Thursday, 24 December 2009

Bubble and squeak

Bubble and squeak is a prime example of British thriftiness in cooking in that it uses leftover vegetables and potatoes from the traditional Sunday roast. The name probably comes from the initially boiling of the potatoes and vegetables (bubbling), and then from the panfrying that produce the squeaking noises (not that I've really heard the squeaks very much myself!). Given that there are bound to be plenty of leftovers from the Christmas dinner, this is another good way of dealing with the leftovers on Boxing Day (or beyond!).

The primary ingredient is mashed potatoes, comprising between 50 to 75 percent of the dish (you can vary the proportions to taste), and vegetables, traditionally cabbage. You can also use any leftover vegetables that you have at hand, e.g. carrots, brussel sprouts, peas, broccoli, cauliflower. You can even add some grated cheese or chopped up onion into the mix for added flavour.

The list of ingredients I have below are just what I had after a Sunday roast. Just use whatever you have or add more potatoes or vegetables (always handy to have a bag of frozen peas) as long as you end of with a mixture of about 50 percent or more potatoes. I also added some chopped up parsley that I had in the fridge.

Ingredients (all leftovers, no real guide to portions!):

Cooked potatoes (roast or boiled), mashed
Cooked brussel sprouts, finely chopped
Cooked carrots, finely chopped
Cooked peas
Salt and pepper to taste
Oil or butter for cooking

Method:

1. Mix all potatoes and vegetables in a large container. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Bubble and squeak

2. In a large frying pan, heat 1 tbsp of oil or a small knob of butter on medium-high heat. Either form the potato mixture into little patties (a bit more work) or just ladle some into the pan and use your spatula/wooden spoon to roughly form into a large patty.

3. Pan fry for 3-4 minutes until the bottom of the patty is golden brown. Flip it over and pan fry the other side for a few minutes. Repeat until all the potato mixture is used up.

Bubble and squeak

I like eating this with ketchup, or reheated leftover gravy (I don't throw much away, not even gravy!). Bubble and squeak is traditionally served with slices of leftover cold meat from Sunday roast (e.g. chicken, beef, pork...). Alternatively, you can chop up the leftover meat and mix them in with the potatoes and vegetables and fry up the lot in one go. Bubble and squeak also makes a good breakfast dish, perhaps accompanied with poached or fried eggs (rather like a hash). Feel free to use your imagination and whatever you have in the fridge.

For those of you celebrating, have a very happy Christmas, enjoy the festivities and all best wishes for the new year ahead.

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Tuesday, 22 December 2009

A bun in the oven

Updates have been very sporadic on this blog for the past few months, for which I apologise to readers (if you are still around). Other than being busy with work and other aspects of life, I have not been cooking very much, or thinking about food very much. Actually, I 'went off' food for a time and was also feeling completely run over and exhausted day in and day out. The reason for the sudden onset of physical malaise is that I have, what one might call, a bun in the oven, or as I like to call it, a bao in the steamer.

Char siew bao

I am currently 5 months pregnant. The baby is due in late-April 2010. There are plenty of challenges and exciting changes ahead, lots of it unknown, since we will be first-time parents, but AP and I are looking forward to all of it very much. I will still be updating this blog as much as I can, especially now that I have gotten over my food-aversion phase and is actually enjoying food again (I wouldn't have believed it if you told me this a month or two ago).

After getting over the worst of the morning (read: all-day-and-night) sickness, cravings that I've had so far tend to be limited to foods that I grew up having. I guess that kind of makes sense, to crave comfort food from one's childhood. I don't know what I would do if we didn't have reasonable access to T&T (large Chinese supermarket chain in Canada -- a real godsend).

A major one is char siew bao (steamed bbq pork bun), which is a steamed fluffy white bun filled with savoury and sweet BBQ pork. They are often found in dim sum restaurants and also in Chinese bakeries. Variants of char siew pau may have the same filling in an oven-baked bun or wrapped in flaky pastry (rather like a sausage roll).

Char siew bao

Granted, I love char siew bao anyway and didn't need pregnancy as an excuse to want them. But in recent weeks, there were sometimes nothing else I would rather have for breakfast other than char siew bao. Thank goodness we could buy pretty decent ones from T&T. They come sixin a pack, so I can have a supply in the fridge ready to be steamed and reheated when needed (I use my wok as a steamer, as in this post). I love having one for breakfast. Or afternoon snack. Or supper. Nom nom nom...

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Saturday, 12 December 2009

Bento update

I've been falling behind in my bento updates. I still pack bento lunches for myself and the husband but sometimes I get too tired or uninspired to pack them prettily, which also means they are not always worth photographying. But here are a few that made it into photos:

Grilled courgettes (zucchini), cherry tomatoes, cherries and chicken vermicelli salad
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Pork and mushroom soboro, rice topped with black sesame seeds, vegetable stir fry
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Roast beef slices, cherry tomatoes, edamame, couscous and cherries
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Chicken fajita, chery tomatoes, small container of sour cream, rolled up wholewheat tortilla
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Friday, 20 November 2009

Homemade apple sauce

Thanksgiving Day in the US is coming up soon. I made a roast pork loin for Canadian Thanksgiving. If neighbours south of the border would like to try that recipe instead of making a traditional roast turkey, this apple sauce recipe would be just the thing to go with roast pork. Sure, you can buy readymade apple sauce, but it's really dead easy to make your own. All it needs is some cut up apples and a little simmering time on the stove while you deal with other things. By making your own, you can also choose the apples that you particularly like and control the amount of sugar that goes in (minus all the funky stuff in jarred apple sauce too).

Granny Smith and MacIntosh apples

Cooking apples are best to use for this. The tart crispness of apples like Granny Smith and Bramley gives the apple sauce a lovely zing, while the addition of sugar mellows out the tartness. You can also use a combination of cooking and eating apples if you like.

Ingredients (serves 4-5):

2 apples (I used Granny Smiths), peeled, cored and roughly chopped or sliced
2 tbsp water
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp sugar (or to taste)
10g unsalted butter (optional)

1. Place the apple pieces in a saucepan with the water, lemon juice and sugar.
2. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally for about 15-20 minutes until the apples have softened. I prefer a slightly chunky texture in my apple sauce. If you want a smoother texture, simmer for another 5-10 minutes.
3. At the end of cooking, stir in the butter to add richness if desired. Can be served warm or cold.

Apple sauce

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Thursday, 29 October 2009

Roast pork loin for Thanksgiving

A whole roast turkey is just impractical for two of us, and neither of us are that keen on turkey anyway (to do just a breast or joint). The vote went to roast pork, since I've not done that for a long time and it's an excuse to make some lovely applesauce with the season's harvest (recipe in the next post). This roast pork recipe certainly took a long time coming given how long it's been since Thanksgiving here in Canada. But perhaps folks in the US could find some inspiration in this for their Thanksgiving in November.

Roast pork loin

Make sure you get your pork with a good layer of fat/skin on top. Even if you are not one of those who like pork crackling (the fat that goes all crispy after oven cooking), the fat keeps the meat moist and adds a lot of flavour. You can also discard the crackling after cooking or add them to finish off your roast potatoes for extra flavour.


Ingredients (serves 4-5):

1.2kg/2.5lb loin of pork with a good layer of fat on top
1 small onion
1 small carrot
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp plain flour
A few sprigs of rosemary (optional)
Salt and freshly milled black pepper


Method:

1. Pre-heat the oven to 240C/475F/Gas 9. Cut the onion and carrot into large pieces and layer them in a roasting tray. Drizzle the olive oil over the vegetables.

Veggie trivet

2. Score the skin of the pork all over with a sharp knife (it may already be scored for you by the butcher), about halfway through the fat layer. Sprinkle the flour (this makes the skin crisp up nicely if you want to eat the crackling), salt and pepper all over the pork, rubbing them into the cuts on the fat. Stick the rosemary sprigs into the cuts.

Roast pork loin

3. Place the pork in the roasting tin on top of the vegetables and then place in the middle of the heated oven. Roast it for 25 minutes before turn the heat down to 190C/375F/Gas 5. Calculate the total cooking time allowing 35 minutes to the pound. In this case, I cooked the pork for 25 minutes on high heat and then a further 65 minutes on the lower heat. There is enough fat to keep the pork moist but you can baste the meat once during cooking if you wish. The meat is cooked if you stick a skewer in the thickest part and the juices that run out when pressed is clear with no trace of pink.

4. When the pork is cooked, remove it from the oven, cover loosely with foil and give it at least 30 minutes resting time before carving. The crackling may lose its crispness if left to rest until the foil with the meat. You can remove the crackling first and then set the meat to rest. Place it back in the oven on a tray or with the roast potatoes during the final 5-10 minutes before serving to let it crisp up further.

5. In the meantime, make the gravy using the same steps as in this previous post. Tilt the tin and spoon off almost all the fat, leaving only the juces. Leave the charred onion and carrot in. Place the roasting tin over direct heat, turned to low. Sprinkle in 1 tbsp of plain flour and quickly work it into the juices with a wooden spoon. Now turn the heat up to medium and gradually add cider/white wine or stock, stirring frequently as it simmer until you have a smooth rich gravy. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Discard the onion and carrot and pour the gravy into a warmed serving jug. Serve the pork carved in slices, giving everyone some crackling if they wish.

This was our Thanksgiving dinner (before the gravy): roast pork, homemade apple sauce, brussel sprouts, carrots, roast potatoes and roast parsnips.

Thanksgiving roast dinner

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Monday, 12 October 2009

Past bento

Holy crumbs, More than a month without an update! I could go into why, but I will leave that for a later post. It is Thanksgiving Day here in Canada and I have a lovely dinner planned that will keep me busy later but belly-happy. Instead of a whole turkey or even turkey joint for only the two of us, I am cooking a roast pork loin, which I will be blogging about in my next update.

Thanksgiving dinners often lead to leftovers for at least another day or two. How about packing some of them for lunch in a bento? Here are some bento made a while ago that I have not gotten round to putting up. To all Canadian readeres, Happy Thanksgiving!

This was made for lunch after we had roast beef for dinner the night before: coriander couscous, roast beef, asparagus, strawberries and grapes
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Vegetable stir fry, cherry tomatoes, chicken rice, steamed chicken breast topped with spring onions and coriander dressing.
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Inarizushi, cherry tomatoes, edamame, onigiri and cherries.
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Roast chicken leg, cherry tomatoes, asparagus and sundried tomato couscous
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Thursday, 20 August 2009

Making gravy for roast dinner

After the last two articles on how to cook traditional roast beef and crispy roast potatoes, I have to finish off this little series with how to make traditional gravy. This is something that seems to mystify many people who often resort to ready made gravy granules or packs. I am not one to chastise or put down those who prefer gravy granules for the convenience. Goodness knows I was dependent on good old Bisto for a long time especially in my early days of learning to cook British dishes. But once I learned how to make gravy from scratch and realised how easy it was, I never looked back.

It is not a complicated business. As long as you have on hand a good solid-based flameproof roasting tin (that you should be using to cook your roast in) and a wooden spoon, you are good to go.

Gravy

Ingredients:

Juices left in the roasting tin from cooking meat
1 tbsp plain flour
500ml hot stock (beef/chicken/vegetable) or water from cooking vegetables (actual amount depends on the consistency of gravy you prefer)
100ml red or white wine (optional, to replace some of the stock)
Salt and pepper to taste

1. After the roast is cooked, remove from the oven and set aside on a chopping board or plate to rest while you make the gravy, finish off the potatoes and other vegetables. Spoon off extra fat from the meat juices in the roasting tin, leaving about 1 or 2 tablespoons.
2. Place the roasting tin directly on the hob on low heat. Simmer until the juices and fat are hot. Using a wooden spoon, gently scrape the bottom and sides of the roasting tin to incorporate crusty bits into the juices; this is where all the good caramelised flavour is.
3. Add the flour and whisk the mixture quickly with the back of a wooden spoon. Mix quickly and evenly to produce a smooth paste. If you are replacing some of the stock with red (for beef or lamb) or white (for pork or chicken) wine, add it now. Pour in the wine and whisk to mix. Let the mixture simmer on medium heat until slightly reduced and the alcohol has evaporated.
4. Then slowly pour in the stock a little at a time and whisk well after each addition. Simmer on medium heat until thickened to your liking. If the gravy is too thick, add more stock; if it is too thin, simmer it for longer and it will reduce and thicken. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour into a gravy bowl or jug and keep warm until serving.

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Friday, 14 August 2009

Roast potatoes

These roast potatoes (or roasties) were made to accompany the roast beef last weekend. I tend to cook the healthier version normally, using much less oil, but sometimes you just want the traditional taste of good roast potatoes - crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.

Roast potatoes

The amount of potatoes to use depends on how many people you are serving, how greedy you are feeling, and how many people would want second helping. I generally estimate 1 medium sized potato per person, with a little extra if it is a special occasion and people would tend to indulge in second helpings. I prefer to use a more waxy potato variety for roast potatoes and potato wedges, and a floury variety for mashing. This webpage provides a good guide to the different varieties (UK) and their suitability for different cooking methods. Here in Canada, I tend to use Yukon Gold or red potatoes for roasting and salads, and Russet potatoes for mashing or jackets.

Ingredients (serves 2)
2 medium potatoes, peeled and washed
Approx 100ml (you need about 1cm of oil at the bottom of your roasting tray) of vegetable oil (lard or dripping is traditional)
Salt and pepper

1. The oven should already be on from cooking the roast. You can place the tray in the oven as it is and then turn up the heat later to 425F/220C/gas mark 7 after the roast is done. (The roast needs to rest for at least 30 minutes anyway before serving, giving you time to finish the potatoes). This next step is critical for crisp roasties: place the roasting tray with oil on the highest shelf of the oven. The oil needs to be very hot by the time you put the potatoes in.

2. Cut the washed and peeled potatoes into fairly even-sized pieces, leaving the small ones whole. Parboil in a pan of water for about 10 minutes. Take out a piece and run the tines of a fork along the surface, if the outer surface is fluffy, it is ready for the oven. If not, give it another minute or two.

3. Drain off the water. Replace the lid on the saucepan, hold it firmly shut (with an oven glove or thick kitchen towel to protect against the heat) and shake the saucepan vigorously up and down a few times. This shaking roughens up the cooked edges of the potato and makes them and fluffy – this is another key component of achieving those crunchy and crispy edges.

4. Remove the roasting tray of hot oil from the oven (be careful!). Place the potatoes into the hot fat, turning and coating each piece so that they are all coated with the hot oil. Then place the tray back on the highest shelf of the oven and leave to cook for 40-50 minutes or until golden brown. You can turn them halfway through cooking but they should brown fairly evenly on their own. If the potatoes are ready before serving time, turn the oven off and leave them inside (not for too long though, or they may start to dry out).

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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

English roast beef

This past Sunday was the first time I cooked a roast dinner for a while. I was away in Asia July and then there was that crazy heatwave when I returned I couldn't even bear to boil water in the house, not to mention use the oven. Thankfully the weather has cooled down a lot and I was able to do a roast dinner again for Sunday.

(I tend to line the roasting pan with foil to make for easier cleaning, and also because the non-stick coating of my roasting tin is kind of wrecked!)
Joint of beef ready for the oven

I cook roast chicken fairly often, but nothing says traditional English like a roast beef Sunday dinner. The quality of the meat is key to how good the roast is. Buy a joint from a reliable local butcher or a supermarket that specialises in good matured beef. A layer of fat around the joint will help prevent the meat from drying out in the oven. You can always slice the fat off when serving if you don't wish to eat it (although it does turn beautifully crisp, so bad but so good). For the joint, feel free to buy sirloin tip, inside/outside round or rib roast, depending on your budget and the recommendation of the butcher.

Roast beef out of the oven

Ingredients (serves 5-6, or plenty of leftovers for 2):

2.2 lbs (1kg) joint of beef
1 tbsp English mustard powder (optional)
1 tbsp plain flour
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt
1 small carrot
1 small onion

1. Preheat the oven to 450F/220C/gas 8. Place the beef in a roasting tin on top of the cut onion and carrot. The vegetables act as a trivet and is a good base for making gravy later. The onion will caramelise and give the gravy a dark and rich flavour and colour.

2. Dust the mustard powder and flour all over the surface of the fat (this helps make the fat crispy). Season all over the surface with freshly ground pepper and salt.

3. Place the joint in the middle of the hot. After 20 minutes turn the heat down to 375F/190C/gas 5 and continue to cook for 45 minutes (for rare). While cooking, baste the meat with the oil and juices two or three times. To check the doneness of the beef, insert a thin skewer towards the middle and press out some juices: the red, pink or clear colour will indicate to what stage the beef has cooked.

4. Remove the cooked beef to a board for carving. Cover loosely with a foil and leave it to rest for at least 30 minutes before serving (while the roast is resting you can turn up the heat in the oven to finish the roast potatoes or Yorkshire puddings, if serving them). This resting period is essential to allow the meat to relax and stay tender and juicy. After the resting time, cut and remove the string and fat and slice the beef thinly to serve.

Medium-rare roast beef


Note for cooking time:
After 20 minutes at 450F/220C/gas mark 8, turn the heat down to 375F/190C/gas 5, and d continue to cook for 15 minutes per lb (450 g). This will give you rare roast beef. To that time, add 15 minutes extra for medium-rare or 30 minutes extra for well-done.

Next up: how to make crispy roast potatoes and gravy.

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Friday, 7 August 2009

Summer berries yogurt cake

It is difficult not to notice that berries are in season in the northern hemisphere right now. Supermarkets and grocers seem to be overflowing with raspberries and especially blueberries. Blackberries are also just coming into season.

Summer berries yogurt cake

I found this summer berries yogurt cake recipe last year (on Elle's New England Kitchen) and have really enjoyed it with the season's bounty; it is pretty flexible too. Feel free to use raspberries, blueberries, blackberries or a mixture, whatever you have fresh or from the freezer. The cake is also relatively low-fat; it uses less butter but the yogurt keeps is very moist. Low-fat or non-fat yogurt is fine; plain, vanilla or raspberry flavoured yogurt will also work. You can also use any citrus zest, lemon, lime or even orange.

I already had lots of fresh blueberries at hand and some raspberries in the freezer. The addition of blackberries was more of a whim, after I noticed the glorious amount of blackberries that have started to appear on huge bushes by the beach close to where I live. Yesterday morning, I walked down to the beach and picked blackberries to be used in the cake. And there they were, blackberry bushes as far as the eye could see (well, almost, but it was a lot!)

Plump blackberries
As far as the eye could see

It was a most enjoyable morning, even if I ended up with purple fingers!
Picking blackberries by the beach

The bounty, which was more than I needed for the cake since I would be using other berries too.
Harvest


Ingredients (serves 8-10):

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, cut into cubes and softened
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
170ml (1 small carton) plain yogurt
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
150g/1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries/blueberries/blackberries
Zest of 1 lemon or lime


1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. Grease and flour a 9 inch loaf pan.
2. In a medium bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and salt, and set aside.
3. In a large mixing bowl at medium speed, beat the butter and the sugar with an electric mixer until creamy.
4. Beat in the eggs one at a time, followed by the yogurt, until well blended.
5. Fold in the flour mixture, about a quarter at a time. Then gently fold in the berries and zest.
6. Pour the batter into the loaf pan. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 70 minutes until the top is lightly golden and a skewer inserted near the centre comes out clean.
7. Remove the cake from the oven and leave in the loaf pan for 10 minutes. Then remove the cake from the loaf pan and let cool on a wire rack before.

Lovely on the bush
More to come

Lovely on the plate
Berry-licious

And lovely in my tummy
Mmmm...

Click post title for full recipe

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Picnic bento: two versions

We are experiencing a heat wave here in the Pacific Northwest. Max of 31-36(!) and min temperatures of still 20-21 degrees C at night. Coupled with high humidity and no wind = pretty hellish weather. This is set to last for this entire week. Eeks. Of course, there are folks who enjoy the high summer and make the most of it with picnics and outdoor dining, swimming and plenty of iced water and ice cream.

I much prefer last week when it was warm and sunny but at a decent temperature (around 23-26 in the day). I packed two picnics last week, one for lunch and one for dinner; both were eaten at parks. The first was much more simple than the other, since that was made a day after I returned from Hong Kong and I was all jetlagged. The second one took more time and effort and looked better. Both were delicious though and we certainly enjoyed the fresh air and fresh food.

The first picnic (at Ron Basford Park, Granville Island): blueberries, applewood smoked cheddar, Swiss cheese, cherries, honey ham and Turkish bread. Local blueberries and cherries in season are THE BEST.
Picnic

The second picnic (at Trout Lake):
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Onigiri, chicken nuggets, cherries
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Inarizushi, cherry tomatoes
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I could never fill up all 3 tiers of this jyubako box for two person. I used the third tier to hold chopsticks, soy sauce and some napkins.

I suppose my point of this post is to encourage people to pack a healthy and delicious picnic, using a variety of colours and food groups, and enjoy the summer. Even if you don't have the time to do cute cut-outs and pretty arrangements so often associated with bento, it can still be a healthy, delicious and enjoyable.

Using regular containers or your bento boxes also help reduce waste, compared to grabbing sandwiches and salads packed in disposable plastic containers or wrapping at most supermarkets. Just remember to keep perishables (e.g. cheese, ham, salads) cold in a cooler or insulated bag, and with cool packs. So go on, pack a picnic, whether simple or more elaborate, and enjoy the summer :)

Click post title for full recipe

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

White Spot Triple O's... in Hong Kong!

When I was in Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago, I was coming up the escalator at Admiralty MTR station and came upon a poster advertising a Triple O's restaurant at Pacific Plaza. Cue surprised grin spreading across my face and gleam of delight in my eyes. Now you got to understand that coming across a White Spot restaurant overseas for a Vancouverite (or at least someone living there) is rather like stumbling upon a Bee Cheng Hiang, Yakun or Bread Talk outlet for a Singaporean, or a Wetherspoon's or Thornton's for a Brit, without knowing that they had overseas outlets in the first place. (I know that there are Bee Cheng Hiang and Breadtalk outlets overseas, just not in Vancouver, boo.) According to a leaflet on the counter, there are 6 Triple O's outlets in Hong Kong, and also starting up in Thailand and South Korea.

The first White Spot restaurant was opened in 1928 on Granville Street in the Marpole neighbourhood and has been a Vancouver and BC institution ever since. Triple O's is a fast food concept chain belonging to White Spot restaurants, focusing on burgers made from quality ingredients and its famous Triple O sauce. This Triple O's outlet at the food hall of Pacific Plaza is evidently quite popular with the office crowd. I got there just before noon and by 12.30pm the entire place was packed and people were standing around waiting for seats, like at a food court.

White Spot Triple O's at Pacific Plaza, Central, Hong Kong

I ordered a basic burger with thick hand cut chips and iced lemon tea. The beef patty was of good quality and fresh meat, nicely cooked and moist. There was even a traditional pickle on top of the bun, just like at White Spot restaurants. The signature Triple O sauce inside the burger was the same as I remembered. The chips were nicely done too, hot and crispy on the outside and just a little fluffy on the inside. And after more than a week of noodles and rice at that point, I was more than ready for a good burger. At HK$55 (CAD$8.50), the price went down as well as the meal. Yum.

Basic burger with thick cut fries and iced lemon tea

So if you are in Hong Kong (whether visiting or living there) and in the mood for a good Canadian burger that would not be too much of a burden on your wallet (unlike many other places that serve awesome-tasting but also awfully-expensive burgers), try out any of the following six (!) outlets:

Admiralty
金鐘太古廣場
Unit 9, Level LG1, Great Foot Hall
Pacific Place

Central
中還交易廣場
Shop 10, 1/F, The Forum
Exchange Square

Wan Chai
灣仔海港中心
Shop 121, 1/F, Harbour Centre
25 Harbour Road

Causeway Bay
銅羅灣時代廣場
Shop B 105D, Basement 1
Sitysuper Times Square

Tsim Sha Tsui
尖沙海港城
Shop 3001-DB, Level 3
Citysuper, Harbour City

Shatin
沙田新城市廣場
Shop 128, Level 1,
New Town Plaza, Phase 1

Website: http://www.tripleo.com.hk/

Click post title for full recipe

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Indoor herb garden

Late spring or summer is just the right time to start an indoor herb garden. The longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures are kinder not only to outdoor plants but also indoor potted ones. I developed a love for gardening during my stay in the UK and with a large back garden to learn from and experiment with. Herbs are just another type of plants that I enjoy looking after. But the real impetus for growing herbs, personally, is the convenience of being able to pick or cut the right amount as and when I need them, without having to buy a big bunch or or packet when I would only use a quarter or less each time. Leftover fresh herbs can be frozen (as noted in this previous article) but it does not work well for all herbs. Woody herbs like rosemary and thyme freeze best, and parsley will do OK, but tender ones like basil don't do so well.

Indoor herb garden

If you have some space in a garden outdoors, all to the good. Find a sunny or partially sunny spot and have a little herb garden. They need very little attention and will reward you with fresh herbs year after year. If you plant the herbs now (well grown ones, not little seedlings), there is still time for them to become established and develop good root systems to survive the winter and regrow next year.

But even if you don't have the luxury of an outdoor garden, herbs are pretty easy to grow indoors, either on a patio/balcony, a sunny window sill or any location that is bright. Most herbs love the sun but the small pots of soil can dry out quickly in direct sunlight, in which case watering needs to be carefully monitored. Partially sunny spots and bright locations with no direct sunlight will do just fine.

My herbs are placed on a ledge indoors that get bright light through the day. Most of them were bought as seedlings from the garden centre back in early-April and I have found it very satisfying to watch them grow over. But very young plants that are not well established can be quite tricky in terms of over or under-watering. You may find it easier to buy fairly well grown herbs in pots and just maintain them that way.

Parsley is a multipurpose herb that do well in most Western type cooking. Chop them up and add them at the end of cooking or just before serving, on stews, pasta and soups. They work really well as garnish, especially if you just need to add a few springs in bento (again, the convenience of growing your own).
Flat leaf/Italian parsley

Chives have a mild onion flavour, often used in French cooking and complements cheese and cream sauces well.
Chives

Oregano is widely used in Greek, Spanish and in Italian cuisine, especially in tomato sauces, and grilled or roasted meat.
Oregano

Basil is a culinary herb that features prominently in Italian cooking. Unlike other herbs such as oregano and rosemary, whose flavours intensify with drying (so dried herbs will still work well), dried basil loses most of its flavour and fresh really is best. Italian basil is also known as sweet basil, which is different from Thai basil, lemon basil or holy basil used in Asia. Italian basil tend to be eaten raw in salads or added to the end of cooking as the heat destroys the flavours easily.
Basil

Thyme is widely used in cooking and works particularly well with lamb, chicken and fish. It tends to be added early in the cooking stage as its flavours take time to infuse the dish.
Thyme

Rosemary is used frequently in traditional Mediterranean cuisine and one of the most hardy herbs. It goes particularly well with chicken and also good in stews.
Rosemary

To harvest the herbs, snip off individual springs or cut off the tops. Frequent trimming this way encourages offshoots and more healthy and bushy plants with tender leaves. I water my herbs roughly twice a week and feed a weak liquid fertiliser once a month. Some plants are more thirsty than others (e.g. thyme and rosemary need less water compared to basil), Google for more specific information on growing different types of herbs.

Actually, I do hope that my herbs are still alive! I have been out of the country travelling for work (thus the lack of recent updates) and the husband had been given instructions on how often and how much to water. He does his best of course (bless him) but watering plants for someone else is always difficult to gauge. The most recent phone call suggests that my thyme is on its way out, and one or two stalks of basil are looking rather unhappy. Still, these efforts are well worth it to have my own fresh stash of herbs for whenever I need them. And I hope that you will also feel similarly inspired to start growing some yourself.

Click post title for full recipe

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Chicken and vermicelli salad

This is a dish that I made for a friend's BBQ yesterday. Burgers, sausages and kebabs are great on the BBQ but side dishes are also important for rounding up a meal nicely, both in terms of nutrition, variety and textures. A green salad is always a good option. But I thought I would make something a little different and opted for a chicken and vermicelli salad that has protein, carbohydrates and vegetables that covers all the bases. This makes a nice meal in itself on a hot day.

Vermicelli noodles are also called bean thread noodles. They are often found in Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai cooking. Unlike rice vermicelli/noodles that are equally fine, the strands of noodles are translucent rather than white, and made from mung beans (or green beans) and not rice. They are sold dry in small bundles. Preparation is simple, just soak them in hot water for about 10 minutes (until tender and translucent), drain and they are ready to be used in your recipe.

This vermicelli salad is particularly good for using up leftover chicken, in which case there will be no cooking involved. Just combine the ingredients and serve.

Chicken and vermicelli salad


Ingredients (serve 8-10 as side dish):

200g bean thread noodles, soaked and drained
500g cooked chicken, shredded
1 small carrot, julienned
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red pepper, thinly sliced
2 stalks spring onion, chopped
1 large red chilli, seeded and finely chopped (optional)
1 cup fresh coriander (cilantro), chopped
Juice from 2 limes
2 tbsp rice vinegar (or substitute white vinegar)
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1/4 cup (60ml) peanut oil
4 tbsp sesame oil

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Toss gently to mix well and serve. The salad can be kept in the fridge for a day or two if you have leftovers (it works well for bento!)

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Thursday, 25 June 2009

Basic rice bento

Rice is a staple for traditional Japanese bento. Although I pack all sorts of carbs such as bread, pasta, potatoes and couscous, I do pack rice quite often since I could make use of leftovers from dinners quite easily and it also makes for easier planning in terms of side dishes and portion sizes. An ideal Japense bento proportion is 3:1:2. That refers to 3 parts rice (or similar carbohydrates), 1 part protein (e.g. chicken, beef, eggs, fish), and 2 part vegetables and/or fruit. In the following lunches, you can see how I have used the same Lock & Lock container to pack according to those guidelines. Half the container is filled with rice and the other half with meat and vegetables (I try to pack more of the latter).

This container held a beef stir fry with sugar snaps, mushrooms, peas and sweetcorn (basically an all-in-one), short grain rice and a (big!) cherry tomato.

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A friend gave me a much-treasured jar of sambal belacan (Indonesian condiment made with chilli and shrimp paste) and I used it in a spicy stir fry of okra (lady's finger) and peppers. Leftovers became lunch: rice, chicken cakes and okra and peppers in sambal belacan. Hot stuff! (Note: The grass dividers need to be removed prior to reheating in the microwave.)

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I was going to cook more chicken to go with this next bento but having made extra chicken cakes a few days ago, I decided to use them instead. Today's lunch is chicken rice (rice cooked in chicken broth, minced garlic, ginger and pandan/screwpine leaves), chicken cakes, cherry tomato, pork and chive pan-fried dumplings and bak choy in oyster sauce. The chicken rice and bak choy were leftover from dinner. I just added the chicken cakes and dumplings from my frozen stash.

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I have been working from home most days for this month and I have found that a bento works really well even at home. It saves me time from thinking about what to eat for lunch and putting things together. Being able to just have my lunch and then get back to work (just like in the office) also improves my work flow. I highly recommended it.

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Monday, 22 June 2009

Bento with store-bought food

I often pack dinner leftovers for bento but sometimes store bought food provides a nice change and still saves us money from eating at cafes during lunch hours. This one had a sausage bun in the lower tier (Chinese/Asian bakeries have a great variety of bread with assorted fillings or toppings) and the upper tier had mixed salad leaves, cherry tomatoes and a container of garlic parmesan salad dressing.

It took less than 5 minutes to just put things into containers so this can be done even in the morning before going out to work.

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Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Summer Night Market in Richmond

Over the weekend, the husband and I went to the Summer Night Market in Richmond. Reputed to be the biggest night market in British Columbia, the market has been in the local news recently regarding the sale of counterfeit items such as 'branded' wallets, handbags, sunglasses, apparel and so on. I don't think the publicity is hurting the market, to be honest. I am sure we were not the only people reminded of the market who decided to head down that weekend!

Long hours of summer sunshine

Richmond is a suburb of Vancouver, with a population that is about 60 percent Chinese. The food and products on sale at the market, as well as the majority of the crowd, are East Asian (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, also some Malaysian, Singaporeans, Thai, Filippino) and it really reminds me of 'home'. I mean, how much more authentic can you get than fake DVDs and handbags? ;)

Heading straight for the food

But the main draw has to be the food - street food from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Sichuan, Beijing, Mongolia and other parts of China. My only complaint was how expensive the food was (to me anyway). CAD$2 for a skewer of chicken/assorted meat (essentially a large satay)? $3 for a skewer of grilled tofu?? Certainly a far cry from actual prices in Asia but the atmosphere, smells, sights and sounds were certainly great.

I was really longing for a skewer of fried fish balls (pretty basic, if you ask me) but all I saw were curry fishball (very Hong Kong). Boo.
Dim sum and fish balls

Auntie giving instructions
This is how you do it

Korean food
Korean food

Takoyaki - a popular Japanese snack. Little balls of batter, diced baby octopus, and tempura scraps with assorted filling, topped with okonomiyaki sauce, seaweed flakes, mayonnaise, and katsuobushi (fish shavings).
Takoyaki
Take your pick
Generous topping of bonito flakes

It was the official grand opening of the market for this summer so there were lion dances going from stall to stall. I had no idea why the drums and cymbals were much more muted compared to the heart-thumping ones in Asia.
Lion dance

Soups and desserts, and many bubble tea stalls
Soups and dessert

AP was going to buy something from this smoky stall, because they were $1 per skewer, and then changed his mind when he realised that they were items like chicken knuckles and pork intestines.
Smoky

Dao xiao mian (shaved noodle) is a northern Chinese dish. The chef holds a lump of dough in one hand and rapidly shaves slivers of thin noodles into boiling water. Every strand is different and has a slightly chewy texture.
Dao xiao mian (shaved noodles)

This is another stall that we tried. Not the octopus but the lobster balls. I did want some tofu but balked at paying $3 for a skewer of five...
More skewered goodies

We finished off the evening buying a large pack of prawn crackers ($5) to take home and 4 DVDs ($20 total, so clearly not-that-ahem-legit). It would be nice to go out there again sometime during the summer, if just for the food and atmosphere.


Getting to the market:

Venue: 10-acre site at 12631 Vulcan Way (behind Home Depot on Sweden Way and close to Ikea).
Opening hours: Fridays and Saturdays 7pm to 12 midnight; Sundays 7pm to 11pm; holiday Mondays 7pm to 11pm.
Duration: May 15th to October 4th, 2009
Website

It takes a little effort to get to without a car (parking is $5 at the venue).

Via public transport from downtown Vancouver, the easiest way is to get into Richmond on the 98-B line Richmond Centre. Get off at the Capstan Way stop on No. 3 Road, then take the 407 Bridgeport bus on Capstan Way (across from Canadian Tire). (The bus direction might seem to be the opposite but don't worry the bus makes a turn later towards the east.) Get off at the Sweden Way stop (on Bridgeport Road, next to Ikea) and then walk north along Sweden Way to Vulcan Way - just follow the crowd!

To return, walk back to Bridgeport Road and take the 407 Gilbert across from Ikea. Alight at No. 3 Road and take the 98-B line Burrard back into Vancouver.

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