jeudi, mars 30, 2006

Moroccan Couscous with Beef, Merguez Sausages and Grilled Lamb, Lebanese Taboulé and Chick Pea Hoummous.

When I was younger, I often fantasized about visiting Morocco. The land of the Medina, of spices and of smiling people.

But the fantasy shattered a little when I made friends with a group of young Moroccan students as a student in Paris. They were cool, over-friendly (I had to hide in the common toilet a few times to avoid them looking for me, they never did know how to take no for an answer), and chain-smoked - not cigarettes (which would have been bad enough), but marijuana (which I am absolutely against, especially when it is smoked for pleasure).

But the fantasy was alive long enough for us to want to visit the country (the Northern city of Tangiers) in November 2001 when we were living in Andalusia. Went in our car and crossed over by ferry.

Recently I rated Tangiers not worth a visit in I admit that it was an unfair rating since the country is a beautiful one and we had not seen the rest of it yet. But we never got to enjoy what we saw, so much of a hassle the visit had turned out to be unfortunately.

The nightmare started when we left the ferry in Tangiers. There was a uniformed guy standing at the exit of the port with papers for us to fill in and we were expected to pay for something. OK, fair enough. And just next to him, was another guy (in civilian clothes) who started to tell us how to fill in our forms (without being asked) and who, though we ignored him, insisted that we had to pay him for his ''service''. And apparently he was not at all in the employ of the port authority but allowed to hang around somehow. Quite like those guys in free public parking lots in Spain ''directing'' you to your lot and expecting a fee for their ''service''!

Then we arrived at our hotel in the heart of town. The parking was free, but when you were parked, some guy came along to inform you that he was the warden and that he would like to be paid for looking after your car, with an implied or else... I do not understand. Why don't they just charge upfront for the parking instead of telling us that it was free of charge?

Then another guy working for the hotel came up to us to tell us that he would love to be able to show us around his city and that he did not expect any payment for this offer. Such a nice guy. So proud of his city.

It started out quite well, we walked around town, went to the beach and looked at the sea. With the guy around, not too many people dared to come up to us and so it was a relief. In the Medina, he asked us if we were hungry and what we would like to eat. Unanimously we said : ''A good Couscous or Tajine!'' and he claimed to know a really good restaurant for that and brought us there.

True to his word, he waved us goodbye politely after bringing us to the restaurant. We were led to a table near a window which gave us a pleasant view of the bazar below us. Smells of food and spices wafted up to our nostrils and whetted our appetite. We ordered a Couscous with Chicken and a Tajine with Beef and waited happily for our dinner.

When the food came, we couldn't believe our eyes. Even in the lousiest Moroccan restaurant in Paris we've eaten better. The Couscous was tasteless, the chicken dry. The Tajine contained meat balls so tough you could play ping pong with them. And the worse part was the bill when it came, the food cost more than what we would have paid in Paris, how could that be? We were in Morocco! And there was supposed to be music and a dance performance and the only sound accompanying our meal was the noise coming up from the streets below.

Hubby for once decided not to act the civilised European man (and pay the fixed price). He asked the Manager of the restaurant over, gave him a piece of his mind and told the guy he wouldn't be paying what they were asking for. He named them a price and added that that was already more than what he thought the meal was worth.

We could see that the guy was furious, but we had a kid with us and he must surely realise that it wouldn't do to start aggressing tourists especially if they were from Europe. So we paid the amount we wanted and left. All the way back to the hotel we had different groups of men following us, offering to sell us this and that, tours, translations, transport etc. It was a pain.

The next morning, we bumped into the guy who introduced us to the restaurant. And he had the cheek to ask us for a tip for having introduced us to the restaurant! Did they think we were idiots or what?

The next 2 days were just filled with people harassing us wherever we went, not even allowing us to have a quiet conversation between us. ''Hello! I speak good French, I make a good guide....'' ''You want to buy leather bags? My uncle has a shop in the Medina...'' It went on and on, you kept saying ''No, Thank You'' but nobody cared.

And there were few women in the streets so I got quite a bit of unwanted male attention, it was unnerving. One funny thing though was that the men would always approach the Hubby to offer their good or service and he would say : ''I don't have money with me.'' And it was true, of course, since in the family, I carry the purse. Ha ha.

We ended up spending quite a bit of time in our room to avoid the harassment. And on the last day we drove away from Tangiers and visited another town which was calmer and nicer and actually had a rather nice time.

And when we entered the port again in our car, the same people were there to get money from us for unnecessary services. We threw them our loose change, drove onto the ferry and told ourselves that we were glad to see the last of the country.

It must be around that time that I decided to make my own Couscous. And I am happy to say that it tastes many many times better than what we were served in Tangiers, even in the restaurants we went to after the 1st one. It really is very simple, as you will see for yourself.

First of all, you'll need a rather large pot. Heat up some olive oil and fry 2 onions cut into halves and picked with 6 whole cloves. Add in 2 pieces of bashed garlic, 400g of beef (oxtail, any part that has meat and is good for making soup) or better, lamb (it's less strong in smell than mutton) and brown everything for a few minutes**. Add in 1 stalk of celery, 1 Cinnamon stick, 1 fennel bulb cut in half, 1 Tbsp of ground Cumin seeds, 1 Tbsp of Mustard seeds, 1 Tbsp of ground Coriander seeds, 1 Tsp of ground Turmeric, 1 Tbsp of ground Ginger, 1 Tsp of ground Nutmeg, 1 Tbsp of ground Paprika***, 1 bay leaf and half a cup of chick peas. Add in 6-8 cups of chicken or vegetable stock and let it simmer for 2 hours.

**If you want a cleaner broth, first blanche the meat in hot water till all the impurities surface. Pour away the water and rince the meat in cold water piece by piece. Heat up the pot and brown the onions etc and then add in the cleaned meat and the water/stock. And if you want an even less oily broth, cool the broth overnight and then remove the layer of fat the next day.

Wash, peel and cut into chunky sizes 2 carrots, 3-4 turnips (navets en Français), 1 potato, 2 red Capsicum, 5-6 tomatoes, 3 Zucchinis. Add the vegetables (in time-to-cook order, not all in one go) in the sauce together with 1-2 Tbsp of concentrated tomato purée and cook for 30 minutes.

In a big bowl, pour out 1,5 cups of couscous grains (semoule de couscous en Français, we buy them in packets in a supermarket). Pour 1,5 cups of boiling water over it. Let the grains absorb the water and puff up. Then put the bowl into the microwave oven and heat it up for 2 minutes. Add in 25g of butter and a generous amount of olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Use a fork to loosen the grains, mix everything etc.

Heat up some olive oil in a grill and grill the Merquez sausages (they are spicy and delicious). Once they are cooked, add the lamb chops to grill. Add salt, pepper and rosemary to taste. Best not to overcook the lamb, we eat them rosé (pink) inside. Squeeze some lemon juice over the lamb chops when they're done.

Put some couscous grains in a soup plate. Arrange a Merguez sausage, 1 or 2 lambchops and the braised beef on top of the grains. Add in a few vegetables and then scoop some of the sauce over everything. Garnish with fresh Coriander leaves before serving. If you like it hot, you can also add in some Harisa (a chilli purée).

If there are couscous grains leftover, you can always make a Taboulé with it. It's a kind of salad made with raw cucumber, fresh red Capsicum, fresh tomatoes, half a red onion all chopped up into small pieces and mixed into the grains. Loads of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, juice from 1-2 lemons, mint leaves and parsley. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving. Goes beautifully with grilled meats or on its own.

And if you do not know what to do with the leftover chick peas, add some ground cumin, chilli powder, chopped garlic, sesame oil, olive oil and loads of lemon juice, mix everything with a blender and you have a Chick Pea Hoummous Dip!

***If you do not want to do your own mix of spices, just buy a packet of Raz el Hanout which basically contains at least 4 of the different spices I've mentioned.

mardi, mars 28, 2006

Singapore Bak Kut Teh (Herbal Pork Rib Soup) 肉骨茶

Bak Kut Teh

Meat Bones Tea. That's what it means. It started out as a nourishing soup for poor coolies in Singapore being strong in Chinese herbs and oily pork ribs. So wonderful too to drink it here during winter, it warms the soul. Even hubby has caught on and brightens up when you tell him he's gonna have it for dinner. Can eat it with steamed rice, kuay chap or kuay teow noodles, yellow noodles, rice vermicelli, tanghoon, youtiao...

Of course my MIL (Mother-in-Law aka Merry Widow) will tell you that the best way to warm up during winter would be to run off to Punta Cana to dance the nights away with hot-blooded young men, the kind of thing that would chill my Ah Soh (and proud to be so) mother's blood and make her blood pressure shoot up. One woman's meat is another woman's poison...

So for the Bak Kut Teh, we'll need like 1 kg of pork ribs (to have a less oily and "dirty" broth, is advisable to first blanche the ribs quickly in boiling water, drain the first broth, rinse the ribs in cold water then start making the soup). Boil them in 2 litres of water.

If using a packet of ready-mixed spices (e.g. A1 or Claypot), add it to the broth when the water's boiling, followed by a whole head of garlic. Cover the pot, lower the heat and simmer for an hour or till the meat is tender.

If preparing your own mix, you need to get hold of Chinese herbs like Polygonatum Odoratum (or Fragrant Solomon Seal), Angelicae Sinensis (Dang Gui, good for the heart), Rehmanniae Glutinosa (Shou Di, high in iron), and Ligustici Wallichii (Chuan Xiong, good for circulation). Can also add in some Ginseng (anti-ageing). Just add in small quantities of everything in your soup, maybe putting them all in a coffee filter first and securing the packet with a kitchen string. Use it in the soup like a tea bag. If you like a stronger taste, also use a piece of star anise and cinnamon bark.

There are basically 2 versions of the soup : Hokkien (dark) and Teochew (light). I prefer the stronger Hokkien brew.

If you find this too oily, prepare it the day before and remove the fat before reheating

15 minutes before serving, stir in 1 tbsp of dark soya sauce, salt and pepper to taste, 1 tbsp light soy sauce and 1 tbsp oyster sauce.

Serve the soup hot and garnish with fresh red chillies, fried shallots, youtiao, fresh coriander leaves etc. Drinking the soup with some Chinese tea will help remove the oiliness of the soup.

lundi, mars 27, 2006

Nearly Flourless Chocolate and Coconut Cake

Ever since I got my BRAUN 4-in-1 Multimix , I was suddenly quite into mixing, kneading, whipping and blending. Like last Sunday, I was making a Bak Kut Teh Soup and while waiting for the meat to fall off its bones, decided to kill time by making a quick 'n' easy Nearly Flourless Chocolate and Coconut Cake. And it was so quick and easy it was half-eaten before I even got round to having its picture taken.

Just pre-heat your oven at 150ºC. In a small frying pan, dry-roast 125g of dessicated grated coconut till slightly brown. Remove and set aside. Beat 100g of icing sugar with 4 large eggs in a large bowl.

In another bowl, break up 150g of dark baking chocolate into pieces and soften (not melt) it in the microwave oven for about 60 to 90 seconds. Add in 150g of butter and continue heating for another minute (same thing, soften not melt). Whisk.

Add the butter-chocolate mixture to the egg-sugar mixture, followed by the roasted coconut, 1 Tbsp of rum, 1 Tsp of Vanilla extrait, a pinch of salt. Grate some lime peel into the mixture, 1 heaped Tbsp of flour and lastly 1 Tbsp of Corn starch. Mix gently with a spoon, pour the mixture into a baking tin (mine's silicon and it's great) and bake for 35 minutes.

As there is almost no flour in the cake, it is best to let the cake cool (and harden) for 12 hours before consuming it. It's a rich cake, small portions for everyone will normally be sufficient.

To Clean or Not to Clean.

The weather is good today. Spring is finally here! And Stuttgart stinks - literally. Everywhere there is this smell of rotting garbage and yet the strike was over for 2 weeks now and there is no more uncollected rubbish in the streets. In French, we say Stuttgart, situated in a valley, is in a cuvette (the WC pan) and now I wonder...

A thought entered my head suddenly : ''Maybe that's why Singapore is so obsessed with cleanliness. It's our weather. You can't have 33ºC all year round and garbage everywhere at the same time. We'll smell like an open toilet. It's as simple as that.''

Tourists appreciate our cleanliness when they visit Singapore. But some ungrateful ones would gleefully take the opportunity to interpret this as a sign of our ''antisepticness'', ''obsession with appearances'', call us ''clinical'' etc and add the lot into their load of the usual critiques of our Government. I mean I have lots to say too about their one-Party, paternalistic, corporatist and maybe undemocratic (but what is ''Democracy''?) way of governing, but somehow I do not like to hear the stuff come out of the mouth of Outsiders. Mainly because they are usually patronising and unnecessarily vehement when they do that.

I mean you just need to say you're from Singapore and people literally jump at you and start telling you that you have a despotic/fascist government, that you are oppressed and stupid to endure it etc etc (my my such strong words). I mean if I'm an idiot fair enough, but damn it, I have 2 scholarships from 2 Governments, I am fluent in at least 4 languages and I've travelled widely. They are the real idiots. How would say Americans like it if I see one and start telling the person he's an idiot and a despot because he has that insipid megalo-maniac G. W. Bush for President?

People should learn to make a distinction between a country and its government. And the same applies to us. If you say you love your country it doesn't necessarily mean you love your Government. So there is no need to be stingy with your love. And in the same vein, to prove that you are not a yes-man, there is no need to go all anti-Government either. Just deal with each thing on its own merit.

Afterall, criticism is free and easy. Whereas action speaks louder than words. Talk talk talk but how come the genocide took place in Rwanda, people are dying by the scores out of thirst and hunger in Kenya and Somalia (they have natural resources while we don't) and all we are capable of doing is criticise. For apart from the fact that Singapore is a bit too trigger-happy in metting out the dealth penalty (and let's put it on the record that I am AGAINST it - though I am willing to concede that I may not be so against if one of my loved ones should be a victim of a murderer or rapist, touch wood) and in sueing Opposition members to bankruptcy, we are not doing too badly in the country. We have enough to eat, the streets are green, clean and safe, the schools are well-equipped, healthcare is good and still affordable, the people still manage to remain honest (and I believe that is not just a question of culture but also conjuncture)...

When you go to Paris, you usually make comments like : ''Oh, Seine River is sooo romantic! Wah bread is so expensive! The pastries are so delicious! Perfumes and LV are so wonderful... Aiyah there is dogshit everywhere!''

You don't go : ''Wah so many burnt cars and broken shop windows, the French are incapable of dialogue or discussion through the proper channels and could only take to the streets in protest when they disagree with the Government. What happened to democracy?''

Nor do you say : ''There is dogshit everywhere because (1) the French are dirty and not civic-minded (2) there are not enough cleaners so what did they do with taxpayers' money (3) why are they not having children instead of poodles?''

Recently, I kaypo kaypo typed in ''Singapore/Singapour'' in Blogger and came across blogs where 90% of the time they had nothing nice to say about us. My hubby always says that our eldest has a tête à claques (i.e. a face that invites slaps) and I fear that our island falls a bit into the category.

There was one French guy who actually wrote that it was due to latent racism that Singaporeans could live for 26 years on the island (actually he was referring to his Singaporean colleague who brought him around - talk about ungrateful) and not visit Little India.

????? I am not naive enough to believe that racism does not exist in a multi-racial country like Singapore. But since when do you have to go to Little India every other day to prove that you are not racist? I mean Singaporean Indians are everywhere : In our HDB estates, at school, at work, in the coffee shops, running neighbourhood businesses, probably running most of the law firms... When I was living in Singapore, I ate Indian at least once a day and now that I'm overseas, I cook Indian myself. I don't need to buy saris or gold from Mustapha Plaza and my favourite curry house is in Thomson Rd. If I've been visiting Little India in the past few years, it was just to show my hubby around. Little India is a tourist ghetto albeit a charming one. I don't even go to Chinatown unless I have something specific to buy there, does it mean that I'm racist against myself?

Well, heh heh, cleanliness is not my forte. To prove that I am not boring, souless, antisceptic and obsessed with appearances, I'm not going to do any housework this week. To save water and commiserate with the Kenyans maybe I won't even shower everyday. And talking about melting pot, I'm going to cook everything in the same pot and not wash it between dishes.

PS : Caricature of Bush done by Gérome Barry.

vendredi, mars 24, 2006

Times are Bad

Times are bad. And I'm not just parroting the others.

I was thinking of my Malay Nanny this morning. A few years back, when times were better, she lived in a big 5-room HDB* flat with her younger daughter's family, equipped with computer with broadband Internet access, big Plasma TV and new handmade curtains every Hari Raya.

2 years ago, they downgraded to a smaller flat, the TV disappeared and so did the curtains. Apparently her son-in-law had been retrenched for a 2nd time in just a few years and was having difficulty finding another job.

At around the same time, my brother-in-law was unfairly fired by his boss. Because a younger, more ambitious and cheaper alternative had turned up in the company. But he was fortunate to be very good in his job and had no difficulty finding another one quickly, only that the salary is now no longer as good as before and he has to travel a lot more for the job. In Singapore where we have no unemployment benefits, nobody sits around waiting for a better job to turn up in any case.

And even my dada was not spared. Also around the same time, the Government came up with a new law requiring all Chinese Medical Practitioners to register themselves and pass a Test before they would be allowed to practise their trade.

The idea was sound. There were many Quacks in the trade. It was therefore time that the profession be controlled, practices verified and standards improved. But the problem was that the Profession is a very vast one. And unlike Western medicine, there was normally no formal education available and Practitioners like my dada learnt their trade from another Practitioner, in his case his own father. What kind of a Test would be a fair one?

The Test in question contained 3 parts : General Theory of Chinese Medicine (I often wonder how they managed out of the blue to come out with this), Practical, followed by Accupuncture.

If I could sit the test for dada I would have done it. After all the exams I've sat for in my life, what is another one, right? Especially since the Test was supposed to be just a ''formality'', there was a course (must pay for it, of course, nothing is free in Singapore) you could take to help you prepare for it and the questions would come with multiple-choice answers.

The problem with dada is that he is neither Chinese nor English educated. He just had not had much formal education. Times were different then. You were not educated not because you were stupid, but because you didn't get the chance to be educated. And if you see how well my siblings and myself did in school, you know that the parents could not have been stupid if genes were to have any role to play in the progeny's intelligence.

So the idea of sitting for a written Test freaked dada out. And the Practical part was out of the question since he had never been trained for interviews and orals and I think he must be ashamed of his lack of eloquence. He had probably never gone for a job interview in his life either. But the best was the Accupuncture part of the Test. Dada had never practised Accupuncture in his life and never would. How and why was he to be tested on the subject? And if the Test was just a formality, did it mean that if I should prepare and pass it I could thereafter practise Chinese Medecine?

The result was that my dada was forced at the age of 57 to retire and sit at home, do nothing earn nothing. You cannot get someone who had not been trained to do anything else, who had spent at least 30 years of his life in one trade to suddenly find another job. Not at his age especially. And it would be unimaginable to have him take orders at MacDonald's or clean toilets in Changi Airport. Please note that this is a guy who :

  1. Used to treat patients who came to him from father/mother to son/daughter and so on;
  2. Treated even Western doctors themselves;
  3. Once healed a man who was told by Western doctors that his limb would have to be amputated and who out of desperation came to see my dada;
  4. Single-handedly brought up 3 children, fed, clothed and have them educated. I, for example, had never needed to work during my school holidays or out of it for that matter.

In any case, he never had the foresight to own his practice, preferring to rent, foolishly thinking he could do this forever. We must learn from his mistakes. For of course 2 years ago the Government decided to demolish the building where he had his practice, so even if he could continue practising today, dada would never have been able to afford to buy or to rent a new bureau. You just need to see the coffee shop near my parents' HDB flat to understand this. The stalls and the coffee shop itself kept changing hands. Impossible to sell enough noodles or economical rice to keep up with the astronomical rents.

And last week I got my mom on the phone. The neighbour who babysits my sister's daughters has just sold her flat and bought a smaller one. Her husband, a former delivery man, had hurt his hands one after another on the job and was fired by his boss. The guy found another job, but his hands didn't hold out and he's out of work again. In Western Europe, he would not only get to keep his job, but would have to be compensated by his company for getting hurt while doing his job. Professional Job Hasard. And if he wanted to fight his case, a free legal service comprised of independent labour law experts would have been available to help him.

In the past, losing one's job was not really a big deal because you could usually find a similar one quickly. But times are no longer the same and the wait between the last job and the new one lengthens with time and with age. I am all for liberal labour laws not loaded down with benefits that would be difficult to withdraw thereafter, but it would be good to limit firing without valid reason, lack of compensation for work-related accidents, badly-thought out new laws that cause formally self-sufficient workers to be unemployed and dependent on their children today.

The other end of the spectrum, in France at this very moment, mutiny is in the pipelines because the Government has come out with a new employment law that makes it easier for companies to hire and fire new employees below the age of 26 without reason within the 1st 2 years.

I think that it is about time that employment laws change in France. The French have been hiding behind social laws that penalise both employers and finally employees for too long. There is not enough new job creation, resignations and retirements are often not being replaced and every day existing jobs are being lost to countries with cheaper operations and more flexible labour laws.

But the 2-year trying out period is a bad idea because you are not in Singapore where if no bank wishes to loan you money or flat owners rent you a flat because you do not have a confirmed work contract, you could always stay with mom and dad. They should just make it easier for employers to hire and fire but keep the trying-out period the same as before i.e. 1 or 3 months. And nowhere in this world is firing for no good reason ever a good thing.

It costs quite a bit for employers to hire or to fire in the 1st place. So there should be no reason why anybody would fire an employee just because he no longer likes his face. So, if you are good in your job and the cost to keep you in the company is coherent vis-à-vis the employment market, the company will normally keep you; You are no good and/or too ''expensive'', well, you get fired. And when you are young, you bounce back much better then older employees. I am absolutely no Economist, but I somehow believe that market forces normally settle things some way and human forces tamper (but not too much) to limit the worst effects both ways.

Sigh... so you see, whether in the East or the West, times are bad. Even China with its economic boom is no model to be envied when you look at its industrial and ecological disasters (and its millions of far-away villagers dying of AIDs, malnutrition and/or neglect). And we do not even want to start looking at Africa because it would have been even more demoralising.

I do not know if I should spend more nowadays to help stimulate the economy, or spend less to prepare for the bad times. Should I indulge my children while I still could, or should I prepare them in advance for bleaker days? Such a change from my own time, when we moved out of our dirty and haunted (maybe I can write a blog on our ghost stories) 3-room flat to a new and bigger flat, to new and bigger schools, to new and better TV sets... always looking forward to newer and better times.

While waiting to find out, I should seek solace in my food. Feed the stomach and feed the blog.

Times are bad
And we are sad
Jobs are rare
And nobody cares

Right or Left
North or South
Deep is the cleft
Shallow's the pouch

If you have a job
And want to stay on Top
Just work your ass off
And remember to suck up to the Boss.

PS : At least cheap poetry is free.

*Housing Development Board : The organisation that builds public housing in Singapore. 80% of Singaporeans live in a HDB flat.

jeudi, mars 23, 2006

My Balinese Satay Lilit and Fried Pineapple Rice Thai-Style

On our last three trips back to Singapore, we took the opportunity to visit Bali at the same time since Hubby's fond of diving and Bali is a good spot to do so.

We usually stay in Sanur before spending a few nights in Ubud, though on Hubby's 1st trip there, we moved around the island, travelling from Sanur to Ubud to Tulamben, Pulau Menjangan, Lovina etc.

The charm of Bali for me is the fact that it's the only Hindu part of S.E. Asia left after the region converted to Islam in the 15th Century. (I often wonder how different things would be if the Majapahit Empire still existed...) Pictures of beautiful and sensual Balinese girls in sexy sleeveless tops (sometimes even topless) and hips-hugging sarongs always make me smile. The friendliness of its inhabitants warmed the heart and the beautiful hotels and villas to be found all over the island took our breath away.

On our last trip there however, I started feeling that maybe it would be time to visit somewhere else. With the terrorist bombings and maybe also the new Visa requirement, tourist arrivals were no longer as important as they used to be. And you could feel it in the hotels and markets. Not so crowded, you would say, but it had its downside.

I love a good bargain. It gets the adrenaline going and in a place like Bali, you often have something to show for it at the end of the day, like a tall wooden giraffe, a few silk sarongs, a wooden mask, a painting or 2...

But on my last trip, I actually had a local woman begging me to buy something from her. Because she had not had a single customer for a few days and the Balinese believe that if you manage to get one, the rest would follow. She was going to sell me some drawing at cost price - just for good luck. And I was sure she wasn't lying as I've just bought a less pretty drawing 50m away for triple what she was asking for (and I had bargained well in the other stall). She was in tears and I felt horrible. But should I buy something I had no need for just to feed some superstitution?

I finally did buy a little something from her. But I felt bad. These people depend very much on tourism. And when few tourists visit, not only is business bad, but whatever they managed to sell they had to sell at ridiculously low prices, often just to reduce their stock and cut their losses. I saw Asian and Caucasian tourists alike bargaining prices down really low, e.g. wanting to buy a nicely-made pair of slippers (with beads etc) for 2 bucks. It unsettled me. I really would be the last person on earth to refuse a good bargain, but I nonetheless feel that there should be some ethic to bargaining, that we should allow these people to make a decent living and not want to squeeze them dry. Especially since we are usually much better off.

Anyway, while we were on the nice beach in front of our hotel (Mercure Sanur), we were offered a cooking demonstration followed by a free dégustation of a tasty Balinese delight Satay Lilit. I've been dying to try it since that afternoon and am glad to have finally done so last evening.

My Satay Lilit last night, I didn't just use fish, I emptied my freezer and put Cod fish fillets, Black Tiger prawns, seafood cocktail (squids, mussles, shrimps, octopus...), even surimi all cut up into smaller pieces into a big bowl with salt, pepper, turmeric powder, ground coriander seeds, dried lemon grass powder and some lime juice.

Next, in a non-stick frying pan, I heated up some olive oil and started to brown 2 shallots, 2 cloves of garlic, 1 thumb-sized ginger sliced, 2 stalks of lemon grass bashed, 1 tsp each of turmeric powder, aniseeds, mustard seeds, ground coriander seeds. I also added a few ikan bilis, a little bit of belachan (shrimp paste), 1 fresh red chilli, 2 tbsp of dessicated grated coconut, a sprinkling of almond flakes (a bit inspired by the truite aux amandes), 2 tbsp of sugar, salt, pepper and coriander leaves.

Then I added the fragrant mixture to the seafood and mixed everything together. And I blended everything in portions with my small Philips blender (that I used to blend baby food for my babies with) into a paste.

In the cooking demo they wrapped the seafood paste around stalks of lemon grass and grilled them on a charcoal fire. When you see the price of airflown lemon grass sticks here in Europe, you'll not be wasting any precious lemon grass as fragrant decoration but use them liberally to make the paste instead. Besides, this is not the time yet (it snowed yesterday) for a BBQ.

So I just washed my hands, and started to grab bits of the paste with my right palm and just put them to grill on a hot frying pan. When they've been grilled on both sides, I took them out and started to skewer them on wooden sticks like a satay.

On the beach, we ate the Satay Lilit as it was but in my house I figured it would be best to serve it with some sort of rice. I thought the sweetness and freshness of a Thai Pineapple Rice might just do the trick.

First of all, cook 2 cups of Jasmine rice (optional : with pandan leaves) and leave it to cool. In a big frying pan or casserole, fry some thinly-sliced lapcheong (Chinese sausage. Though I've run out of it and did not use them this time) with some vegetable oil. Add in 2 sliced shallots or 1 sliced onion, 2 cloves of chopped garlic, 1 tsp Curry powder, 2 tbsp of sugar, 1 tbsp of light soya sauce, 2 tsp of fish sauce, 1/2 cup of pineapple juice. Add the rice and mix well.

Make a hole in the middle of the rice and add in a little more oil to heat up. Crack 2 large eggs in the hole, add salt and pepper and scramble it. Mix the scrambled eggs with the rice. Sprinkle some rice wine or sherry over the rice, add in 150g of shrimps, a handfull of sweet peas and diced pineapple (from about 1/3-1/2 of the fruit) and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste and garnish with some fresh coriander leaves and dried sweet pork floss before serving.

Hmm...Maybe that's where we should visit the next time we go home : Thailand.

mardi, mars 21, 2006

Almejas al Pil Pil, Gambas a la Plancha, Cabillaud (Fresh Cod) Grillé et Purée de Pommes de Terre à l'Ail

We lived for one and a half years in the Andalusian city of Jaén in Spain.

Every morning I would visit the local wet market and would often leave with fish or shellfish of some sort e.g. sea bass, gilthead bream, tuna, sole, burbot, turbot, sardines, anchovies, clams, mussles, cockles, bay prawns, prawns...

The cuisine is very simple in the South of Spain and usually contains olive oil (the Province of Jaén is one of the largest olive oil-producing regions in the world) and garlic. In the evenings, adults usually gather in bars (both inside and outside) to have a drink (I usually order a Sangria or a Tinto de Verano) and eat a few tapas while children play near the tables till pretty late in the evening.

Some of my favourite tapas include gambas/cigalas/pescado/calamar a la plancha (grilled prawns/bay prawns/fish/squid), almejas al pil pil (clams in hot garlic-olive oil), chipirones/boquerones fritos (deep fried baby squids/anchovies), paella, zarzuelo de mariscos (spicy shellfish stew), fresh sardines grilled on a BBQ pit on the beach...which can all be eaten in larger portions as a main course, of course.

Almejas/Berberecho al Pil Pil is a lovely dish to serve. As an appetizer for 4, you'll need to wash and drain about 500g of live clams. Peel and slice 2-3 cloves of garlic. Devein 2-3 hot red chillies. Have ready 1/2 cup of olive oil, 1 dried chilli, 2 tbsp of white wine, sugar, Fleur de sel (big grained salt), pepper and parsley.

Preheat an oven at 200ºC. Dry roast the hot red chillies. Remove them from the heat, take out their seeds and slice them lengthwise into thin strips. Next, if you have one of those clay recipients (cazuela) the Spanish like to use (if not, just any baking dish), you arrange the chillies in it, place the garlic slices over them, add the olive oil and the dried chilli and put the dish in the hot oven.

When the oil starts to sizzle, take the dish out of the oven, sprinkle some sugar in the dish and add in the clams. Put the dish back into the oven and when the first clams start to open up, add in the white wine (optional), salt, pepper and the parsley. Once all the clams are opened up (do not overcook though), remove the dish from the oven. Serve hot with fresh bread, they are delicious.

You can of course choose to cook the dish in a pan on the stove and even replace the clams with peeled raw prawns or even fresh cod's cheeks.

My other favourite Spanish dish Gambas a la Plancha is something we miss a lot here in Stuttgart where seafood is hard to come by. But it's so easy to make there is no reason to stop enjoying it ;-).

For 4 persons, we'll just need about 24 nice meaty raw prawns (I like Black Tiger), some olive oil and Fleur de sel (or any big-grained salt). Just heat up an iron grill with some olive oil and when it is very hot, grill the prawns on it for about 3-4 minutes on each side. Sprinkle the salt on the prawns to taste and then pour 1/2 a cup of cold water in the grill. The grill has to be very hot so that the water will evaporate quickly and the steam will help keep the flesh of the prawns from drying up. Eat them hot!

Having mentioned the availability of fresh and cheap seafood in Spain, I must now reminisce about the wonderful Fish-mongers' in our ''home'' city of Paris. While prices are certainly not low in Paris, the huge variety helps make up for it. One is often spoilt for choice in a typical Parisien Fishmonger's : Coquille St Jacques (scallops), different types of oysters, crevettes roses (cooked prawns, very sweet), crevettes grises, torteaux (huge crabs), at least 10 sorts of fish (whole, in filet or in slices), live lobsters in tanks, clams, mussles and other types of shells, salted cod...

It is not easy to make the children eat fish, but I have a recipe inspired by the Portuguese Bacalao (salted Cod) that seems to be a hit with the family. I use fresh Cod instead since the salted version would need to be desalted like 12 hours or so in advance and is too much work. And I serve it with a garlicked potato purée or fried potatoes with garlic which is probably the reason why the kids love it.

We just need a decent Cod filet (Dos de Cabillaud) for each person, preferably not thin (min. 1 cm thick) and if you wish, with the skin on on one side. Just heat up some olive oil in a non-stick frying pan and once the oil is hot, start to grill the filets (the skin side 1st) for a few minutes on each side. We'll want to have the filets in one piece if possible, not all flaked up (but if it is all flaked up, that's not a problem, just flake them over the purée later on, like an Hachis Parmentier). If you want, you can also sprinkle some chopped mixed herbs like fennel, aniseed, dill, thyme and parsley over the fish. Add a generous amount of freshly ground salt and pepper and squeeze some lemon juice over the fish before serving.

To make the purée, we peel about 2 potatoes per person, cut them into quarters and cook them in salted boiling water for 20 minutes. Drain and set aside. In the same pot, heat up some olive oil, add in 2-3 cloves of chopped garlic and when they start to brown, put in the potatoes and mash them with a vegetable masher (if you don't have one, mash your potatoes with a fork before putting them back inside the pot), mix with the oil and garlic, then add in 1st 1 tbsp of butter and then enough milk to prevent the purée from drying up (though more milk = a smoothier purée, so it depends on whether you like it a little chunky or smooth). Finally add in some parsley, salt and pepper and voilà it's ready.

Pan-Grilled Spiced Moroccan Chicken with Salad or Pasta

When I have no idea what to cook, I usually fall back on my Pan-Grilled Spiced Moroccan Chicken to save the day. An American friend of mine in Paris told me recently that she served it occasionally to her guests and had always received compliments for the dish.

I usually marinate a few chicken breasts in salt, pepper, 1 tbsp of dried chilli flakes, 1 tbsp of cinnamon powder, 1 tsp each of ground cumin, ground turmeric, ground coriander seeds, mustard seeds, a pinch of ground cloves, a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil (we import our olive oil in 5l drums directly from a cooperative in Martos, Spain), juice of 1 lime, 2 tbsp of pine nuts, 2 cloves of garlic (chopped), 1 tbsp of raisins and strips of 1 red capsicum. Leave for at least an hour.

Then heat up some olive oil in a non-stick frying pan and put the marinated chicken pieces in it to be grilled on both sides. When you are grilling the chicken on its other side, pour in everything else in the marinade (i.e. the red peppers, garlic, nuts, raisins...).

Serve with a lightly tossed salad (just young leaves, olive oil, salt, pepper, lime juice, freshly shaved Parmesan cheese and eventually some sliced shallots or red onions) or pasta al dente (olive oil, shaved Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper). A few sprigs of coriander and mint leaves are also lovely on the chicken.

Speaking of Morocco reminds me of another dish that I make occasionally - a Moroccan Couscous with Merguez Sausages, Grilled Lamb Ribs and Beef. But that will have to be for another post.

dimanche, mars 19, 2006

Prawn & Pork Wontons in Spiced Beef Broth, Roast Leg of Lamb with Herbes de Provence, Grilled Vegetables in Olive Oil & Garlic and Fresh Fruit Salad

Your hubby invited his friend and the guy's family over for lunch, but you were the one who woke up early on a Sunday morning to start preparing stock for the soup, do a wash, start tidying up the house.

Our friend (the hubby) woke up at leisure and spent an hour sitting on the WC checking his emails on his Blackberry (whoever invented this thing is a pest). Then he connected to Skype and spoke to his mother for another hour and 40 minutes before the guests were due to arrive, he thought of going for a swim with the kids...

What would you do if this should fall on you?

Well, when a Tiger doesn't manifest itself, it gets mistaken for a sick Cat. So you tell him to go take a shower, dress up the kids and do part of the vacuuming. And you threaten to shower and hide in the basement to do more laundry when HIS guests arrive. God forbid since Mr Perfectionist was all set to play the Perfect Host with Gracious Hostess on his side. Heh heh.

You know why they invented the saying ''Give them an inch and they take a mile''. So pissed off.

Anyway, it was a really nice day this Sunday a few days before Spring is officially due to arrive. For those living in equatorial Singapore, it would be difficult to understand. But over here in Germany where the Winter is twice as long as the Summer, daylight and sunlight are looked forward to with much impatience and hope. You understand why they have a high suicide rate in Northern Europe and even bears with a lot of fur and fat hibernate. Otherwise they would be commiting suicide in the forest en masse. Even a chirpy girl like me, when looking at an oncoming train, couldn't help at times wondering what it would be like to throw oneself in front of it and not have to see another cold and gloomy day again.

Not having given in to gloom, I was alive to make lunch today. Not too bad. Prawn and Pork Wontons in Spiced Beef Broth, followed by a Roast Leg of Lamb with Herbes de Provence and vegetables like asparagus, potatoes etc. For dessert, we had yesterday's Chocolate-frosted Spiced Banana Cake (we celebrated Armand's 2nd Birthday last evening) served with a refreshing Fruit Salad.

Everyone loves wontons and they could be eaten fried or cooked in a broth. On normal days, I do a classic chicken and ikan bilis (dried anchovies) stock, but today, I've decided to make a Spiced Beef Broth.

In a pot, I heated some oil and browned a large onion with 6 whole cloves stuck in it. Followed by a cinnamon stick, a few star anises, a few peppercorns, 2 stalks of celery, one large carrot sliced, one fennel quartered, 1 tomato halved and 1 bay leaf. Then I added in about 1 kg of beef (e.g. oxtail or any part of the beef with meat and bones) to be browned as well. When everything is brown and fragrant, add in 6-7 cups of water, 1/2 cup of Sherry, cover the pot and let it simmer for 2-3 hours. Verify the water level and add more water if necessary during the cooking.

Before serving, add in salt to taste, 1-2 tbsp of light soya sauce and some fresh coriander leaves.

The wontons are also easy to make. I add about 80 small peeled raw prawns to about 400g of minced pork. This should make about 40 wontons. I then add in about 10 water chestnuts all chopped up, coriander leaves, 1 tsp of ground coriander seeds, 2 tbsp of oyster sauce, 2 tbsp of light soy sauce, 1 tbsp of sesame oil, 1 tbsp of Sherry, I grate 1 cube of Knorr Tom Yum stock, crack one large fresh egg and mix the whole thing. I usually let the filling sit for at least an hour before wrapping it up in wonton skins you can buy from Asian grocery stores. A big tsp of pork with 2 small prawns and a bit of water chestnut in each skin.

I just dump the wontons to cook in the broth just before serving. When they float onto the surface of the soup and when you see through the wonton skin that the prawns have turned pink, you know they are cooked. In each bowl or soup plate, serve 3-4 wontons with 1-2 slices of carrots and a few shreds of beef in the beef broth. You can garnish with a squeeze of lemon juice, a few bean sprouts, a few peppermint leaves, spring onions and fried shallots.

The Roast Leg of Lamb is one of our favourites. Many people do not like lamb because of the strong smell, but when done nicely, lamb is a very fine and delicious meat.

First, you'll need a big roasting pan or baking tray (mine's 30x40 cm). Lace it liberally with extra-virgin olive oil. For 4 persons, you'll need at least a 1kg leg (with bone). Prick the meat with a steak knife and put pieces of crushed garlic in it (you'll need 3 cloves and you can cut each clove in 3 to poke into the meat). Rub salt, pepper and Herbes de Provence all over the leg. Place the meat in the middle of the pan.

Peel, cut into big pieces and wash 3 big potatoes, 2 carrots, 1 large zucchini, 1/2 eggplant, 2 red Italian bell peppers (Capsicums), a few fresh button mushrooms, 2 onions, 5-6 asparagus, tomatoes in round slices with some Italian basilic on them, 3 cloves of garlic. Arrange them around the leg of lamb in the pan. Sprinkle a liberal amount of olive oil to the veggies, add salt, pepper and some thyme and rosemary.

Preheat your oven to around 200ºC. Put in the roasting pan. Bake for 20 minutes and then take out the pan to turn the lamb and veggies over. Continue baking for another 20 minutes. In France, we like to eat the lamb ''pink'', not totally cooked. If you like it less rare then you'll need to leave it another 10 minutes or so in the oven.

Let the meat rest for 10 minutes before serving (it relaxes the muscles of the meat and makes it tendier). Carve the meat into slices, arrange them on a plate, arrange some of the grilled veggies next to the meat, squeeze some lemon juice over everything and then pour the juice of the meat and veggies from the roasting pan into a bowl and propose it to those who want to eat it with their meat.

The Spiced Banana Cake was the same as the one I baked last week. Only this time I made a Chocolate Frosting to pour over the cake as it was for Armand's 2nd Birthday the day before. Very easy, break 1,5 tablets of dark chocolate into small pieces and put them in a bowl. Add in 50g of butter, 50g of icing sugar, 1/3 cup of milk or more. Microwave for 1-2 minutes. Beat the mixture the minute you get it out of the microwave with a metal whisk. Let it cool a little before spreading it over the cake.

The fruit salad is refreshing and goes well with the cake. Just cut up half a pineapple, some strawberries, raspberries, seedless grapes, blood oranges, apples and whatever fresh fruit you like into not-too-thin slices and put them all in a big bowl. Add in 1-2 tbsp of sugar and 1-2 tbsp of orange liquor like Grand Marnier. Leave in the fridge to sit before serving.

Well, there goes my diet for another day. All the green tea I've been drinking cannot melt away the amount of fat and sugar I consume everyday. I spent last night trying on some of the clothes I used to wear 4 years ago and it was depressing. Armand is now 2, I have no more excuses for being 2 sizes bigger. Anyone has an effective no-pain diet plan?

jeudi, mars 16, 2006

Pan-Grilled (& Flambéed) French Scallops with Wild Asparagus, Strawberry & Banana Milkshake and Creamy Vegetable Soup with Homemade Croutons

In France, they always tell you that you have to eat according to the seasons. Coming from Singapore where we have none and where in any case we have to import almost all our food, it took me a while to see the light.

I still remember asking hubby once in the middle of winter if he would like me to make him a strawberry tart for tea and he answered : ''No, this is not the season for strawberries.''

Apparently taste, variety and prices are at their best when the fruit or vegetable is in season. Gariguettes, even if you manage to find them in January (because they are imported from a warmer country) just do not taste half as good as the ones that are cultivated in the Southwest of France and harvested between early-April and early-June. And if you prefer Fraise des Bois, you'll have to wait for Summer.

The same thing applies to eating seafood like crabs, salmon, scallops, oysters etc. In France, the best way to eat according to the seasons would be to shop in the local street markets and see for yourself what is on offer on a particular day. The Grand Chefs do their own shopping, they don't get their Filipino maids (if they have one) to do it. You have to see and touch and be inspired by your ingredients. As such, I don't usually plan my menu in advance, I just turn up in my market and decide on the spot what to prepare. The day I found wild asparagus and beautiful scallops from Normandy with their orange coral on, why, that was the day I made Pan-Grilled Scallops garnished with Grilled Wild Asparagus ;-)!

I like to buy my scallops when they are still in their shells. I get the Fishmonger to prepare them right in front of me. In the kitchen, heat up some extra-virgin olive oil in a non-stick pan and add in 7-8 cloves of bashed garlic (about 2 per person). Then place the scallops (3-4 large meaty ones per person) gently in the pan and let them grill a few minutes on each side. I like my scallops well-grilled on the outside and a little rare at its heart. Whatever it is, do not over-cook the scallop or it'll become rubbery. So if your scallops are not too thick, you may wish to just grill them on one side till it's nice and crusty and serve them grilled-side up.

Sprinkle in some freshly-ground salt and pepper and a small amount of chopped mixed herbs like fennel, aniseed, dill, thyme and parsley. When the scallops are browned, add in 2-3 tbsp of white wine. The scallops can be served then with a squeeze of lemon juice, or you could make another variation of the dish by adding 2 tbsp of crème fraîche to make a creamy sauce. My hubby likes to flambéed his scallops before adding the cream, using a Pear Williams Eau-de-vie. It's all up to you.

The wild asparagus are easier to manage than the cultivated ones because you'll normally not need to peel them. Just wash and cook. I usually just scald them in salted boiling water for 4 minutes, drain them and then grill them in a hot pan with some olive oil, salt and pepper and a little bit of lemon juice or Balsamic Vinegar. Goes well with the scallops or with almost anything else.

Actually, when certain fruits are not in season but you still wish to consume them, one way to do it could be to make a fruit salad (with sugar and alcohol) or a milkshake. It's also a good way to make your children eat fruits. A few days ago, I bought some strawberries because my daughter insisted on having them, but they really were not very edible on their own. So I just sliced and dump them (500g) in a big bowl, together with 2 bananas, 150ml of very cold milk, 2-3 tbsps of crème fraîche (single cream) or plain joghurt, 2 tbsp of sugar and blend everything with a handmixer. You can then serve the milkshake with a few slices of fruit and a sprig of peppermint and they'll just love it.

In the same vein, if you want your kids to eat vegetables but they're not too excited about that, try making vegetable soups. The possibilities are endless : Sweet Pea, Leek & Potato, Tomato & Basilic, Cream of Mushroom, Carrot & Sweet Potato, French Onion, Indian Potato & Lentil, Pot au Feu, Minestrone etc etc. They can be served as they are, with a touch of cream, with bacon bits, with croutons, gratinéed... My children love them.

To make a Creamy Vegetable Soup for 4, heat up a little bit of extra-virgin olive oil in a pot and start to brown (all roughly cut up) 1 large onion, 2 large potatoes, 2 carrots, 1 celery stalk, 1/2 red Capsicum, 1 leek, 2 tomatoes (either peeled beforehand or remove the skins before you mix the soup). Sprinkle some herbs like thyme, oregano and basilic, add in 4 cups of chicken stock (or water and a low-fat chicken stock cube) and cover the pot. Cook for 30 minutes. Before serving, mix the soup with a hand-held blender, add salt and pepper to taste and 3-4 tbsp of crème fraîche.

The soup can also be eaten with some grated Emmental cheese and some croutons that you make using toasted stale bread (with or without garlic rubbed on them after toasting). Bon appétit.

Fast to Criticise and Slow to Compliment

My form teacher in PLMGSS, the marvelous Mrs Elspeth Smith, once remarked that we, in Singapore, were ''fast to criticise and slow to compliment''.

She said that in the West, exams were often set to allow most students to succeed and in doing so, feel encouraged to do better. In Singapore, standards were usually higher than necessary, so that many would not do well and would be compelled to work (even) harder in order to do (even) better. In other words, one had better be thick-skinned and not be too easily discouraged in Singapore.

Come to think of it, now you know why we are forever criticising our Government. So as to keep them on their toes and keep them performing. Giving them a taste of their own medicine.

Back to my studies, I remember that I was consistently bad in Maths in PL. I knew before I even received my grades that I would get an E and I was never wrong. But without doing anything special, A was the grade I obtained at 'O' Levels (though it was too late, I was too discouraged by then to ever want to do Maths again in my life). In fact, the exams were a complete walkover, I had As everywhere, even my hopeless Chinese harvested a B.

In NJC, while my compatriots slogged away in the library, I spent many happy hours thickening my waistline in the kampung-breeze canteen and trying to avoid the attention of several teachers who were quite stressed out with my ''mediocre'' grades. Apparently they were under a lot of pressure to get their students to perform and tended to pass on the stress to us. Once again, I aced my 'A' Levels obtaining straight Distinctions like 2/3 of NJC's student population, which goes to show that a happy stomach feeds an empty brain just as effectively as hours of freezing in the air-con library.

What I didn't count on in NUS though was the Policy and the Politics. In my year, only 1 out of 6 'A' Level students got into NUS. So the quality of the student population was quite good to start with. And the University had to come up with some weird quota-based grading system that allowed only a certain (meaning very small) percentage of students to obtain an A, for instance. Added to that, you must not get into your HOD's disfavour or like me, because of my Big Mouth, you could get your papers re-marked 3 times until you missed the grade to qualify for Honours (even though my grades in the 2 years before were consistently good). I was informed of this by one of my lecturers who was very scandalised by what she and some of her colleagues had to do. Just when you start to believe that in Singapore we are so clean and upright.

Hey, but there is no one path to success in life. Instead of pushing papers all my life in the Civil Service (as was planned since I was a Scholar), I won a Scholarship from the French Government (merci beaucoup) a year after graduating from NUS, broke bond, packed my bags and left for Paris to study in the prestigious L'Institut d'Études Politiques (Sciences Po) de Paris. Now I can claim to have studied in the same school as Jacques and Bernadette Chirac, not bad, n'est-ce pas?

In spite of my lousy French, I even managed to do my Masters/Post-Masters in the Université de Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, something I have to credit the Singapore Education System with. After all that I've gone through studying in Singapore, everything else elsewhere was a breeze. Only pity was that there was no canteen with Nasi Padang and Char Kuay Teow to while away the time in in Paris. As a matter of fact, when you were a poor student in France, steak-frites in the disgusting Resto-Universitaire were the only thing you could eventually afford and that makes me shudder even now as I think of it.

mercredi, mars 15, 2006

Grilled Entrecôte, Creamy Tomato Soup with Mozzarella Toasts and Spiced Soup with Tiger Prawns and Rice Vermicelli

My darling hubby has done quite a bit of studies and currently has quite a high-flying career (also flies around alot). Which explains why I can sit around at home and blog. But that is not the point of this evening's entry.

What I wanted to say was that he is very fond of telling whoever would lend a ear that he is a Perfectionist. As in he seeks perfection in whatever he does (though when you see him dump his socks inside-out 1 in the laundry basket and the other out of it, you do wonder...); Like he has married the perfect wife (I said it, he didn't, ha ha) and has made a few perfect children (yeap, like perfect mess, perfect glue...).

So over the years, I have by contagion become quite a perfectionist myself. As in perfectly capable of limiting disasters in the kitchen.

When we 1st met, he cooked alot. Over the years, as he advanced in his career, he got really good at delegating jobs to other people and so I ended up doing most of the cooking - though he keeps some sort of 3rd eye hanging above the stove.

Hubby likes to say that a quickly-prepared meal need not be a badly-prepared one. That everything is a question of organisation and about understanding, respecting and mastering the subject at hand. And when you prepare your dish from scratch, you also learn about it, what makes it taste the way it does, discover what you need to do to make it taste the way you would like it to taste. La cuisson, la qualité des ingrédients, le mariage des matières...

If before I knew him a curry was made with curry powder, I now make my curries with individual spices, fresh wherever possible; If before I knew him I would roast any chicken I could get my hands on at a good price on the day in question, I now only choose a free-range labelled chicken of at least a certain weight in a Butcher's shop; If before I knew him (BIKH) a potato was yellow and either fried or baked, now I know that they come in different races, colours, firmness, and you use them according to whether they are to be julienned, sliced, cubed, puréed, fried, boiled, grilled, or baked; If BIKH an apple is either Fuji or Red Delicious, I have since discovered that they could also be Golden, Breaburn, Belle de Boskoop, Reinette, Granny Smith, to name but a few, and chosen depending on whether you are going to make a Tarte Tatin, compote, salad, soufflé, donuts, juice...

I therefore try to avoid shortcuts in my cooking (unless I think I can get away with it and not be disappointed with the result). Actually it's not just a question of taste. But industrially-prepared food products do tend to contain alot of chemicals, MSG, colourings, preservatives etc. Though I must say Asian Home Gourmet has come up with MSG-free pastes that are quite good and I do occasionally use them as a base in my cooking.

I have learnt that choosing the right cut of meat, for example, is already the cooking half done. A beautifully-cut, nicely-grained and appropriately-thick beef Entrecôte just needs an 8-minute stay on a well-heated and justly-greased iron grill.

And then seasoned with freshly-ground salt, pepper and a sprinkling of Herbes de Provence. It can be then be accompanied by a lightly-tossed salad (a few chosen young mesclun, spinach, rocket and mâche leaves, extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lime juice...), fresh green beans (best from Kenya) cooked just 15 minutes in salted boiling water and then quickly stir-fried with butter, crushed garlic and parsley, or potatoes à la Sarlardaise fried in duck fat, crushed garlic and parsley.

A few evenings ago, we didn't feel like having an elaborate dinner so I just made a Creamy Tomato Soup. First I heated a pot and browned 1 big sliced onion in some olive oil. Then I added a stalk of celery, a clove of garlic, 1 chopped carrot, 1 quartered large potato. Next, I poured in 4-5 cups of water, added 6 ripe and red tomatoes, 1 can of peeled tomatoes (they are actually better than fresh tomatoes as they are usually very ripe) a bunch of fresh Italian basilic and a bay leaf.

In a few minutes, the water was boiling and the skins of the tomatoes started to peel off and I just scooped them out of the water. I then added a chicken stock cube (when I run out of frozen home-made stock), covered the pot and let the soup boil for 20 minutes. Before serving, I removed the bay leaf, mixed the soup with a handheld blender, stirred in 4 Tbsp of double cream, salt and pepper.

To accompany the soup, we've made Mozzarella Toasts using fresh bread, olive oil, some chopped basilic and sliced mozzarella cheese and putting everything under a hot grill for a few minutes. It was simple and delicious.

And last evening, having spent too much time reading other people's blogs, I had only 30 minutes to prepare dinner before the hubby turned up. Of course, I hadn't shopped for food either... Well, I decided on the spot to heat up some oil in a pot, brown 1 sliced onion, 1 cinnamon stick, a few whole cloves, fennel seeds and star anises, 2 cloves of crushed garlic, a few slices of fresh ginger. Then I took out a dozen of frozen Tiger Prawns, stir-fried them in the oil shells-on and removed them the minute they turned pink and set them aside (to give flavour to the oil but not to overcook them), added 4-5 cups of ikan bilis and chicken stock, a Tbsp each of dark and light soya sauce, a few drops of sesame oil and a bay leaf and was on my way to making a Spiced Soup with Prawns and Rice Vermicelli!

When I was ready to serve the soup, I just added some rice vermicelli, the prawns, frozen fishballs, a bunch of Thai basilic, some coriander leaves and some bean sprouts. Fresh red chilli padi is optional but I love to drink my soup with loads of it inside.

The soup was simple, but fragrant and tasty. A cross of some of my favourite soups (Vietnamese Beef Pho, Hokkien Prawn Soup, Teochew Fishball Soup...). Amazing what you can come up with when you are desperate and short of time, n'est-ce pas?

mardi, mars 14, 2006

Bukit Batok Video and the Singapore Voyeurism

I have inadvertly caught on more than I wanted to about the Tammy NYP scandal. Besides the usual hoo-ha from upright citizens/religious communities etc, what is quite interesting is that Tammy actually has supporters, fans rooting for her : ''Tammy I support you!'' ''Tammy I'm behind you all the way!''

Is Tammy going to do a Clara Morgane (France's darling porn queen, her 1st sex video Rêveries Exclusives was filmed when she was 19 and it showed her giving head to her boyfriend behind some plants in a street)?

After all, what did Macbeth say? To turn back would be just as difficult as going forth? Well, she could capitalise on her fame or she could lie low and hope that after a while nobody will remember her anymore. After all, how many of you still remember Annabel Chong and her 251-men gangbang, right?

But alas Tammy is already being supplanted by other homemade videos like the Bukit Batok Video. About some couple making out in the Nature (as in some NParks-maintained park, I suppose. I have not seen the video and do not really wish to see it).

And people outside Singapore are talking about all these videos. And I suppose they are marvelling over the fact that :
  1. Singaporeans have sex (though often you do wonder);
  2. Singaporeans have sex in different places (I personally have not tried anything in the nature, as Singapore has a surprisingly rich flora and fauna that includes fat beetles and huge flying cockroaches, but then when you have to either do it in a HDB flat with your parents' and siblings' prying eyes or pay a hotel room that probably contains the same fauna but not the flora, then the nature may not seem so bad after all);
  3. Singaporeans film themselves (just when you start to believe that we were pudique and careful);
  4. Singaporeans are frantically talking about them;
  5. Other Singaporeans are all trying to get their hands on these videos.

And the last point brings me to my topic for today.

Why are we so kaypo*? Why do we want to watch other people in their amateur videos? People who are probably miles from looking like Tabatha Cash or Rocco Siffredi. Who probably have bodies and sexual parts like we do, and manoeuvres not worth commenting on? And most of all, why are we invading their privacy?

My theory is that pornography being illegal in Singapore, people do not have a real choice over what they get to read and watch in this area. Like everything else, you have good and lousy pornography and over time you learn to enjoy the good ones and ignore the rest. But if you have not much choice, then the No Fish Prawn also Good syndrome will step in and you will be grabing every XXX thing you hear of, and not even knowing why you're going for it.

Like dildos or sexy lingerie, pornographic material is an aid to having better sex (in addition to love and respect for your partner). We do not want to watch underage actors, zoological acts, incestuous acts or badly-filmed movies. We do not want to become dependent on pornography in order to get our own act together or to start believing that women should behave in a certain way or be subject to certain acts (like having sperm shot all over our face) in our own homes. We just want to occasionally watch good-looking and well-endowed professional actors act out our common fantasies and help us add some spice to our daily sex routines. A certain kind of voyeurism but a clear-cut one.

And voyeurism is for both sexes. Geylang is only for men. Voyeurism can be shared by couples. Geylang is between the man and his paid woman.

I remember reading once in an adult blog that there were Singaporeans who organized/attended private orgies in new HDB flats. Both men and women wanted to go beyond conventional experiences (with extended risk of catching STDs and bumping into your boss ha ha).

I have never done anything unconventional where sex is concerned. Though I personally know people who have visited Couple-Exchange Clubs, S&M Clubs and who have participated in private orgies. They are ''normal'' people who were just looking for a different sexual experience. Without breaking laws, often to keep within the boundaries of their fidelities (as in a couple do it together and not behind each other's backs), without abusing unwilling women or sleeping with the underaged.

I personally wouldn't go for any of the above (I always say, ''What if one day my son becomes the President of the country?'' or ''What if you got more than what you bargained for?''), but I do not judge those who do/did (or at least I try not to).

So all of the Tammy NYP, Bukit Batok, Airport Videos and the accompanying rude voyeurism are to me a symptom of a sexually-awakening and at-the-same-time-frustrated Singapore society. All those Tammy ''fans'' either sincerely thanking her for ''showing them the way'' or just congratulating her for doing what they, not ever daring to do the same, would ever do. Or damn it, maybe I was trying to read too much into the whole thing. Maybe everyone is just being themselves i.e. the kaypo, ugly Singaporean, rejoicing that ''this'' happened to ''you''and not to ''me''.

*kaypo = busybody, minding other people's business.

lundi, mars 13, 2006

Spiced Banana Cake, Nasi Kuning, Indonesian Chicken Curry and Tammy NYP

I made a Spiced Banana Cake on Sunday. For three reasons. 1stly because I bought 2 kgs of bananas as they were cheaper than if I've bought only 1,5. Not that I even needed 1,5 in the 1st place, of course.

2ndly because I was invited to lunch at a new friend's place (though I planned to bring Nasi Kuning and Chicken curry, not cake).

3rdly because I was in a nostalgic phase.

Some of my confidantes may already know that I've been going around harassing some of my former lecturers and schoolmates and those I couldn't find yet I'm still spending time trying to do so.

And why is that so?

Not because I have too much time on my hands (I'm not THAT old yet), but I just woke up a week ago and realised with a start that I have left Primary school 22 years ago, Junior College 16 years ago, Graduate school 7 years ago...Oh my God we are talking in decades now, this is depressing.

I mean I don't feel much older than I did yesterday and the day before and so on. I am fat nowadays but then so was I when I was 12.

Anyway, that gave me a desire to find out how certain people are doing, if they're still alive etc.

And to cut a long story short, as I was walking home with my 2kgs of bananas and wondering who was going to eat them all, I suddenly saw myself as a 15 year old (visions of my lost youth come flashing back pretty often nowadays) mashing bananas with a fork with my Home Economics teacher (I can still remember her face but not her name) looking over my shoulder. Voilà the birth of my delicious Banana Cake :

Cream 250g of softened butter with 125g of sugar and 2 tbsp of condensed milk. Add in a pinch of salt, a tsp of vanilla essence, 2-3 tsp of cinnamon powder, a pinch each of ground cloves and nutmeg. In another bowl, whisk 5 eggs with 125g of sugar till light and creamy. Then fold in the egg mixture to the butter mixture. Add in 250g of mashed bananas and the juice of half an orange. Lastly gently fold in about 180g of self-raising flour. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 150ºC for about 40-45 minutes.

I didn't do anything special but you could always glaze your cake with a brown sugar-butter-grated coconut mix that you pour over the cake and caramelise for a few minutes under the hot grill of your oven.

In addition to the cake, I also made a Nasi Kuning and an Indonesian Chicken Curry to eat it with. One good thing about growing old outside Singapore is that after you've gotten over the shock of discovering that meat and vegetables are not bred and grown in supermarkets, you took to the discovery that you could make some of your favourite dishes yourself (because you could no longer tah pow* them from anywhere) with much bravado and started making them like you've been making them all your life. I haven't gotten as far as growing my own veggies and breeding my own pigs though. As it is, I manage to kill even cactuses...

About Nasi Kuning. Make a stock with a 400g can of coconut milk, 1 chicken stock cube (fresh lagi better needless to say), 1 tsp of salt. In a non-stick casserole, heat some butter or ghee (not high heat or butter will burn and turn black) and fry 2 onions (sliced), 1 thumb sized bashed galanga, 2 cloves of bashed garlic, 1 cinnamon stick, 2 stalks of bashed lemon grass, a few cardamons, cloves, 1 bay leaf, 1,5 tsp Turmeric powder till fragrant. Add in washed rice (400g) and stir fry. Add in juice from a small lime and the coconut-chicken stock. Add in one pandan leaf and then cover the casserole. Turn up the heat to boil the rice and once the mixture starts to boil and you can see that the rice is half-cooked, lower the heat to the lowest possible and just let it cook in its own steam.

The rice should be dry and grainy and I served it presented in the shape of a cone and accompanied by fried shallots, roasted grated coconut and roasted almond flakes.

My version of the curry is not the watery sort you usually eat in Indonesia because I do not like the watery sort. Besides I have enough money to pay electricity so I usually just let my curry simmer.

First my chicken breasts or thighs are marinated for a few hours in salt, pepper, generous amounts of turmeric powder, cumin powder, cinnamon powder, coriander powder, paprika powder, dried chilli flakes and a pinch each of ground cloves and nutmeg.

Then I blend 3 onions, a thumb-sized piece of ginger and 4-5 cloves of garlic with a bit of water to make a paste.

In a non-stick casserole, I heat some oil and fry a large sliced onion, 1 stick of bashed lemon grass, 1 thumb-sized piece of bashed galanga, 1 cinnamon stick, a few star anises, bashed cardamon pods and whole cloves, 1 bay leaf together with my marinated chicken pieces till everything is brown and fragrant. Remove the chicken and put it aside.

In the casserole where the spices are waiting all brown and fragrant, lower the heat and add in the paste. Stir fry for a minute and then add in 400g of coconut milk, an equal amount of chicken stock. Cover and let it simmer for 15 minutes or however long it suits you.

10-15 minutes before serving, put the chicken back in, add a few lime leaves, fresh coriander leaves and a few tbsp of roasted grated coconut. Simmer until you're ready to serve.

With the food out of the way, let's go back to my nostalgic phase. Now that I think about it, it could have something to do with the Tammy NYP affair that I've heard echos of in the last week. In case there are people who are even more out of touch with happenings in Singapore than Yours Truly, Tammy is a 17 year-old NY Poly girl who had mobile phone videos of her love-making scenes with her boyfriend diffused on campus and then on the web. Apparently in gossip-starved S'pore this sparked alot of interest from the usual blogs, forums, papers, religious communities etc giving attention and their 3 cents' worth to the affair. Then of course as usual the girl got all the polemics and nobody paid too much attention to the guy (takes 2 to have sex though) and the person who stole and diffused the videos (what happened to copyrights? to thievery? to illegal distribution of pornographic material?). Apparently some smart opportunistic assholes even started selling merchandise relating to the affair on Ebay etc.

OK, when you see how Home Economics nostalgia got me to baking banana cakes, you may wonder if this Tammy NYP rebel-teenager stunt inspired me to make my own sex mobile phone videos?

Well, I suppose I could have (after all I was quite rebel) if :
  1. I have a mobile phone with an integrated video camera, which I don't. Even my mother has a more modern handphone than I do;
  2. I had sex when I was 17, which I didn't. Even my mother had sex earlier than I did;
  3. I currently have a 17 year-old figure to show to the world, which I don't. When it comes to being fat, I am finally getting an edge over mom.

But Tammy did set me off thinking about my teenagehood and how different things were then. How much I've moved on in years and so on.

I have nothing against having sex. It's one of my favourite activities and I always sleep a little better after a round of bed aerobics with the hubby. But it is the thought of doing it at 17 and filming it at the same time that boggles the mind. And apparently having sex at a young age is a common thing in Singapore now, not many people give a damn any more about the virgin-on-wedding-night business, though of course where the filming is concerned, as long as nobody else gets exposed they could go on pretending it's something they didn't or will never do themselves.

So my generation must be the generation in between. I think women in my mom's time got married young so you can be sure they had sex young too. Then in my time, as far as I can remember, I did not have a single friend (and don't start being mean and suggest that I must not have many of them) who were having sex when we were 17. Of course birds of the same feather flock together (one of my favourite sayings), but then we all have different paths after school, and some finally had sex after all, though only a few black sheep like myself did it before we got married, the majority waited till they exchanged their vows!

Voilà chángjiang hòulàng tui q¡ánlàng**. Things are no longer the same. We are now in the work-look-after-children-too-tired-to-have-sex phase (I'm generalising, am definitely not talking about myself ha ha), while others are just having sex for fun. And when we were supposed to be in the have-sex-for-fun phase we were doing something else. Like checking out 2 novels everyday from the library; Like writing to one of my 40 overseas penpals during Economics lectures; Like having platonic overnight stays in Loyang.

I mentioned the Loyang bungalows to my decadent French hubby the other day, about how in my nostalgia I kept thinking of the wonderful stay I had with my NUS friends there. The 1st thing he asked : ''So did you have an orgy?''

I mean, how could even such an idea enter his mind? We, boys and girls, had a wonderful time; Leonard taught us how to play tennis, we swam a little in the pool, we worked together to prepare the BBQ, we stayed up all night to chat (and deepen our friendship), we listened to each other, we played charades and Pictionary, we told our mothers' ghost stories to scare each other...And we are all still friends till this day.

Because I can tell you that once you sleep with someone, when there is no (more) relationship, you are likely never to see him again. That is the advantage about age, you can take my word for it. No, it has nothing (or not that much at least) to do with your sexual prowess, but the fact that sex complicates things even though it's simple enough to fall into it (my mother liked to say that when you put a guy and a girl in the same room sure very easy to end up having sex). And Tammy, though she co-starred with Andy in her movie trilogy, will probably never see him again before the year is out. And there is really no point in using the handphone to film such events for future reminiscing since aside from the fact that you could lose the phone, once you're no longer with the guy, your sexual horseplay with him would be the last thing you'd want to look at when you start thinking of the good old days.

*Tah pow = take away

**The backwaves of the ChangJiang river pushes its frontwaves.