Sunday, October 21, 2007

Who doesn't like a crispy golden crust?

Shepherd's Pie is one of those one-dish meals that make comfort food category without even trying. Mashed potatoes with a savoury mincemeat baked till it forms a crust, with or without salty cheddar on top. First time I made it in some food and nutrition class using chicken mince, with no cheese. Second time I had it, we were in an Irish bar called the Harbor Inn in Wildwood New Jersey. We went almost every night, and thursday nights the Irish owner's Caribbean wife would make steaming trays of the stuff, a mince base with instant mash potato poured on top. I say poured instead of layered because her pie was so liquid you dished it out with a spoon. Many a Friday morning started with a hangover headache accompanied by a scalded oral roof. Reminders of too much cheap alcohol and salty tasty piping hot shepherd's pie.

This is one of those few times where you can make use of the frozen vegetable trio to great effect, but me being me, and Singapore being the place it is, frozen corn is more expensive than fresh. So despite slightly more work, It was fresh corn sliced off the cob, carrots cubed by hand and frozen peas. I guess it was better that way too because the carrots were sweet and not mushy, likewise the sweetcorn. The peas weren't that great, but i could not get a better brand at the Shop and Save.

It was a little on the dry side, especially the one that i refrigerated for the next day, but my family loved it. Next time more milk in the mashed potato and more stock in the mince. You'd notice I use alot of vegetables in my mince, disproportionately some might add, but I like my vegetables. Feel free to halve the quantity.

Mince base
I used 500 gram beef plus 250 Pork, You could also do all beef or same beef to chicken ratio. But authentic Shepherd's Pie uses Lamb. (apparently with beef its Cowboy pie. I say whatever as long as it tastes good.)
4 cloves freshly minced garlic
1 large onion finely diced
1 cup diced carrot
1 cup sweetcorn kernels
1 cup sweet green peas
1 cup stock or water or 1cup water and a stock cube
pinch of rosemary, 1 tsp black peppercorns, 1tsp salt (use less if using stock cube) ground in a mortar and pestle till fine
3 tblsp tomato paste
2 tblsp butter

heat a heavy bottom pan, as wide a base as you can spare, with deep sides.
sweat onions with butter, then add garlic
when fragrant, add pepper mixture then meat
stir ard to break up the mince, and let it brown and cook through till juices dry up. then add the stock/water and tomato paste. simmer for 20 mins till most of the liquid evaporates. add more liquid if too dry and meat still not tender yet.
Add vegetables and cook over low heat for further 10 mins.

Basic Mashed Potato recipe
1kg russet potatoes (or any other white floury potato), scrubbed, skin on (or off, I like it skins on.) cut to large chunks
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 Tblsp Butter (or more) Please DO NOT use margarine. It's worse for you than butter and is not a substitute. If can't eat butter use less, or replace with full cream milk and omit the butter. trust me, else its pointless both taste and nutrition-wise
1 cup milk (or more)

I say or more because some people like their mash creamy, some people like it potatoey, so please, whatever to your liking.

In a large pot of boiling water, add salt and potatoes. They should be done in 12 to 13 mins, do the fork text, they pierce through easily and skins start to fall off easily.
(this is crucial, any longer and yr mash will be gummy or grainy, horrid.)

When done drain and mash immediately, adding the butter first and then gradually the milk. Once again don't over mash it, that encourages a gummy texture, yucks.

When the two components have been prepped, prepare two round shallow pie dishes, I use round glass ones, a square metal one will do if you don't have an attractive pie plate. fill pie dish with mince halfway and top other half with the mashed potato. rough out the top with a fork, top with shredded cheddar and bake in a 220 degree centigrade oven for 15 minutes or till golden brown on top.

When done remove from oven, cool for 15 mins before serving.

*Can be prepared the day before and kept in the fridge before baking. Remove from fridge and straight to oven, but at 200 degrees for slightly longer time. Don't bother bringing to room temperature because condensation will make the potato soggy at the edges etc.

**Serve with fresh greens for an even better meal!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Gutting Sea Cucumbers

Sometimes, a foodie will go out of the way to prepare something difficult and complicated or do something no one else would do in their right mind, just for the sake of it. When my father asked me to search on the net to find information on how sea cucumbers were prepared, i didn't find much. Yet I figured, what the hell, how hard can it be? Turns out it was alot of work for very little reward.

Firstly, when alive and fresh from the sea, these sea cucumbers look really huge fat and full of delish potential. Once one gains a deeper insight into sea cucumber anatomy however, these things are the great shrinkers. When 'attacked' or 'near death' I'd rather say, these blighters spew out all their innards, alot of which consists of sand and intestines and liver and whatnot. All of which look completely inedible, although i know in Korea and Japan the intestines and other assorted innards are considered a delicacy. (I won't be too surprised at how delicacious* they are.. imagine cleaning sand filled intestines and then curing them without turning them into sieves..) They were so tiny when everything was done I had to supplement the dish with store-bought frozen sea cucumber... 5 weren't enough even though they weighed more than 3 kilos at the start. In the end it was more like 300 grams.

Secondly, the whole process involved the killing, cleaning, boiling, removing the muscles, then reboiling i think (but more on this step later since i didn't do it) and then cooking in preferred way. It was not that bad, except that my sea cucumber had a weird aftertaste even after stewing with dark sauce and fresh duck.. like.. limey in a calcium carbonate, not fresh green citrus kind of way. Not very pleasant. I don't know whether it was my preparation method, or the variety of sea cucumber (for all I know it wasn't even an edible variety, maybe not poisonous just not tasty, but my entire family is still alive and kicking...) It took me 3 hours from the start point till cleanup which meant slipping the prepared sea cucumbers in a box into a fridge because the stewing had to wait. I was too exhausted by then.

(same plate, before and after boiling... compare the size... it got even smaller..)

Well, that said, despite the not so pleasant results, I did learn a few things from this experience. I need to appreciate sea cucumbers more, so much work goes into preparing them and the process cannot be mechanized. Next time I want to cook sea cucumber I will either buy dried or frozen. I doubt I'm up to killing sea cucumber. Technically i didn't kill them, my sister did, but I had to clean the still moving split open sea cucumbers, and hang around for the killing so it was just as bad. Sea cucumber stewed with duck over a charcoal stove is really very great tasting I have to say, and is a definite dish in my extending repertoire of favourites, since now I know what spices my mother uses to flavour the sauce.

*delicacious - word from my personal dictionary. meaning the status of a food item as an expensive delicious delicacy.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

my other love... books, and the main supplier of them..

I have a not-so-food-related confession to make. I am a book addict and I'm staying in Singapore partly for the NLB. Sure, they don't always have all the books, but they make my voracious reading habit alot easier on my pocket, and they're not book nazis like the independent book sellers scattered all over the island. Membership is free for citizens, and an upgrade costs about 25 bucks a year so i don't have to go to the library so often to get new books. Also, they aren't mean to people who damage or return books late by accident. Recently my dog found a library book of mine in the wrong place and by the time she was done with it, the previously brand new shiny plastic covered book look like a shredded rojak salad. I was so embarrassed at the counter where I had to show the book to the librarian. A shredded book cover for a book lover like me is like a guan yin statue with no head for a devotee. Fortunately, only the cover was damaged, but unfortunately it meant that the library could no longer display the book, so I had to pay for it. But the point is, at least they didn't make me feel like some animal who ruins books, they laughed and shrugged at the unfortunacy of it all, and even gave me the book to keep after i paid for the damages. It was a food related book tho, like the massivest tome on caffeine one could ever fine, and now its all mine, albeit coverless.

It seems to me like the National Library Board has recently been trying to come up with interesting programmes and stocking up on more books for the literate foodie. Not content are we just to eat, but also to read, spend afternoons chatting, and even blogging about eating and food in general. I was recently asked by Cheryl of thebakerwhocooks to participate in an event organised by the NLB where they get a few floggers together to chit-chat with some people who come attend the chit-chat session regarding flogging. I know the publicity says famous floggers, and I'm not famous since I have a readership of ZERO it seems... BUT, thebakerwhocooks is famous.. heehee.. So, please come and talk to us about flogging at the National Library. Dates and venues are below, in the programme lineup for this month. Kudos NLB for remembering book loving food lovers like me. I Heart NLB!

Foods of My Ancestors - The Chitty Melaka Cuisine
Saturday, 20 October, 3.00 - 4.30 pm
Programme Zone, Ang Mo Kio Community Library
The Chitty Melaka or Peranakan Indian cuisine is a fusion of South Indian, Malay and Chinese cooking. It is estimated that there are only 100 Chitty Melaka families in Singapore. Don't miss this opportunity to experience and taste the authentic and unique flavours of the Chitty Melaka cuisine at this talk and cooking demonstration by Veni Rengayah-Knight, author of the newly published cookbook Foods of My Ancestors.

Flog Fight!
Sunday, 21 October, 3.00 - 4.30 pm
Programme Zone, library@orchard
Singaporeans are always on the lookout for the next new thing in food. And the latest food guides seem to be coming from outer spaceā€¦virtually, that is. That's right, food blogs are registering thousands of hits daily and are suddenly influential in the food choices people make. This October, we grill some of the most popular food bloggers at a flog fight to find out the ingredients that make them so delectable to foodies. Hurry! Ringside seats available!

Asian Recipes & Home Remedies
Saturday, 27 October, 3.00 - 4.30 pm
Programme Zone, Bedok Community Library
Herbs, spices and plants were used in ancient Asian civilisations as health remedies and beauty aids. Today, these traditional ways continue to be applied, passed on and practised. Join celebrity chef and cookbook author, Devagi Sanmugam as she presents some of these remedies and recipes at this special programme for the health conscious foodie. This is also your chance to meet the Spice Queen of Singapore with a string of accolades as eclectic and imaginative as her recipes.
Brought to you by Marshall Cavendish.

Passion for Organic: How Singaporeans Do It
Saturday, 27 October, 3.00 - 4.00 pm
Radin Mas Hall, Bukit Merah Community Library
One of our national past times is to check out the latest food fads and new restaurants. As we become more and more spoilt for choice, how do we separate the chaff from the real thing? Organic is becoming the buzzword for health and wellness. Let Ms Tuyet Nguyen (L'Organic) give you the lowdown on the reality of organic living in Singapore, the benefits it offers and the
choices you have to make to incorporate organic into your life.