Thom & Aimee

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

Tag: tomato

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.

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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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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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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An Ode to England

The past two months have been quite hectic, from our trip to England, a short visit to Penang, some birthdays and a wedding (and plenty of deadlines from the real world). I’ve been meaning to sit down to write but it seems that thingies just pop out of nowhere. Those, and a little procrastination.

Flying to Europe was a first for the both of us, and going to England was almost surreal. To us, it was almost alien as any Doctor Who episode. England was a place we read about, saw on TV and heard on our favourite tunes. When one is a BBC junkie, London almost becomes a huge movie set. (Yes, we were hoping to miraculously bump into a Doctor, Loki, Sherlock, Merlin, Thorin or even Robb Stark.)

The biggest pull was the culinary scene and the farm-to-table movement. To us, the English countryside was what the Shire was to the hobbits: living off the ground you lovingly tiled and worked on. Plenty of restaurants in England have embraced seasonal cooking and local produce, which was what we wanted to experience firsthand.

London was very much a city of the current world with a blend of heritage and modernity. The concrete skyline, the bustling streets, the swarms of faceless people, the noise, the endless cookie-cutter boutiques and cafes – not very unlike Singapore or any other urban city. Of course, if you dig deeper, you’d uncover curious finds that shed a different light.

It was however the cities outside of London that captured our hearts. The vast skies, open fields, little rivers, lush woodlands, pretty towns and flocks of free-ranging animals. Train rides were never dull. (Typical city girls ooh-ing and ahh-ing at every cow we passed by. Imagine how silly we sounded.)

To be honest, I was a little intimidated to write this piece (hence the very very long delay). Travel stories can become slightly self-absorbed and sound like a review out of Condé Nast Traveler. But if I could describe the whole journey in a nutshell: it was not love at first sight, but a familiar friend. It was about being comfortable, like an old married couple. England felt like home away from home!

Alas, eleven days felt too short a time to fully experience the spectrum of cuisines England had to offer. And to that we say “So much food, so little space (in our tummies)”. There were so many restaurants, cafes and bakeries we have yet to try. Hopefully, one day we can come back to savour those lost opportunities. And maybe use the local ingredients to whip up a few dishes of our own.

Our first dish after coming back was the English breakfast sans black pudding. Our interpretation includes runny scrambled eggs topped with chives; pork sausages and bacon cooked in their own fat; mélange of mushrooms sautéed with garlic; baked beans; roasted tomatoes with rosemary and freshly baked bread.

I will slowly but surely post our adventures in England as time goes by, so do look out for our Two Hobbits Travel tag. Yes, I will try not to be lazy.

Hummus and Wholemeal Pita Bread

I don’t remember what I ate on my first visit at a Middle Eastern restaurant or who I was with. All I ever seem to recall and crave almost frequently is the humble hummus. One cannot have a Middle Eastern meal and not have hummus as part of the feast. In fact, our cravings for this chickpeas ‘mash’ are so strong that we lumber into Arab Street quite often.

After the Chinese New Year celebrations, my Hummus Attacks appeared much more often and flipping through Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem did not help curb it. In fact, it only made matters worse. As sheep bleat, likewise I groan the word ‘hummus’ like a possessed zombie. By doing so, I have finally succeeded in pushing N’s tolerance levels and thus, there was really no choice but to start cracking at making our own survival bags of precious hummus.

One of the motivations in setting up Thom & Aimee was so that N could venture into the world of bread making. If pastries were her spouse, bread was probably her mistress. There is something therapeutic to smell the perfumes of dough in the oven, it is almost intoxicating. But bread is a temperament lady and requires plenty of affection and attention. Like old wives’ tales about making homemade wines, bread seem to have a hint of pettiness. Treat them with respect and they will do their jobs.

We paired our lovely hummus with some homemade wholemeal pita bread, served alongside cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. Craving satisfied and misson accomplished.

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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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