the hinata diaries

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Dark chocolate slice with masala figs

Every now and then, a little milestone passes that makes me feel a wee bit more grown up in the kitchen.

First meal where no-one got sick. (Fortunately I think I managed to get pass this quite a few years ago. The human stomach is an amazingly strong organ.)

First meal where I actually received a compliment. (Accomplished this in college. I guess between lousy Philly food truck food for the 259th night in a row, or my roommate and my kitchen experiments, occasionally the latter became a fairly attractive option for starved freshmen. Yesss!)

First meal prepared and served on time. (I'm still working on this one)

Developing the discipline to wash up as I cook, thereby not leaving a mountain of mess in the sink.

Learning how to cook the right proportion so we're not stuck with heaps of leftovers.

And, most recently (this is what we're celebrating today), combining all the remaining bits of food in the fridge into something palatable.

In this case, figs, chocolate cream and half a bottle of masala.

It seems like the culinary deities were smiling on me that day though, cos as I absentmindedly flipped through the Pierre Herme book, I chanced upon a recipe that was perfect: Port-Steeped Fig and Chocolate Tart.

Monsieur Herme's recipe looks like a little meal in itself - you need to cook the figs, bake the tart base, make the chocolate filling and prepare a raspberry sauce. In the slapdash spirit of using up leftovers, I decided to compromise a fair bit:

  • Instead of a tart base, I went back to lazy first principles and make an easy crumbly base by pounding digestive biscuits and binding them together in the baking pan using melted butter
  • Out of concern that the chocolate may be too cloyingly rich, decided to up the biscuit base amount, thereby changing the fundamental nature of the dish from 'tart' to 'slice' (I'm still shivering from the power rush, it's like playing God!)
  • Figs were done per the recipe, the only change being the substitution of masala for port (the masala was from fig and zucchini night a while back). The figs were simmered in masala, sugar, cinammon and lemon and orange peel, then left to steep overnight
  • The chocolate filling was a combination of the leftover chocolate patisserie cream and classic chocolate sauce from eclair day
  • Skip the raspberry sauce (Pierre, the practical man that he is, did say it was optional)

Here are the figs sitting on the biscuit base, peacefully awaiting their chocolate baptism... a good way to go if you ask me:

The finished product was surprisingly easy to eat - the richness of the chocolate was well balanced with the rusticity of the biscuit base, while the masala-spice syrup really brought out the hidden sweetness of the figs. The addition of a raspberry sauce would definitely have upped the ooh factor to something worthy of a fancy restaurant's dessert menu, but the slice alone had sufficiently risen from the humble origins of its individual ingredients to make me pretty proud.

Now if I can just figure out a way to combine the leftover emmenthal, beer and cereal...

Update: I was just going through the Is My Blog Burning site, and it turns out that Slashfood was hosting a One Off MeMe event themed 'Spring Clean', i.e. recipes that make use of whatever is currently sitting in the fridge. Am still not sure how to add myself to the event (or whether it is even still ongoing - it was dated March 30 but is that the posting date or the deadline?) but still rather chuffed to be in tune, even if by coincidence, with the collective food blogging consciousness :)

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Worth a thousand words: Noo rooz mobarak!

It was Persian New Year early Tuesday morning Singapore time. In honour of the lovely Nina (100% Iranian) and Hema (50%), we got together on Sunday afternoon to prepare traditional Iranian dishes for a celebration on Monday evening.

Now as a food blogger, you spend an inordinate proportion of your waking hours (and indeed many of your sleeping ones) striving for kitchen perfection.

A fully stocked spice rack? Check.
Utensils for every whim and fancy? Check.
Ergonomic workspace? Check.
Preferred slicing and dicing technique? Check.
A photographic imprint in your memory of where each pot, pan and spatula is in your kitchen? Check.

But what happens when you find yourself in a foreign kitchen with a bunch of nutter friends, at least two of which see food as more plaything than art form? (You know who you are!)

Cue silent weeping.

And with that, I present a little photo journal of our descent into group cooking madness...

The run-up. So that's what consultants do...

Hema's job is clearly taking over her mind as she prepares a group shopping and kitchen to-do list in Excel. We pretended to be impressed although deep down inside we were horrified.

At least the closet programmer didn't write this stuff out in Visual Basic or C++ or whatever it is programmers write in.

Sunday. Chaos begins...

Nina attempts to saw off her own tongue (she saw this done on TV once), while Michelle wisely and hurriedly retreats to Aubergine-Dicing-Zen-Land.

Jean attempts to seduce a yoghurt-covered chicken drumstick...

... then celebrates her apparent success by breaking out in a impromptu chicken dance with Nina. I'm guessing it's not H5N1, but whatever they have is very worrisome.

Hema reinstates an air of professionalism as she sets about caramelizing dried cranberries. With a resigned air of patience, she secretly wonders if maybe she should have made a PowerPoint presentation as well.

The first slide on that presentation would've been...

... How To Tell That The Washing Up Isn't Quite Done.

Nina: "I'm done!"

Me (stunned): "Umm, I'm not too sure if that's really counted as being done..."

Nina: "Awww, are you anal like Hema too??????"

I need to make Nina a t-shirt with her mantra for the afternoon: Suds Never Hurt Anybody.

Once we figure out how Nina's gonna carry all this (plus the 3 food-laden pots in the kitchen) back home on her own, we're done!

Party night. The stage is set.

And so has the chicken. Into a jelly, that is.

Jean and I volunteered to come early to help Nina fry the fish. We get rewarded with the thrill of cheating death, not once, but twice.

Near death situation 1:
Jean: "Nina, your kitchen smells a bit stale, especially with the gas on..."
Nina: "Ooh really? Let me spray this flammable aerosol at you girls, right next to the naked flame!"

Near death situation 2: The kitchen towel meant to blot the fish catches fire and has to be unceremoniously doused under the tap.

Finally, we're done!

Clockwise from the red spoon:

  • Zereshk Polo - basmati rice with caramelized cranberries and pistachios
  • Cucumber, tomato and onion salad
  • Zafferoon Chicken - chicken cooked in saffron and yoghurt
  • Sabzi Polo - basmati rice with mixed fresh herbs
  • Mirza Ghasemi - minced aubergine and tomatoes
  • Mahi - fried halibut in saffron batter

Will leave you with a lovely picture of Nina's Haft Sinn, the traditional laying of the table to celebrate the New Year. (Fatemeh of Gastronomie has a wonderful post on the history and symbolism of the Haft Sinn here.)

As an aside, the poor goldfish on the far left is unfortunately no longer with us, but I'm sure he lived his final days filled with pride to be part of such a time-honoured and beautiful tradition :)

Noo rooz mobarak everyone!

Tetsuya - my nominee for Australian ambassador

Tetsuya by Testsuya Wakada was another recent acquisition at the Kinokuniya sale.

I have to admit that I'd always been a bit of a Tetsuya skeptic. Having spent, at one stage, 8 childhood vacations in a row in Sydney, and having had to sit through Aussie friends and family endlessly wax lyrical on the wonders and conveniences of the continent, I had developed a determined prejudice against anything Aussie.

"Arid wasteland with no history or culture!" I'd sniff.
"Lowest common denominator wines!" Philippe would pout.

Silly us.

Maybe it's old age, maybe we've just given up fighting it, but we're now slowly warming up to various Aussie concepts.

A mid-day, mid-week beer is no longer slacking off, it's enjoying life.

Wine capped with a twist top isn't always a crime against humanity.

There are worse places to go for a vacation than Perth (e.g. Batam).

And that led me to Tetsuya.

To be honest, I really didn't know what to expect when I bought the book, shrink wrap and all. I'd heard much about him being considered Australia's top chef, and of his celebrated restaurants where reservations have to be made months in advance, but didn't actually know what type of food he served. My best guess was that it was elaborate fusion food: fancy, complicated, fussy.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

What immediately struck me was the simplicity and brevity of his recipes, some stretching their hardest to fill up even half a page. They were clean, they were classic, and almost all seem to follow the same basic principle: emphasize the natural flavours of the main ingredients with light and simple sauces, then dance around them with contrasts in flavour, texture and colour. The book was stunning, and revelatory, and at the same time appeared so intuitive and effortless. I was hooked.

A couple of e-mails later and dinner plans were made. Kit and Marc, our hapless guinea pigs from figs and zucchini flowers night, kindly volunteered to brave our kitchen once again (thanks guys!), and so began the usual mad dash to the supermarket, kitchen appliance store, etc.

The end products:

Consomme of Tomato and Tea

Quick comments: Flavourful despite its lightness. Need to make sure you strain the tea out quickly though, I left mine in too long and the tannins made it very bitter.

Sashimi of Hamachi with Blood Orange and Ginger Vinaigrette

QC: Everything about this dish is great - the flavours, the colours, the textures. I'd upsize this for a summer lunch or light supper. Used balsamic instead of sherry vinegar as I had it on hand, and similarly substituted a brief squeeze of grapefruit juice for orange oil. It works best if the hamachi slices are cut fairly thick to balance the strong citrus flavours.

Pan Seared Foie Gras on Rice with Avocado Puree

QC: Looked elaborate but tasted incredibly homey, like fried rice with a superstar makeover. Like the sashimi, this could easily be upsized to be a meal on its own.

Spaghettini with Cauliflower Sauce

QC: Pasta is tossed in Tetsuya's cold cauliflower soup, also in the book. Couldn't get shiso at the last minute so topped it with these daikon sprouts (kaiware daikon) from my neighbourhood Japanese supermarket. They look innocent but are actually incredibly peppery, great for spicing up the dish. Philippe and I had the leftover cauliflower soup for supper two days later, chilled but with piping hot cheese toast, and it was great.

Green Tea Panna Cotta with Kiwi Berries

QC: This was actually taken from Jane Lawson's Yoshoku, where it was topped with rhubarb. I couldn't resist the kiwi berries, which looked and tasted amusingly of grapes on steroids. Surprisingly, the combination of green tea, sugar and cream produced a flavour that was almost more pandan than tea.

So there you go, my little culinary traipse to Sydney. I've emerged enlightened, humbled and fully converted to the joys of Australian cuisine.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some cricket to watch and a koala to hug.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Celeb spotting

My dad called last night to tell me he just got back to Singapore on the same flight as Anthony Bourdain, and even spoke to him briefly. He sounded pretty thrilled, so I guess this warrants a post :)

The day I became a Grand Master Eclair Chef

Let me start by saying, I love the Kinokuniya book sale!

For the unfamiliar, Kinokuniya is a large Japanese bookstore chain that has several outlets in Singapore, including one at Ngee Ann City that sprawls over the better half of one floor and in whose labyrinthine shelves one can be lost for days. Aside from the Japanese books, magazines and literature, the store carries more or less everything you could ask for - the usual fiction and non-fiction sections, a language section, Western and Japanese comics, art and design books, totemo kawaii stationery and, of course, a generous cookbook aisle.

The best part is, every six months or so, Kinokuniya goes on a storewide 20% off sale. Which is the perfect excuse to buy up every single book you've set your eyes on over past weeks - stuff you want to read, stuff you should read, stuff you want to tell everyone you've read (o_O!)...

The grand allure of book shopping is that buying new books lets you feel like you're starting a new life. High on the fumes of freshly printed and yet un-thumbed pages, you get excited thinking about who you'll now be - a profound artistic soul waxing lyrical on Milton vs. Spencer? a cutting-edge pop culture specialist? a wheeling and dealing business person with up-to-the-minute views on Chinese trade laws? a diligent student of a foreign language mastering the art of conjugation through furrowed eyebrows?

In my case, all of the above, plus...

... Grand Master Chocolate Chef!

(Yes, I've started printing out the namecards already)

Yupyup, decided to pick up Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme (can someone please tell me how to write accents on Blogger?!?!) and Dorie Greenspan. It's a gorgeous book, dark, rich and timeless like its subject, each page eliciting audible gasps and more sinful than the last.

Fast forward to the weekend, and I'm crouched in concentration over our outdoor kitchen counter, attempting to delicately spoon chocolate pastry cream into dainty eclair bottoms.

Except it's 35 degrees Celsius (in fahrenheit: freaking hot).

It's been 35 degrees Celsius for the last three hours (that's how long it took).

All around, the kitchen is a disaster zone of pastry splotches, gooey pots and pans and little water puddles (you can almost hear wailing sirens).

And I couldn't be happier.

Actually, I'm exaggerating. The chocolate eclair recipe is long, requiring the individual production of four components (choux pastry, chocolate pastry cream, chocolate sauce and chocolate glaze) prior to baking and assembly. But it isn't difficult, and a lot of fun comes from methodically following the recipe in blind faith that everything will come together in the final moments, which it really does. It's also great to finally put together something that you've grown up with all your life, and have been accustomed to consuming without a second thought.

I'm looking forward to making this again and playing around with the components. Pierre Herme called for bittersweet chocolate in each of the parts, I'd like to try with something along the lines of hazelnut, or white chocolate, or a non-chocolate pastry cream (raspberry? green tea? lavender?) next time - it really does seem very versatile. Plus mini-eclairs sound like lovely gifts, who doesn't love eclairs? Friends and family, start dieting now!

Monday, March 06, 2006

Beijing Gong

Last Saturday, Philippe, Philip, Angelina and I were invited to dine at Beijing Gong, a new Beijing cuisine restaurant on Kreta Ayer. The restaurant isn't due to formally open until the end of March, but we were fortunate enough to receive an invitation by virtue of being family friends with owner May Leung.

As a quick prelude, Philippe and I lived in Beijing for 3 years before moving back to Singapore in 2002. We readily acknowledge that, by Singaporean and French standards, Beijing food is really nothing to shout about, comprising primarily of lamb, pork and heavy starches. That said, you could always squeeze a decent, even exotic, dinner out of some of the local staples, good enough for visiting friends or a cold winter evening. It's those dishes that we've developed occasional but strong cravings for in Singapore, and hadn't found worthy replicas of - attempts here are either too light on the sauce, use the wrong cut of meat, flat out off or, dare I say it, simply prepared in too hygienic a manner.

Until we ate at Beijing Gong!!!! *cue celebratory fireworks and clashing cymbals*

Beijing Gong is located at 41 Kreta Ayer Road, just a hop skip away from another famous Beijing restaurant (the Neil Road xiao long bao place - it has a proper name but I think most people know it as that). Despite the abundance of restaurants in the neighbourhood, Kreta Ayer has remained relatively food free, playing host instead to a variety of clinics, reflexology centres and sundry shops. Walking past Beijing Gong's glass door and glancing in at the oil paintings and antique-style furniture, you could easily mistake the place for an art gallery (in fact, Aunty May is the artist behind the various oil paintings here). You wouldn't make that mistake twice though, not after dining there!

The hinata tagline: authentic Beijing home cooking that you'll not fine elsewhere in Singapore, served fine dining style in a modern, elegant restaurant.

Our meal began with an assortment of cold starters, as well as a gorgeous warm herbal tea that combined a rich plum flavour with the toasted grass aftertaste of many a Korean and Japanese tea.

Clockwise from top:

Zha Ou He (literally "Fried-Lotus-Root-Boxes") - Philippe's favourite Beijing dish of all time, and one that's hard to find even within Beijing. We asked for seconds and those disappeared, well, within seconds.

Cucumbers with dried red chillies - very kai wei (appetite whetting). Tossed with omelette, this is a Beijing staple and on every restaurant table.

Sliced cold beef - Likewise, a Beijing staple, this one very akin to an English roast beef.

Red dates - Sweet and very refreshing. We kept this through the meal as a frequent palate cleanser.

Next up, a hot and sour soup ("not too hot" smiled our host):

Followed by what we can confidently proclaim to be the best gong bao ji ding (or Kung Pao chicken to all you non-mainlanders out there). I hesitate though, to call it the most authentic, given that a proper Beijing gong bao ji ding would have scrappy bits of chicken fat and bone - this version is all juicy chunks of flavoursome lean meat. What sets this apart though, is the generous and accurate use of Szechaun ma la peppercorns, spiteful little bombs that numb your tongue and set off sweat glands you never knew you possessed. Angelina was rather taken aback by her first encounter with them, but recovered quickly and tried to convince Philip to crunch on a spoonful. Philip dutifully obliged but spat them out fairly quickly with a bewildered expression.

As intimidating as they may sound (and you don't one to accidentally pop one into your mouth), these peppercorns impart a rich, full bodied aroma that becomes immediately addictive. Kinda like your first glass of red wine.

Next up, crispy duck with pancake and plum sauce. Despite this being a Beijing restaurant, and despite the dish bearing an overwhelming resemblance to Peking duck, the restaurant staff were curiously reluctant to call it so, preferring the moniker "crispy duck". Which was probably fair - the duck meat was lean and smoky, without the typical layer of fat under the skin (Peking duck in Beijing seems more about eating fat than meat), and the skin is thicker and crunchier than its usual paper-thin counterparts. Whether this was a substition made for local tastebuds or a different dish altogether, it was simply gorgeous and a welcome change.

It was at this point in the meal that I turned to Philippe and said, "you know what would be the perfect dessert now? Those fruits covered in caramel that you dip in ice water to freeze up!" Philippe paused for a bit, sifted through some dusty memories and nodded eagerly upon recollection. And lo and behold!

These were banana chunks, battered and fried then literally glued together with lashings of caramel. You're supposed to pull them apart and dip the pieces individually in the bowl of ice water provided (thanks Angelina for the assist!). The caramel then freezes up, and you get crunchy and sweet on the outside, warm and soft on the inside. Happy us.

After that satisfying meal, Philippe and I really didn't have much to say by way of constructive criticism, preferring instead to request a couple more Beijing cornerstone dishes that did not make an appearance that evening. Aunty May reassured us that the first of our requests, yu xiang qie zi (literally Fish-Fragrance-Eggplant) is on the menu and has received rave reviews. We are now lobbying for jing jiang rou si (City-Sauce-Meat-Shreds) as well as for some bottles of er guo tou (the nastiest rice wine this side of the planet).

To conclude, do try Beijing Gong once it opens. It's really one of the rare places (if not the only place) in Singapore you can find authentic Beijing food, and enjoy it with both chic ambience and courteous service.


Beijing Gong

41 Kreta Ayer Road

(Phone number not available at time of writing)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Wontone of my wontons?

Apologies for the corny title, it's one of those days :)

Seems like I'm on a quest to make daintier and daintier things. Having pigged out on junky bar food early in the evening at BQ Bar with Jean and Hema, supper on Monday night was a wholesome and homemade bowl of pork and ginger wontons in dashi.

As an aside, this was my first attempt at making wontons, and it occurred to me that there was a sufficient variety of wonton skin folding techniques to warrant an origami book on the subject. A quick flip through my little library of cookbooks revealed triangles, flat crescents, ruffled crescents, hats... Reminded me of Primary 1 art class where one of our first assignments was to make curry puffs out of plasticine. I'm telling you, those little pleats are tough to make! Now, every time I look at a curry puff it's with a nod of respect to the hands that made them.

(As an aside to this aside, the subsequent art class was about making Chinese New Year lanterns out of angpows. What you're supposed to do is take the top end of the angpow envelope and staple it to the bottom of another, and same for the sides, and continue till you somehow derive a lantern shape from it. What you're not supposed to do, even at the foolish and tender age of 7, is to accidentally staple your own thumb. No prizes for guessing which one I succeeded at. My art teacher was not pleased.)

Fortunately, my wonton attempt proved much less eventful. I'd decided to use dashi as my broth, so thought I'd give the wontons a slight Japanese influence as well by first marinated the minced lean pork in a soy-mirin marinade. I then tossed in some chopped water chestnuts for crunch and a generous amount of finely chopped ginger for spice (a nod to our jiaozi eating days in Beijing).

As for folding, I eventually settled on a simple squish-the-edges-together technique, detailed below.

Pork and Ginger Wontons in Dashi
Makes 16 wontons

For the wontons:

  • 150g minced lean pork
  • 2 small water chestnuts, chopped, approx. 2 tbsp
  • 1 small knob of ginger, finely chopped, approx. 1 1/2 tbsp
  • 2 tbsp mirin
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 16 store-bought wonton skins

For the broth:

  • 1 large strip of dried konbu
  • 2 cups bonito flakes
  • 4 cups water

Begin preparing dashi by soaking dried konbu in water for 10 minutes.

Marinate pork in soy sauce and mirin; set aside while choppnig chestnuts and ginger. Mix all ingredients together.

Heat water and konbu in a pot over medium high heat. Just before water starts boiling, remove konbu and add bonito flakes. Cook for 1-2 minutes over high heat, then turn off heat. The dashi is ready when the bonito flakes sink to the bottom of the pot. Strain to remove bonito flakes and keep warm.

Lay out wonton skins. Place a small ball of the filling (approx. 1 tsp, depending on the size of the wonton skin) in the center of each skin. Dampen edges of wonton skin with water using your fingers. Seal by picking up diagonally opposing corners of the skin and bunching them together, sealing these and any smaller openings with a light squeeze.

Cook wontons in a pot of boiling water. Wontons will be cooked fairly quickly, approx. 2 minutes or when wontons float to the surface and the skin has become translucent. Serve immediately in warm dashi.

Optional: garnish with konbu and bamboo shoots as desired. Freeze any remaining dashi for future use.

(Dashi recipe from Harumi Kurihara's Harumi's Home Cooking)