27 February 2012

A wok in the park!

A wok must be one of the most useful utensils in the kitchen and is well worth the investment. No home should be without one. If you are without one and thinking of buying just make sure it is suitable for your type of hob as many are not designed for western stoves. It is worth doing a little research before you purchase. In Europe we tend to associate woks with one particular type of cooking style probably as a result of our exposure to Chinese take aways but with a little lateral thinking it can be used for many different types of cooking such as frying, stir frying, braising, deep frying, boiling and steaming, searing and stewing. Indeed over much of Asia where one ring cookers are the norm it is probably the only cooking vessel in many homes. As far as we are concerned we both discovered this style of cooking at very different times, no prizes for guessing which one grew up watching his mum and sisters cook with a wok over a fierce heat whilst the other had to wait to go to California in his early 20's to be introduced to the wonders of stir fry in 1980's. But whatever the introduction once tried it has remained a favourite cooking method ever since. It is quick, healthy and easy to master and more importantly the texture and crunchiness of vegetables along with their nutritional content is maintained better than any other cooking method we know. Besides it is one pot cooking so cuts down on mess and the washing up. A piece of cake, a walk in the park!

If you haven't cooked with a wok before and are trying one out the recipe below is simple, straight forward and fun. It is a great way to get into the mind set required and once you master this one you will be able to cook almost anything. In this recipe we have listed some of our favourite vegetables but many others can be used like carrot, celery courgettes, broccoli, French beans, cauliflower etc etc etc. The rule of thumb is of course to give the hardest vegetables the longest cooking time. Also its easiest indeed essential to have prepared all your ingredients beforehand as stir fry cooking is so fast it requires your full attention and once you start and there is very little time to do anything. The list of ingredients looks long but most are items necessary for wok cooking and once you have bought them once the will stay in your store cupboard indefinitely.Two wooden spatulas are probably best for tossing.

Ingredients (serves two)

1 large breast of chicken sliced
1 red onion chopped
1 red pepper chopped
Handful mange touts
Handful baby sweetcorn (halved lengthwise)
Handful roasted cashew nuts
Handful button mushrooms
3 tbsp vegetable oil (Rape seed or peanut)
2 cloves garlic chopped
2 cms ginger chopped
2 tbsp Soy sauce
2 tbsp Oyster sauce
1 tbsp mirin
1 tsp sesame oil

Heat the wok over high heat until it starts to smoke lightly. Put in the vegetable oil and fry the onions until softened. Add the ginger, garlic and chicken and toss continuously until the chicken turns opaque. Meanwhile in a small bowl combine the soy sauce, oyster sauce and mirin and add into the wok. Mix until liquid is slightly thickened then add the red pepper and toss again for a few minutes until the pepper softens slightly. If  the wok become too dry or the ingredients catch pour a little water in. Finally add the mange touts button mushrooms, cashew nuts and sesame. Toss for about 20 seconds and then turn out into serving bowls

23 February 2012

Poussin Galore

If in doubt about the likes and dislikes of your dinner party or Sunday lunch guests roast chicken is always a very safe option to serve. It's high up there among the top ranking comfort foods but you do run the definite risk of being considered a little unimaginative and dare we say it boring! In a restaurant I always steer away from it for example as to us it screams default option!

Poussins on the other hand are fun to dish up. A single bird arriving on each plate has a certain medieval feast wow factor plus your dinner guests will enjoy having their very own bird all to themselves. Everybody gets everything so there will be no argument as to who gets breast, leg or wing. Starchy barriers are rapidly broken down as initial attempts to grapple with cutlery give way to fingers under your encouragement. Just make sure the table is liberally scattered with serviettes and wipes and if you want to push the boat out finger bowls might also be a novel idea.

 Poussins are young chickens and generally weigh between 400 - 500 grammes so one bird per diner is the perfect portion. Being smaller they are also quicker to cook and easier to flavour. You can fit six or eight on a single roasting tray and they will take just about an hour at a temperature of 180 C. (Always cook the meat from room temperature). The shorter roasting time also allows you to be more daring with marinades and flavours without the risk of burning the skin and the breast meat drying out. They are simplicity itself to prepare. We recommend spicing them up with a slightly unusual marinade smeared over the entire bird. You can be infinitely imaginative about this but for example dilute a little curry paste - we find bought massaman paste works well - in cooking oil and melted butter and smear over the entire bird. Alternatively try a little sweet chilli sauce. You will find the sugar content will tend to burn turning the skin much darker. If you are concerned this is happening too fast cover the birds with foil until the last 20 minutes of cooking or alternative cook the birds "up-side-down". For further flavour place a garlic clove, a baton of ginger, a quarter small onion and slice of lime or lemon inside the cavity of each bird. Finally sprinkle the skin liberally with salt and place in the oven.

16 February 2012

Swedish Bullar

I sometimes do freelance work in a small chain of Danish boutiques where I have had the good fortune to meet many lovely people from Scandinavia. They are all foodies and we have long discussions about food swapping Malaysian and Scandinavian tips and recipes. One particularly good friend, Maria from Sweden brought Bullar, a pastry in one day for me to try. I was instantly hooked.  If you like Danish pastries you must try the neighbouring Swedish version. In actual fact Sweden is the thought to be where this type of pastry originated and in Swedish are known as Bullar from kannelbulle or cinnamon roll. They are so popular that they even have their own day of celebration, the 4th October is Kanelbulles Dag! They are a far less brash, more subtle variety of pastry which doesn't have the high sugar content and sticky glaze always found on their southern or North American cousins. Instead they use pearl sugar which leaves a much cleaner taste. The dough might be described as a cross between a scone and a Danish pastry. It consists of a sheet of yeast dough onto which a mixture of cinnemon and sugar is sprinkled over a thin layer of butter. The dough is then cut and rolled into individual portions and baked.  Finally being dusting with icing sugar and/or pearl sugar sprinkled on top.

Throughout Scandinavia various interpretations are always on offer which may vary in size and content but certainly not in popularity. They are eaten at any time in the day and chances are if you are invited into a Swedish home you will be offered a cinnamon bun.


1 packet instant yeast
240ml milk
400g flour
1 tsp salt
1 pinch of sugar
57g melted butter
1 tsp vanilla extract

57g butter, softened
100g sugar
2 tbsp ground cinnamon

1 egg, beaten and mix with 1 tbsp water (eggwash)
Swedish pärlsocker (pearl sugar)

Warm milk at the temperature recommended by the yeast packet. Mix dry yeast with the milk and a pinch of sugar and let it activate, about 10 minutes.
In a KitchenAid mixer, mix yeast mixture, vanilla extract, and melted butter in the bowl. Attach the dough hook and start mixing on low speed. Slowly add flour and salt, little by little, until all is incorporated to the wet ingredients. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes until dough comes clean off the bowl.
Lightly oil another mixing bowl and transfer dough over. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise in a slightly warm place until it doubles the weight, about a couple of hours.
Preheat the oven at 350 degrees.
Roll out the dough in a form of a rectangle, about 18 inches wide and 1/4 inch thick.
Brush dough with softened butter. Sprinkle it evenly with ground cinnamon and sugar. Cut dough lengthwise into strips 3/4 inch wide. Take two strips hold at one end and twist finish by tucking the two ends underneath. Set them on a parchment lined tray, with each roll two inches apart. Let it rise again for one hour.
Brush with eggwash and sprinkle with pearl sugar. Bake the rolls in the oven for about 10 minutes or until brown.

9 February 2012

My Goodness my Beef in Guinness!

Never has a single product been more associated with a nation. Just mention that you are from Dublin and people automatically say Guinness although its quite possible they have never even tried it. Guinness, a porter style beer which originated in the 17th century and now known as stout has been brewed in the city since 1759 and its highly distinctive burnt flavour which is derived from the use of roasted unmalted barley has become popular all over the world. By 1914 St James Gate, Guinness's 64 acre brewery in the heart of Dublin was the biggest brewery in the world. Today it is still the world's biggest stout brewery.

In the past claims that Guinness was beneficial to your health led to the famous slogans "Guinness is good for you", "Guinness for strength" and "My goodness my Guinness". Today of course such claims are banned by law in Ireland but as a kid I was often told that my aunt who had a kidney removed in the 1940's was prescribed a pint of Guinness every day to speed convalescence by her specialist. A teetotaler, so this was quite an ordeal for her, she used to tell me how she would hold her nose and down the pint in one. It is still widely believed that Guinness is indeed good for you and many of Ireland's senior citizens are said to thrive on a daily dose! In the 1930's faced with stagnant sales the company embarked on probably one of the earliest co-ordinated advertising campaigns and combined the slogans with the iconic toucan across all forms of media available at the time. The posters from the time are clever, whitty and memorable and have become highly collectable.Inevitably the black gold as it is sometimes called has worked its way into Irish cuisine. When I used to make Christmas pudding with my mother every year we always put a bottle of stout into the mix. There are recipes for cheesecake, ice cream, chocolate cake chicken casserole, lamb shanks and many more all calling for Guinness but by far the best match in our opinion is undoubtedly beef steak and Guinness stew. It's a real winter warmer and should be served with lashings of creamy mashed potatoes.


1 kg lean stewing steak cubed
Butter/ oil
2 red onions sliced
2 cloves garlic sliced
3 carrots sliced
4 celery sticks sliced
3 tbsp plain flour
tsp cayenne pepper
sprig thyme
2 tbsps Worcestershire sauce
tsp tobasco sauce
375 ml Guinness
400 ml beef or chicken stock


Heat the oil and butter in an oven dish. Mix the cayenne pepper salt and pepper into the flour and cover each piece of meat. Brown in the oil butter mix and set aside. Fry the onions and garlic for a few minutes then add the celery and carrots and continue for another few. Add the meat, Guinness, stock, Worcestershire and tobasco sauces, thyme and season. Cover and cook in the oven at 180 C for an hour. Remove the lid stir and cook for a  further hour. Check the seasoning and garnish with roughly chopped parsley. Note : The Guinness will lend a rich unctuous quality to the jus to lighten this use chicken stock to augment it use beef.

3 February 2012

Pad Thai

Low tide at the Phang Nga Caves Christmas Day 2004 
Luckily for us the Evason Spa Retreat on Phuket is situated on a steep hillside. It was around 10.00 am on boxing day and yet another beautiful day in paradise. We had spent the previous day, Christmas day exploring the Phang Nga Bay National Park in small canoes wandering in and out of flooded lagoons and caves so low we could only go in at low tide and even then we had to lie flat in the boat as the boatman steered us along with his feet on the roof. Its where the James Bond movie "The Man with the Golden Gun" was filmed and is unforgettable scenery! This morning we had just packed our bags and booked a taxi, ready for our immanent departure to the airport for the short flight across the Southern Thailand peninsula to Kho Samui so just time for a late hotel breakfast served in the idillic poolside restaurant down the hill right beside the sea.

The destroyed jetty and capsized boats, Boxing Day 
Breakfast was an elaborate affair with a dazzling choice of Western and Asian dishes on offer at the buffet but bacon, eggs and sausages somehow seemed slightly incongruous with the setting, the warm breeze and the bright sunshine so we usually plumbed for the Asian choice of Pad Thai. Ominously the Thai chefs who we used to chat to every morning were not their usual cheery selves and even remarking on the odd grey colour of the sea and warning against swimming today. As we sat there tucking into the noodles our experience of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami suddenly and without warning began to unfold. A dramatic drop in sea level was closely followed by a destructive wave bubbling unnaturally and sweeping perpendicularly in front of us destroying a wooden jetty, capsizing and smashing mored boats and throwing several people into the sea. The wave continued on to flood the infinity swimming pool depositing a shoal of large bewildered and dazed fish in it. Pandamonium broke out as attempts were made to rescue the people in the water whilst the Tannoy crackled out hysterical warnings for us to leave the restaurant area immediately and head back up the hill to the relative safety of the main hotel buildings. So began several dramatic days as the full tragedy and horror of what had happened slowly began to dawn....

The Pad Thai we were eating for breakfast on that memorable morning is now one of Thailand's national dishes available on every street corner but this was not always the case. Originally introduced from Vietnam rice noodles have been eaten in Thailand for centuries but it was not until a government initiative in the 30's and 40's to ween the population off its high rice dependency and encourage the production of rice noodles so there would be more rice available for international export that they became really popular. It is a stir fried dish with rice noodles, garlic, chilli and tamarind and any combination of bean sprouts, prawns, chicken and tofu, garnished with crushed peanuts, spring onion, coriander and lime.

(Serves 4):

250 g Rice noodles
500 g King Prawns peeled and cooked
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp tamarind paste
2 tbsp palm or brown sugar
2 tbsp Fish sauce
2 eggs beaten
200 g Bean sprouts
2 Carrots
Juice of 1 Lime
2 Garlic cloves peeled and crushed
1 tbsp Chilli paste

2 Spring Onions
50 g Crushed roast Peanuts
Roughly torn Coriander
Lime wedges
3 tbsp Peanut or Rapeseed Oil

Heat 3 tbsps oil in a wok until quite hot. Meanwhile prepare the rice noodles as per the pack instructions. (Normally soak for 10 - 15 minutes in warm water - save a little of the water in case noodles become too dry). Mix lime juice, tamarind paste, palm sugar and fish sauce in a bowl. Fry the garlic and chilli in the wok and cook for 2 minutes but do not allow to burn. Add carrots and fry till slightly soft then add the liquid mixture and stir for about a minute, reduce slightly. Add beaten egg and scramble until almost cooked. Throw in prawns, bean sprouts, spring onion and drained noodles and toss well. Check for seasoning if more salt required sprinkle fish sauce over. Turn out onto serving dish and garnish with coriander, lime wedges and peanuts.