Sunday, October 28, 2012

Homecoming meal: a colourful mix of influences

My lovely daughter Pippa was up home for the weekend, not only to see us but in her professional capacity as a literary agent, to give a talk and a workshop for the local writers' centre, and it was the occasion to cook her some special meals. I decided to do something last night that had a mix of a few influences from our trip away, and came up with some adapted, inspired-by dishes that worked really well.
After a simple aperitif of Tokay(probably my favourite fortified wine of all--this one's made in Victoria) and lovely goose rillettes brought back from a really great little shop in Toulouse, which makes them themselves(I bought a tin of course, customs wouldn't exactly let you bring back the fresh variety!), we had an entree inspired by Singaporean influences: a small piece of snapper, steamed in a mix of water, oil, a squeeze of lemon, and mirin seasoning, resting on a bed of spinach quickly cooked in a little wine-flavoured stock and fresh garlic sweated in a dash of olive oil. I then reduced the stock the fish had steamed over till it was a nice thick mini-sauce which went over the snapper, and then some delicious crispy chilli--a jar of which we'd brought back from Singapore, where it's a traditional delicacy--placed on the top of the fish. Looked great and tasted even better! (And spinach and garlic were from garden and had just been brought in to cook minutes before.)
The main course though was inspired by France, and particularly Southern France: lamb cooked in honey, thyme and olive oil, with a medley of roast vegetables--capsicum, tomato, onion--and a roast eggplant(aubergine) puree. I admit, none of those vegs were from our garden but sometimes you have to not be too hard-core about such things!
The lamb was meltingly tender, and the robust taste of the meat went so well with the herby honey sauce! The way to do it is first to cook some chopped onions in olive oil till golden, then add honey(quite a bit of it--I used four tablespoons) in a large pot on the stove, let it blend together for a minute or two, add three sprigs of thyme, then add the lamb and cook it for about fifteen minutes, turning it over from time to time. Then take off stove, add some stock--not too much--and some salt and pepper in the dish and put the entire thing--meat and sauce--in an oven dish with a lid(if you have a dish that can go from stove top to oven, even better). Cook in a moderate (180 degree approx) oven for about one hour and a half to two hours depending on the size of the piece(ours was about 700 grams). You can then make a gravy from the cooking juices and serve the lamb with the half-melted honeyed onions on top of it as well.
To make the roast eggplant puree, you first roast the eggplants--split them in half first and crisscross the flesh with cuts without cutting into the skin. Paint the flesh and skin with oil and on a top shelf in oven while meat is cooking(I roasted the capsicum as well during this time--tomatoes later). When flesh is soft, take the eggplant out, scoop out the flesh and mash with a fork. Cut up the roast skin into very small pieces and mix into the flesh as well. Add salt, pepper, cumin, chopped coriander, a slice of preserved chopped lemon(more if you have more than one eggplant--I only used one in this recipe) plus half a teaspoon olive oil and a teaspoon lemon juice. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and serve with the meat as a side dish. Goes beautifully!
For dessert, we had the rest of David's home-made brandy snaps which he'd made for the previous evening's dinner, with whipped cream and also some very tipsy prunes-in-Armagnac icecream he'd also made for the previous evening's dessert--luscious, and a real blend of English and French styles!

Back to the homegrown: the green and the orange

We've been back home for a week now and it's pleasing how despite our two-month absence and the fact it didn't rain much at all during that time, the garden's coped remarkably well (not too many horrendous weeds, kind of thanks to not much rain I suppose!) and there are even vegetables for us to pick, as well as peaches and nectarines and other fruit taking shape in the orchard.
On the very first night we were back, we had a lovely tender symphony of green vegetables for our meal along with chicken and rice: an entree of asparagus(the bed had become rather overgrown but there were still a lot of healthy spears there), a side dish of spinach(which has done remarkably well, considering) and an after-main course salad of green and red lettuce(ditto.) There's also a lot of great new fresh garlic, lots of artichokes, carrots and parsnips still going, as well as sorrel, rocket, and lots of different herbs: coriander, dill, thyme, basil, etc.
The third night we were back, I made a lovely fresh carrot, orange and cumin soup slightly adapted from a great recipe in one of the French cooking magazines I brought back, Cuisine Actuelle. It's a very simple and delicious soup, light and fresh, and makes a pretty sight too with its deep orange colour.
Here's how to make it, for two people. Grate three medium-sized or two large carrots, chop some onion and garlic, fry the these in some olive oil till golden then add the grated carrot, the juice of half an orange(keep the other half for later), salt, pepper, and cumin. Add some stock--vegetable or chicken or whatever you like-- to cover well, simmer till everything is tender, add the other half of the orange juice, simmer another couple of minutes, then taste to see seasoning is right, and either serve as is, as I did, or blend up everything to make a smooth velvety soup. Absolutely delicious, and it also tastes great the next day if you make extra! Add some chopped herbs--i used basil--to decorate.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Food in the air: then and now

I thought I'd round off the last of my travel food posts with a (longish) one on airline food, especially as in the last couple of months I've taken so many flights--but I won't be restricting it to just this trip, as I want to do a bit of a comparison. Over the years, since I was a baby in fact, I've been on more planes than I can count, in the wake first of my globe-trotting expatriate parents and then in my own restless forays around the world and it's interesting to see how things have changed. Most of what I'm about to say applies to economy class; I have been in business class a couple of blissful times when my brother used to work for one of the Middle Eastern airlines who were very generous with their family travel allowances, allowing siblings as well as parents and children of staff to obtain business class tickets at a tiny fraction of their usual cost, but otherwise have travelled in economy. The food in business class was of course much nicer, fresher, more varied and served in much better surroundings, crockery, etc than in economy, but in a sense, as I'll explain, it was only as good as what used to happen in the past for economy-class passengers, when we travelled as children on companies such as the now-defunct UTA, Union des Transports AĆ©riens, which used to do the long-haul flights from France.
In those days, when it took nearly two days to get from Australia to France, with multiple layovers at various places in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, the airlines generally only gave out drinks and light refreshments on board; the main meals were served at the airports, in proper restaurants with proper menus. The company gave you vouchers of a particular value to spend in any restaurant in the airport; and when as in our case the party consisted of several hungry children plus their exhausted parents, it can't have come cheaply! But the result was we ate good food, freshly-cooked and appetising, in relaxed surroundings where you didn't have to make like a robot or a battery cage hen in order to try and manipulate your cutlery without disturbing your all-too-close-next-seat neighbour, just as these days you can be so muchj more comfortable in business class. But of course it all took a good deal of time as well as costing a good deal of money and it was only possible for airlines to do this while not that many people travelled by air. Once many more people took to the skies, and it became imperative to transport as many people as possible in the shortest time possible in as economical a way as possible, then out of the porthole went the multiple layovers(no regrets there, it was tiresome to keep getting on and off!) and so did the gourmet meals in airports(regrets,I've had a few!). For us poor saps in economy class it became a matter of ingesting whatever food it was the airline we were travelling on was proposing, with our only choice being limited to a couple of alternatives which often, surprisingly(not) turned out to taste pretty much like each other.
Now I may have travelled a lot on planes but that doesn't mean I like it. It's a regrettable necessity for us here in Australia if we want to go to any other country at all. But it's not, shall we say, my favourite way to spend an hour or two, still less twenty-two. Despite all the flying, I'm a nervous flyer, though I never used to be as a child, and I can't say that airline food exactly takes my mind off the absurdity of being in an aluminium tube with a whole lot of strangers at high altitude above the earth. But I still do notice it in a desultory kind of way, and what I've mostly noticed over many years of flying is that economy-class food isn't usually actually bad, it's just mediocre. Forgettable. Boring. Unmemorable. Bland. Dull. And every other synonym of that sort you can think of. The meals blend into each other in a beige sort of way, leaving nothing behind but a vague feeling of dissatisfaction but not outright dismay. It doesn't seem to matter what airline it is you're flying on, what the menu promises, or what port you've taken off from, mostly that's the experience of economy-class food.
But there are some meals that do stand out in my memory, one for its true awfulness, and three for their surprising tastiness, and perhaps not surprisingly those are from four recent trips I've taken.
First on the dishonour roll, the one that still stands out for me as the perfect exemplar of sheer unimaginative and tasteless quality was a meal we had on a British Airways plane between Sydney and Singapore in 2010. Offered for supper(as the only major meal on this not insignificantly-long leg)it purported to be a macaroni bake and consisted of dried out pasta with a smidgin of bland sauce. And that was it, apart from a limp salad and a piece of dry cake. Gah! The airline certainly did themselves or the reputation of British food no favours, serving such terrible muck!
And the honour roll? Well, this time, on the Singapore to Sydney leg just a few days ago, Singapore Airlines served up a lovely dinner, with a choice of two excellent main courses--Hainanese chicken and rice--which I took and which tasted just as it should, succulent and tasty; and a tender beef stew with vegetables, which David took and pronounced excellent. The food on Singapore Airlines, which we took for the long-haul flights, hadn't been uniformly good up till then though; it had been ok on the other legs(Sydney-Singapore; Singapore-Moscow; London-Singapore)but not great, just standard mediocre, so I don't know by what stroke of luck we managed to get a great batch the other day. (That does often seem to be the case with airline food--the ones that stand out are truly randomly distributed!) Another excellent stand-out on our trip was amazingly(and contrary to the urban legends)on the Russian airline Aeroflot which we took from Moscow to Warsaw in September this year, where they served a really nice fresh lunch of smoked fish and meat, delicious black bread, and definitely the best cake I've ever eaten on an aeroplane: a beautiful blackcurrant mousse cake with a crumbly base, quite as good as any you'd buy in any excellent Moscow patisserie(which serve lovely cakes.) And the last stand out was on an Air France flight between Singapore and Paris in 2010(the leg straight after that awful BA culinary experience so maybe that's why it stands out). It was a late-night flight and they didn't serve any major meals but in the galley you could go and help yourself to a variety of terrific sandwiches, salads and drinks. I don't usually snack even when I'm wide awake at 1 in the morning; but I made an exception this time and tried out two or three of the sandwiches, which were all delicious. It was great too having the possibility of just choosing what you felt like without buzzing/bugging anyone to bring it to you!
I'd be interested to know what readers' thoughts are on airline food, and what your faves/hates have been on your own long-distance trips, so please feel free to comment--and if you're one of those lucky persons who regularly wings it on business, please don't hesitate to make the rest of us jealous with your accounts of gourmet delights!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Food in Singapore 5: The dreaded durian

There are signs in the MRT(Mass Rapid Transit, as the underground railway is known in Singapore), saying, amongst the various prohibitions against smoking, drinking, eating, etc, that there are to be no durians brought onto the train. No wonder! This stinking fruit would cause a mass panic in a carriage, I reckon, with people desperate to reach the exits--and I have experience to draw on now when it comes to the durian. For being always curious to try things out for myself and somewhat reassured by the many things I'd read which assured me it was delicious, you only had to hold your nose while you ate it, I took the plunge and ordered a durian milk ice in a juice and fruit stall in a hawker centre near our hotel last night--nice dessert, i thought, to round out our meal..
Big mistake! Even in that meek and mild form, the durian really does stink. It stinks unbelievably. It stinks of overflowing drains, backed-up sewers, weeks-old rubbish bins. Pinching our noses in dutiful determination, we nevertheless plunged in, and it was bearable in the first mouthful but disgusting in the second and worse in the third and the texture too was not good, mashed up with a slimy juice, making the gorge rise dangerously! We hastily abandoned it and ordered a plate of cut-up watermelon and pineapple to get rid of the taste but all evening I could not help remembering that horrid whiff. Some culinary experiences really aren't worth persisting with. Never again!

Food in Singapore 4: Hainanese chicken and Indonesian chicken

Hainanese chicken
Ikan penyet

Fried carrot cake
Chicken predominated on my menu yesterday here in Singapore, apart from at breakfast, where a delicious mushroom prata and tall glass of lime juice in the 24-hour Indian stall across the road from the hotel set me up for the day's tramping around the city(David chose a cheese and onion prata.)After walking the length of Orchard Rd and catching a bus to the beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens, where we had to shelter in a shop near the orchid garden for ages due to a tropical thunderstorm, with very impressive crashing of thunder and livid lightning as well as sheets of rain, we headed back to Orchard Rd and plunged into the cool of Ion Orchard, one of the many malls which line this street. There we found Food Opera, a rather swish version of a hawker centre, and shared a signature Singapore dish--Hainanese chicken rice. It's very simple indeed and very pleasing indeed too! It consists of chicken boiled in a special stock--sometimes chicken and pork, with sometimes just chicken, flvoured with garlic and onion, and the stock is boiled again and again to bring out its full flavour before the whole chicken is cooked in it-- with the accompanying rice also cooked, either in same stock or a separate chicken stock, depending on the cook. Ours came with side dishes of crunchy bean shoots and soup. it was all very satisfying and finely-flavoured and despite the fact we had it in an upmarket place, wasn't expensive at all: 13 Singapore dollars(about $10 Australian).
That evening, at the Lau Pa Sat Festival markets, one of the oldest in the city, in honour of the country of my birth, we chose an Indonesian food stall and I had more chicken--ayam penyet, or 'smashed crispy fried chicken', as it was translated, with accompanying omelette, soup and rice. And of course a hot sambal sauce!  It was tasty enough but a little dry, bearing signs of having been cooked a fair while ago, and I rather wished I'd instead chosen David's dish, ikan penyet, which was fried fish, a flat fish crispily fried and flavoured with soya sauce, absolutely delicious despite its many bones--even the fins were crunchy and tasty.
As well, we had another signature Singaporean dish--fried carrot cake, which rather ironically is neither a cake nor has any carrot near it, but is a kind of crispy omelette stuffed with white radish! It was very nice, piping hot and tasty--bought it at a stall run by some real old timers with brusque manners who looked like they'd been at the market for quite a long time!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Food in Singapore 3: A tale of three meals


Lunch fried kway theo

Citrus chicken with rice

Chicken tikka, sauce, naan bread, spinach and potato
Staying in a hotel means you have to eat three meals out a day and that can be an expensive proposition but in Singapore, with its wonderful array of hawker centres and low-cost restaurants and their cheap and cheerful menus, that problem vanishes. Today, the combined bill for our combined three meals--breakfast, lunch and dinner for two, each including drinks(fresh juices, or tea, coffee)plus two drinks at afternoon tea, reached the unprincely sum of $35 in Singapore dollars, which translates to about $28 Australian! And it was all really good too. Incidentally I love the juices here, especially rediscovering the joys of fresh sugar-cane juice with lemon and ice which is just the best thing ever on a hot muggy Singapore day. And just the thing to counteract the fiery chicken tikka we had tonight!
So, here's the menus:
Breakfast: In the famous Singapore Zam-Zam restaurant, an Indian Muslim eatery which is a century old! Very unpretentious, delicious food, fast service! We had pratas--which in Australia are called rotis, after the Urdu/Hindi word for bread, but here are called pratas, or roti pratas, 'prata' meaning flat, for these of course are the lovely griddle-fried pancake style breads. Two with egg filling, one with egg and onion. Teamed with a sweet black coffee for David, a tall glass of icy lime juice for me. Yum!
Thus fortified we had a long walk around town, to the quays and then to Chinatown where we had lunch in the Smith St Hawker Centre. Great place full of the kinds of food stalls you'd expect in this part of town--mainly Chinese with some Malay/Indonesian, and a sprinkling of Indian--and quite pleasant to sit in as there was a . good breeze from the fans! For a change I had some vegetarian food--a plate of fried kway theo(flat noodles)with bean sprouts and cabbage, all cooked under my very eyes, and for David citrus chicken with rice and soup. The whole washed down with tall glasses of fresh sugarcane juice with lemon. My dish was particularly good and tasty; the citrus chicken was nice enough but a little lacking in distinction.
Afternoon tea consisted of smoky cold Taiwan black tea for David and passionfruit juice with pearl jelly for me. Very refreshing!
Much later, close to 8.30, we had dinner in Little India district, not all that far from where we're staying. We had it in the very hot but cheerful Tekka Centre whose stalls were mainly Indian, including several Muslim ones, and a sprinkling of Chinese and Malay too. We shared plates of chicken tandoori, chicken tikka, spinach and potato, and freshly-made naan bread. It was all delicious though the chicken tikka was a very hot little number! Really nice people at the stall too, chatty and kind. This was all washed down with more sugar cane juice, and ended with two gorgeous burfis, Indian sweets made of sweet  milk,one with pistachios, the other with cardamon. And after that, we waddled on down the road oohing and aahing over  the amazing goldsmiths and sari shops along the road, under the sparkling Deepavali decorations strung along the street.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Food in Singapore 2: 'Wet' markets

This is the name given here to fresh food markets, and today, after we had lunch at the Smith St Hawker Centre in Chinatown, about which more anon, we had a poke around the Smith St Wet Market on the bottom floor of the big complex. Fascinating place--including amazing fish and seafood and river-food stalls, some of which which featured live frogs, eels, crabs, fish; lovely fruit and veg stalls, piles of dried and crystallised goodies of all sorts on other stalls, spices and sauces on others, butchers' stalls--everything you need to make all that great stuff they sell in the hawker centre upstairs!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Food in Singapore 1: Simple meal

Singapore has a deserved reputation as a food-lovers' paradise, and this frangourou was quite excited at arriving here this afternoon despite being stunningly jetlagged after a twelve and a half hour sleepless flight from London! Hunger drove us out by six o'clock, we just walked a block or two away from our hotel in Bencoolen St and happened on a mini hawker centre (otherwise known as food courts in Australia and UK)which satisfied our hunger for a tiny $8 per person. This included two courses(two kinds of steamed dumplings, one prawn, one pork-- for starters then a roast duck with rice and glazed pork with noodles and vegetables, with free soup), plus iced tea Singaporean style(ie with condensed milk) plus sliced guava, freshly cut up in front of us. The whole was freshly-cooked and tasty, especially the dumplings which managed to be both light and substantial and for $2.50 for a set of 3 or 4, an absolute steal! Totally simple, nothing in the least bit sophisticated about either food or surroundings, but bursting with flavour. Jetlag disappeared as, replete, we went for a saunter around the bustling streets around about. A nice low-key start to what's going to be a bit of a food expedition all around the city in the next few days!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Food in the UK 7: Traditional pub lunch in England

Today I had the third of my traditional UK pub lunches, this time in England, in a nice old pub called the Talbot in the hamlet of Knightwick on Teme in Worcestershire. I was very keen to eat some game as the game season has started here now, and so had smoked fillets of wood pigeon in a Caesar salad with bacon and steamed potatoes on the side. The pigeon was very nice, thinly sliced and quite rare, rather reminiscent of duck but with a more subtle flavour. But I thought it was rather overwhelmed by the Caesar salad--would have been better with a simpler background salad, perhaps with croutons. David had a perfectly lovely raised pork and game pie--the game in this case being venison--flavoured with juniper, served with quice jelly, salad and home-made chips. I must say I was jealous of his choice, once I'd tasted it! My sister in law Catherine had a nice little red pepper and tomato tart and salad--a bit light on in terms of size but tasting great.
From a very nice traditional local butcher close to the pub, we also bought two brace of partridge(there are two in each brace), shot in the woods nearby and looking perfectly plump and appetising. Planning to cook those tomorrow with chestnuts, red onions, and chestnut mushrooms(a nice brown mushroom.) Can't wait!

Food in the UK 6: Tyrrell's English Crisps

The British are very fond of their potato crisps but there's not only bog-standard big-company crisps around these days. The big Real Food movement and push to local products means you're getting a great deal more variety in all areas of food, and crisps have not been left out! Staying in the West Midlands at the moment, I've been introduced this week to some excellent local crisps, from a company called Tyrrells in Leominster in Herefordshire, the country adjoining this one. (Worcestershire). It's the brainchild of Herefordshire potato farmers looking to add value to their crops--and what value it is! The crisps are truly delicious, made from such local potato varieties as the Lady Rosetta and  the Lady Clare, sliced thinly with the skin still on it (giving a lovely pinkish edge to the crisp)and hand cooked at the premises themselves. There's all kinds of flavours in their 'English crisps' from the simple sea salt to some specific local flavours, Worcestershire sauce and sundried tomato and Ludlow sausage and mustard(Ludlow being in another nearby county, Shropshire). They also make gorgeous vegetable crisps such as beetroot, carrot, and parsnip, flavoured with rosemary and salt, as well as such things as tortillas and popcorn.
The packets are witty, wry and quaint too, with silly, fun photos and captions. A clever idea, and very well executed. Here's the website for Tyrrell's English crisps

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Food in the UK 5: English butchers' shops and their produce

Butchers' shops in England are great too. Here are two great ones: onecalled Wall's, in the lovely Shropshire town of Ludlow which is famous for its excellent sausages as well as game from the woods nearby. Pictured also is the sausage and mash pub lunch I had in Ludlow, the sausages coming from that very same butchery, and the mash deliciously flavoured with Shropshire Blue cheese. The other butchery pictured is in the equally pretty town of great Malvern in Worcestershire. And included is a close up of that butcher's home-made faggots!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Food in the UK: Butcher's shops in Scotland

One of the things Britain does really well in the food department  is produce excellent meat--and I've always found the Scottish butcheries to be particularly good in the cuts they produce and the appetising way in which it's all displayed in the shops. And there's lots of unusual meats too, including a good deal of game, especially venison. Here's just a couple of examples of such window displays.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Food in the UK, 3: Traditional Scottish pub lunch

I've been to Scotland loads of times but have never, mystifyingly, or perhaps not so mystifyingly(a little put off by the list of ingredients!) tasted haggis. This time I was determined to do so, and on a rainy day the other day in an unpretentious pub in Dalbeattie in Galloway, did just that--the full works: haggis with neeps(mashed swedes) and tatties(mashed potatoes.) It also came with a whisky, cream and pepper sauce.
The haggis was beautifully made by a local butcher apparently (you see haggises in just about every butcher's window in Scotland) and cooked in the traditional way, the mash was fluffy and tasty, the sauce was truly delicious. And am I a convert to the haggis now? Well, yes,actually, I really enjoyed it, it was totally tasty and delicious and I would not hesitate to have it again.

Food in the UK, 2: Traditional goodies

Britain, to my mind anyway, doesn't have anywhere like the range and variety of traditional dishes as in France, but it does have some excellent ones, and this week we've been having a feast on some of these. Lovely Cumberland sausage, excellently made and to my mind one of the great sausages of the world, here cooked simply with onions; delicious free-range smoked bacon and black pudding and eggs; and lovely smoked mussels and fish(here haddock) from Galloway Smokehouse. Simple, tasty and succulent!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Food in UK, 1: Traditional pub lunch, Wales

I love British country  pubs: in England and Wales, they are such a civilised institution, with their cosy bars, warm fires and good simple traditional food cooked well, not forgetting of course a range of great beers, ciders and perries! I do think that very often a good pub is where you'll find the best food in Britain, at least at lunchtime; restaurants can often be either disappointing or too expensive, sometimes both at the same time! In pubs at least you get good honest local food, no frills usually but well-cooked and satisfying.
We're in Wales right now and today after a good beach and country walk had lunch in just such a great little pub, the Plough and Harrow in Monk Nash, in Glamorgan.
I had local sausages(meaty, well-herbed and peppered, and quite delicious) with tender, sweet new potatoes, as well as carrots and swedes and green beans. The swedes weren't crash hot and I'd have preferred some more greens instead of them but the rest was very nice and with some home-made gravy and a pint of very pleasant perry(Two Trees), it made a fantastic meal, and in very congenial and atmospheric surroundings too. Both David and his brother had the same thing--traditional Welsh faggots with chips, gravy and mashed peas. the faggots were excellent, meaty and peppery, the peas were silky and tasty and the chips were crisp and golden. David teamed his meal with a pint of traditional cider and Richard with ale. Unpretentious food, unpretentiously served, and a very pleasant experience. And with the lilting and lovely cadence of Welsh accents all around us to boot!
Prices at the Plough and Harrow were similar to Australian pub prices--around 8 pounds 50($13.25)per main dish and 3 pounds($4.67)per drink. Dearer than France, and of course much dearer than Russia or Poland, but still very reasonable.