Saturday, April 30, 2011

Soup : A Labour of Love

Never again will I take for granted the comforting feeling of a heart warming homemade soup. The amount of time that goes into making some soup is nothing but a proof of one's love. Want to show someone you love them? Make them some soup - from scratch.

Making things from scratch is my ultimate goal for any meal but for all practical Mondays to Fridays it is quite an impossible feat. So on this Saturday afternoon, I decided to make humble Tomato Soup from scratch.

The process: I roasted nine vine-ripened Roma tomatoes (from Greg, the grocer at Parramatta's farmers markets) drizzled with olive oil and seasoned for about half an hour. I then added twelve cherry tomatoes to the tray and roast for another 10 minutes. I didn't realise the cherry tomatoes were meant to be added straight to the soup but they ended up in the pot along with chopped onions, celery and carrots. More diced tomatoes from a can and tomato paste added to the pot along with the roasted Romas and a litre of real vegetable stock (not from scratch - so maybe this process could have been a heck of a lot longer!) and I cooked it until all the veges (especially the tough guys - the carrots) were soft to mash. Enter the blender to mash up the veges in batches. Careful that the blender top doesn't fly off (I tend to hold it down just to be safe). Then I sieved each batch into another pot. The most painstaking part of the process. The end result was slightly textured but looked like good old bright red tomato soup. I warmed it again and checked the seasoning.

The original recipe asked for quick-roasted Bocconcini to be added into the individual bowls but the markets were all out of Bocconcini unfortunately. All I added was some decorative basil on each bowl.

What goes well with this soup? Try a Garlic Bread (yes, again from scratch). At least the Garlic butter was from scratch. Roast half cut entire bulbs (skin on) of garlic drizzled with olive oil for about 40 minutes. Then remove garlic cloves (which should be mashable) and roughly mash it. Season and add chopped flat-leaf parsley. Add a good quantity of soft butter and mix well. Spread over your favourite bread (I found a good sourdough bread from one of those fancy arty bread stalls). If you are serious about garlic, try a garlic olive sourdough to go with the garlic butter. Toast the garlic bread for about 15 minutes after grating some good quality Parmesan cheese atop.

As the cover recipe of May 2011 Delicious issue, the "plated" (or rather "bowled") soup looked more 'gormet' than the simple soup I ended up serving. It seemed such a long drawn out four step process to get 'some liquid in a bowl' but every sip of it was worth it. And the smiling faces of friends is much better than any airbrushed professional magazine cover.

"Simple joys of meals,grateful am I indeedNever worry how next it comesBut always hope for a delicious feed"

Flemington - Fantastic and Foodie

Flemington is the old name for the suburb now called Homebush West. 16 kilometres west of Sydney, it is by God's guidance that we found a new unlived 2 bedder along Marlborough Road for our first home in Australia.

Since living in Homebush West for a year and beginning to familiarise ourselves with general suburban western Sydney, we realised what a central and convenient suburb it was. Perhaps enough time time spent in most suburbs will give you a similar feeling as you discover lonely watering holes that serve good food, a discreet shortcut to a major access road or the way the local grocery store grows on you and you refuse to shop anywhere else. I would now advertise Homebush West (classically Flemington) as a great suburb to call home. Flemington is named after John Flemington who was granted 200 acres of land in the area in 1806 (Wikipeadia). The name of the suburb was changed to Homebush West when the Sydney Markets area was called Flemington.

I have already dropped the first jewel of this suburb - the Sydney Markets or Flemington markets. The markets were right across from our apartment on Marlborough Road - only Centenary Drive (an eight lane highway) separates us. Thank God for the underpass which is unfortunately not very well lit after sun down. The benefits of living a 15 minute walk away from the markets far outweighs the fall backs - at peak grocery times (maybe 9am to 2pm on a Saturday), there is traffic near the market entrance but it never takes you that long to get through. A handy tip - walk to and from the markets or if you have a car, get someone to pick you up after you've finished shopping from the Plaza side (near the Paddy's brewery which is easily accessible via Parramatta Road). Speaking from experience. If you're hungry, stop at the Cafe Toms for breakkie (they used to have a two-for-one Sunday breakfast) or head up to Tingha for salacious yum cha.

Having the markets close by is perfect for doing your fresh food grocery shopping on a Saturday, the seafood is cheaper and fresh, and there is also to a large extent, dry perishables as well. The Flower Market is great for wedding florists who come really early (4 am or 5 am). I tend to rock up around 8.30am when the remaining criers are dumping the last of the days' beauties for cheap.

On Sundays, the whole warehouse converts to Paddy's flea market - an interesting way to spend a couple of hours.

The Markets Plaza boasts a Paddy's Brewery with good wholesome pub food, a few slot machines and a weekly trivia night! It also has most of the major banks, a post office, a subway, a meat shop and other general retail stores.

One of my personal favourite reasons why the Markets are so wonderful is the train benefits (yes, I Heart CityRail). While most train stations (especially small ones the same size as Flemington station) have less services on weekends as compared to weekdays, Flemington station has twice as many trains stopping beacuse of the droves of folks who flock to the weekend markets. Mondays through Friday mostly only the Inner West line trains stop at Flemington (stopping at other tiny stations like Summer Hill, Petersham, Lewisham, Stanmore, Macdonaldtown etc). On Saturdays and Sundays, the limited stops South line (Museum to Campbelltown) trains also stop at Flemington).

If you believe public transport was meant for the public and have your own set of wheels like my other half, Marlborough Road is still a good location because it sits at the crossing of the main artery to go out west (the M4 motorway), the way out South and to the Airport (Centenary Drive) and is so close to Hume Highway as well. To go towards Epping or Ryde, you head the opposite direction on Homebush Bay drive. The nearest shopping centre is either Rhodes Shopping Centre (which has an Ikea) or Burwood Wesfields, both of which has cinemas. Even closer to us was Auburn Reading cinemas.

What else is good about Flemington or Homebush West?

Ah, the "Homebush West Shopping Centre" which is a T-shaped block of restaurants, Asian and sub-continental groecery stores and other useful stores. These are the ones I frequent:

1. Pyramid Video and Spice - for my Indian movies fix, curry leaves, curry powders, rice, banana chips. There are several other spice stores as well but I find it easier to stick to one! Pyramid has the best Malayalam movies collection too.

2.Sun Sun - a homely Chinese restaurant run by a friendly aunty from Hong Kong. We come here for the pork porridge with yee char kuey (or fried bread). The fried chicken laksa is an unusual take on the traditional Malaysian dish. The fried chicken comes on the side and you can dunk it in the laksa for quickie before biting into it.

3. Mithu's takeway for Indian curries and good vadais or puffs

4. Ram's takeway - for takeway idiappam, idli , thosai, and even really good Nasi Lemak takeway (on wekeends)

5. Gumballs - a franchise of Asian desserts - you can get cendol in a glass here and also fresh sugar cane juice made using that scary squeezy machine right at their doorstep. A wonderful treat during a balmy summer day.

6. Vani's beauty parlour - a good stop for anyone needing a facial or some threading done. With a loyalty card, your 11th visit is free!

7. A Chemist for medical needs

8. A few Asian grocery stores which sell Rambutan, Durian and Mangosteen in summer!!!

9. An Asian bakery which sells Coconut buns, Red bean bun, Green Pandan sponge cake and good old Egg tarts!

10. Happy BBQ which has delightful siew yoke (roast pork), roasted chicken and char siew (BBQ pork) with flavoured rice to eat in or take away. Make sure you ask for the ginger/green onion condiment on the side.

11. Fresh fish mongers where I can get my beloved ikan tenggiri (English - spanish mackeral).

The more I think of it, living in Flemington is pretty much like living in Klang. There is even a Chinese restaurant called Khai's where you can get Nasi Lemak, and yes, believe it or not, Bah Kut Teh!!! No wonder I loved it so much.

Visit Flemington, or even make it home, for a wonderful 'Asia in Australia' experience.

"Simple joys of meals,grateful am I indeed,Never worry how next it comes,But always hope for a delicious feed"

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Red, Rich and Roman-dinner on Saturday!

Thinking of going italian for a dinner party this weekend . Trying simple dishes I take for granted when I summarily order them at cafes, fast food joints and bistros. The difference? I know exactly whats in them and they will (hopefully) and (probably psychologically) taste more flavourful and wholesome. Planning to try the tomato soup and garlic bread (on the cover of the May issue of Delicious), a vegetarian pizza with a healthy whole wheat base, a pesto prawn penne (Triple P) and some orange cakes for dessert.
Well, its always goood to plan. Lets see how the weekend unravels, or rather cooks up!!

Fiery Red Kerala Fish Curry

Burning hot chilly powder is at war with soury black Cocum in this fish curry. The aroma that reminds me of home and my Amma which delightfully casts out the raw fishy smell (that kauchi smell) and tastes its best at least 3 days after it is cooked. This curry is alive because the ingredients continue to infuse flavour into the fish in the refridgerator!

Traditionally, this dish must have many names but "Kudumpulli Meen Vevichathu" is probably the most appropriate. That directly translates to "Cocum Fish Steamed/Boiled".

I only use Spanish Mackerel (ikan tenggiri in Malay or naee meen in Malayalam) for this dish. Spanish Mackerel is a nice oily white fish. In fact naee meen literally means "ghee fish". If you can't find Spanish Mackerel, any meaty white fish will do. If you have issues with bones, Spanish Mackerel is good as well as it is easily deboned either before cooking or while you're eating it.
The mackerel should be sliced into one-inch thick pieces and if it is a big fish, you can halve or quarter each slice.

First of all, clean the fish. If you get cleaned fish from your fishmonger, that is great. But this additional cleaning makes a difference (or at least a psychological comfort for me). Place fish in a deep pan, and add some salt and water and mix it up to make sure the salt gets all over the fish then, rinse the fish and keep aside. If you like you can also add some of the cocum soaked water during this step as well.

Next up, gather up the remaining ingredients. The following quantities are estimated for about 6-8 half-slices of a big mackerel.

Dry stuff

You will need, a few tablespoons of chilly powder (pure chilly powder is preferred..i stay away from the more popular commercial brands because of coloring additives, try Nirrapara), and a pinch of turmeric powder. Also take a teaspoon of black mustard seeds, and a sprig of fresh curry leaves (these are usually available in any Indian family's garden (ask around!) or in a freezer at an Indian spice shop), and a teaspoon of fenugreek seeds.

You will also need three or four big pieces of black cocum. You can soak these in water but its not necessary.

Fresh stuff

Chop about two big red onions and mince up a few tablespoons of fresh ginger (i love adding lots of ginger!).

On to the process:

You will need to use a deep wide casserole pan (each slice of fish should sit in its own space in your pan and not atop one another).

Heat a few tablespoons oil in the pan and add the mustard seeds, curry leaves and fenugreek seeds. Use a splatter cover here because those little mustard seeds are angry little fellows when subjected to heat and will explode (which needs to happen to bring out their flavour). The curry leaves also react loudly to hot oil which is all part of the fun. I like to think of it as an indicator to the family that I am cooking in the kitchen!

As soon as the first round of spices have popped, add your chopped onions and ginger and saute them until the onions are nice and soft. Maybe five or six minutes. Once this is done, put in your chilly powder (about four heaped tablespoons for six pieces of fish) and the pinch of turmeric. The chilly powder will wrap around all your onions and spices like a blanket and you will initially see a dry mix in your pan. This is normal so keep mixing them up. If at this point the pan is heavily smoking, just reduce the heat a little and allow the dry spices to cook. This may take another five or six minutes. At the end of six minutes, the oil should be slowly separating from the onion mix which will start to look a bit wet, suggesting the "rawness" of the chilly powder is disappearing. Now you can add about 4 cups of water. A nice loud sizzle indicates that your pan is heated is at the optimum level. Allow this mixture to boil while you season with salt and add the cocum pieces. This basically creates your "curry". When the curry starts boiling add in your fish pieces and make sure each piece is covered by the curry. Cover the pan and let simmer on medium heat until the fish is cooked. If your pieces are not very thick, this will probably only take ten or twelve minutes.

When the fish pieces are cooked, switch off the fire and let the curry rest for about half an hour before serving. You can serve it immediately but the taste will differ.

When I am serving this dish, I usually make it the day before and refrigerate over night. I then just heat it up over the stove just before serving. The amount of onions, ginger, chilly powder you add depends on how much curry you want. If you want lots of curry, use more. Being a pretty fiery curry, for one piece of fish (for one serve) I only pour over about two or three tablespoons of the curry onto the plate. Before serving, I would remove the curry leave sprigs and the cocum pieces (if any are left - they should have dissolved while cooking anyway).

This fish curry is delicious with hot white rice or even red rice (Matta rice from Kerala) for an authentic combination. You can eat it with salty banana chips or some yogurt to soothe the palate and your favourite South Indian vegetable dish. Try a cabbage and carrot thoran (see this link for my cousin Sojo's recipe

"Simple joys of meals,grateful am I indeed, Never worry how next it comes, but always hope for a delicious feed"

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ode to "Fat Rice"

Traditionally considered a breakfast dish, the Malaysian nasi lemak is best enjoyed when you most need it - any time of the day or night. Found on all menus of Malaysian restaurants or hawker stalls (those restaurants that do not have menus), nasi lemak is a satiating comfort food. The last meal you have if you are bidding farewell to home and the first one you long for when you return for the holidays. There is just an almost unexplainable simple pleasure of this perfect combination of flavours, textures and smells. Nasi Lemak is warm, sufficiently spicy, crunchy and thoroughly delicious all at once.

The basic Nasi Lemak is one hardboiled egg, a handful of rice cooked in coconut milk and a few green pandan (screw pine) leaves, a spoonful of crispy dried anchovies, one or two thick fresh cucumber slices, a few roasted peanuts and probably the most definitive of the group is the sambal belacan (pronounced ‘bela-chan’).

Sambal belacan is not to be confused with what the Indian subcontinent refers to as sambhar (lentil curry) or sambal olek (an Indonesian chilli paste). Basic sambal belacan is the fiery result of grinding dried chillies, onions, garlic and the belacan or dried prawn paste and frying this with dried anchovies, sugar, salt and lemon juice.

The various components of the nasi lemak sit neatly around the rice on a plate (or hug each other when wrapped in pandan leaves and an old newspaper for the takeaway version). You the eater can decide how each mouthful will taste. Taking a morsel of sambal belacan with the rice gives you an initial burst of sugar which lulls into you a false sense of sweetness until the potent heat follows very soon after and lingers on your tongue throughout the meal. This is about the time you may want to take a bite into the cucumber slices or chew just the coconut rice alone for a break. Add into your spoonful salty anchovies and peanuts for the crunch factor. Mash the hardboiled egg into the rice for a meatier mouthful.

You can personalise your nasi lemak to suit your preferences. Have it with peanuts or without, with the cucumber slices or without, or choose to have with variations by adding squid sambal , a piece of fried chicken or even some beef rendang. My weakness is to have the egg sunny side up (my mother calls it ‘Bull’s Eye’) with the yolk not fully cooked so that lightly poking it with my fork makes the sunshine goo flow onto the bed of rice like squeezing a new tube of yellow paint onto a white canvas. Tastebuds are going slightly mad at this point.

Directly translated into English, Nasi Lemak is ‘Fat Rice’. A caloric filled meal well suited to the labour intensive lifestyle of Malayan people who traditionally lived and worked on plantations. I wonder if our sedentary lifestyles and the push to eat healthy will be the end of the road for nasi lemak.

I'm not too worried. For now, we Malaysians still get our nasi lemak fixes as an extremely early morning breakfast to accompany long conversations with friends at the local hawker stall and many glasses of coffee. Yes, eating ‘Fat Rice’ at 3 am is an unhealthy trait of Malaysian culture. We try though. I truly believe we threw in the green cucumber slices to justify it is a healthy breakfast!

A Loud Evening at Abhi's

Constant loud chatter greets you instantly as you enter Abhi’s through the half wood framed door. We are promptly attended to by the hostess who gives us our table number and ushered to our table by the head waiter.

The chatter accompanied us throughout the evening. The service is okay – not too fussy yet sufficiently ‘hand and foot’ for my liking. The waiter suggests some specials and we go for it. Our hunger is momentarily satisfied with a complimentary basket of pappadums served with yogurt and sweet tangy pickle.

To accompany your meal, one must have the Mango Lassi. The best Mango Lassi that I have had so far in all of Sydney I found here. It is a yogurt drink made with fresh mango pulp. Normally by the time I get through a mango lassi I have a cloying sense of wanting to put nothing else in my mouth. Abhi’s Mango Lassi is light, perfectly smooth and accurately hits the mango spot leaving you toying with the idea of a second one. Yogurt is a good coolant when subjecting your palette to the spicy notes of a South Indian meal. And mango pulp is well a real bonus.

Abhi’s has successfully combined a popular Australian favourite with core flavours of the subcontinent in the Chatpata Squid. A starter perfect for 3 people, it is your humble salt and pepper squid transformed with the use of tapioca flour and an accompanying ginger and tamarind sauce. The strong flavour of ginger makes for happiness with the crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside squid pieces.

When one thinks Indian food, one of course thinks - curry. The traditional way of eating a meal in India is on a green banana leaf (the only biodegradable disposable plate). No, Abhi’s does not use these but warmed plates instead. The trick is although all curries are served at once, you should try each curry separately with your rice. Our base for the evening is the Peas Pulao (yellow in colour and breathing cumin). The recently famed Madras Prawn Vendakai is served with four jumbo prawns swimming in a bed of coconut and tamarind based curry. The vendakai or ladies’ finger retained its crunch and was delightful (ladies finger can go soggy if cooked for too long).

We stick to seafood and also had Goan Fish Curry. Goa is a west coast state of South India famous for beautiful beaches, grand old churches as well as wild parties and is a melting pot of international tourists. The fish curry is flavoured with the traditional cumin-coriander-turmeric trio combined with a coconut milk base.

Popular Indian desserts complete our meal. And with most traditional Indian desserts, the words sweet and rich are understatements. We have Gulab Jamun, a fried milk dumpling soaked in sugar water and rose water. The chef must like rose flavours because we also try the Rose Pistachio Kulfi on the menu. Cooling, melting in your mouth, crunchy pistachio bits and it looked so pretty in pink. The smell and taste of a rose was a wonderful perfume to end the meal.

The owner and Chef’s name is Kumar Mahadevan and he hails from South India (I'm guessing from his name). Half way through our meal he visits the dining room and greets some of his guests. His guests congratulate him on his recent fame with Masterchef which he humbly accepts. He appears a man who surely knows his food and revels in the joyous faces of his guests.

The volume of chatter around the room gets louder and I found myself almost yelling across the table to have a conversation with my guests. It is clear that although the tables, waiters, wine glasses and napkins make Abhi’s a fine dining place (some of those places people would consider stuffy and uptight and where one needs to ‘mind’ others), the droves of people who ate here (including myself) were so relaxed and had no qualms of enjoying the company of their friends in loud volumes. Perhaps the enticing chilly, cumin, cardamom and tamarind flavours help us all along the way.

You will find this jewel on Concord Rd, North Strathfield just 14 km west of Sydney. On any night, a reservation is necessary to avoid disappointment.