rival, depicts his life story. Here, watch the trailer:

Today’s post isn’t about food, kawan kawan.  I will make this an exception. Today’s post is about sharing my sadness that one very important man has passed.  I would like to share with you a speech he made to students at Stanford University.

I am so inspired by this man who lived every day of his life as if it were his last. What a way to live because then every moment is precious, every moment is lived in love and every moment in inspiration.

I would like to make a toast to both Jobs and Slater for being the inspiration in my life…. Salut les fils!

How about Thai tonight, honey?


I wonder what is it about Thai food that gets most people’s gastric juices churning?  Is it the nam plaa (fish sauce), the spicy taste of red chillis or the mixture of sweet, tangy and spice all mingled together?

I had the pleasure of dining with a friend,  passionate foodie and fellow blogger mny at a Thai eatery of her choice.  Kawan kawan, let me tell you this: I was so very excited that the pavlovian tendency to salivate was immediately activated with the memory of eating dishes like Phad Thai and Tom Yam Kung as soon as I alighted at Montparnasse métro on my way to Thai Panthong.

It was a hot and humid day, one of the record hottest days in Paris since the late 1800s, I was told.  The air around the Montparnasse area was stifling.  It almost reminded me of being back in Asia.  I was sweaty, hungry and terribly lost.  For those of you who’ve been to Montparnasse, you’ll know what I mean.  When you exit the grey monstrosity of  le station Montparnasse-Bienvenue, you’re faced with an open space that almost causes one to be a little agoraphobic.  You’re basically in a square with roads going in every direction, left, right and centre. Added to that, there are about one hundred people moving at super sonic speeds on their way to somewhere else, whilst you are looking lost and deserted.  Which way do you turn?  I knew that I had to get onto the Aveneu du Maine in order to find rue de l’Ouest, number 37 (or was it 28?)  but the Ave de Maine is a very long street as most streets in Paris are. Do I take a left or a right to get onto rue de l’Ouest?  My imap for some reason didn’t help that day, so I took a risk and asked a Parisian news vendor for directions.  Well, as you may have guessed, his answer was the proverbial shrug of his Parisian shoulders which left me nonetheless wiser.  I should have bought a magazine, it occurred to me later, maybe then, he’d have pointed me the right way.  Haven’t I learnt that in order to get my back scratched I have to scratch the scratcher’s back in return?

All my hard work at finding the resto paid off when I finally ran into Panthong to find mny seated zen-like waiting for me.  The perfume of Asia arrested my attention and I was immediately at peace.  Familiar aromas of spices, wok-fried ingredients and the fragrance of rice assaulted my nostrils.  What a place! I knew it would be authentic just from all the smells mixed in the hot humid air.

We perused the menu and settled on Som Tam Poo for starters.  I’m a fan of green papaya although not of the mature variety.  This salad is a NE Thai dish made with nam plaa, chillis and lime juice mixed with dried shrimps so small you hardly notice they’re there.  I wanted to try the version with crab as I’ve not had that before.

Som Tam - So yum!

The crab was really a baby one marinated in nam plaa.  It’s so tiny that it was served still in its shell.  Those little beige puffy things were deep fried pork crackling, dehydrated so that they kept their crunchiness.  It was so divine that I had 3 of them. I know it’s not great for cardiac conditions but what the heck! It was too sedap to stop at one…. and besides, pork fat is meant to give one shiny smooth skin as the mainland Chinese girls will tell you.

I wanted some sort of Thai curry for the main course and veered between the Green Thai Duck Curry and the Red King Prawn Curry.  It was a difficult choice but I decided to stay on the seafood theme and ordered the Chou Chi Kung  – a dry red curry with King Prawns.

Chou Chi Kung

The dish tasted every bit as vibrant as it looked.  Creamy coconut sauce over barbecued King prawns garnished with cilantro (coriander) and chives.  It married well with the Khao Niew served in a bamboo basket.

Sticky Glutinous Rice

Mny fancied something spicy.  She settled for phad khii mao.  This simple but flavoursome noodle is wok fried with minced pork (chicken will work too) snow peas, sliced chillis and whole pepper corns.  It’s so easy to magic up even a drunkard can make it, so the story goes.  And so the name of this dish stuck for khii mao means drunk in Thai.

Funny,  I thought, the Italians have spaghetti alio olio– long pasta tossed in olive oil infused with garlic – and the brits have the kebab.  In Britain, drunken nights out are followed by a naan or pitta bread wrapped with slivers of grilled lamb smothered with chilli and garlic sauce eaten en-route home.  One is so drunk and hungry that this rather generous parcel of yumminess is devoured before the key even gets through the key hole or one’s tongue starts to smart from the heat of the chilli sauce.

Drunkard tossed noodles

If the phad is still not fiery enough, you can always accompany it with this:

Nam Plaa with Chilli and lime juice

All good things are sugared coated, a favourite saying I’ve often heard.  So it is only natural that our lunch ended with dessert.  I had bananas in a sesame flavoured coconut milk.  This is really one of my favourite Thai desserts, next to mango with sticky rice.  I had to forego that since I’ve already had quite a bit of glutinous rice.  The coconut cream was both savoury and sweet, akin to the beurre salé, so famous in Paris patisseries.

Creamy Coconut milk with Bananas

My partner in crime ordered the bualoy sarm see – little taro balls in 3 colours immersed in coconut milk.  This was equally delicious.

Bualoy Sarm See

During lunch, the conversation veered from events happening in and around Paris, what our children were up to at school and the recent floods in Thailand that caused many to be homeless and the rice fields to be ruined.

Mny had a brainstorm that night.  She decided to organise a Charity Luncheon at a Thai resto to raise funds for her country folk.  This luncheon will take place on November 14th, just after the Toussaint holidays.

Kawan kawan, if you can, please come and support this good cause.  All the proceeds will go towards helping the needy in Thailand.  We will eat Thai, drink wines that have been specifically selected by a resident wine connoisseur that pair with Thai flavours and be in the company of friends.  Place your reservations in the comments box below.

Thai Panthong Restaurant (closed Sundays)

37 rue de l’Ouest, 75014 

01 43 22 03 25

Charity Luncheon:

Date: Monday, November 14th from 12:30pm
Venue: Im Thai Restaurant
8 Rue de Port Mahon 75002
Metro Opera

Too posh to chew? Have a Quenelle


kawan kawan, for those of you who’ve been following me, you’ve realized that I’ve been out of commission for a bit… it was not because I’ve abandoned you or the blog – I would never do that. 🙂  It was due more to the shortage of time that I’ve not been blogging of late.  But the dust of La Rentrée has just about settled. I’ve ja-ust about got the girls and me back to our daily routine of school runs, homework, violin practice and all the little things that keep me from finding the right moment to blog.  But I am back again, no worries because part of my daily routine is to find the time for myself, non?!?

I’ve been active again at L’atelier des chefs.  It is wonderful to catch up with Debbie K and Mrs M, my usual partners at French cookery school.  On this occasion, Silva D came along too.  She’d been wanting to join L’atelier for quite some time but just haven’t managed to find the right time to do so. What propelled her this time round to find a slot in her busy schedule was  this:  she will be leaving us for Milan, her hometown, shortly and she really wanted to profiter from a L’atelier class. So, voilâ, here we all were to learn how to cook quenelles de cabillaud.  I’ve never cooked this dish before so I was very excited to learn.

Basically quenelles are tear drop shaped pieces of minced meat or fish, in this case, poached in milk or water until done.  Some would call it egg shaped. In any case, it is not so much the shape but the preparation and cooking process that make a quenelle a quenelle.  The binding factor is egg white which is added to the fish and cream to be blended until smooth.  Lyon and Nantua are two places famous for their pike quenelle usually served with a creamy sauce. Pike is a fish with many small bones so the best way to cook this fish without the hassle of removing the bones whilst you are eating it is to churn it in a blender before cooking. Of course, if you were a “real” chef, you would use a tamis, a cylindrical sieve invented in the Middle Ages to strain, grate and mill food.

A tamis sifts and grates ingredients finer than any other utensil, and the texture of the strained material is evenly consistent.  Modern kitchens have blenders or Magimixes which does the same job with a push of the button.

Quenelles are very easy to eat, kawan kawan. It hardly needs chewing since it is so finely blended and poached just right that all you need to do is shuffle spoonfuls into your mouth and swallow. Watch how a toddler with no teeth eats and you’ll see what I mean.  The quenelle is really posh baby food with a lot of flavour.

After chopping, blending and poaching, it was time to serve up.  We were shown how to dress the plate with the quenelle sitting atop a bed of sauce de champignons.  The mushrooms were stir fried in a little olive oil with one minced shallot and a whole clove of garlic still in its peel, then blended with a little cream and some milk used to poach the cod.

Posh baby Food - Quenelles de cabillaud

The experience was…how shall I put it?…. interesting, I suppose.  I haven’t made pureed baby food in a while, considering that RN who is now 5 had stopped eating purées since  she was 7 months old.  The only mush I make in the house in mash and even that, RN doesn’t fancy too much….strange child, I know 🙂

The quenelles tasted delicious for the amount of cream and salt that went into it albeit a little bland. I would have preferred it made with spices like turmeric, chilli and curry powder, mixed with coconut milk instead of thick cream, then steamed wrapped up in a banana leaf or stuffed in aforementioned banana leaf and grilled (see photo below).  This would fire the fish up a bit, multiply its flavour by a 100 percent and transform the quenelle  magically into an otak otak, a fish mousse widely eaten in SE Asia.

Spiced up Quenelles - Otak Otak

Unless you have a baby who eats spices at 6 months, this is highly NOT recommended as baby food, posh as it also is.

I would go for the quenelle in this case.  Seriously, if I knew of this recipe when I was weaning my girls, I.would.have.made.it, served with champignon sauce over a bed of rice porridge.  If I had done that, perhaps SS would just adore mushrooms now and I wouldn’t have to pick out any mushrooms that she can see thrown surreptitiously into her food or avoid the mushroom section altogether, because why bother? no one accept except the Italian and I eat those fun-guys anyway!

Try kawan kawan this recipe for quenelle.  Just follow the link above.  If I were to make it again, I would jazz it up with a little more herbs and spices, although not chillies, since the girls don’t like spicy stuff (I know, I know, and they are half Singaporean and don’t eat spice nor speak Mandarin.  I’ve been through all that with the Mother!)  Let me know how it turns out. Bon apétit!

Beggars Can’t be Choosers


When I first arrived in Paris, I was very surprised to see in every corner of my neighbourhood, a community of homeless people.  Some have come to stay and are a permanent fixture to the landscape, making their ‘living’ from the centimes that many kind Parisians or tourists hand out to them.  Some are transitory, here only for a day or two before moving on to greener pastures.  The old timers I have come to recognise, like the lady with a bandaged foot who sits across the Cocteau Society.  RN and I see her every morning on our to the métro at Trocadéro.

Then there is the ‘shaking man’ as RN likes to refer to him as.  He can be found within the métro Trocadéro when it rains and on dry days just a few metres from the entrance of the métro, outside one of the many bistros, kneeling and shaking profusely, hat in hand, asking for a centime or two.  RN was pretty impressed (by his performance) when she first came across the ‘shaking man’ but now she is just as immuned by the sight of him as the many residents of the neighbourhood.

Here is a link I found on a blog about poverty in Paris and indeed France:

http://mu-warrior.blogspot.com/2006/07/homeless-in-paris.html 

 

Legend has it that a beggar in the Qing Dynasty fell upon a chicken due to his good luck.  The stolen bird was then hidden, feathers and all, in mud found by a muddy riverbank, to be retrieved once the beggar had managed to steer clear from his pursuers.  His captors allayed, the beggar  then placed the mud caked chicken whole into the fire that he had made for this purpose.  The fire caused the mud to form into a clay crust which cooked the chicken so well that upon breaking the crust, its feathers and bones came away and the meat was tender and juicy.  The aroma emitted from the chicken attracted the attention of Qing Emperor who was travelling incognito (as all Chinese Emperors tend to do) and he stopped to dine with the beggar who kindly shared his precious loot with this stranger. Just as well as he did, because the Emperor was so impressed by the dish that he elevated the beggar’s status to that of court chef, specialising in cooking Beggar’s Chicken.

Through time, the dish has evolved to become more kingly.  Inside the carcass of the chicken, one can find a filling of various ingredients from chestnuts, to shrimps to bamboo shoots, minced pork and Yunnan ham.

It takes a good 8 hours to cook this special bird.  The chicken is firstly boiled to remove any impurities.  This has to be done without cooking the chicken. It is then stuffed with the above ingredients mentioned and then wrapped tightly in lotus leaves, to be steamed before being encased in a non-toxic clay crust and finally baked in the oven.  The baking process helps to retain the juices within the lotus leaves, thus preserving the aroma of the spices and herbs.

That Crusty old Thing

This was how Beggar’s Chicken is served in Shang Palace where I discovered this royal dish, courtesy of AB (MD of Shangri-La Paris) and CB, friend and fellow blogger and wife of AB.  (You can find her blog in my blog roll.)  Note the surgical instruments accompanying the dish.

Of course, in order to taste the tender morsels of chicken, someone had to have the honour of breaking the clay crust….. and the honour fell on……AB.

I'm Gonna smash you in the Crust, I am

Once broken, the crust was removed piece by piece to reveal a layer of lotus leaves.  This was then delicately cut open to reveal the chicken resting within it. The aroma was intoxicating, kawan kawan.  I had the honour of standing next to the waitress who was in charge of the operation.  Whilst she was peeling the leaves back one by one, she also explained to me where Beggar’s Chicken originated.

Beggar’s Chicken hails from the Hangzhou area in Zhejiang province.  There, you will find many restaurants serving beggar’s chicken.  Due to its lengthy cooking process, many restaurants ask that you pre-order the dish at least a day before.

This is what it looks like once the leaves and bones have been removed:

Et Voilâ! The encrusted bird

In researching this dish, I found many blogs teaching one how to cook it. Some recipes call for only a couple of hours cooking time. However, I believe that the flavours of the chicken is retained in slow cooking it under a low heat, as any advocate of slow cooking will tell you.

Kawan kawan, if you are ever in Paris, you must go to the Shang Palace for this dish.  It is really worth it.  Trust me! 🙂 But remember, you may have to call in advance if you are after this bird.

Beggar's Chicken

 

Footnote:  Daddy actually cooks this chicken dish chez lui.  He wraps the bird that has been marinated in a herby wine with chinese red dates, goji berries and gingko nuts in tin foil or lotus leaves, if he can find any, to be steamed on a low heat for about an hour and half.  The funny thing is I never knew that it was called Beggar’s Chicken because daddy calls his dish, Herbal Steamed Chicken.  lol!!!

Shang Palace, Shagri-La Paris, 10 avenue d’Iéna
75116 Paris

 

Liking the Latkes


Latkes are a traditional Jewish dish served during Hanukkah.  It has gained popularity as a Hanukkah dish because of its method of cooking.  Latkes are fried in oil, commemorating and reminding the Jewish people of the oil that provided light for 8 days.  Hanukkah is in essence the Festival of Lights, a Jewish celebration that lasts for 8 days, of the rededication of the Temple as depicted in the Bible or Torah.

A Hanukkah Favourite

I came across this recipe from a mother at the girls’s school.  My daughters, one big, one small, both go the International School of Paris where they are educated in the International Baccalaureate (IB) philosophy that celebrates and embraces difference.  Of course, mathematics, science and PE, amongst other academic subjects, are taught too, just in case you’re thinking that the IB is a strange religious sect that only teaches the children to eat, love and pray.

Jokes aside, we love the IB way of education.  My children are learning to be citizens of the world, they are beginning to understand that we are all different and also the same in the human race and that it is our responsibility to observe, preserve and conserve peace in the world.  They are beginning to see that dialogue is so very important in the pursuit of peace and that language is no barrier to communication.

Latkes:  I wanted to make something with the potato that I had in the fridge.  I had a packet of Latkes flour which I’d purchased from the Jewish boucherie on the corner of my appartement.  It had been sitting on my dry goods shelf for ages and was speaking to me in a language that only I understand….. Eat me! Eat me!, it said.

Well, what actually happened was that the packet of Latkes mix miraculously jumped off the shelf when I was pacing my kitchen floor for some inspiration as to what I can do with 4 potatoes.

Well, it required grating the said potatoes, leaving it to dehydrate whilst I sliced up a small onion and minced a clove of garlic.  It is important to squeeze every bit of H2O from the shredded potatoes in order to make beautiful latkes.  Water will cause the oil to spurt and spurting oil is UGLY! (in Mrs M’s favourite word! Don’t you just love it? A single word that gets to the point! Thank you Mrs M.)

Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

  • 4 medium size potatoes, shredded
  • 1 tablespoon grated onion or a small onion
  • 1 clove of minced garlic
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour or Latkes mix
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt (optional if using Latkes mix)
  • 3 tablespoons of rapeseed oil for frying

Directions

  1. Place the potatoes in a cheesecloth and wring, extracting as much water as possible. It also works by simply squeezing hard with your hands sans cheesecloth.
  2. In a mixing bowl stir the potatoes, onion, garlic, eggs, flour and salt together. No salt if you are using the Latkes mix.
  3. In a large heavy-bottomed skillet or le crueset frying pan, over medium-high heat, heat the oil until hot. Using your hands to form a patty, place the potato mixture into the hot oil, pressing down on them with a flat wooden spatula  to form 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick patties. Brown on one side, turn and brown on the other. Allow to drain on paper towels. Serve immediately!
Latkes was originally made with grated cheese as the potato is a New World food.  But since the discovery of the New World, Latkes has been made every Hanukkah with grated potatoes. It is less salty and heavy.
I ought to have allowed the patties to brown a little more.  So, do unlike me and let them brown.  They are delicious served with grilled sausages and a simple salad.  A really easy thing to whip up for a Sunday brunch or late lunch.
Try, kawan kawan! Then tell me how it went!

Sausage and Spud