25 November 2007

Mourning for the Turkey

When a couple of old friends came together to throw me a surprise birthday party at a cool flower-themed cafe, I was elated and thoroughly touched. At that very dinner, we made a date to celebrate Thanksgiving together just because. It was a convenient excuse to massacre a turkey, subject it to long periods of gentle heat, drown it with huge scoops of gravy and stuff ourselves with big forkfuls of the white/red meat as well as the accompanying stuffing, green bean casserole and salad.

Of course, one cannot forget the Pecan (Pee-ken, Per-con, Pee-kan) and Pumpkin Pies. To show how grateful I was for the surprise birthday dinner, I volunteered my home and to prepare the turkey, which would be the gargantuan task for the dinner.

Believe me, I was apprehensive right from the moment the words 'I'll do the turkey!' (which sounds really iffy in fact) left my lips. I was more apprehensive when I saw the big frozen Butterball Turkeys sitting in the freezer in Cold Storage. I was even MORE apprehensive when I plonked the defrosted, dripping turkey on my Mario Batali Pizza mat (a gift from my colleagues, and convenient for anything from dough to turkey!) and realised the real enormity of the bird.

But I kept my faith. All throughout slathering the bacon and sage butter in between the skin and the flesh of the turkey, I kept my faith. While fumbling with the twine that came with the turkey, to keep the thigh and wings in place, I kept my faith. While basting the bird with my big 'eye-dropper', I did so with tender loving care, believing that the more effort I put into the bird, the more it would reward me with a beautifully golden sheen.

Thankfully, all the hardwork paid off. As did the diligent flipping of the potatoes and parsnips that sat in all the terribly, sinfully, delicious drippings. It was a huge challenge, moving the turkey from the oven to the biggest plate I had. And thankfully, I had friends who knew how to carve the turkey efficiently while I fussed around the wines and water.

I was really worried that the turkey would end up dry, which it is notorious for. While being one of the healthiest meats, with the lowest calorie and fat count, the side effect for all that is usually tasteless meat. Brining the turkey from about 24-48 hours is known to resolve the dry-turkey, but I did not have the luxury of time for that, being too busy for the entire week before.

So the recipe I adapted from Epicurious (and no less), was one which also promised moist meat from the savoury butter sandwiched between the skin and the flesh of the turkey. I guess from all the rave reviews of the recipe, I was pretty confident that it wouldn't turn out half bad.

It certainly didn't turn out half bad, and was in fact really really good. This of course, has piqued greater interest in the entire brining process that supposedly yields even better turkey! With such a huge turkey, just a salad, a green bean casserole and a stuffing was all that was necessary to satiate everyone's hunger and palates.
I repeated this a couple of times throughout the night, and I'm going to state it here again: It felt so surreal discussing politics, Myanmar and the Shia Crescent in front of an exposed turkey bone. And perhaps I was getting high from all the white shiraz, beaujolais nouveau and chardonnay, but the more I looked at the naked carcass especially surrounded by the beautiful purple flowers, the more it resembled a funeral!

Of course, I brushed all those thoughts aside once the pumpkin and pecan pies emerged. The recipe for the pumpkin pie was also gotten from Epicurious. And despite a failed attempt, my friend admirably perservered! He was a little late, but I was truly touched. Faced with that situation, I believe I would have just copped out and run to the nearby bakery for a ready-made pie or cake. He kept to his word and didn't arrive without a homemade pumpkin pie in tow.

As the night wore on and the laughter got considerably louder, possibly from all the freely flowing wine, and as we debated about the proper pronunciation of PECAN, I couldn't help glowing with joy. It was a wonderful feeling of contentment. That very moment epitomised my motivation for hosting dinner parties. Admittedly, these can be tiring, depending on how challenging the menu is, and whether it is a potluck or entirely cooked from scratch.
But listening to concurrent conversations over the dinner table and watching plates of food get passed around, knowing that people are comfortable and happily full - few other occasions can beat this.

18 November 2007

A Shoulder of Lamb

Other than the big four - Chicken, Duck, Beef and Pork, I've hardly tried cooking any other meats. So when I go to the market, I hesitate approaching mutton and lamb sellers for fear of getting cheated. I can't tell my mutton from my lamb and looking rather inexperienced, I won't be surprised if I've already been fleeced of a tidy sum of money. I've stopped going to the market for lamb or mutton, more because I'm a little paranoid about how the meat had been treated than being worried about my purse strings.

So I look elsewhere for my lamb. Green Grocer of course had a variety of cuts. Maybe it is because I have a penchant for all things very small (yes, certain parts of me could afford to be smaller too), among the variety of meats and cuts, I was lured to the mini lamb shoulder roasts. However, seeing how it was pre-marinated, I opted for the Grain-fed Lamb Shoulder Roast instead. If I was going to roast a lamb, I wanted to do it properly without cutting any corners. The pre-marinated version would come in handy for lazy days, but then again if I'm lazy I'm unlikely to even bother popping the lamb into the oven for about an hour, which is how long mine took me.

While diligently researching for a reliable way of cooking the lamb shoulder, I must admit I contemplated using it for another recipe that didn't call for lamb shoulder, until I felicitously spotted a recipe in Damien Pignolet's French. It used easily accessible ingredients and wasn't at all fussy. While time consuming, all the time is just in the waiting. Between popping the lamb shoulder in and until the lamb was medium done, I had sufficient time to prepare a whole pot of veal stock (which of course also required little effort), and slowly concoct an Asian salad dressing just because I was feeling inspired.

I used to shy away from preparing lamb using any method other than stewing simply because I felt that achieving the perfect doneness would be a huge challenge. The traditional press-test is not the most reliable (I really think I have artificially tough palm flesh, being a tennis player) and it is almost impossible trying to determine how pink the juices of the lamb is against the very unhelpful grey background of my roasting pan.

But armed with my meat thermometer, I felt invincible! It was simply a matter of sticking the tip into the thickest part of the meat and watching the needle steadily creep up to 70 degrees celcius. And for anybody trying to roast a lamb for the first time, this recipe would be as good as any to start with. The caramelised garlic was mushily sweet, while the chopped parsley was a refreshing interlude amidst mouthfuls of gamey lamb.

As the Grain-fed Lamb Shoulder from Green Grocer came wrapped in some elastic-twine netting, I just had to slip it off for the stuffing, then reuse the netting for the cooking process. It certainly saved me the hassle of buying twine. So if you have twine and a meat thermometer, you're already two-thirds of the journey towards a delicious Roasted Lamb Shoulder stuffed with Garlic and Parsley.

Roast Lamb Shoulder with Confit Garlic, Parsley and Herbes de Provence
From Damien Pignolet’s French
Serves 4 Yuan Family Members or 6-8 normal appetites

15 cloves garlic, unpeeled
Olive oil
4 bunches curly-leaf parsley, leaves plucked and washed
2 boned shoulders of lamb, without necks – about 450g each
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tsps herbs de Provence
300ml chicken stock or water (I used veal stock)
½ bunch curly-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Put unpeeled garlic into small saucepan, adding enough olive oil to cover and slowly heat, using a thermometer to check the temperature: try to maintain oil at 70 degrees celcius (I think 60-65 would be sufficient) until the garlic is soft, about 30-40 mins.

It is important that they do not begin to fry. Set aside. When cool, drain and peel the garlic, reserving the oil [which may be used within 2 days for sautéing potatoes].

Blanch the parsley leaves in boiling salted water for a few minutes until soft. Drain and refresh in cold water then squeeze dry and chop roughly. Set aside.

Lay the lamb shoulders skin-side down on a bench. Scatter lightly with salt, pepper and herbs. Distribute the garlic cloves and parsley between the shoulders and roll up each into a neat sausage shape, securing with twine at 3cm intervals.

Preheat oven to 130 degress celcius. Heat 2 tbspns olive oil in a roasting tin and brown the seasoned shoulders over moderate heat then remove. Discard the fat in the pan, place a roasting/cake rack inside then put the lamb shoulders on top. Transfer to the oven and pour the stock into the tin.

Roast for about 1.5 hours or until the juices run faintly pink (or like in my case, until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest section reads 70 degrees celcius). Check occasionally and add a little water if the stock has evaporated. Transfer to the warmed platter, loosely cover with foil and allow to rest for 20 mins (I skipped this step and nothing major happened).

Strain the stock into a small saucepan and bring to simmer, skimming to remove the fat. Remove the twine from the lamb and carve into 5mm-thick slices across the width of the shoulders.

To serve, moisten the meat with a little stock and scatter with the chopped parsley.

12 November 2007

Online Green Grocers

Some time back, Chubby Hubby had posted a shout-out calling for people who wanted to be the first to try new things in the food scene. I didn't even have time to think before I found myself composing an email to him voluntering myself for it.

Then last month, I received a very exciting email followed by 3 $50 vouchers to spend at Greengrocer. Within minutes of opening my mail, I went online to browse through the online grocery store. And within seconds, I was sending the link to a couple of my closer friends who would understand that I get easily excited by good quality tinned crabmeat (think of all the effort and time saved), fresh oysters, frozen scallops (I know, I know, but where else for the good stuff with roe?), veal bones, lamb shoulder...... you get the drift.

As there was a $30 delivery charge for purchases below $150, I had to use up all the credits at once. So I planned for a big, indulgent dinner and what better day than my dad's birthday? Being a big fan of seafood and red meat, choosing what to buy for my dad should have been pretty easy but it wasn't as there was too much variety!

One of the easier choices though was the oyster. I went straight for the largest - 105mm, which was really huge. I forgot that I had greedily ordered 2 dozen, so when the package arrived with ice-packs and all, I had to struggle for a while, making space in the fridge and making sure every single one of them fit into the chiller.

I bought an oyster knife from pantry magic just for the occasion, did my fair bit of research on the best way to shuck an oyster, then passed on the knowledge AND the oyster knife to my brother to work through all 24 oysters. So that part was easy.

Initially, he took a fair amount of time shucking just one oyster but slowly got the hang of it and managed the rest with little mess. He got increasingly excited the quicker he pried open each oyster, declaring that we had to have an oyster party just for the cousins whom we could picture enjoying every minute shucking the oysters to unveil each glorious jewel.

I had planned for the oysters to be done 4 ways. One was served neat, with nothing but its own creamy juices and the taste of the sea. Two were served with lime granita, that was time consuming but incredibly easy to make and yielded amazing results. I got this idea from Anderson Ho's Menu Degustation and it has officially become my favourite way of eating fresh oysters.

The ultimate for me used to be a Virgin Mary Oyster Shooter (pictured above in foreground) - a combination of tomato juice, tabasco sauce, worcesterchire sauce, lemon juice and salt. But the Kalamansi lime granita was sweet, tangy and tres refreshing. When paired with the plump, creamy oyster, it was a wonderful harmony of flavours and textures.

I decided to have deep-fried oysters as well, even though I'm usually averse to deep-frying, not just because it makes my entire kitchen slippery as hell, but also because it wastes a ton of oil. But I decided I need more diversity and smoking my own oysters would have to be a whole new project for another time. Flipping through The Cook's Book, I spotted a Japanese Beer Batter from Hisayuki Takeuchui, that looked perfect for the job. The recipe was for prawn tempura, but it looked like it could be easily used for oysters too. The batter was simple enough and just needed a Japanese beer, such as Asahi, an egg and a little sifted flour.

My brother, not a big fan of raw oysters, understandably enjoyed this the most. I sprinkled a little of Tetsuya's Truffle Salt that I got from
Culina after comtemplating using matcha salt instead. The oysters were cooked just long enough to still be soft under the light and crisp batter. I didn't need to time the deep-frying as once the batter started to brown, the oysters were just about done. It did not shrivel down into miniscule pieces of overcooked oysters encased in a crisp brown shell, and instead remained succulent beneath the fried batter where there was a perceptible presence of fermentation and yeast.

Although you think I would have learnt my lesson by now, after the many dinners I've hosted, I still have plenty of room for improvement when it comes to planning for them. For example, I had not decided what the exact menu would be on the day of the dinner itself. I just knew my fridge was well stocked with exciting ingredients for me to play around with.

One of which was the tinned crabmeat. Okay, I can already hear some of you muttering words of disagreement. How could I even stoop so low as to resort to canned crabmeat? That'd be like saying that canned salmon is as good as the real stuff. But have you ever tried killing your own crab, steaming it and extracting the flesh? It takes too much time, effort and needs more than a pair of hands. Plus, I NEEDED to spend that $150 at GreenGrocer anyway.

When the crab cakes were put together in a flash and left to sit in the fridge until it was ready to be deep-fried and served, I couldn't stop patting myself on the back for the decision well made. The crabmeat may not have been the freshest, but these were decent looking chunks of crab claw meat that were sufficient for the crabcakes.

I referred to Chubby Hubby's recent post on crab cakes, for the recipe by Teage Ezard in Lotus. It was a sound recipe, except I made extra-large ones for each of us and dipped them in flour, egg and panko crumbs before deep-frying for that extra crunch. He was right when he said that they compact and firm like Thai Fishcakes. I would actually prefer something more fluffy and may tweak the recipe a little in future. Still, served with an avocado sauce made from avocado puree, yogurt and lemon juice, the huge crab cakes were very satisfying.

I served the crab cakes with a pair of scallops. One was simply wrapped in bacon before being pan-fried, while the other was seared and placed on a spoonful of homemade onion jam. Scallops are probably the simplest dishes to prepare, easy to perfect with just some careful watching over. Now if only we could get some proper, fresh scallops. A colleague shared with me how she tried fresh scallops at a discreet Japanese eatery at one of the coasts along Australia (Melbourne?) and never looked back.

The last exciting item of the day was the wagyu beef, cubed. When I saw the beautiful marbling I was enthralled and couldn't stop thinking of what to do with it. The fastest way, of course, to find for a recipe involving any random ingredient you have, is to search for it on the internet. For this, I always consult Epicurious not just because it is easy to navigate but also because they have priceless reviews from other users who have tried the recipe before. I can then gauge how much risk I would be taking by using the recipe.

I thought I would take advantage of their cube-shape to make baby kebabs. So the
Grilled Steak Kebabs with Orange and Hoisin Glaze from Epicurious really came in handy. I simply replaced the sliced oranges with halved kumquats, and replaced the frozen orange concentrate with some simmered orange juice. The ridiculously simple marinade complemented the deliciously fatty beef cubes and the wonderful meaty smell hung in the air long after dinner. Reminiscing about that smell, I think it's something I actually wouldn't mind having in my home all the time.

My family still talks about THOSE oysters. They were tremendously good and unbelievably reasonable, so much so that we're thinking of getting another batch to share with our relatives for Christmas. And for that, I doubt $150 worth of oysters would be sufficient. My cousins will definitely have a ball of a time shucking their own oysters. The only problem is that they don't deliver on weekends, so if our Christmas gathering falls on a weekend I'm going to have to figure out how to stuff 100 oysters into my tiny fridge and keep them alive for 2 whole days!

Lime Granita
Adapted from Anderson Ho's Menu Degustation

150ml water
75g sugar
150ml Kalamansi Lime Juice


Add sugar to boiling water and stir until sugar dissolves then leave to cool to room temperature.

Add 150ml of sugar syrup to lime juice, stir and pour into a shallow dish (I used a shallow Pyrex glass dish).
Place in freezer, scraping the surface every hour until a homogeneously fluffy consistency is achieved. (Allow at least 3 rounds of fluffing for best results)

04 November 2007

Peas In A Pod

For late night snacks when hunger creeps up and when I know it'll be a while before I can snuggle into my sheets, there are a couple of things I resort to. Yogurt with muesli; milk with cereal; fruit; almond biscuits; trail mix of assorted nuts and dried fruits; spoonfuls of P&J (when I get supremely desperate); unsuspecting packets of chips lying around; weetabix, dry; instant noodles; baked beans straight from the can (I know, I know) etc......

Believe me, it gets worse.

A couple of weeks ago (or more, time passes too quickly when there's plenty of work to do), I had an amazing lunch at Tampopo, a great ramen place within Liang Court, with my colleagues. We then trooped around Meidi-ya for a spot of shopping. We didn't end up with much except for a packet of yummy chocolate wafer snack. However, I had a eureka-moment when we passed by the frozen goods section. D mentioned that she loved Edamame especially as a snack at night.

I don't know why, but I never looked at Edamame that way before. I had packet stashed in my freezer from a Japanese dinner long ago, and we all know that the freezer is this miracle box that's cold and immortalises food, which means that they were/are still perfect for consumption. Edamame had always been a prelude to something better - a cheap sushi feast at Sushi Tei/Sakae Sushi or a luxurious multi-course Japanese dinner that would span a few hours with some great company.

So when I put the kettle on, and a pot over fire, taking my packet of frozen edamame out at 1130pm last night, I was worried that my body, by conditioned reflex, would feel even hungrier and expect something more after that. In my worry, I guess I might have grabbed an additional handful (or two) of edamame to pop into the boiling water.

3 minutes passed, I strained the beans and dunked them into some ice cold water to speed up the chilling period as well as to regain their grass-green beauty. Evidently, they didn't require much time from start to finish. I crumbled a pinch of Maldon Sea Salt all over, being certain that the beans would get a much needed boost from their oceanic friends.

Eventually, I realised my fears were unfounded. The beans were perfect on their own. They popped out easily from their pods and made for a guilt-free yet fulfilling snack. I lounged on my carpet with one of my favourite magazines, with holiday plans flooding my mine with beautiful imagery, enjoying my edamame with Moka running amok around me. For a brief moment, life was really perfect the way it was.
After my hunger was satiated, I rinsed my fingers in the bowl of lime-water and wiped them on my tea-towel, thinking to myself that there really wasn't anything more I could wish for.

01 November 2007

Unfortunately (or not), Halloween is not very popular in Singapore. Other than a handful of themed parties at the more popular clubs and pubs, or a flourish of pumpkins, broomsticks and spider-web decorations at expat-heavy hangouts, the rest of Singapore lives in oblivion to this very fun celebration.

If I had more time, I would have had a Halloween themed party at my place, full of ghoulish treats and carved mini-pumpkins for decoration. It would have been such a blast surfing the net for inspiration.

The next best thing I could do was spent a couple of nights baking cookies to distribute during Halloween. I recently attended J's Cookie Decorating Class at Shermay's and that gave me plenty of confidence to try something on my own. Though these were nowhere as pretty as those I witnessed J making, they were a good start. I generally try to stay away from overly fiddly diddly stuff as I'm not particularly artistic nor nimble. But I could not resist putting what I learnt into practice.

I did spend quite a bit of time baking and decorating these lemon and orange cookies. I'm also casualty to horribly stained fingers as I'm not a particularly neat and careful cookie decorator. I desperately need to get myself some proper hardy disposable piping bags seeing how the makeshift ones I created out of normal plastic bags spontaneously burst a couple of times, spewing burgundy cream all over the cookies.

But all that effort, working way into the wee hours of the morning, was worth it when I went around the office the next day distributing the cookies to unsuspecting colleagues. Some even questioned when Halloween was, or whether those odd looking things were edible!

I really wished everyone would get into the mood and allow Halloween costumes for work, trick or treating each other's division. That would be amazing fun, but it'd probably take a million ghoul years to realise (read: never).