the hinata diaries

Friday, January 20, 2006

Japanese for beginners 2

Been a while since my last post - my trusty camera that had suffered shocks and bumps through the highlands of southwest China, the cathedrals of Spain, the temples of Kyoto and numerous memorable nights finally met its end on a particularly madcap night at Ministry of Sound :( I'm not too sure if it was the fall, the alcohol or the obscene goings-on that did it in...

Sure, it didn't take pictures very well at night (as you can see) and sure it was somewhat battered, but I was just getting used to carrying it around in my bag wherever I went, looking to snap the next interesting meal that appeared... plus it had the most amazing battery life and was a rather fetching shade of obiang green...

A moment of silence, please? *sniffle*

On the bright side, my camera isn't completely dead, it's just that the screen is broken. So I could always be retro and take pics using the little viewfinder and only review them when I get back home and hook it up to the computer... back to the stone ages!

Until I have excuse enough to get a new camera, I've been using Philippe's, which is (surprise surprise) the exact same model, just in a different colour... which means the grainy tinted dinner shots you've come to expect at Aventures d'une Cocotte will prevail (bet you're thrilled ;) )

To all detractors, donations towards a state-of-the-art camera are welcome!

Anyway, today's post is Japanese for Beginners 2, following an overwhelming craving for more mentaiko pasta. And since Philippe hadn't tried it, it was a good excuse to concoct another little casual Japanese dinner at home and play with all my funny Meidi-ya ingredients. End of the day, I'm really surprised at how simple Japanese food can be if you have the right ingredients. On to dinner...

Wakame and Leeks with Wasabi Dressing

I love the wakame you get in restaurants so was quite happy to figure out how to recreate it. Dried wakame can be found in the seaweed aisle of most Japanese supermarkets. Surprisingly, they're in very little pieces when you shake them out of the pack, almost like the dried veggie bits you get in instant noodles. But a couple of minutes soaking inflates them up to the familiar ribbon shape. Toss in a bit of Japanese vinegar and you're done.

The leeks were steamed on their own, then lightly brushed with dressing made from wasabi, mirin and soba dipping sauce that brought out the natural sweet and spicy flavour of the leeks.

Seared Scallops in a Yuzu-laced Ponzu Sauce

Got a couple of nice big scallops (hotate) from Meidi-ya, where I also picked up a pack of dried yuzu rind. Since this was my special invention of the night, I guess it warrants a proper write-up:

  • 2 large scallops (hotate)
  • Dried yuzu rind, approximately 6-8 slivers
  • Ponzu sauce, store bought
  • 1 tbsp warm water
  • Bit of butter

Soak the yuzu rind for 3 minutes in a minimal amount of warm water. Squeeze yuzu rind dry and reserve water, which is now somewhat yuzu scented. Mix water with ponzu sauce.

Pan sear scallops in a dab of butter. Serve scallops on ponzu sauce and top with yuzu rind, serve hot.

To be honest, I didn't expect the yuzu rind to have that much of an impact on the scallops, and initially wondered if I should steam the scallops with the rind instead. Surprisingly though, those little bits pack a punch (which is probably why yuzu rind is so treasured in Japan) and the scallops were unmistakably scented with the lemony-orangey fragrance. The ponzu sauce then balanced this with a light tartness. Pretty fancy for something that took 5 minutes to prepare!

Mentaiko Pasta

Read Joone and my recipe here. Couple of pics though, just to demonstrate how sad my plating abilities are compared to Joone (I try to make up for it though with generosity with the good stuff, see second pic!)

What can I say? I guess as a wannabe cool food blogger I shouldn't be blogging the same dish twice in a month, but seriously, this stuff is gooooooood. Philippe went nuts, polishing off his bowl and offering to finish mine for me (mind you we were having dinner at midnight and our tummies usually shut down a couple of hours before).

Morinaga Pudding

Lastly, got some store bought Japanese pudding for dessert, basically a bastardized (and very wobbly) creme caramel. Sweet as hell but served its purpose in cutting through the mayonnaise and pasta from earlier. Would recommend this for really indulgent nights in front of the TV. (By indulgent I don't mean ooh what a lovely treat but rather ooh let's try to self-induce diabetes on the sofa, if you're into that sorta thing.)

Friday, January 13, 2006

SF1: Black sesame french toast

Starting a new food mini-series today: SF or Sofa Food :)

I guess everyone kinda knows what Sofa Food is in their own way - could be breakfast, a mid-afternoon snack, a late supper, or even a lazy i'm-gonna-eat-junk dinner. Regardless of when you have it, it's simple but yummy food that's best eaten in front of the TV and preferably with one hand. It also requires minimal preparation and cleanup, since that would only distract you from the telly.

Got home from Japanese class last night tired, hungry and with a craving for black sesame. Since it was too late to run out and buy tang yuan (I definitely wasn't up to trying to make them!) this was what I managed to whip up, courtesy of my bottle of black sesame paste (from the black sesame french beans dinner) and my not-so-friendly neighbourhood Econ Mini-mart:

Black sesame french toast

Makes 6 fingers

  • 2 slices white bread
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • Black sesame paste (available in bottle form from most Japanese supermarkets)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

Lightly toast one side of each slice to make spreading the black sesame paste easier. Spread toasted side with generous amounts of black sesame paste (think nutella, not vegemite). Sprinkle one side with sugar, 1 teaspoon or to taste. Sandwich slices together and cut into fingers. Dip into beaten egg and fry till golden brown (or the way I like it best, golden burnt!). Serve with a glass of soybean milk. Eat immediately with one hand. Use other hand for changing channels on the remote control.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Azhang and My Mum's Place

I am really excited about moving to the East!!! Had dinner with Tam, Aaron and Sokmin last night, all Easterners. Sokmin and my original plan to check out Hong Kong Cafe was waylaid by Tam and Aaron's unfortunate experience there, so we decided to check out Azhang on Joo Chiat Road instead.

Even though we'd passed Azhang several times in our various jaunts around the neighbourhood, I've always hesitated trying it after reading Geoffrey Eu's Business Times review of the restaurant, which painted it to be idiosyncratic and intimidating. And indeed, our first impression when we walked into the empty shophouse restaurant at 8.30pm was that maybe they had done too good a job of scaring customers away!

At first glance, the menu looked somewhat unexciting - assorted kebabs, pilaf rice, salad, baked salmon and so on. Ironically though, it only fueled my curiousity even more, so we took a seat and ordered: pumpkin soup and lamb kebabs for Tam, beef curry for Aaron, beef kebabs for Sokmin and lamb loin chops for me. Most dishes come with pilaf rice, salsa and salad, although Aaron had the option of adding these or homemade foccacia to his meal.

When the pumpkin soup arrived, it became evident that we weren't in for a Swensen's meal. The soup was thin but heavily spiced with cumin, giving it a North African twist. Likewise, the meat dishes that followed were laden with various spices and exotic flavours. I spent quite a while trying to place the familiar but elusive taste behind my ribeye loin chops, which were sweet to the point of being almost candied. The mystery was solved when chef and owner Patrick Zhang came round to say hi. He enthusiastically explained that the loin chops had been layered with dijon mustard (that was it!!!) and brown sugar, then baked in the oven. The sugar and mustard then gradually seep into and permeate the meat. The dish is actually a popular Catalonian tapa, just served as a main. Our other dishes had equally interesting stories - the beef curry was prepared according to a traditional recipe from Madras, and the meat was exceptionally tender because it came from the shin. Aaron had two large pieces, which Patrick proudly declared required half a cow to produce. Here are some pics:

Lamb kebab (yes, still working on the flash)

Madras beef curry

Lamb loin chops (with the flash on! muahahaha)

Fortunately by this time we had finished eating most of our meat, and we decided to postpone finishing our pilaf and salad in favour of prodding Patrick for more stories. Here's some of what we discovered:

- Azhang's food style can best be described as 'anything and everything'. While on most days the menu is primarily Mediterranean, this actually does very little to limit the kitchen's creativity, as dishes can range from Portugese to Spanish, Greek and North African ("eat your way around Europe!" exclaimed Patrick). The restaurant will gladly also prepared meals according to regulars' advance requests.

- The restaurant is very much 'by the neighbourhood, for the neighbourhood' (although regulars come from as far as Jurong). It organizes monthly social dinners where friends aren't brought along but rather made at the restaurant.

- Other events organized in the past include a 9 course, 8 hour New Year's eve dinner that lasted till 3am. At $100 a head, it included a free flow of Veuve Clicquot, which really makes you wonder if the restaurant even cares about making a profit! An upcoming Christmas in April dinner is also in the works, with plans to serve turkey and other festive fare.

- Patrick laughed when I asked about Geoffrey Eu's article, and nonchalantly mentioned that Geoffrey and his family now come regularly. He did, however, stand by his house rule that dinner is served promptly on special dinner nights, which seems fair considering he appears to be a one-man cooking team ("you don't see anyone else in the kitchen, do you?").

Some other topics that came up include the joys of ribeye and the use of red meat vs. seafood and beef vs. lamb in various parts of Europe. Suffice to say, Patrick is a warm and passionate host and a veritable treasure trove of dining experiences and opinions.

After dinner, we were invited to take a tour of the upstairs. The private dining room on the second floor was a world apart from the cafe style seating downstairs. A couple of large round tables seemed perfect for Chinese-style communal dining, while a teak living room set gave the area a laidback, homey feel. We were informed by our other gracious host (I believe her name is Evelyn) that the room can accommodate 20 or more diners, although a group of 8-9 is sufficient to book the place for private events. A small door at the back of the room led to one final surprise - a lush balcony garden where the restaurants grows fresh herbs to use in its cooking.

All in all, Azhang was a happy discovery that I'm looking forward to frequenting regularly. The food we had that night, while not mindblowing, was good (and reasonably priced at $15-$20 a head) but my appetite has been whetted to try the myriad dishes that come through the rotation. As a future Eastie, it also seems like the perfect neighbourhood joint to make your second home and catch up with fellow residents.

That wasn't the end of our meal though! Although the chocolate pudding did sound extremely tempting, the fact that we were metres away from the amazing orh nee at My Mum's Place was impossible to ignore, so after bidding a fond farewell to the nice folks at Azhang, we made our way across the street. Parting shot of the restaurant (yes, dark and blurry, but had to rush this shot as the rain was coming down... fyi the awning says Azhang, dining at home):

This is my second time at My Mum's Place, having chanced upon it one night while looking for late night dining. The restaurant serves casual and unpretentious Chinese home cooking in an equally casual and unpretentious setting. Most of the personality is supplied by Mrs Sharon Lee, whose caricature adorns the restaurant's signboard, menu and namecards:

The feisty grandma makes dining here really seem like you're in some favourite aunty's kitchen. In fact, the first time we came, it was with baby Gabriel in tow. After seeing two grown men and one clueless me struggle with a baby while trying to eat, Mrs Lee immediately declared "what are grandmas for?" and whisked Gabriel away for a tour of the restaurant. Each time she came back round to check on us, it was to tell us more about her cooking techniques or ingredient choices or family stories (must be a Joo Chiat thing, all these chatty chef-owners!). If we thought we were reluctant to leave after partaking of great kung pao chicken, Gabriel was even more heartbroken to leave his newfound grandma.

While My Mum's Place is open (I believe) every day and into the fairly wee hours of the morning, her orh nee can be fairly elusive, as she makes it only in small quantities and it sells out very quickly. We were lucky enough to get the three last bowls of the night. (Side note: she also makes the most incredible pineapple tarts.)

As you can see, the orh nee comes smothered in a thick, creamy layer of pumpkin puree and generously studded with gingko nuts. It's amazingly smooth, despite the fact that the layer of oil that typically covers most orh nee is noticeably missing. Good good good good good stuff.

And that wrapped up a very satisfying Joo Chiat dinner. Two more weeks till we move, hooray!



  • 323 Joo Chiat Road
  • 6440 0323

My Mum's Place

  • 328 Joo Chiat Road
  • 6344 3343

Monday, January 09, 2006

Blog back up!

Hallo! Just a little (rather self-evident) note that my blog is finally back up, after being down since Thurs afternoon. Still don't know what the problem was (e-mailed Blogger support but only got an auto-reply), just glad it's up again! Amazing how food loses a bit of its taste when you can't share it with the rest of the world :)

More posts soon!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Japanese for beginners

Having recently discovered the food wonderland that is Meidi-ya, decided to invite some guinea pigs (aka Jean, Francois and Sebastien) over for a light and casual Japanese dinner. Here's what we had:

(P.s. I know all my pics feature the same one or two plates, I'm working on it! In the meantime, I'm open to all donations of cool crockery :) )

French beans in black sesame paste

Pretty simple, blanched french beans, storebought black sesame paste, and top with toasted sesame seeds.

Green tea tofu

Found green tea tofu at Carrefour and was so fascinated I decided to try it last night. Verdict: it tastes exactly like regular tofu, and the green colour, while unique, doesn't exactly scream "eat me!"... in fact, if anything, it screams "I am an industrial cleaning agent!" Served it cold and topped with crushed pistachios and salmon roe (ikura). If I do this again I'll probably toast the pistachios before crushing to give it extra crunch, and possibly add a light soy dressing.

Crab and spring onion salad

Bought what I thought were de-shelled crab legs at Meidi-ya, only to find out upon my return home that it was actually fake crab meat! At $11 for 140g, it was definitely a disappointment. That said this is probably something like No. 1 Superior Grade Fake Crab Meat - it tastes worlds better than the horrible bright red ones you get in your yong tau foo, and took me several re-takes to confirm that this was, in fact, not the genuine article.

The decision to make a spring onion based salad was inspired by the abalone spring onion salad I had at Hutong in Hong Kong. You can check out the pic here.

For the salad, toss 140g of shredded "crab" meat with thinly sliced white segments from 2 stalks of spring onions. Dress with 2 tablespoons Japanese rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon mirin and 1 tablespoon soy sauce. The dressing brings out the sweetness of the meat while the spring onion delivers a sharp, spicy bite. Very addictive even for non-fans of raw onion like me.

Oxtail broth with konnyaku noodles

The soup was made from onions, celery, carrots, leeks, konbu and the oxtail, with the noodles only added at the last minute (not sure if they'd expand or get too soft if left longer). I served the soup without the veggies, looks pretty bland in the photo eh? Would serve it next time with the konbu, some shabu shabu mochi and garnish with spring onions (was so hungry by that time that I just wanted to get the food into bowls and start eating). Thin layer of oil aside, this tasted very wholesome, while the noodles added a playful crunch.

Garlic fried rice

One of the drawbacks of having limited plates and even more limited photography skills: you can't really tell but I'd shaped the rice into a little mound using a tea cup in a sad attempt to improve my food presentation :)

The fried rice recipe is a lazy take on Harumi Kurihara's garlic fried rice, featured in Harumi's Japanese Cooking. My way:

  1. Fry garlic slices in vegetable oil, add rice. Drizzle with soy sauce, stir fry till rice is lightly golden.
  2. Serve immediately, topped with bonito flakes.

Doesn't get much easier than that eh? Harumi-sensei's recipe calls to add granulated chicken stock to the rice, as well as sliced shiso leaves. I've found that he granulated chicken stock added a rather artificial (although nonetheless yummy) MSG-like taste which I can do without. The shiso leaves are a nice addition (subsitute with equal portions mint and basil if you can't get shiso leaves) that make give the rice depth, colour and an element of sophistication, like a fancy nasi ulam. I'd recommend making the effort to procure the shiso leaves if the rice is to be eaten as a dish on its own. If it's gonna get mixed up with other dishes, the light flavour of the shiso will probably get drowned out anyway, so no need to bother.

So there you go, easy peasy Japanese home cooking, hinata style!

Monday mentaiko madness!

Joone of Nibbles & Scribbles and I had recently been exchanging e-mails on how to use mentaiko, aka spicy cod roe. Before we knew it, we had whipped ourselves into a bit of a mentaiko frenzy and a plan was set to spend Monday afternoon preparing (1) our take on the now classic mentaiko pasta and (2) mentaiko panna cotta. The former is a dish that has been blogged about by others (Chubby Hubby, J, Umami…) on several occasions, and so seemed a must-try; the latter was inspired by Joone’s Christmas post about waylaid plans to make panna cotta then. Mentaiko panna cotta also seemed fanciful enough to be a true test ofculinary sensibility – one false step and it would almost certainly taste horrendous but, oh, the glory to be won if it turned out good :) And so the intrepid explorers set out on the grand mentaiko quest…

Mentaiko pasta

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To be honest, I have very little idea of what was going on in the preparation of the mentaiko pasta, having been engaged in a battle with cream and gelatin at the time. So please see Joone’s wonderful instructions for details. What I can tell you though, is that it tasted pretty damn good. The cream held together a combination of contrasting flavours - the mentaiko was a delicate mixture of the salty and bitter, while the vinegar imparted a light "appetite opening" tartness – resulting in a rare balance that leaves you wanting more after each bite. For the record, greedyboy* wolfed down his plate even before Joone and I could serve ourselves. Similarly, I thought I could only manage one plateful, but ended up gobbling two then staring at the empty serving bowl wistfully.

Mentaiko panna cotta

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Given that we’d pulled the idea for mentaiko panna cotta out of thin air, this dish was incredibly fun to prepare. Without strict guidelines and preconceived notions to adhere to, we attacked the dish with the enthusiasm of 4 year olds inventing food with Playdoh.

Fortunately, the end result was substantially more edible – the panna cotta was sweet and creamy (duh), and together with the lingering taste of mint, tasted sophisticated against the crunch and heartiness of the toast. Very addictive! The mentaiko provided great colour and visual appeal, but had minimal impact on both taste and texture, possibly as a result of first being overwhelmed by the sweetness of the panna cotta and then having gotten a little cooked by the heat of the warm cream. As a result, although we had imagined the dish more of a savoury appetizer or a cheese-like pre-dessert, the final product was decidedly a dessert, and one for the highly sugar inclined at that. We were then left with a bag of questions as to how to prepare it differently the next time – use less sugar? Top the panna cotta with mentaiko only at the end? Up the mentaiko: cream ratio? Substitute mint with fresh herbs? Conclusion: for such an odd couple, mentaiko and panna cotta offers a world of flexibility and variation. We’ll definitely keep experimenting with this in the future!

Joone says:

The thing I like about cooking rather than baking is the relative freestyle you are given in inventing your own dishes. I am clumsy and suffer from myopia, so staring closely at a weighing scale to ensure that I get the measurement of sugar and flour correct is sometimes quite a chore, simultaneously having to ensure that I don’t carelessly tip too much flour in causing my airy cake to transform into a dense brownie or biscuit, it sometimes borders on frustrating.
Cooking on the other hand gives me more space and margin for error. In this case of our mentaiko pasta, the recipe happened out of necessity. I had people to feed and had neglected to buy a major ingredient from the supermarket and so I had to abandon the original recipe that we identified. Thankfully this experiment tasted pretty damn good, hungry people are not exactly the friendliest.

Our Mentaiko Pasta
Serves 3

  • Mentaiko 1 fat sac, set some aside for garnish
  • Spaghetti 200 g
  • Japanese mayonnaise 1/4 cup
  • Rice vinegar 1 Tbsp
  • Sesame seeds 1 Tbsp, roasted and ground
  • Light soy sauce 1 tsp
  • Mirin 1 tsp
  • Nori thinly sliced
  • Spring onions 1 stalk, thinly sliced

Slit open the mentaiko sac. Using a spoon, gently scrap out all the roe and discard the sac.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, cook pasta as directed to al dente.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, using a whisk, combine Japanese mayonnaise, rice vinegar, ground sesame, soy sauce and mirin. Use a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula and gentle stir in the mentaiko.

Drain pasta and toss with the prepared sauce. Transfer to a serving dish, garnish with nori, spring onions and top off with mentaiko. Eat immediately. (Sometimes there is nothing better than instant gratification.)

Mentaiko Panna Cotta
Makes 8

  • Heavy cream 3 cups
  • Sugar 3/8 cup
  • Salt a pinch
  • Mentaiko 2 large sacs
  • Powdered gelatin 2 tbsp
  • Hot water 6 tbsp
  • Mint 4 leaves, thinly sliced
  • Toast 4 slices


Slit open the mentaiko sac. Using a spoon, gently scrap out all the roe and discard the sac. Separate roe clumps gently with fingers, as far as possible without damaging roe.

Heat cream, sugar and salt over medium heat, stirring constantly until smooth. Remove from heat once first bubbles appear. Transfer to mixing bowl.

Add mentaiko to cream sugar mixture and leave to infuse for 10 minutes.

Mix gelatin in hot water, stirring constantly. Add to panna cotta mixture.

Place panna cotta mixture in bowl of iced water to chill for further 10 minutes. Once mixture has cooled down and thickened slightly, transfer into individual ramekins, ensuring that each ramekin has equal portions of mentaiko (mentaiko may have settled at bottom of mixing bowl). Chill in refrigerator until firm, approximately 2 hours.

To remove panna cotta from ramekin, immerse ramekin in warm water for 10 seconds. Invert gently onto half slice of toast cut to desired shape. Garnish with chopped mint and additional mentaiko to taste. Eat with spoon or 'toast fingers'.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Moroccan memories and chicken couscous

This is a belated post on last Friday's dinner at home. Truth be told, Philippe and I rarely eat at home on consecutive evenings, let alone three nights in a row, but I guess a sofa and DVDs is really the best way to recover from Christmas excesses. Having been pretty excited about cooking the previous two nights, I was feeling decidedly lazy and unadventurous for the third, and after much humming and hawing finally reverted to the one cuisine that never fails to excite me: Moroccan.

My love affair with Moroccan food began when I was a college student in Philadelphia and subsisting on a diet of hoagies and Chinese food truck. Philadephia's South Street is home to a highly regarded Moroccan restaurant called Marrakesh, which served (and hopefully still serves) wonderful family style meals. You'd sit on the floor in a pile of lush cushions, have a server pour warm water over your hands to clean them, and then dig into course after course of exotic platters. Such luxury compared to eating out of a takeaway box in a moldy dorm room!

My Marrakesh memories lay dormant for a few years, until one day Philippe and I were talking about the general state of food in Singapore. Our conclusion was that you could find great food from more or less every cuisine... except Moroccan. And what we can't get, we suddenly must have. Shortly after, we were heading off for a short vacation in San Francisco, and when our host Shamayn asked us what we wanted to eat, the unexpected answer came back: Moroccan! We then proceeded to have a fantastic Moroccan meal at (restaurant whose name we've forgotten) that had us practically shedding tears of joy after.

Since then, I've proudly acquired Cooking Moroccan, a lovely picture filled cookbook by Murdoch Books, that's on the shelf of most Borders and Kinokuniya outlets. So far so good, and I'm gearing up to prepare the big family feasts of days gone past.

I'm still trying to figure out what it is about Moroccan food that captures me so and why, to me, it always seems like comfort food even though the flavours are far from familiar. End of the day, I think, it's the combination of sweet and savoury - the liberous use of spices, fruits, honey and sugar in even the most savoury of meats, the steaming hot gravies and the fact that most portions require a big family (or at least a small army of friends) to share in.

All of this is really a long preamble to say that I made couscous on Friday night. Happy me. Pic and recipe below (and yes, I will try to take more creative photos from now on).

Chicken couscous (adapted from Cooking Moroccan)
Serves 4 as a main dish/light dinner
  • 4 chicken drumsticks
  • 1 onion
  • Bit of butter
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 tablespoon turmeric
  • 1 cinammon stick
  • 1 can diced tomatoes, or 3 small tomatoes, chopped
  • Veggies: zucchini, eggplant (optional)
  • Chicken broth (optional)
  • 2 cups couscous

In large pot, sautee chicken and onion in butter until chicken is brown and onion is soft. Drain off excess butter if necessary. Add cumin, turmeric, cinammon, tomatoes and enough water for soup (if pressed for time, use/combine with chicken broth). Simmer over low heat for an hour, or longer if time permits. If adding optional veggies, add about 20 minutes before intended serving time to prevent veggies from getting too soggy.

Prepare couscous per instructions on box (typically: add equal amount of boiling water, leave covered for 5 minutes then fluff with butter). Ladle chicken stew with soup over couscous, serve immediately.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year!

Happy 2006 everyone!

Got tons of pics to update with, but thought it would be more fitting to make some New Year resolutions today. I don't usually believe in making resolutions, but given that a couple of big changes are taking place in my life around now as well (including soon moving to our new place in the East, yay), I might as well give it a shot!

So here are my food-related resolutions for 2006:

1) Better kitchen management!

Believe me, I've come a long way on this front already from my early days, where every dinner party was prepared in a panicked haze. My menus would consist of a long list of dishes, all of which either required 8 hours each to prepare, some exotic ingredient that I was bound to forget to buy, or all needed to be in the oven at the exact same time. In fact, the very first party Philippe and I threw was a crepe party - it sounded a great idea at the time, but inviting 30 guests to the same meant that we were permanently stuck in the kitchen making crepes one by one the entire night. Even our seasoned ayi's usually boundless energy faded as she surveyed the batter splattered mess.

Since then, I've definitely improved to the stage where (ahem) at least half the dishes are prepared by the time guests arrive and shopping for any given dinner party can usually be completed within 3 trips to the same supermarket :P

So far, the golden rules I've managed to figure out are:

- Choose dishes with staggered preparation (e.g. some in advance, some in the morning, some just before). I know this sounds pretty obvious but it's amazing how easy it is to be carried away by tempting recipes. Also: for big parties and if you don't have help, avoid anything that needs to be prepared on-the-spot and served piping hot (e.g. anything deep fried, especially if you have to fry in batches). Or anything that requires lengthy peeling, de-veining, assembling and so on - save these for more intimate gatherings where you can work with smaller quantities.

- Wash up as you go along. The one ladle you need to grab in a jiffy before your stew burns will always be at the bottom of the sink under a mountain of greasy unwashed dishes.

- Remember that your friends would rather be served cheap takeaway food and have you for company than great food but you stuck in the kitchen the entire night. If they don't, they don't deserve to be invited over for dinner!

2) Try not to waste food

It's always sad (and not to mention, often disgusting) to throw out extra food. My second resolution is to be more diligent about using up extra food in the fridge, and in particular to take leftovers as an opportunity to be creative. Which leads to the third resolution...

3) Come up with my own ideas or try to recreate favourite dishes on my own, without recipes

In the past, I've always managed to be a pretty diligent follower of recipes. When I wanted to plan dinner, my first reaction would be to pour through various recipe books and pick and choose from within. Now that I'm getting a bit more experienced, I find greater joy in coming up with stuff on my own, or trying to recreate and modify great food I've tried elsewhere. Not only does this make for some fun detective work while eating out, but the finished product is always more satisfying...

The best food in the world, I think, is food you automatically associate with certain people, because you know no-one makes it just like them. There's my mom's Christmas ham, London Sam Ee Por (third grandaunt)'s wo tip, Sook Por's hee peow soup... one day I want to have a little treasure trove of dishes that only I can make, in my own special way, that will hopefully create fond memories for others too.

So, like the Caltex ads, short term goal = learning how to cook, my way. Long term goal = happy memories for loved ones!

Once again, happy new year everyone!!!