Cloudy with NO chance of meatballs.

12 Aug

Neatballs? I went online to see the kitchen exploits of fellow vegetarian cooks and came across several sites featuring recipes for Neatballs. One click later and I realised neatballs is a term that’s been coined for vegan meatballs.

Why “Neat”?  Well, the “N” represents the “normal” ingredients that go into a neatball. Normal as in common, everyday, easy to find ingredients. Seriously?

A neatball is really a new-fangled way of saying vegetarian or vegan koftas. Instead of ground meat as the base, vegetarians use beans, tofu, nuts, mushrooms, eggplant or pulses as the base for their balls/cutlets. The different base ingredients determine not only the taste of your cutlet but also the texture. Using eggplant, for example, will yield you a smooth, soft cutlet while a nut-bean combo will give you a rough, crunchy texture. Mushrooms, of course, make anything taste good 🙂

Mushrooms are my favourite base ingredient for vegetarian koftas. And, unlike most recipes using mushroom, with koftas, I find the stems more useful than the caps so I buy the king oyster mushrooms (the one where the stems are at least a couple of inches thick and the caps are tiny and pale) and mix them with some shitake (stems and caps). The stems give you the koftas a kind of toughness you won’t find with most vegetables.

I drained the mushrooms (about 2 cups)  and roughly chopped them up. Next, I seasoned them with just salt and pepper and dry roasted them for about 30 mins (150C). Let them cool.

Once cool, mix the caps with other ingredients of choice: I used walnuts (1/4 cup), some carrots (1/2 cup), parsley (a handful, chopped) and eggplant (1/2 cup, lightly roasted) and blend them till they are slightly pureed — allow for some chunkiness. Add some mash potato (1 potato) and breadcrumbs (just 1/2 cup, optional) and season with oregano, soy sauce, salt and pepper. Roll into balls, and you’re set.

Bake at 180C for 20 mins or till they’re nice and browned. I cooked my koftas in a tomato-based stew and ate it with spaghetti but I kept several aside to eat on their own for my dinner tomorrow. They’re that tasty ..

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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?

Cereal killer

26 Jul

I was inspired by crack (pie). Haven’t heard of crack pie? Well neither had I until my colleague and fellow blogger Marty brought a deliciously sinful plate of pie to work and declared that it was called Crack Pie.

A Momofuku creation, Crack Pie is essentially all butter and sugar on a homemade oatmeal crust (read more here). Oh Marty, how you tempt me. She  made the pie to collaborate with another colleague and fellow blogger, The Hungry Caterpillar who was doing a review of the Momofuku cookbook. This is beginning to sound all too confusing isn’t it? Simply put, I jumped on the Momofuku bandwagon minutes after perusing the book and corresponding website. You will too, if you dare to check it out.

So anyway, I was attracted to the Cereal milk panna cotta recipe. Why did I find it so appealing? Firstly, the idea of using cereal milk — not the cereal itself mind you, just the milk you steep them in — was intriguing.  The pana cotta itself uses very little sugar — less than a tbsp — so the flavour is really from the cereal.  A breakfast dessert if you will.

Now the other attraction to this recipe is the garnishes: caramelised corn flakes and a slab of home-modified chocolate dubbed, the Chocolate Hazelnut Thing (chocolate with hazelnut praline and caramelised cornflakes in it — oh yum).

I have to apologise for my picture which barely does any justice to the recipe. To see a more aestheically pleasing version of the dessert, click HERE.

The panna cotta is also served with an avocado puree but I prefered mine without it.

Here’s how you do it. Be warned, there are more than a couple of steps to the recipe but they’re really easy to follow and pretty quick to execute.

Cereal panna cotta

First, toast  4 cups of corn flakes lightly in the oven (150C) for about 10 to 15 mins. Then, mix 2 cups of milk with 2 cups of heavy cream in a bowl. Add the cups of cereal to the milk + cream mixture and steep for 45 mins. Now, strain the milk from the cereal (get as much of the milk out). Now, add 3/4 tbsp  sugar and a pinch of salt to the milk heat the milk+cream mixture slowly until the sugar dissolves. Keep stirring.

Set aside 1 tbsp agar agar flakes or 1/2 tbsp agar agar powder in a bowl. As the milk+cream+sugar heats up, ladle some of it into the bowl with the agar-agar and let it dissolve. Once done, whisk soaked gelatin back into remaining milk + cream mixture. Strain the mixture so that any undissolved bits of agar agar or sugar are containes and pour the liquid into wither ramekins or wine/cocktail glasses. Refrigerate until set (at least 2 hours).

Chocolate hazelnut thing

Part A: Caramelised corn flakes

Mix 1 cup of corn flakes + 2 tbsp sugar + 2 tbsp millk powder. Spread the coated flakes out on a tray and bake (120C) for about 15 mins or until it’s a deep golden colour. Set aside.

Part B: Hazelnut Praline

Roast 1/2 cup skinned hazelnuts till they’re nice and toasty. Set aside.  Heat 3/4 cup sugar on the stove (low heat) until it melts and becomes a syrup. Add the nuts and stir the mix so the nuts are nicely coated. Turn off and let the sugar+nuts cool.

Blend or pound the mixture  to a paste/powder. Set aside.

Part 3: Melting the chocolate and assembling all parts

Choose a choclate of your choice: plain or one with a nutty flavour would be good. Melt the chocolate in a stainless steel bowl over simmering water. Once melted, add the praline and caramelised corn flakes and spread the mixture on a tray. (I kept aside some of the praline  powder to sprinkle on the panna cotta seperately). Freeze till it sets and break it up into pieces.

Once the panna cotta and the chocolate are set, it’s time to put the sum of all parts together and enjoy the fruit of your labour 🙂

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.

A case for mushrooms

19 Jul

I have way too many cookbooks. Some of these cookbooks I inherited but most of them I bought. I have so many that there are some I haven’t used — sure, I’ve browsed through them but haven’t tested the recipes.

Since we started reviewing cookbooks for Don’t Call Me Chef column in StarTwo (together with Marty Thyme and The Hungry Caterpillar), I’ve accumulated even more cookbooks. Yowza!

So, for today’s review, I decided to unearth a cookbook I bought about six months ago at a book sale dubbed the Big Bad Wolf sale: the Good Housekeeping Step-By-Step Cookbook. The 460-odd paged book is an essential for beginner cooks as it has step-by-step instructions on basic but fundamental cooking techniques with recipes to accompany.

But it is also a keeper for those of us who know a little about cooking and are  learning: especially Asian cooks who need to know the fundamentals of western cooking styles using Western flavouring.

From jams to pot roasts, chocolate brownies to paella, the cook book is replete with recipes to try out. For the column in the newspaper, I tested two recipes, one for herbed butter and another for a basic lemon cheesecake. Read the full review and get the recipes HERE.

Having tried the two recipes, I wasn’t quite done with the book. There were several other recipes I wanted to try: tomato sauce, chilli sauce, the sweet mocha bread (which looked divine), the chocolate chip cookies (if this book could guide me to baking great cookies, it’s definitely gold-star worthy as I am hopeless at cookies) and many more.

I started with the recipe for Mushroom Baskets simply because I love mushrooms and had some on hand.  They’re really tasty (you can’t really go wrong with mushrooms) and though the baskets in the recipe are individual meal-sized portions, they’d make really good canapés if you make downsize them to tartlets.

There are just two steps to these baskets: Step 1 is making and pre- baking the pastry and Step 2 is making the mushroom filling.

Pastry

250 g plain flour

150g chilled butter, cubed

1 large egg

Crumble the butter in the flour till it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add egg and mix (by hand or pulse in a food processor) till the mixture comes together. Knead lightly on a floured surface and shape into six balls. Wrap and chill for 30 mins. Once chilled, roll the pastry out on a floured work surface (big enough to fully line the tart tins) and line the tins (loose based tart tins are recommended) . Prick the base with a fork and chill for 20mins. Heat the oven to 200C. Line the base of the cases with parchment paper and fill with beans. Blind bake for 10 mins. Remove the beans and bake for a further 5 mins or till cooked. reduce oven temp to 180C.

Making the filling

15g dried mushroom

50g butter

2 onions, finely chopped

450g mixed mushrooms, sliced

1 clove garlic, cruched

300 ml med-dry sherry (I used red wine)

250 gm double cream

salt and ground black pepper

fresh thyme to garnish

Soak the dried mushrooms in boiling water for 10 mins. Heat the butter in a pan and add the onions. Cook for 10 mins. Add the fresh mushrooms and garlic and cook for 5 mins. Remove from pan and set aside.

Put the dried mushrooms and the liquid (about a cup) in a pan with the sherry. Bring to a boil, bubble for 10 mins and add the cream. Cook till it becomes syrupy.

To serve

Put the pastry cases in the oven to heat them up, about 5 mins. Add the cooked fresh mushrooms to the sauce  and season on low heat. Pour into cases and garnish with thyme.