Monday, March 9, 2015

Sugar-free Banana Carrot Loaf

To be honest, the reason why I don't bake a lot is because I can't bring myself to measure out the cups of sugar or mounds of butter that are so often required in most traditional baking recipes. So when I find a sweet-thing recipe that has minimal amounts of either, I'm almost immediately sold.

These days, there's no shortage of recipes accommodating the 'sugar-free' lifestyle, but I find it interesting to note how they substitute other ingredients for regular white or brown sugar. Often, I find it's honey, maple syrup, or dates; but even more often it's slightly obscure (read: expensive) options like agave syrup, rice malt syrup, stevia (a plant-derived sweetener), or coconut sugar - to name a few.

Without a doubt, I prefer recipes which use the former, mostly for cost and even familiarity to an extent, and seeing ingredient lists things like rice malt syrup, I'm almost immediately turned off. So for those reasons, I love the following recipe because it uses good ol' fashioned dates and bananas.

I discovered this recipe a few months ago on My New Roots - an inspired, natural foods and nutrition-based blog by Canadian, Sarah B., who bases herself in Copenhagen. She writes incredibly accessible healthy recipes with thorough nutritional information about key ingredients. To be honest, I haven't made much from her blog - reading it more for inspiration and guilt-free food porn - but her 'Best Friends Banana Carrot Cake' inspired me to get baking.

Sugar-free Banana Carrot Loaf makes a 9"x13.5" loaf
// from My New Roots //
I've renamed this a 'loaf' instead of 'cake', as I never feel the need to ice the finished product as Sarah B. does in the original recipe. If you feel lost without icing, I'd recommend cream cheese swirled through with maple syrup or honey; otherwise, I love it plain, or with a dollop of full-fat organic yoghurt and some honey for a comforting spike of sweetness. A perfect option for breakfast or an anytime-of-day treat.

2 c wholemeal flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp fine sea salt (*less if using salted butter)
3/4 c finely chopped walnuts
110g unsalted* butter, heated until just melted
1/2 c dried dates, seeded & finely chopped into a paste
3 ripe bananas (1 1/4 c), mashed well
1 1/2 c grated carrots, about 3 medium
handful each of raisins, dried pineapple, coconut flakes - or anything like it that you fancy (chocolate included)
1/2 c plain yoghurt
2 eggs, lightly whisked

Preheat oven to 180degC / 350degF. Line a 9x5x3" loaf or 8x8" cake pan with parchment paper. Sift flour, b.p., cinnamon, and salt together in medium bowl. Stir in walnuts and set aside. Stir dates into melted butter, breaking up dates slightly.

In large separate bowl, combine banana and carrots, and add date/butter mix, stirring together and breaking up dates as you go. Whisk in yoghurt and eggs. Add flour mix and stir until everything just comes together. Spoon into prepared pan. Bake for about 50-70 mins (with a loaf pan, mine is ready around 60-65 minutes, it will be less if using a cake pan where the thickness of the cake is less), or until a toothpick tests clean in the centre. Remove from oven and cool.

Instead of icing, serve simply with full-fat natural yoghurt.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Chinese New Year: Simple Noodle Soup

Mushroom and Bok Choy Noodle Soup

Any excuse for noodles! But here, the soup brings it all together.

To a base chicken stock, add slices of ginger, garlic, spring onions (the white part), soy sauce and simmer for 10-15 minutes, removing aromatics. Taste for seasoning. Pre-cook dried noodles in a separate pot of boiling water, drain and set aside.

I experimented with the mushroom (I had portobello, but dried shiitake would be ideal, especially for adding the hydration liquid to the soup base) - pan-frying half in reserved chicken fat for super flavour (there is no vegetarian alternative for flavour here), leaving half raw to be cooked by the soup.

To assemble // Over a spoonful of chicken fat (optional, but inspired by Japanese ramen preparation), place cooked noodles in serving bowl. Soft poach an egg separately (or prepare a boiled egg), while bringing soup back up to a gentle boil and poaching bok choy for up to a minute, until just cooked. Remove and arrange with noodles. Add mushrooms and place egg atop. Add soup to bowl, gently pouring over everything to reheat. Leftover chicken would be a most welcome addition.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Chinese New Year Dumplings

Goats, Westport, New Zealand

On February 19th, we welcomed in the year of the goat*. This marked the beginning of Chinese New Year, one of my favourite occasions to celebrate. As a person of Chinese descent, I've grown up with various traditions surrounding the 16-day holiday (including washing my hair on Chinese New Year's Eve to go into the new year cleansed of the year previous, and prepared to receive the festival season's luck and fortunes); and, of course it has always involved food.
*Or sheep, or ram - the Chinese character yáng  covers all three hooved animals, requiring an additional preceding character to clarify, e.g. shān yáng 山羊 translates to goat specifically (shān means mountain).

As with everything surrounding the Chinese New Year celebrations, there are symbolic foods you are encouraged to eat to invite good luck and prosperity in the coming year. The auspicious symbolism is derived from both the pronunciation or appearance of food being translatable to words or objects which inspire luck, wealth, or personal success and growth.

The foods vary across the different regions of China as well as different countries altogether. For example, in Singapore and Malaysia (where my family are from), a favourite dish to ring in the new year is the Yusheng (鱼生) or 'Prosperity Toss' salad platter. It consists typically of slices of raw fish (salmon in my experience), various (yet specific) shredded vegetables, crunchy crackers, peanuts, sesame seeds, and a slightly sweet/sour plum sauce, rice vinegar, lime and sesame oil dressing. It arrives at the table as a platter of ingredients, and the tradition is to stand with your table to toss the salad together, while reciting auspicious phrases or wishes. When I took my non-Chinese friends to do this last week, we simply said a prolonged Yum Sing ('cheers') during the toss, as I remembered doing growing up when we enjoyed the dish in a large setting of up to 20 tables doing it simultaneously. It's been a few years since my last Yusheng salad, so I relished reenacting the tradition and sharing it with friends who had never experienced it before.

The Yusheng platter at Yang Ming Yuan, Princes Street, Cork - seasonings, e.g. pepper, are inside the red envelopes

After moving out of home and missing out on my father's annual organised CNY celebrations and banquets, my go-to Chinese New Year celebration (and everyday comfort) food has been dumplings (jiaozi, 饺子). Last year, I made my first dumpling wrappers from scratch and was stoked with how easy it was (2 parts flour + up to 1 part just-boiled water + time). So last week, I decided to go all out and buy the special high-gluten flour from the Chinese supermarket which is supposedly ideal for dumpling wrappers.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Lemongrass Beef Noodle Salad

Savoured for it's fresh, fragrant and subtly citrus flavour, lemongrass is a penetrating - yet non-overpowering - component of many South East Asian dishes. If you enjoy Vietnamese or Thai food, you'll recognise the flavour straight away.

This noodle salad is loosely inspired by one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes: bun bo xao - stir-fried lemongrass beef served over room-temperature vermicelli rice noodles. Slices of steak beef (e.g. sirloin, skirt, scotch) are normally used, however I had some leftover beef mince in the fridge so adapted the idea to suit.

The salad aspect is also flexible - slices of cucumber, bean sprouts, shredded crispy lettuce, peanuts, crispy fried shallots, and fresh herbs, such as cilantro, basil, mint, small perilla (shiso) leaves are typical; but I used what I had, including thin slices of green pepper and mixed seeds, providing alternative elements of freshness and texture.

What is mandatory, however, are the cooled rice noodles, the Vietnamese dipping sauce/salad dressing, and the lemongrass, garlic and fish sauce beef marinade. 

Lemongrass Beef Noodle Salad

Monday, February 2, 2015

Chicken, Better Than I've Ever Known Before

What meat-eater doesn't love chicken? While top chefs might balk at the idea of the Colonel's meat-of-choice having any true culinary value - unlike beef, lamb or even duck, with their complex age-able flavours - the capacity of chicken as a vehicle for flavour is worthy enough for celebration. These were my thoughts after cooking the, aptly named, 'Bademiya's* Justly Famous Bombay Chile-and-Cilantro Chicken'.
*A quick Google search for 'Bademiya' brought me here and while the NYT recipe doesn't use milk/cream ('malai') in the marinade, 'Chicken Malai Tangdi' on the menu is my best guess at this dish's inspiration. Safe to say that Bademiya is also now on my 'Places to visit in India' list.

This page in my copy of The Essential New York Times Cook Book has been bookmarked since day one and I was stoked to finally try it out. It's list of ingredients is fairly basic, and if you have ever cooked any simple Indian recipes before, you'll most likely have what you need for the chicken in your pantry already.

And while not essential (a quality hot sauce would be a fine accompaniment), the Cilantro Sauce included in the recipe takes this dish above-and-beyond already finger-lickin' delicious - yet in an unexpected direction, given the slight bitterness and textural aspect of the walnuts.

Bademiya's Justly Famous Bombay Chile and Cilantro Chicken

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Zucchini, Chilli and Smoked Buffalo Mozzarella Pizza

The inspiration for this came partly from Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook of Sortsby Russell Norman, which I've gushed about before, and partly from the smoked buffalo mozzarella I came across in the specialty Italian deli in town. For me, good pizzette (small pizzas)or pizza in general, is characterised by a thoughtful selection of a few fresh, quality ingredients and a good thin - slightly chewy, slightly crisp around the edges - base.

In this case, the smoked buffalo mozzarella was my starting point. From there, I selected a zucchini, red chilli and freshly grated parmesan to complement. In Polpo, Norman has a recipe which includes all of the above, but with mint and, instead of lovely, soft, fresh mozzarella, he recommends the cheap, hard, standard supermarket kind. This is a great option for when cheese is intended as a backdrop, but for this, I wanted the smoke of the mozzarella to sing. I omitted the mint also, as I had none on hand, but used chopped fresh parsley for freshness and as a garnish to finish.

For the pizza base, I turned to my quick flatbread recipe (not dissimilar to a standard pizza dough recipe), which has become a staple in my kitchen for it's ease, convenience and never-disappointing results. Once you've made it a few times, you'll know what I mean.

Zucchini, chilli and smoked buffalo mozzarella pizza

To accompany the pizza, I made spiced kumara (sweet potato) fries with a lemon-spiked yoghurt dip. And apart from making the base from scratch (use pre-made pizza bases or flatbreads if you wish), this took little effort to put together. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

My New Morning Ritual

Over the last few months, I've been watching various food- and health-related documentaries. I really enjoyed Food Matters, Hungry for Change, and Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead (all available on Netflix), and I'd recommend these to anyone interested in food. Boiled down, they contain a similar message: eating real food is essential for our health. And, the biggest take-home for me was not just about real food, but raw food.

It's a well-understood concept that when food is consumed raw, you're most likely to receive the most nutrients as they are yet to be 'damaged' by heat or the cooking process*. And while this in no way inspired me to start a raw diet (but props to those who try it), it definitely urged me to think about eating more raw fruits and vegetables. Meaning: more salads, smoothies and juices (in all cases, made fresh and/or right in front of my eyes, if not a pure ingredient list if I'm buying prepared).
*However, for some foods, they say that cooking/heat actually benefits overall nutritional value, e.g. processed tomato vs. fresh tomatoes.

While my last post is one salad I've been eating lately, I've also added a smoothie to my daily morning ritual. So after oil pulling with organic coconut oil, brushing my teeth with my homemade coconut oil/baking soda 'toothpaste', and drinking a big glass of warm water with a small wedge of lemon (or teaspoon of apple cider vinegar), I drink this:

Kale, Kiwifruit and Pear yoghurt smoothie with chia seeds

Kale, kiwifruit and pear yoghurt smoothie makes about 2 cups

1 banana
1 ripe pear (peeled, cored and cut into smaller pieces if you are not using a full-fruit able-blender)
1 kiwifruit, scooped out of it's skin
2 washed & torn kale leaves
1 teaspoon of honey
2-3 generous tablespoons of full organic yoghurt (or any type of milk - alternatively, apple juice could be used also)

Blend until combined with a few ice cubes (I use a powerful stainless steel hand blender which requires some patience and manoeuvring, but a regular blender would make this a breeze), and serve. For extra health, I mix in a tablespoon of chia seeds.  While this could be split over the day by keeping half in the fridge for an afternoon boost, I like to enjoy it all in the morning as I check my e-mails, news, and social networks.

Completely delicious and very satisfying, the beauty of the smoothie is being able to tick off a good amount of fresh fruit and vegetables early in the day, which is also the best time to consume fruits -giving your body the full day to access that energy. The variations are also endless, whatever is on hand can work nicely in the right combinations, though I envy anyone with a blender capable of blending whole fruits/vegetables (this is on my wish list) as I'd love to be able to include carrots and beetroots in my mixes. But alas, I still have allll the fruits up my sleeve and that's plenty for now.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

I Heart Noodles: Korean Buckwheat Noodle Salad

I've talked before about my preference for savoury breakfasts so with that said, I'd like to add: I am a noodle girl. All the way. It might be an Asian thing, but I could eat noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner and it would be a dream come true (including European-style noodles too, e.g. spaghetti, späetzle... you name it!).

And lately, I've been indulging in that dream. Fragrant Vietnamese noodle salads, fiery fried Chinese noodles, nourishing and aromatic chicken noodle soups... and, happily, I've just discovered bucatini, a hollow spaghetti, which has also been giving me a lot of joy.

Of that theme, my favourite breakfast at the moment is a Korean-style Buckwheat Noodle (Ngaenmyeon) SaladNgaenmyeon is made from the flour and starches of various ingredients including buckwheat, wheat, and sweet potato, and is therefore chewier and more elastic than, say, its Japanese counterpart, soba.

I'm aware that Korean food isn't the most popular of Asia's cuisines, and I think I understand why: a lot of its core flavours are created from fermentation (e.g. kimchi) and this can be overpowering when unaccustomed. However, the health benefits of fermented foods are indisputable and definitely worth looking into if you are trying to eat healthier and especially if you have any digestion problems.

In any case, this dish is definitely Korean lite. And while kimchi would be a worthwhile addition, I'm keeping it simple. And never mind the breakfast thing, this would equally make a great lunch or light dinner.

Korean-style Buckwheat Noodle (Ngaenmyeon) Salad

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Curious about Pigeon

The English Market may well be my favourite place in Cork city. An excellent, high-quality range of produce, freshly baked breads, sweet and savoury treats, artisan chocolates, cured meats, wonderful cheeses, a famous fishmonger, and a fine array of butchers touting various cuts of various animals. One in particular specialises in less common meats, like rabbit, buffalo, kangaroo, venison and... you guessed it: pigeon.

Recently, I became especially intrigued by the petite deep maroon, almost blood-red, coloured breasts of pigeon sitting neatly between buffalo burgers and a whole rabbit. We purchased two breasts for sampling and on the walk home I began to imagine the dish.

To accompany, I cooked a mushroom, leek and red wine pearl barley risotto, seasoned with garlic and rosemary, with the duck stock I'd made the previous day - a perfect accompaniment, I thought, to the rich, gamey flavours I was anticipating the pigeon to have. 

For the pigeon: I patted both breasts dry with kitchen paper and seasoned both sides generously with freshly ground sea salt and pepper. Meanwhile, over medium-high heat, I gently heated a good swirl of grapeseed oil with the fresh leaves of two thyme sprigs. As the thyme became fragrant and began to sizzle, I placed the pigeon breasts firmly down in the pan, capturing some of the thyme hostage beneath.

After about 2 minutes, with the pigeon seared and nicely beginning to colour on one side, I flipped both breasts over, moving them around the pan to capture more thyme. After another 2 minutes, I flipped over again to finish, about 30 seconds more. Pigeon is best cooked rare to medium-rare, and as they are very small pieces of meat, it doesn't take long. Removed from the heat, I allowed them to rest for 5 minutes and served it with the pearl barley risotto (pouring the resting juices over).

Seared Pigeon Breast with Mushroom and Leek Pearl Barley Risotto

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Spiced Roasted Almonds

I have a notebook of collected & created recipes, as well as food ideas & memories, which I started around four years ago. It continues to build, with the dream of one day publishing something, though unfortunately, it contains the odd recipe to which I can't recall the inspiration: a book, a cafe, the internet, or my pantry? The guess is anyone's. 

This is one of those. However, with the way the food world works, there are undeniably plenty of similar and good recipes out there, meaning: 1. I have no fear of committing plagiarism, and 2. This is simply mine. Yours will be the same recipe with a slight tweak, and your friend's another. What matters is: it's delicious (and in this case, very addictive).

Spiced Roasted Almonds

Approx. 1 c of raw, unroasted and unseasoned almonds (skins on)
3/4 tsp turmeric
3/4 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp sweet smoked paprika
1/2 tsp hot smoked paprika (or cayenne pepper)(however, if you are averse to heat, stick to more sweet smoked paprika)
3/4 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp fine sea salt

Preheat oven to 180degC/350degF. Toss all ingredients together thoroughly with 1 tablespoon of water.  Spread out in a single layer on a parchment paper-lined baking tray. Roast for 12 minutes, or until golden and crunchy. Remove from oven and cool slightly before eating. 

These store well in a clear, airtight jar. 

Spiced Roasted Almonds

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Holiday Season: All-belly Porchetta with Honey & Bacon Brussels Sprouts

The new year is here! For many, this means new resolutions, old goals approached with a renewed spirit, or simply: keeping on keeping on. For me: it's a recommitment to 'the pursuit of deliciousness'. 

Fortunately enough, I have been reunited with my beloved cookbooks and this has been providing plenty of inspiration. And of course, the past Christmas season has also encouraged me to survey these and my old reliables on the world wide web for occasion-worthy meals and dishes worth-a-go. One such recipe I embarked on was the All-Belly Porchetta (Italian style roast pork) by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of The Food Lab at Serious Eats

As expected, the result was a tender, succulent, and flavoursome (due to a 'stuffing' of rosemary, garlic, fennel seeds and black peppercorns) centrepiece-alternative. The recipe itself was easy to follow and with its short list of ingredients, it made it all very unintimidating and practically necessary to give a whirl.

All-belly Porchetta with Honey & Bacon Brussels Sprouts and Lentils with Spinach 

We served slices of the porchetta with honey & bacon brussels sprouts (recipe below) and lentils simply tossed with baby spinach and good quality extra virgin olive oil, for a very winter-holiday-worthy meal.