Thom & Aimee

Two Hobbits. The Kitchen. The Garden. And trouble ensues.

Tag: cheese

The Long-(Un)expected Party

It’s been about a year since we last hosted a proper formal dinner and despite all the praise, we did not get down to holding more dinners. Since then, all word about the previous party became stuff of memories. But strangely enough, the occasion was briefly mentioned during a recent family gathering and an aunt who missed the last party wanted to experience it for herself.

To be honest, cooking for family could be a very stressful job. Expectations were higher and the pressure to perform was more intense than usual. Families tend not to mince their words, no matter how awful they sound. But we were never one to back away from a challenge. We were given about one and a half months to start preparing: the menu, the wine list, the tableware and the decor. This includes a choice of two main courses (a beef dish was a must) for over 26 guests. It wasn’t a 100 person catering event, but over twenty diners for a course-by-course meal was equally intimidating. And it didn’t help that some of the guests had dietary restrictions.

To be honest, we were very frenzied by the amount of work that was needed for this dinner. And we didn’t help ourselves by deciding on an elaborate menu complete with a pre-dinner cocktail. The fact that we had to use an unfamiliar kitchen was already daunting. Doing a site recce of the kitchen was the very first thing we did off the checklist, which gave us a better idea of how the cooking should be done. There were two kitchens: one was located outdoors where the heavy work was done, and the other was the dry area where preparation took place.

Equipment was checked – oven was not working, certain kitchen utensils were not available, there weren’t enough tableware to go around, and tables needed for plating. Then came the front of the house: guests would have to be split into a few tables, the number of service staff needed (yes, even that!), and how the decor will be put up in the house. At that point in time, the both of us were slightly frazzled but the weight of the whole situation hasn’t really sunk in yet.We knew a lot of work was needed, and yet reality had barely seeped in.

The menu was the biggest hurdle. How were we going to serve 26 guests a range of courses in perfect timing, temperature and portion? We had a very clear idea of how the skeleton of the menu would be: an amuse bouche, a seafood starter, a salad, a pasta dish, the main courses and of course, dessert. And I was guilty of insisting on sorbet and petit fours (blame it on occupational habits). After a week of drafting and planning, the menu was sent over to the host for approval. Thankfully, it went through the first round which gave us enough time to start our trial tastings.

This was how the menu was like:

Canapes
Pork Sausage with Brie Cheese and Red Onion Chutney
Moët & Chandon Imperial Brut

Amuse Bouche
Cream of Broccoli Soup (served with sourdough bread)

Starter
Beetroot, Pear, Watercress, Walnut, Goat’s Cheese, Elderflower Vinaigrette
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc

Seafood
Prawn, Bloody Mary Jelly, Avocado Puree, Watercress

Entree
Spinach Ravioli, Sage Butter, Parmesan, Pine Nuts

Sorbet
Green Apple Sorbet with Mint

Main Course
Salmon, Potato Mash, Spinach, Dill Creme Fraiche

or

Beef, Mushrooms, Spinach, Foie Gras, Parsley Puree, Madeira Sauce

Dessert
Orange Basil Mille-feuille, Chocolate Ice Cream, Assorted Berries

Freshly Brewed Coffee or Gourmet Teas
(served with Valrhona Chocolate)

(Looking at it now, I have no idea how we even managed to convince ourselves that this menu could ever come out of the kitchen.) The trials gave us a chance to gauge how much time each dish required in terms of preparation and actual cooking. Because most of it were done by hand, freshness was crucial. It also gave Ned a chance to perfect the recipes and tweak it accordingly to suit the overall menu plan. At this point, we were off pre-ordering the main ingredients like the beef, salmon and tons of vegetables. That in itself was another crazy affair of bargaining and endless conversations about the best cuts.

Tableware was another obstacle, though luckily we had our own private sources. We really shouldn’t say as it’s almost illegal how we managed to get them. In all, we managed to procure a range of pure bone china for all five courses, amuse bouche, sorbets, side plates, flatware, wine glasses, champagne flutes, water goblets, dinner trays and even table cloths. Simple arrangements of flowers were done the night before, crystal beads all strewn up like pearl necklaces, and candles were bought.

After five days of mise-en-place, barely enough sleep and weeks of planning, it was almost surreal when the Big Day arrived. Right off the bat, Ned and I were off doing specific tasks early that morning. Being the head chef, she was off to the venue in preparation (with two cousins helping out) and I was running around to pick up all the main ingredients for utmost freshness. That was when I realised our butcher forgot about our order and we had to get our steak off the shelf instead.

The dining space was transformed into a cosy intimate French bistro with warm lighting and jazz playing in the background. Three more cousins were enlisted to help out with service, and a small briefing was held to make sure everyone was on the same page. It was almost as though we were getting ready for a typical day at a restaurant.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to say that no matter how much preparation you have gone through or bad luck you can anticipate, when shit happens, it just does. That’s when you just trudge on and try to make do with what you have. Were we afraid? Yes, because screwing things up was just too easy. At this point, we could only leave it to fate and sheer hard work.

And the show finally starts.

6.45pm: The first stream of guests arrived. Many oo’s and ah’s were heard from the dining area. Canapes and champagne were sent out to appease any impending hunger. The host has given instruction not to serve dinner until more of the guests were here. We were playing the waiting game.

7.15pm: Canapes have ran out and the guests were pretty high on bubbly now. Some stray unwanted guests decided to pop into the kitchen asking for more food and were shooed out. Still no news from the host on whether we could start proper dinner service.

7.17pm: Oh fish, service starts. The guests have promptly sat themselves down. Soup was given a quick heating up and poured into tiny espresso cups. Bread was given a toasting through. Kitchen crew have started plating the beetroot salad. (The broccoli soup was inspired by our lunch in The Gingerman, Brighton and what better way to start a meal with warm creamy liquid in the tummy.)

7.30pm: The momentum in the kitchen had picked up a few notches. Thin slices of beetroot and pear were laced intricately round the plate, topped with watercress salad, crumbly goat’s cheese and walnuts and dressed with elderflower vinaigrette. It was a little messy trying to make sure there were no pink fingerprints on the clean porcelain plates. As the service staff brought out the salad into the dining hall, almost immediately, fresh plates were laid out for the next course to be plated.

7.33pm: Too much beetroot, they said. Well, we did want to push the traditional Asian palate a little with the ‘unconventional’ beetroot, and surprise, surprise, the older crowd wasn’t a big fan of the deep-burgundy vegetable despite its natural sweetness. It was something that appealed more to the younger ones.

7.35pm: Prawns were being stacked. Avocado puree was piped delicately on the chilled Bloody Mary jelly. It was difficult trying the get the jelly pieces to stay in place. The warm temperature in the kitchen didn’t help at all. Update from the service team was that the guests were finishing up their salads. Boy, they were really starving themselves before this dinner. Then actual shit happened, because Ned found out that the ravioli pieces for the third course decided to morph into one gigantic pasta monster.

7.40pm: The seafood starter was sent out while the kitchen crew tried to salvage whatever ravioli parcels that could be used. Instead of serving three patchwork babies, we could only save two pieces per guest. Imagine our frustrations and panic!

7.41pm: Guests have devoured the seafood starter in seconds. Were we serving giants?

7.45pm: Patchwork ravioli babies were still in surgery. More stray giants guests wandered into the kitchen. Pressure level was boiling way over limit.

7.50pm: First of the spinach ravioli pieces were popped into water. With pine nuts and shaved Parmesan cheese, the third course was finally served. As quickly as the ravioli flew out of the kitchen, the crew were armed with spoons to quenelle lovely ovals of green apple sorbet. We should actually be worried with plating the sorbet that soon because they could melt before they were served. Should we?

7.52pm: Sorbet was served. I swear we were cooking for actual giants here. Most of the guests ordered the salmon course, so that was the first main course we attacked with. Ned starts panfrying the pink pieces of fish and our designated chef de partie was in pots and pans with getting the mash potato and spinach ready. We could hear the guests leaving their seats to mingle around. Which also meant the sorbet was slurped off the moment it was served.

7.58pm: The salmon was still sizzling away in its juices. Watching them turn into a rosy cooked pink seemed excruciatingly slow than usual. We didn’t want to serve them raw or overcooked, or upset the hungry guests out there. We have not started on the beef and everyone was on their toes and screaming for time-check at every minute. “Is the mash ready?”, “Fish, give me fish!”, “Where’s the creme fraiche?” and “Fisssshhh, we need fishhh”. It was difficult trying to juggle so many things at a time.

8.10pm: Oh boy, were we screwed.

8.15pm: The mash was plated onto every plate and spinach was laid out as neatly as possible. Tender salmon pieces with a crisp skin was laced with a quenelle of dill creme fraiche. Those who ordered the fish course were served immediately. The next ordeal was the beef course – a meat that required time to cook and to rest. New pots sat on the stove to cook the mushrooms and spinach, while the sauce gently warms up on the side. Ned looked a sight with two hands full of pans grilling the foie gras and beef away.

8.17pm: The beef-giants were getting restless watching the salmon-giants eat.

8.26pm: *Listens to the soundtrack of sizzling beef.*

8.38pm: The mushrooms and spinach were portioned onto individual plates and were cushioned with beautiful succulent steaks of beef, topped with a perfectly seared foie gras and parsley puree. They were out of the kitchen the moment a spoonful of sticky Madeira sauce was drizzled over the meat.

8.40pm: A sudden wave of relief seemed to hit the kitchen crew. There was a minute of silence and stares before we got hold of ourselves. Dessert plates were laid out.

8.45pm: Seconds were requested. Could you believe it? (Giants. Giants everywhere.) Since it was actually a family dinner, Ned obliged to stir up more salmon and beef to appease the crowd.

9.00pm: A dessert factory line was born. Orange basil cream was piped gently onto strips of puff pastry. Icing sugar snowed on the top of the mille-feuilles. Quenelles of chocolate ice cream were sprinkled with toasted almond flakes. Berries were strategically placed. Dessert seemed almost a breeze after The Saga of Main Courses. Coffee and tea accompanied the dessert. The giants seemed appeased.

9.16pm: Service finally ended. The kitchen and service crew fell into a sea of utter exhaustion and pure exhilaration. Two full hours to put out five proper courses alongside canapes, amuse bouche and sorbet. Secret bottles of alcohol were opened to celebrate.

Looking back, it was surprising how we jumped at the opportunity to get waist deep into trouble. We did not have the proper experience nor training to execute such an elaborate dinner. Overall, feedback was pretty satisfactory and we definitely need to practice a lot more before we embark on another dinner party. Timing was still a key weakness and presentation of the dish was an area both of us have to invest effort in.

Yet again, the dinner party stirred up some need to pull out dinners on a regular basis. Sure, they were back-breaking but the end result was so satisfactory. It made our tummies warm and our hearts a flutter. So much so, Ned and I were even contemplating whether we should host secret supper clubs. Right now, the idea is still dangling in the air. But who knows, maybe there would be.

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Warm Puff Pastry Tart with Fig, Olive, Capers and Goat’s Cheese

To showcase the versatility of the fig, we decided to do a savoury dish instead of the usual sweet suspects. It was either this, or another puff pastry fig tart with crème pâtissière and homemade cinnamon ice cream (it sounds really good at the moment). The savoury one won in the end, and we do not regret it one bit. In fact, we actually applaud ourselves for making this decision.

In our short history of tart making, this is by far and honestly the best dish I’ve ever eaten. So much so I wished we had made more so that I could have the whole tart myself. I mean, just look at it! It just draws you in with the bright contrast of colours: crispy golden brown pastry, lush flame-red baked figs, soft milky white goat’s cheese and dark shiny olives.

And with one bite, you’ll be lost in a combust of flavours – the sweet caramelised onions at the bast, the fragrance of the thyme and toasted pine nuts, the sharpness of the olives and capers, the tang of the cheese that amazingly brought out all the star quality of the figs. It was practically orgasmic.

Of course, puff pastry is always a roadblock but if you’re not keen on rolling out your own dough, there are some good quality ready-made puff pastry sheets available in the market. It saves up plenty of time and still tastes good. Yes, we are lazy sometimes. Making puff pastry from scratch can be satisfying but there are those days you just want to lie down under the sun with a glass of white wine and a scrumptious slice of tart. Lazy afternoons are our guilty pleasure.

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Prawns, Clams with Tomatoes and Feta

Seafood is very much uncharted territory in our kitchen as we do not have much opportunities to work with them. Despite being on an island surrounded by nothing but water, seafood here is strangely expensive. I might have mentioned before that it can get awfully intimidating to shop for seafood in our local wet markets with our limited vocabulary of Hokkien and lack of knowledge. Getting sustainable seafood becomes an even higher hurdle for us.

Yet, one must still venture into the wild to understand the lands better. In our case, we are going deep into the ocean by attempting a seafood dish. It did seem odd that we decided to refer to Yotam’s Jerusalem when seafood is not part of a common diet in Middle Eastern cuisine. However, we were intrigued by the presence of the tangy feta cheese in the recipe so we just had to give it a try.

The result was a robust stew-y dish that screamed with vibrance and colour. We loved the sweet aroma of the prawns and clams that mingled with the slight fragrance of the spices and wine. It’s captivating how the feta cheese added a mildly sour tang against the sweet and savoury of the prawns and clams. Soak up the juices with toasted crusty bread and there you have it, a lovely lunch to start the weekend. And for once, having some seafood at home was a refreshing change.

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Homemade Margherita Pizza

As I write this now, I realised we can never end Project Italia. It will be something that would be revisited many times in the future because there is simply so much to explore and discover. We have only scraped the surface of a bottomless pit. This only reenforces how varied and colourful Italian cuisine is. That saying, this applies to all types of cuisines. Just using Chinese food as an example would suffice.

Okay, I digress.

Pizza is one of the most common and familiar dishes in the world. Immortalised by fast food chains, almost anyone living within the vicinity of a pizza delivery would have tasted this bread concoction. However, as with globalisation, the face of pizza has changed so much from its humble beginnings. We can simply look at our local offerings to know that the traditional pizza has transformed with its cheesy stuffed crust, spicy rendang sauce and the all-too familiar pineapple topping.

However, pizza is so old that no one really knows where it originated from. Flavoured flatbreads has long been part of history since the neolithic age. I could bore you with a lecture of how pizza became this easily recognisable dish, but I shall spare you the details. Just know that with the introduction of tomatoes in Europe, in the case of Naples, the fruit was used as a sauce base and the modern pizza was born. In fact, pizza is so much a symbol of Naples, Neapolitans are trying to get the dish listed by the UN. We should get all our local food listed then.

According to Associasione Verace Pizza Napoletana (they even have an authority!), only two possible combinations of toppings are considered “true” pizzas – the Marinara and Margherita. The Marinara is topped with tomato, oregano, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. For the Margherita, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil is used. Strict rules applies to ensure the authenticity of Neapolitan pizza. It must be baked in a wood-fired oven, the dough must be hand-kneaded and the ingredients are very much regulated.

But really, I don’t think everyone should be so anal to confine the creativity pizza encourages. Ideally, pizza should feature fresh ingredients of the best quality. I remember reading Gin no Saji, a Japanese manga about agriculture, and I couldn’t stop salivating. It featured a group of teens attempting to bake pizzas using food they have grown and made. Be it the flour they milled from homegrown wheat, locally-made cheese (with milk from their own cows!), bacon from pigs they reared, vegetables they grew, and right down to the wood used to the heat up the oven. (It’s one of my favourite manga – truly inspiring.) And this didn’t help in aiding my hunger.

Our version of the Margherita might not be supposedly authentic, but nothing beats feasting on freshly-baked pizza that you’ve baked on your own. (Interesting tidbit: our pizza stone is actually this massive granite piece that was cut according to our specifications. We have an awesome Dad who did the sourcing.) So we had Ned going into her Italian nonna persona in the kitchen as she rolled out pizza after pizza. The homemade tomato sauce is such a glorious paste that we have used it for our pasta. Thank goodness we have jars of it left! Topped with good quality mozzarella and our own basil, I’m proud to say that this blasphemously: it was as good as any pizza in Naples.

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Homemade Egg Tagliatelle and Salsa di Pomodoro (Tomato Sauce)

Starting from scratch seemed almost like madness in this current age when almost everything could be bought over the shelf. It is not abnormal to eat out of a box when processed food and TV dinners have found their way as a staple in many homes. Making anything at home becomes a luxury; it was only for those who have time and money. We would like to take that statement and throw it into the bin. Nothing beats making your own food with wholesome fresh ingredients.

When we started Thom & Aimee, one of the very first things we did was to eliminate processed food from our diets and kitchen. It was about going back to basics. Of course, it was not easy when all of us hold full-time jobs but we took it step by step. From introducing edible plants into the garden to making sure fundamental staples such as flour, butter, olive oil and lemons are always in the pantry, simple homemade dishes could easily be whipped up in minutes. We started educating the rest of our family on the values and importance of having fresh and natural food.

The other argument was that it could be awfully daunting. Trust us when we say that no matter how difficult it looks, digging into something you made lovingly with your own hands tastes tons better than those cardboard-flavoured ‘food’ in the supermarket. We had the same reservations when embarking on Project Italia: ‘it might be too difficult’, ‘we don’t have a pasta machine’ or ‘the consistency might come out wrong’. But after doing it, there was really no need to worry in the first place. In fact, it only emphasized our love and belief of simple home-cooking.

Italian cuisine is very accessible in Singapore from neighbourhood cafes to high-end fine dining restaurants. There are different varieties of sauces and pasta available in the markets. Many can easily prepare a pasta dish at home for a quick meal (the ultimate comfort food). I don’t know any other European cuisine that shares the same popularity and familiarity here in this country. The knowledge on Italian fare has grown beyond the typical spaghettis and pizzas and have slowly included regional dishes and less common recipes.

There are over 310 varieties of pasta, mostly made of wheat or semolina flour, and eggs. They are usually categorised into groups based on their shapes: long (fusilli, capellini, vermicelli); ribbon-cut (fettuccine, linguine, pappardelle); short-cut extruded (cannelloni, penne, tortiglioni); decorative (conchiglie, farfalle, rotini); minute (couscous, pastina); stuffed (ravioli, cappelletti, tortellini) and irregular (gnocchi). They can even be flavoured and come in different colours.

To understand pasta is to know the geography, culture and history of Italy. We are no experts but to learn about how one region consumes and cooks pasta differs from another is compelling. It all comes down to the climate, the availability of other ingredients, the type of flour used, even how currant affairs shaped the way Italians eat their pasta. We opened a can of worms when we forayed into the art of pasta-making. It only made this familiar staple more riveting than it already is.

There was no particular reason why we decided to try our hand on Italian food. It all stemmed down to the glorious tomato. Despite its availability all year round, the recent (super) hot weather got us dreaming up of a lush Mediterranean summer. The crisp flavours of the sea, the earthiness of the basil and the juicy sweetness of a bright red tomato. There is something seductive of the fruit. As Nigel Slater says, ‘Red is the colour of richness, ripeness and sensuality… It is the colour of that probably has the greatest effect on our emotions. No wonder we expect so much of the tomato.’

Tomatoes are synonymous to Italian cooking, so it was odd to learn that they were only introduced to Italy in the 1500s. Native to South America, they were first considered poison until the 18th century. Tomatoes were first given centre stage when featured in Vincenzo Corrado’s Il Cuoco Galante with thirteen recipes in 1773. Then, the versatile fruits were used for sauces, salads, eaten raw, baked, filled or made into soups. And as they say, the rest is history.

There are many different types of tomatoes available in the markets from all over the world, coming in all shapes, colours and sizes. They can be bought fresh or canned. Their qualities varies from sweet to tangy to fruity. Some varieties have thicker skins than others. Like pasta, it’s a crazy tomato universe out there. Plus they are very versatile and set themselves perfectly with many other ingredients such as bacon, anchovy, aubergine, bell pepper, caper, onion, etc.

We made the tagliatelle which originated from Emilia-Romagna and Marche. Usually made fresh, these long, flat ribbons have a rough, porous texture. It was surprisingly quick and fuss-free when Ned started to knead the dough. A bit of muscle will be needed to bring the flour and eggs together. She felt like an Italian nonna in her little cottage in the mountains. With the absence of a pasta machine, we made do with the traditional rolling pin to get the dough as even and thin as possible and cut into the standard 5mm.

The general way to serve pasta is al dente. It should feel a little elastic and a little resistance in the centre of the pasta should be felt when biting down. (So drain straight away.) Fresh pasta contains more moisture and hence, requires a shorter cooking time. A lot of practice will be needed to finally get the art of cooking al dente pasta. It’s not diffiult though.

Apparently, there is a rule of the world of pasta and its sauces. We don’t want to go into details but if you’re curious, you can check this guide. If it’s up to us, we would just cook it because we preferred it that way. With the tagliatelle’s rough texture, thick meat sauces such as the bolognese are perfect. But a simple sauce of tomato and basil pairs with the pasta equally well.

We never had fresh pasta before, so this would be difficult to really judge ours. But we can say this safely: homemade pasta is a whole different world of goodness. The natural eggy flavours of the pasta held its own against the sweet, tangy tomato sauce alongside the aromatic spice of basil. We added some mozzarella cheese on the top and it was like eating Italy in one bite. Oh, just a thought, it would be wonderful if we could make our own mozzarella cheese as well!

This doesn’t mean that we are swearing off dried pasta from the markets altogether. It will undeniably still be part of our pantry for those lazy afternoons and sudden midnight suppers. But we’re definitely be making our own pasta each time we can. For that moment, Italy seems almost close by.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Novice Cook: Tomatoes, Eggs, Bread and Mozzarella

They say cooking for your family and friends is a form of love and appreciation. For me, cooking is almost like therapy, but it truly becomes enjoyment when I am alone in the kitchen. Why? When one has parents like mine, there is a limit on how much one can take on senseless questions: “are you sure you can handle it”, “do you need help”, or “should I call Ned to come over”.

Yes, the Novice Cook is looking terribly vulnerable, and holding a knife can be awfully dangerous when pissed. Taking on my promise that I would return to the kitchen, I decided breakfast would be the best time to truly immerse myself into the experience. Waking up at 7am on a weekend morning meant that everyone else was still in bed, and all I can hear were the birds and the droning sounds of tomatoes being chopped up.

I decided to roast a simple dish of lightly seasoned tomatoes, eggs, mozzarella and bread in the oven. Hardly rocket science. The recipe might not be complicated but it requires plenty of waiting. If I had known, I would have grilled some sausages on the side. All I did was stare at the oven and wishing that I was back in bed.

The tricky part was the eggs. I must have mentioned it before but I’ve never ever fried an egg my entire life. Poached, yes. Baking them was an easy way out. I did manage to break a few yolks because of sleep depravation. However, the end result were wobbly eggs set against pure whites. I did increase the time because they didn’t cook enough as specified. Watching the oven has its good points.

By the time the dish was ready, no one was awake. So lucky me, I had first dips. It actually reminded me of the Shakshuka that Ned made some time back. The tangy sweetness of the tomatoes, the crisp crust of the bread, stringy buttery mozzarella and freshness of the eggs. With minimal seasoning, it’s a wonder how this dish managed to bring so much to the plate.

We had second breakfast afterwards though. I should really have cooked those sausages.

The recipe is from Hugh’s Three Good Things.

A Summer South American Barbecue

To be honest, every meal that we have hosted thus far was never planned in advance. I mean, there is planning for the feast, but the actual thought of “ah, let’s have a party” was always picked up randomly from the clouds. Don’t ask me how we decided to hold a South American inspired barbecue, was it the hot weather, or the desire to drink margaritas and chew on smoked ribs?

South America is one huge continent, and to generalise South American food is the same as saying the French and Russians eat croissants for breakfast. What we did was borrow different dishes from different countries from Colombia to Chile (and a little Mexican). But we need to understand that even within a country, different regional cuisines exist so we really did just generalise Latino food. (I’M SORRY!)

I grew up reading Gourmet magazine until their very last publication in November 2009 (I still have the last copy). One of the editorial spreads that was seared into my memory was Maricel Presilla’s Latino barbecue: the smoke, the char-grilled meat, the dark sticky sauces, the vivid colours of the partygoers’ clothes. The atmosphere portrayed was exotic and almost intoxicating. It became our point of reference as we slowly did our research. There were so many things that came into play, like “can we get these ingredients”, “can they be cooked over barbecue”, and “would our guests like the flavours”.

The menu showcased probably the most familiar South American dishes, including the typical tortillas and a variety of salsas. We managed to get our hands on specific ingredients (sourced from a local specialist Mexican grocer) such as lovely dried pasilla peppers, habanero peppers, and black beans.

Looking at the menu on paper, it didn’t look like it would fill the stomachs of ten persons. But when you have these ten said individuals under the scorching hot sun by the pool, you would realise that the drinks would be gone before the food was gone. And that people would be floating in the water than be by the grill.

Handcrafted Mexican papel picado bunting in pastel colours were hung up to enhance the mood. (We are very superficial and yes, we know that the paper craft is usually used for religious events, not barbecues.) What we loved about this was the ease of feast, every one could personalise their tortilla wraps, do up their own burgers, sauce up their grilled corns and mix their alcoholic concoctions. Plus, it was a joy to buzz around the table and just lapping food onto the plate.

Despite the simplicity of the actual feast, plenty of preparation actually happened behind the curtains. Ned and I busied ourselves in making the condiments, marinations and meat patties a few days before. (We did think of making our own tortilla wraps, but the work load would be too much to bear.) The stinging sensation of the chillies and peppers was intense, I probably died a few times when Ned excitedly pushed the cup of blended spices into my face.

Most of them were homemade (because we are anal) and really, the end results were pleasantly good. Without further ado, behold the menu of our South American feast:

Chilled Gazpacho

Leafy Salad with Pomegranate and Feta

Quinoa Salad with Mint and Mango

Chile-Smothered Shrimp Skewers with Lime

Mushroom Quesadillas

Refried Black Beans

Guacamole

Fresh Tomato Salsa

Homemade Mexican Crema

Salvadoran Grilled Corn (Elote Loco)

Babyback Pork Ribs Adobo

Dominican Chimichurri Burgers

Dulce le Leche Ice Cream with Pecans

Cucumber Cooler (Agua Fresca de Pepino)

Margaritas and Tequilas

(Okay it does look like a lot of food now.)

Like the previous Hobbit Day breakfast we held a year ago, there was no greater joy to bring all your friends together to appreciate good company, food and a little bit of crazy in the kitchen a few nights before. If we brought back anything from this little barbecue party, it was that it’s alright if the beef was overcooked or that the mushrooms ran out faster than the wraps, because at the end of the day, it was too freaking hot to care. Yes, our next feast will probably be during sunset.

(All recipes are below the break.)

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Cream Cheesecake with Raspberry Gelee

Baking can be a very humbling experience. Despite how many successful bakes one can have, there will always be another hurdle to cross. Praise is often showered no matter how simple the bake is. Bring a tray of the easiest brownies you can make over to your neighbours (they have to be edible at least), they would gush about what an amazing baker you are. Unless of course you have honest-to-God neighbours. We do receive plenty of compliments, which we really appreciate, but they are all taken with a pinch of salt. Because only we know how good we actually are.

That’s why we are so fond of Thom & Aimee. It pushes us to experiment with new things, makes us understand our strengths and work on our weaknesses. We are never one to hide that we cannot do certain things and we have had plenty of failed bakes. At times, it becomes upsetting when so much effort, time and money has been used, and only to find that it barely made out of the oven properly. Sometimes they taste good despite their unflattering portraits.

Today, we ate the humble cheesecake. Ned has made cheesecakes before, but it was definitely a first that it got a little screwed up. It could be because we didn’t follow the recipe strictly as we did not have certain equipment. At the end, the raspberry gelee had to be made separately and laid on the cake afterwards. Thus, explaining why it is smaller than the cake. Despite how deformed it looks and the problems we faced, the cheesecake wasn’t that bad at all. Albeit a little too stodgy than usual. The flavour of the cream cheese came through and the raspberry gelee was a subtle touch of sweet tartness. Well, we’ll just have to try this recipe one more time in the future to make it right.

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The Novice Cook: Asparagus, Potatoes and Halloumi Cheese

While Ned stirred away her asparagus soup, I was adding to the kitchen chaos by preparing my own take on the asparagus. Having two chefs in one tiny kitchen can get a little crazy, especially when there was only one stove to use. Luckily, all I needed was our trusty oven to stir up this simple dish.

What’s so interesting is how these three different ingredients can come together so perfectly well. Both the asparagus and the potato share an earthy, nutty flavour; it was no wonder why they make fantastic partners. The recipe called for new potatoes, but I didn’t have those so I had to make do with regular ones. Most pair asparagus with hard cheeses like Parmesan, but Halloumi cheese was used here. I’ve never eaten Halloumi cheese before – it is a semi-hard cheese originating from Cyprus and can cook very well in high heat. The mild saltiness of the halloumi brought a lovely contrast and enhanced the sweet, sulfurous flavour of the asparagus.

I was pretty much out of Ned’s hair after 10 to 15 minutes into preparation as there was only cutting, baking and tossing involved. The only ‘special’ ingredient I had to get was the halloumi, which could probably be easily replaced with Parmesan. It can make for a wonderful tea time snack. Just pop the items in the oven, make yourself a cup of tea and when it’s ready, settle yourself in a comfy couch and a good read. I didn’t make a lot of this, but I hope I had… it was gobbled up almost too quickly. Now I need more halloumi.

Recipe can be found here.

The Novice Cook: Homemade Chèvre Cheese (Goat’s Milk Cheese)

As with anyone who cooks, it is a natural progression to go back to the provenance of the dish. It becomes much more important to want to find out where the ingredient came from and how it reached the table. After all, the food ends up in our stomach and we all want to know what we are really putting into our bodies. (Horsemeat, anyone?)

I think it’s quite apparent on this blog that we are very concerned about the source of our ingredients. N and I always fantasize about having our own little farm and living off what we grow and rear. Imagine this: waking up to freshly-laid free range eggs from your chickens, drinking the first cup of milk from your goats, eating juicy bacon streaks from the pig you lovingly took care of, and biting into warm crusty bread made with flour from the local mill, or even wheat you grew on your own. Basically, we want to live in the Shire.

It is quite impossible to have such a life in tiny urban Singapore. We are all confined to small high-rise apartments and cramped corridors. But if you traipse down to Lim Chu Kang, you may be pleasantly surprised. A few farms dot the reserve area, one will find crabs, quail, vegetables, mushrooms, frogs, and maybe crocodiles (yes, you read it right).

I had the itch to try my hand on cheese-making, so we decided to make a trip down to the local goat farm to get some milk. What greeted us first was a slight goat-y smell in the air and a symphony of bleats. The goats were systematically led to their milking stations from their pens via a fenced corridor. Its fascinating to watch these wonderful animals go around doing their chores in a coordinated manner; like a cohort of school children walking to school in lines.

Goats tend to seek familiarity; they do not welcome surprises very much. But they are also highly curious creatures. Our presence piqued their interest and their bright yellow eyes would follow us as we watch them. Honestly, I was rather upset with the environment the animals were kept in. While they might be kept well within AVA standards, there were certain elements that needed more attention. This is not a criticism but a personal observation from my visit.

While I may not know much about goats and farming, I think one can still have basic knowledge when it comes to taking care of animals. I didn’t understand why water was being fed via a pipe (resulting in one goat ‘hogging’ the water supply or thirsty goats gnawing other parts of the pipe, causing facility damage); why there was no roughage; why so many goats are confined to a pen. Although I’ve been reading up a lot on goat farming (Goat Song being a personal favourite), perhaps my image of farming is too idealized.

I must apologise for the long post about cute goats, and get on about cheese instead. Most of the cheese we have in Singapore are imported from all over the world, many of the supermarkets have a dedicated corner for cheese products. It might not be present in Chinese cooking, but my family grew up being huge cheese eaters.

How the idea of cheese-making came about was quite random though. It was really just waking up to the thought of churning out your own cheese. I guess that’s how dreams came into reality, just plunging into it without any foreknowledge. Do it first, and think later. I’ve never really drank goat’s milk before, much less eaten goat’s cheese, so it really was just finding my way through the dark. (Apparently, goat’s milk is much healthier than cow’s milk. Well, I’m not really sure but both taste good anyways.)

It was mentioned that cheese is somewhat like wine – taking on the flavours of the land, also known as terroir, a term familiar in the world of wine. If the goat foraged for wild berries, there would be a hint of fruit in the milk, resulting in a different cheese that of a goat that eats hay. There are many other factors that come into play, but I’ll leave that to the experts. Some of my reading list included Goat Song, Artisan Cheese Making at Home and Mastering Cheese.

Argument holds that only raw milk can make real cheese. There was only pasteurised milk available (and I didn’t have my own goats) so I had to make do. Raw milk is not allowed for sale in Singapore. This is rather odd since cheese made from unpasteurised milk is sold everywhere on this island.

At first, cheese-making sounded so daunting; but it was surprisingly easy to make. The cheese we made was very much like the goat’s milk, it was mild and slightly grassy (could be the result of Alfafa Hay diet), and somewhat goat-y. Our’s is a rather soft cheese since we didn’t hang it for long – almost feta-like. Seeing it becoming closer and closer to what actual cheese looks like was so satisfying. In fact, this whole experiment only cements our passion for owning our own animals one day. And going to Loire Valley to learn the art of chèvre cheese making.

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