Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Eating in... Christchurch

I was so impressed with my visit to Christchurch. Besides the lovely gap-filler projects, that certainly communicate a sense of sensitive robustness, there were more than a handful of eateries I wanted to visit. One that I sadly missed was the Harlequin Public House by famous local chef Johnny Schwass, but I at least got to a few others. This included legendary Dimitri's Souvlaki, acclaimed Burmese restaurant The Bodhi Tree, the new-ish Cassel & Son's Brewery and Brew Bar and well-established local favourite Burgers & Beers.

Dimitri's Greek Food, Re:START mall

Dimitri's is set up in a food truck in Cashel Street's extremely well done Re:START mall.  A conglomerate of brightly-painted upcycled shipping containers, they are occupied with various retailers while a central sound stage provides live music. I was content soaking in the atmosphere as I waited, not long, for my lamb souvlaki and again as I tried to devour it as gracefully as possible. If you know what a turkish kebab is like, these are definitely messier (a fork is required) however ten times tastier. The generous pieces of lamb are so juicy and tender, and spiced just so that the accompanying tzatziki continuously provides a balance, and the fresh tomato and lettuce a lightness.

Regular lamb souvlaki goodness 

The Bodhi Tree (399 Ilam Road, Bryndwr), on the other hand, is best enjoyed in company. The renowned 'only Burmese restaurant in the country' serves up small dishes to share, which is lucky for me because they was so much on the menu I wanted to try. Without sounding pretentious, the famous tea leaf salad was a revelation. Beautiful light textures, with crunch, yet a rich flavour which reminded us of pesto (a good thing in my mind).  It was unlike anything I've eaten before. The shredded chicken salad (with salad greens, and a lemon, shallot, shallot oil, chilli and coriander dressing) and grilled eggplant (dressed in similar, minus the lemon) were the other standouts for me. I'll definitely be back there for the seafood dishes and more salads, eventually. Either that, or we'll just have to try make it to Burma/Myanmar.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Leaving New Zealand

I can hardly believe six weeks have passed since my last post. During the first two weeks, I felt the constant internal nag of needing to post something new but after then, I knew I needed to give in to what was happening in my life.

I finished up at my work, moved out of my flat and packed up our belongings to be sent away in a ship, half way across the world. I grappled with an extraordinary mix of emotions dealing with this immense change: sadness to be leaving much-loved friends and colleagues; the stress of packing and organising trip details; nerves of the future unknown; but also equally, the excitement of the many adventures to come. However obvious, I am most ecstatic about all of the foods we will come across on our travels as I am a fervent believer of cultural experience through eating.

Leaving Wellington also meant careful consideration of where I was sharing last meals with friends. Perhaps I've overdone some of the old favourites over my nine or so years in the capital, but I had a very select few places where I wanted to eat in my last two weeks. For easy and indulgent dinners, I went to Taste of India (19 Cambridge Terrace, takeaway only) for my favourite Indian in town, not to mention great value.  Rumour has it they brought their tandoor oven from India on a ship in the 70's, so I just had to have their freshly-made naan and tandoor-baked chicken one last time.

The best Indian takeaway in Wellington, Taste of India
Naan made-to-order and tandoori chicken behind

For lunch with the girls, I revisited Nikau Cafe (Civic Square, next to City Gallery) for their kedgeree and also Ti Kouka (upstairs, 76 Willis Street) where I enjoyed a rich braised short rib burger, while ginger and anise chicken hot dogs and a pulled pork roll were ordered around the table. All fantastically worthwhile and delicious. My only regret was that I couldn't fit in a salted caramel cookie from their sweet-things-counter afterwards.

My last day at work saw the sun shining, so I grabbed a crowd of friends and went to Golding's Free Dive (14 Leeds Street) for a sneaky drink in the sunny sheltered courtyard and some Pizza Pomodoro from across the lane. Such a great set-up, I will be back here.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Eating in... Auckland

For so long, Wellington has been known as the foodie capital of New Zealand. With great cafes, quality dining options and apparently the most eateries per capita in the world, the claim was not far fetched.  However, recently, Auckland has been stepping their game up.

In the last year, it seems as if a new cafe or restaurant has been opening there every other week. They're all designed with their own strong sense of character and are equally as enticing as the next. Lately, I've managed to try a few different spots: The Food Truck, Federal Delicatessen (next to Al Brown's other Federal Street joint, the repeatedly tried-and-true Depot), Orleans and Fukuko.

The Food Truck Garage, City Works Depot, 90 Wellesley Street
Luckily for me, I arrived at chef Michael van de Elzen's cafe, derived from his successful television series The Food Truck, at 2.50pm - 10 minutes before the kitchen closed for lunch.  I promptly ordered the Paua Dog (paua and pickled free range pork with horseradish, avocado salsa and lentils in a spelt flour roll) and Baked Chips (skin-on Agria potato, swede and beets with lime emulsion), while I was served complimentary sparkling water with a slice of lemon.  Lovely.

I have been a Food Truck fan since the start, enjoying van de Elzen's healthy and refreshing take on takeaway comfort classics. His variation on the hot dog, incorporating the often under-appreciated 'steak of the sea', excited me as soon as I read it off the menu. I'm a big advocate for paua so I was happy to see it being employed in this unexpected manner.

Food Truck Garage

It did not disappoint. The paua and pork sausage was plump and juicy, and you could taste hints of the sea whilst not being overwhelmed. Perfect for those who might be skeptical of the concept, but I would have loved an even stronger paua flavour. The avocado salsa worked brilliantly to counter and lighten the meatiness of the sausage, while the micro greens brought a delicate crunch to the mix. The roll also was a standout in itself. Fresh, soft, textural, with the addition of seeds to provide bite - it was a star component.  More than I expected, it was the most pleasant of surprises.

The Baked Chips and Paua Dog

The Baked Chips were, comparably, okay. Being the last run of lunch service was no excuse for dried out potatoes and this was disappointing. The swede and beets were better and with the lime emulsion, it provided a fair accompaniment to my 'dog.

Federal Delicatessen, 86 Federal Street
Complimentary crisps with a smoked salmon dip helped me to make a more rational - less hunger-driven - decision
The array of salads: (l-r) Grilled Eggplant, Spiced Roast Pumpkin and Roast Cauliflower
 A fine selection of lox, including spiced, dill and citrus, with a slice of lemon meringue pie with freeze-dried raspberries being prepared in the background

Saturday, October 5, 2013

An Everlasting Meal

Following completion of the Live Below the Line challenge, I can honestly say I've been thinking about food a little differently. Often, it's the more magnified understanding of what food really costs but equally, I am able to remind myself about what it can cost. I spent most of last weekend eating out and spending twice the amount of five days living below the line ($11.25) on a below par meal was very frustrating (Beach Babylon, you've seen the last of me).

I am pretty pleased with the meals I created over the challenge (especially the nachos) and considering the budget, even more so. During the week, I made a variation of the pumpkin, carrot and potato fritters, adding both white and black sesame seeds for colour, some pinenuts (for lack of cashews in the pantry) for richness and a large tablespoon of Australian bush herbs. All simple enhancements, based on what I have lying around - this is full-heartedly the type of cooking I enjoy.

A glimpse into my humble pantry

I'm sure it is becoming evident for anyone who reads my blog that I thrive on making the most of what's already in the pantry/fridge or what's cheap and readily available (e.g. in season). Maybe it's been ingrained into me since I was a kid, shopping at the supermarket with my parents where we only ever bought items that were on special. It never occurred to me that everyone else didn't do the same until I started flatting in university! Of course, now, there are exceptions for specialty ingredients but the principle has stuck.

Reflecting on the limited budget available during Live Below the Line, this is in fact how many people have to shop every week. As while we are aware of those who live in extreme poverty in underdeveloped countries, there are also those who struggle to live week-to-week, even day-to-day, in our developed towns and cities.  Even for those of us who are merely on a budget, for any number of reasons, we have to make sure we can get the most out of our dollars.

Instead of teaching people how to spend their money, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler (2011), teaches readers how to cook: simply, smartly and, as the title suggests, with economy and grace. She inspires readers to rediscover food and, most importantly, to find the courage to trust their intuition.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Living Below the Line - The Last Day

The last day of the Live Below the Line challenge is here and who knew it would go by so quickly. Yesterday, while travelling for work, went surprisingly without too much desire for unsolicited snacks despite sitting in an upmarket cafe while my work colleague ate a panini and passionfruit yo-yo across from me. I, in turn, had my dhal nacho mix and half bag of corn chips ready in tupperware, which I ate with excitement.

After almost having completed the challenge (I continue to eat lunch as I speak), it has made me realise that it is completely possible to eat well on a tight budget.  The key factors are obviously having access to a regular market, good bulk bin-style supermarkets (usually cheaper than buying pre-packaged) and probably a knack for cooking. Nutrition-wise, I think I've been doing reasonably well and quantities have been surprisingly more than decent (however, the very watered down pumpkin soup was the least palatable of my meals). Last night's dinner made so much food that I've got leftovers past the LBTL challenge and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to finish my lunch portion.

Day 5's dinner: Chickpea, pumpkin, spinach and potato 'salad'.  After soaking all of my dried chickpeas (246g, $0.74) overnight, boil for about 20-25 minutes in plenty of water until cooked.  Drain and reserve. Dice 1/2 onion ($0.10) and slice the white part of two green onions ($0.30), reserving green parts for later. Sauté in 1 tsp oil ($0.05) with 1 tsp each of cayenne pepper, oregano and cumin ($0.15) until soft.  Add roughly diced 1/2 potato ($0.08) and 1/5 peeled crown pumpkin ($0.40) with 1/2 c water to steam vegetables, covering with a lid, until tender.  Meanwhile, plunge spinach ($0.95) in water to remove all dirt and chop roughly. Add to pan and combine as spinach wilts.  Season with 1/2 tsp each of salt and pepper ($0.03) and garnish with sliced green onions, reserved from earlier.  (Total = $2.80)  

Chickpea, spinach, pumpkin and potato salad - heaps of it

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Living Below the Line - Day 3 and 4

"Variety's the spice of life." 
~ William Cowper (British poet, 1731-1800)

I have never had as much appreciation for this saying as I have this week.  Cooking for one is incredibly inefficient and the result, cooking with fresh ingredients and on a budget, often means a lot of the same thing.  For the last three days, I have been eating a lot of pumpkin.  

Thankfully, in various forms (soup, risotto and fritters) but tonight was a welcome change.  I can't help but feel a need to finish eating what I've cooked before I make something else (fresh is best) so I've been in the routine of eating last night's dinner for today's lunch.  If I had the willpower, it would be a great idea to have a little of a few different things instead of having a lot of one to create the sense of a meal, as is the principle of many Asian cultures.

This morning's breakfast, morning tea (2 pieces) and afternoon tea: flatbread as per the last couple of days ($0.185), however I kneaded thinly sliced green onion into the dough once it had already been formed and cooked as per normal.  I've decided I prefer this to having the fresh green onion on top.

Lunch: last night's pumpkin, carrot, potato and onion fritters.  Even better as leftovers at room temperature when you can taste each component more vividly, I feel.

Day 4’s dinner: Tomato and dhal nachoes! I love nachoes and love how healthy you can make them by loading in heaps of vegetables and using plain, unflavoured corn chips.  All of my dhal lentils (312g, $0.93) parboiled in 500ml water with 1/2 tsp salt ($0.01), stirring frequently until water is absorbed and lentils are al dente. 1/2 onion ($0.10) diced, 1 green onion ($0.15), white part sliced and green reserved, sautéed in 1 tsp oil ($0.05) with 1 tsp each of cayenne pepper, cumin and dried oregano ($0.15).  Add cooked lentils, 1 can of whole peeled tomatoes ($0.88) and 1/2 potato ($0.09) grated straight into the pan and combine, heating through for a further couple of minutes to allow the tomatoes to break down and potato to cook through.  Season with 1/2 tsp each of salt and pepper ($0.03).

Tomato and dhal nachos

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Living Below the Line - Day 2

I'm currently reading the book Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, which has been nothing short of a brilliant read.  However brilliant, it is often harrowing as Demick describes the realities of North Koreans in terms of their hunger and suffering.  Withholding food became a device for creating class barriers until the entire country was unable to produce hardly any food at all due to increasingly poor relations with their Communist counterparts in the 90's.

Reading about the lengths of which people went to feed themselves (including hunting frogs to extinction, eating ground corn husks, tree bark and prostitution in exchange for noodles) is eye-opening and probably a suitable accompaniment to doing the Live Below the Line challenge for a mere 5 days.  I can hardly complain about being hungry when there are people around the world who seriously struggle to live - not just eat - off $2.25 a day, or less.

I reminded myself of this as I felt hunger pangs all morning despite having had my flatbreads for breakfast and morning tea ($0.185).  Lunch, as per last night's dinner (pumpkin and spinach risotto), lasted for 3 hours as I continued to work eating only spoonfuls at a time. A little often definitely helps to keep hunger at bay and eating less for dinner (e.g. before going to sleep) helps to have a larger serve for lunch. Fair to say, there was heaps of it!

Desktop lunch - leftover pumpkin and spinach 'risotto'

Dinner tonight was pumpkin, carrot, potato and onion fritters.  This is a recipe inspired by my go-to zucchini fritters which utilises the water leeched out of the zucchini itself from salt being sprinkled through it. Here, my selection of vegetables are naturally much dryer (except the potato) so I added water to help bind the ingredients.

1/5 crown pumpkin ($0.40), peeled, 1 carrot ($0.12), also peeled, and 1 potato ($0.20), skin on, coarsely grated with 1/2 onion ($0.10) diced and 1 sliced green onion ($0.15) in a large mixing bowl. Combine with 1 tsp salt ($0.02), 1 tsp curry powder ($0.05), 1 tsp cumin ($0.05), 45g chickpea flour (1/2 cup, $0.15) and 1/2 c water.  Mix thoroughly, tossing all ingredients together ensuring there are no lumps of chickpea flour left behind.  Heating a large skillet or pan with 1 tsp oil ($0.05), cook spoonfuls of the mix until lightly golden on both sides.  Eat! (Total = $1.29)

Pumpkin, carrot, potato and onion fritters

These would be perfect served with a fresh herb yoghurt sauce or even just some sweet chilli; as a vege burger or by themselves with some salad.  The recipe made heaps (at least 25 at the size seen above, though I lost count as I just started eating them right out of the pan) and is something I'd definitely make again. I'd love to add some seeds and some crushed toasted coriander seeds as well as a small pinch of smoked paprika to give further depth to the flavour... but these did nicely for today.  And will do again for lunch on Day 3.

I'm very excited about tomorrow's dinner though... Dhal and tomato nachoes!

To support me (and Oxfam) on the Live Below the Line challenge, please donate by clicking here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Living Below the Line - Day One and a half

It has begun. $11.25 to create all of my meals for the next 5 days (including today).

I spent most of the weekend food planning, writing everything down, evaluating the cost and quantity against a meal plan for the week.  I went to the market on Sunday and a few different shops throughout the week ensuring I could get the most bang from my buck and I think I have managed to allow myself a mid-week luxury.

Newtown market (photo taken a few months ago)
Moshims, 2-6 Wilson Street, Newtown - amazing for seasonings, spices, dhal, flours, rice, beans, etc, all sold by weight

My ingredients:
1 can of tomatoes ($0.88)
1 crown pumpkin ($2)
1 bunch of spinach ($1.25)
2 onions ($0.40)
2 carrots
2 potatoes ($0.65 for both)
1 bunch of green onions ($1)
1 sprig of rosemary (free, growing behind the local supermarket)
312g of Masoor dhal lentils ($0.93)
246g of chickpeas ($0.74)
350g of brown rice ($0.81)
500g flour ($0.65)
1 tsp yeast ($0.10)
45g chickpea flour ($0.15)
1 bag corn chips ($0.98) (the luxury - hurray for Pak n Save specials!)
Leaving $0.71 for oil and seasonings ($0.05 per 1 tsp oil, $0.01 per 1/2 tsp salt, $0.02 per 1/4 tsp pepper and for my herbs and spices I'm counting $0.05 per 1 tsp as I buy only at Indian/Asian shops where they sell by weight, as opposed to buying packets from the supermarket.)

The loot from the market
Supermarket goods

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Shared Lunch #4 for Oxfam

I've highlighted before the great global food gap that our world experiences across its many cultures, let alone in individual societies themselves.  In the same post, I committed myself to participating in the Live Below the Line challenge and, alas, next week I will finally be taking on the challenge.

To help fundraise and raise awareness, I dedicated all intake from Shared Lunch #4 to my chosen charity for the challenge: Oxfam.  I believe strongly in Oxfam and their approach to giving aid as they believe in empowerment and providing opportunities instead of short-term solutions alone - "helping people to help themselves".

Therefore, my Shared Lunch for charity seemed to me that it should be a simple meal with perhaps only the smallest flourish, and to cost less than $2.25 per head, despite being a slightly distorted parallel to the challenge itself (which is $2.25 for one day's worth of meals).  Nevertheless, I chose to make a soup with a couple of small extras.

Shared lunch #4: Roast pumpkin soup with herb oil and bread with Whitestone smoked butter.
I've been meaning to try Al Brown's new range of butter, in particularly the smoked flavour, and this meal presented the perfect opportunity to provide a sense of luxury to a simple dish.

Roast pumpkin soup with herb oil and bread with Whitestone smoked butter

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Shared Lunch #3

Continuing from my previous post...

Shared Lunch #3: Roast chicken sandwich with Christmas stuffing, coleslaw with toasted sesame seeds, gravy and crispy chicken skin in an Arobake baguette.  I'm sure I've mentioned this before but I love roast leftover sandwiches.  Even better when there is leftover gravy and stuffing to add to the memories of the dinner before, relived in a white bread sandwich (or roll) with a spread of butter and salad leaves when we're trying to pretend like it counters everything else.

Chicken (free-range, cornfed and organic)

Pre-heat oven to as high as possible.  Pat chicken dry with paper towels to allow undiluted absorption of crushed garlic, sea salt, plenty of black pepper and olive oil rubbed lovingly into all creases and folds to marinate for as long as possible. Because I have a cast-iron pan (which I highly recommend to anyone) I preheat this dry and high before adding the chicken to sear it off on both sides for a minute each (ending breast-side down), moving the bird in the pan periodically to prevent sticking. After this process I'm able to easily transfer the chicken straight into the oven, which has been preheated on high, lowering the heat to 170deg on transfer.  There's no proof that this helps to create a juicier roast chicken, but I like to think it does (as results confirm).  To aid in gravy production according to this recipe, I also add chopped potatoes, carrots and parsnip to sit underneath the chicken as it cooks.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Shared Lunches (#1 and #2)

I've started making lunch for work.  Not just for myself, but for the people I work with.  Part I-love-cooking-and-cooking-for-people and part can-I-really-make-food-that-people-would-pay-for?, I'm both excited and nervous to put the money where my mouth is.

For my bosses, I've guaranteed minimal time out of my expected working hours to do this, meaning I have to be thoughtful in what I prepare.  Majority of prep time should be accomplished at home and simple final touches and/or assembly left for the office. I've also limited the number of serves available each week because I need to cart it all in...!

Shared Lunch #1 was: Vietnamese-style Banh Mi with combination roasted pork loin and Chinese BBQ pork with homemade daikon and carrot pickle, pate, cucumber, coriander leaves and Sriracha in an Acme baguette.  As with any good Vietnamese dish, there is a good balance of salty, sour, sweet and spicy (I posted something similar here) and in my mind, you can't beat it.

I bought the Chinese BBQ pork from the biggest local Asian supermarket, that also makes it's own in-house BBQ and pickles, and the pork loin from the butchery around the corner which I roasted in chicken fat (from the soy honey roast chicken I prepared for the previous night's dinner) to a perfect blushing pink. The daikon and carrot pickle was made to this recipe and the cracked pepper pate was store-bought.

(l-r, clockwise) Coriander, pate, homemade carrot and daikon pickle, Acme baguettes, roasted pork loin and char siu.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Wellington on a Plate: 5 Burgers and a Dinner

Despite not winning the competition to become this year's Burger Bucket List Blogger (insert sad face), I have been making a beeline for the burgers on my list anyway.  Decidedly, after only eating five burgers over a two week period I am rather thankful that I didn't have to embark on the marathon burger mission as I suspect I would be feeling some burger-guilt, if not at least a few pounds heavier as well.

I've always been a great advocate for the burger: meat, three vege (maybe a stretch) and some carbs all designed to be enjoyed together in large unceremonious mouthfuls with the hope that it's so juicy that you'll need at least three napkins.  Bliss at it's most basic level.  And it's a food type that is so flexible that it can be as indulgent or fresh and healthy as you want (I'll admit I enjoy a vege burger, as much as a the traditional meaty type, when done well).

In a burger, I am usually looking for four things: an appropriate bun, juiciness (to be soaked up by said bun) and complimentary flavours and textures. If there's a side, I hope that it's meaningful and not mere filler.

That being said, the five burgers I have enjoyed over the last two weeks as part of the Wellington on a Plate Burger Wellington offerings have been hitting-and-missing in my burger criteria list but overall it has been pretty good.  And let's face it, any excuse to go out with friends to venture into unknown food territory is worthwhile for me.  Can't knock it until you've tried it!

Burger #1 - The Moolander @ Portlander Restaurant
Wagyu patty with mushroom sauce, gruyere, caramelised onions, roasted tomato and parmesan crisp on sweet brioche with truffle steak fries

Last year, 'The Wagyu Wonder' at The Tasting Room was one of my favourite entries into the Burger Wellington competition so I was delighted to see a wagyu patty on offer at Portlander. I'd never been to the Portlander but had heard promising things from this relatively new restaurant who prides themselves on their meat and seafood offerings.

The Moolander at Portlander Restaurant

'The Moolander' exceeded my expectations for it's size, presentation and juicy wagyu patty smothered in mushroom sauce (my favourite), gruyere and caramelised onions.  The parmesan crisp was a lovely touch and I was quick to add this into the burger itself.  It got messy, but that's a good sign. I did feel though that the roasted tomato was lost and the sweet brioche bun certainly didn't do anything for me.  I wondered, as I devoured the burger, if it would have made a difference if the bun had been grilled?  Or if it had been better as a freshly-baked white bread bun.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The pop-up Ramen Shop (ラメン店)

Today The Ramen Shop popped up, to my delight, at Hashigo Zake. Unfortunately, I couldn't grab a drink from the great menu at Hashigo due to the rest of my afternoon requiring me to actually do some work but...

$12 for a bowl of their own handmade noodles, pork and chicken broth, the most melt-y pork belly, bean sprouts, spring onion, nori (dried seaweed), pickled cucumber, cured egg yolk and some zingy pickled shiitake mushrooms - it gave the Wellington on a Plate burgers a run for their money for appealing lunchtime options.

Delish!  Thanks Tsubasa and Asher for a great lunch!  Until the next time you pop-up...

Update: Since April 2014, The Ramen Shop has opened at a permanent site on 191 Riddiford Street, Newtown, Wellington for lunch and dinner everyday. They have an expanded menu and serve drinks (alcoholic and non-) to accompany your ramen experience. On occasion, they still operate their pop-ups, including collaborations, in Wellington and occasionally Auckland too. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Desktop lunch: Vietnamese-style vermicelli salad

Currently I'm in a phase of having Vietnamese-style vermicelli salads for my lunch.  Last week, I made traditional-style nuoc cham (dipping sauce) to use as my dressing (thanks to cheap limes) but yesterday I substituted fish sauce and lime for soy sauce and lemon and it worked alright too.

For the salad base:

Vermicelli, quantity depends on how hungry you are - for me, what fits loosely when dry within my thumb and forefinger making an 'o' works nicely.  (This is the only element that requires cooking so while you prepare the below, cover dry vermicelli in boiled water and drain well when it's become white/almost opaque. Alternatively, test for bite.)
Mesclun leaves, small handful of
Cucumber, as much as you like, sliced diagonally and then in half
Carrot, an inch and a 1/2 worth cut into matchsticks
Green onions, two inches worth sliced, I like a mix of white and green
Chinese BBQ pork, again, sliced (or any cooked meat you wish, leftovers are perfect, e.g. Shredded chicken, steak, roast pork, prawns, etc)

For the dressing (which should only be added just before eating)

The juice of 1 juicy lime (around 3 Tbsp)
2 Tbsp fish sauce
1 Tbsp sugar (or, to taste)
1 tsp rice vinegar
1 clove of garlic, minced (optional)
1 Thai chilli, finely chopped (optional and to taste)

There are many variations on nuoc cham but at its heart, it's all about balance.  I like to use the sugar element as the tipping scale so after adding one tablespoon, I'll test and add more if necessary.  I'm also a big fan of the garlic, but understandably maybe not all would be keen to eat this for an office workday lunch! Each to their own.


Pour dressing lovingly over salad and combine so the vermicelli manages to intertwine itself with the carrots, and the carrots with the leaves.

Eat and enjoy!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Basics: Stock, breadcrumbs and pesto

Over the last week, Wellington has been experiencing some shakes.  Nothing fatal but still a little scary after knowing the affect of the earthquakes in Christchurch and even more when we know the city is built over a fault line.  A big one shook us on Sunday evening, just after we'd been pigging out on midwinter Christmas leftovers (turkey, stuffing, gravy, mash and peas in a roll - yum) and we were certainly all thankful that we were together with friends at that point.  And also that we had some hot cider warming on the stove.

On Monday, the CBD was closed for inspection and we were told to stay home from work while they assessed building damage.  Bonus day off!  And I was happy to stay put as our house felt quite stable and a safer place to be than in town.  It became the perfect opportunity to do some kitchen-errands.  In the freezer, I had chicken carcasses and leftover bread (from hollowing the bread out of baguettes and cutting rounds out for makeshift slider 'buns') destined for stock and breadcrumbs, as well as the makings of broccoli pesto in the fridge, pantry and garden.

To give me the fuel, I treated myself to a superfood cooked breakfast salad. A mix of quinoa, millet and amaranth cooked til al dente was set aside while I boiled an egg (5-6 minutes from cold water to boil and then left to sit, continuing the cooking process, while I prepared everything else) and fried a few mushrooms.  I cut these into 1/8's as I wanted more bite than when they are simply sliced, so with a pinch of garlic-infused salt and cracked black pepper, the mushrooms went in with the seed/grain mix.  Meanwhile, I added a small handful of frozen broad beans into the hot water in which my egg continued to gently cook.  While the broad beans defrosted, I sliced the green of one green onion and added this with a tablespoon each of chia seed and flaxseed.  After removing the broad beans from the water and then their skins, I proceeded to peel my boiled egg which turned out lovely and soft.  Into my breakfast bowl with another pinch of garlic-infused salt, cracked pepper and a swirl of good olive oil to lightly dress my 'salad', I dug into this with joy.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Gewurzhaus, Herb & Spice Merchants

How great is it when you stumble upon a wonderful shop, something that you never expected to find on your travels, despite all the research you did into the 'must-see' and 'must-do's.  I encountered this sense of delight when we, while trying to avoid the rain, walked through The Block Arcade in Melbourne (between Little Collins and Collins Street).  The first thing we saw was the long line of people queuing in front of the Hopetoun Tea Rooms.  I had no idea about this place either but I could see why they had attracted a crowd.

Hopetoun Tea Rooms, The Block Arcade, Melbourne

A gorgeous display of cakes and desserts, all presented with care, I had to see what all the fuss was about.  Instead of lining up for an opportunity to sit inside, I went straight in and ordered a slice of Apple Streudel to take away (possibly the only item in the window which didn't contain cream, so Brendan could enjoy it too with his casein allergy).  And while we were patiently waiting for this to be prepared, we looked around.  Directly opposite, something even better:

Gewurzhaus, Herb & Spice Merchants, The Block Arcade, Melbourne

Gewurzhaus, Herb & Spice Merchants.  Fill-yourself bins of pre-mixed herb and spice blends, featuring native Australian flavours, and salts from around the world.  The smell of the shop was amazing.

As in any great shop, I slowed right down and spent a long or longer moment surveying everything.  Either reading the list of ingredients or opening the lids of the herb and spice-blend bins and wafting the aromas towards me so I could purposefully inhale the complexities of the in-house-made blends.  It makes me hungry just recalling it! I decided I had to take something away with me.

I chose:
- Australian Bush Herbs (ingredients: Australian coriander, pumpkin, lemon myrtle, bush tomato, sea salt, onion, native thyme, aniseed myrtle, chives, chilli, garlic)
- Roasted Vegetable Salt (ingredients: Flake salt, rock salt, coriander, garlic, onion, caraway, oregano, pepper, thyme, ginger, lemon myrtle, marjoram, mustard seed, nutmeg, paprika, parsley, rosemary) &
- Salish Alder Smoked Sea Salt which has a wonderful intoxicating aroma from being slow-smoked over Red Alderwood.  The description tells me it is "especially great on salmon", and I have no doubt.

My selection of Gewurzhaus offerings

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Whole baked kahawai

Fresh off the south coast of Wellington, my boyfriend picked up a nice little 45cm kahawai with the help of the Yogi Berry (the boat/dinghy) and it's captain.  Last night, without scaling (we were a bit lazy) we butterflied it as if to smoke it but baked it whole with a simple stuffing.

Before and after

Whole baked kahawai (serves 3 hungry people with sides)

Whole fresh kahawai, head removed, gutted and butterflied with back bone removed
2 inches white part of leek, as thinly sliced as possible
2 spring onion, thinly sliced (white and green parts)
2 Tbsp freshly chopped parsley
Juice of 1 lemon (however, I didn't have a lemon so we used lime instead)
1 tsp Maldon sea salt (I actually used Salish Alder Smoked salt, see following post)
1/2 c homemade breadcrumbs (I like using my own as it has more texture but any breadcrumbs would be fine)
Decent glug of grapeseed or olive oil

Preheat oven to 180deg on fan bake and place kahawai on prepared oven tray.  Mix all other ingredients together, incorporating oil as much as possible so when cooking the stuffing doesn't catch.  Spread evenly over the fish pressing firmly to help everything stay together.  Drizzle lightly with a bit of extra oil and bake for around 35-40 minutes (depending on size of fish), with foil placed over for the first half of cooking time.  Test for doneness at the thickest part of the fish at 30 minutes to gauge how much longer it might need as you'll want it just cooked.

Serve with pan-fried potatoes (parboiled, cooled and then fried in hot pan with a little oil) and salad for a great dinner.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Searching for Dumplings

I call a lot of things my 'favourite food' but there is something so perfect about a neatly formed parcel of meat (with sometimes a little vege) embedded with flavour, wrapped in dough and able to be captured in one concise mouthful.  Unlike the Italian ravioli, the Chinese dumpling is versatile in the different ways it can be cooked.  Boiled, steamed or pan-fried, it gives a myriad of sensual possibilities: from the flavour combinations, different seal-and-crimping methods (creating thinner and thicker parts within the join) to the texture which comes from the cooking technique.  (The Japanese gyoza is based on the pan-fried dumpling which, also known as 'pot-stickers', gain a chewy crust at their base while their tops are steamed - soft, with bite).

Google image search for "jiao zi"

Making and/or eating dumplings (or jiao zi餃子) is a long-loved tradition of mine for celebrating Chinese New Year.  Especially after moving out of home, I feel like I have to make a batch to share with friends every year, as if it was out of superstition.  Usually I stick to traditional Chinese flavours like minced pork with mushroom, garlic, chives, spring onion, soy sauce, sesame oil and some oyster sauce; or sometimes I'll add coriander, chilli, finely grated carrot and/or change the meat to minced lamb for a more Nepalese/Western Chinese flavour profile.  On the odd occasion, I've experimented with outright Western flavours like chicken, cranberry and brie (not bad), with the thought that you can pretty much package any great combination of flavours into a dumpling skin.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Berries, honey and yoghurt, oh my!

No-one could dispute that berries, honey and luscious Greek yoghurt are a win-win-win combination. Add chia seeds, oats and coconut flakes and you've got an extremely nutritious breakfast.

Overnight Berries & Oats (serves 1)

As the berries defrost overnight this will help to soften the oats and ready them for eating.  I have no doubt that an additional half banana sliced would go nicely too (I'm just not a big fan). 

2/3 c wholegrain oats (I'm sure rolled would work too)
Handful of frozen berries
1 Tbsp honey (I use manuka for extra health)
1 Tbsp chia seeds
3 heaped Tbsp Greek yoghurt
2 Tbsp coconut flakes (optional)
1 Tbsp flaxseed (linseed) (optional)

Into a breakfast bowl, add everything and combine.  Set aside in fridge overnight, and that's it!

In the morning, I usually try to remember to take it out of the fridge before having a shower so it can come up to room temperature.  Then I sprinkle some flaxseeds over and enjoy. (And yes, this is an exception to my need for a savoury breakfast.)

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A most versatile dish

Quiches are great.  Egg, bit of cream, a myriad of different flavour combinations, pastry... What's not to love? Cooking one at home however, that pastry base always puts me off.  One part is being too lazy to make one, while the other is having the mindset that if I can go without it, I should.  The solution? The frittata.

Google image search for "quiche"

Besides the pastry, they have only a few differences. The quiche is French (arguably), while the frittata is Italian. The former is cooked entirely in the oven, while the latter is cooked in a skillet, started on the stove and finished in the oven (though if need be, can be done entirely in the oven, too).  I would also suggest that the egg mixture of the quiche requires cream, whereas the frittata is more similar to an omelette which uses water.  So for all intensive purposes, they're really very similar.

Google image search for "frittata"

To compensate for the lack of pastry, the common frittata (also similar to the Spanish tortilla) often uses slices or chunks of cooked potato as part of the base recipe to help hold it all together.  As a rule of thumb, it's a great place to start as most flavours that go with egg fend similarly with the potato.  From here then it's all about the flavour combinations of the other fillings.

And in my opinion, the ideal circumstances to conjure up an occasion for the frittata are leftovers.  Christmas is perfect: ham off the bone, roast vegetables, cheese platter remnants... you couldn't ask for better.  If after a Sunday roast, make the most of the leftover chicken with some cherry tomatoes, stuffing and basil; or, maybe you simply need to use up what's in the fridge: a bit of bacon, black pudding (if you are that way inclined), with a few sliced green onions and grated cheddar could be all you need.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Food Lab

There are so many great food blogs out there.  It's easy to lose hours and hours reading the threads of different flavour profiles and then the great blogs that other great blogs love themselves.  My favourites usually have a focus on whole foods and fresh seasonal ingredients, often with a vegetarian bent, illustrating the type of food that I'd like to cook more often (alongside cuts of meat that have been lovingly braised for hours, don't get me wrong). Some of these are:

All complete with gorgeous photography, they are always a joy to scroll through.  But today, I want to share a blog that I think is even better than pretty photos and lovely recipes: The Food Lab.  Part of Serious Eats (which is a great online food resource in itself, especially if you live in the States as they have city-specific forums), The Food Lab is committed to "unravelling the mysteries of home cooking through science".

Screen shot of The Food Lab homepage

While J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is also the Chief Creative Officer at Serious Eats, on The Food Lab he creates all of his recipes from laboriously testing every element, with the home cook in mind.  He investigates simple foods like grilled cheese sandwiches and crispy smashed potatoes to more complex recipes like taco al pastor and traditional Vietnamese Pho (or the best Pho possible within an hour) providing evidence of what each key step of the recipe means for the resultant dish.  Recently, he has also opened up his blog to reader's questions on cooking and preparation techniques, which he answers by similarly  testing the theories through a clear scientific methodology.  For example, recently he's answered: "Can I start my pasta in cold water?" or "Do I need to preheat my oil?"

Understandably, not everyone is interested in the why or how or what (making Kenji's early "Get Recipe" links at the top of the page very convenient) but I love learning about the chemical processes and cause-and-effect of the techniques used in our every day cooking. Gaining this kind of deeper understanding about food is what I think makes me a better home cook, and probably the reason why I spend more time reading cookbooks than cooking recipes word-for-word out of them.  For me, it's not about doing what I'm told but figuring out the principles so I can tap into these when I'm cooking, often with whatever is lying around.

Knowledge is power!

And I hope you'll get as much out of The Food Lab as I do.  If not, Kenji's dogs may keep you amused:

From 'This Week at Serious Eats headquarters', photograph by Robyn Lee.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Great Global Food Gap

Ever wondered what your weekly intake of food looked like spread out in front of you?  This photo essay on The Daily Mail compares families around the world, counting what they've spent and capturing what they have to show for it.  The collection of photos speaks for itself, but it makes me wonder: how would I go surviving on £3.20 (around NZ$6) a week?  And that's even before figuring out how much per person that is for the family in Bhutan.

(l-r, top to bottom) Ecuador, USA, Japan, Britain, Germany and Chad: a sample of the families documented on The Great Global Food Gap

Last week I sponsored my friend in Melbourne for her efforts on the Live Below the Line challenge and have just signed myself up to be notified when similarly-minded New Zealanders make a collective effort to live on around NZ$2.25 a day for a mere five days.  To fundraise for those actually living on that much every day, do you think you could do it?

Friday, May 10, 2013

I want to go to Venice

Last week I went to the new restaurant Ombra twice, and loved it.  Twice.  Meanwhile, a couple of weeks ago, I spent my lunch break reading Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook of Sorts by Russell Norman and found myself wanting to make and eat everything immediately (besides loving the cover and craftsmanship of the book itself).  In fact, I've just ordered it online.  The common thread?  Venice.

Ombra, corner of Cuba and Vivian Street, Wellington

Ombra is Wellington's newest addition to the restaurant scene and the first one to get me really excited in recent months.  Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of great places to eat in this lovely city but maybe it's because I've lived here for around 7 years now that I've started to get a bit bored and a little miffed by how much it costs to eat mediocre food.  However, I do have high standards and it's often really the service that let the whole show down.  The most recent additions that have gotten me talking (food-wise) were Prefab, Pickle and Big Bad Wolf, but for Cuba Street, Ombra has lifted it's whole game up.

While the cafe and restaurant scene in Wellington is worthy of it's own post, today is just about Ombra.  I went for two successive days of lunch breaks, each with a different set of people, yet the reactions were the same.  It was good.  The maitre d' explained to us that ombra means "shadow", referring to the time when merchants kept their wine cool by wheeling their carts from one shady spot to another.  These days, ombra is slang for a small glass of wine which makes it a shame that we weren't able to enjoy the beverage list (an excuse for another time).

As for the food: the cicheti are what make the bacaro.  Small plates, or simply bar snacks, they're similar to Spanish tapas but completely unique to Venice.   Typically the cicheti menu consists of dishes like (but not limited to) crostini, arancini, crocchette (croquette) and a version of sardines, but here is only where you warm up.  Both days in Ombra, I had baccala crostini which is salt cod whipped into a creamy luscious mousse served over a perfectly crusty slice of bread.  A sensational contrast of textures, it was rich but light.  The arancini used a tomato-base risotto which I wasn't particularly partial to, but the crisp crumb to it's exterior was exactly that: as it should be.

Baccala Crostini

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Strawberry Pavlova tea???

Yes, I was intrigued too.

Verdict: Delicious.  Strong strawberry flavour, with hints of having eaten the meringue-y crumbs that have fallen off the pavlova after it's been cut... Miraculous (though I'm not sure that this may be everyone's idea of an appetising flavour?).

The ingredient list is also reasonably mystery-free - though it does list "Flavours" as one.

I'll look past this however as next time I want to try this as iced tea.  Yum.

Monday, April 29, 2013

A Simple Homemade Burger

From top to bottom:

Split bakery bun top
With inner hollowed out, toasted
A smear of Dijon mustard
Iceberg lettuce
Baked portobello mushroom
Grilled zucchini lengths
Slices of tomato
Plum and tamarillo chutney
(Lovely with rosemary, below)
Melted cheddar cheese on
A 100% homemade beef pattie
(No egg or breadcrumbs necessary)
Seasoned with lots of salt and pepper,
Dijon mustard and chopped fresh rosemary,
Tomato sauce spread over a
Split bakery bun bottom
Inner removed, toasted
With a side of oven-baked kumara fries,
seasoned with salt and pepper.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Cooking on the Cuff

April has been a busy month.  Road trips, camping, canoeing, sightseeing, multiple deadlines at work and a friend's wedding have left little energy else for anything other than just enjoying those moments.  I've had less time than I'd like for writing but plenty for thinking.  Much time driving in the car, or sitting in a canoe, was spent in comfortable silence with my boyfriend as he thought about the things he saw from his seat, amongst other things, while I happily got lost in thought about food.  From devising what we were going to eat for our next meal to what I'd like to write about here.

The Whanganui River

Breakfast at Whangaparoa Bay, SH35 (The Pacific Coast Highway)

For example, I got to thinking: one of my favourite things about these weekends away was definitely cooking on the cuff. Without all the tools and ingredients available at home, and only the selected items that I'd deemed useful enough to bring along.  After previous camping trips, we had a list of things that we knew we would need: a good knife, pan, mandoline, tongs, can opener, oil, salt and black peppercorns (ground with two flat stones found somewhere in the South Island). Chickpea flour was also on the list this time.  Being off the grid for some of those weekends required forward-thinking when it came to what we would want to eat; and what we would want to eat would have to work with that set of tools and little refrigeration, if any.

After all that, the meals of greatest success were: 
  • Zucchini fritters; then,
  • Zucchini fritter, carrot and peanut butter sandwiches;
  • Beetroot, chickpea and feta salad (with Steak);
  • 2 Bean and Beef Nachos; and,
  • Spaghetti Carbonara  

Dinner at Sponge Bay, Gisborne

So simple and relatively quick, I was proud to prepare these meals even if there was no-one to share it with other than ourselves.  Cooking away from home need not be limited to instant-anythings.  (However if it's instant noodles, with an egg stirred through towards the end of cooking, I could be okay with that.)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Kedgeree: my kind of breakfast

I've never been into cereal or jams.  On a rare occasion, I'll crave sweet crepes topped with lemon juice and sugar, or cinnamon-crusted french toast served with fresh berries, maple syrup and a dusting of icing sugar.  Sometimes I'll even yearn for a glazed apricot danish, one complete with a smooth custard filling perfectly complementing the tartness of the fruit and light crispiness of the pastry.  For the other 362 days out of the year, however, I want savoury.

Photo from Seasaltwithfood.com

While I enjoy the traditional, like an omelette with mushrooms, cheese and fresh herbs within or a full Irish breakfast with both black and white puddings, I most desire a non-western style breakfast.  Dishes like Huevos Rancheros (eggs served with refried beans on fresh corn tortillas and ample salsa atop, lime on the side); Nasi Lemak (Malaysia's national dish composed of steamed rice cooked in coconut milk, fried anchovies, slices of cucumber, roasted peanuts, sambal and a sliced boiled egg with the addition of rendang as a post-breakfast variation); or the simple Spanish 'pan con tomate' (toasted bread rubbed with garlic and tomato, drizzled in good olive oil and a pinch of sea salt): these are the types of morning meals that excite me most, the ones that make me pause and think, smiling, "this is so good!"

Another such breakfast is kedgeree.  A dish I've been wanting to make for awhile now, a visit to the brilliant Nikau Cafe on Friday for lunch gave me an extra push of inspiration.  Nikau has long been renowned for their kedgeree and I am sure at least half of their customers must order this at least every second visit.   They even sell their recipe as a lovely teatowel.  Like most things though, and especially food, there are many variations of the basic idea.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Fun with Food

As I get older, I find myself having more and more national pride for Malaysia.  While I have bucketloads for New Zealand (where I moved to when I was one), being Malaysian-Chinese by origin is something that has always been true but nothing I thought hard about.  Now that I have moved out of home, and away from the biggest connection to that part of me (my parents), I can't help but be proud of Malaysia every time I hear people have travelled there and loved it; or love the food yet have never been to the place.  As such, Malaysia deserves more than one post, especially on a blog about food, but today I want to share about a young Malaysian artist/architect.

Hong Yi, aka 'Red', is known as the artist who "likes to paint, but not with a paintbrush". She has created amazing portraits using alternative medias and my favourite is her depiction of 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.  Every day this month, however, she is playing with food

Image source(s): 'Oh I See Red!', http://www.ohiseered.com/ recreated into collage

Brilliant!  My favourite: Hokusai's 'The Great Wave' in nori and rice.

As a fellow Malaysian-Chinese (and architect), who turns out to be the same age aswell, I feel an (unusual?) affinity with this bright young thing.  And now that she is doing what she does with food, I like her even more.