I like it a bit charred, darling!


La Rentrée is the month when the whole of France returns from their summer away.  Parisians return bronzed by the summer sun spent in far flung countries or simply on the beach in the Mediterranean.  Paris is brimming with glee, the tension that had set in before the long summer break has been eased with plenty of R and R and les Parisennes are quite contented to be back in the City of Light. The first week of September begins with a frenzy of getting school supplies, reminding the children that the vacation is over and that school will start again this week and most of all, getting the little ones off to bed earlier.  They’ve had 2 months of late nights, tons of ice creams, lots of days spent building sand castles and running bare foot in the sand.  Well, it’s reality check time. School starts now.

This is also the month when most stay at home mothers like myself heave a sigh of relieve.  After 2 months of kiddie activities and other child related things on a trot with no respite, I am glad to be sending my off-springs (one big and one small) back to ecole.  Aren’t you? 🙂

The first morning that the kids went back to school, I had a coffee at my favourite café in Paris – Yamazaki.  I was pleasantly surprised upon entering the café to see that it had been given a face lift…. big time!  The entire café had been ripped apart during les vacances ( some people were working!),  new tables and chairs replace the dated ones that had been there since the 80s and the new glass display counter for their gâteaux and delightful pastries make them look even better than before.

I’ve also noticed that a lot of shops have replaced old furniture with new ones or have been given a lick of paint.  Ah!! so this is what happens during the month of August when literally the entire Parisian population leave town: other resourceful Parisians take the opportunity to revamp themselves in the tranquility of the month.  Delightful!  I love changes.  To me, a change when positive, is a symbol of growth, of the ability to move forward, to modernise.

I found inspiration in this for my cooking this September, having also not cooked very much during the vacation. I vacation with my family on both sides and the mother and MIL do most of the cooking or we tend to eat out, especially in S E Asia where hawker food is so readily available, economical and yummy!

Inspired that I was, I decided to make a change too.  I will be more adventurous, not worry about cleaning up the kitchen too much post cooking and simply go with the flow, let my fancy guide me.  And kawan kawan, I fancied myself some Char Siu during the weekend, a week into the start of the academic year.  And guess what?  I made myself some!

Char Siu is Cantonese char grilled pork that has been seasoned in dark soya sauce, honey and a little garlic.  This is eaten over a bed of steaming white rice in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand for lunch or dinner.

We all love Char Siu in the family.  What’s there not to love?  Succulent pieces of grilled pork charred to perfection that leave a sweet/savoury taste in your mouth; white rice drizzled with the syrupy Char Siu marinade that has been used to bast the pork loin as it grills in the oven.

Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

1. 5 kg  filet mignon de porc or pork loin (cut into 4 or 5 pieces)

1 clove garlic (finely chopped or minced with a garlic press)

1 1/2 tablesp sesame oil

Char Siu Sauce:

1 1/2 tablesp honey

2 tablesp granulated sugar

1 1/2 tablesp hoisin sauce (optional)

1 1/2 tablesp dark soy sauce (add 3 if not using hoisin sauce)

1 tablesp Chinese Cooking wine (I used Shoa shing but if you can get Chinese Rose wine, even better)

2 dashes white pepper powder

3-4 whole star anise or 1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder

Method:

Add all ingredients in the Char Siu sauce in a pan, heat whilst stirring well until liquid becomes slightly thickened and sticky.  (This should  yield 1/2 cup char siu sauce.) Set aside to cool.

Marinate the pork pieces with 2/3 of the Char Siu sauce and the chopped garlic overnight for maximum results.  If not at least 2 hours before cooking.

Heat the oven to 220 degrees C and roast the char siu for 30 minutes. With a pastry brush, bast the remaining char siu sauce every 10 minutes or so whilst roasting until the meat is cooked or slightly charred at the sides. Depending on how thick your meat is, it is vital to check if your meat is cooked thoroughly and adjust cooking time to suit.  I used a fork to check, as I don’t have metal skewers. When the fork goes through the meat with no tension, I know then that it is done. When the meat is cooked, turn the grill on in your oven and grill the meat until it chars a bit more.  This step is optional if you prefer not to char the meat too much. Remove from oven and slice the Char Siu into bite-size pieces, drizzle the remaining char siu sauce over and serve immediately with steamed white rice.

Notes:

This marinated cut of meat is perfect for BBQs.  In effect, Char Siu is BBQed meat as the original method of cooking it requires the meat to be skewered with a S-shaped hook, and grilled hung over a charcoal fire.  The meat is basted several times until cooked since the umami comes from the Char Siu marinade and the meat gets charred from the sugar in the it.

Charring ever so nicely

Kawan kawan, I really recommend that you try making Char Siu.  It is really not difficult, if I can, so can you.  Then, if you live in Paris, like me and miss good Chinese grub, you can always make it yourself.  My good ole pa always says:  Self sufficiency is the best policy!  So there, I am passing on to you a very golden nugget of advice, brought to you all the way from Singapore, where else? 😉

Char Siu à la chez moi

Family Magic in a Potion


Every year I make a pilgrimage toward the East to eat, play, live… in my childhood home under the auspices of my folks.  These are days I refer to as my flip-flop days, where my toes wriggle free in a pair of havaianas and my legs get tanned by the Eastern sun.  These are happy days, kawan kawan.  These are days where I bask in the love of my parents, becoming once again their little girl, although I am the elder of three daughters.  You know, one’s children never really grow up.  My parents refuse to recognise that I am really a woman with 2 girls of my own and that most crucially, I have passed that important birthday milestone in a woman’s life.  They pamper me with good food, nuggets of advice (all Chinese parents are wiser than their offspring, it must be remembered) and refuse to let me do the washing.  My mother thinks I am incapable so every opportunity she gets, she bundles up the children’s and my dirty clothes to pile them into her state of the art washing machine.  My father fires off strings of advice, like how to deal with pick pockets to the way corn on the cob ought to be eaten.  These are bonding moments, kawan kawan.  I haven’t lived at home for over 20 years.  I only see the folks back home once a year.  So they store up their love, tuck it in a treasure box, ready to dish it out again every year.

My father has always been the foodie in the house.  It is because of him that I have come to love my grub.  He cooks, does the food shopping and cleans the 3 bed maisonette that they have lived in for the past 26 years.  And he is 80 this year.  An old new man, in my books!

This year, being home again was an extra special treat because in order to support me and my new found writing eating career, he offered to share with me that secret recipe he has guarded for so many years – his special chilli sauce.

It’s no easy job making this spicy potion.  Family legend has it that this is the stuff longevity is made of.  The chilli sauce contains so much antioxidants because of the garlic content that it guarantees an immediate boost in the immune system of anyone who partakes of it.  Daddy has to rise early in order to get the ingredients at the basha (market) near his home.  Anyone who cooks will tell you that  all ingredients used should be fresh.  This is what the equation looks like: early rise = freshest ingredients = yummy spicy potion.  That done, he then has to peel the garlic, de-stalk the chillies, skin the ginger and assemble the blender.

Antioxidants

De-stalking  the chillis is no small job: there’s 400 g of chillis to do.  The two types of chillis here are: thai chilli pepper  which is of the African birdseye variety and red chilli pepper.  The smaller the chilli, the stronger the piquancy. Good things come in small packages, kawan kawan and it is no difference with chillis.  If you can’t take too much spiciness, then you can lessen the amount of the Thai chillis and increase that of the larger red ones proportionately.  Here take a look at the Thai chilli pepper:

Hot Chilli Pepper

A lot of lime juice is needed to give the potion its citrus character.  This has to be extracted manually from kalimansi limes found only in Asia.  This lime is known as limau chuit in Malay.  The kalimansi lime is the size of a ping pong ball.  It is yellowish green with a floral lemony scent.  In Europe, you can substitute this with green limes or citron verts or lemon, if you prefer.

Kalimansi limes make very delicious lime juice.  It is best served sweetened and chilled. Kalimansi juice is consumed in large amounts in the Philippines, I was told.

The ginger has to be skinned and cut into blendable pieces.

A piece of blendable ginger

When these ingredients have been prepared, it is time to assemble them into the blender:

Assembly of Chillis

Notice that daddy uses a pair of scissors to cut the bigger chillis into chunks for easier blending.  Then in go the sugar and salt.

Sugar and Salt

Then…..

The juicy goodness

…..the hand pressed lime juice goes into the blender too.

Give the button a push and see it all being churned up inside.

Listen to the whirring sound

Notice this funky blender, kawan kawan.  It only costs daddy 20 Singapore Dollars.  At 1.70 Sing Dollar to the Euro, this makes the blender….. you can do the math….very cheap, indeed!  I just love the Hermés orange handle, don’t you?

Give the mixture a whir a few more times until the ingredients run smooth.

Smooth rider

This chilli sauce goes very well with Hainanese Chicken Rice, minced meat stir fries, vegetable hot pot and lots more dishes.  I eat it with everything and if I weren’t married to the Italian, I’d even say it would go so well with bolognese sauce….. ooops, don’t say I said that!

Here’s the recipe:

300 g Fresh Large Chillis

100 g Fresh Thai Chillis or Birdseye Chillis

150 g Peeled Fresh garlic

120 g Freshly squeezed lime juice.

80 g Chinese white vinegar

30 g Fresh ginger, cut into small chunks

1 tsp Table salt

2 tblesp White sugar

Method:

Cut large chillis into small chunks. Place half the amount of chillis, both Thai and large, into the blender. Add half the amount of garlic and ginger, sugar and salt. Pour in the lime juice and vinegar.  Blend until smooth.  Then finish blending the other half of the ingredients.

There, this recipe is no longer a family secret, thanks to daddy’s generosity.  That is so like my father; he has such a big heart and loves to share.  The more the merrier is his motto.

I did say in my previous post that this recipe grew from daddy’s aghak-aghak method.  But through the years, he has found perfection in precision.  That is also very much my father’s style.  He never stops learning and I am so glad to be the recipient of such a healthy attitude towards life long learning.

I hope you’ll give this a try, kawan kawan.  It is really very delicious.  The recipe makes about 200 ml of Chilli sauce.  This amount lasts me a while since I rely on my yearly summer visits to taste its spicy goodness.

The chilli sauce is best served the next day after it has been refrigerated and it keeps for at least 8 weeks in the fridge.

Gotta Get the Temperature Right


Kawak kawan, what do you do when you’ve got yourself soooooo excited about cooking a particular dish that you forgot the only thing that you needed to make that dish work?

A friend and culinary soulmate lent me a recipe that always works, so he says, if the temperature is at 65 degrees C. For that I will need a meat thermometer, kawan kawan and at present, I don’t have any.  Rien!

So off I trot to BHV, Paris’s famous home-ware store where one can find everything home related, including beautiful underwear.  That was when I got distracted, kawan kawan.  My eyes spied a beautiful soutient-gorge from Calvin Klein which led me to inspect it for boob support functions which led me to dream about how good it’ll look under a new blouse I’d just bought which led me to stray from my intended purpose of buying this darn thermometer.  I caught myself all too quickly and turned left toward the escalator for the kitchen ware department.  There, I got distracted again, this time by knives.  I’ve coveted a good kitchen knife for ever so long and my eye caught the glimmer of a sabatier blade. It was too tempting, kawan kawan and I had to have it.  I pictured slicing onions with this blade, I imagined what my julienned carrots would really look like as a result of this blade and I knew that I had to have this masterpiece.

It was only on the métro home when I remembered that darn thermometer.  So there, I returned home sans bra and worst of all sans thermometre!

I had to resort the plan B, my friends.  Luckily for me, I always have a couple of packs of minced beef in the fridge, if not in the freezer.  I had sent manny Ted shopping this morning and he had come home with the two staple packs of minced beef moins 20 % fat.

I quickly resorted to seasoning the minced with a dash of soya sauce, a sprinkle of sugar, a guzzle of sesame oil and a good glug of shoashin wine. That I set aside to let the marinade soak in whilst I chopped up a red onion, minced a couple of cloves of garlic, make that 3 cloves, I think.  I was thinking on my feet, kawan kawan all whilst marvelling at how my chopped onions were looking at the end of my sabatier blade.

I took out a bunch of basil, thinking that if it was a bunch of sweet holy basil, I could make a Thai inspired dish.  But then I thought, who am I kidding? I live in Europe.  Sweet holy basil?!?  I have to improvise, create and re-invent the wheel here.  So I chopped the basil up into strips, again with the coveted knife that is now all mine, to sprinkle into my minced beef creation later.

The stuff that all beef are made of

I needed greens and what better vegetable can there be when one needs to throw everything together than green beans chopped finely.  Yes, again with my sabatier. 😀

Out came the le creuset frying pan with lid.  In went a glug of huile de colza, rapeseed oil and the chopped up red onions and minced garlic.  Under a low heat, (remember temperature is everything, here) I sautéed the onions and garlic until the onions are almost caramelised and importantly, not burnt.  I thought that if I were to bring out the sugar in the onions, my beef would be sugar coated and would therefore taste dishy.  Remember, I am still on the creative path here and it’s whatever goes, since I forgot that darn meat thermometer.

Well, it is important to note that the chopped green beans went into the frying pan when the minced beef was still pink in parts.  This is to ensure that when the beef mince is done, the greens beans are still al denté. I wanted to keep the greens crunchy.  There is nothing worse than overcooked vegetables, in my books.

Pink - sign of health

I added more shoashing wine, juice of half a lemon, a good dash of fish sauce and a sprinkling of brown sugar.  That should bring out the subtle flavours of sweet and sour.  I then added the chives which I had cut into 0.5 cm strips and gave the pan a good hearty stir. When the mince was cooked through, I added the slices of red onion that I had kept aside with a pinch of freshly minced garlic and lowered the fire to allow the red onions and garlic to cook a little in the releasing steam .  To that I also added the thinly sliced basil.

Minced Beef Creation

This dish was received by both RN and SS with whoops of delight.  I served it over a bed of fluffy rice, made from both white and red grains.  Needless to say, the girls gobbled up their dinner with relish and even asked for bis.  I was a proud mamma tonight!  SS requested the same for lunch tomorrow.  Double proud!

Since I had recently learnt about wine pairing in Asian cuisine, I cracked open a bottle of red.  Light and fresh, this red is perfect for summer and the dish that I’d just invented. Santé!

The Perfect Red

Kawan kawan, I didn’t get that darn thermometer but I was saved by the packets of mince and this red.

Plenty of Polenta


Your Honour, I bring to your attention Exhibit A in the the case of Nava vs Polenta.

Exhibit A

You will see before you the photo of the victim, La Polenta.  She has been the property of i Nonni Nava for some years, enslaved in their mountain home that is perched on a hill in the village of Verrand just a kilometre from Courmayeur.

The Mountain Home

La Polenta has been at the disposal of many a Nava grandchildren who fight incessantly at each meal time to rest their little Nava bottoms on her soft cottony fabric.

This yellow cushion has been named after the most popular dish in the Italian Alps. Polenta is a staple in the mountainous regions of Italy, a dish that the Italian has grown up savouring.  Polenta is cornmeal, kawan kawan.  It is eaten accompanied by various stews, both vegetarian and meat filled.  Polenta is to North Italy what noodles are to Northern China.

Polenta is a word borrowed from the Italian language, referring to a dish which consists of boiled cornmeal*.  Before corn was introduced from the New World, grain mush, a gruel like dish from which polenta derived and commonly eaten in the Roman times and after, was usually made with either millet, faro, spelt and also chickpeas.  These starches were subsequently replaced by  ground corn.

Polenta is usually classified as a peasant dish but more and more Italian restaurants are now adding it to their menus.  There are virtually no restaurants in the Italian Alps or Piedmont region that do not serve up a dish of polenta with accompanying sauces and accoutrements.  Some fancy restaurants have even deconstructed the dish and serve polenta beautifully plated with the polenta moulded into a neat mound served as an accompanying side instead of potatoes.

In Bergamo, where the Italian hails from, polenta is accompanied by a side dish of small birds that have been oven baked.  In Courmayeur, I had polenta with roast lamb, sausages cooked in a tomato sauce, grilled sausages, oven baked trout, ratatouille and finally, cheese.

One of the best things to do food wise in Italy is to visit a restaurant that has been set up in the owner’s home.  Agriturismo as this is referred to in Italian is an agriculturally based enterprise that brings people to farms for activities such as fruit picking, wine tasting or horse back riding and last but not least, food tasting. In our case, we drove half an hour up the mountains to stuff our faces with polenta and stew with no activities whatsoever except to sit in the sun after a hefty meal.  What bliss! 🙂

This was what we had:

Polenta with slow cooked lamb

The meal was eaten at about 1500 m above sea level, at a small holding with their own goats, sheep, geese, ducks and chickens.  They even had a shetland pony thrown in for entertainment and a sheep dog that herds the pony back down the hill when it so much as dares to saunter up to the fountain for a drink. The meat of the day depends on what the chef decides to prepare.  The pony was off the menu by the way. That day, we had lamb that had been slaughtered and left to hang for 3 days to ensure that the meat becomes tender.  The tenderised meat is then marinated with olive oil, herbs, salt and tomatoes and then oven baked slowly on a low temperature setting until the meat yields easily with a tug between your fingers and teeth.  A dream dish and well worth the bumpy ride up the mountains for.

The Italian showed me how to eat polenta the proper way.  You make a dent with your serving spoon to make a well whilst simultaneously tipping the spoon ever so slightly to allow the liquid to slide into the said well.

A Polenta Well of Sauce

For good measure, I added a bit of tomato and a piece of meat that had fallen off the bone.  Yums!

Polenta can also be eaten with this:

Wild Boar Stew

This stew is made from wild boar cooked its own stock and flavoured by red wine bottled in the Aosta Valley.  The sauce is rich and flavoursome and best eaten with polenta nature or plain.  The types of meat served with Polenta are usually gamey meats.  SS ordered a rabbit stew once .  The meat was bathed in a creamy curry sauce, flavoured with fresh herbs.  There were hints of curry when I had a taste so if you are thinking curry like creamy Korma Chicken, rest assured that it is not.  Although I don’t see why that can’t be eaten with Polenta either.  Hmmm, might be worth a look into.

Stewed Rabbit

RN likes her polenta oven baked with layers of Fontina, a type of medium hard cheese eaten in the Aosta Valley.  Polenta Concia can be eaten on its own or with the stews mentioned above.

Polenta Concia

Occasionally, she would ask for an accompanying dish of sausages stewed in tomato sauce.

On another occasion, I decided to eat my polenta with trout grilled in a sage infused butter.

The Splayed Trout

This came with a dish of ratatouille.

Ra Ra Ratatouille

Needless to say, it was very sedap, my friends!  I am, as you know, a firm believer in 5 fruits and veg a day. I can’t call a meal complete unless it has some fibre in it. This was indeed un repas complet, kawan kawan.

Polenta is a heavy side dish, I concur.  However, it does not engorge my stomach like pasta or rice.  I discovered this only about 3 years ago whilst on a ski trip to the mountains.  Eaten after a morning of skiing, it both helps to regain your energy and to fuel you for the rest of the afternoon on the slopes. And all this with no bloated feeling.  I feel as light as a feather even after a heavy polenta lunch.

Polenta flour comes either finely ground or coarsely ground.  It all depends on your preference.  Polenta is usually prepared slowly over a low fire.  It requires plenty of stirring and can take up to 3 or 4 hours.  Italian women in the mountains have benefitted from generations of cooking polenta.  They have formed arms strong enough to carry hoards of grandchildren up and down mountain trails.  Usually cooked in copper pots and stirred with wooden spoons, restaurants have taken to cooking their polenta in a pot that has a mechanised stirrer. This saves on the manual labour and leaves another pair of hands available to help in the kitchen.  Very practical, indeed.

Keep Stirring the Polenta

Instant polenta flour can be purchased in the supermarkets for those who lack the time but do not want to miss out on the dish.  This shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to prepare.   However, I’ve been told that this type of polenta, although serving its function, is not as tasty as the slow cooked one.  That does make sense because no effort usually equates to no gain, for me, anyway.

Your Honour, I rest my case.  Polenta remains the staple food in the Italian Alps and La Polenta remains a fought after favourite butt rest amongst the Nava hoard.

* Courmayeur and the Aosta Valley is bilingual in Italian and French.

*Polenta is also eaten in the American South, Spain, and various other parts of      Europe.

Costoletta alla Milanese


Kawan kawan, I am back, you’ll be glad to know! La Belle France was on les vacances for summer and so was I.  I spent flip flop days in Bali, Singapore and Heidi moments in the Italian Alps. I am now all fed and loved up and all geared up to feed you with more exciting posts on my eating adventures avec la famille.

The MIL makes the most wonderful costolette Milanese style.  This is the girls’s most favourite thing to eat whenever they are at their nonna’s.  I have never made this dish at home because I don’t like the idea of frying my meat in too much oil.  Besides, it is a treat for RN and SS to eat their grandmother’s costoletta alla Milanese.

I asked the MIL to share her recipe with me and show me how she prepares and cooks this dish.  She was over the moon and honoured to be asked which reminded me of the biblical adage: ask and you shall receive.  So for those of you who are too shy to ask, you don’t know what you’ll be missing.  Ask, ask and ask for more, kawan kawan!

We spent a glorious 17 days in the mountains with la famiglia grande.  The veal that the MIL usually buys is absolutely delicious, a result of free range breeding and a diet of sweet alpine grass.

Free Range Veal

In most costoletta recipes, veal cutlets are used.  But the FIL likes the meat thinly sliced and preferably without bone.  Hence the pink slab you see above.

The MIL slices the meat herself with a very, very sharp knife, then baths them in a dish of beaten egg.

An Eggy Bath

Note the beautiful dish, it is at least 40 years old.  The Navas never throw anything out.  I really like that habit.  They will use something until it is no longer functional and then still think twice about whether that thing ought be thrown away.  They would always choose to upcycle rather than throw things out. I love the idea of upcycling where old things that have become useless are remade into new materials for another use. It is kind of like reincarnation, I suppose, where you come back as another thing.  Upcycling really speaks to the Hindu in me!

After giving the sliced meat an eggy soak, it is time to coat them in bread crumbs. The egg binds the crumbs to the meat so they look like this:

Bread crumbed morsels of yumminess

Afterall, the bread crumbs are the essence of this dish without which this will not be called costoletta. In reality, the costoletta is the Italian version of the Weiner Schnitzel.  Actually the proper costoletta as already mentioned is cooked boned-in as opposed to the Weiner Schnitzel. So that makes Mamma’s version the Austrian one.  Additionally, she does thin the meat out with a mallet after slicing them which is exactly what the Austrians do with their Weiners.

The bread crumbed goodness are then shallow fried in the best and lightest olive oil until golden brown and crispy on the edges.

Frying the Weiners

It is important to salt the bread crumbs before coating the meat.

The final version should look like this:

Costoletta alla Milanese di Nonna Gio

At the Nava household, costoletta is accompanied by a chargrilled sweet pepper stew that the Mamma cooks specially for the Italian, her youngest son.  It is also delicious on a bed of rucola or any salad leaves marinaded in a vinaigrette of olive oil and cider vinegar as the acid in the vinaigrette lightens the heaviness of the fried meat.

I also had the opportunity to taste a version of this dish made with fresh porcini mushrooms since it is mushroom season in the mountains.  It was absolutely yummilicious!

The Veggie Version

Tell me, kawan kawan what is your fav breaded dish.  I am asking in anticipation to receive your comments. 🙂

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.

What tickles your nose?


I find comfort in smells, kawan kawan.  Good smells, of course. Musky aftershave colognes that titillate, feminine fragrances that when inhaled send triggers of happy thoughts of summer days and girly nights out, the clean and crisp smell of newly laundered sheets and clothes,  aromas released by spices being heated in a frying pan, the confectionary perfume of cakes baking in the oven. These are a few of my favourite smells….

However, my most favourite smell of all has to be the fragrance of rice being cooked.  Did you know that rice has a perfume of its own, kawan kawan?  This beautiful aroma is released when the rice grains are almost cooked.  It permeates the house just like coffee being brewed in the morning does.

Rice, being the staple carb in my family, features in every meal, especially at dinner time.  Dinner is a whole family affair, announcing the return of the patriarch, my dad, from work and when homework and chores have been completed. Dinner is when my sisters, both parents and I get to sit down ensemble to chat, discuss, argue and converse at the wooden table in the kitchen with its tiled top where we all convene for meal times.  My mother would have prepared a soup – a clear stock of some meat variety, a dish of sautéed chinese greens, a plate of meat, usually chicken or pork stir fried with another variety of vegetable and/or a dish of steamed fish with slivers of ginger, soya sauce and sesame oil.  Sometimes, she fries the fish that has been seasoned with a little salt and tumeric which turns the oil she fries them in to a yellow river.  This is her tweak on the signature Malay dish called ikan panggang, a type of grilled fish. For this dish, she will have prepared a dipping sauce infused with  lime, sugar, minced chilli peppers and garlic. All these dishes are eaten with a bowl of white rice, with the soup served in individual little bowls to be eaten at the same time.

I know when dinner time is approaching just by the smell of rice permeating the house.  This is shortly before the click of the on/off button on the rice cooker, signally that the rice is done. A little hole on the lid of the rice cooker lets out the steam which is the element that cooks the rice, the steam which is produced by the remnants of what water is left that is required to cook any rice.  The rice is done when all the water has been absorbed by every rice kernel.

My Favourite Smell - Rice steaming

I was feeling a little lost and displaced again the other day. I don’t know what had caused this feeling, I only knew that I wanted some home cooked comfort food. I had been doing a little voluntary work at the secondary school, helping some students with their English.  A Korean girl that I was assigned to had been all but receptive of my role. I had sensed by sitting next to her and through my failed attempts to make conversation that only produced monosyllabic answers that she not only resented my presence but also resented the fact that she had been transplanted from her country to a harsh and foreign place where she doesn’t speak the language and where she has to be taught in a tongue that she finds hard to decipher. My heart went out to this girl because not only is it difficult to be uprooted from what you know, to be transplanted to an unfamiliar territory which can seem hostile because of a language gap and then to have to endure an education in a language that you are not wholly comfortable in, couple that with raging hormones which can cause confusion and irrational mood swings. Not a great combination, my friends.

I was told by her teacher that she is an intelligent girl when she wants to be.  One manifests intelligence in one’s tongue because one knows what words and phrases to use in a conversation, discussion or argument.  It is a challenge to show how intelligent you are when you don’t fully understand your medium of instruction, let alone having to express yourself in this foreign tongue. When expressing yourself in your mother tongue, you can be eloquent, elegant and intelligible.  In a foreign tongue, you risk sounding gauche, awkward and frustrated because the words don’t seem to roll off your tongue like they ought to….. in your language.

At the appartement later, whilst preparing dinner and waiting for the rice cooker to sound her familiar click signalling that the rice is ready, I was suddenly overcome by a throng of homesickness.  It was the fragrance released by the rice that caused me to feel this way, it occurred to me later. Another reason could be my feeling terribly sorry for the Korean girl that spurred this feeling of homesickness on.  Standing next to the rice cooker, I inhaled deeply, taking in the aroma.  I felt how good it is to be able to recreate this sense of childhood comfort.  The fragrance of the rice represented home and hearth, it symbolised the security of the familial space, a haven where I can be myself, let my hair down and put my feet up.  I was glad that in a foreign land, I was able to find this little piece of heaven.

For the Italian, it is the aroma of the tomato sauce simmering or the fragrance of the bell peppers stewing that bring him home.  For my children, it is a mélange of the rice cooking one day or the pasta boiling on another which also emits a unique perfume of its own, both recreating the sense of home for them .

That night, I had the rice ready, and a dish of scrambled eggs with tomatoes to accompany the rice.  This very easy to prepare dish is called Fānjiādàn 蕃茄蛋
in Mandarin and is really a very typical rustic dish.  It is eaten a lot in Taiwan and in SE Asia.

Scrambled Eggs and Tomatoes

This is one of my favourite comfort food, kawan kawan.  Surprisingly, this dish is also much loved by la grande and the Itlalian.  It is what SS remembers eating as a child when life was just the two of us.  Sadly, I have yet to pass this love completely to RN who endures this scrambled egg dish but is not totally enamoured by it.  She only eats eggs if they are white!  I might cook this dish with egg white only, la prochaine fois, mes amis!

I hope that those who are feeling displaced due to a recent uprooting are able to recreate a sense of home through a particular smell that they love coupled with a particular food that they enjoy.  Eating dinner that night, I whispered a little prayer for the Korean girl who tugged at my heart strings, wishing her well and that somehow, in this jungle of foreign words, she is able to recreate a sense of home.