Thom & Aimee

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

Tag: soup

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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Prawn Noodles with Pork Prime Ribs Soup

Breakfast during the weekends are almost usually at a hawker centre. There are so many reasons why the locals frequent hawker centres: convenience, variety, low cost and the lack of fuss. It’s something so intrinsic to our culture and engrained into the Singaporean DNA; most of us grew up on hawker food and still visit the humble centres often for our favourite chicken rice, mee goreng or rojak. It’s not uncommon to slip on your most comfortable t-shirt and shorts and dig into a hearty meal in the humid heat.

There was debate on whether hawker food would die when the current generation of hawker uncles and aunties lay down their ladles. The youth are not interested in slogging over a stove to sell bowls of noodles at $3.50 each when they can sit in an air-conditioned office with their cushy jobs. What am I talking about? Even I have a job in the corporate world. Not many would exchange a high-paying career for a life in cooking hawker food.

But seeing the overwhelming reception of the contest between Gordon Ramsay and our hawkers, I think Singaporeans still hold local cuisine close to their hearts. Plus, we are seeing a wave of young hawker entrepreneurs in recent years (albeit with hipster names and stylised designs) and some who have taken over their parents’ aprons. In fact, hawker food is so much in our blood, ask any Singaporean living abroad what they miss most and they would say the three F’s: Family, friends and food.

For us, hawker centres are a constant reminder of how great-tasting food is just right at our doorstep. Yes, we do not cook a lot of local cuisine (why should we? It’s available at almost every corner of this island!) but it serves as a plateau of inspiration of flavours, ingredients and techniques. One should not belittle the amount of work that goes into every plate despite it’s low cost. In fact, I’m amazed how we can still pay so little for so much. Especially for those hawkers who prepare everything by hand on a daily basis.

Still, it was one of those special days that Ned wanted to get her hands cracking on our most beloved hawker dishes – Prawn Noodles Soup. It’s been some time since we last ate a really good bowl of prawn noodles with a thick flavourful soup broth. We’ve been hawker centre-hopping but could never seem to find one stall that could satisfy our cravings. (Any recommendations?) So it was down to making it on our own by using a recipe lovingly provided by another blogger.

The key to a good broth is the time given for it to simmer. The longer it is left over low heat, the thicker and heavier the flavours of the soup will be. With our Dad being the resident soup expert (we Cantonese love our soups), we had the soup simmering on until he was satisfied. Using pork prime ribs as the main base, spices such as star anise and cloves, and dried anchovies and prawn heads were also added on to create a very thick umami broth.

Cooking of the noodles was a no-brainer, it is almost like preparing pasta. The other ingredients can be boiled together with the noodles. If you read it on paper, it is almost fuss-free. The only downside is the time taken to prepare the broth which is the main deciding factor on whether the dish makes it or not. Lucky for us, we finally had our prawn noodle cravings satisfied. Oh, word of advice? Add tons of fried shallots to serve for the ultimate bowl of goodness.

Recipe can be found here.

Potage Aux Concombres (Cream of Cucumber Soup)

Setting aside our tongs and skewers from the summer barbecue, there were plenty of leftovers in the fridge. Uncooked beef patties became breakfast-on-the-go during work days, corn were used in sumptuous Chinese soups, and whatever unused became part our dinners for the next few days.

A couple of cucumbers were lying around in the kitchen and to stop our Mom from harping on food wastage, we decided to turn up the heat with a reliable Julia Child’s potage aux concombres. Personally, I’m not a big fan of cucumbers, especially raw as they do tend to be slightly bitter to taste. Despite so, they are brilliant additions to salads and sandwiches with their distinctive refreshing cleanness. To kick the bitterness back, pair cucumbers with sour ingredients like goat cheese, yoghurt, vinegar or dill.

We found that the telegraphic cucumbers are not as bitter as the common ones, but cucumbers really do taste all the same anyway! The soup was very light on the palate, but had the right balance of flavours with the sour cream and the slight punch of the dill. Perfect as a starter for a weekend lunch!

Also, Bilbo the Dill is our latest member to join our garden and we were more than happy to make use of what he can offer. He’s doing very well sitting by Frodo the Basil. Speaking of which, Pippin the Thyme passed on recently. We couldn’t save him despite our efforts; apparently our Dad (the resident gardener) moved his soil. Time to visit the nursery then.

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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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Potage Crème D’asperges Vertes (Cream of Fresh Green Asparagus Soup)

One thing Ned and I (no more using acronyms now) love doing is our weekly wet market getaways. Although waking early prove to be a challenge at times, being part of the hustle and bustle of the morning crowd can be almost like an adventure. Stomping your flip-flops against the slippery floors, pushing past the notorious aunties and shouting at the top of your voice to get the seller’s attention. Its like a little game with only the most nimble and thick-skinned getting the best deals.

They might not have the comfort and cleanliness of air-conditioned supermarkets. But what really made us go back to the wet markets were the variety and freshness of the produce available, and of course, the value for money. The only downside is that dairy products are not usually not found in these places. I have yet to conquer the realm of seafood-buying; my jiak-kantang nature only limits my conversations with the fishmonger to “how much” and “what is this” in basic Mandarin. He will proceed to say something and I wouldn’t know if the fish was a bass or a bream.

Today, we decided to head down to the markets earlier than usual. Probably a little too early. We reached Tiong Bahru Market at 5am in the morning when everyone was still in lala-land, and surprisingly enjoyed the peace and quiet of an empty market. Half the stalls were not open, and the other half were busy unloading cartons of fresh produce. With only a few stalls ready, we bought whatever we could get hold of. We giggled about how in Singapore the early bird doesn’t get the worm because the worms were still burrowed underground sleeping. Breakfast afterwards was a pain as well; no yum cha restaurant opens until 10am!

A pre-planned shopping list is usually dictates our meals for the week and of course whatever catches our eye. The asparagus crept into our basket this morning. Being greedy as usual, we brought both the thick ‘jumbo’ ones and the thin pencil-like ‘sprue’ asparagus. Asparagus is best enjoyed within 24 hours after it has been picked as the sugars in the plant will turn into starch. Moisture is also lost as time passes. But most of our asparagus are from Malaysia so we’ll have to make do if what we have. (Another dream to taste freshly cut asparagus raw… SOON.)

Without losing any more precious time, we decided to turn the woody stems into a creamy soup. Nothing beats a warm soup as part of Saturday lunch as a treat. The aroma of the asparagus dominates the palate; a certain earthiness and umami comes through strongly. Ned tried her hand on Timbales D’asperges (Asparagus Mould) but that did not come out very successful. It went into our tummies nonetheless. Maybe the sleep deprivation was hitting her.

I might be affected as well. Can’t think straight. Apologies if there are any spelling or grammatical errors. Just too sleepy. But the asparagus was worth every waking hour.

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Cream of Pumpkin and Sage Soup


This was the very first item that was included into the menu. We just had to do something about all the pumpkins that were in abundance. If we don’t have orange forests outside our door, let’s bring in this autumnal colour onto our table then. The sage added a complexity to a simple soup. Make this, and your guests will be asking for more. We can attest to that.

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