Tag Archives: vegetarian

A case for the cauliflower

12 Sep

The cauliflower is not a favourite vegetable among most of my friends. Except perhaps when it is coated in a spicy chilli-flavoured batter and deep-fried. Anything deep-fried is nice, after all. But on the rare occasion when there is a when there is a cauliflower on the table, I find myself the only one excited. What’s not to love? Crunchy or soft, the cauliflower is truly  adaptable. Honest. It’s wonderful in a curry/masala as it absorbs the flavours well. As mentioned above, its delicious when deep-fried (after dousing it in boiling water to soften it a little). It’s nice au Gratin too. I even like it steamed (with broccoli and corn) and seasoned with just salt and pepper. But what I really like is mashed-roasted cauliflower! It’s way better (and healthier) than mashed potatoes – yes, even better than the Colonel’s mash.

I decided to test out my theory (that mashed cauliflower beats mashed potato) on some cauliflower hating friends. I didn’t reveal the main ingredient of the dish as, all mashed up, it kinda looked like potatoes anyway.

No Andy Warhol magic needed.

Here’s what I did. First, I steamed the cauliflower till it was nice and soft — about 20 mins. Then, I mashed it with a fork. Easy.

Preheated my oven to 180C.

Next, in a small pan I melted some butter and  sautéed some garlic, minced fine. I added the mashed cauliflower and added about 1/4 cup milk (or cream if you prefer). I let the mixture simmer (low heat) till there was no more liquid and then I added about 1/2 cup cheddar.

I then seasoned it with salt and pepper. As the cheddar was pretty strong, I didn’t need that much salt.

After about 2-3 minutes, I transferred the mash into a bake-safe dish, sprinkled some cheese on top and let it bake in the oven for about 10-15 mins or till the top began to get golden.

Remove, scoop out, garnish with coriander and serve.

OK, the results. My  unsuspecting dinner guests loved the mash but they also kinda guessed it wasn’t mashed potatoes. They were not able to guess what it was though. the nuttiness of the boiled and then roasted cauliflower kinda made them think they were eating mashed beans — they weren’t too thrilled at this thought. When I revealed what it was, there was silence. No, they didn’t become cauliflower converts but admitted that they wouldn’t mind seconds of my mash.

I’d call it a success. After all, they ate so much I had to chance to help myself to seconds! Backfired? Perhaps!

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Twisted and loopy

11 Sep


I love soft, flavourful breads. All breads are flavourful, you may argue. Well, most home-made breads are indeed flavourful but I find that  store-bought breads are mostly pretty bland and have no character (I am talking about the loafs that are pre-packed and have a 2-week shelf life!).  Since I successfully baked my first loaf about seven months ago, I think I’ve eaten store-bought bread less than five times. Why buy when you can bake, right? Sure, baking takes time (unless you have a bread machine — but where’s the fun in that?). Also, baking my own bread means I can add any herb/nut/grain/seasoning I like depending on my mood.  Now that’s really  swell especially since I love herb buns and they’re not that easily available in stores.

So, anyway. I was in the mood for some bread making and was mentally going through a list of breads I could possibly make. What about Pretzels? I’ve never made them before even though I’ve read quite a few recipes and articles about making a good pretzel. Why not? I was feeling relaxed (a  four-day weekend would get anyone to relax, right) and adventurous. So, why not?

Usually whenever I get a craving for pretzels (not very often, thankfully) I head over  to Auntie Anne’s Pretzels for a sour-cream and onion or cinnamon flavoured knot.  I like em. So the question is, could I make mine as nice?

I used a recipe I had earlier bookmarked from thefreshloaf.com, a great resource of you like making bread. I intended to make the  Laugenbrezel or the Lye Pretzel — a basic pretzel that is first dipped in boiling water+ a drop of Lye and then baked. The recipe on thefreshloaf however skips the lye bath, deeming it unnecessary for homemade pretzels. Ok, great. Am all for skipping a lye bath for it kind of reminds me of a tic bath I have to administer on my dog, Mojo, from time to time. Urrgh.

As it turned out, my pretzels weren’t as pretty as auntie anne’s but they were really tasty. Especially the ones with grated cheese topping. Not bad (pat on back, pat on back) 🙂

Home made pretzels

(from thefreshloaf.com)

Makes 6 large pretzels
1 tsp instant yeast
1 tbsp brown sugar
2-3 cups bread flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup warm milk (approximately 110 degrees)

1 egg (for egg wash)

1 saucepan boiling water

Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of your electric mixer and mix until the dough forms a ball. Use 2 cups of  flour first and add more, if necessary. I used a little less than 21/2 cups. Mix it for about five mins on low speed (speed 2 on my Kenwood) and then anpther 5-7 mins on 4 until the dough is all smooth and shiny.

Remove the dough and form into a ball. Place in a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it rise till double the size, about an hour.

Degas the dough gently and then transfer onto a work surface.

Preheat your  oven to 220C.

Cut the dough into 6 pieces. Roll each one into a short log, cover with a towel and let the dough relax for 5 to 10 minutes. This makes it easier to  roll it out and stretch it.

Roll each log into long ropes about as thick as your index finger, 15cm in length. You may have to let it rest as you roll/shape them.

To shape the pretzel, form the dough into a”U”. Cross the ends and cross them again. They fold the crossed ends downwards. Confused? Check out THIS site for guidance.

Once all 6 have been shaped, bring a saucepan of water to boil.

Now, using either two metal spatulas or a big wire strainer (the kind you use to deep fry stuff) dip each pretzel in the boiling water (one by one) for about 10 seconds. Drain and place on a baking sheet.

Brush each one with egg wash and sprinkle with salt and any topping of your choice: poppy seed, sesame seeds, nuts, onion powder, grated parmesan, etc.

Bake for about 15 mins or till nice and golden.

Eat it while its hot!

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.

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?

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 ..

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?

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.