Tagliatelle al ragù alla Bolognese

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What do you cook when the person you delight in sharing the pleasures of the table with most isn’t with you? Sardines on toast, baked beans on toast, cheese on toast—you get the idea. I actually lose my appetite when CH isn’t around. The only thing that inspires me to get into the kitchen when he’s away is the prospect of cooking the meals that we will share when he returns. This accounts for the supply of duck leg confit, pork prime rib and Italian sausage stew, and home made stocks crowding our refrigerator and freezer right now. This past week, I had a craving for home made pasta, but going through all that trouble for just one person didn’t make sense given that I was also juggling a bunch of projects at work.

Nonetheless, the prospect of having home made pasta some time in the near future kept me going. I decided to attempt Giuliano Bugialli’s tagliatelle al ragù alla Bolognese because I love tomato-based pasta sauces, but CH doesn’t (he prefers his sauces cream-laden). Bugialli’s ragù offers a happy marriage of both. It also reminds me of a similar sauce the original chefs at La Smorfia on Purvis Street served in their seafood spaghetti when they first opened (sadly, this great restaurant is now long gone). It also gave me the opportunity to pull out my new KitchenAid meat grinder for a spin. It is truly easy to use as long as you remember to cut the meat into long strips that will fit easily into the feeding chute. Semi-freezing the meat makes it easier to cut into strips and freezing the strips after that also makes grinding them easier.

It took significantly longer to prepare this dish than the spaghetti Bolognese I used to make as a university student (back then, my taste preferences were limited to Dolmio’s), but I must declare that it was well worth the effort. The blend of ground bacon (it was easier to find than pancetta and prosciutto), pork and beef provided a tasty mix of richness, smokiness and subtle meatiness. The long, slow-cooking made it tender and moist. And the inclusion of stock and cream tempered some of the astringency (if one can describe it as that) of the tomatoes in the sauce. In all, it tasted like an enthusiastic welcome home to me. I hope CH thinks so too! (He’s actually standing behind me, reading this over my shoulder, nodding vigorously; he had some for lunch today and he said it was “awesome!”)

 

 

Conehead

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We recently received a reviewer’s copy of Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter written by Phoebe Damrosch. Phoebe was part of Per Se’s opening team and her charming memoir offers an amusing peek at the goings-on behind the scenes of a high-profile restaurant opening. The sweet coming-of-age, romantic tale makes for engaging light reading and I zipped through most of the book on a couple of short-haul flights I had to take lately.

CoverServiceIncluded.jpg Early on in the book, the author talks about being interviewed for a position at Per Se and being grilled about Thomas Keller’s cookbook. Her interviewer offers her a little piece of advice. He tells her not waste time trying to make Keller’s famous cornets because they break easily, i.e. they’re ridiculously delicate. The salmon cornets appear as the very first recipe in The French Laundry Cookbook and are also the first things guests are served at both of Keller’s high-end establishments. Naturally, Damrosch promptly tries to make the cornets, despite not having the stencil, moulds and Silpats called for in the recipe. The results are disastrous but make for very good and humourous reading. (She does attempt the recipe again later, after acquiring the requisite tools, and manages to produce a couple of usable cones.)

Inspired by her hilarious tale, I attempted the recipe too. The fabulous thing about The French Laundry Cookbook is that while its recipes are ridiculously elaborate, if you have the time and patience to follow them, you do end up with pretty tasty dishes. I have to admit that while Phoebe deviated from the actual recipe (making do with whatever she had), I followed the instructions religiously (that’s just the way I am; CH calls me “anal” but I still love him). Despite this, I still managed to screw up the first batch because I baked them for too long before I rolled them. But with a little patience, I did eventually end up with exactly 24 usable cones. Our guests enjoyed them so much (CH made his trio of tuna tartares to go into them) that we decided to make them again. This time around, we opted to serve just one cone per person (because I don’t have a death-wish) and filled it with CH’s salmon tartare. Yum! This recipe isn’t for the faint-hearted, but the pleasure your guests are bound to get from tasting these bite-sized bits of fun more than makes up for it.

Service Included goes on sale in the United States on 25 September 2007.

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Cornets
Adapted from a recipe from The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller
Makes approximately 24

¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 ounces unsalted butter, softened but still cool to the touch
2 large egg whites, cold
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds

First, you’ll need to create a circular stencil. I cut a square of thick plastic from a folder and cut out a 4-inch circle (you throw the circle away). You will also need (ideally) two Silpats that fit into two baking sheets, and cornet moulds (I bought mine at Phoon Huat).

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius (400 degrees Fahrenheit).

In a medium bowl, mix the flour, sugar and salt together. In a separate bowl, whisk the softened butter until it is completely smooth and mayonnaise-like in texture. Given the heat in Singapore and in my kitchen, I found it easiest to whisk the butter in my KitchenAid. Using a stiff spatula or spoon, beat the egg whites into the dry ingredients until completely incorporated and smooth. Whisk in the softened butter by thirds, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary and whisking until the batter is creamy and without any lumps. Transfer the batter into a smaller container (this will make it easier to work with).

I’ve found it useful to refrigerate the batter for 10 minutes before I use it (again, this may be due to the fact that I work in a really hot kitchen).

Place the stencil in one corner of the Silpat. Scoop some of the batter (I use a smidgen more than a level teaspoonful) and spread it in an even layer over the stencil. An offset spatula is useful for the spreading process. Run the spatula over the stencil to remove any excess batter. This takes practice and patience, but it isn’t rocket science. Lift the stencil and repeat the process (leave 1½ inches between the cornets). I find that I can only handle four circles at a time. You might wish to work with more. Sprinkle each cornet with a pinch of sesame seeds.

Place the Silpat on a heavy baking sheet and bake for 4-6 minutes or until the batter is set and you see it rippling from the heat. I stopped looking at the clock after awhile. You’ll learn to work out when it’s ready simply by looking at them. The cornets do ripple at the edges and you want them to have a crepe-like pliability when you take them out.

Remove the pan from the oven and flip the cornets with a spatula. Roll each cornet around a mould to create a cone. To do this, place the tip of the cone at the lower left edge of the cornet, roughly at 7 o’clock on a clock face. Fold the bottom of the cornet up and around the mould and carefully roll upwards. It should remain on the sheet pan as you roll. Repeat with the rest of the cornets. Roll each one as quickly as you can because the metal moulds conduct heat rapidly and you’ll burn your fingers. Arrange the rolled cornets seam side down on the sheet pan.

Return the cornets, still wrapped around the moulds, to the oven and bake for another 3 to 4 minutes to set the seams and colour the cornets a golden brown. Remove the cornets from the oven and allow them to cool slightly. Remove the cornets from the moulds and cool on paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the batter. Be sure to let the Silpat and baking sheet cool before using them again.

The cornets can be stored for up to two days in an airtight container.

Canine comfort food

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It seems like all the dogs in my life are currently not in the pink of health. Just before we left for our month-long trip, Brando, my longhaired mini-dachshund god-dog (yes, I’m referred to as his “Auntie Mom”) suffered from a nasty back problem and had to get an emergency operation. It was heart-wrenching seeing him at the animal hospital, crying from fear and pain. I had decided, then, to bake him some peanut butter cookies to cheer him up (if you’re a regular reader of J’s blog, you’ll realise that Brando is a bit of a canine foodie) and picked up the ingredients I needed at an organic store. But a whole bunch of things got in the way of my baking.

Now, many weeks later, our much-better-suited-to-a-temperate-climate golden retrievers have come down with a nasty case of scabs. The poor things have been shaved and now look like sad, skinny, shorn sheep. Sascha, the vainer of the two, spends her days looking mournfully at her reflection in our bedroom mirror. She also has an icky spot on her front left paw that she has been licking. So to add insult to injury, we have had to cover that one paw with a dog bootie. She is a rather strange sight to behold. Of course, being the unsympathetic parents that we are, we’ve taken to calling her “Michael Jackson”. Unfortunately, Sascha doesn’t see the humour in that. In fact, she has taken to giving me decidedly dirty looks.

With two moping dogs in my apartment and another one slowly regaining the use of his back legs upstairs, I felt that it was time to make some time to bake those peanut butter cookies. To be honest, they took very little time to make. I mixed the dough just before I went to bed, and popped the cookies in the oven the following evening. However, I was rather amused that as they baked, Chubby Hubby kept commenting on the delicious peanutty aroma that filled our apartment. He was very upset that I didn’t make him a batch with sugar in them.

These little pick-me-ups are my way of giving my favourite pooches some edible hugs while they are recovering from their various boo-boos. I hope your dogs enjoy them too!

Poochie peanut butter pick-me-ups
Makes 70 cookies

230 grams whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
260 grams natural peanut butter
1 cup (225millilitres) milk

Combine the flour and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Whisk to combine.

In a separate bowl, combine the peanut butter and milk. Whisk until evenly combined. It should have the texture of a thick milkshake.

Add the peanut butter and milk mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix well and knead until it becomes a uniformly mixed ball of dough. Wrap tightly with clingfilm and refrigerate overnight.

Working with half of the dough at a time, roll it out on a lightly floured surface to a 6-7 centimetre (1/4 inch) thickness. Using a 4-centimetre wide cookie cutter, cut out shapes. Roll the dough scraps together and repeat. Continue rolling and cutting the remaining dough. As you cut the cookies, place them on a baking tray. Freeze them for 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius (I use the oven fan when I bake these cookies).

Place the cookies about 2 centimetres apart on a lined baking sheet. Bake them for 10 minutes or until they are lightly browned. Cool them on a rack before storing them in an airtight container.

Green salad

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It’s unquestionably green, although I’m not quite sure why it’s called a salad. Our dear friend D has often spoken of his paternal grandmother’s green salad. It is something that his family serves at every Thanksgiving and Christmas meal. The subject first came up a few years ago when we discussed the idea of organizing a potluck meal where each guest would contribute a dish that was a family specialty or part of a family tradition—something that we looked forward to eating on special occasions. I have to confess that when D described the green salad of his childhood (a combination of lime jelly, pineapple, whipped cream, mini marshmallows and cheddar cheese), I wasn’t particularly enthused by the thought of tasting it.

Our plans for that particular potluck meal fell through, but D had emailed his mom for the recipe and bought a box of lime Jell-O—the main ingredient in green salad. (I have since discovered that lime Jell-O can be difficult to find in Singapore. D insists that it has to be made with Jell-O and no other brand.) When D moved back to the US in late 2004, he left me with his box of Jell-O and a copy of his mom’s recipe wrapped around it, promising that he would return to make me his favourite green salad before the stuff expired in October 2005. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Or rather, he returned but never got around to making it.

His email print-out has sat in my recipe notebook for three years. While I wasn’t too crazy about the idea of the salad, I enjoyed reading his mom’s recipe and her careful deconstruction of cookbook recipe-speak (including descriptions of what “soft-peaks” and “fold” mean). To me, her recipe and D’s green salad capture the essence of what makes food so special: love. By that, I mean the unspoken affection that goes into preparing it and that grows out of receiving or savouring it. We tasted his green salad last Saturday. (By the way, even though it’s called salad, it’s a dessert.) My taste buds couldn’t quite get around the cheddar cheese, but I did finally get it. This wasn’t so much a gastronomic epiphany as it was an emotional one. It was akin to tasting someone’s memory and that can sometimes be much more special than tasting truffles or caviar.

The whipped cream tempered the sugariness of the jelly and the airiness of both the marshmallows and cream gave the dessert a mousse-like quality. Crushed pineapple took the edge off the brash lime flavouring and the cheddar brought a dairy richness and subtle savoury accent to the combination. I’ve noticed that most other recipes for green salad or holiday green salad call for cream cheese. The addition of cheddar may have been D’s grandma’s innovation. D’s green salad reminded me of a similarly flavoured ice lolly (minus the cheese) that my school friends often ate and prompted me to think of tuckshops and giggling schoolgirls. It also awoke my own dormant weakness for Bird’s Custard poured over cooked fruit (something I developed an affection for after having eaten a year’s worth of English school lunches as a young child). This may not be a sophisticated dish, but it hits a very specific sentimental spot.

More importantly, it is a dessert that will be added to my list of D’s favourites (alongside pecan pie and pumpkin pie). While I am constantly blown away by intricate and exotic dishes, oftentimes, it is the simplest ones that seem most genuine in their expression of a cook’s love. To know what your loved ones take the greatest pleasure in eating requires an intimate understanding of who they are deep inside. It thrills me when our friend BG wolfs down home made coleslaw and steamed chocolate pudding or when N continues to rave about the pork belly I once served him because it reminded him of a dish he ate as a child. I know that a simple steamed custard filled with minced pork (but not the lean stuff sold at supermarkets) and salted duck egg yolks or his mom’s banana cake makes my husband happy. I reckon that in the long run that’s what matters most.

Green Salad
Serves 6-8

6oz package of lime Jell-O
2 cups mini marshmallows
1 can (8oz) crushed pineapple in heavy syrup (I couldn’t find crushed pineapple and substituted it with a 567gram can of pineapple chunks. The chunks need to be finely diced.)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
½ cup or less grated cheddar cheese (I have to confess I omitted this in mine.)

Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the lime Jell-O. Stir until the Jell-O dissolves (a little over a minute). Stir in the marshmallows, pineapple and the liquid in the can. I did this in a large glass measuring jug.

Chill the mixture until it is soft-set. It should be very thick. I’ve seen other recipes state that it should be refrigerated for 1 to 1½ hours.

Whip the cream to soft peaks. Gently fold the whipped cream and cheese into the Jell-O mixture. Pour the mixture into a large serving dish (I opted for individual portions) and refrigerate until firm.

Pork roulade and minted coleslaw

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Everyday realities (such as having a job, running a business or writing a thesis) make it impossible for the average family to make every dinner party it hosts an elaborate one. There are occasions when all we’d like to do is spend some quality time catching up with friends we haven’t seen for awhile. And it’s so much nicer to do it at home, over a slow, simple meal and a nice bottle of wine. This week, I really wanted to squeeze in dinner with our friends V and BG because V is expecting and she’s due to have her baby anytime now. I hadn’t seen them both for ages and wanted to reconnect just before the whirlwind of activity the new addition to the family is certain set off.

PorkRoulade1.jpg For meals like this one, I tend to serve a roast or a stew as the main course simply because the former requires little effort and the latter can be prepared the weekend before and frozen. My favourite roast of the moment has to be the pork roulade available at Swiss Butchery. (No, they didn’t pay me to write this.) A slab of pork belly is butterflied, seasoned, stuffed with sausage meat, rolled up and tied. All I had to do was to place it in an oven preheated to 140 degrees Celsius and roast it for 2 hours. (Naturally, weeknight dinners have to start late. Pop the roast into your oven the moment you get in from work and plan for pre-dinner drinks and an appetizer.) I’ve made this twice and it turned out beautifully on both occasions. The pork is deliciously savoury and succulent without being overly fatty (this particular one had a spicy sausage stuffing). Leftovers are fabulous in a sandwich or served with baked beans and a fried egg the following day. Just call two days ahead and the charming chaps at Swiss Butchery will have a roulade prepared for you. If your order costs $75 or more, they’ll even deliver your meat to you (for regular home delivery, just call one day ahead). A 1.5kg roulade was perfect for four of us (we had a small pasta to start with and dessert, which our dear friend L bought from PS. Cafe).

I was inspired by a yummy coleslaw I’d tasted at a café earlier in the week and opted to pair the roulade with minted coleslaw. Since coleslaw actually develops better flavour over time, it’s something that can be made first thing in the morning and left in the refrigerator until dinnertime. The cold, crunchy coleslaw was a fabulous contrast to the roulade. I particularly enjoyed its sweet and tart flavours, and refreshing, minty top-notes.

Swiss Butchery
30 Greenwood Avenue
Singapore
Tel: +65 6468 7588

Minted Coleslaw
Adapted from a recipe in Real American Food by Burt Wolf and Andrew F. Smith
Makes 8 servings (but we wolfed down most of it between the four of us)

1 small head cabbage, outer leaves discarded
1½ cups grated carrots (about 1 large carrot)
1 cup golden raisins
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley (I prefer to use Italian flatleaf)
¼ cup white vinegar
6 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup canola oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Quarter the cabbage and trim off the core. Finely shred the cabbage (this can be done with a mandoline or food processor) and place it in a non-reactive bowl. Combine with the carrots, raisins, mint and parsley. I tossed the vegetables at this point to ensure that they were evenly mixed before the addition of the dressing.

Combine the vinegar, sugar and oil in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid. Shake well and season to taste. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss the slaw until it is well coated. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour before serving.

Puppy love

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Today, 2 April, our younger golden retriever, Alix, celebrates her fourth birthday. Friends have observed that we have a softer spot for our second dog. I guess I can’t help it. Alix is smaller than her older sister and inevitably gets less than her half of the back seat in the car because Sascha has developed a slick manoeuvre that ensures that she spreads herself across two-thirds of the space before she lets Alix jump up behind her. Alix doesn’t bark or make alarm-raising noises, so when her favourite soft-toy is forced to endure a lobotomy under the expert paws of Dr Sascha (which has happened innumerable times), I tend to only notice the catastrophe when it’s far too late; when the soft, fluffy innards of her teddy have been scattered across our bedroom. (Inspired by the Simpsons, we’ve taken to naming them Ted1, Ted2, etcetera; we must be up to Ted20 by now.) I’d walk into a room and find Alix either anxiously but silently rushing back and forth around the room, unable to “rescue” her teddy herself, or quietly nursing her headless toy.

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Don’t get me wrong, I adore Sascha too. But they’re both very different dogs. Alix unquestioningly follows Sascha’s lead. When we take walks, she automatically stops in order for Sascha to catch up. She prefers to walk alongside Sascha rather than the person who is walking her (yes, it’s bad training on our part). If Sascha were to break loose, she’d know how to find her way back. Alix wouldn’t.

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Last year, when Alix broke loose from her handler while CH and I were away, she didn’t find her way home. We knew that it wasn’t something she was likely to be able to do, which really made the possibility of being reunited with her pretty slim. I continue to be grateful that a wonderful gentleman named Andy picked her up, took care of her, and made an effort to get in touch with us when he heard about our lost dog posters. We can’t thank you enough, Andy! We deeply appreciate your generous act of kindness. Without your help, we wouldn’t be able to celebrate the fact that Alix has given us so much joy for nearly four years. Thank you.

alix_mom_small.jpgThis year, as a birthday treat I tried out a couple of recipes from the only cookbook we have for doggy edibles: the Three Dog Bakery Cookbook. Ginger’s Fourth of July Snaps were reasonably easy to make. They smelt very much like gingerbread and I loved the wee bit of added height the addition of baking soda gave them. The Poochie Pleasin’ Pretzels, however, didn’t quite turn out as promised (you’ll notice that they look more like breakfast rolls). It’s not a recipe I am planning to revisit any time soon. However, one of the best things about baking for your dogs is that they’ll adore just about anything you give them. They won’t tell you what they think you could’ve done better, and they’ll gobble up every last bite of your labour of love.

Ginger’s Fourth of July Snaps
Adapted from the Three Dog Bakery Cookbook
Makes 30 three-inch dog bones

¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup molasses (I prefer unsulfured molasses)
2 tablespoons honey
½ cup water
3 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons ground ginger
¼ cup raisins*
¼ cup chopped pecans**

*RAISINS ARE CALLED FOR IN THE ORIGINAL RECIPE, BUT SINCE THERE IS EVIDENCE LINKING THE INGESTION OF RAISINS WITH ACUTE RENAL FAILURE IN DOGS, YOU MIGHT WANT TO OMIT THEM.

** MOST NUTS ARE APPARENTLY NOT GOOD FOR YOUR DOGS. THEIR HIGH PHOSPHORUS CONTENT IS SAID TO LEAD TO BLADDER STONES. MACADAMIA NUTS ARE PARTICULARLY BAD FOR YOUR DOGS.  THEY HAVE BEEN FOUND TO CAUSE LOCOMOTORY PROBLEMS. YOU MIGHT WANT TO OMIT THEM TOO.

Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit). Combine the oil, molasses, honey and water in a bowl. By pouring the oil into the bowl first, you reduce the likelihood of the molasses and honey adhering to the bowl. Similarly, before you measure out the molasses and honey, coat your measuring cup or spoon with a thin layer of oil. This ensures that most of the molasses and honey will slide into the bowl rather than stick to your measuring tool. Stir to combine.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, raisins and pecans (if using, see notes above) . Whisk to blend evenly before pouring the wet ingredients into the dry mixture. Stir to combine.

On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough. It should come together easily. (A word of caution: this dough is meant to be pretty dry, as you can tell by the cracked surface of the finished product. Don’t be put off by it’s crumbliness. It will hold its shape.) Shape it into a ball. Cut a quarter of the dough and keep the rest of it under a damp kitchen towel. Roll out dough to ¼-inch thick then cut out shapes. The scraps can be gathered into a ball and rolled out again. If the dough feels a little too dry, spray a thin mist of water onto it before you knead it a little and roll it out. Repeat with the remaining dough.

I refrigerated the cut dough for 15 minutes before placing them on trays lined with Silpats. Bake for 15-20 minutes (don’t let them get too brown). Let them cool on a rack before storing them in an air-tight container.

DogPretzels_small.jpgPoochie Pleasin’ Pretzels
Adapted from the Three Dog Bakery Cookbook
Makes 14 to 16 large un-pretzel like rolls

1 package (2 ¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 ½ cups warm water (45 degrees Celsius or 110-115 degrees Fahrenheit)
1 tablespoon honey
4 cups plain flour
1 egg, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 190 degrees Celsius (375 degrees Fahrenheit). In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. The instructions are sketchy here. I added the honey after the yeast, stirred it and let the mixture stand until fine bubbles appeared on the surface of the liquid. Add enough flour to make a soft dough (I added all 4 cups). Knead for 6-8 minutes until smooth.

Here, the recipe proceeds directly into shaping the pretzels (which I did). But I suspect that allowing the dough to rise, punching it down and letting it rise again before I shaped them might’ve given me more pretzel-like results.

Pinch off about 2 tablespoons of dough for each pretzel. Using your palm, roll dough out into a 12-inch long, ½-inch thick rope. What they don’t tell you is that the dough is really sticky and having wet hands might make it a little easier to handle. Or perhaps additional flour might’ve helped? I’d just read in a Reinhart book that sticky dough won’t stick to wet hands, so I wet my hands. But I have to say that the dough was difficult to roll out. I rolled it between both palms (the book ambiguously states, “using the palm of your hand”, so I could’ve done it wrongly), letting gravity help it along.

Shape into pretzel twists and place on a baking tray lined with a Silpat. Brush with egg and bake for 20 minutes (I basically took them out when they turned golden brown). Allow to cool on a rack before storing in an air-tight container.

Big on bigoli

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Regular readers will know that I am a little obsessed with Chef Roberto Galetti’s Bigola Di Spinaci Al Brasato D’Anatra (homemade spinach noodles with a braised duck sauce). I could (and have) had a second portion of it for dinner in place of dessert. There is something extremely comforting, yet indulgent about it. After having played with his braised duck sauce recipe, I have taken to making large vats of it and freezing it in portions just enough for two. However, it has never quite tasted the same when it isn’t served with bigoli, the traditional pasta of Veneto which Chef Roberto pairs with his duck sauce. Traditionally, the long pasta has a thin hole running through the length of it (like bucatini). To make this pasta, one requires access to a bigolo, a hand-operated gizmo which every Venetian home used to have. Perhaps one day, I will get my hands on one. But I was thrilled to chance upon a recipe for bigoli all’anitra (bigoli cooked in duck broth) in Giuliano Bugialli’s Bugialli on Pasta which had instructions for making plain bigoli without the aid of a bigolo.

makingpasta_stirring.jpg I loved the idea that it called for lots of eggs and some butter (I’d never made fresh pasta with butter before). Bugialli’s instructions for making fresh pasta alone make his book well worth purchasing. The initial steps are common enough: make a well in the centre of your mound of flour and place all the ingredients in it. For the bigoli, I placed the flour in a large bowl, made the well, and added the salt, butter (which I had diced ahead of time) and milk first. I cracked the three eggs into a separate bowl and lightly whisked them with a fork. Then I added some of the egg into the well and used the fork to incorporate the flour from the inner rim of the well. This helped to prevent the liquid from overflowing. As I incorporated more flour into the dough that was taking shape, making sure that flour was also getting under the mixture so that it would stick to the base of the bowl, I gradually added more of the egg until all of it was incorporated.

makingpasta_kneading.jpg Once you are able to gather the mixture into a moist, shaggy ball of dough with your hands, remove it and set it aside. The remaining bits of dough and flour should go into a sifter. Sift the unincorporated flour onto a clean work surface. The bits of dough that remain in your sifter should be discarded. Bugialli says that they will not integrate into your wet dough and will cause lumps.

Next, knead the dough using the palm of one hand, folding the dough over with your other hand while making sure that it absorbs some of the leftover flour on your work surface. (Do not sprinkle flour over the dough.) By gradually incorporating more flour this way, you are better able to gauge just how much flour is needed in the pasta (depending on the flour you use and the climate you’re working in, the liquid to flour ratio can vary). Continue kneading for 2 to 3 minutes, absorbing the flour until the dough is no longer wet and all but 4 to 5 tablespoons of flour have been incorporated. You should end up with a ball of smooth, elastic dough. (It felt like fresh Playdoh.)

makingpasta_machine.jpgI covered the ball of dough with a damp kitchen towel while I set up my pasta machine. It was easiest to work with a quarter of the dough at a time. Flatten the dough portion with the palm of your hand so that it can fit between the rollers positioned at their widest setting. Roll the dough once, gently sweep one side of it over the remaining flour and fold the dough into thirds like a business letter (this means that you end up with a squat rectangle NOT an extremely skinny rectangle). Press down with your fingers so that the 3 layers are melded together. Pass the dough through the widest setting again. Repeat rolling and folding 8 to 10 times until the dough is very smooth and elastic. Next, stretch the dough by moving the rollers to a narrower setting (do not fold anymore). Flour the pasta sheet on both sides by drawing it across the flour on your work surface. Pass the dough through the rollers once. Move the rollers down a notch then pass the dough through the rollers once and sprinkle with a little flour. For the bigoli, this was pretty quick since the pasta needs to be kept 1/8 inch thick. Cut it using the narrower, taglierini cutter. Traditionally, bigoli is kept 15 to 16 inches long. You end up with a noodle that has an almost square cross section. Let the bigoli rest on clean kitchen towels until they are needed. I must confess that I eagerly cooked a batch of pasta in salted boiling water once I was done with cutting the sheets. I loved the rich flavour and bite of the noodles. Paired with Chef Roberto’s duck sauce, they tasted heavenly.

Bugialli’s book gives more detailed instructions (with illustrations) and has recipes for a slew of different fresh pastas.

Pierre Hermé’s Perfect Tart Dough

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You know, it does come quite close to perfection. The fact that it turned out right on my first attempt has already raised my esteem for Monsieur Hermé by quite a number of notches. I’m not sure what your experience with making tart dough has been like, but mine involved attempting every single pie crust/tart recipe in my possession. I chilled everything, froze half my butter, used shortening, played with pastry flour, and experimented with lemon juice. I stopped short of consulting the stars before I embarked on each tart-related endeavour. So, after working my way through a significant number of recipes, I finally arrived at Pierre Hermé’s Perfect Tart Dough (or pâte brisée). He literally calls it Perfect Tart Dough. And I can see why. It isn’t a classic pâte brisée, but I do adore the richness of this crust. It is crisp and flavourful, and equally delicious with a sweet or savoury filling.

For a quick lunch earlier this week, I sautéed some diced onion and oyster mushrooms in butter before tossing in an eighth of a batch of Chef Roberto Galetti’s Braised Duck Sauce (I tweaked it for more family-friendly portions by using 250g each of celery, carrots and onions, 1.5 kg or six duck legs, 850g or 2 cans whole peeled tomatoes, 400ml red wine, and just enough chicken stock to cover the duck legs; incidentally this sauce freezes well). Next, I grated some Parmigiano-Reggiano into it before spooning the mixture into pre-baked individual tartlets. Served with a small salad, it made for a satisfying meal.

Pierre Hermé’s Perfect Tart Dough
Adapted from Desserts by Pierre Hermé written by Dorie Greenspan, a book that I highly recommend.

370g unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (90ml) milk, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk, at room temperature, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 ½ cups (500g) all-purpose flour

Put the butter in the bowl of your KitchenAid fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on low speed until creamy. Add the milk, yolk, sugar and salt, and beat until the mixture is roughly blended. (At this point, the mixture will look curdled. Further mixing will not make it look any better, so stop after a minute or two.) With the mixer still on low, add the flour in three or four additions (if your mixer has a plastic pouring shield, use it). Add the flour steadily. There is no need to wait for the flour to be incorporated thoroughly after each addition. Mix just until the ingredients come together to form a soft, moist dough that doesn’t clean the sides of the bowl completely but does hold together. Don’t overdo it.

smallkitchenaid.jpgGather the dough into a ball and divide it into three or four pieces: three pieces for 10 ¼ inch tarts, four for 8 ¾ inch tarts. (With four discs, you should be able to make eight to ten 3 ½ inch tartlets.) Gently press each piece into a disk and wrap each disk in plastic. Allow the dough to rest in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or for up to 2 days before rolling and baking. At this stage, the dough can be wrapped airtight and frozen for up to a month.

For each tart, butter a tart ring and keep it close at hand. Work with one piece of dough at a time; keep the remaining dough in the refrigerator.

Working on a lightly floured surface, roll the dough between 1/16 and 1/8 inch thick, lifting it often and making certain that the work surface and the dough are amply floured at all times. I found that simply flouring the rolling pin was adequate (I rolled my dough on sheets of GladBake). Although the recipe cautioned that the rich dough might be difficult to roll, I found it relatively easy to handle; especially since it responded well to careful patching with scraps of unused dough.

The recipe proceeds directly to instructions for lining your tart ring. However, my un-airconditioned kitchen in the tropics makes this a bit of a challenge. I refrigerated the rolled out dough for 15-20 minutes before I fitted it into the tart ring. The regular rules apply: don’t stretch the dough as you line the ring; run your rolling pin across the top of the ring to cut off the excess; patch cracks with scraps. Prick the dough all over with the tines of a fork (unless you intend to fill the tart with runny custard or a loose filling) and chill for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator or freezer (I opted for the freezer). Repeat with the remaining dough if necessary.

To bake the crust, preheat the oven to 350 degree Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Line each crust with parchment paper or aluminium foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans or rice. To partially bake, bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until lightly coloured. If the crust needs to be fully baked, remove the parchment and pie weights and bake for another 5 to 8 minutes, or until golden. Transfer the crust to a rack to cool.

China House, Bangkok

Ever since my friend B described the specially designed contraption that the recently renovated China House restaurant at The Oriental, Bangkok, had commissioned just to roast and dry their lacquered (Peking) ducks and geese, I’ve been a little obsessed about visiting it. The perfect excuse presented itself last week when I spent a day in Bangkok meeting with Dr S and his wife V. As I was literally spending just one day in the city, circumstances demanded that we meet for lunch rather than dinner. I proposed that we have a light lunch at The China House. The double story restaurant is quite a sight to behold. Its exterior is clad with slabs of stacked slate and a long, protruding section lined with large windows invites you to peek into the kitchen (unfortunately, I was ill-placed to catch sight of the fantastical, fowl-twirling invention I had been told about). The street-level entrance takes you into a small space which has a ceiling lined with over a hundred red lanterns, making it a stunning introduction to a breathtakingly dramatic restaurant.

As I stepped further into The China House’s cool, dark interior, the first thing that caught my eye was its sexy Tea Apothecary which sits in a double volume space at the heart of the restaurant. Large canisters of Mariage Freres tea line the wall facing the entrance; it was a bit of a spiritual encounter for me. This is the first (and currently the only) place in Bangkok which serves 35 Mariage Freres teas (including two blends specially created for the hotel, the Oriental blend and the China House blend). I could be wrong, but it is also possibly the only place within a two-hour flight from Singapore which serves such a considerable selection of MF teas. I was determined to have tea in this alluring, intimate salon.

We were led further into the restaurant which has an Art Deco-inspired interior harking back to 1930s Shanghai. I love the private booths for two or four cocooned in red silk curtains. The cuisine here is modern Chinese in presentation but classical Chinese in flavour. Shanghai-based Singaporean chef Jereme Leung serves as its consultant. Since there were only three of us, we ordered a selection of dimsum and a Peking duck (a house specialty). What I enjoyed most about the dimsum were its clean, natural flavours and translucent, delicate skins. I could taste the subtly sweet meat juices in the shrimp and pork siu mai flavoured with salted duck eggs which had just enough fat to make it tender. And I relished the textures of the fine, hand cut fillings as we tucked into shrimp dumplings (har gau) and freshly made charsiew rice rolls (cheong fun) with coriander. We had avoided the “Bygone and Thai cuisine-inspired” dimsum selections because we really wanted to keep lunch simple and reasonably healthy, but I predicted that CH would order the slow braised pork belly served with butterfly shaped soft buns at the dinner he was planning to have there later in the week. The glutinous rice siew mai filled with minced pork and holy basil also sounded promising.

Sharing a whole Peking duck between three people is, in my opinion, a real treat. One gets just enough crisp, paper-thin duck skin to feel just a tad over indulged. Chef Kong suggested that we have some of the duck meat served finely minced in elegant little lettuce cups (sang choy bao). Although this is a fairly common dish, his version was deliciously refined. We ended our meal with more duck served shredded with eefu noodles (sublime comfort food in my books) before proceeding to the Tea Apothecary. I am quickly entering The China House onto my list of must-visits in Bangkok.

The China House
48 Oriental Avenue
Bangkok
Tel: 66 (2) 659 9000 Ext. 7650-1

Photos courtesy of The Oriental Bangkok 

A light, simple mushroom pasta

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For Chinese New Year, friends of ours gave us a lovely selection of locally cultivated mushrooms from Mycofarm. They were irresistibly beautiful. The tall willow mushrooms were lusciously brown and the Hiratake oyster mushrooms were a soft, almost suede-like shade of gray (oh, what I would give for a pair of shoes in that shade). The first-flush shiitakes were plump, meaty, fresh. Laid out in their paper box, the mushrooms looked like an edible bouquet. I was torn between just staring at them and actually tasting them.

shrooms.jpgI eagerly combed through Antonio Carluccio’s treasure trove of recipes in the Complete Mushroom Book (his guide to wild and cultivated mushrooms is a must-read), but couldn’t decide on a recipe. (I am still toying with the idea of buttery, individual tart cases filled with braised duck leg topped with mushrooms sauteed in salted French butter.)

Today, CH decided to use our stash of mushrooms in a pasta. Ordinarily, he would have chosen to add them to a carbonara, alfredo or some other rich, waist-enlarging sauce. While I do enjoy these sauces, I adore tomato-based sauces even more (he doesn’t). I’m also constantly asking him to make lighter sauces. While it may be okay for him to be a chubby hubby, I don’t want to become a super-sized spouse. To make his wife happy, CH decided to showcase our mushrooms in Tetsuya‘s light, tomato-based mushroom ragout accented with touches of Japanese flavour. Tossed with gorgeous saffron linguine, the dish was a sight to behold and yummy to boot. This simple recipe is a definite keeper.

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Tetsuya‘s pasta with a ragout of oriental mushrooms
from the Tetsuya cookbook

50g linguine
30g shimeji mushrooms, sliced
4 shiitake mushrooms, sliced
12 oyster mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sake
2 teaspoons mirin
1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
80ml chicken stock
1 tablespoon julienned parsley
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons peeled and diced tomato
1 pinch chilli powder
1 teaspoon black sesame seeds
chives, cut into 2cm lengths

Cook the linguine in plenty of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain and set aside. Sauté the mushrooms and garlic in the olive oil. Once the mushrooms have wilted, add the sake, mirin and soy sauce. Then add the chicken stock. When the mushrooms are cooked, add the pasta and parsley. Toss. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Add the tomato, chilli powder, sesame seeds and chives. Serve immediately.

(The mixed punnets of mushrooms are only available at 9 Seletar West Farmway 5. Tel: 6773 0377. But I am told that the individual varieties are available at NTUC, Cold Storage and Carrefour.)

A festive dish for family

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One of the meals I look forward to preparing each year is the dinner our family shares on the eve of Chinese New Year. I remember the frenzied research and rounds of rehearsal dinners I went through before I prepared my first reunion dinner four years ago. I must confess that I was crazily ambitious and aspired to incorporate traditional Shanghainese, Hokkien and Teochew dishes into my menu in order to honour my family’s various heritages. Then there was the attempt to cram in every auspicious ingredient I could get my hands on. Eight treasure duck? Done it. Lohan chai (Buddha’s vegetarian feast) with 18 ingredients? Attempted that. Shanghainese lion’s head? Yes, I’ve tried out the whole mix-the-minced-pork-in-only-one-direction technique. Trust me, that’s not the secret to those airy meatballs. Jiaozi (a kind of dumpling which is served at this time of the year because it looks like ancient Chinese money)? Let me know if you ever want a recipe for nouvelle foie gras jiaozi in double-boiled chicken consommé perfumed with Jasmine tea leaves. After all, a girl naturally hopes to impress her in-laws, no?

I guess, with age and some experience, one learns restraint. I’ve whittled what were once seven-course extravaganzas down to four this year (and since the fabulous J made dessert, I only really made three courses). It’s my shortest menu yet. I chose to revisit Thomas Keller’s “Macaroni and Cheese” (Butter-poached lobster with creamy lobster broth and mascarpone-enriched orzo) from The French Laundry Cookbook because I adore the depth of flavour you get from his magnificent lobster broth; and lobster, in any language, continues to be associated with luxury and indulgence. To temper the richness of the mac ‘n’ cheese, I paired Yoshii Ryuichi’s yuzu miso lamb chops with dashi-braised organic Japanese carrots, daikon and mizuna. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I figured that the yuzu would stand in for tangerines which are incredibly popular at this time of year because “jú” (tangerine in Mandarin) sounds very similar to “jí” (meaning auspicious or lucky).

But neither of these dishes were particularly traditional nor Chinese. To retain some element of tradition, I returned to a very simple, light and healthy dish: savoury custard. Made with rich, homemade chicken stock and covered with a reduction made from the same stock, it is a delicately elegant, yet powerfully flavourful canvas against which one may choose to showcase anything from steamed prawns to freshly picked crabmeat. We are very fortunate that a very generous, close family friend gives us pre-prepared shark’s fin and abalone as a gift every Chinese New Year. (Yes, I know some of you are tut-tutting. I don’t actively seek to eat shark’s fin, but I feel that if a living being has had its life taken from it for my dinner, then I should jolly well honour it with a dish worthy of its sacrifice.) I steamed the thick, whole fins in chicken stock with coriander, spring onions, a few slivers of young ginger and a splash of Chinese cooking wine. The abalone was thinly sliced and gently heated through with more hot chicken stock. Both the shark’s fin and abalone were placed on the custard and garnished with blanched bean sprouts. This was served with Chinese vinegar and ground white pepper. However, by changing the kind of stock (a Japanese dashi instead of chicken, for example) and the items you choose to place in or on the custard (mushrooms, minced pork, salted duck egg yolk), you’ll be able to create a host of dishes based upon this master recipe. It’s the culinary equivalent of a crisp white shirt. I hope you’ll find it as handy as I do!

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Chinese-style chicken stock
(Makes a little less than 4 litres)

2 kampung (free range) chickens
5 stalks spring onions
5 stalks coriander
3-4 slices young ginger
5-6 medium dried scallops
3-4 slices Chinese ham
Chinese cooking wine to taste

Skin the chickens and chop each one into six pieces. Discard the skin. Slice the spring onions and coriander into 5-centimetre lengths. Place all the ingredients in a large stock pot. Cover with 4 litres of water and bring to a boil over a small fire. Simmer for 2 to 3 hours or until the stock tastes flavourful to you. Strain and discard the solids.

Steamed custard
(Makes 6 small, shallow portions)

400 milliltres Chinese-style chicken stock
3 eggs
Light soy sauce to taste

Beat eggs with a pair of chopsticks taking care not to create too many bubbles. Combine with chicken stock and season with soy sauce. Strain through a fine sieve. I often strain it again as I pour it into individual dishes.

Divide equally between six shallow soup plates. Steam for 25 to 30 minutes. This really varies depending on how you steam them. I like placing them in my Miele steam oven set at 90 degree Celsius. When they are done, the custards should still be a little wobbly.

Chinese-style chicken stock reduction
I usually take the remaining stock and boil it until it reduces to a level of concentration that I find tasty and well-suited for the particular dish it is intended for. So I can’t really indicate how much reduction you will end up with. I like it best when it starts to develop a silky, almost gelatinous texture and deep, savoury flavour. You may wish to season it or add a little more Chinese cooking wine to taste.

To assemble, gently pour some reduction onto the surface of the custard (start from the side of the dish rather than the middle so that you don’t create tears on the surface of the custard) and garnish with ingredients of your choice.