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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).


Guarding my cuppa (corn)

19 Jul

Corn is one of my all-time  favourite comfort food. Simple steamed sweet corn, seasoned with salt, pepper and a sprinkling of herbs and eaten out of a cup in front of the TV.  It has to be that way, only then is it my perfect comfort indulgence.

Strangely, I haven’t much eaten steamed corn in a while. It’s not that everything’s all hunky dory with my life; more like I’ve been too spoilt for choice these days and consumed by my newfound hobby: baking.

Still, you never can forget true love and it took very little to jog my taste buds into attention. Last Friday, after watching the almost unbearable new Predators flick starrting Adrien Brody (this is totally my opinion, of course), I was feeling completely unfulfilled. Wish Arnie would stop mucking about and get back to Hollywood already. Anyways, as I was walking petulantly down to the carpark, I spotted a food stall selling steamed sweet corn. Now, steamed sweet corn as a “fast food” snack emerged sometime in the late 1980s. Back then, a cup was only RM1. This little stall was selling a really small cup for RM3.5o. Sure, there were many flavours (compared to thos days when the choice of seasoning was only salt and pepper. This exhorbitant corn had several choices of flavours: original (salt), lemon and pepper, cheese and lemon and chilli.

I stuck to the original. Not because I lack a sense of adventure but rather, I’ve learnt that when it comes to corn, it doesn’t pay to be adventurous. A couple of years ago while traveling in India, I tried a local version of steamed corn: masala (mixed spice) corn. It wasn’t vile but I vowed never to try exotic flavoured corn. The masala spices overpowered the natural flavour of the sweet corn and I tasted all spice and no corn.

From then, corn went only with salt and pepper … and melted butter, of course. Last night, I decided to throw caution to the wind (am exagerating, come on!) and added some fresh thyme to the corn once it had steamed. Lovely. So for now, subtle hints of herbs are an accepted extra to my cuppa sweet corn.

Snack, crackle and pop, pop, pop!

8 Jun

I don’t get why our cinemas don’t serve salty popcorn! They used to … about ten years ago but all we have now is the sweet caramel flakes. Urrrgh. If that’s not discrimination, I don’t know what is? Not everyone has a sweet tooth after all.

Anyway, no use complaining as popping popcorn at home is easier than frying an egg … I  mean seriously. And it’s a lot cheaper than buying a carton at the cinemas. Since I watch a lot of movies at home (my DVD collection is insane), I can have my salted popcorn at the (home) movies anytime I wish.

It takes less than fifteen minutes from start to finish and it could take about the same time to polish off  a bucketful of the salty flakes. What you need? A medium sized sauce pan with a lid; 3 tbsp vegetable oil; butter (melted); salt and black pepper and corn kernels (of course: be sure not to get the ones for the microwave!).

Heat the oil in the saucepan and add a couple of kernals and cover the saucpan. When you hear the kernals pop (its loud enough, don’t worry), fill the saucepan with about 1/3 cup kernels (there should just be a thin layer of kernals at the base of the pan). Cover and let them pop, pop and pop; shaking the pan from time to time.

When the popping stops, remove from fire immediately. The hot oil in the pan will work on the  kernels that have yet to pop.

Melt butter and add salt. Pour the melter butter over the popcorn, sprinkle some pepper and toss to coat it as evenly as possible.

Now,  as easy as it is, there are a few things to look out for.

* Don’t let the oil heat up too much —  you’ll end up with partially popped kernels with hard centers.

* Not too low heat either as you will end up with some  entirely unpopped kernels

* Not too many kernels in a pan. Just one layer at the base of a saucepan.

* Pop them with oil, not butter unless burnt is your flavour of choice!

If you are more adventurous and like sweet or unusual seasonings for your popcorn, visit Marty Tyme‘s blog. For our recent Don’t Call Me Chef coloum (a monthly food column I co produce with Marty and The Hungry Catterpiller in The Star) Marty tried three flavours of popcorn which  were interesting to say the least. She even made a trail-mix pop corn! That Marty …

Nuts about … nuts

6 Jun

It’s really quite amazing what some of my friends and family are doing to gear up for the World Cup this Friday. Buying jerseys to support their favourite teams, placing bets and even purchasing High Definition TV sets — World Cup fever is definitely here and temperatures are high. Now, since the TV is going to be everyone’s  best friend for the next month or so there is one other thing to prepare: snacks to eat while watching the games. I’m a TV snacker so this is of prime importance for me.

It is in this vein that we decided to devote this months Don’t Call Me Chef (a monthly column I write with Marty Thyme and The Hungry Caterpillar in The Star) on munchies for the World Cup. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been preparing my repertoire. For the column, I made yummy cheese straws: they’re addictive, let me warn you. I also made sweet potato home fries, onion rings, breaded mozzarella sticks and breaded tempe sticks (an alternative for vegans) for this blog.

Today I decided to bake some nuts. Regular nuts are great but I also like coated nuts, the spicier the better.

You need raw, skinned peanuts and a batter to coat them in. For the batter, I mixed plain flour, 5 spice mix, salt, pepper and sugar. To bind the nuts with the batter, I used an egg with some minced garlic.  First, beat the egg with the garlic (3 cloves). Pour the egg over the nuts (300 gms) in a bowl and mix. Whisk together the flour (75 gms), 5 spice powder (1/2 tbsp), salt (1tsp) and sugar (1.5 tbsp). Add the dry ingredients to the egg coated nuts and mix well. Though I usually use my hands to mix my ingredients, I recommend using a spoon as the batter gets sticky making it a little bit tricky mixing everything together.

Now you can either fry the nuts or bake them. Both ways are good but I opted for the oven as it was a slightly healthier option. Heat the oven at 180C for about 10 mins. Spread the nuts on a greased baking sheet and slide the tray onto the middle rack. Bake for 10 or 15 minutes, remove tray, toss the nuts and put it back in for another 5-10 mins. Remove when the nuts turn golden and crispy. If you prefer frying, heat a saucepan with oil. When the oil is hot, spoon the nuts (a little at a time) into the oil and fry till golden. You will have to turn them midway. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain oil on a paper towel.

You can season the batter with a host of other spices. Chilli powder or curry powder work too. If you like the coconut cream coated nuts, you can substitute half the egg with thick coconut milk. The thing to remember is not to add too much egg/coconut cream as the batter has to be sticky and stick to the nuts. If you accidentally add to much liquid, just add on a spoonful or so of flour.

That’s it. Takes just about 25 minutes to make and 300 gms should see you through one match.

Snack attack: Part III. Onion rings, Indian style.

4 Jun

Ever heard of the Awesome Blossom a.k.a Blooming Onion a.k.a Onion Blossom? Well, commonly found in American establishments (diners and steakhouses commonly serve them), this onion dish originally used the Vidalia onion, a large sweet onion. The onion is cut to resemble a flower, breaded and deep fried. As you can imagine, it’s oily and naturally,  loaded with calories.

A relative of the bloom is the onion ring which is kinder to the arteries. Though fried, onion rings aren’t necessarily deep fried. Pan-frying with an inch or two of oil will suffice.  Western recipes for onion rings call for the onions (cut in rings, hence the name) to be coated in white flour or cornmeal. Seasoning is mainly salt or sometimes garlic salt. New York Times columnist Mark Bittman dips his onions in milk and then flour and proceeds to fry them  in olive oil. Some recipes call for the rings to be breaded. Others mix some baking powder in a flour batter for puffy rings.

While these rings are pretty nifty, I prefer the Indian version of the onion ring called the onion Bhajee. The concept is the same but the batter has a lot more kick in it. Instead of plain white flour, the Bhajee employs gram flour (that’s chickpea flour by the way) mxed with a little rice flour and chilli powder. I used about a cup of gram flour, 1 tbsp rice flour, 3/4 tbsp chilli powder. Oh, you also need a pinch of asofoetida. Finely chopped green chillies and curry leaves (and sometimes parsley) are also added. The dry mix is mixed with enough water to form a thick batter.

The onion rings are then coated generously with the batter (just chuck them into the bowl with the batter and mix them with your hands, ensuring they’re well and truly bathed in the batter).  Heat oil to about 180C and fry the battered rings till they’re golden. Drain and enjoy.

Indian snacks use gram flour a lot and not just as a batter. The Bonda, for example, is a fried flour ball that’s made primarily of gram flour. Once again, mix the gram flour with some rice flour, chilli powder and asafoetida. Add finely chopped chilli, finely chopped spinach (lightly sauteed, just about 2 tbsp) and curry leaves (finely chopped also) and add just enough water to allow you to make little  dough balls.

Again, heat about an inch of oil in a skillet and when hot, drop the dough balls (uneven shapes are customary!) into the oil and fry till golden.

Both the onion bhajee and the bonda are snacks, usually tea time snacks. Because of the gram flour, they’re quite filling. The bonda is best eaten with a coconut chutney (a southern Indian dip/sauce) while the onion bhajee is usually eaten with a mint chutney.

To top is off, have some lovely Indian spice tea (masala tea) and you’ll have a nice smile on your face. I guarantee.

Snack time, part II: Mozzie sticks and the wannabe

2 Jun

Mozzeralla cheese sticks are undoubtedly one of my favourite snack-cum-meal. Unfortunately, I rarely indulge in them because they’re ridiculously costly to make. a block of mozzarella will easily set you back RM15 (at least) which would yield you just about seven mozzarella sticks. And trust me, given how delicious this snack is, that won’t even last me past the first twenty minutes of any programme on TV.

It just doesn’t make economic sense but my tummy doesn’t get economics (neither does my mind, really) and so sometimes, I cave budgets be damned.

Even with a hard mozzarella bar, making these sticks can be a bit tricky because the cheese melts once you put them in the hot oil to fry. The secret is breading them enough so that the crumbs/flour/egg coating insulates them enough from the heat and they keep their form contained, more or less. The idea is to get the cheese to melt but not to leak.

What you will need is Mozzarella cheese of course cut into strips  (or string cheese, which you will just have to half), an egg or two (beaten), all purpose flour (or rice flour) and bread crumbs (season with black pepper or herbs for better flavour)  all in separate bowls.

Dip the Mozzarella sticks first in the flour, coating well. Next dip the floured sticks in egg, making sure it’s well coated, and then breadcrumbs. Coat again in egg and once more in breadcrumbs. You really want a thick coating of breadcrumbs, neatly pressed in all around the stick of cheese.

Once you’ve coated all the sticks, chill them in the fridge for about 30 mins to firm them up. Heat up about 1/2 cup of oil in a skillet and once hot (but not steaming), gently drop in the chilled sticks and cook them over medium heat till the coating is nice and golden. Remove, drain and eat them while the cheese is warm. Actually, though these mozzarella sticks are prefereed to be eaten warm, while the cheese is all sticky and gooey, I like them cool as well.

Now, what if you’re vegan and cheese is a no-no? try these imitation cheese sticks with tempeh (pic below). Superficially, you won’t be able to tell the difference as the coating is the same.

The taste, however, is naturally different. It’s not at all cheesy (unless  you season the breading with dried Parmesan); rather, it’s slightly nutty. This requires a little more effort as you have to season the tempeh well first. Tempeh on it’s own is pretty tasteless and pungent. So you could season it with spices (cumin, curry, salt and pepper) or a honey-balsamic vinegar marinade. Season them overnight or for at least 4 hours before proceeding to coat them (as above).

Saving stale bread

1 Jun

I don’t know about you but when itc omes to bread, the biggest problem or rather, conundrum, I face is not how to bake a good loaf but what to do with stale (or about to be stale) bread? Unlike commercial bread which can keep for a week or so, home made bread keeps for four days, if you are lucky. Unless you freeze it, in which case, you can store it for a month or two or three.

Usually, I use stale bread to replenish my supply of breadcrumbs. Sometimes, while toasting the bread en route to crumbling them into crumbs I season them with a little oil and herbs or parmesan or black pepper. But I’ve been doing that so often now that my supply of homemade breadcrumbs is  close to obscene. Don’t believe me? You know the huge peanut butter jars? Well, I have six jars of breadcrumbs. Six. Yes, six.

I needed to find some new use for stale bread because my little Dachshund Mojo (my next resort, after making breadcrumbs)  has also had enough of stale bread. I swear he rolls his eyes everytime he sees me adding the bread to his chunk of beef. Poor thang.

So, what to do with stale bread. That was my mission last night. I baked some wholemeal buns on Saturday and forgot to freeze the two leftover buns.  I needed to act quick. I decided to cut them up in strips, drizzle them with some olive oil, sprinkle with herbs and pepper (lotsa pepper) and a little salt and grill them in the oven for about ten minutes or till they were crunchy.   Good idea. These turned out wonderfully flavourful and dipping them in olive oil/balsamic vinegar would have sufficed.

But I decided to go a step further.

I tried adding pesto to the mix. Spreading it on the bread sticks or simply dipping the ends in. I had some parsley pesto in the fridge … hmmm, pretty good.

What else. Oh, I made some almond nut butter a couple of weeks ago and had about a couple of spoonfuls left. I slathered on a thick layer on two of the strips. And I mean, a really thick layer. Oh, my.

And finally when all else fails, stale bread = crutons + soup. Never fails.

If you’ve got any ideas for stale bread, would love to hear em. God knows I forsee a lifetime supply…

Snack time, part one.

31 May

I am a snacker which is really the biggest challenge to any diet plan I embark on. Rice I can skip. Pasta, who needs you. Pies and tarts, I do not miss. But a bag full of nuts? Some cheezy pretzels? Crispy Indian muruku? Oh woe! Mostly I snack in front of the TV. I mean, where’s the fun in watching TV if there’s nothing to munch, right? Funnily enough, I don’t ever eat popcorn at the cinema… don’t know why! Go figure. Yes, it’s the TV that really gets me going and going and going.

With the World Cup coming up in less than a week, we decided to devote  June’s installment of Don’t Call Me Chef  (a monthly food column I co produce with Marty Thyme and Hungry Caterpiller) to snacks fit for TV. I think it was the easiest challenge ever. There were many recipes I had to share, but I narrowed it down to one… watch for this space next Monday. Since I could only highlight one in the paper, I decided to do a run-up highlighting some of my other favourite snacks.

Am starting with sweet potato fries. They’re so easy to make it’s ridiculous. You need very few things: sweet potatoes (of course), salt, pepper, cayenne or paprika. Oh, and a nice, clean, scouring pad.

First, scrub the sweet potatoes clean because we’re going to cook the skins along with the flesh.

All cleaned up? Great. Now it’s time to cut em up. This depends on the size of your sweet potatoes. If your’s are 6 inches or shorter, just cut them in half lengthwise and then into wedges.  If you have really long sweet potatoes, cut them in half horizontally before cutting them lengthwise and into wedges.

OK. Now, to season. All you need is salt, pepper and paprika/cayenne. A huge pinch of everything is good enough for one sweet potatoe. Just rub them good and proper on the wedges, making sure all of them are coated well. I was frugal with the seasoning pre-frying as I like to sprinkle some salt and pepper on the fries once they’re done.

Once seasoned, heat about 1/2 cup oil in a wok/saucepan. When it’s hot, lower the heat and slowly slide in the wedges. Fry till the centre is cooked. You don’t have to poke them; they’re usually cooked if the outside is golden and crisp.

Drain them on paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper before serving.

Told you it was easy!

Would you like a cutlet with that?

23 May

As a kid, I used to look forward to the weekends cos that’s when my mum used to make cutlets — fish and mutton cutlets were my favourites. This was, of course, before I became a vegetarian. Cutlets are still one of my favourite things to eat and also to make.

Cutlets are real easy to make because there really isn’t one fixed recipe to follow. As long as you add some mashed potato to the main ingredient (chicken/meat/fish for non vegetarians; and beans or soy or a mix of vegetables for vegetarians) and you bread them before frying/baking, the rest (i.e the  seasoning) is really up to you.

For Indian vegetable cutlets, seasoning is usually with chilli powder/cumin/coriander/fennel powders and salt and pepper. You can also use curry powder or  masala powder. It’s really up to you. The seasoning for Western styled cutlets are naturally different and you can add cheese, herbs, lemon, paprika … these are some of what you may use for seasoning.

So versatile; just switching around the seasoning can alter the taste tremendously and you can have countless varieties of cutlets.

We used to eat our cutlets with rice but you can eat them with bread, salads, pasta or just as is. Nowadays, I eat them just as they are … the potatoes take care of the carbs I need for a day!

The two cutlets in the picture look identical but they’re actually very different. One is made of vegetarian chicken (soy chicken and gluten) and potato while the other just vegetables (mushrooms, carrots, zuchini),  cheese and potato. The vegetarian chicken cutlet was seasoned with salt, pepper, chilli, tumeric, fennel, onion and garlic  powders. The vege-cheese one was seasoned with dried italian herbs, onion and garlic powder and paprika.

For added flavour, I seasoned the breadcrumbs too. To make homemade breadcrumbs use stale but not mouldy bread. Toast them in the oven till brown but not burnt; let cook and then, crumble. To season, I added cracked black pepper and herbs. I sometimes add some crumbled parmesan cheese too.

Mince all ingredients and add them to the mashed potatoes. How many potatoes you use again depends on how you want your cutlets to taste. I used one small potato to make 6 cutlets as I didn’t want the potato to overpower the flavours of the other ingredients.

Once mixed, divide them into balls (bout the size of a golfball) and then flatten.

Beat an egg; spread the breadcrumbs into a bowl.

Dip the cutlets, one at a time, in the egg (coating both sides) and then cover them with the crumbs. Set aside for about 15 mins.

Pour oil into a skillet (oil should be 1 inch deep) and heat. Once hot, gently slide in cutlets and fry till both sides are golden brown.

Remove gently with slotted spoon and leave to cool.

Let’s eat some drink and be berry, Yo!

4 Mar

It’s crazy. I came back from work close to midnight, dead beat and all I wanted to do was bake. Working in the kitchen, I suddenly found a burst of energy. I knew exactly what I wanted to make. I had bought a small tub of blueberries about a week ago because they were ridiculously cheap — RM5 for 200gms or something like that.

I’ve been hankering to use them but I just never got round to it because I have been so consumed by making bread. But, at 11.30pm, it was ridiculous  to even contemplate baking a bread. Ok, at 11.30pm it’s pretty insane to start baking anything but …

So I dug out the recipe for a Blueberry Yoghurt Cake with Rum and got crackin. It’s an easy cake to make really. It took just 30 mins to prep and another 30 mins to bake. 30 mins to cool, 20 mins to photograph and I was done for the night.

I didn’t have rum; only single malt whiskey and some Bailey’s Irish Cream and so I used the latter as I felt it would go with the yoghurt and blueberries. The rest of the ingredients I had: plain yoghurt (250 gms), 2 eggs, 1/3 cup vegetable oil, 1 cup sugar, 2 cups all purpose flour, 1.5 tsp baking powder, 1/5 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp vanilla extract and 250 gms blueberries ( only had 200gms). Oh and 1 tbsp Baileys.

Blend the yoghurt, sugar, vanilla extract, egg and oil till well mixed. Add the flour and mix. Don’t overbeat the batter. Fold in the blueberries and trasnfer batter into a greased 10 inch round pan.

Bake in a preheated oven at 180C for 30 or 35 mins or till the top of the cake is golden and tester comes out clean. Let it stand for 10 mins once done and then transfer onto rack to cool completely.

This cake doesn’t rise all that much; it’s soft and smooth and the texture is slightly chewy and moist because of the yoghurt, I think. It’s not too sweet; and if that;s a problem you can top it with some glaze or syrup once its oyut of the oven. It was fine for me. You can hardly taste the Bailey’s though … perhaps a little more or next time I’ll actually use rum. And If I ever grab some blueberries again, I’ll add some lemon zest to the cake for some extra punch.