Monday, March 9, 2015

Sugar-free Banana Carrot Loaf

To be honest, the reason why I don't bake a lot is because I can't bring myself to measure out the cups of sugar or mounds of butter that are so often required in most traditional baking recipes. So when I find a sweet-thing recipe that has minimal amounts of either, I'm almost immediately sold.

These days, there's no shortage of recipes accommodating the 'sugar-free' lifestyle, but I find it interesting to note how they substitute other ingredients for regular white or brown sugar. Often, I find it's honey, maple syrup, or dates; but even more often it's slightly obscure (read: expensive) options like agave syrup, rice malt syrup, stevia (a plant-derived sweetener), or coconut sugar - to name a few.

Without a doubt, I prefer recipes which use the former, mostly for cost and even familiarity to an extent, and seeing ingredient lists things like rice malt syrup, I'm almost immediately turned off. So for those reasons, I love the following recipe because it uses good ol' fashioned dates and bananas.

I discovered this recipe a few months ago on My New Roots - an inspired, natural foods and nutrition-based blog by Canadian, Sarah B., who bases herself in Copenhagen. She writes incredibly accessible healthy recipes with thorough nutritional information about key ingredients. To be honest, I haven't made much from her blog - reading it more for inspiration and guilt-free food porn - but her 'Best Friends Banana Carrot Cake' inspired me to get baking.

Sugar-free Banana Carrot Loaf makes a 9"x13.5" loaf
// from My New Roots //
I've renamed this a 'loaf' instead of 'cake', as I never feel the need to ice the finished product as Sarah B. does in the original recipe. If you feel lost without icing, I'd recommend cream cheese swirled through with maple syrup or honey; otherwise, I love it plain, or with a dollop of full-fat organic yoghurt and some honey for a comforting spike of sweetness. A perfect option for breakfast or an anytime-of-day treat.

2 c wholemeal flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp fine sea salt (*less if using salted butter)
3/4 c finely chopped walnuts
110g unsalted* butter, heated until just melted
1/2 c dried dates, seeded & finely chopped into a paste
3 ripe bananas (1 1/4 c), mashed well
1 1/2 c grated carrots, about 3 medium
handful each of raisins, dried pineapple, coconut flakes - or anything like it that you fancy (chocolate included)
1/2 c plain yoghurt
2 eggs, lightly whisked

Preheat oven to 180degC / 350degF. Line a 9x5x3" loaf or 8x8" cake pan with parchment paper. Sift flour, b.p., cinnamon, and salt together in medium bowl. Stir in walnuts and set aside. Stir dates into melted butter, breaking up dates slightly.

In large separate bowl, combine banana and carrots, and add date/butter mix, stirring together and breaking up dates as you go. Whisk in yoghurt and eggs. Add flour mix and stir until everything just comes together. Spoon into prepared pan. Bake for about 50-70 mins (with a loaf pan, mine is ready around 60-65 minutes, it will be less if using a cake pan where the thickness of the cake is less), or until a toothpick tests clean in the centre. Remove from oven and cool.

Instead of icing, serve simply with full-fat natural yoghurt.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Chinese New Year: Simple Noodle Soup

Mushroom and Bok Choy Noodle Soup

Any excuse for noodles! But here, the soup brings it all together.

To a base chicken stock, add slices of ginger, garlic, spring onions (the white part), soy sauce and simmer for 10-15 minutes, removing aromatics. Taste for seasoning. Pre-cook dried noodles in a separate pot of boiling water, drain and set aside.

I experimented with the mushroom (I had portobello, but dried shiitake would be ideal, especially for adding the hydration liquid to the soup base) - pan-frying half in reserved chicken fat for super flavour (there is no vegetarian alternative for flavour here), leaving half raw to be cooked by the soup.

To assemble // Over a spoonful of chicken fat (optional, but inspired by Japanese ramen preparation), place cooked noodles in serving bowl. Soft poach an egg separately (or prepare a boiled egg), while bringing soup back up to a gentle boil and poaching bok choy for up to a minute, until just cooked. Remove and arrange with noodles. Add mushrooms and place egg atop. Add soup to bowl, gently pouring over everything to reheat. Leftover chicken would be a most welcome addition.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Chinese New Year Dumplings

Goats, Westport, New Zealand

On February 19th, we welcomed in the year of the goat*. This marked the beginning of Chinese New Year, one of my favourite occasions to celebrate. As a person of Chinese descent, I've grown up with various traditions surrounding the 16-day holiday (including washing my hair on Chinese New Year's Eve to go into the new year cleansed of the year previous, and prepared to receive the festival season's luck and fortunes); and, of course it has always involved food.
*Or sheep, or ram - the Chinese character yáng  covers all three hooved animals, requiring an additional preceding character to clarify, e.g. shān yáng 山羊 translates to goat specifically (shān means mountain).

As with everything surrounding the Chinese New Year celebrations, there are symbolic foods you are encouraged to eat to invite good luck and prosperity in the coming year. The auspicious symbolism is derived from both the pronunciation or appearance of food being translatable to words or objects which inspire luck, wealth, or personal success and growth.

The foods vary across the different regions of China as well as different countries altogether. For example, in Singapore and Malaysia (where my family are from), a favourite dish to ring in the new year is the Yusheng (鱼生) or 'Prosperity Toss' salad platter. It consists typically of slices of raw fish (salmon in my experience), various (yet specific) shredded vegetables, crunchy crackers, peanuts, sesame seeds, and a slightly sweet/sour plum sauce, rice vinegar, lime and sesame oil dressing. It arrives at the table as a platter of ingredients, and the tradition is to stand with your table to toss the salad together, while reciting auspicious phrases or wishes. When I took my non-Chinese friends to do this last week, we simply said a prolonged Yum Sing ('cheers') during the toss, as I remembered doing growing up when we enjoyed the dish in a large setting of up to 20 tables doing it simultaneously. It's been a few years since my last Yusheng salad, so I relished reenacting the tradition and sharing it with friends who had never experienced it before.

The Yusheng platter at Yang Ming Yuan, Princes Street, Cork - seasonings, e.g. pepper, are inside the red envelopes

After moving out of home and missing out on my father's annual organised CNY celebrations and banquets, my go-to Chinese New Year celebration (and everyday comfort) food has been dumplings (jiaozi, 饺子). Last year, I made my first dumpling wrappers from scratch and was stoked with how easy it was (2 parts flour + up to 1 part just-boiled water + time). So last week, I decided to go all out and buy the special high-gluten flour from the Chinese supermarket which is supposedly ideal for dumpling wrappers.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Lemongrass Beef Noodle Salad

Savoured for it's fresh, fragrant and subtly citrus flavour, lemongrass is a penetrating - yet non-overpowering - component of many South East Asian dishes. If you enjoy Vietnamese or Thai food, you'll recognise the flavour straight away.

This noodle salad is loosely inspired by one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes: bun bo xao - stir-fried lemongrass beef served over room-temperature vermicelli rice noodles. Slices of steak beef (e.g. sirloin, skirt, scotch) are normally used, however I had some leftover beef mince in the fridge so adapted the idea to suit.

The salad aspect is also flexible - slices of cucumber, bean sprouts, shredded crispy lettuce, peanuts, crispy fried shallots, and fresh herbs, such as cilantro, basil, mint, small perilla (shiso) leaves are typical; but I used what I had, including thin slices of green pepper and mixed seeds, providing alternative elements of freshness and texture.

What is mandatory, however, are the cooled rice noodles, the Vietnamese dipping sauce/salad dressing, and the lemongrass, garlic and fish sauce beef marinade. 

Lemongrass Beef Noodle Salad

Monday, February 2, 2015

Chicken, Better Than I've Ever Known Before

What meat-eater doesn't love chicken? While top chefs might balk at the idea of the Colonel's meat-of-choice having any true culinary value - unlike beef, lamb or even duck, with their complex age-able flavours - the capacity of chicken as a vehicle for flavour is worthy enough for celebration. These were my thoughts after cooking the, aptly named, 'Bademiya's* Justly Famous Bombay Chile-and-Cilantro Chicken'.
*A quick Google search for 'Bademiya' brought me here and while the NYT recipe doesn't use milk/cream ('malai') in the marinade, 'Chicken Malai Tangdi' on the menu is my best guess at this dish's inspiration. Safe to say that Bademiya is also now on my 'Places to visit in India' list.

This page in my copy of The Essential New York Times Cook Book has been bookmarked since day one and I was stoked to finally try it out. It's list of ingredients is fairly basic, and if you have ever cooked any simple Indian recipes before, you'll most likely have what you need for the chicken in your pantry already.

And while not essential (a quality hot sauce would be a fine accompaniment), the Cilantro Sauce included in the recipe takes this dish above-and-beyond already finger-lickin' delicious - yet in an unexpected direction, given the slight bitterness and textural aspect of the walnuts.

Bademiya's Justly Famous Bombay Chile and Cilantro Chicken

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Zucchini, Chilli and Smoked Buffalo Mozzarella Pizza

The inspiration for this came partly from Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook of Sortsby Russell Norman, which I've gushed about before, and partly from the smoked buffalo mozzarella I came across in the specialty Italian deli in town. For me, good pizzette (small pizzas)or pizza in general, is characterised by a thoughtful selection of a few fresh, quality ingredients and a good thin - slightly chewy, slightly crisp around the edges - base.

In this case, the smoked buffalo mozzarella was my starting point. From there, I selected a zucchini, red chilli and freshly grated parmesan to complement. In Polpo, Norman has a recipe which includes all of the above, but with mint and, instead of lovely, soft, fresh mozzarella, he recommends the cheap, hard, standard supermarket kind. This is a great option for when cheese is intended as a backdrop, but for this, I wanted the smoke of the mozzarella to sing. I omitted the mint also, as I had none on hand, but used chopped fresh parsley for freshness and as a garnish to finish.

For the pizza base, I turned to my quick flatbread recipe (not dissimilar to a standard pizza dough recipe), which has become a staple in my kitchen for it's ease, convenience and never-disappointing results. Once you've made it a few times, you'll know what I mean.

Zucchini, chilli and smoked buffalo mozzarella pizza

To accompany the pizza, I made spiced kumara (sweet potato) fries with a lemon-spiked yoghurt dip. And apart from making the base from scratch (use pre-made pizza bases or flatbreads if you wish), this took little effort to put together.