Tuesday, 31 August 2010

How it started and continues...

The good times that came from cooking as a family got me psyched about food in general, and I wanted more than anything to be a great cook. When I started cooking as a kid, I tried to recreate what I watched on TV or what I saw in books. One of my favourite books as a kid was strangely, an old French cooking book. To be honest, it wasn't the best way to start, if you know how complicated French cuisine can be. At nine years old, I had to give myself some credit.

I then began with many simple things, like making egg fried rice or easy pasta dishes, and I couldn't stop. Cooking was my first love and I fell hard, really hard. I found cooking to be incredibly enjoyable and relaxing. I can truly express how I feel and what I want other people to feel through food.

About a year ago, I applied for a chef apprentice programme and I was accepted. After being unsuccessful in several different occasions, I thought this was going to be my time: to be working for one of the country's top chef. But to cut long story short, at the end it didn't work out and I was utterly disappointed.

But I didn't lose hope because I am a great believer that everything happens for a reason. It's just not my time yet.

Exactly 365 days ago, I asked myself, "so what am I gonna do now?"

Something occurred into my mind. If I can't enrol myself into a culinary school, I'm gonna train myself. I've heard stories about chefs who have never been to a culinary school but still made it. They taught themselves how to cook.

I turned into my bookshelf and I was looking through some books for inspiration what to have for tomorrow's dinner. And then I saw 'Cook with Jamie: My Guide to Making You a Better Cook' which I bought a couple of years ago. I thought, "that's it! that's exactly what I want to be. I want to be better a better cook."

I'm gonna train myself and sharpen my skill and be more prepared for future opportunities. For the next year, I'll be cooking through all of the recipes in the book. Jamie Oliver seems like a good choice. He looks like a cool, down-to-earth-kind-of guy from what I've seen on TV. I like his style of cooking and I think he'll be a great mentor.

These past few months I have had the most delicious time as you have seen. I learned how to cook, shop and eat all over again. And my friends are happy too because they are well-fed.

Also along the way, I met so many wonderful cooks, chefs and bloggers from all around the world. I think that's one of the great things about blogging, it's a free and global way to share with people with similar interests, people who loves cooking and eating. I want to thank all of you for the support, insight and encouragement you have provided me during the project. All the comments and emails are very, very much appreciated.

365 days, 164 recipes, countless bottles of olive oils, lots and lots of fennel seeds, baskets of lemons and few murdered crustaceans later, yes, I do feel like a better cook.

And what's next? Well, next is I want to be better than better. There are still so much I want to learn and I look forward to a new cooking adventure. However, the next few weeks will be the busiest time at work as new term at the University approaches. So, I'm gonna concentrate on that and I also want to go back to my original weight before the new cooking project starts :)

I don't know why I suddenly get all emotional. I'm happy because I succeeded and I proved that with determination, it's all possible, but at the same time I'm sad because it's over. So, I better wrap this up as soon as possible before I burst.

That was it, really. I love cooking and I still have a lot to learn. This project is the funnest thing I have done and I could not have done it without all of you my friends and of course, to my imaginary mentor, Jamie Oliver who has transformed me to become a better cook. Thank you.

Until next time...

Monday, 30 August 2010

Delicious Desserts

Who doesn't like desserts?

After a big, satisfying meal, there is no need to put out dessert. No one would really go hungry without it. Although saying that, most of my friends have mastered the trick to leave room for desserts when coming for a meal. There is apparently a separate stomach dedicated just for desserts. And my view is, dessert is not about necessity; it's all about indulgence. That's why desserts have to be something extraordinary. And extraordinary doesn't mean complicated.

However making desserts do require a lot of attention to detail, accuracy, self-control and patience.

You cannot be as laid-back about a cake as you can be about a stew. How many carrots or chunks of meat you put into your casserole will not effectively change the entity you produce. You can alter the flavours -- and that's the joy of it -- but you are not messing with its essential properties. When you bake a cake you cannot suddenly decide you feel like putting in three eggs rather than two, or half a cup of flour instead of the cup and a half the recipe calls for.

But if baking requires obedience, it does not require military-style discipline. Once you understand the component parts of a recipe, you can also play with them.

Chapter 6: Desserts

Classic Victoria sponge with all the trimmings - In case if you're wondering, Victoria sponge cake is named after Queen Victoria. She hosted tea parties, at which later-to-be-known as Victoria sponge cake was served and then the cake became fashionable throughout the Victorian era and until today.

A traditional Victoria sponge consists of jam sandwiched between two sponge cakes and the top of the cake isn't iced or decorated.

Jamie's recipe for the cake is pretty easy with butter, sugar, self-raising flour, eggs and lemon zest. After baked in the oven and cooled completely, the first cake was placed on the cake stand and then smeared with a mixture of strawberry jam and sliced fresh strawberries; before topping it with lemony vanilla whipped cream and the second cake. The last thing to do was to dust the cake with plenty of icing sugar. Delicious.

The same sponge batter can also be made into tea-party fairy cakes.

Jamie's nan's lemon drizzle cake - This old-fashioned tea cake is actually the very first recipe I made from the book when I bought it a couple years ago. The cake is easy to make and also very moist because after baking, it’s drizzled with lemon syrup. When you cut into it you get a beautiful yellow sponge with black dots from poppy seeds inside.

Fifteen chocolate brownies - The trick with brownies is not to overcook them. They should have a nice, chewy centre. They're delicious on their own, but try adding nuts or sour cherries. It's fantastic.

A rather pleasing carrot cake with lime mascarpone icing - This carrot cake is dense, but not at all heavy or dry. In fact so moist... so delicious. Oh, have I mentioned that there's just over a block of butter in this cake? If not, let me tell you there's just over a block of butter in this cake. And the icing is to die for. If you love the sour freshness of limes, this is for you.

The ultimate fruit meringue with vanilla cream, hazelnuts and caramel - you know meringue and cream are delicious together but adding fresh berries and nuts and caramel make it even better!

Coconut, banana and passion fruit pavlova - The flavour combination here is top class!

Floating islands - Floating islands are basically meringues that are poached in hot milk and then served floating on a sea of custard and topped with spun sugar. These can be time-consuming to make but not at all difficult. My favourite bit was making the spun sugar which I thought was a lot of fun.

Bloomin' easy vanilla cheesecake - Cheesecake is definitely in my top 5 desserts hall of fame. I especially love the addition of orange and lemon zests to the vanilla cheesecake.

Ultimate gingerbread - The gingerbread really lives up to its name. It has just the right amount of ginger and packed with flavours from the mixed peel and the crystallised ginger which also give texture to the gingerbread.

Doughnuts with old English spiced sugar - I love doughnuts. I just have a soft spot for them; either the one with holes and covered in sugar or ones that are filled with jam or custard, I'm easy; but one thing, the doughnuts must be warm. The doughnuts here are covered with spiced sugar that's made of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, lemon zest, orange zest and vanilla.

Fifteen chocolate tart - One of the highlights of this project is I learn to make pastry. I failed at the beginning, but with determination, I succeeded. I was so so pleased with this tart and I don't know where to start to describe how delicious this tart is. One of my favourite food combination is chocolate and orange and these flavours really come through in the pastry.

Pear tart tatin - This classic tart is traditionally made with apples, but any fruits that work well with caramel would do, like apricots, bananas and of course, pears.

Mae West once said, "too much of a good thing can be wonderful", and I live by that.

Celebrating Vegetables

As a kid I didn't have any problems eating most vegetables. I used to dislike cucumber, but is cucumber fruit or vegetable? It's one of the many world's greatest unsolved mysteries...

My mom makes lots of stir-fries but the combinations of the veg and the flavourings change every time so that me and my sisters don't get bored. At home, we are broccoli addicts. I love it cooked with chilli or garlic and ginger or oyster sauce. Delicious.

Chapter 5: Vegetables

It's really hard for me to narrow down the recipes from this chapter because everything is exciting, but I managed. What I also really like from this chapter is, Jamie gives a little background history and pretty interesting facts for each vegetable which I'll share with you.

Here are some of my favourites:
Scotch stovies - it is a classic potato dish from Scotland. I live not too far away from Scotland but never heard of this dish until I read Jamie's book and glad to be introduced to this delicious dish. The potatoes here are cooked with onions that's been browned in butter, olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper until lightly golden and soft. At the end of the cooking, stir in some watercress and celery leaves to give a lightness. yum...

Dinner-lady carrots - as you may have guessed, the recipe is inspired by... dinner ladies. Jamie saw them using one of those industrial slicing machines to knock out hundreds of finely sliced carrots and then layering them into buttered tins with some salt and pepper.

Jamie tweaked the recipe by adding parsley, garlic, orange, white wine and stock. The carrots are then baked until perfectly cooked. The cooking time here varies, depending on how thinly you have sliced the carrots.

Did you know that carrots were originally purple, not orange?! The orange variety we see today was originally bred to match the colours of the Dutch royal family.

Braised peas with spring onions and lettuce - Jamie's version of petit pois a la Francaise only takes minutes to prepare. It's harsh to say that it's not the prettiest dish, but its taste blinds you, like love...

Peas are high in protein, which your body needs to build muscles, and they're one of the few vegetables that are sources of vitamin B1, which your body needs to break down carbohydrates and turn them into energy. That's today's science lesson kids.

Minted peas under oil - this dish is so surprisingly delicious. In Italy it's known as sott'olio which can be served cool or at room temperature, as it's a summer dish.

Roasted cauliflower with cumin, coriander and almonds - I think this dish is pretty much self-explanatory. It's crunchy, salty, spice-y and delicious.

Whole baked cauliflower with tomato and olive sauce - Mediterranean summer you can eat...

Steamed broccoli with beurre blanc - I just love saying it: beurre blanc; because, one, it involves one of my favourite ingredients, butter; and two, it’s in French and sounds very chef-y. And is it just me or do you also think anything sounds better in French?

If you don’t know, beurre blanc is this delicate sauce made with white wine, shallots, peppercorn, oregano, tarragon and butter.

Indian-style broccoli with spiced yoghurt - This recipe is Jamie's attempt to recreate the same dish from his favourite Indian restaurant in London, Amaya. Guess what? Amaya is also my favourite Indian restaurant. Aren't we like brothers? hehe...

The broccoli here is blanched and then grilled before topping it with dollops of yoghurt and lemon zest. The yoghurt is flavoured with cumin seeds, fennel seeds, cardamom and lemon juice.

Braised white cabbage with bacon and thyme - this is my favourite way to eat white cabbage, and plus it involves some of my favourite ingredients, bacon, butter and fragrant thyme.

Must-try red cabbage braised with apple, bacon and balsamic vinegar - The red cabbage is slowly cooked with bacon, fennel seeds, onions, apples and balsamic vinegar until the vinegar becomes syrupy and the cabbage is gorgeously sweet. Before serving, stir in a knob of butter and sprinkle with some parsley. A must-try!

Baked and dressed courgettes - I love courgettes and I think they are at their best in the summer. This recipe is so easy; it's more a method than a recipe. This is what you need to do: wash and dry the courgettes, the toss in olive oil with a generous amount of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bake in a pre-heated oven for 15 minutes until soft and the skin has blistered. Once out of the oven, dress with red wine vinegar, chopped parsley and mint leaves; and balance the flavours with peppery extra virgin olive oil and more seasoning if needed.

Courgette fritters - or in other words courgettes fried in batter... the courgettes is fried in a very light batter made with whipped egg white, not the thick, greasy batter. These fritters are flavoured with chilli, mint, lemon, parmesan and cumin. When cooked correctly, you'll be rewarded with a crunchy courgette on the outside, and inside it'll be soft and creamy, almost. Serve warm with lemon quarters.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

1. Overnight slow-roasted pork

I know I wanted to save this recipe for last for the past few months. Overnight slow-roasted pork reads and sounds like a great celebration meal. And I just know it will be delicious. Slow-cooked meat? yum...

At Jamie's restaurant, the staff prepare the pork in the evening and let it roasts overnight, and so the next day the pork will be meltingly tender, ready to be served for lunch service.

I didn't roast the pork overnight, because I was preparing it for my dinner service. I let the pork roasting all morning and afternoon, and maybe I should call the dish All day slow-roasted pork instead.

Another reason why I saved this recipe for last was because this is so simple to prepare and once the pork is in the oven, I can forget about it and get on with my day, preparing other things for the 'last supper'.

I cut the recipe in half even though Jamie says this recipe only works for a whole shoulder, but come on, that's just way too much food for the four of us. I don't like wasting food and I don't want to be pork overdosed.

This is how I prepared the pork: pre-heat the oven to maximum. On a large roasting tray, lay roughly chopped fennel, carrots, a bulb of garlic (unpeeled and smashed) and a bunch of fresh thyme. Pat the pork shoulder with olive oil and sit it on top of the vegetables. Now massage some smashed fennel seeds and salt into the skin of the pork, making sure to push them right into the scores to maximize the flavour.

Put the pork into the oven for 20-30 minutes until it's beginning to colour, then turn the oven to low and cook the pork for 7 - 8 hours, until the meat is soft and sticky and you can pull it apart easily with a fork.

I spent the afternoon out in town and when I went back home, the smell coming out from the oven was just amazing...

In the last hour of cooking, tip a bottle of white wine into the roasting tray and this will become part of the gravy. Once the pork is out of the oven, like all meat, let it rest before cutting into it (if I could resist the temptation, so can you... be strong!).

To make the gravy, I sieved the juices from the tray and got rid of the excess fat. Pour into a pan with chicken stock and let it cook for a bit. It's entirely up to you if you want to thicken the gravy with a little butter and flour, but it's rather nice to have light gravy. I served the pork with borlotti beans and braised greens.

that's what I call a piece of pork

The pork was absolutely gorgeous, meltingly tender as promised; and the crackling, oh the crackling was so crunchy, the way crackling should be. I'd happily make this again for Christmas, or whenever I have an army of people to feed.

I had a great night with lots to drink and eat and yes, even after cutting the recipe in half, I was still left with plenty of leftovers.

So, that's all the recipes... all done! Yay!!
Don't worry, I'm not finish yet. I still have to do my reflections on two more chapters before closing the project.

Enjoy your day.

Friday, 27 August 2010

The wonderful world of fish

Chapter 4 : Fish

At the beginning of the fish chapter, Jamie mentions that in the UK, we don't eat enough fish in our diets. We should be eating more fish to keep healthy. The Japanese eat more fish per head than any other country in the world and they are healthier and live longer. The amount of fish consume in the UK is tiny by comparison.

I couldn't agree more. I think people should eat more fish. And I don't mean frozen fish-finger from supermarkets, but the real fresh fish. Some people say they are put off by the bones, but that's not an excuse. Fishmongers are more than happy to skin, fillet, bone and clean the fish for you. And if the fish is fresh, they should not smell!

I grew up eating loads of fish and I still do. As much as I love meat, I try to incorporate fish as part of my diet as much as I can. OK, sometimes the fish is covered in cream sauce or battered, but hey, everything is good in moderation, including moderation itself... don't you agree?

Without a doubt pan-roasted salmon with purple sprouting broccoli and anchovy-rosemary sauce is my favourite salmon recipe from the book. I love salmon whether it's grilled, poached, in a sushi or sashimi; but pan-roasting it, is the best way to eat them I think. You get the beautiful crust on the outside and inside it's flaky and rich and moist. yum... but of course, you must get good salmon, wild or organic, to really enjoy its flavours.

The sauce that accompanies the salmon is equally delicious. Lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and freshly ground black pepper are added to the anchovy-rosemary sauce. It's fresh, salty and tangy and really balances the sweet flavour of the salmon.

The salmon is served on a bed of purple sprouting broccoli that's been boiled for a few minutes until perfectly cooked. I heard somewhere, purple sprouting broccoli contains chemical thought to help prevent cancer and heart disease. It is also packed with vitamin C and is a very good source of iron, folic acid and fibre.

And as you may know, salmon is high in omega oils, so this whole dish, in a sense (my sense, anyway) is a health food.

Salmon is great, but for me, the king of all fish is monkfish. It is a great meaty fish and grilled monkfish with black olive sauce and lemon mash is exceptionally delicious.

Fish and shellfish also make a fabulous stew... Here, I used mussels, clams, filleted bream, red snapper, cod and a couple of tiger prawns. Served with saffron aioli and crusty bread to soak all the broth.

fabulous fish stew

The fish chapter is divided into few sub-chapters with many great recipes which include prawns, scallops, mussels, clams and squid. But the two most memorable ingredients are crabs and lobsters, because I had to prepare them live!

What I have learned from preparing live crabs is there is absolutely no use yelling to the crabs when they refuse to co-operate. They won't listen and you just have to be persistent. You can read the complete story of my first experience preparing live crabs here...

Cooked crab can be used in many ways. The white meat is delicious with linguine, rocket and lemon; or mix with a little of the brown meat, fennel tops, red chilli and lemon, and this makes a great topping for crostini.

Delicious Crab Crostini

Or why not try making old-fashioned potted crab. Jamie said once upon a time potting meat or fish was pretty common in Britain. I guess it was one way to preserve food and the results were regarded as highly as the French regard their pâtés.

The crab meat here is mixed with softened butter, fennel seeds, a pinch of dried chilli, lemon zest, salt and pepper before topping it with melted butter which will then act as a lid.

You can really taste the fennel, but it's not too overwhelming and I particularly enjoy the spicy hint from the dried chili.

old-fashioned potted crab

If you want fancy something a little more exotic, try Southern Indian Crab Curry. I think there's just something so comforting about curries. It could be the warmly spices like cumin, coriander, ginger, cardamom and chili; and also creaminess at the same time from the coconut milk.

Southern Indian crab curry

Preparing live lobster was worse than preparing live crabs, especially with the unfortunate song selections from my ipod. Here's a quick recap: I put the lobster on a chopping board and I tried not to make any eye contacts. I wore my earphones and my ipod was on shuffle as loud as possible, just in case if the lobster squeals.

As I was about to place the tip of the knife on the lobster's head, my ipod was playing 'Rescue Me'. I couldn't believe this! I pressed the next button on my ipod and the next song was 'Friends not Food' from Finding Nemo and I thought "Oh my God!! Is this for real?!" I pressed next again and it was 'Say Goodbye' by Chris Brown. I gave up... I had to pick my own songs.. songs that won't make me cry.

With much guilt, I successfully murdered the lobster. One half of the lobster was steamed with lemon zest and butter; and the other half was grilled with garlic, chilli and lime.

If you love South East Asian flavour, I suggest you try sticky finger lobster. It is the best lobster dish I had, ever. It was oh-so-delicious! The lobster is cooked in a sticky marinade made with garlic, ginger, spring onions, lemon juice, honey, olive oil and lots of black peppercorns. You get a nice warm heat from the black peppercorns, the sweetness from the honey and the aromatic ginger and garlic which pretty much unbeatable. YUM!!

And today is the day... I invited some friends over for dinner and I'll be cooking the last recipe from the book. I am so excited... I'll tell you all about it tomorrow...

Enjoy your Saturday!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

All about meat

Once or twice a week, I always have meatless dinners, but truthfully I couldn't live without meat. I love meat. Some of my favourite animals are steak and pork chops.

Not a long time ago, I was one of those people who have never thought or wanted to know or ever questioned where their meat comes from, how it’s fed, looked after, slaughtered or butchered. ‘Why would I want to know in the first place anyway?’

I used to think that meats from the supermarket are all just the same; and I never really care if they are organic, free-range, etc. All I care was if they’re reasonably priced. Meat is just meat, right?

I was wrong. These extra qualities make all the difference to the quality of your meal. When I started the project I bought my first organic, once-had-a-good-life chicken, to make roasted chicken breast with cherry tomatoes and asparagus; and honestly, I didn’t think it would be as delicious and as moist if I were to have made it with supermarket ‘standard’ chicken.

I have tasted top-quality meat and I don’t want to go back to the ‘standard’ quality meat. Yes, these organic and free-range meats are not cheap; everything comes with a price, but when I understand what goes into producing meat I soon realise that organic meat isn’t overpriced.

Chapter 3: Meat

Melt-in-your-mouth shin stew? Oh-so-good. Pan-fried sirloin steak with simple Chianti butter sauce and olive oil mash? Yum. But nothing excites me more than a big piece of red meat. It looks magnificent on the table and tastes delicious. My most requested dinner has got to be ultimate rib of beef with rosemary and garlic roast potatoes. It's a giant steak to feed a crowd.

the handsome rib of beef in question

As well as roast fore rib of beef with beetroot and horseradish.

It's confusing me why lamb is not to everyone's taste, but I just adore lamb. It's a very versatile meat and works well with a range of flavours. It's great as a steak or my favourite is to cook it slow and long until the meat is meltingly tender. The meat stays so moist even after long cooking because lamb is a fatty meat. Well, depending on the cuts.

Incredible baked lamb shanks is one of my favourites. One, because it's meaty and delicious; two, lamb shank is a cheaper cut of lamb. So, great for the wallet as well. The lamb shank here is stuffed with flavoured butter with rosemary, sage and thyme before roasting in the oven on a bed of veg and more aromatics for 2.5 hours. I served this for a dinner date and it went down really well... of course, the red wine and the chocolate dessert at the end helped too...

On colder days and you want comfort, I suggest lovely lamb shank pie. Just saying the word 'pie' you know it's gonna be good. The shanks here are stewed and then covered with puff pastry and baked.

Also like beef, I love to see a big piece of lamb, like roast leg of lamb with aubergines and onions which I served for Christmas last year. Not very traditional, but it was fantastic! Cooking lamb with aubergines is apparently very common in Italy and like many Italian recipes, this lamb is dead simple.

For something that looks different, try Mad Moroccan Lamb. When I saw this recipe for the first time, I thought it was weird and I was hesitant to try it. I'm not sure with idea of roasting a shoulder of lamb for a couple of hours and then burying it with couscous and then bake again for another hour... Jamie says this may seem a bit of a palaver, but actually it's a pretty easy dish to make. Yes, the lamb took about three hours to cook, but I didn't have to do anything while it roasts in the oven. And the result was meltingly tender lamb... yum.

My last meal on earth will have to include some sort of pork dishes. Pork meat is so sweet and so delicious. Just the thought of slow-roasted pork belly with the sweetest braised fennel makes me drool all over my lap top. From the bottom, you have a nice thick layer of tender white meat, followed by a nice layer of fat that keeps everything so moist and then the top is the crunchiest pork scratchings. The drool is now all over the floor if you must know....

Old-school pork chops with apples and sage is my day to day recipe. It's quick, easy and utterly delicious. I love this recipe so much and I've cooked this way too many times. My friends and I are never bored though.

The last recipe I yet to make, which I have been saving for the last dinner is overnight slow-roasted pork. The reason is, I think it's a celebratory dish and I know the taste will be out of this world. I know I shall not be disappointed.

The most wonderful, and the humblest bird, the chicken. There's really no end to how you can cook a chicken. I love it roasted, steamed, stewed and of course, grilled, like grilled spatchcocked chicken with new potatoes, roast asparagus and herby yoghurt. It's a great dish for a summer barbecue.

I also love pot-roasted poussins agro dolce. Agro dolce if you don't know is a delicate Italian sweet and sour sauce. Jamie says there's something so comforting, deep and dark about this dish. And it's true. This is a fantastic dish to be served in the colder months of the year or perhaps a rainy summer evening.

I love how the dish came together. It's so earthy with the scents of rosemary and cinnamon; but not at all heavy. I particularly love the sauce. The tangy-ness of the sauce is provided by a mixture of red wine vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes and Chianti wine. And the sweetness comes from the orange and sultanas. Have I mentioned the poussins are covered in pancetta?

I'm sorry the post must ends here or I'm gonna eat myself...

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The magic of pasta, gnocchi and risotto

I think this is the most exciting chapter in the book. I have not just a passion, but really, an obsession for Italian cooking and nothing excites me more than a bowl of pasta or a plateful of gnocchi or risotto. Just the thought makes me salivate. YUM...

Chapter 2: pasta, gnocchi and risotto

I love Italy! If there's a way to trace back my family tree, I'm sure that I must have some Italian blood in me. Well at least that's what I believe. I've been to Italy a couple of times and as much as I enjoy the beautiful scenery, amazing sculptures and landmarks, the culture and history; nothing excites me more than eating Italian food.

I've been very fortunate to be able to travel to many countries; but for me it's only in Italy where eating out can be as comforting as eating at your own home. I like the way Italians welcome guests and just share foods from recipes that have been passed down from many generations. The food is authentic and presented home-style and people can just pass their plates and bowls around the table.

And that's what I got from all the recipes in this chapter. They are all home style cooking; the kinds of food you want to share with friends with a few drinks. And although not all recipes are authentically Italian, you still get the Italian charm and to be frank, does it really matter? I don't think so. All that matters is they are all delicious!

Nothing to me says Italian food like pasta. Unlike other infamous Italian foods like pizza and tomato sauce, which have a fairly recent history, pasta may indeed have a much older pedigree going back hundreds if not thousands of years.

I have been eating pasta for as long as I can remember and it is a staple ingredient in my kitchen. Pasta is just a great neutral starch on which to combine flavours and ingredients. It can be warming and comforting when the days are cool, and light and fresh tasting when the temperatures rise. It's a perfect accompaniment for fresh seasonal vegetables, and an inexpensive way to stretch a little bit of costly ingredients such as sea food or exotic mushrooms to feed a group.

When I'm having the boys around I like to make, the perfectly named, proper blokes' sausage fusilli. It's a real simple pasta dish with a sticky sausage sauce that's flavoured with fennel seeds, oregano, parsley, lemon, butter, parmesan and white wine. It's very satisfying and despite of the name, girls love it too, trust me.

I think it's a sin for me not to mention the fantastic fish lasagne. I absolutely love this recipe and I'm out of words describing the deliciousness of this creamy Venetian-style baked fish. Please do not be put off by the long list of ingredients and yes, it's not really quick cooking. But do remember: just because a recipe takes time to cook, that doesn't mean it's difficult to make. Give this recipe a try and you will not be disappointed.

And for dinner tonight, I had real quick mussels linguine in a white wine and basil oil broth. I am always surprised by the super yummy basil broth every time I make it. I know it's gonna be delicious, but I think it gets better all the time...

For something that looks different, elegant and delicious at the same time, it's got to be black angel tagliarini. The reason for the name is because the scallops in the dish are supposed to look like angles in the black pasta, and it's beautiful. The sauce for the dish is made of garlic, chilli, parsley, white wine, lemon juice and butter (and now you know why it's delicious)...

Through the project, with the guidance of Jamie, I have also learned to make fresh pasta. The thought of making fresh pasta used to terrify me and I was definitely missing out. Making pasta is so much fun! and very rewarding.

Some of my favourites fresh pasta recipes from the book are...
The unusual, stunning and absolutely delicious open stained-glass lasagne with roasted squash. Jamie says it's a French twist to the Italian pasta because it looks so beautiful. I could just eat the roasted squash filling by itself to be honest. Yum.

One combination of flavours I absolutely love is ravioli of pecorino, potato and mint. It's simple and punchy, with the mint and cheese really coming through when you eat the ravioli. This ravioli is a proof that some of the best things in life are the simplest.

And last but not least is oozy egg ravioli, a very delicate ravioli stuffed with ricotta and egg yolk. I promise you will get 'oohs' and 'aahs' when you serve this dish because the yolks are still runny when you cut into the ravioli. It's amazing.

Gnocchi used to be something that I get in a packet from the supermarket, but not any more since I learned how to make them from scratch. It takes practise to get the hang of the perfect gnocchi dough, but it's not difficult at all. Four ingredients: potato, flour, egg and seasoning - that's all.

Two of my favourites recipes are gnocchi with braised oxtail and herby gnocchi with rocket and butter sauce.

I must say I am not so keen on gnocchi with gorgonzola dolce but that's just a personal thing. I'm not a big fan of blue cheese. If you love blue cheese, I'm sure this is your heaven.

There's something so strangely relaxing when making risotto. At the end of a busy day, standing at the stove, gently stirring ladles of stock into bubbling rice, a glass of wine on one hand whilst chatting with your friends. A quick, gently stir every few minutes until all the stock is absorbed and the rice becomes deliciously creamy.

Risotto is a dish best enjoyed at any season and it's the perfect canvas for many flavours, or my favourite is to use up leftovers in the fridge like leftover stew risotto.

For something more elegant, I like asparagus, mint and lemon risotto or squash, sage and amaretti risotto.

This has been a very fun chapter for me... can't you tell? :) I learned how to make fresh pasta, how to make gnocchi and also the secret of making the creamiest risotto. I have enjoyed making and most definitely, eating every single dish. Buon appetito!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The world of salads

Time goes by so quickly and it's hard to believe that in seven days the project will be over. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I plan to make a list of my top ten favourite recipes from the book and let me tell you, it's not easy. I could do a top 56 recipes, if you insist.

I flicked through the pages of the book and each recipe has its own deliciousness; and what I like the most is they all have their own stories. I enjoy reading cookbooks, and not just for the recipes and looking at the beautiful pictures. Most importantly I like reading the stories behind the recipes and what inspire them. And from there, I am then inspired to try the recipes myself.

So, instead of making a 'top' list, I have decided to go through each chapter in the book and look back into some of the memorable recipes and also to share Jamie's and my stories and what I have learned from this experience...

Chapter One: Salads
I like salad when it's 'real' salad. I don't want boring salad of wrinkly lettuce, sliced cucumber, tomato, chopped pepper and perhaps topped with grated carrot with a wedge of lemon on the side; mostly known as 'side salad'... and I am appalled by this idea.

There are so many ways to jazz up a salad with countless combinations of flavours and textures you can play with to make a salad as exciting as any other dish you make.

With salads, it's crucial to understand the balance of flavours and also knowing the ingredients that love one another. It could be a mixture of sweet, salty, bitter, smoky, sour or peppery. Some examples are smoked salmon and lemon, chilli and mints, walnuts and cheese, pomegranates and duck, et cetera. What also important in a salad is texture. Crunchiness from nuts like pine nuts, almonds and pistachios; crispy salad leaves, or maybe meatiness from tuna, grilled chicken, or cured meats like salami and prosciutto.

The selection of salad leaves are endless these days, you have crunchy iceberg and romaine, peppery rocket and watercress, hearty spinach and red veined chard, bitter chicory or endive and radicchio, firm frisee and cabbage. I have also recently discovered fresh herbs also make great salads, like parsley and coriander. I can eat fresh coriander all day long. So delicious.

When you have a nice contrast of flavours and texture, you're three quarters of the way to a great salad. All you need to round up the dish is the dressing.

A basic dressing starts with a ratio of 1 part vinegar or acid (lemon or lime juice) to 3 parts oil, with a few twists of seasoning. Depending on the salad or your mood, the selection of vinegars and oil are also pretty much endless. My three most used vinegars are red wine, rice wine and balsamic; and for oil, the obvious, extra virgin olive oil, but I also like walnut and avocado oils. And when I want something lighter or when making Asian style salad, I like to use sunflower oil with a few dashes of smoky toasted sesame oil.

One dressing I absolutely love from the book and I use it religiously is Jamie's Japanese dressing, made by mixing finely chopped onion, soy sauce, rice vinegar, a little sugar (to balance all the salty and sourness), English mustard powder (or wasabi is nice too), grapeseed oil, sesame oil, salt and pepper. It's great with cold soba noodles and seafood salad. YUM.

Through this learning experience, I have also found my 'fairy fingers' which means I can dress the salad with clean hands without bruising the leaves. It's always fun touching and playing with your food, so if you've never try it, give it a go...

Now, let me pick some of my favourite salads from this chapter:

Amazing potato and horseradish salad with fine herbs and bresaola has got to be one of my favourites. I'm a big fan of horseradish and it works so well with the potato, tarragon and the cured meat. I had the hardest time looking for bresaola. Jamie says you can easily find them in all good supermarkets and I don't know which supermarket he goes to... I accidentally found them in a menu from an Italian restaurant and I bought them there.

When I want a refreshing salad, I'd make crunchy raw beetroot salad with feta and pear. Sweet pear, sweet beetroot and sharp, salty feta cheese. Delicious. Perfect for the warm summer, and Let me warn you, this salad is addictive.

I also like the all day breakfast salad, bacon, bread, egg, black pudding, best eaten the morning after a great night out with few dashes of Tabasco sauce to wake you up.

For something meaty and heartier, I like the Middle Eastern duck salad. It's a beautiful combination of rich duck meat, pomegranates, mint, almonds, pistachios and sour cherries. And I will always remember the day I made this salad was the day England lost to Germany at the South African World Cup....

And for dinner tonight, I had Greek Salad with tomato, black olives, romaine lettuce, avocado, oregano, shallots, red wine vinegar, lemon dressing and no Greek salad is complete without feta cheese. Oompa!

Greek Salad

One salad I absolutely love and I'll be serving it for the celebration meal this weekend is fifteen Christmas salad. Just wait and see...

To finish, Jamie says, and I couldn't agree more, a great salad is only as good as the quality of its ingredients. So, buy whatever is fresh and colourful and in season and then think about the flavours and textures. And have fun.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Peach Melba

In 1890s Chef Auguste Escoffier of the Savoy Hotel in London saw the performance of the Australian Opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba. He was so impressed and he created the most famous peach dishes - Peach Melba - in honour of the soprano.

The dessert is a perfect combination of peach, poached in sugar syrup until tender, and then served with vanilla ice cream and drizzle with raspberry sauce.

I don't know what inspired Chef Auguste to create this dessert. Perhaps he appreciated the bright, colourful voice of Dame Melba; or I also like to think probably because of the beautiful and simple operatic performance, like Peach Melba.

PS. Yes, if you're wondering, Dame Melba was also the culinary inspirations for Melba Toasts. What a diva!

Saturday, 21 August 2010

whole baked cauliflower with tomato and olive sauce

When you want to bring Mediterranean summer into your home, through your kitchen, I recommend you make this dish. Out of the many vegetables recipes in Jamie's book, this is the one recipe I have made many times, especially during the colder months of the year because it's very comforting and delicious, of course.

I think this is a very clever way to cook cauliflower because it half boils and half steams in the tomato and olive sauce. Start by making the sauce in a pan big enough for the cauliflower later. Add chopped red onion, garlic, chopped cauliflower stalk and olive oil in the pan and let it softened for ten minutes. Add a handful of olives, anchovy and finely chopped parsley stalks and let them cook for a couple of minutes before adding the tinned tomatoes and a good swig of red wine vinegar. Stir everything together and bring to a boil.

I suggest you check the seasoning at this point before putting in the cauliflower as it's gonna be tricky to stir the sauce once the cauliflower is in the pan. Take the cauliflower and gently push it down into the sauce. Drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil, put the lid on and let it simmer on low heat for fifty minutes. In this time, your home will be filled with the most beautiful smell... so, enjoy!

I serve the dish in the pan the cauliflower has cooked in and it looks rather pretty; different because cauliflower is normally broken into florets.

It's the perfect accompaniment to roast lamb, but sometimes, I like to have this with just a big piece of crusty bread and use the bread to soak up all the sauce. Delish!

Strawberry Pork Chops

Some people are very strict about not mixing fruits with meats and I don't understand why. I love it! Some of my favourite combinations are turkey and cranberry, chicken and apricots, ham and pineapple, duck and plums, beef burger and avocado, pork and apples, lamb and pomegranates, and the list goes on and on and on...

But of course, the sweetness of the fruits have to compliment the savouriness of the meat, vice versa. I remember when I was a child, a friend of my mom made this chicken soup with papaya and it tasted vile. urgh...! My mom forced me and my sisters to eat the soup just to be polite. It's like the episode from 'friends' when Rachel accidentally adds beef sautéed in peas and onions to her sponge, jam and custard trifle for thanksgiving. Although I much prefer eating the beef trifle than the soup.

But anyway, back to a more delicious thing, I was recently introduced to a new cook book "Table for One, Perfectly portioned meals for the single cook" by the author herself Camille Funk. The book is full of delicious recipes and it wasn't easy to pick which recipe to try first; French dip sandwich? honey ginger halibut? butterscotch pudding? But one recipe caught my eyes from the first look and I've got to try strawberry pork chops.

It may seem like an odd pairing, but I can now tell you, it's delicious. Pork chops and strawberries are meant to be together. The chop is grilled and then topped with a sweet, sour and sticky sauce made with strawberry preserves, brown sugar, white wine vinegar and fresh strawberries.

Camille, thank you for introducing your book to me and I look forward to cooking more recipes from it.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Pasta Puttanesca

Despite of its translation, meaning: prostitute's pasta - this is one of my all time favourite pasta dish. It's rough, rustic and feisty, really lives up to its name. I was only a teenager when I first had this pasta in an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. I read the description of the dish and with my curiosity I was lured into ordering it. And I was not left disappointed.

A typical pasta puttanesca recipe recipe would include ingredients such as anchovy, chilli, garlic, capers and black olives. And the sauce is also as exciting as its name suggests. It's a tomato based sauce with a generous amount of olive oil and a hit of red wine vinegar.

You really get all the flavours... the saltiness from the anchovy and black olives; spicy chilli and a lovely fresh sourness from the capers and red wine vinegar in the sauce.

I added some sausages to the pasta this evening to add some meatiness although there's no need to. I just happened to have some in the fridge. In fact, if you're a vegetarian, simply leave out the anchovy and just add a little bit more capers and black olives.

I am not so sure where the original pasta puttanesca recipe came from. One theory says this pasta was a quick, cheap meal that "ladies of the night" could prepare between customers. But whatever its origin, one thing for sure, it's delicious.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Pear Tarte Tatin & Apple Ice Cream

After some light research, I discovered that this famous upside-down tart was created by the Tatin sisters at the beginning of the 20th century and has now become one of the most popular French desserts.

Please don't panic... Don't let the French name intimidate you. There's nothing difficile about this dessert. C'est très facile! Rumour has it tarte tatin was actually created by accident (the tart was placed in the oven the wrong way round, that sort of business), so how hard can it be?

This classic tart is traditionally made with apples, but any fruits that work well with caramel would do, like apricots, bananas and of course, pears.

I have my own recipes for tarte tatin, but I used Jamie's instead because I want to relish in all of his recipes from the book before the project ends in less than a couple of weeks.

Start by making a caramel in a heavy-bottomed frying pan by cooking some caster sugar, vanilla seeds and water until they become thick and deep brown in colour.

Put the pears slices in with the caramel and gently toss them around so they get nicely coated. Stir in a little bit of butter and reduce until the you have a thick buttery caramel sauce. This syrup will be very hot, so don't be tempted to touch it for a taste.

Carefully take off the heat and sprinkle some ground ginger and a handful of toasted flaked almonds.

Cover the whole thing with puff pastry and brush with a little egg wash before putting the pan in a pre-heated oven. After 20 minutes, remove from the oven and let it cool slightly before inverting the tart to its platter. Sprinkle with some fresh thyme leaves which may sounds odd but it works!

Jamie suggests to serve the tart with thick clotted cream, but I just couldn't resist Apple Ice Cream. I enjoy making ice cream and it's a shame I haven't been making a lot more this summer.
And the thing about making home made ice cream is there's no need to buy the expensive heavy machinery. If you have one, great! but if you don't, yes, it's more work, but not at all difficult.

Warm pear tarte tatin, cold and smooth apple ice cream... Desserts for dinner, très délicieux.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

2. Roast fore rib of beef with beetroot and horseradish

I reward myself once in a while with a really good joint of beef. For something that looks stunning and magnificent on the table, and tastes delicious too, it's got to be fore rib of beef.

Fore rib cut of beef makes the perfect Sunday roast. Obviously, roasts aren't just for Sunday. I'd happily have roast chicken, pork, lamb or beef on any days. But what's great about Sunday, for me anyway, I have the extra time to make something more special for lunch or dinner. And Sunday roast itself is a treat I think before Monday kicks again (although saying that, I just realised I'm off work tomorrow! Yay!).

Jamie's recipe for roast fore rib of beef with beetroot and horseradish has caught my eye for sometime and I'm so happy to finally made it today.

The rib of beef was rubbed with a delicious paste made with freshly picked rosemary leaves, lemon zest, garlic, anchovies and extra virgin olive oil before roasting in the oven until it's cooked to medium (that's the way I like it, but feel free to cook the meat to your liking, still mooing or really dead, it's up to you).

The accompaniment to the beef was sweet and sticky beetroots that have been marinated in a mixture of thyme, balsamic vinegar, garlic and olive oil and then roasted alongside the beef. I never knew beetroots and beef work so well together until today. And of course, you've got to have potatoes and so I made rosemary, garlic and lemon roast potatoes and they were a big hit among my friends.

The perfect condiment to the roast beef is horseradish sauce. The sauce is made by mixing crème fraîche, grated horseradish, lemon juice and chopped parsley. Yum... I love the spicy, lemony flavour in the sauce.

Earlier this afternoon, my friends asked me to teach them to make chocolate mousse and so with pleasure I taught them how to make the simplest chocolate-hazelnuts mousse which we enjoyed after dinner.

One recipe to go...