Thom & Aimee

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

Tag: herb

Millefeuille with Fig and Orange Basil Cream

Ah, we are on puff pastry madness. Following the previous post, we got lazy and decided to get the dough off the shelf instead of getting out arms deep in butter. Since we had some left, we decided to embark on our very first millefeuille. (Oh, didn’t GBBO cover it in the latest season, this shall be a signature bake then!)

The millefeuille is a pastry that feels a little daunting at the start. It’s a classic French dessert that you cannot ruin for fear of a revolution. Make a bad millefeuille and you will hear the people sing. Translated as “thousand leaves”, the sweet consists of thin delicate golden brown layers of puff pastry sandwiching luscious pastry cream and then topped with either confectioner’s sugar or glazed with icing.

We are steering away from the traditional vanilla millefeuille with an addition of fig, orange and basil instead. Before you cry ‘Sacrilège!!’ and hunt us down, hear this out: like many classic French desserts, innovation is not disapproved of. Take a look at macarons and eclairs, they have gone through experimentation in terms of varied flavours. In essence, the quality and the basic foundation should remain, but please feel welcome to be creative with the presentation and flavours.

We’ve added fresh figs to the dish, which we weren’t sure if it actually works on a whole. The orange basil cream overpowered the natural sweetness of the figs (or maybe the figs we got just aren’t fresh enough). And I know there were those who weren’t keen on the inclusion of fresh fruit in a millefeuille. But overall, interestingly, it worked still. The figs gave a different texture to the dessert – a moist, squishy burst of juices interlaced with the crispy puff pastry and herby zesty cream. We doubt we’ve done anything treacherous towards the land of proper pastries.

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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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The Novice Cook: Chicken with Tomatoes and Tarragon

You know how dependant one is on cookbooks when you look at the state of the cover jacket. Hugh’s lovely face is now spotted with oil stains and other undistinguished sauces. The once pristine pages were tampered with soiled fingerprints and leftover flour have found home deep within the rim. But I’d like to think that Hugh would be proud of me ruining his book because that only meant I’ve been using it! (I’ve managed to wipe off the stains off his face for now.)

In all my attempts in The Novice Cook, I’ve yet to do a proper main course and much less, meat. It’s fascinating to learn about the different animal breeds, meat cuts, and cooking techniques. Unlike seafood, I’ve always found meat less daunting and slightly romantic. Maybe because these gentle beasts live on the same land that we do which makes our relationship a tad more closer. Man raises the animal, and the animal gives back to Man with meat or by kind.

I’m not trying to romanticise the reality of death and brutal farming methods. Battery chicken farms are not uncommon in the modern world where the demand for cheap poultry is high. These poor birds are kept in tight overcrowding barns covered in their own droppings, and spend their days being overfed with chemically-‘enhanced’ feed without seeing the outside world. This results in unhealthy short-lived chickens that appear on our tables. And you know what they say about “paying what you get”.

Sadly, organic or free-range chicken can only be found in speciality stores at an exuberant price (about $40!) and are mostly frozen. And yes, kampung does not mean it’s free-range. Isn’t it odd for a country who loves its poultry to not encourage sustainable and humanely-farmed meat? On another note, does anyone know if rearing one’s own chickens is illegal? With the avian bird flu, I suspect stringent regulations are in place to prevent the spread of diseases. For now, Ned and I will just have to keep dreaming of our little brood of chickens.

Back to the recipe: poulet à l’estragon is a classic French dish that features the chicken laced with a creamy tarragon sauce. Tarragon is one of the four herbs that makes up fines herbes and is often used in French cooking (the famous Béarnaise sauce is mainly flavoured with it). The herb has a very distinct grassy note of anise and one leave is enough to give a weighty liquorice-y punch into any dish – be it fish or fowl.

Tasting it for the first time, we love the complexity of flavours tarragon offered. It is odd how we have never used this herb more often. (Any French tarragon leaves around for us to propagate?) Cream or butter is usually paired up with it to balm the bitterness. In Hugh’s version, cream is plainly absent but to avoid the overwhelming pungency, the herb is only added at the very end to give a gentle perfume. It stood very well on its own against the chicken and the sweet-sour tang of the tomatoes.

A round of applause should be given to me for my very first stab at actual cooking. Yes, Ned had to supervise me again or I’d undercook the bird. Memories of hot oil bursting from the pan onto my skin and the long roasting hours were eased away by a crispy golden-brown skin of a tender chicken thigh with juicy tomatoes and aromatic tarragon leaves. And I foresee more stains on Hugh’s face soon.

Recipe can be found in Hugh’s Three Good Things.

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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Prawn and Basil Risotto

I’m surprised how long ago my previous post was. Every time I got down to writing, I never went past clicking ‘Create a new post’ and would be distracted by really unimportant things like watching videos on YouTube. It’s not that we haven’t been cooking, I’m just guilty of backlogging all our posts!! I need the discipline to really get down and finish up all the work. (Yes, writing can be a bitch sometimes!)

Going back to Project Italia, we decided to recreate a risotto we fell in love with in London. Our first lunch in our beloved England was at Polpo – a cosy casual restaurant that serves humble Venetian dishes that are full of flavour and wholesome ingredients. It was already part of our itinerary in the early stages of planning as we read only favourable reviews. We were lucky to get a table despite not having any reservations, and it was the perfect spot to fill our tummies and rid us of the unwanted jet lag.

Since our return, the dish continued to be on our minds and we managed to get a copy of the Polpo cookbook. To our joy, it featured a similar recipe to that we had in London (they replaced the asparagus with monk’s beard, a type of chicory common in Tuscany). Our take involved the humble basil, a versatile and aromatic herb, that lifts the natural umami flavours of the prawns. And any dish that requires the help of our lovely Mr. Frodo (we christened all our herbs with names from *cough* Lord of the Rings) is always a big welcome.

The star of the recipe is undoubtedly the tiny crustacean. While some might label the prawns as cockroaches of the sea world, they look and taste far more superior than those unwanted pests. Our Dad used to buy live prawns and leave them to fall into a icy cold slumber in the freezer before cooking. It might sound almost cruel but nothing beats eating really fresh prawns. But chilled prawns will do the job equally well. Just make sure that those lovely shellfishes are from a sustainable source and that the variety is not in danger of overfishing.

I can still remember the piquant fragrance of the fish stock Ned was preparing the day before. It set the tasting notes of the risotto with a refreshing sweetness. The final plated dish brought back many good memories;  the smooth rice grains, crunchy succulent prawns and  basil hit the right notes of a lazy Sunday afternoon. It was like being transported back to the intimate confines of Polpo. We suggest some Parmesan cheese to serve, giving it another punch of savoury tang.

Ah, writing this makes me want to go back to London…

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Issue 06: Rhubarb

One of the fruits that has been on our experiment list for a long time is the rhubarb. The odd thing is that it is not even a fruit, but a vegetable – almost like celery with its long juicy petioles, or stalks. Just prettier.

With our lack of interaction with the plant, we busied ourselves with books and information, and they all had similar stories. Rhubarb started out as a medicinal herb and was used in China as a drug against constipation. The Victorian English then decided that it was more profitable to start growing their own instead of buying them from the Chinese. First delicious accident: they brought back the wrong type of rhubarb to produce. While they didn’t have medicine, they did have luscious pink stems for pudding. (The leaves, however, are poisonous. Perhaps they could have make use of them.)

The Victorians then went on to bring the rhubarb into the public’s consciousness and bellies. And if they couldn’t even more unlucky, or lucky in this situation – second delicious accident: during the Chelsea Physics Garden, some rhubarb were mistakenly covered by soil (or a upturned bucket) and were later discovered to be more tender and flavoursome. Viola, forced rhubarb was ‘invented’, and are produced in the famous rhubarb triangle in Yorkshire.

Rhubarb is not commonly found in the markets and rather foreign in our local cooking repertoire. The only few we chanced upon were the Australian variety sold in Jason’s, and they were confoundedly expensive. We managed to get ours at a wallet-friendly price from the brilliant grocer Victor (Chia’s Vegetables Supply). The stalks were imported from Europe, but whether they are British or Dutch, forced or outdoor, we are as clueless as the next rhubarb in the shed.

Usually used as part of dessert course, the rhubarb does so comfortably well in pies, crumbles, and compotes. Despite smelling almost like spring onions, the plant tastes like a sharp sour apple – slightly acidic and full of moisture. Its blooms when sweetened with sugar, honey, anise, vanilla or almond. Pair it with some spices or herbs, such as ginger, cinnamon, saffron, rosemary to bring some complexity into the dish. Some might not like rhubarb with other citrusy sour fruits such as lemon and orange, but we tried making a Rhubarb and Lemon tart that gotten plenty of thumbs ups at home.

Rhubarb can also be a great companion in savoury dishes, especially beside oily fishes such as mackerel and herring. My first taste of the rosy pink stems were in fact cooked alongside a fish, it makes for a rounded dish brimming with sweetness, apple sourness, and umami. Another meat that does well with a kick of rhubarb will be pork – its sharp fruitiness can cut through saccharine and salty sauces easily.

With its versatility, its odd how rhubarb hasn’t caught on in Singapore. We hope to be able to grow our very own stems one day… just need to look for more space in our tiny high-rise garden. And the seeds. Then maybe one day, a carton full of jams in the prettiest shades of pink will greet us for tea. A girl can only dream.

The Novice Cook: Baked Fish and Capers on Toast

As part of The Novice Cook series, I have decided earlier this year that I would cook every recipe out of Hugh’s Three Good Things. It’s been a long time since my last venture in the kitchen. I could tell that I was a little rusty from the lack of practice as I had to keep asking N to check on the readiness of my fish. And how to use the oven. In a nutshell, I’m not making any sort of progress at all.

Honestly, I’m not a fish person. It’s not that I do not like the taste. Over the years, I just stopped eating fish as frequently as I should. My late Grandma always dominated the kitchen. But when she had dementia and started becoming forgetful, she would put in tons of conflicting ingredients into the fish. We still ate it, of course, out of respect. Sometimes it would turn out delicious, sometimes not so appetising.

The only reason why I chose this recipe was because it didn’t threaten me and it could use up the capers I had left. This dish surprised me. Sometimes, one can forget that such simple ingredients can come together to create layers of textures. Biting into it, there would be the sweetness of the fish, zingy-ness of the capers, fragrance of the thyme, and aroma of the buttered garlic toast. We added a spritz of lemon juice to add a little spring into the dish. S, the resident fish lover at home, dug into it with so much gusto that my heart exploded with joy.

(With N’s advice, I will not post the recipe since I’m doing so much out from an individual book. You may get your own copy here.)

On the matter of fish, I’m trying to get our family into the routine of buying sustainable fish and meat from ethical sources. Reading about the horse meat scandal in the UK only emphasizes how much we don’t know what we put on our plates anymore. Sometimes I wonder if people even know what the piece of meat even looked like before it was cut and packed into little plastic boxes everyone is so familiar with. And there’s the confounded theory that ethical food is, most of the time, two to three times more expensive than an unhealthy overfed animal. Something is terribly wrong with our society.

On the same note, since this is Hugh’s recipe and it’s about fish, join him in his fight to protect the oceans and defend the seabed and fish stocks from the most damaging forms of fishing. Although it concentrates mostly around Britain, I think its a start to big things. I’m not sure how fishing is done in Singapore or Southeast Asia. If possible, I would love to visit our local fisheries and fish farms to learn more. Then, maybe with better understanding, there would be better futures.

Penne with Prawn, Olives and Feta Cheese (Greek Pasta Salad)

Penne with Prawn, Olives and Feta Cheese
Pasta is fast becoming our family’s food of convenience. That and Japanese soba noodles, so apologies on the overload of pasta recipes.

Why this Greek pasta salad? It was one of those slow work days when my colleagues and I decided to have a little Mediterranean pot luck lunch in the office. Pasta was the only thing that covered all grounds: easy to cook, portable, ability to serve it cold, and a sure crowd and tummy pleaser. Well, the other reason was because I was craving for my colleague’s homemade hummus, hence the Mediterranean theme.

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Spaghetti with Mussels in White Wine and Cream

Spaghetti with Mussels in White Wine and Cream
There was a great catch in the markets recently. Mussels were going at a dollar. A DOLLAR! They just went straight into our basket without any second thought. According to BBC, mussels were regarded a poor man’s shellfish. Whether they are for the rich or poor, they are tasty nonetheless!

Speaking of which, we have been reading up a lot on eating seasonally and the topic of sustainable seafood came round. Talk about overfishing and unethical fishing has been going on for a long time, many of the fish populations of our world are in danger of extinction. Not trying to be a tree-hugger, but we all need to play our part in environment conservation. Or the dolphins will attack us.

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Cherry Tomato & Rosemary Spaghetti

Anyone who knows me know that I don’t cook. These are the usual excuses: pure intimidation, insufficient time, laziness, lack of knowledge, and laziness. If anything, this was the very first dish that got me cooking. (I still can’t gauge when pasta is cooked though. N calls me a kitchen noob.)

This requires almost no cooking at all. It’s food down to its basics, and despite its simplicity, it is full of robust flavours. I loved it so much that I had it for lunch everyday at one point.

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