Friday, August 29, 2008

The Race of '08

With the Beijing Olympic over, life settles down a bit without anymore late nights and all day addiction with the TV. However, I am well on my way to see another race and perhaps this race is much more closer to home and Michael Phelp's overtly publicized winnings will be overshadowed a bit. Sure, it is another event starting with 'O' but Obama's race to the Presidency and I am once again glued to the TV.

At my age, I finally understand what is the meaning of "witnessing History". Indeed throughout the past 18 months with some intermission from the Olympics and Britney and Miley Cyrus, American politics and the presidential Bid has never been more exciting. Ever since Obama and Hillary announced their bid for the Commander in Chief's post last year, I watched their campaigns, learned a bit about the process of US elections which I still cannot fully understand, saw how they debated against each other when both are liberals and yet focused on different issues and how their other half and daughters supported them throughout. Indeed, I found them both very convincing and indeed both are equally good to lead America to a better future in terms of future relations with other countries when the current government is already at odds with so many countries and the continuous violence in Iraq never seems to end.

When the Iraq war was launched in 2003, it was based on the belief that weapons of mass destruction was produced by that country and perhaps Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are linked as one group and to eliminate one will do the same to the other. Until today, no weapons were located, Osama Bin Laden is Not presumed Dead Nor Alive and Saddam Hussein was executed to the joy of the Iraq people but at a cost of continued violence in Iraq. Everytime when the news channel reports on fallen soldiers, I imagine the pain of the left behind families and I do feel sad. In the name of Freedom loving, these young men and women are sent over to another country to fight a war that shouldn't have been theirs to fight in the first place.

Although Hillary Clinton is out of the picture now for both the top posts, I believe she is a woman of great influence and should be included in Obama's workforce cabinet. In terms of credentials, experiences and substance, a woman at her position is not many. When John McCain announced his running mate today, I was a bit surprised. Despite numerous prominent running mates in the Republican party, he simply skipped them and nominated a little known Governor of the isolated state of Alaska. I think this move is simply destructive to his campaign and as a common person like myself, I would say this nomination of a lady Vice President candidate looks like a desperate move of pulling more air time on media coverage and possibly a try to convince the bittered supporters of Hillary to derail their attention and vote for the opposite party instead. And wasn't it McCain who always emphasized the fact that Obama was lacking experience in overseas relations and understanding of governing policies and now he appointed an ex journalist and a mere 2 years in office Governor of Alaska, of which a state that most of the main North America continent know generally only as crowded with ice glacier and remote? Indeed, only a maverick makes a move like that and I would be bitter if I was Mitt Romney or Rudy Giulianni.

The Democratic National Convention was fun to watch last week and next week it will be the Republican's turn. Will McCain charm the undecided voters? Will Sarah Palin be able to pull more votes? Will they make history? I don't like to be bias and afterall, I cannot vote and I can only say, may the best man win and the eligible voters must get it right this time!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

August Bento Days (3)

Too overwhelmed with blueberries and peaches, Curry suddenly reminded me of the watermelon. It was truth, we haven't had a piece of watermelon yet for this summer which pops up in every cooking magazines that marketed in the summer time. And despite their humongous pile in the grocery store, I just bypass them all the time. Watermelon used to be my favorite fruit when I was young. I love its over flowing juice and the sandy grainy flesh that refreshes my tastebuds everytime. And now, I still love it but with so many choices this time of the year, it gets abandoned. How bad of me! I remember when I was a teenager, I always wanted watermelon juice in the mall and it costs me around RM2.50 and at those times, it was the most expensive in the list! And I am sure I still feel the same now about the taste and price which must have skyrocketed to RM7.00 ?

For today's Bento, I attempted a fancier rolled Sushi. Well, at least at my preliminary level of sushi making and I am humble to all the Sushi Gurus out there who are doing beautiful sushi with a breeze and as easy as cooking the rice itself! The contents were salmon slices and avocado. And this time I made it bigger and true with any painting and art sculpture, a decorated sushi only exists once and I never get the exact same pattern when I attempt it again later. It is like what Forrest Gump said.... " it is like a box of Chocolate, you never know what you are going to get." I always love that quote as it explains life perfectly.

For the other half of the Bento, I parboiled some red potato, retaining its crunchiness and cut into small chunks. I forked out strands of chicken meat after first steaming it and made up a dressing comprising of mustard, mayonaise, olive oil, salt and dill. Mix everything together, sprinkled with crushed peanuts and spread over julienned red leaf lettuce . This can be done overnight and packed in the Box while the sushi must be made fresh. Watermelon dominated the fruit box today.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Eating my Summer away

Summer will end soon and I always make sure that we reap all the fruits that it bears. Going to fruit farms is a yearly thing for my family, from the first batch of juicy strawberries to mid summer blueberries and raspberries and the fuzzy peaches. We slather ourselves with litres of sunscreen and fill our quart cartons or plastic bags to the brim and yet we are never satisfied going only once for each individual fruit picking . We only stop going when the picked fruits start spoiling in the fridge and no one seems to be interested anymore.
Before hitting the peach farm this afternoon, we decided to fill our appetite for something else. Lobster roll is my favorite during summer time and deep fried clams and scallops were Curry's choice. The kids are just too happy to see the french fries and onion rings that come with the seafood platter! Of all the seafood on the menu, lobster roll is the most pricey one and I paid $16.00 for this roll this time. I don't mind as I have no idea on how to prepare the lobster and having all its best meat digged out and cleaned already for my instant enjoyment surely made it worth any $16.00. The Clam Box restaurant is a small place with a long history of serving seafood and situated in the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. We drove almost an hour to get there and luckily we arrived earlier than anyone else and the wait was for an extra 25 mins from the queue to the serving of the food. We did Al Fresco dining and surely there were birds roaming around waiting for a chance of a left over roll or even lobster from my plate! Well, I am pretty stingy and gobbled up the whole roll without even offering to share some with Curry. But he did shared his plate with me and I just relished up without a sense of remorse and as if he owed me this meal for quite some time now.

After a mere 15 mins of eating, we were done. Not a single piece or crust from the deep fried batter was left. We can't help but smirked at the long queue of hungry faces when we were leaving Clam Box... let them wait while we head for dessert!

This was the second time we went to Smolak Farm in North Andover, Massachusetts. The last time was a mere shortwhile ago..... last weekend. The peaches then were ripe for picking and we had so much luck of picking tree ripen peaches and so we would like to try our luck again. It was Peach Festival this week and we were not so lucky this time as the early birds have got all the best ones and I was starting to wonder if this is must be those people who were in the queue at the Clam Box! And so we have to settle with unripened peaches and pick as many as we needed. Peaches are fruits that taste the best when ripen and picked from the tree with its sweetness and juiciness beyond words and infact not describable and the nearest I can explain it is that it is like a ripe and sweet watermelon, where the juice drips with every bite and the sweetness keeps coming till you finish up to the pit part! There were plum trees and nectarines too and heirloom tomatoes fields. Couldn't resist the ice cream stand and continued with my cholesterol and calories intake with a vanilla cherry cup while browsing in its small but lovely country store. It was a hot day and the kids were simply done for this season. We will be back next year.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Chocolate Cups

Same with any avid cook, I have been amassing cookbooks and magazines to the total of almost a hundred and the bookshelves are just automatically occupied with them. I have a few favorites of which I want to explore further by following the recipes closely and maybe doing some variations and re-producing the beautiful art of food preparation. Some recipes might not yield the results as that in its picture and some might be genuine but the true will only be revealed if I try.

I am aware there are so many beautiful blogs out there that emphasizes on baking and cooking and I look to them as inspirations. I would love to incorporate shapes, patterns and colors into my kitchen repertoire and I started this new blog to chronicle every piece attempted by me with reference to published cookbook recipes and ideas. Whether it is baking artisan bread or making sushi, cookies crafting and decorating to pairing ingredients to make the most delectable hor d'ouvres, every category is unique in itself and an adventure to me.

My interest in beautiful food presentation started with these little chocolate cups that I made for this year's Easter party. The chocolate cups were bought and I made the whipped cream filling and garnished them with berries and pistachio. It sure inspired me to be more creative with my kitchen creations!

Food will always be an important topic in my life and I would like to create art with them since I am not crafty in anything else. Wishing myself luck and to everyone else, Happy Cooking and Happy Baking.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

August Bento Days (2)

As with all people, I am running for Gold medal watching the Olympics non stop. Phelps gave me the excitement, the Chinese athletes shown me determination, the Aussies and Russians are surprisingly low on the ladder of medals acquisition and the Jamaicans run their hearts out with air light moves. Of all the Olympics, this one in Beijing sure gets me going and yawning with droopy eyes everyday is permissible till the closing ceremony.

Waking up to do the Bento box is my game today. Sushi balls were my aim with the Japanese flair and my love for the green tea is back. I always hit the salmon sushi when I am at the buffet and I absolutely love this fish with its meaty texture and bright orange that tickles my sight everytime before it goes into my mouth! Chewing a fresh piece is always succulent with a light tinge of fishiness and slightly slippery in the tongue which means eating less than 5 pieces is never enough for my palate.

I attempted the Pork Egg Rolls ('chun Ken') again and my nostalgic mood always keeps coming back everytime I take a bite of this simple food. It just reminds me so much of my hometown of Sabah, Malaysia and I was laughing when my old friend, Dine mentioned on how she chowed down the whole roll of 'Chun Ken' when she went back to Sabah recently. Yes, it is that good. Nothing fancy, just plain simple with minced pork meat all seasoned and rolled into a bundle with pan fried eggs and steamed to perfection.

For today's Bento contents, I used salmon slices and prosciutto to wrap around the rice balls. As I am not very optimistic about any other raw fishes that I might be able to get at the local grocery, I can only manage with salmon and will leave my sashimi binging to the Japanese restaurants. I like prosciutto as it is very thinly sliced and goes well with rice as it is salty. I stir fried some red bell pepper with shredded lettuce and minced kimchi. Throughout all the preparation, I didn't need to use any pepper nor salt. The egg rolls completed the box.

I have recently looked into the many varieties of mochi that are available and I am very fascinated with all sorts of colors and shapes. I found this little elongated tube shape one with green tea filling and also a pack of all the Japanese types of desserts and cakes, which I included one with red bean into the Bento box. Japan has plenty of desserts and recently the type 'Wagashi' which is more decorated with all sorts of patterns and made from rice flour has caught my interest. A good thing to explore for future Blog days!

The days are getting cooler now and soon, the Bento contents will revert back to warm dishes rather than salad and sashimi balls. This summer has been very good, not too hot, a bit wet but I don't mind. And for the meantime, I shall continue with the Olympics.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pandan Pancake Roll with coconut ('Kuih Dadar')

I was chatting with my old friend, Jo and we were wondering on what is the real name for this sweet crepe like dessert that we usually get from the Malay cake shops in Malaysia. I grew up calling it 'Kuih Lenggang' but in all the recipe books that I have seen, it is called 'Kuih Dadar'. Whatever it is called, this sweet roll is fun to eat at teatime with a cup of plain hot tea to wash down the sweet taste of the coconut filling.

Pandan leaves are used to infuse and give color to the pancakes. Over here, I use Pandan paste as I find the frozen Pandan leaves at the Asian groceries not convincing and not naturally pungent anymore after a shelf life in the freezer. Perhaps in Malaysia, Pandan is not prized as a gourmet ingredient for the fact that it can be grown easily and anywhere at the backyard but over here, where weather is not permitting in my neck of the woods to grow any, I see it as a very unique thing that shares the gourmet status as the vanilla bean.

The filling which consists of grated coconut cooked in palm sugar, known as 'Gula Melaka' in Malaysia is a marriage of ingredients that comes from the same group and different species of Palm trees, both different in texture and taste and yet quite similar in the aromatic sense. I am a big fan of coconut and sipping its cooling juice with a straw poked into a little opening cut on top of the coconut shell is the most enjoyable thing to do by the seaside. I used to live nearby the sea in Malaysia and will have a coconut opened up by the stall vendor to let me dig in the white clean flesh after the drink. A small piece is cut off from the shell to use as a spoon to do all the grating and digging and the flesh will just comes off slippery and soaked with juice that you just slurp in and relishing it at the same time! Coconut flesh is one of those things that I find most natural in its taste without any need of adding anything and yet tastes so good.

Melting down the palm sugar with low heat and patience is important as overheating will burn it so quick that you won't even realise as the sugar itself is already brown and fragrant to start with. Once melted, the consistency is more thicker than regular syrup and the grated coconut flesh is mixed in to absorb the water content of the sugar, hence resulting in brown coated strands which tends to dry up a little after a while and the presence of the palm sugar sweetness just comes bursting out when the filling is bite into. For coconut lovers, this is the best Pancake roll that satisfies their palates as every bite is like munching into a baked and roasted coconut itself with its pungent charred aroma to go with it.

The making of the Pancake part surely is another test of patience. Firstly, the batter itself must be thin enough to swirl around a hot frying pan and to let it sit in the pan for at least 2 minutes on both sides while making sure that it doesn't char too much on the surface which can render it too dry to roll up is not as easy as I first thought. The batter must be smooth and free of lumps before hitting the pan and requires constant stirring while in the mixer bowl as the flour tends to set down to the bottom after letting rest for a certain time. The rolling up part is like doing a spring roll with a spoonful of the filling scattered near one edge, leaving a mere 1 inch on both sides for enclosing and rolling from the bottom edge tucking in all the coconut fillings and then folding in the sides using the index and middle finger to hold the seams in place while finishing up the rolling part with my thumbs doing most of the work. I let all the rolled up pancakes sit compactly together while they are still warm with the closing seams faced down to ensure they seal up before serving.

It is preferable to eat this pancake on the day it is made as it gets tough after one day. The perfect 'Kuih Dadar' will be one with thin pancake, a little charred from the pan frying effect with lots but not overflowing sweet coconut filling. One or two of this at teatime will satisfy your sugar craving and sustain energy level till dinner time and perhaps another one as a sweet ending to any meal will be nice too.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

August Bento Days (1)

The Sushi Encyclopedia that I bought in March still sits in the bookshelf, occasionally looked into and not attempted yet. Making sushi looks easy but doing it is another thing for me. My skills are good in something else but I find that sushi is a bit challenging, possibly I always felt the rush to spread and roll it up before the rice turns cold and in the process, I kind of lose the grip somewhere and send the contents spilling out or the rice squeezing to one side. However, I feel the need to try it out or else I will never learn the best tricks and I cannot say I can make Japanese style dishes without knowing how to roll the ubiquitous Japanese sushi!

For today's Bento, I attempted a plain rice sushi and I am quite pleased with the turn out as I managed to get a part of the nori rolled into the rice itself, hence making it look like a pleasant smiling sushi. As the Bento Box was a bit crowded today, wrapping the rice into sushi saved me some space and they packed compactly and neatly in one corner together with some Chinese style pickled cucumbers. Men normally don't like pickles but this one is Curry's favorite.

Tofu is a staple in my household and the kids seems to love it. I like to coat the soft white tofu in cornstarch and pan fry it a bit on both sides as it tends to stay crisp on the outside and soft in the inside rather than served all mushy which is not very appetizing in a Bento box. The vegetables of choice for today were carrots, scallion and enoki mushrooms, stir fried slightly. Minced beef was marinated in sesame oil prior to cooking and drizzled with an easy gravy made with cornstarch, pepper and dark soy sauce. All poured over the tofu, sitted on grated cabbage.

Blueberry season is almost over and I will miss it. It is such a fun nibbling fruit and I can never get enough with only a handful. Cantaloupe completed the fruit box. And off they go in Curry's new lunch bag.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Blueberry Brioche

It sure looks like summer is ending very soon. The weather has been pretty rainy for the past 2 weeks and infact cool at night and early morning that I have to put another layer of clothings on the kids. The rainy days always makes me want to cook something hearthy and bake breads. This summer has been pretty cool compared to all the previous summers that I have spent in the states and I am not complaining.

Before our Vermont trip last week, Curry unexpectedly asked me to make him Brioche and he intended to take it along the trip so we can munch in the car. I looked at him in amazement... sometimes I wonder if he really thinks I am a superwoman and of course he didn't get his wish and probably if he has asked me to pack him a sandwich, that was still do-able but to bake a brioche one day before heading out for a mini vacation is mission impossible to me. But he got me started with the idea and I set out to look for a good recipe as soon as we returned from our lovely Vermont trip.

I adapted a recipe from my favorite English cooking magazine, BBC Good Food. If anyone comes across this magazine, be sure to pick it up as its recipes are simple enough for an amateur baker like myself and the results are always satisfying. Tweaking it a little makes my Brioche a big hit for today's afternoon tea. Although I started with the dough last night, I didn't rush it for breakfast as the dough rising part was the critical part in producing a good quality Brioche.

Brioche is a French style bread and the original shape of this bread is quite whimsical in my opinion, where the base is baked in a mould similar to a fluted muffin tin and a separate round knob of dough is attached to the top part of the base and baked together. Its texture is more cake like as it contains more eggs and butter, while the golden brown color that it yields comes from a generous glaze of egg wash before the baking process.

My friend, Crazymommy who prefers to use the breadmaker machine rather than getting all messy like me introduced me to a product called Wheat Gluten, sold in the local groceries. This product has the exact appearance as usual flour except that the starch content has been removed and it assists in the making of a softer texture in bread as well as giving the end product a better shelve life. As I was still having trouble using the Water roux method as used in the making of numerous Japanese and Asian style bread which yields the super soft and fluffy textures, I was very interested to give this wheat gluten product a try in my Brioche as I know I will not like the cake like texture as in its original form.

For a 2 loaves recipe, I added 8 tsp of the wheat gluten in the preparation of the dough. The dough was very sticky and being myself, my optimism started to waver a bit half way. The recipe stated to let the dough rest overnight in the fridge and I opted my cool oven instead. At the time of the shaping of the dough, it was less sticky but I still had to use the plastic gloves to divide and roll it into little round shapes, measuring approximately 30g each with the help of a floured board. I inserted the blueberries randomly and let the shaped dough rested and rised for another 3 hours before baking it for 25 minutes at 350'F.

Indeed, the wheat gluten makes magic and the bread texture turned out soft. Although I am still in the dark on how it works to create such soft strands, I certainly love this product and will stock up on it for my future bread making. The rolls were uniform in size and easily tear apart from each other. The biggest food critic, Curry was happy that he finally got his brioche and for the rest of us, we are just all too happy that I have finally unlocked the secret to soft texture bread, the easy way as compared to the water roux method.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Northern Vermont Pt.3

Our second day in Vermont was more promising, the rain has subsided and the sun was out. We stuffed ourselves with the buffet breakfast at the hotel so as to save us sometime on the road and we made sure to see everything that we have set out for the day.

Our first stop for the day was Ben & Jerry Ice cream factory at Waterbury, a mere 35 mins drive to the east of Burlington. I was a bit surprised on the size of the plant itself as I was expecting something vast like those ice cream factories all over America. Turns out, it is more ike a country side farm factory but equipped with sophisticated machineries and appliances that makes the ice cream process looks like a breeze. The whole atmosphere was very child and kid friendly, with interior walls all decorated with wacky colors and designs and also all its best selling flavors pint cups. I was a bit disappointed though as there was no full spread of all its ice cream at its vending store for picture opt but I was intrigued looking at all the ice cream names that they thought of! The sampling was alright and truly, freshly made and served at the same place is more smooth and creamy than those that you get at the groceries. Sadly, the manufacturing part of the factory is closed for the day.

We headed a bit south to Montpelier, the capital of Vermont. Driving east, we reached the Bragg Farm, which produces maple syrup. The lady at the store was friendly enough to let us watch a demonstration video on how maple sap is extracted from the maple trees during the months of February to April, when winter is nearing its end where freezing nights and warm days are required to induce the flow of the maple sap. Quite similar to the method engaged by rubber tree tappers where slits are made on the barks of the maple trees and a small tube is inserted at a particular point of the bark to let the sap drip into a tin bucket. Really hard work, especially in the winter conditions of Vermont. And to make 1 litre of maple syrup will require a collection of 40 litre of maple sap and continuous cooking till the sap turns thick and brown, hence the higher price to pay for a bottle of maple syrup than honey! But indeed, maple syrup is really tasty on pancakes and its sweetness is really pure and fragrant and I just had to get a bottle to try out on our next homemade waffles. The little shop in Bragg Farm is also a very neat place to find all the different grades of Maple syrup, maple candy and other specialty products made in Vermont itself.

Our last stop for this trip was the city of Montpelier. It is very different from Burlington in the sense that it is more laid back and its buildings architecture is more dated with their own characteristics of red bricks and cobblestones, similar to the late 19th and early 20th centuries European designs. Old churches were on every main street and the city is pretty hip too with its art decor using recycled old bicycle and scrap metal parts, which is found at every open space. Montpelier is a good place to stroll around and there are lots of fun shops to look out for.

We managed to get into the State House and I was surprised that it is still open to the public, after the incident of 9/11, as the one in Boston was closed thereon. The offices of different departments were located everywhere and we had fun checking out the rooms where legislators, past and present congregate and discuss the issues of the goverment of Vermont. I cannot help but feel learned and privileged to see the senate rooms where the best minds in politics argue and agree on laws. The plaques on the walls contained the sayings of noble figures and I am always intrigued on how politicians play with their words unless they talk nonsense that even a 4 year old like my Missy E will not want to believe. There was only one figure that I know from the numerous portraits that hanged around in the State House. It was Howard Dean, the previous governor of Vermont and who was famous for his uncanny shriek of "Yeah" when he was defeated in one of the many caucuses election by his rival Democratic nominee, John Kerry in the presidential bid in 2004. After the visit to this state house, I now know that Ethan Allen was a hero of Vermont and not just any names created by a furniture chain store!

I am very happy with this trip and definitely will return again to complete my Vermont experience. In all, I accumulated some info and knowledge on farming, history and geography. As for food, I like the fact that Vermont offers so many types of its own specialty products, made originally at its own state and to see independent farms striving and still going strong in their efforts to maintain things small and efficient despite the competition from commercialized and bigger companies makes me think that Vermonters are very hard working and determined people who preserves their ways of life well into several generations which is rarely seen in today's world.