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Miso like this!

8 Sep

Still on a Japanese food bend,  I tried to recreate a delicious dip I had in a Japanese fusion restaurant called Shokan in Tokyo. Served with a selection of raw vegetables, the dip was so good. The earthiness of the miso blended well with the freshness of the tomato paste; the saltiness of the miso went so well with the sweetish tomato paste. It was a marriage waiting to happen.

I tried to get the recipe for the dip from the owner /head chef of the restaurant — a friendly guy who knew just enough English to converse with us — but he subtly evaded my prodding again and again. The dip was his own concoction and I guess he wasn’t going to pass it out  to just anyone.

No matter. I remembered the taste and I thought that I should be able to come up with something similar, if not identical. Half the fun is in the trying right? (WELL, not if you read my last post about Spekkoek!)

First, I had to determine the right ratio between the tomato paste and miso. 2:1 was what I settled upon. (You may have to set your own ratio depending  on the type of miso you use and how strong it is).

What else should I use?

The tomato and miso alone tasted yummy but there was still something missing. It wasn’t the same as the one I had at Shokan. I tried adding a few different ingredients: minced ginger (not bad), pepper (not great), vinegar (just a bit is actually quite nice), japanese mayonnaise (oh, so yum: with less tomato paste).

Ok, so I may not have cracked the code and replicated the dip at Shokan exactly but who cares? I still have a very tasty miso sip … actually I have several and that’s good enough for me.

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Through thick and thin

6 Sep

WHY do some recipes work and others don’t? Have you ever followed a recipe, word for word, step by step only to fail? Well, that’s my puzzle this week.  I decided to make Spekkoek, or the famous Indonesian layer cake as it is one of my favourite cakes. After browsing through several recipes online, looking through the ingredients and the instructions, I concluded that it wasn’t too difficult to execute. Sure, it called for a lot of time and patience —  it isn’t called “thousand layer cake” for nothing. Though way less than a thousand, the cake has many thin layers (about 40) that have to be grilled one by one. Each layer is about 1mm thick, no more.  But, apart from having to spend a couple of hours literally in front of the oven, the cake seemed simple enough to make. True?

OF COURSE NOT. Making Spekkoek proved to be one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in the kitchen.

I had to make this cake five times before it turned out decent. Five times! Ordinarily, I would have given up after attempt No. 3 but I was making it  for this month’s Don’t Call Me Chef column (which comes out today) so I had no choice but to complete it.

I must have gone through at least a dozen different recipes for Spekkoek. I studied each one, wondering why my cakes looked nothing like the Spekkoek you buy in the shops. The taste was pretty similar but that was as close as I seemed to be getting.

With the Spekkoek, looks matter you see.

I followed the recipes to a T and yet my cakes were dry, my layers too chunky. I didn’t get the fine brown layer. I couldn’t get moisture in the cake. Nothing seemed to work. ARRRRRRRGH.

Finally, a decent Spekkoek

Finally, after five attempts I baked a cake that looked authentic. My cake was still not moist enough. It wasn’t dry but if you’ve tasted a good Spekkoek, you’ll know that it is really quite moist and very rich.  My Spekkoek was nice and fragrant and tasty too but, darn it, it still  was nothing like the Spekkoek I look forward to eating at my friends’ houses every Raya.

I don’t think I will be making any more Spekkoeks anytime soon but I did learn a few things in the process which will, hopefully, make me a better baker. Still, I was proud of my Spekkoek.

I learnt some valuable lessons making the cake and this is what I want to share. (For the recipe per se, you can read the column here). Some of the lessons I learnt may seem pretty obvious (to me esp, on hindsight) so, bear with me.

LESSON 1: The layers in the Spekkoek may look like interlying layers of two different types of batter (one light, one dark; one spiced one not) but THEY AREN’T! The first recipe I tried, had me alternating between a plain butter batter and a spiced batter (Pic, top left). Maybe this is another version of the cake but the authentic cake calles of layering just ONE BATTER over and over. The brown layer you see in the cake is because the cake is GRILLED, so the top of the cake browns while the rest remains pale.

Its not two different batters, lah!

LESSON 2: Spread the layers really thin. About four tabelspoons per layer in a 6 inch X 6 inch pan may seem too little but believe me, it’s being generous. For my first attempt I decided to double the amount. The result? See the pic above. The batter rises.

LESSON 3: The recipe requires you to separate the egg whites from the yolks. Some recipes use only the yolks, some use both the yolks and the whites (though always more yolks than whites). Some require you to whip the whites to a meringue. My conclusion: use yolks only. If you want to use a couple of egg whites, DO NOT whip them too much or your cake will be too airy, too dry. I don’t know if my conclusion is right though. Would appreciate some feedback. Please?

LESSON 4: Grill NOT bake. This was my mistake. All the recipes call for the cake to be GRILLED. The first time I made it however, I somehow didn’t register that command and so I BAKED the cake. The result? No browning of the top and so, no distinct brown layer (See pic below).  Also, I forgot that to grill in the oven, I’d have to shift my rack right to the top. DUH!

LESSON 5: The recipes uses a lot of butter, presumably to make the cake nice and moist. Butter alone didn’t work for me. I even substituted oil for butter a couple of times. Still, I couldn’t get a moist enough cake. My last recipe used condensed milk + icing instead of granulated sugar and that worked better. Suggestions, anyone?

Nippon Aishiteru (I love Japan)

31 Aug

Ahhhh, Japan. I just got back from a week-long trip to Tokyo, Japan and I was blown away. What’s to love? The food, the beautiful people, the buzz, the 99 Yen stores, lemonade Kit Kats (?),  … twas hard to come back. Despite knowing only ten Japanese words/phrases — Hai (yes), Konichiwa (hello) , Domo Arigato (thank you), Sayonara (good bye), Sumimasen (excuse me), Gomen-nasai (Sorry), Tasukete! (help), Ohayō gozaimass (Good morning), Wakarimasen (I don;t understand) and ikura desu ka? (How much is that) — I had minimal problems getting around the city, ordering food, shopping or taking the trains. Sure, I got lost a couple of times … in a cab! The cabbie  didn’t understand me and I don’t blame him but it was all good in  the end and with sign language and a lot of smiles, I was able to get where I wanted anyways.

I’ve been to Tokyo just once before, a couple of years ago. It was a busy working trip though and I had hardly enough time to explore the city. This time around, I was luckier. Though I has quite a few events to attend and five interviews to conduct (work really does get in the way of fun!), my schedule still allowed me two full days to explore the city. Also, since my travel buddies were night owls, I was out gallivanting in the city till way past midnight most night. Tokyo can seriously challenge the Big Apple for the “city that never sleeps” title!

I was also blessed because my two buddies, Shirley and Zoey, were rel foodies. Hard-core foodies who kinda made me throw my diet out the window. Aww, you’re in Japan. Plus they have a gazillion instant diet pills that you can pop as you eat, they said. I was easily convinced. I had resigned myself to eating mainly tempura, miso soup, soba and edamame  throughout my trip. The Japanese are serious carnivores and although there are a number of vegetarian Japanese dishes, asking for a purely vegetarian dish (no bonito flakes, no pork or beef stock, etc) via sign language was just impossible. So, yeah, I had low expectations on the food spectrum.

Turned out, I was wrong. Yeah I had tempura (vegetables which are deep-fried in a batter – oh, my, it was delicious), miso soup (you can’t ever go wrong here, yummmm) and edamame (to go with Kirin, way better than beer nuts!) but I also had some yakitori, vegetarian Onigiri (rice cakes), the most delicious grilled and chilled sesame-seed tofu served with grilled tomatoes … and more. We ate everywhere, from small basement  (literally) Japanese restaurants to road-side stalls to really fancy five-star style restaurants.

Remember the movie Kill Bill? Remember the Uma Thurman’s swashbuckling scene at the japanese rest (PIC above) ? Well the set was inspired by an actual restaurant in Roponggi, Tokyo called  Gonpachi and we went there despite mixed reviews about the food. It was AWESOME. (pics will be up later).

So anyway, to cut a loooooong story short, I am so in love with Japanese food now that I have been craving  nothing but since coming back. Let’s start with the basics while I practice my sushi/onigiri skills. It’s coming… I promise. Yesterday, I had a super healthy, detox Japanese dinner: edamame for starters and miso soup + tofu as my main (with some cold soba on the side). Yummmmm.

Simple Miso soup
4 cups water/light vegetable broth
1/3 cup miso (check the ingredients, not all miso is vegetarian)
3 scallions, chopped
1 tbsp shredded nori or wakame seaweed
1/2 block firm tofu, cubed
dash soy sauce (optional)
1/2 tsp sesame oil (optional)

Bring stock to a simmer and add the seaweed. Allow to simmer for about 5 mins (low heat). Add the tofu, soy sauce and sesame oil and continue to simmer. Ladle out some of the simmering stock to dissolve the miso paste and then add it in the pot with the tofu.  When it comes to a boil, remove and serve.

To prepare the edamame, just boil in salted water for about 10 min or steam and season with salt and pepper. I added some red chilli flakes (bought in Japan for authenticity).



What have I done?

15 Aug

Thanks, Williams-Sonoma, you really done me in!

I haven’t cooked rice on the stove top for … 20 years! Yup, my Panasonic electric rice cooker cooks  my rice for me. Even when I make nasi briyani, it’s in the rice cooker. My friend, the rice cooker. As absent-minded as I am, the rice cooker is an absolute, absolute necessity. Why? Well, back when I had no rice cooker, it was quite a common that  my neighbors would hear  a high-pitched screech around-about  lunchtime. Why? Well, I’d put the rice on the stove and then I’d get bored. Who wants to watch a pot of rice cook? So, I’d multi task. I’d  start on the laundry or get on the computer or plant myself in front of the TV (this was most often the case) and forget all about the rice that’s on slow boil in the kitchen.

Until I smelt the burning.  Acck. Have you ever smelt burning rice ? It’s god-awful. By the time the smell wafted through the house to reach me, the rice would be long gone. Almost charcoal. Unsalvageable.  I’d have to throw it out with clothes peg on my nose (ok I am exaggerating but it smells awful). Naturally, I’d have to  cook a second batch and this time, to avoid a repeat performance, I literally would have to watch my rice cook. Lifting the lid ten times too often, mentally hurrying the grains up.

So anyway, that’s why I love my rice cooker. You wash the rice, chuck it in the cooker, add water and switch it on. You can then proceed to do any number of things and it won’t burn on you.

And then I got this book to review: the Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Asian Cooking cookbook (the review will be published tomorrow and I will dutifully add the link then) and I could not resist trying the “Lemon grass and Coconut Jasmine Rice”, evidently a Thailand staple .  (The cookbook features  recipes from 15 Asian countries: the essentials of each country’s cuisine.) The only problem? The rice had to be cooked on the stove.   Grrrrrrrrrrrr.

The culprit!

The picture of the rice looked so wonderful that I had to try it, even if it meant digging out my weathered rice pot from the deepest recess of my cupboard. Urrrgh.

The recipe was pretty simple. The key is to use a non-stick pan (you don’t want to scrub till the cows come home) AND to toast the rice in oil or some sort of fat (butter/ghee) before adding in the water so that the rice doesn’t stick to the pot and together.

For this recipe, you  will need …

1 cup of rice, washed clean

1 shallot, chopped

1/2 tbsp pureed fresh ginger

3 tbsp veg oil or butter

1 cup water

1 cup coconut milk

3 stalks of  lemon grass, only the tender middle section, smashed

pinch of salt

Heat the oil in the pan. Add the onions and cook till translucent. Add the rice (washed and drained) and cook, stirring, till the rice is nicely coated with oil and onions — about 3 mins. Add the water, coconut milk and salt and stir. Once it comes to a boil, add the smashed lemon grass and cover the pot. Turn the heat down to low and let the rice cook, undisturbed for 10-15 mins. You can peep in after 10 mins to see how it’s progressing and taste it: you may have to add a little more water. Once it’s done, turn off the heat and gently fluff up the rice and then put the lid back on, letting it steam in the pot fo about 10 mins. You’re good to go.

OK, that wasn’t as painful as I though it’d be. 15 minutes isn’t that long a time to hang around waiting for rice to cook. I did the dishes and watched a pair of lizards dance around my ceiling.  Fascinating! The result? The rice turned out great. Don’t underestimate the humble lemon grass: it infused an almost citrusy flavour to the rice. Awesome.

So, if it turned out great why am I (not) thanking Williams-Sonoma. WELL, the rice was such a hit with the mister (as opposed to missus — geddit) that I may just have to say bye-bye to Mr Panasonic and  cook rice ol’ skool style. I either have to establish a friendship with them  lizards (urrgh) or warn my neighbours not to call the cops if they hear me screaming just around noon.

Apam balik, anyone?

5 Aug

Sunday morning breakfasts have always been special. As a kid, Sunday mornings meant going out as a family, first to the market for our weekly shopping and then to our favourite food stalls to buy breakfast.

From noodles to Tosai (indian pancakes) to nasi lemak (rice cooked with coconut milk and served with sambal, anchovies and peanuts), we could quite literally have anything we wanted for breakfast … but only on Sundays.  For years, this was the highlight of our Sundays.

I now live on my own and family trips to the market aren’t possible: my brother lives 200 kms away and my sister has her family to feed and care for. I still savour my Sunday mornings and though I still go to the market almost every Sunday, I only occasionally stop at the food stalls for breakfast as giving in to cravings now means extra hours at the gym to work off the extra calories. That’s what happens when we hit the 30s, eh?

One of my favourite Sunday morning breakfast indulgences is the Malaysian peanut pancake or Apam Balik. It’s like a bread-waffle-pancake hybrid: spongy and crispy with a delicious sweet peanut filling. There really is nothing like it.

I have never thought of making this at home… until I came across a recipe for it on dodol-mochi.blogspot.com. The photos of her Apam Balik were awesome and she made it seem like a cinch to make. All I had to do was buy some unroasted peanuts … which I did the very next day I read her post.


If you like Apam Balik or actually if you like peanuts and waffles, you must, must try this. The skin of my Apam Balik didn’t brown as evenly as I would have liked it (I blame my inferior quality skillet which doesn’t distribute heat evenly ) but the pancake tasted AWESOME. Thank you dochi-mochi, I will surely make this again and again. And again.

Apam Balik

200ml tepid water

1 tsp instant yeast

100g high protein/bread flour

50g tapioca starch

1/4 tsp salt

35g castor sugar

B

2 eggs, at room temperature
60ml cooking oil
1/2 tsp air abu or alkaline water
Keep some tepid water on standby in case your batter is too thick

C

2 cups finely crushed roasted peanuts
2-3 tbsp castor sugar
roasted white sesame seeds (optional)
Salted butter, cut into small cube

Mix all the ingredients in A together and let it sit, covered, for about 60-90 mins or till the dough doubles in size. It may start bubbling after an hour or after doubling: don’t panic. It’s how it should be.

When it has doubled, mix all the ingredients in B together. Add it to the dough and blend well with a hand whisk. Add more water if the consistency is too thick — it should be the same consistency as pancake batter. Let it sit for about 10 mins.

Heat a skillet and oil the base and sides. Ladle in the batter (how much depends on how thick you want your apam to be) and lower the heat to med/low. Let it cook undisturbed until the top is set and the bottom is starting to get golden. Spread a thick layer of the peanut filling on half the pancake, flip the other side over, press down with something heavy like a lid of a pot and remove.

Repeat.

Jelly without the belly

4 Aug

It’s almost always hot and I’m almost always hot and bothered and not to mention sweaty. Air conditioning helps, as does water but one of the best reprieves from the heat is … AGAR AGAR. A dessert staple for many Malaysians, agar agar or jelly is the perfect panacea for the heat. Agree?

A slightly firmer version of the American dessert Jell-O, Agar Agar is derived from seaweed. Red seaweed. It is a natural thickener and unlike gelatine, which is largely extracted from animals, it’s suitable for vegetarians/vegans. The agar agar jelly is firmer than its American counterpart but, if you adjust the liquid-agar agar ratio, you can get a softer, sloppier textured agar agar too.

The best way (the only way, I think) to eat agar agar is chilled. Don’t bite it, rather just let it slither down your throat and enjoy the soothing coolness of the jelly as it goes down.

The best part? It takes very little time and hardly any effort. The basic agar agar recipe will have you boil the agar agar in water until it dissolves  adding just sugar and colouring. But there are variations. I like the coconut milk agar agar (where you replace a portion of the water with thick coconut milk) the best. There are also healthier options where you replace white sugar with fresh fruit juice (also adjusting the liquid accordingly).

It’s really a fun dessert to make and eat. It doesn’t require technique (well, not much) and it apart from boiling the agar agar till it dissolves, there is no real cooking involved. You don’t need your stand mixer, your whisk or your oven. At the most, you will need just a little whimsy as you can, unlike me, go a little crazy shaping your agar agar. Depending on the moulds you have, you can shape your agar agar to look pretty: animal and flower shaped moulds are common but you can fool around a little and create a lanscaped garden with your agar? Why? It’s like edible silly putty, that’s why! Check out the pic below which was taken from foodinthelibrary.com — Jell-O San Fransisco! Ain’t that cool?

Anyway, here’s my recipe for the basic agar agar which I made which is a combo of the clear agar agar (sugar syrup) with the coconut milk agar agar.

35g agar agar — strips (one pkt)

1200 ml water

200 ml coconut milk

1 cup sugar (you can adjust acc to your taste)

Soak the agar agar in enough water to cover it. Heat the 12oo ml water and when it starts to boil, add the soaked agar agar. Add the sugar and let the mixture boil, med heat, till the agar agar dissolves completely. Add colour of choice.

Remove 2/3 of the agar and pour into sterilized (with hot water) moulds: just halfway, not to the brim as you want to top it up with the coconut milk agar. Continue boiling the remaining, adding the coconut milk. Let it simmer while the earlier batch sets. (15 to 20 mins). Pour the coconut milk agar over the plain agar. Leave to set and refrigerate.

Yes, I Can

2 Aug

This month’s Don’t Call Me Chef challenge put me in a real tizzy: cooking with canned food. I  admit that I always have some canned food stocked in my pantry. Usually it’s a can or two of green peas (my all-time favourite can food which I featured in the column),  a can of Campbell’s soup (a quick sauce/casserole solution), a can of chickpeas (when cravings leave you no time to soak dry beans overnight) and a few cans of pureed tomatoes – Italian variety tomatoes, cut and sometimes herbed are such a wonderful shortcut.

My, it does seem like I use canned food quite a bit. Anyhow, looking at my stock, I realised that nothing I had was quite exciting enough to be featured. Except the green pea because nothing compared to canned green peas. Yes, I will stand by this.

I usually feature recipes that I am inspired by but this time I decided to use this space to report on my first encounter with a canned food I am unfamiliar with. For that, I had to go grocery shopping. Oh Joy. I decided to scout around: visiting small sundry shops as well as big-chain grocery shops — just so that I could suss out the selection.

Like a kid in a candy store (or a dude in a tool shop) I spent hours looking at canned food. The kind of food Michael Pollan would balk at. Canned beets, spinach, sliced potatoes, refried beans, sauerkraut, canned raspberries, pineapple, mandarin oranges … the choices were endless and, mind you, that’s only the vegetarian options. For meat eaters, there’s more to play with: anchovies, corned beef, luncheon meat and spam.

I really wanted to buy the canned chestnuts and artichoke hearts but at RM15 a can (a small one at that) I was hesitant. Well, actually I turned around and walked the other way, down the next aisle.

I found what I wanted in my neighbourhood shop: Kedai Runcit Peng Soon. My choice was a can of fake meat or “mock chicken”. Made wholly out of gluten, this was a challenge indeed. Firstly, the texture of the canned gluten is rubbery. Next, the taste is salty because of the brine in which it sits.  The canned gluten is  actually pre-cooked but you will not want to eat it as is. Salty with a tinge of chemical is not really appetizing. On the plus side,  the canned meat was visually interesting because the fake meat actually had fake chicken skin.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I decided to make a curry with the mock chicken. While I couldn’t alter the rubbery texture of the gluten, I discovered that sugar and spice can make anything nice. Cinnamon, star anise, curry powder, ginger, garlic, shallots and lemon grass and a little coconut milk made this gluten curry a tasty side dish which I ate with plain white bread.

The verdict: Would I used canned gluten again? Probably not but it isn’t because the dish wasn’t tasty; rather, why used a canned alternative when using fresh ingredients are not only tastier but easier?