Thursday, 31 January 2008

Some tips for food photography

Pork and prawn wontonsIMG_4724.JPG

I started taking pictures of my food as I got into making bento and sharing them with the community at Bento Lunches. As my interest grew in food-related matters, I found myself taking pictures of my own cooking to document the process, presentation, end-product, food that I come across elsewhere, markets that I go to and so on, and sharing them with friends online. I have always liked photography, capturing light, colours, snippets of emotions onto print, and enjoy thinking about composition, colours, framing, lighting when I look at photographs or various objects in real life. I have never taken a photography course but I had some art training which help me appreciate what makes a good picture.

Cooking is more fun when I take a picture (or more!). It challenges me to present the dish better and we enjoy eating it more. There are many blogs that I enjoy reading not so much for the recipes but because I simply love the food photography. That was mainly how I learned, by watching others.

Lemon cream pie 6Silken tofu with shitake mushrooms and spring onion topping

A few people have asked me about food photography. I am certainly no expert and am still learning everyday. But I have found myself giving similar answers often enough to think that it might be useful to just write a coherent entry about it.

I use a normal point-and-shoot digital camera, a Canon PowerShot A75 that has served me well for years. So, no, you don't have to own a complicated digital SLR to take good photographs. Just following some simple principles will make a real difference to your food pictures. Having said that, a digital SLR with the right lenses and usage does give that WOW impact and bring your photographs up to another level. I am currently saving up for one. In the meantime, I make do with my point-and-shot. (March 2008: I finally bought an entry-level DSLR Canon EOS 400D/Digital Rebel XTi. The lenses I use are Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 and more recently Canon EF 50 mm f/1.8 II.)

Here are some points to bear in mind when taking food pictures:

1. Presentation

While I like looking at gorgeously styled and presented food, I don't have the time to do up an extra setting with special lighting and props just for the sake of taking great food pictures. While I love the photos at Rasa Malaysia and My Cooking Hut, I usually take photos right after dishing and and right before we start our meal. I can't be making the husband wait an extra 10-15 minutes to have dinner! But it helps to use a nice dinner service and give some thought to food presentation. I don't go for the look of having one spoon of mashed potatoes, one asparagus and two cherry tomatoes on my dinner plate, however pretty it looks as a picture (and smaller, neater, portions do look better on a plate). It's got to be something that I could serve and eat as it is. Arrange your food, think about having a variety of colours on the plate (which is good nutritionally anyway) and it will make a difference. The good thing about bento is that the presentation is part of its ethic so it's not something that I have to think about as an additional concern.

2. Natural lighting

The key to great food photography is natural lighting. Find a spot in your kitchen nor other parts of the house that has plenty of natural light coming through. The colours and contrast look more vibrant and realistic under natural light than any other forms lighting (which could look too 'hard' or artificial). I do this more with my bento pictures when I take them in the morning after packing. Other food pictures tend to be taken during dinner time, during which I have to rely on indoor lighting, but there is still a solution.

3. Set White Balance (WB)

Setting the White Balance on your digital camera makes a world of difference to the colour temperatures of your photos and avoid that orange or blueish tinge that does not represent the actual colours of your objects. You can set the WB from the camera menu. There are various options that look like this (you will have most of these settings on your camera):

WB_symbols

AUTO (also called AWB) mode works OK with flash or under bright conditions. Usually the images will still be fairly blue in shade and pleasantly warm indoors at night. But if your photos do not end up with the right colours, it's time to experiment with other settings below.

Daylight (symbol of a sun): I tend to use this for outdoor shots (e.g. meals in he garden) in bright sunlight.

Cloudy (symbol of a cloud): This is a little warmer than the daylight setting and I tend to use this when taking photos indoors with natural light coming through.

Tungsten (symbol of a light bulb also called "indoor"): Best for indoors at night. Most houses and apartments in North America and Europe are equipped with tungsten (yellowish) lighting and this setting compensates by bringing out the blue tones.

Flourescent (symbol of a light tube): Also good for indoors at night, if you have flourescent lighting. This setting compensates by toning down the blue and bringing out the yellows.

Flash (symbol of a lighting bolt): Almost identical to cloudy but sometimes redder depending on the camera. Experiment and see whether this suits your needs better.

Shade (symbol of a house casting a shadow): Very orange. This is good for shooting in shade which makes things very blue.

You can find out more about WB from this webpage

4. Never use flash

I never use flash on my food photos. Unless you have metered or diffused flash on your camera, using flash on your digital camera will invariably make your pictures look washed out and over exposed. Even if you process the image later on your computer, the colours will suffer. Natural lighting is best of course but if you are indoors after dark, take photos in an appropriately lit spot with suffucient lighting not to require flash. A desk lamp also works. Remember to set the white balance on your camera (e.g. to Tungsten or Flourescent). If the lighting levels are low, you will need a very steady hand in order not to get blurry pictures (as the camera takes pictures on longer exposure when there is less light). You can use a tripod or prop your camera or arm against something stable.

5. Use Macro Mode

When taking food pictures, switch to Macro mode. This is crucial for point-and-shoot cameras, as DSLR cameras have other options for setting aperture and focus. Automatic mode will result in blurry and unfocused pictures when you get closer to your objects and food photography invariably requires you to get close to the food. Macro mode is indicated by a flower icon on your camera and you can find it either on a button or in the camera menu.

macro

6. Post Processing


Almost all photos will look better with some post processing, even if you have set the correct WB. I usually adjust the Brightness & Contrast (or Gamma) and sometimes the Colours. You can see the difference in the Before and After pictures below. I took this picture with Tungsten setting but the original was still too yellow. The colours are more realistic after post processing.

Salmon pie 1Salmon pie 2

My favourite software is Photoshop (I use Photoshop Elements 4.0 for Mac) but there are other simpler and freeware/shareware available. For PC: check out Irfanview and GIMP. For Mac: Seashore, GIMP (requires X11). There are also applications that come installed in Macs such as iPhoto and even Preview will do basic editing.

7. Background

I try to have a neutral background so that the eye is drawn to the food and not by a busy background. You can also use simple props like a napkin, placemat, cutlery, wine glass etc. to complement the food.

8. Take plenty of shots

Take lots of pictures and then cull ruthlessly. I usually take at least 8 and sometimes up to 20 for each picture that I post eventually. Experiment with different angles, arrangement and see which ones appeal or turn out the best during post processing. If my hands were not quite steady or if the food was hot and steaming, I don't get stuck with a couple of blurry shots since I have many to choose from.

9. Get closer to your food

Frame your picture such that the food or dish fills up most of the space. Sometimes you might want to have the object occupy a smaller portion of the frame for a particular effect, but generally speaking a close-up shot that is tightly framed is more attractive than one which includes too many background details that detracts from the food itself. Since you are going to get that close to your food, remember to use the Macro mode!

10. Experiment and find your favourite style

Browse through cook books, food magazines, food blogs, and food-related websites. Identify your favorite style and experiment with it. Do you like pictures that are taken at interesting angles? Or very clear and focused shots from the top-down? Do you like seeing various props with the food or a more minimalist look? Do you want your object to be square in the middle of the picture or off-centre? I personally like to take my food pictures at very low angles, just a little above the height of the food. It makes the food appear much closer to the viewer and brings out lovely details.

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Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Roast chicken legs with sweet tomatoes and lemon thyme

This chicken dish was made following a recipe from Jamie's Dinners. I replaced the basil leaves with lemon thyme since that's what I had on hand. It's dead simple, with little preparation and the slow cooking in the oven is what makes this dish outstanding with meat that falls off the bone and juices in the pan that is sweet with tomatoey goodness.

Roast chicken legs with tomatoes 1


Ingredients (serves 4)

4 chicken legs
Salt and pepper
A small handful of thyme
2 handfuls of cherry tomatoes, halved or left whole if very small
2 ripe plum tomatoes, quartered
Half a bulb of garlic, broken into cloves
Olive oil

Roast chicken legs with tomatoes 2

Preheat oven to 180 degrees C/gas mark 4. Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and place in an oven dish in one layer. Scatter the tomatoes, garlic and stalks of thyme all over the chicken. Drizzle all over with olive oil and cook in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Turn the tomatoes halfway through to prevent them from burning

When cooked, the chicken skin should be crisp and the meat falls off the bone. Before serving, squeeze the garlic out of the skin and smear them over the chicken and into the tomato juices in the pan.

I served the chicken legs with spring onion mash, grilled peppers and asparagus, and tomato juices from the pan spooned over the chicken. Freshly picked thyme leaves were scattered all over just before serving for a fresh herby touch of fragrance.
Roast chicken legs with tomatoes 4

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Sunday, 27 January 2008

A couple of bentos

Just a couple of bentos from this past week. You may notice that they feature food that I made for dinner earlier in the week. I often cook dinner with extras in mind for packed lunches the next day. Much more efficient that way and a great way of using up leftovers.

A selection of maki and inarizushi with soy sauce and cherry tomatoes.
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Thai pineapple rice with steamed broccoli (drizzled with soy sauce and sesame oil) and cherry tomatoes.
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Click post title for full recipe

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Freezing fresh herbs

I love using fresh herbs in my cooking but I often find myself left with a substantial bunch after cooking. Although I try to use up the bunch of herbs within the week (they tend to keep well in the vegetable crisper drawer), I don't always succeed and it always seem such a waste to throw the wilted bunch away. It doesn't help that parsley and coriander often come in such huge bunches.

One solution is clearly to grow your own herbs either in pots on the kitchen window sill or in the garden. I have pots of basil and coriander but certainly not the range of herbs that I would like. Another solution, as I have found, is to freeze the herbs for later use. Chopped up and then frozen in small containers, the herbs could be added straight from frozen to stews, soups, pasta and other dishes and they would thaw out from the heat of the food while releasing their natural flavours. Certainly better than dried herbs and makes full use of the fresh herbage that you buy.

Frozen parsley


The picture above shows some chopped up parsley that has been frozen. Coriander, thyme, rosemary and even spring onion and ginger freeze really well. I have not tried it with big leafy herbs such as basil and sage. I suspect the woody or smaller herbs tend to freeze better, but do experiment and let me know.

First, rinse the herbs well and leave to drain or drip dry. Chop them up and then spread on some kitchen rolls to dry well. You want to get rid of excess moisture so that the herbs remain loose and easy to pick out in the right portions, instead of freezing into a clump. Place the chopped herbs into a suitable container and pop into the freezer. Use straight from frozen in stews or sprinkle over food when serving for that extra flavour.

Herbs like parsley and coriander that are often used chopped up should be chopped before freezing. For other herbs such as rosemary and thyme that do not require chopping, you could freeze them stalks and all. Much easier than removing the leaves from the stalks or chopping while they were unfrozen. They become brittle when frozen and you could then just crumble or snap them off the stalks straight into dishes. The lemon thyme in the picture below was completely stiff and brittle and bits of it just broke loose even as I was taking them out of the bag. Just be sure to use them as soon as they come out of the freezer as they thaw very quickly and loose that brittleness that makes them so user-friendly. Frozen herbs should keep well for months.

Frozen lemon thyme 2

Click post title for full recipe

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Thai Pineapple Rice (Khao Pad Sapparot)

After that basic fried rice recipe in that last post, I thought it would be timely to introduce this fried rice variant that is quite popular in the part of the world where I came from. In Thai restaurants or food stalls, Thai pineapple fried rice is often served in a pineapple shell (a pineapple cut in half lengthwise and then hollowed out - just as Little Corner of Mine has done here). The presentation is stunning, the aroma is mouth-watering and the main dish itself is delicious. It is a slightly unusual dish with the use of fruit in a fried rice but works well with a good balance of the savoury and the sweet. Sometimes, toasted cashew nuts and pork floss are added on top as garnish.

I did not have any whole pineapple available but tinned pineapples work well as a substitute. If you do have whole pineapples at hand though, this would be a great dish to cook up for a dinner party as all the ingredients can be prepared ahead of time and then put together very quickly, and it looks fantastic when brought to the table.

Thai pineapple fried rice 1



Ingredients (serves 2):

2 portions of medium/long grain rice, completely cold
150g prawns
2-3 shallots, chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 tsp grated ginger
2 chillies, finely chopped (use more or less depending on the heat desired)
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp turmeric powder (optional, for colour and extra flavour)
1 small handful of frozen peas or mixed veg, thawed
3 pineapple rings, cut into chunks
1 small handfull of raisins or sultanas
1 small handful of coriander, chopped

Method:

Heat a wok or large frying pan till hot, add some cooking oil and stir fry the shallots, garlic and ginger until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the prawns and cook until just turning pink. Add the rice, and stir fry for a few minutes to heat through. Add the soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, turmeric powder and sliced chillies and continue to stir fry to mix evenly.

Finally, add the peas, pineapple chunks and raisins and mix until thoroughly heated
through. Garnish with chopped spring onions or coriander and serve.

Click post title for full recipe

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Egg fried rice

Egg fried rice is an all time favourite at Chinese restaurants in the UK. Even I have become a convert when dining out. After all, why would I want to pay £2-£2.20 for a serving of plain boiled rice (that I cook all the time in my rice cooker at home) when I could get a serving of tasty egg fried rice for another 30 pence?

Egg fried rice 1

But sometimes, one just feels like having egg fried rice at home anyway and this is a simple method that could easily be extended or converted to yong chow fried rice, chicken fried rice, king prawn fried rice or whatever-you-fancy fried rice.

Important tip: The key to fluffy fried rice with well-separated grains (instead of lumps) is to use rice that is completely cold. Using fresh cooked rice would result in lumps as the rice grains are still sticky and the eggs and seasoning would not coat the individual grains well. The best thing to do is to use day-old fridge straight from the fridge. Cook double the portion of rice for a meal and then store the leftover rice in the fridge for fried rice the next day (it keeps well for a day or two).


Ingredients (serves 2):

2 servings of cooked medium/long grained rice (completely cold)
1 large egg, beaten
1 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp sesame oil
Cooking oil
Handful of frozen peas (optional)
1 stalk of spring onions, chopped (optional)

Heat a wok or large frying pan until hot and almost steaming. Pour some cooking oil into the wok, followed by the rice, and stir fry briskly for a few minutes until the rice is heated through.

Drizzle the egg over the rice and continue to stir fry until the egg has just set and the rice is dry. Add soy sauce and sesame oil to the rice and mix evenly. If using, add the peas or spring onions and stir for another 2 minutes to heat through.

Egg fried rice 2

This dish can be a meal on its own with added meat and vegetables. Raw slices of chicken, beef and prawns are cooked first, followed by vegetables (such as beans sprouts, carrots or mange tout/snow peas), before adding the rice and so on as in the directions above. Leftover chicken or cooked prawns can also be used, in which case add them together with the peas at the end to heat through.

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Monday, 21 January 2008

Making sushi

I have had a couple of requests and questions regarding making sushi and I finally got round to putting something together. As with a too-long list of food that I love, sushi is one of those things that I have had trouble finding when I moved to the UK, and terribly expensive when I could locate them. In my more desparate days, I have even tried buying sushi from Boots and Sainsbury's (usually in the packed sandwiches and salads section). Suffice to say once was enough. The rice was dry, hard, tasteless and just generally terrible. So I have turned to making my own at home. It is not as fancy as the ones in restaurants and I have not mastered the more complicated rolls or techniques, but it certainly satisfy my cravings (and the husband too).

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The ones that I make most often are maki (rolls), nigiri-zushi (rice pellet with a topping) and inari-zushi (fried tofu pouches stuffed with rice), such as these in an earlier post. The ingredients you need are:

- Nori sheets (often sold in packets of 10 sheets)
- Sushi rice
- Sushi vinegar/seasoning (or combine mirin, rice vinegar, salt and sugar)
- Filling or topping (whatever strikes your fancy e.g. crabsticks, prawns, salmon (smoked or raw), tuna (canned or raw), bacon, cooked chicken, carrots, asparagus, cucumber, avocado, sweetcorn, pickles...)


Making Sushi Rice

To make sushi, make sure you buy short grained rice (or labelled sushi rice). Basmati, jasmine rice and brown rice will not work as they do not get that stickiness that is required for the rice to mould and stick together. You might find a sushi recipe the bag of rice, a bottle of rice vinegar, or on the package of nori.

Rinse the rice 2-3 times and then cook either in a rice cooker (follow the manufacturer's instructions) or on a stove. A fairly consistent recipe is to use equal amounts of rice and water (one-to-one ratio) or slightly less. I usually cook 3 cups of rice (with just under 3 cups of boiling water) to make enough sushi for dinner and packed lunches for us both the next day. Bring the rice back to boil on the stove top, cover with a lid, turn the heat right down and simmer for 15 minutes. After that, remove from heat and DO NOT REMOVE the lid for another 10 minutes to allow the rice to finish steaming. Fluff up the rice a bit with a rice paddle (or flat wooden spatula, to avoid crushing the grains) and the rice is ready to serve as it is or made into sushi rice. Some people like to add a piece of kombu (seaweed) to the water and rice while it is brought to a boil, then removed, to add extra flavour.

Put the hot rice in a large bowl (a mixing bowl works) and pour sushi vinegar (1 tbsp of vinegar per cup of rice) evenly over the surface of the rice, mixing it into the rice with quick cutting and flipping strokes. Fan the rice at the same time to cool the rice quickly, which will give the grains a lovely sheen. This is traditionally done with a paper fan or an electric fan. I often just do this next to an opened kitchen window with a breeze coming in.

If you cannot find sushi vinegar (some comes in packet seasoning, which is less ideal as they contain MSG), combine 4 tbsp rice vinegar, 2 tbsp mirin, 4 tsp sugar and 2 tsp salt in a small bowl, and then pour over the rice (the heat from the rice will dissolve the sugar and salt). The rice is pretty delicious as it is, served as hot vinegared rice with some simple side dishes. Don't diss it till you've tried it!

Making Maki Rolls

Lay out all your ingredients so that everything is close at hand. You will also need a bamboo sushi rolling mat, a sharp knife, and a small bowl of water to dip your fingers into to prevent rice from sticking all over you. I forgot about this the first time and the rice drove me nuts.

IMG_6692.JPG

Lay out the bamboo mat and put a sheet of nori on top (if there is a smooth shiny side and a rougher side, put it shiny side down. The rougher surface will hold the rice better). Spread some rice evenly on the sheet of nori, leaving about a centimeter of uncovered nori at the far end. Scoop some rice onto the nori with a spoon and spread using your fingers (remember to dip them into the bowl of water!). The rice should be less than 1 centimeter thick. You should be able to see some nori through the rice; the biggest mistake for beginners is using too much rice, which makes it difficult to roll.

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Place your chosen filling across the rice. I used crabsticks (split lengthwise), cucumber sticks and smoked salmon. A point about cucumbers, unless you are using Japanese seedless cucumbers, make sure to slice off the seeded portion so that it does not make the roll soggy with excess water.

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This is a photo taken off Google Images to show the rolling process. I was alone in the house when making these and there was no other person to take a photo with both my hands occupied.

makiroll.jpg

Slowly fold the mat nearest to you over, tucking the end of the nori to start a roll. Continue rolling with medium pressure, keep lifting up the mat as you go along (so that you don't trap the mat inside the roll). You may dampen the far edge of the nori sheet with a little water to help it stick. Place the roll on a board and cut into even pieces. Important tip: Keep the knife moist to prevent sticking, remoistening before each cut. First cut the roll in half, then half again and so on until you get 6 or 8 even pieces. Turn the pieces on its side or end and arrange on a platter.

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Serve with soy sauce, wasabi (Japanese hot mustard, if you fancy -- it is an acquired taste!) and/or pickled ginger (pink, paper-thin slices, sold in Oriental supermarkets).

Making Inari-zushi

I love inari pouches, which are fried tofu that has been marinated in a sweet sauce. Inari-zushi is also much easier to make compared to maki so they can be done in a pinch. Inari pouches can be found either in a packet in the chilled or frozen section, or in a can, in Oriental supermarkets/stores. The packet ones have to be prepared for use (pour boiling water over, drained etc.). I tend to use the ones in a can as they have already been prepared. This brand holds 16 pouches in each can.

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Drain and rinse the pouches under some water. Squeeze a few pouches at a time between your palms (gently) to get rid of excess marinade. To fill the pouches, gently open up each pouch to reveal a pocket (rather like pita bread) and fill it with sushi rice. You can do this either with a small pellet of compressed sushi rice (moulded by hand or in a sushi making mould) or scoop some rice into the pouch with a teaspoon to about 3/4 full and shape the pouch gently. Fold the top flaps over to enclose the rice and place seam side down on a plate to serve. They can be eaten as is or with some soy sauce/wasabi/pickled ginger on the side.

IMG_6724.JPG

Click post title for full recipe

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Teriyaki grilled salmon

This dish is a quickie. All it needs is plenty of time in the fridge marinating (either the night before, or in the morning before going out), and then a few minutes under the grill to cook. Lovely with plain rice or on top of some stir fried noodles.

Teriyaki glazed salmon


Ingredients (serves 2):

2 salmon fillets
3 tbsp light soy sauce
3 tbsp mirin or sweet sherry
2 tbsp sake or dry white wine/sherry
2 tsp sugar
Toasted sesame seeds to garnish (optional)

1. Combine all the marinade ingredients and pour over the salmon fillets in a bowl or dish. Cover with cling film and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight or at least 6 hours.

2. To cook, remove the salmon fillets from the dish and lay them out on a baking tray (lined with foil if you want easier washing up later). Place under the grill on medium-high heat for 3-4 minutes on each side (depending on the thickness of your fillets). Dish out onto a plate.

3. In a small pan (or in the microwave), heat the remaining marinade until it has thickened slightly and pour over the fillets. Sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and serve.

Click post title for full recipe

Friday, 18 January 2008

Bento tally for the week

Sundried tomato cous cous, roast chicken, cherry tomatoes, mango cheddar and edamame.
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Top tier: haddock fishcake, onigiri and cherry tomatoes. Bottom tier: Two onigiri, grapes and soy sauce in container.
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Top tier: haddock fishcake with Kewpie mayo, cherry tomatoes and grapes. Bottom tier: yakisoba
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Char siew (barbeque pork) bun, half a clementine, grapes, red peppers and a container of dip for the peppers.
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Rice, cherry tomatoes, and turkey and broccoli stir fry (with chilli bean sauce)
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Click post title for full recipe

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Seafood risotto in tomato sauce

I love the creamines of risotto, like this earlier recipe. A few months ago, I had a tomato based seafood risotto at a restaurant and really liked it. It was still beautifully creamy but the tang of the tomato sauce complemented the seafood very nicely and helped to cut through the richness of the risotto. I thought I would try it at home, based on an earlier recipe but with the addition of tomato sauce. We had this dish with grilled asparagus on the side.

Seafood risotto in tomato sauce

Ingredients (serves 2):

Risotto rice 150g (I used arborio rice)
Fish stock 400ml (or use chicken or vegetable stock)
Butter 20g
2 tbsp olive oil
3 shallots, finely diced
1 clove of garlic, crushed
Dry white wine 100ml
1 can of chopped tomatoes in tomato juice
1 tbsp tomato puree
Assorted seafood, 200g (I used cooked prawn, squid and mussels)
Grated parmesan cheese 20g
Small handful of parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper


Directions:

1. Place the stock in a saucepan, bring to the boil and keep on a low simmering heat.
2. If using raw seafood, heat some olive oil in a pan and cook the seafood briefly till just cooked. Remove and set aside.
3. Melt the butter and olive oil in the same pan. Saute the onions and garlic over moderate heat until softened but not browned, about 5 minutes.
4. Add the rice and then white wine, stir well and heat until all surplus liquid has been absorbed. Pour in the canned tomatoes and stir the mixture until most of the liquid has been absorbed.
5. Add a ladle of hot stock to the rice and stir the mixture until all the liquid has been absorbed. Continue to add the remaining stock ladle by ladle, stirring frequently, for about 20 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is just cooked to al dente. If you run out of stock just before the rice is done, just use hot water.
6. Stir in the tomato puree to enrich the sauce a little. Add the seafood and heat through. Add grated parmesan, stir well, and season with salt and pepper. Garnish with parsley and serve.

Click post title for full recipe

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Beef with ginger and spring onion (姜葱牛肉)

After the spat of bento-related entries, I return to our regular menu with a personal favourite: beef with ginger and spring onion. The hubby loved this dish (the pork version) when he first had it in Singapore. He fell in love with the beef version and the venison version as well. We order this dish from our local Chinese restaurant sometimes. It is not actually on the menu but Helen (the boss) is always happy to have dishes prepared for us as long as she knows exactly what it is we are after. Andy is always rather amused that we could order off the menu, or whenever we get complimentary soups on the house.

Beef with ginger and spring onion (姜葱牛肉)

The key is this dish is to marinate the beef for a sufficiently long time and to cook it all very quickly over high heat, so that the beef is just cooked and remains very tender. The quick stir frying also means that it is extremely quick to cook.

Ingredients (serves 2):

300g beef, cut into thin strips
4 stalks of spring onions, cut into inch-long sections on the diagonal
1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
Oil for cooking

Marinade:
1/2 tbsp Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry)
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp cornflour

Seasoning:
1/2 tbsp Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry)
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1/2 tbsp dark soy sauce (for colour, optional)
1/2 tbsp sesame oil
4 tbsp water
2 tsp corn flour, dissolved in 2 tbsp water

1. Marinade the beef and set aside in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight for best result.
2. Combine all the seasoning ingredients (except for the last cornflour mixture) in a bowl. Heat a wok or heavy based pan on medium heat. Add in some cooking oil and heat until the oil is hot but not quite smoking. Stir fry the ginger and white parts of the spring onions very quickly for about 30 seconds. Then add the beef and stir fry briskly until the beef is about 70 percent cooked, which should take only a couple of minutes.
3. Add the green parts of the spring onions, pour the seasoning ingredients into the pan and mix evenly. Stir in the corn flour mixture at the end, turn down the heat to low and simmer for about a minute to thicken the sauce. Dish out and serve immediately, making sure to avoid overcooking the beef. The strong flavours of this dish go well with plain basmati or jasmine rice.

Click post title for full recipe

Tag it

I received a message from Leigh over at The Good Stuff, saying that I've been tagged. Mystified, I wandered over and found these instructions:

1. Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 random and/or weird things about yourself.
3. Tag 7 random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
4. Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.


I am not usually one for chain-letter type posts but this one seems like a good way to get to know other foodies and read more quality food-blogs. So here goes:

7 random things about myself

1. I love eggs. Fried, boiled, poached, steamed, omelettes, in soup, as an ingredient, in any shape or form. Best. Food. Ever. I even love the shape of eggs. Go figure.

2. I sang in choirs and musical groups from the age of 10 to 20, taking part in competitions and travelling overseas on tours along the way. I sometimes wish that I am still singing and my voice is no longer as good as it used to be with regular training, but I still enjoy attending choral and musical performances with a practiced and appreciative ear.

3. I love cats. Meow. They have such personalities and I like their independence and grace.

4. My husband and I 'met' each other online, on an internet forum discussing (of all things) JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and other works (and movies).

5. I am a Mac user.

6. My paternal great-great-grandfather had his own martial arts school in Guangzhou, China. Like many people from Southern China during the 18th and 19th centuries, my great-grandfather migrated to Malaysia and that's how the Nanyang (or 'south seas', as Singapore and Malaysia were known at that time) branch of the family started.

7. I tend to drink red wines in the UK and chilled white wines in Singapore. Not surprising really given that whites are more refreshing to the palate when it is 32 degrees celsius outdoors, and it is awkward serving reds at the appropriate 'room' temperature; you don't get 18-22 degrees indoors in Singapore unless you have freezing airconditioning.

7 blogs that I enjoy reading

I have decided to highlight some of the food blogs that I enjoy reading rather than going at random. Life is too short, you know.

1. Rasa Malaysia
2. A Slice of Cherry Pie
3. Let's Get Wokking
4. Aidan Brooks: Trainee Chef
5. Closet Cooking
6. What's For Lunch Honey?
7. Just Hungry

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Monday, 14 January 2008

Bento accessories

To make bento, you essentially just need a suitable container (in the right size that meets your requirements) and food to put into it. But there is a whole array of related bento accessories out there that could make packing food easier, more attractive and some are just plain silly and fun.

Onigiri
Triangular onigiriDisc shaped onigiriCylindrical onigiri

A staple in many Japanese bento is onigiri or rice balls. Traditionally, they are shaped by hand (as seen in these instructions from Naomi Kijima's 'Bento Boxes: Japanese Meals On the Go'). But onigiri moulds do make the job easier. They come in regular triangular shapes as well as more novelty ones like heart and flower shaped. The smallest white mould is actually for making nigiri sushi, which just happened to have sneaked into the photo.

Onigiri and sushi moulds


Small containers/cups
Cups and containers

If your bento container does not come with a divider or inner compartments or if you want to partition your food in different ways, small containers and cups are very useful. Many people use foil cupcake liners to do this as they are leakproof and disposable, which makes them convenient. I prefer silicone cupcake liners which are flexible enough to accommodate different spaces as well as reusable. You can get silicone cupcake liners from most household and department stores. They do cost a bit but work out better in the long run as you can use them over and over again. I find that the mini ones fit better than the regular sized ones for bento containers. The Clickety Click containers are useful for holding dips and sauces such as ketchup, mayonnaise, chilli and any other condiments that you might want to include in your lunch at the point of eating.

Sauce containers
Sauce containers

Here is a variety of sauce containers that I have in the shape of fish, pigs, animal heads and vegetable/fruit. They come from eBay, JBox.com and some shops in Oriental City (London). I am almost embarassed to show the amount of sauce containers that I have. I seem to collect more and more of them because they are so pretty and offer an easy way to add a pop of colour and interest in a lunch. They are particularly useful for soy sauce and oil-based salad dressing. The screw cap makes them much more secure than lidded containers. I always keep some of them pre-filled so that I can grab one and toss it in my lunch when I'm packing in a hurry. Some sauce containers might come with a dropper that you could use to suck up the sauce and drip into the bottle. What I do is use the suction method: squeeze the bottle between your fingers to remove as much air as possible, maintain your grip, dip the mouth of the container into a small saucer of soy sauce and release your grip. The sauce will be sucked into the container. You may have to do this twice to fill it up compeltely. I use the same suction method to clean the bottles with soapy water. But then I tend to use the same bottles for the same types of sauces so it's not a problem.

Nori cutters
Nori cutters

In an earlier post, I have highlighted nori cutters that can be used to cut out shapes (such as faces, hearts, stars, musical notes etc.) for decorating eggs, onigiri and sandwiches. They can be bought from eBay stores (search for "nori cutters"). Another option is to look in your local craft store for paper punches. As long as you use them exclusively for nori, they should work just as well. As nori is dry, they should not require washing. Just brush away bits of nori from the blade and surrounding areas with a pastry brush.

Picks
Food picks

Picks are useful to include in bento especially for kids to eat small pieces of food with. They are quite handy for adults too! I tend to put them in with pieces of cut fruit, as well as use them as skewers. They are also handy for adding some colour and cuteness to your lunch.

Furoshiki
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Furoshiki are a type of traditional wrapping cloth used to transport gifts, clothes, food and other goods. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in furoshiki as environmental awareness of using plastic bags led to greater popularity of reusable carriers and furoshiki are commonly used to wrap and transport lunch boxes (bento), often doubling up as a table mat for the lunch. The Ministry of Environment for Japan has posted this excellent diagram showing the different ways of tying furoshiki. There are gorgeous furoshiki available from Japan and on eBay but it is essentially a large piece of cloth so a large handkerchief, scarf or bandana would work well. This one that the picture above is an old scarf that I no longer wear but works a treat as a furoshiki. If you remove the chopsticks, the top section (formed from the two corners tied together) forms a nice carrying handle.

Sidecars and the list goes on
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Small lidded containers/tupperware are also great as sidecars, when you want to bring along some extra fruit or snack or when your main bento is rather small. There are many other accessories and useful items that I have not profiled here, such as insulated bags (for keeping lunches cool or warm), mini ice (gel) packs (that could be tucked into containers to keep food cool till lunch), egg moulds, plastic sushi grass/dividers and the list goes on. Remember that you don't have to buy expensive items from eBay or shipped from Japan. Keeping your eyes peeled and using your imagination in your local shops could often turn up surprising finds. Some folks have mentioned finding great mini containers and cutlery (good for packing with lunch) at the children or maternity sections. Or find new uses for things that you already have in your kitchen or in the house, like a old scarf as a furoshiki.

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Saturday, 12 January 2008

Different types of bento boxes

So, you have figured out more or less what the size of your bento container should be. But with so many different types of containers available, which ones should you choose? I like Japanese culture and pretty things so I personally do like the Japanese-style bento boxes. However, even I admit that they are not always the most practical or easy to get hold off (without paying too much on eBay or for shipping).

In this post, I will run through the selection of containers that I use for bento to give you some idea of what is available and the pros and cons of different types of boxes. You should consider whether you want to heat up your lunch if you have access to a microwave at work. You may also want to put your containers into the dishwasher. Do check that the containers are microwaveable and dishwasher safe. Bear in mind that most of those cute Japanese bento boxes that you see are not suitable for use in microwave (since traditional Japanese bento are meant to be eaten at room temperature). They also tend not to be dishwasher safe as dishwashers are not common in Japan. Even when they are stated dishwasher safe, the water temperatures of Japanese dishwashers are not as hot as in American dishwashers so please check with the seller or store.


Jyubako
Jyubako boxBlack jyubako box

A jyubako is a large family-sized container suitable for a picnic or multiple portions bento. During the last days of the year, Japanese wives and mothers would prepare elegant new year food packed in jyubako. I bought this simple one from the new Daiso store at the Japan Centre in London (they have an online shop too). It is not for use in the microwave or dishwasher. The three tiers are 18cm by 18cm each and the capacity is 1000ml per tier. One could use just a single tier for a personal bento but that is still very big if you need only 700ml like me, unless you are packing a bulky salad or sandwich.


Japanese Lacquer Boxes

Plastic lacquer-effect boxesRed lacquerware box

These are just about my favourite bento boxes. They are made of sturdy plastic with traditional lacquer effect. I bought these off eBay. The lower tier holds 350ml, which I usually use for rice or noodles, and the upper tier holds 280ml with an inner lid. There is a small removeable inner compartment on the upper tier that is quite useful for holding items that might leak liquid or sauce into other side dishes (such as spinach and salad). At 630ml, this seems to hold the right amount of food for me if I pack it well. Japanese bento boxes tend to come with an elastic belt that holds the container securely closed to avoid leakage and spills. They might be plain black or with patterns on them like this mushroom one that I bought. They can be made quite easily by simply sewing the ends of an elastic band together.


'Lube Sheep' Bento Boxes

IMG_4197.jpgBlue dragonfly container

These bento boxes are made by a company called (I kid you not) 'Lube Sheep'. I bought these red rabbit and blue dragonfly bento boxes from The Japan Centre as well. They are not dishwasher safe but can be used in the microwave without the inner lids. Their capacity is 330ml for the upper tier and 250ml for the lower tier. At 580ml, I find them a little too small for me unless I am wanting only a light lunch or just a snack.

Blue dragonfly container'Lube Sheep' containers

These bento boxes are tall and slim which fit well into bags. The inner lids are good for containing food (although not completely watertight) and an elastic belt would go round the container to hold it closed securely. Inside the top inner lid, there is a compartment for storing short chopsticks (15cm length). As you can see from my 'light lunch' photo link above, it is also a useful space for storing condiments, tea bags, biscuits, sticks of celery/peppers etc. (I have seen many people use that space for the popular biscuits.) The smaller bottom tier also fits into the bigger upper tier for easy storage.

Single-tier Totoro Container
Totoro container

This, I must admit, was a frivolous purchase. I adore Totoro and, for a fan, this bento box was too lovely to pass over. Bought from Jbox, it is a single tier container with a movable dividier (to separate rice and side dishes). It is rather small at 450ml capacity. The lid has an airtight seal and side handles that clicks shut. It is not suitable for use in the microwave or dishwasher. So far, I have only used it for one-dish meals like stir fried noodles.

Laptop Lunches
Laptop Lunch container

Laptop Lunches are American-style bento boxes that began in the US and now has country websites in the UK, Canada and Europe. As the 'American-style' would suggest, the containers are safe to use in the microwave and dishwasher and are larger than regular Japanese bento boxes. It could be used with all, some or none of the smaller compartments/containers, which offers good flexibility depending on what you pack for lunch. The two larger containers are 300ml each while the two smaller containers are 180ml each, which makes for a total capacity of around 960ml. The smallest container is suitable for holding dips, although it is not completely watertight and things like soy sauce or oil-based salad dressing could leak slightly. Due to the large size, I tend to use these containers for bulky items such as salads and sandwiches. I do find the smaller containers very useful as inner compartments in some of my other bento boxes!.

Lock n Lock containers
Lock n Lock container

Although these look the most 'normal' and 'unglamourous', I have actually found myself going back to them time and again when I pack lunches. I think it is because they are so well-made, sturdy, airtight and of a good size. Its capacity is 800ml which is perfect for the husband. The size makes it very flexible in fitting more dense food like rice-based lunches as well as sandwiches and wraps. There are many sizes and models of Lock n Lock and this model comes with removeable inner containers, which are very useful as a guide for food portions (like the 3:1:2 principle that I spoke of in the previous post).

So, do not feel like you have to buy a 'Japanese' bento box in order to pack bento meals. I have also used my other regular tupperware containers sometimes. Bento is essentially lunch in a box and whatever container suits your needs will work. It is not that container in itself, but what goes into the container and how the food is packed that makes it a good meal.

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