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.

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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