Soup for the Soul

I find winter to be a bitter-sweet season for me. On the one hand, you get weather like this, which makes you reconsider life decisions such as moving to New England. img_2015

On the other hand, it’s the most satisfying weather to cook soup in. Growing up in Malaysia, I’ve always thought of soup as an after-meal substitute for water. A savory way to wash the flavors down your throat. Being here in the U.S., however, has shown me that soups can be a lot more than a simple broth with some vegetables. It can be a truly rich and delightful dish to have, especially when it is cold outside.

I’ve been experimenting with a Christmas gift I received a few years ago. It was an immersion blender (I received the gift along with a molecular gastronomy kit… but maybe chemistry isn’t quite for me). Yet – I’ve never quite known where I would use this contraption (apart from making a 1-minute hollandaise sauce). After a series of Tasty videos though, I’ve learnt to harness the power of the portable blender and create some tasty concoctions of my own! Behold the following recipes:

1.) Potato leek soup – Yukon potatoes, leeks, chicken stock, bacon bits, and chives.

2.) French Onion Soup – Onions (lots of it), cognac, beef stock, mozarella, bread and cheese

3.) Mushroom soup – Mushrooms (lots of it), garlic, onion, flour, heavy cream

Reflecting on One’s Roots and Looking Ahead

I’ve been in Malaysia for the last couple of days now, and have been stuffing my face with all the local delicacies I could get my hands on. It truly is incredible how good something can taste when people spend their whole lives perfecting a handful of dishes. For example, there is a fried carrot (or turnip) cake vendor who operates in the morning market in my neighborhood. It’s may not have the fancy plating techniques of high-end cuisine, but the depth of flavors found in the dish is incredible – it’s somehow savory, rich, chewy, fluffy, crunchy, spicy, and sweet all at the same time.

 

Other dishes, like the curry noodles, prawn noodles, wantan noodles, and claypot chicken rice featured below, contain remarkable flavors, and are packed full of history, such as the influence of the spice trade on Malaysian cuisine, and the amalgamation of different cultures in order to create such remarkable dishes.

I am also very thankful that I am able to usher in 2019 with my family, with good food, good wine, and lots of laughter. 2018 has been quite a turbulent and exciting year. I was personally touched by several events, which include the results of both the Malaysian general election (showing that democracy is still very much alive, and that patronage politics can be overcome) and the U.S. midterms (showing that the U.S. still celebrates diversity of all kinds), the drawbacks of the information age (and how valuable privacy is), and the #metoo movement, which highlights a large problem that still persists in our society. I also made the decision to strive for better work life balance, better appreciate my friends and family, and focus on finding a purpose I find meaningful that I can work towards. I have accomplished some goals, achieved some successes, and experienced some failures. Nonetheless, I am content with what I have achieved in 2018 (which include, among other things, starting this blog to better reflect on what matters most to me and to write about food!)

Goodbye 2018 – and welcome 2019! I can’t wait to see what you have in store for me.

BtB (Back to Basics) in AirBnB.

Being an international  / non-resident alien (USCIS definition) / resident alien (IRS definition), I’ve always found Thanksgiving to be a wonderful celebration. I think it has something to do with the fact that it celebrates two of my favorite things in life – family and food. Given that my family is a 24 hour flight away, I usually spend Thanksgiving with friends / eating other people’s turkey. However this year, my family decided to jet all the way from across the world from multiple locations to celebrate Thanksgiving with meand take advantage of being close to 5th Avenue during Black Friday.

Of course, it would have been really convenient if they had chosen to actually be in Boston (which is where I live / keep my cooking supplies) during Thanksgiving itself. However, because 5th Avenue > Newbury Street (sorry Boston folks – you know my heart belongs to the big apple), we decided to improvise and make do with whatever utensils our AirBnb could provide us with. Of course, I considered packing a roasting tray, a couple containers of herbs and spices, (my brother actually brought his chef’s knife from Portland, OR), but eventually decided against it. I decided to use simple cooking techniques and seasoning in order to make the ingredients shine.

Basically, I had limited myself to salt, pepper, olive oil, and some paprika (there has to be heat somewhere). First, came the duck. Salt, pepper, olive oil and paprika, and rub it all around the duck. Below is a video of the duck post-marination, being carefully placed on the tray (I eventually had to swap it out for the glass container after the duck fat dripped out of the tray, started to smoke, and triggered the fire alarm in our AirBnb. This went on to happen another 10 times or so).

Besides the duck, there were of course sides. Some vegetables are easier to make than others. When you are limited to only the four ingredients above, I’d recommend asparagus and butternut squash to provide some added color (I wanted Brussels sprouts, but was veto-ed by my family).

Of course, we also had to prepare the stuffing, which had some bread, sausage, carrot, celery, chicken stock. Thank goodness the oven was big enough to hold 4 different items in it at the same time.

Finally, the dessert from Magnolia Bakery (even though I bought this, I still had to bake this in the oven so I think it counts).0aded86b-0776-4bdd-b08c-69de125b498f

Overall, given the limited amount of ingredients / utensils, I’d say we had a very delicious and bountiful Thanksgiving. Another meal well done!

Baking Bananas

One of the first things I have ever learnt how to bake when I was a kid is the ever-glorious banana bread. Soft, moist, tasty, and having a delicate balance between savory and sweet. I still remember saving up RM0.50 in order to purchase one from my school canteen when I was 7 years old. It was quite the incredible snack!

Of course, one of the funniest mistakes I recall making when making banana bread was using bananas that were simply not ripe enough. It’s insufficient to have just yellow bananas – they need to be turning brown / getting soft because that’s when the sugar starts forming. So imagine my facial expression when on banana bread day, I realized that banana looked like this.

img_5270

Sure, they were ripe enough to eat. But were they ripe enough to be banana bread? That was the question. So I sat staring at the bananas and I realized that I had an economic dilemma in front of me. Do I wait another day or so for the banana to ripen up further, or do I risk it and chuck it into my batter? Is the disutility suffered from eating a less-delicious banana bread greater or smaller than the disutility suffered from having to wait a day or two to eat a better banana bread?

Of course, after pondering this question for about 30 seconds, I immediately whipped out my phone and googled “ways to quickly ripen bananas.” And that’s when I found the cooking technique that long eluded me – how to play god and speed up the banana aging process.

After 300F and 20 minutes, we had the following images in quick successions: img_5271img_5272img_5296

It turns out – baking it slightly will turn the banana skin black, but the banana fruit ripe.

And there you have it! How to bake a banana in order to bake banana bread.

*PS: The last image was taken less than 24 hours after it was done. I really should remember to take photos immediately when I’m done with my food, or risk the belly wrath of house guests / roommates.

When the Cookie Crumbles

So most (if not all) of my food-related posts involve my triumphs in the kitchen and a little bit of #instafilter. It can be really satisfying to see the fruits of your labor pay off in the form of wide smiles, a tasty meal, and a good gram’. Yet, sometimes, kitchen mishaps do occur. I was scrolling through some old photos the other day, and I noticed a couple of photos documenting how spectacularly far off the end result was from the desired outcome. Exhibit A and B:

img_5184img_5087

At the top, we have the supposed “Cheesy Baked Hash Brown Patties” that just did not hold it shape (I’m still convinced this was a recipe flaw), and the second was just a disastrous attempt at a pastitsio, a Greek lamb pasta bake dish that not only spectacularly fell apart when I took it out of the oven, it was borderline inedible because I was too heavy handed with the cinnamon.

Kitchen failures do happen from time to time – but amidst the trash of inedible food waste caused by a series of poor decision, comes some fairly valuable lessons about cooking, and life in general.

Cooking Lesson 1: Be very careful with cinnamon – especially if you’re not planning to put it with baked goods. Otherwise, your facial expression wouldn’t be too far off from people who attempted the cinnamon challenge.

Life Lesson 1: Sometimes less is more – focus on doing something right, rather than doing lots of things.

Cooking Lesson 2: Make sure you squeeze dry the shredded potatoes before you attempt to construct a hash brown, otherwise the water content from the potatoes will wash the cheese out, leading to a puddle of watery cheddar on the pan tray that took a lot of scrubbing to come out (the instructions / video did not include this step).

Life Lesson 2: Don’t always believe what you see – think if a statement makes sense before following it.

Guess the crumbs taste good even when the cookie crumbles (as long as they don’t fall to the floor).

 

 

Class Pas(ta)

When an old friend decides to drop into town after approximately 4 years, there’s only one way to properly welcome her back to Boston – by inviting our mutual friends over and teaching them how to make pasta! I didn’t have time to cook the whole dinner myself. I wanted to take the opportunity to show my friends how to make fresh pasta from scratch. Pasta, in all honesty, is one of the most incredibly easy things to make from scratch. With nothing more than flour, eggs, salt, a dash of olive oil, and some patience, you can create some truly incredible dishes, from scratch and super tasty! A how-to video by Basics with Babish is all you need to get started! (his videos are incredible – really inspires me to be a full time professional and full time chef).

It was quite simple really – once you’ve mixed the dough and let it rest, you use the pasta machine and watch the magic happen! There’s a rather ‘zen’ element involved in making pasta (I promise those were genuinely happy faces), and the fact that the pasta was the first dish to be finished is a testament to our masterchef-abilities. My favorite part of the entire pasta making class? The fact that everyone had a great time making it! I thought it was quite inspiring that everyone found it easy (it really is) and fun! As an added bonus, I got to sip on a little bit of extra wine and catch a breather from running around the kitchen.  It’s a little bit like work – there’s an upfront cost to investing in some of your colleagues, taking the time to nurture and teach them the ropes of the job. Once they are ready however, you empower them with the appropriate opportunities, and watch wonderful things unfold!

Featured below: the whole dinner crew, and the wonderful food everyone made!

On iCloud Backups and Family

So I’ve finally managed to move my old laptop’s backup over to my new device, and I couldn’t resist flipping through my old photos. Oh boy – it’s been a real long time since my Photos app cooperated with me. It was like going back in a time machine, couple of days at a time. I’ve come to really appreciate the ability to store roughly 20,000 photos from over a period of 9 years. That being said, I’m also sorely reminded of my younger brother Nick, whose currently a whopping 3,000 miles away. Admittedly, it’s a little better than the 10,000 miles that separates my parents and I, but not by much…

My brother, like me, decided to get as far away from home as he possibly could, the moment he could. However, that probably sums up the similarities between our life choices and aspirations. While he enjoys the mountains and mild rains of the pacific northwest, I enjoy the distinctly northeast seasons, be it the blistering cold winters, or warm blue-skied summers. While he enjoys the certainty of proofs and solutions in mathematics, I enjoy the perspectives and uncertainty in International Relations and Economics.  There is however, one redeeming factor that connects us as brothers. Our joint passion for food and cooking. While I don’t necessarily agree with some of his culinary choices (banana wrapped bacon? seriously?!), he is one talented cook, and I really draw inspiration from his bold choices from time to time.

Ladies and Gents, I present to you, Chef Nick and his many adventures! Looking forward to many more East / West coast collaboration!