Season’s greetings from “Pinchy”, the Christmas crayfish

It arrived on Christmas eve in a tightly sealed styrofoam box.

My scissors sliced through the billowing plastic and industrial strength tape surrounding the container.

I tentatively lifted the lid – but only a little – and promptly dropped it back down again. I had seen nothing.

I called my mum over to help.

We both glimpsed cautiously into the box when suddenly, she let out a small yelp of surprise.

I had received a text message, which caused a loud, sudden buzz to reverberate across the counter top. We both giggled ferociously.

Our laughter gave us the courage to throw the lid off, pull back the sheet filled with melted ice and uncover the greatly anticipated star of our Christmas – Christmas lunch, that is: a brilliantly orange and very much cooked crayfish.

I can’t explain the irrational fear I felt when first attempting to open the box and it doesn’t make sense to me why I chicken out at handling a once-living creature that still looks like an animal (spit roasts are a prime case in point). Whatever the reason, I couldn’t bring myself to drive a knife through the crayfish’s head to split it open so I asked Andrew to do it for me.

Being the endearing soul he is, he promptly named our little buddy “Pinchy”, before cracking open its head.

"I shall name him Pinchy and he shall be mine and he shall be my Pinchy."  Photo: Tao Lin

“I shall name him Pinchy and he shall be mine and he shall be my Pinchy.”
Photo: Tao Lin

Once he cracked open the crayfish, Andrew removed the mustard-coloured liver and some other soft gooey stuff before I brushed over the flesh with a mix of melted butter, a chopped red chilli, crushed garlic and grated zest of a lime (recipe by Nadia Lim). It then went onto a heated pan to grill, flesh-side down, for a couple of minutes before serving.

It was a surprise for my dad, who loves shellfish, and part of my Christmas gift to him. It was a nice feeling seeing his joy from something that is so basic and his enthusiasm in encouraging us all to enjoy the dish with him.

I hope everyone’s had such warm moments this festive season and a fabulously happy holiday!

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Another MKR “inspirated” experiment

Call me slow but yesterday I realised aioli, that creamy white-ish dipping sauce you always see accompanying chips at a bar, is essentially just mayonnaise plus garlic. I have never been a huge fan of aioli, despite everybody around me seeming to love it, and after making it yesterday I’m no more or less of a fan, although I now have a greater appreciation of what it is.

Along with my cordon bleu and spaghetti frutti di mare from last night, I made a prawn and squid salad, which was noticeably devoid of any greens apart from avocado. The inspiration for this came from our ever-copious amounts of frozen prawns and this recipe from the last season of My Kitchen Rules (eagerly awaiting for the next season here, by the way). The team that made this received rave reviews from the two judges and it looked pretty darn tasty too.

Luke and Scott's zesty prawn salad from season 4 of MKR. Photo: Yahoo!7

Luke and Scott’s zesty prawn salad from season 4 of MKR. Photo: Yahoo!7

I did a couple of things differently: I didn’t have any chillis or peanuts, I omitted the salad greens and grapefuit, I used lemons instead of lime and I added squid. I also didn’t put as much love and attention into presentation as these guys did, hence the lack of my own photo and cheating use of one taken from the website.

For the aioli, I actually used 2 egg yolks instead of 3 (not enough eggs in the house!) and it did end up a bit runny. To remedy that, I added in mustard powder, which worked to a certain point but this was enough to get it to a consistency that I was happy with. In turn though, it did make the aioli taste something more like honey mustard but it still tasted pretty good.

Overall, it was well-received and there were quite a few mussels left over from the spaghetti so we dipped those in the aioli. Tasted great!

Note: For those who don’t know, the “inspirated” reference refers to one of the contestants on MKR, Jenna, who said a number of “inspirating” things, including: “I’m feeling really inspirated” and “I find that inspirating”. Here’s a blog post for your entertainment.

Lovin’ it: Homemade burgers

It wasn’t long ago that rainbow figurines of my childhood frolicked in their eternal happiness everywhere you looked in my house: on my tiny white book shelf, on the ledge from which my curtains hang and even hiding in the grass in my garden. I’m embarrassed to admit that those plastic dalmatians, mermaids and Looney Toons came with two chewy pieces of bread, a slice of pickle, sometimes processed cheese and something that was meant to be meat, all wrapped up in the most famous golden arches in the world. Yes, that’s right, many of the toys from my childhood came from McDonald’s Happy Meals.

For as long as I can remember, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC have always just been down the road from my house. There used to be a Pizza Hut restaurant as well but that closed down when I was in high school and a Carl’s Jr has recently risen – and flourished – in its place.

For a time when I was at primary school, it was a regular occurrence having reheated pizza and deep fried chicken for breakfast on Sunday mornings. And to respond to what you’re probably all thinking, no I wasn’t a particularly fat kid. I did athletics and gymnastics, and I was also blessed with a hyper-speed metabolism. But I know this doesn’t make eating all that fatty food any more acceptable.

I don’t blame my parents for letting me eat so much fast food. When we look back on those times now, my mum always says the same thing: “We didn’t know any better”. Neither of my parents eat much junk food now and they’re two of the fittest “older” people I know. They went swimming every single day for about two decades and have only recently started cutting that down (getting older, and stuff).

Despite the questionable quality of food I sometimes ate during my childhood, it still didn’t put me off burgers in the long run. But, I’ve moved on from tiny squashed McD’s cheeseburgers to burgers that tend to be more hearty, more fresh, made with more love.

My dad works for Tip Top Bread, which makes the burger buns for Carl’s Jr here. He’s allowed to take two bags of bread home from work each day and a couple of weeks ago on Friday night he brought home several Carl’s Jr burger buns. I knew immediately what I wanted for dinner. My parents don’t eat meat so I decided to make a fish burger for them and a beef burger for myself and Andrew.

I used tarakihi, which is a white fish, marinated for a couple of hours in lemon juice and garlic, then seasoned with salt and pepper. This was fried in the skillet. For the beef, I seasoned mince with salt, pepper, garlic, onions, dried oregano, paprika and dijon mustard. This was mixed with a lightly beaten egg, refrigerated for about an hour, and rolled into balls, which were flattened into patties when I cooked them on the skillet.

There were also salad greens, gherkins and melted cheese in the burgers but something I feel quite proud of is the sauce I made. I couldn’t decide what sauce to use for my burgers and consequently I spent a very long time looking around on the internet. Surprisingly, nothing really caught my attention until I chanced upon this link: http://americanfood.about.com/od/keytipstechniques/r/secsauce.htm

Big Mac sauce. I love Big Mac sauce! At least, I remember loving Big Mac sauce. Thinking more healthily though, I decided not to follow this recipe but instead adapted one of my own using greek yoghurt. I actually found another Big Mac sauce recipe here, if anyone is interested.

Here’s what I used for my sauce:

1/2 cup natural greek yoghurt (full fat)
1 tbsp dijon mustard
4 tsp diced gherkins
1 tsp vinegar from the gherkin jar
1 tbsp minced onion
1 tsp sugar
A pinch of salt

Mix it all up, dollop it on and top with a toasted bread bun.

Served with oven-baked fries, these burgers made for no left-overs and a meal that disappeared before anyone had the time to say, “I’m lovin’ it!”

Lemon garlic Tarakihi fish burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Lemon garlic Tarakihi fish burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Beef burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Beef burgers. Photo: Tao Lin

Then and Now

My mother’s auntie (I call her grandmother, lao lao, for some reason) lives in the Daxing district of Beijing, some 31 kilometres away from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden Palace. Beijing is divided into 6 “ring roads”, with central Beijing (i.e. Tiananmen Square) as Ring Road 1. Daxing is on the 6th ring road. By the extremely efficient and cheap Beijing subway, it takes 45 minutes to get from my grandmother’s house to the push and shove of the middle of town.

When I visited in 2003, all of the area in which my grandmother lives – all of the apartments, broad multi-laned roads and giant supermarkets – was all fairly undeveloped land. Back then, she lived in what I would describe as a big courtyard with three buildings: one for the bedrooms and living room, the other for cooking and another for the “toilet”. By “toilet” I mean “hole in the ground”, but let’s not get into that discussion.

It definitely didn’t feel like we were in the 21st century. The pillows weren’t filled with soft goose down or foam that moulds to the shape of your head, but rather, uncooked rice. We used bed pans if we needed to go to the toilet during the night – either that, or we had to carry a torch with us to go to the outside toilet. I went to my mum’s cousin’s work every night to shower because a shower at my grandmother’s house was literally getting water in a tub of some sort and washing yourself with it outside, regardless of whether it’s in the middle of Beijing’s stifling summer or bone-chilling winter. Oh and the water? Pumped straight out of the ground with questionable cleanliness.

But meandering along the dirt roads, I found a bustling community. Make-shift BBQs lined the streets, letting off clouds of smoke and filling the air with the smell of spiced, chargrilled meat. Locals sat around on old tables and chairs playing cards or just hanging out. Bicycles, mopeds and scooters zoomed in and around each other, adding to the chatter of passionate conversation. Just like the city, the countryside never really slept.

Leap forward to today and it’s all gone. The dusty roads, the droopy trees that were a grey-green hue, the atmosphere, the general openness. The government approached the residents of Daxing, as they did with all the other areas they’ve now urbanised, and bought out the people’s properties, giving them a place in one of the many apartment blocks they built instead. It wasn’t so much an offer as it was a notice of their intention to take away the people’s land, knock down their homes and build up from the soil, rows and rows of mid-rise apartments.

I visited again in 2011 and stayed with my grandmother for the time that I was in Beijing. For someone like me – a complete city slicker – it was at the high end of the comfort scale. The floor was marble, the furniture was polished wood, the toilets had bidets, there was air con in every room and the kitchen is bigger than the one I have here in my quarter acre home. From that kitchen came dumplings and various stir fries, as well as iced green tea drinks and weird yoghurt drinks that tasted like sour milk.

My relatives always joke that my grandmother’s cooking all tastes the same – oily, slightly tangy and very salty – but to a foreigner, it’s always delicious. I guess when it comes down to it, my mum’s cooking is similar in that most of her dishes all taste the same. This is because she uses the same seasoning products – mainly soy sauce – for most of her dishes unless she’s making something with a unique flavour, such as satay beef or Ma Po tofu.

I’m sure I’ve written about this already but there are several different cuisines in China, which isn’t always represented by Chinese takeaways or restaurants that all serve the same fried rice and wonton soup. Contrary to popular belief, rice isn’t eaten everywhere in China, nor are noodles. And sweet and sour pork? Not really a thing north of Canton, although I’m sure people would know about it regardless.

About two weeks ago I made a tofu and prawns version of General Tso’s chicken, which is also not traditionally a “thing” in China – it was created in the US. The recipe I based it on can be found here. I just half-cooked the prawns before adding it to the mix and then let it cook the rest of the way as everything was being mixed together with the sauce.

It tasted fine but not sure I’d make it again. There is a suggestion from a reviewer to marinate the tofu, then bake it after dunking it in some egg and cornstarch mix. I personally think this is unnecessary unless you are after that crispy fried tofu. There is enough sauce to coat the tofu and veges quite generously.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Alternatively, you could just stir fry everything with some garlic, ginger, soy sauce, maybe some oyster sauce too, and cornflour and it’ll still taste amazing.

As much as I am all for change and thoroughly enjoyed the more modern lifestyle in present-day Beijing, I couldn’t help but feel forlorn for the loss of its more rural areas. These people who now live next door to a hyper-efficient public transport system and newly sealed roads didn’t ask for their homes, or their lives, to change.  They may have lived a harder life, though maybe not as hard those begging on the city’s most inner streets, and they lived with little. But despite having little, they were in want of nothing. They had open air and space, food and water, electricity, the freedom to cook, drink and play whatever they liked out on the neighbourhood paths, and they weren’t restricted from each other by metres of concrete and cold security gates.

As my grandmother gets older, she certainly enjoys the accessibility and modernity of everything that surrounds her now but at the same time, I think she also looks back on those less-privileged times with fondness and a touch of wistfulness too.

A lesson about rice

Paella’s done and dusted and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt is how deceptive rice is when it’s uncooked. Considering I’ve lived off rice almost every day for as long as I can remember, you would think I’d understand this but nope, definitely not after judging how much paella I ended up with tonight (heaps). No need to despair though, it’s all going to a good and well-deserving cause (my boyfriend’s lunch for the next week).

We worked off two recipes found here and here. We ended up doing one seafood and one with chicken and chorizo – nothing quite as exciting as rabbit…

Both used stock made from salted water and prawn heads – might have chucked in some thyme for no reason as well!

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

While that simmered away, we got onto prepping all the non-rice components: sautéing the chorizo, chicken, onions, ginger, bell pepper and tomato paste. I tossed the chicken with some Portuguese chicken seasoning, which is essentially paprika, chilli and lemon, before cooking it.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Added arborio rice (about 400ml to each pan – WAY too much for 4 people, by the way) and kinda tossed that around until it looked like it was translucent. To be honest I couldn’t tell for the chicken paella because of the paprika and everything in the seasoning so just winged it.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

We added the stock after that so the rice was just submerged. This is where I kind of got a bit lost because I wasn’t sure if we were meant to keep adding stock the whole way through until it was cooked al dente and time to caramelise the rice on the bottom (the “socarrat”). I’m fairly certain this is what the recipes called for so that’s what we did.

For the caramelisation, I didn’t want to burn the rice so didn’t push the heat up too high, which ended up not being quite enough. What did happen, though, was because of the inadequately sized pans and the large amount of everything else, we ended up with unevenly cooked rice and some of it ended up browned earlier on in the cooking process. I ended up having to scrape that off and move everything around a bit so it wouldn’t burn – a move I’m sure paella purists would condemn.

Once the “caramelisation” was done, the heat was turned off and the deliciousness was covered with foil for about 15-20 mins.

When I think about it, paella is actually a really simple dish but it requires a bit of experimenting and patience to get right. Like I said in my previous post, I didn’t want to ruin my memory of paella in Barcelona and I don’t think I have, but I also don’t think I did it justice, either. When prompted, my fellow diners said it tasted “really good” and “awesome” but I’m not quite as convinced.

I felt there was a flavour missing, or perhaps all the flavours were there, it was just that they weren’t strong enough. Perhaps a dash of lemon juice? A better stock? I’m not sure…Also, I think next time I would leave the chicken and fish out until later on in the cooking process; once they’re cooked off, put them aside and then add them in closer to the finishing point, otherwise they come out overcooked.

It was a good meal anyway and I learned a lot, especially never to underestimate the potential of uncooked rice!

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Experimenting with Pad Thai

Earlier in the year, Andrew and I went to a social cooking class where we learned how to make Pad Thai, that popular, tasty street food that many think of when thinking about Thai cuisine. After learning just how simple it actually is to make, I was keen to try it at home myself and after a brief search on the internet, found this recipe: http://www.thaitable.com/thai/recipe/pad-thai and modified it based on the ingredients I had available.

For 4-6 servings, I used:

1 pack rice noodles
3 cups bean sprouts
1 spring onion
2 eggs
Approx. 6 teaspoons fish sauce
6 cloves minced garlic (I just mashed them up in a mortar and pestle)
1/2 brown onion (no shallots; crushed them with the garlic)
A pinch of ground white pepper
3 tablespoons peanuts – I toasted these in a frying pan first
About 12 prawns, shelled and deveined
1 disc of palm sugar – I was lazy and just broke it up into pieces with my hands but I would suggest taking the time to grate it if you’re just putting it straight into the wok with the noodles, as instructed in the recipe
4 tablespoons white rice vinegar (in place of the tamarind paste)
1 teaspoon Sriracha hot chilli sauce
Cooking oil
Water

I followed the instructions as detailed in the recipe linked, using a wok.

The seasoning measurements (fish sauce, vinegar, chilli sauce, sugar, white pepper) were all just guesstimates in my case; I put in however much I needed to make it taste good for me. I think overall I held back on the flavours a bit because I didn’t want any to be overpowering. Consequently when it came down to eating the noodles, I ended up adding quite a bit more chilli sauce to bring out more spice and tanginess, but I preferred this to the overly tangy and salty result we got at the cooking class.

One major thing I would change for next time would be to get all of the seasoning sorted before I start cooking the noodles. We did this in the cooking class – heated fish sauce, tamarind paste, garlic paste, chilli paste and palm sugar together in a saucepan until the sugar dissolved and then added this to the noodles when cooking. I completely forgot we did this but to me, it’s way more logical and heaps easier, especially for dissolving the palm sugar. Naturally, you may have to adjust the taste some more once it is mixed in with the noodles.

I also had trouble keeping the noodles from sticking together in the wok but managed this somewhat by adding in little bits of water at a time when I needed to in order to separate things a little. As the author of the recipe states, this dish is meant to be dry so you just need to watch how much liquid you add in.

Served with roasted peanuts and fresh bean sprouts.

DSCN0669

Second go at oven-baked snapper

One of the snapper I got last weekend has finally been put through the oven and consumed, dressed in dashes of soy sauce and sesame oil, sprinkled with garlic, ginger and green onion and topped with fresh slices of lemon.

I’m not a huge consumer of seafood and when I cooked my first snapper fillets last weekend, I didn’t really know when it was actually cooked. I’m not sure how the meat is meant to taste when it’s cooked right, when it’s undercooked and when it’s overcooked, but I think essentially, it’s done right when the flesh is opaque and flakes away when tested with a fork. Last time I kept them in the oven for about 15 minutes but this time, I checked them regularly from around the 10 minute mark to make sure I didn’t ruin the fish by overcooking it.

Believe it or not, I still have one more whole snapper to cook. Perhaps a stray away from Asian flavours is due?