The UnProfessional Chef

A girl's commentary on food, cooking and all things delicious!

Location: Singapore

A closet food critic and wannabe chef who loves the art of cooking and enjoying great cuisine in the company of great friends!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Big Bird on Boxing Day - Diva Dining #3

Cheeky Turkey with Leeks and Trimmings

A belated Merry Christmas to everyone! I've spent the last few days contemplating how to tackle my yearly attempt to cook a decent turkey - that is, not ickily dry or tasteless. Countless cookbooks suggest countless ways of keeping the moisture in, but by Jove, I think I've found the perfect solution.

I had my usual bunch of harpies over for dinner on Boxing Day along with their other halves. As usual, they demand a big bird and it's become a kind of tradition for one of us to roast a huge turkey to stuff our faces with. The wonderful thing is that all my diva girls absolutely love eating and it's always a pleasure to cook for an appreciative audience, isn't it? So, despite the trepidation with which I undertook the task of the turkey, the effort was worth it.

I used a recipe from Jamie Oliver's website - Cheeky Turkey with Leeks and Trimmings. It turned out to be a classy yet fuss-free method of roasting turkey. Basically I had to separate the legs from the body of the turkey, roast that first with onions, then toss in leeks, red wine, dried porcini mushrooms, whole garlic bulbs, thyme and sage before resting the seasoned, buttered crown of the turkey (that had been draped with generous amounts of smoked bacon) on top of the whole mixture. It was then just bunged into the oven for 2 hours and forgotten till the gorgeous smells emerged to inform that dinner was ready. It really was much simpler than the previous recipe for turkey I had used which used far too much butter and required constant basting. This turkey was super moist and very flavourful thanks to all the herbs and the smoked bacon. The gravy was also sublimely flavoured by the leeks and given a robust kick by the soft garlic flesh that was squeezed into the gravy just before serving. Alongside the homemade cranberry sauce and my buttermilk potatoes (five pounds worth mashed diligently by my hardworking girlfriends), this silenced my girlfriends into an eating frenzy for a good half an hour before anyone could stop eating for a long enough time to chat. I didn't even have time to snap a decent picture of the turkey before it was demolished, but I was immensely pleased.

Roasted Onion, Corn and Watercress Salad

It wasn't all unhealthy. One of my dear girlfriends brought along a Roasted Onion, Corn and Watercress salad. Healthy yet completely gorgeously flavoured with macademia oil and lemon juice, this had all of us eating our requisite amount of greens for the day.

Bacon and Mushroom Aglio Olio Linguini

Another darling girlfriend upped the carbo quotient by bringing along a spicy, tasty Bacon and Mushroom Aglio Olio Linguini dish. Despite the massive portions of carbo we had, most of this dish disappeared too!

Crème Brûlèe

To round it all off, I had prepared Crème Brûlèe the day before. Basically consisting of egg yolks, cream, vanilla paste (or the seeds of the vanilla pod) and sugar, this was a tiny delectable delight that perfectly ended our decadent dinner. It was also very much fun to break out my blowtorch to create that lovely crackly caramel topping on top of the Crème Brûlèe.

We couldn't walk much after dinner and one of my harpy girls even had to lie down, so full of food was she.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

A Christmas Revelation

Cranberry Sauce with Orange Zest

I had earlier blogged about the thrill of locating fresh cranberries when I thought sadly that the only cranberries I would ever see here were the dried ones or those already processed beyond recognition in the form of Cranberry Jelly and the like. In my excitement, I’d purchased two bags worth and frozen them. With the little dinner I had planned for my diva girlfriends coming up on Boxing Day, I decided to make good use of the cranberries by turning them into home made Cranberry Sauce for my roast turkey before they became forgotten at the back of my freezer.

For some strange reason, I’d always imagined the recipe for Cranberry Sauce to be some magical secret potion involving hours spent over a hot stove stirring and stirring and stirring. Imagine my somewhat dumbfounded ‘duh!’ surprise when all the recipes I located had one thing in common – they were dead easy. Basically, one cup water, one cup sugar, 12 ounces of cranberries. Boil. If required, add in, as you like, orange peel, pecans, raisins, etc (basically anything you could imagine would taste good with cranberries). Simmer for 10 minutes. Cool, then chill.

The entire process took all of 15 minutes including the time I took to zest some orange peel to add into the mixture, as well as washing up! It was a Christmas 2005 Revelation indeed and the best reason never never never to buy bottled cranberry sauce again – the trip to the supermarket and battle with the traffic is simply not worth it.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

'Twas the week before Christmas...

Christmas Chocolate and Manuka Honey Panforte

With Christmas just one week away, I decided to do some pre-preparation for the diva dinner I’m going to have on 26 December with my girlfriends. I’d learned the recipe for this traditional Christmas delight - Italian panforte (literally hard bread in Italian) from Chef Oscar Pasinato of Buko Nero (a lovely little Italian restaurant here in Singapore which is so consistently good that it has a month-long waiting list for dinner).

The biggest selling point of the panforte was the fact that it can keep for up to a month! Chef Oscar had told us (perhaps jokingly, just perhaps) that in Italy, they even prepare it at Christmas and eat it all the way up to Easter. Whatever the case may be, I was sufficiently confident that it would keep for at least two weeks to feed whoever might drop by my home (Santa, can you hear me?).

The recipe contains honey, chocolate, dried apricots, blanched almonds, sugar, ground cinnamon, a pinch of salt and flour. I opted to use Manuka honey - so my dear friends, you know you're getting the good stuff! The honey and sugar are heated and melted together, then mixed with the dried apricots, almonds, cinnamon, salt and flour. The melted chocolate is then quickly stirred in to form a super dense mixture that bakes in the oven for between 25 – 45 minutes (mine took much longer to bake than the version at the cooking class – perhaps my oven temperature is not what it purports to be). A ultra sweet and chocolatey chewy ‘bread’ is the result. Not meant to be eaten in large quantities due to the huge amount of sugar, it is simply perfect in the teeny tiny pieces shown in the picture alongside a great cup of expresso.

A Chinese Feast

I finally managed to gain entry into Xi Yan this evening thanks to the resourcefulness of two foodie friends who scored a reservation (despite a 2-3 month waiting list) and decided to invite more people along to share this superlative dining experience. Xi Yan is a relatively new restaurant which brings to Singapore the Hong Kong concept of private kitchen dining. Basically, this means that all the diners in the tiny restaurant (just 5 tables of about 7-10 people each) are to eat exactly the same thing and commence dinner at exactly the same time.

The dinner was the definition of perfection. I am not a great fan of Chinese dinners normally because they are usually starchy, heavy affairs. But Xi Yan has really made me appreciate Chinese cuisine again even despite the fact that I was nursing a cold and was not in the best control of my tastebuds. However, it has to be said that the food at Xi Yan was really more fusion in execution than the standard Chinese fare we normally get and therefore much more unusual. I stupidly did not bring my camera as my camera battery was flat! So, photos sadly will not accompany this blog entry unless my kind dining companions who did bring their cameras email me their photographs subsequently.

We started the first of our 13(!!) dishes with Prancing Lobster with Two Sauces – this was the freshest, most simply cooked lobster served with a mint sauce and a tangy Thai-style spicy sour sauce. This proved to be a refreshing start to the multitude of dishes coming our way. Our next appetizer of Japanese organic Tomatoes in Sesame Sauce was simply breathtaking. Three of the fattest, hugest, juiciest and sweetest tomatoes were presented to the table alongside a topping of sesame sauce remniscient of Japanese shabu-shabu. None of us had tasted tomatoes this sweet and juicy before and I am now certainly inspired to go a-hunting at the local Japanese supermarkets for these tomatoes. We then had Cold Tofu with Pork Floss and Salted Egg. Again, the cold, clean taste of the tofu was set off beautifully by the pork floss, perfectly fried shallots and salted egg that gave the dish an added kick. This was followed by Northern Style Chinese Dried Chicken done Singapore-style – i.e. the chicken was treated with some sort of marinade before being frozen in the deep freeze and subsequently steamed. This resulted in a unique version of dried yet flavourful chicken meat. We finally ended the appetizer round with Cloud Ears with Wasabi. This traditional Chinese fungus which is ubiquitous in many a vegetable dish at Chinese restaurants was very lightly prepared. Topped with flying fish roe and accompanied by a wasabi-spiked sauce, it was surprisingly crisp and crunchy, and not in the least bit heavy on the palate.

Our tummies were seriously full by this stage and we hadn’t even started on the mains yet! One of our fellow diners who had eaten at the original Hong Kong branch of Xi Yan doggedly finished every last drop of the appetizers placed before us, as his earlier experience had indicated that the appetizers were generally much better than the mains. However, we were all very gladly proved wrong (and he had to groan and moan through the rest of the meal). The mains were again, out of this world. We started with Orange Beef – this was moist and tender beef shin cooked in an orange sauce and dried chilies then topped jauntily with preserved Chinese orange peel. The flavours, as they had done thus far, melded together to create a beautifully satisfying dish, with each individual taste complementing the other. Next up was Salivate Pork – literally. The minute the platter arrived, we started drooling. Thinly sliced tender pork was given the ‘ma la’ Sichuan hot pot treatment and wisely served alongside century egg and Japanese konyaku noodles that helped to absorb the heat of the sauce. Extremely special and surprisingly balanced between the numbing heat and the cooling freshness of the noodles, this dish was one of the favourites (though absolutely none of the dishes were disappointing) for its unique flavours. Eating our way through the spectrum of species, the chef then presented to us Shrimp Sauce Grouper with Pomelo. This again was an unusual combination of flavours common to Chinese cuisine. Shrimp Sauce is normally used to fry chicken, and I would never have thought it worked with deep fried fish. It did, very well in this case, again nicely balanced out by the tart juiciness of the pomelos. Just when we thought we could not be surprised further, a bamboo platter of Crab Roe Glutinous Rice was placed before us. The waiter advised us that the crabs, which were beautifully presented on top of the rice, were not the star of the dish. In this case, it was the rice, which had absorbed all the gorgeous crab juices and crab roe flavours that was the sweet pièce de resistance. He was right. The crab though still sweet, had given of its best to the rice which was infused with the best crab-iness flavour ever.

By this time, my fellow diners were declaring that they were beyond the ‘Full’ tank gauge reading. Understanding this and in preparation for the rest of our meal, the chef served up a palate cleanser of Mixed Fruits in Plum Sauce. Simple Fuji apples, Japanese pear, Chinese pear and Jambu were given a new lease of life by the just sour enough plum sauce. We happily crunched our way through the fruits and were revived in time for the Fresh Ginseng Chicken Soup – a clear, extremely healthy and very delicious broth. The mains finally finally ended with Braised Mushrooms with Pickled Cucumber. Despite the state of our tummies, the fragrant smells wafting out from the perfectly cooked Shitake, Portobello and Abalone mushrooms led us to dig in one final time with our chopsticks.

But, how could one forget dessert? Indeed, it was again a standout. Simply billed as Xi Yan Tang Yuan, the two innocuous looking dough balls floating in their bowls of ginger soup contained within them a treasure trove of delights. I doubt that nowhere else will I ever again taste tang yuan that is made up of salted egg, sesame, peanuts, sugared winter melon, and butter.

While lolling in our seats, we were greeted by the affable and very young chef (which is so impressive in itself), who presented us with one final touch to our meal – a Xi Yan cocktail shot of Calamansi juice, Honey and Whiskey. It was, like all the dishes before, a superb blend of the best ingredients, presented in a unique and refreshing way.

How could we not but book ourselves in for yet another meal on our way out of the restaurant? Hope we’ll be back in January!!

Xi Yan
38A Craig Road
Singapore 089676
Tel: 9695 4957

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Bedtime Baking

Butter Pecan Cookies

A sudden uncontrollable urge to bake something, anything, hit me at around 10.20 pm tonight. Perhaps it had been the relatively long hiatus (well, one week) since my hands had prepared something edible, but it was an itch that needed desperately to be scratched.

The practical side of me however recognized that a late Friday night was not the time to attempt creating a lavish multi-layered cake spread with tempered chocolate ganache, or prepare a water bath for crème brulèe. It had to be something simple which could be baked in a jiffy that would leave me enough time to post this entry and still get sufficient beauty sleep.

I decided on Butter Pecan cookies, the recipe of which I’d downloaded from a fellow blogger (sorry, I’ve forgotten which one – thanks anyway!!). It was certainly simple enough, just requiring one to cream the butter, add in the sugar, vanilla essence, a pinch of salt, and flour, then folding in the pecans, before engaging in PlayDoh action with the dough, rolling it into balls and patting them into shape with a glass. One could also top it off with some sprinkled sugar. The cookies were then popped into the oven and baked till golden brown (about 15 – 20 minutes).

Just this short while later, they emerged beautifully aromatic and filling the air with the sweet heady smell that only the combination of butter and pecans can achieve. Alongside a long cool glass of milk, the crunchy, hearty cookies were the perfect late night baking and snacking fix, not to mention, a piece of cake (or cookie rather) to make!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Self Help Remedy

Cranberry Orange Cake

I am a huge fan of the gorgeous cakes and bread from Cedele Depot, a chain of bakeries that have sprouted up around the island. I for one am pleased at its success. It churns out a plethora of tasty, homey cakes, scones, muffins, brioche and bread, all of consistently high quality, and in some cases, even healthy (for e.g. some of its breads contain no eggs or use only wholegrain). I am addicted in particular to its simple loaf cakes like Almond Sugee, Vanilla Sand, and Cranberry Orange (my absolute favourite!).

Seeing as this has resulted in becoming a very expensive addiction indeed, especially since I have a tendency to buy a variety of individual slices (after all, a business needs to be profitable to stay afloat), I decided to remedy the situation by figuring out how to make my own version of the Cranberry Orange loaf.

I thought that the beautifully described Orange Cake from Paris Sweets which the author, Dorie Greenspan, had adapted from the version at Pâtisserie Arnaud Larher (a famous pâtisserie in Montmarte in Paris) would work wonderfully. I was particularly tempted by the intriguing instructions to rub the sugar and orange zest with the fingertips. To turn it into a Cranberry Orange loaf, I merely tossed a couple of dried cranberries into the finished batter before baking. It turned out fantastic. I had an especially good premonition about the result while I was rubbing the sugar and orange zest together. The process filled the entire kitchen with a fresh sweet orangey aroma. I just knew something delicious would come out of anything that contained this special blend orange sugar. Apparently it works just as well with lemon zest and vanilla too, so this is one trick that is going into my standard repertoire of baking methods. The moist 'ambro-sugar' was whipped with eggs, crème fraîche, and a touch of Grand Marnier before gently incorporated with the sifted flour, double acting baking powder and salt. In a highly unusual method (to me at least, I’ve only ever creamed butter and sugar at the start of the process!), the butter was only mixed in last, after having been melted and left to cool.

While the cakes were baking and tanning nicely in the oven in their loaf pan sun beds, I decided that it would be far too much of a waste to toss out the oranges that were now bereft of their zest and looking much like sad shorn sheep. I used about one orange’s worth of juice mixed with enough icing sugar to turn it into a dense orange topping. (I sliced and ate the other orange for my requisite daily supply of Vitamin C).

Et voilà, the loaves were simply finished by spreading the icing over them after they’d been left to cool and topped with the extra dried cranberries that added a glorious spot of colour to the end product. I’m pleased to say, the good feeling about the cakes was fulfilled – a freshly-cut slice was gorgeously moist, flavoured refreshingly with the orange zest and given a nice bite by the plump cranberries.

Monday, December 05, 2005

'Da Pow-Low' Dinner Hainanese Style

Black Bean Beef Hor Fun

Well, dinner was not from the Italian restaurant chain that made a splash into Singapore's gourmet scene some years ago (and still going strong with at least four restaurants I know of), but came courtesy of the more old-school Hainanese version of noodles. Indeed, perhaps hor fun or kuay teow (flat rice noodles) prepared in a variety of ways did inspire Marco Polo during his sojourns to the East to bring home ideas for the huge smorgasbord of pasta dishes that have now mushroomed in Italian restaurants all over the world.

Feeling like we'd had a slight overkill of Western meals, we decided to forego our original plan for takeout pizza in favour of 'da pao' (takeaway) Black Bean Sauce Beef Hor Fun from a nearby Hainanese restaurant - Kim Moh Hainanese Restaurant. The Hainanese people in Singapore have a long history of being extremely talented in the kitchen - they created the absolute best chicken rice to be found on this earth and staffed many of the top restaurants in the past, both Western and local. This neighbourhoood restaurant is located in an F&B space which suffers from a bit of an identity crisis given its former life as some sort of Jack's Place style steak place complete with checked tablecloth and interesting props that definitely do not relate to any Hainanese heritage. However, it sings of its heritage loudly and clearly through the food.

Although it is most well-known for the soup-based version of beef noodles in beef broth, I think their semi-wet hor fun dish is the best thing on the menu here. It may not look like much in the picture, but this is one classy yet simple dish. Perfectly al dente kuay teow smothered in luscious black-bean flavoured sauce topped with a generous portion of tender beef slices, and garnished with spring onions, flavoured with a touch of spice from cut chili pieces are combined to produce a dish that is a piquant yet a filling and smooth meal on its own. The gravy does not resemble anything from the ubiquitous bottles of processed black bean sauce available on supermarket shelves. Whatever the chef has done to it with his special wok hei (breath of the wok) powers has transformed it into a noodle dish that holds its head as high or higher than the best pasta dishes in Italy.

The best part? After rushing around all day at work, this well-run establishment will take your orders by phone and have it ready for you to pick up in time for a quick yet satisfying dinner on an otherwise painful Monday evening. The restaurant does a whole lot of other tradtional Hainanese dishes as well at a pretty high standard and the nice thing is, they are very very proud indeed of their Hainanese food heritage. So there, Marco Polo.

Kim Moh Hainanese Restaurant
Laguna Park Block 5000F
Marine Parade Road
Tel: 64428900

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Real Food Daily

Tray-baked Rack of Lamb with Aubergine, Tomatoes, Olive Oil, Garlic and Mint Oil served with Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes

I’d recently caught on Discovery Travel and Adventure a couple of episodes of Jamie’s School Dinners – a documentary following Jamie Olivier’s travails in attempting to improve the meals available for school children in London by chucking out junk food (e.g. chicken nuggets in the shape of a football player which turned out to be made out of the vilest parts of a chicken) and introducing fresh real healthy food on the menu. If you haven’t yet seen it, do try to catch it if it is available on a cable channel near you. The cynic may view this project just as an exercise in publicity for him, but there is something to be admired about a celebrity chef who, instead of sitting back and doing more of the same cooking-travelling-eating TV shows or concentrating on running his restaurant, embarks on a project which does not just involve overhauling the food management in school kitchens or teaching the dinner ladies new methods of cooking, but hardest of all, convincing the kids to give up their junk food in favour of salads (the horror!) and real meat (even worse!!). It was indeed food for thought (pardon the pun) to realise just how much junk food has become a part of the average kid’s consumption and how unaware all of us are in respect of what we are actually putting into our system when we hit the fast food joints.

To tip my glass to Mr Olivier for his efforts, I decided to roast a Tray-baked Rack of Lamb with Aubergines, Tomatoes, Olive Oil, Garlic and Mint Oil based on a recipe from his book Happy Days with Jamie Olivier. This is one of his typically nutritionally complete meals which involves roasting the sides of aubergine and plum tomatoes in the same roasting pan as the meat – all of it real visible food. I first browned the aubergine slices by lightly pan-frying them in some olive oil. These were then placed alongside the halved tomatoes which were topped with dried oregano, fresh basil, pepper, salt and whole garlic cloves. I scored the skin of the rack of lamb which would apparently render it nice and crisp. This was then seasoned and fried lightly in the pan to brown then drizzled with olive oil and baked in the oven for 30 minutes. Instead of relying on bottled ‘mint jelly’, the recipe called for a quick and easy preparation of mint oil by simply blitzing a handful of mint leaves with a dash of red wine vinegar and olive oil.

I also decided to include a carbohydrate for the sake of a hungry Mr UnProfessional Chef in the form of more potatoes from the Zuni Café Cookbook which is turning out to be a real treasure trove of tasty delights. I elected this time to prepare Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes which is apparently one of their most ordered side dishes. This was a superbly easy one to do too. The potatoes were skinned, cut into small pieces, boiled for about 15 minutes till tender, then mashed with a couple of tablespoonfuls of butter, buttermilk and half-and-half (milk plus cream).

The result – a sumptuous dinner with no preservatives included – just the freshest possible ingredients dressed together to create a healthy, albeit huge feast. The lamb was juicy and flavourful, though I would have cooked it for a bit longer as it was still rather pink within. The mint oil was a hit with Mr UnProfessional Chef with its super fresh taste that set off the lamb perfectly. My real favourites though were the vegetables. The aubergine had roasted slowly into a soft, smooth texture while retaining its uniquely meaty taste. The tomatoes were likewise flawless – still juicy though their outer skins were nicely wilted and flavoured beautifully with the fresh basil leaves and garlic cloves (which were also delightful to munch on their own after melting into a fragrant beige mash packing a powerful punch). The potatoes were a real winner – even better than the roast rosemary potatoes I’d prepared last week. Silkily smooth and creamy thanks to the various types of milk, they were given an unusual slightly sour flavour from the buttermilk, which was simply great.

Recipes like these, which are not overly difficult nor time-consuming, are ample proof that with just a little effort, real food daily is available to us all.

Upside-Down Cake - Take #2

Cranberry Upside-Down Cake

After last weekend’s morning baking fiasco, I was determined to have another go at baking an upside down cake. I’d previously always avoided doing so for want of a cast iron classic tarte tatin pan, but despite last week’s failed attempt, I realized that a regular springform pan appeared to work just fine too.

With Christmas just round the corner and planning beginning for various meals I intend to cook for my friends and loved ones, I decided to bake a Cranberry Upside-Down Cake from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess (isn’t it evident what my true ambition in life is? ☺). I love upside-down cakes and I love cranberries, and having only just discovered that Jason’s Supermarket at Tanglin Mall actually stocks fresh cranberries (albeit Ocean Spray, not exotically organic ones), I was pretty excited about this recipe.

I determinedly and carefully followed each step of the recipe to the letter and was reasonably successful in creating a cake that looked pretty close to her version in the book. It was much much simpler to make and though it didn’t look as pretty as the apple version last week as the sugar hadn’t completely caramalised in places, it tasted wonderful. I’d say that between the two recipes, the apple version from Bill’s Sydney Food would make for a more sophisticated dessert as the apple had been gorgeously enhanced with lemon zest and vanilla – hence, I’ll probably make that one for Christmas instead (with all the steps right!). Be that as it may, I had a REAL cake this time and the fresh cranberries burst with beautifully tart flavour when bitten into. Along with a scoop of Waitrose Cornish Double Cream ice cream, this was a delightful, sinful way to spend a cool Saturday afternoon.