Saturday, 28 March 2009

Weekly menu planning

I have a weekly menu plan on the door of my fridge, where I note down what I plan to make for our bento as well as dinners on weekdays. I normally do this on a Sunday afternoon or evening. I find that it helps me with the cooking and food buying process through the course of a work week, when I don't have to spend too much time thinking about what to buy and what to cook. I could just look at the menu plan and know what additional ingredients I need to buy the next day, or whether I need to buy more carrots to be used in a number of meals. More importantly, the dinner menu gives me a basis for packing bento the following day, since much of my bento is planned around leftovers.

I bought this little whiteboard from Daiso ($2). It has magnetic strips on the back but they were not strong to hold the board securely when the door is being opened or closed. So I just hang it off another magnetic clip that I already have on the fridge.
Menu planning

This doesn't mean that the menu is cast in stone and iron-clad. Sometimes plans change, if we end up meeting friends for dinner, or if we feel like having different types of food. I don't get too hung up about changing the menu on the fly. But having a plan that I can go to makes me feel much more organised and it means I have less to think about during the week.

As for the weekend, we tend to eat out for lunch, and dinner just depends on what we feel like and plans for that day. Much more relaxed that way.

If you can make out the words on the white board, you will notice there is a pretty wide range of food in there in the course of a week. There is rice, noodles, potatoes, Chinese, Japanese, British/American. We like variety :) Here are some of the recipes from that white board:

Mushroom rice
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Kung Pau chicken (宫保鸡丁)
Kung pao chicken

Fish fragrant aubergine/eggplant (鱼香茄子)
Fish-fragrant aubergine/eggplant (鱼香茄子)

Chow mein
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Honey and rosemary roast chicken legs
Honey rosemary chicken

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Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Teriyaki beef

This is one of those dishes that I like to do for weekday dinners, when there really isn't much time to faff around after getting home from work. I always tend to get really hungry at around 5.30pm or 6pm, just when I am cooking, and quick is always better when my tummy is rumbling. (Have I mentioned that I get grumpy when hungry?)

I tend to marinate the meat in the morning just before leaving the house, so that the meat can be tenderised and it is all ready to go into the wok when I get home. This goes particularly well with a bowl of rice, and a side dish of vegetables, like the simple broccoli and baby corn stir fry at the back of the picture.

Beef teriyaki


Ingredients (serve 2):

350g beef sirloin, thinly sliced
2 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp sake
2 tsp sugar
Oil for cooking
4 tbsp water
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp toasted sesame seeds (optional)

1. Marinate the sliced beef in light soy sauce, mirin, sake and sugar. Leave in the fridge overnight or through the day.
2. Heat a large frying pan or wok on medium-high heat. Add the oil. When hot, add the beef and stir fry quickly to prevent the meat from burning and to cook the pieces evenly. When the beef is 80 per cent cooked, dish out and set aside.
3. Add water and additional 1 tsp of sugar to the reserve marinade, stir to mix and pour into the hot wok. Heat and stir the mixture, boiling it until it starts to reduce and thicken.
4. Turn off the heat. Add the beef back to the wok and stir well to coat with the thickened sauce. Dish out onto a serving plate, garnish with toasted sesame seeds and serve.

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Sunday, 22 March 2009

On the road and last week's bento

I am currently away on a conference trip. I have already prepared articles to be posted the coming week so there will still be updates. There will be no bento for the whole of next week (unless AP decides to make one himself!) but here are some made last week:

This was made when I found myself out of any form of meat and two bento to make for lunch the next day. There was rice leftover from dinner, and extra vegetables, but I did not buy enough chicken to have dinner leftovers.

Chicken rice (rice cooked in chicken broth, with minced ginger, garlic and screwpine leaves), chicken cakes, kailan and bok choy in oyster sauce, and little container of chopped spring onions, garlic and soy sauce dip:
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Thankfully, I remembered there was a little stash of minced chicken in the freezer (extra from a meal). I defrosted it overnight and made chicken cakes the next morning. They were pretty quick to make. Just add 2 tsp light soy sauce, 1 tsp sake, 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp corn flour. Mix well with hands, shape into small patties and pan fry in a little bit of oil. (They are essentially nori wrapped chicken cakes, except I had no time to fuss with nori sheets.) It would have been better if I actually made them and then froze them. Still, they did not take too long, about 20 minutes, while I reheated the rice and boiled vegetables at the same time.

This bread-based bento was packed in very cute containers sent to us by a friend from Singapore, which I will talk about in another post. The lower tier had a sausage and garlic bun (I love Chinese bakaries, their variety is awesome), the upper tier had salad, mini mandarin and a container of salad dressing.

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The sandwich bento: ham and cheese sandwich, grapes, strawberries and mini mandarin. A very simple lunch jazzed up with some cute picks that I bought from Daiso last weekend.

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Thursday, 19 March 2009

Weekend breakfast: Bacon and mushroom scrambled eggs on English muffins

I am definitely a breakfast gal. I normally wake up with a hole in my tummy that must be filled within the next hour, otherwise... behold the grumpy monster! Even so, breakfast on weekdays tends to be rather hasty affairs. AP normally just have a bowl of cereal. I need a hot breakfast to wake up properly, so at least a slice of toast and cup of tea for me. I also seldom get to eat breakfast with my husband since he goes out to work much earlier than I do (he gets out of the house before I am even awake).

Weekend breakfasts are more leisurely and I tend to put more effort into them as a treat for ourselves. Spending a slow morning eating a good breakfast and being able to enjoy each other's company, that's my idea of having a good start to the weekend.

Weekend breakfast

This was a breakfast that I made for us last weekend: bacon and mushroom scrambled eggs on toasted English muffins, with some fruit on the side (great for colour and nutrition). What is your ideal weekend breakfast?


Ingredients (serves 2):

2 English muffins, sliced into two halves each
3 large eggs
1-2 rashers of bacon, chopped
5-6 white button mushrooms, chopped
A splash of milk
Butter
Salt and pepper

1. Beat the eggs in a bowl (I like to use my Pyrex jug for the pouring spout). Add a splash of milk (about 40ml) and mix well.
2. Heat a large frying pan on the stove. Add the bacon and fry over medium heat for a few minutes. Then add the mushrooms and cook until the edges are just browned.
3. While the bacon and mushrooms are cooking, toast the English muffins in the toaster or under the grill.
4. When the mushrooms are just cooked, add a pat of butter into the pan and let it melt (but not sizzle). Pour in the beaten eggs and swirl the pan slightly to spread the mixture evenly. After about 30 seconds, stir the egg mixture. Some parts near the edges or at the bottom of the pan would be just starting to cook and solidify. Stir and tilt the pan to allow liquid eggs to flow to the pan surface for further cooking. Continue to stir the mixture around to get all the eggs to cook and solidify.
5. Before the eggs become too solid, remove it from heat (move it to an empty hob) and add in a small pat of butter for a creamy finish. The heat from the pan will continue to cook the eggs and melt the butter. Season with some salt and pepper to taste (or add at the table). Stir to mix the butter into the eggs.
6. Butter the toasted English muffins. Arrange two halves on each plate. Serve the Mushroom, bacon and scrambled eggs on top of the muffins. Add some fruit (orange slices, melon, berries or whatever you fancy) to the side and enjoy.

Bacon, mushrooms and scrambled eggs on English muffins

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Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Wok special part II: Tips for better stir frying

Yaki udon with beefKing oyster mushroom and kai lan in oyster sauce

Following on from the last post on how to choose, clean and maintain a wok, here is the second part of this Wok Special, with some tips for better stir frying:

1. Wash and chop everything first.

Have an assembly line of ingredients ready, all washed and chopped and ready to go into the wok. Put them in bowls or in piles on a chopping board. Stir-frying works by cooking food very quickly at high heat so be ready to toss ingredients in at a moment's notice.

2. Have all your sauces/seasoning ready.

I keep all my sauces and seasoning items in a cupboard next to my stove. Sometimes I grab them as and when I need, or I would take out all the bottles needed for that meal and line them up on my kitchen counter. The point is, all your sauces should be readily available, for the same reason that as having all your ingredients chopped and ready.

3. Marinate your meat

If makes a different even if just for 5-10 minutes while you wash and chop vegetables or other preparations. I tend to marinate meat with 1 tbsp of light soy sauce, 1 tbsp Shaoxing Chinese rice wine, and 1 tsp of cornflour. The corn flour is a key ingredient for giving meat that velvety texture you find in Chinese restaurants. It coats the meat with a protective layer that keeps it from burning and overcooking in the wok.

4. Preheat the wok

Always start by heating a wok before adding anything to it. Wait until the surface is almost smoking, add oil to coat the surface and then wait to allow the oil to heat up before adding your ingredients. This ensure that the wok has reached a sufficiently high temperature. Pre-heating before adding oil will also prevent food from sticking.

5. Cook on high heat and keep the food moving

It is not called 'stir frying' for nothing... so stir, baby! The heat needs to be medium-high to high, otherwise food would just stew in the wok. The high heat also necessitates constant stirring of the food to prevent burning. (For this reason, gas tends to outperform electric stoves as the latter often has problems producing the high and constant heat that wok cooking requires.)

Spread the food around the sides of the wok instead of having them in a lump in the centre. The food should be tossed and stirred around to spread the heat and flavours evenly. Do not cook too much in a wok at one time. Either cook in two batches or buy a bigger wok. Overcrowding the wok means the food cannot move around the wok easily and will not cook evenly.

6. Cook in the right order

The usual rules for adding to the wok are: oil, aromatics (e.g. onion, garlic, ginger), then protein (beef, chicken etc), followed by vegetables, seasoning, cooked noodles or cooked rice if using, and finally delicate herbs and final seasoning (e.g. coriander, sesame oil). Generally, ingredients that take the longest to cook should be added first.

7. Cook the meat and vegetables separately

This is not always necessary but can be very helpful if you are new to stir frying and want to avoid overcooking the meat. First, stir-fry the meat (chicken, beef, pork, prawns etc) until about 80 per cent cooked. Remove to a bowl and set aside. Then stir-fry the vegetables until they are about 80 per cent cooked, and return the meat to the wok. Add sauces and seasoning, toss everything in the wok to mix well and you are done. Additional tip: for dense vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, blanche them in boiling water for about 2 minutes before adding them to the wok (do this BEFORE you start the stir fry).

8. Use light and dark soy sauces, oyster sauce, Chinese rice wine and sesame oil.

These are the main seasoning agents in most Chinese stir fries. With these key ingredients, you can turn out lovely stir fries that would not be out of place in a Chinese restaurant.


Some recipes that are great for wok cooking:
Yaki udon with beef
Yaki udon with beef

Pork with ginger and spring onions 姜葱猪肉
Pork with ginger and spring onions (姜葱猪肉)

Seafood mui fan 海鲜烩饭
Seafood Mui Fan 海鲜烩饭

Kung pao chicken 宫保鸡丁
Kung pao chicken

Simple broccoli and peppers stir fry
Broccoli and peppers stir fry with garlic

Egg fried rice
Egg fried rice 1

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Monday, 16 March 2009

Wok special part I: How to choose, clean and maintain a wok

It was my brother-in-law's birthday yesterday and he asked for a wok as one of his birthday presents. In honour of his birthday, and to help him along with wok cooking, I decided to do a write up on wok cooking, as well as how to buy and care for a wok.

(The sheen comes from repeated seasoning of the wok. Read on to learn how to maintain your wok.)
Toasting sesame seeds

There is no other tool that does the job that well if you want to cook up a stir fry, as the dish and cooking method really make full use of the shape and size of a wok to help keep all the food in without having spillage over the sizes (always a problem with skillets!) while providing plenty of room for the ingredients to move around and cook evenly. I cannot imagine working in a kitchen without a wok, not only because it is an essential tool for the stir fries that I cannot do without, but also because so many dishes can be cooked in such a versatile tool. I stir fry, deep fry, braise, boil and even steam in my one wok. It is not just Chinese or Japanese dishes either, I also cook pasta dishes and ingredients for cottage pie in my wok (before transferring to an oven), just because it has so much room. A good wok that is well maintained will give you many years of use and also multi-task to reduce the need for other cookware.


Choosing and buying a wok:

Food needs to move around in a wok quickly in order to cook evenly and take advantage of the high heat cooking. So make sure you choose one that is sufficiently wide and deep for the amount you plan to cook. Also check that your cooker will accommodate the size that you want to buy. An 8-portions wok will not fit on a tiny cooker (especially if it is a gas stove with only small grate fittings on top).


You want a wok that is heavy enough to stay on the stove top without toppling over with all that stir frying action, but still light enough not to be unwieldy if you want to grab and flick the handle to toss the food around. Try to find a nice medium. A light or medium-weight carbon steel wok is relatively inexpensive and often the most popular amongst the Chinese and Southeast Asians. But more people are also opting for those with non-stick surfaces for easy cleaning and maintenance. Most traditional carbon steel woks are round at the bottom which requires a wok burner fitting on stove tops or a wok ring (a round band of metal that the wok sits on). If you don’t have a wok burner on your stove (which is not common outside of Asia), get a wok that has a flat bottom otherwise it will not sit properly on your stove.

Most woks come with a long handle (useful for holding on to for stability or tossing) or two round handles on the sides. Look for wooden handles or other material that will remain cool and safe to touch while the wok is hot.

If you have access to a Chinatown or oriental food store/supermarket nearby, that should be your first stop in wok shopping. They are cheaper and often better than the woks that you find in major department stores. There are still good woks available at major department stores and kitchen/homeware stores, as long as you keep an eye out for the weight and material.


How to clean and maintain your wok:

When new, wash with warm, soapy water and wipe dry. It is important to season your wok before first use, even if it has a non-stick coating. Open the kitchen windows, make sure the room is well ventilated. Heat the wok on high heat until excess water has evaporated and the surface is shimmering with heat. Remove from heat, apply some vegetable oil (peanut/corn/sunflower oil is good; olive oil has a low smoking point and will create too much smoke) and spread a thin film of oil all over the inside with a paper towel (held with tongs or wooden chopsticks if you want to be safe). Be careful not to burn yourself as the wok will be very hot.

Place the wok back onto heat for a few minutes until the surface is smoking slightly. Then remove from heat and allow the wok to cool completely to room temperature. Heat up the wok again and repeat the above steps, applying oil and allow to cool down again, another 1-3 times (more if it doesn’t have a commercial non-stick coating, in order for the wok to develop its own protective layer). Once completely cool, clean the surface lightly with a paper towel to absorb excess oil and it is ready for use.

After cooking, wash the wok with warm water and use a spatula, or non abrasive sponge to scrape off any bits that are stuck (they should come off with little force). Use little or no soap as it will remove the protection oil coating. Dry the wok with a cloth or by heating on the stove (to evaporate moisture) before storing.

Your wok will require more attention when new but will developed a good coating over time through repeated use. Re-season your wok from time to time, especially after using it for steaming, to maintain its shiny and protective coating and you will have a versatile pan that should last for years.

Tip:
To use your wok as a steamer, for example, buy a deep wok with a lid, and place a metal trivet at the bottom for food to stand on. Place your ingredients in a heatproof dish and place it on the trivet. Pour about an inch of boiling water into the wok until it comes to just below the bottom of the dish. Cover the wok with a lid and simmer on low-medium heat, following the recipe instructions.

Wok as a steamer

In the next post, I will offer some tips for improving your stir fry technique.


**EDIT**
Some people have raised the question of wok cooking on electric hobs instead of gas (with actual flames). I have the same problem of having to cook on an electric stove top (woe is me...). They are terrible for proper stir frying because they just do not provide the high and sustained temperatures as one would get from a gas stove. Unfortunately that is something I have to live with at the moment, so it is possible to use a wok on them - just painful... If you are on the market for a rented house/apartment, new property, or remodelling your kitchen, please, please get a gas cooker (if possible) if you plan to do any wok cooking. You get much better performance from gas stoves anyway, even for general cooking.

If using an electric stove, all is not lost. Preheating the wok helps, even if it takes longer to heat up on an electric hob. Just be patient and leave it to heat up on maximum setting before adding oil and so on. Otherwise any food that you put in there will just stew and simmer. It's not going to be perfect on an electric stove, but possible as long as you cook on high heat with enough time for the wok to preheat. My stove settings go from MIN, 1 through to 8 and then MAX. I usually heat up my wok on MAX, and when that is hot enough, cook on 8.

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Friday, 13 March 2009

Back to bento

It feels good to get back to cooking, and especially to be packing bento again. One of my first bento last week was a simple one, made with extra mincecd beef and broccoli left from dinner. I had beef soboro on rice, broccoli and carrot stir fry, and a cherry tomato garnish. With more planned and disciplined eating, hopefully I will lose some of the weight that I've put on from all the good food in Asia!

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One from this week was rice with furikake, shogayaki (ginger pork), asparagus and cherry tomatoes. The pork was marinated the night before, asparagus sliced up and leftover rice were put in the fridge in a container.

In the morning, I reheated the rice in the microwave (just 1 minute to soften them up, as rice gets hard and clumpy in the fridge), portioned them into the bento boxes and left them to cool down. In the mean time, I stir fried the asparagus, dished them out, followed by the pork in the same pan. A couple of cherry tomatoes added colour.

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A vegetarian bento: potato salad (with red skinned potatoes), asparagus and cherry tomatoes. I normally grill asparagus, but this time I just cooked them in boiling water, about 4 minutes, and then tossed them in some extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. They tasted pretty good even after spending a night in the fridge.

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Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Dian Xiao Er: More than roast duck

On my recent trip to Singapore, I was astonished to find that Jurong Point shopping centre had expanded to twice its previous size with the addition of another wing. The additional space meant many more shops, and also many, MANY more restaurants and food outlets, ranging from foodcourt and cafes to food stalls, eateries and restaurants. Captivated by the very vibrant and interesting interior decor, we had a family meal at one of the new restaurants - Dian Xiao Er (店小二).

The themed decor of the restaurant recreates a rustic and old-style environment, with plenty of wood, ceramics and traditional decoration.
Dian Xiao Er

I loved the bright and colourful murals on the walls.
Mural

We have yet to see or hear anybody sounding the gong, although it must have been tempting.
Gong

A little hut contained part of the kitchen for chopping and serving their signature herbal roast duck.
The duck house

And all this beautiful decor and layout was just at the front entrance to the restaurant. Talk about enticing potential customers. We were definitely intrigued and after a glance at the menu, decided to go in and have a look and taste for ourselves.

Beautiful lanterns lit the way up a wooden ramp.
Lanterns light the way

The restaurant extended much further back than it seemed from the front. We were seated towards the back where the tables were bigger. The layout is similar to most restaurants, although the themed decor continues with more murals, exposed brick walls, bamboo partitions and lanterns.
Inner hall

Birthday celebration

But enough of the 'look' of the restaurant, let's move on to the food! We ordered a soup to start, a mixed seafood thick soup (海鲜羹), which was served very professionally.
Served up

It was one of the chunkiest seafood soup I've had in restaurants. Many places just bulk up their soups by thickening the stock with cornflour. This one was full of chicken, fish and other seafood pieces. Very satisfying.
Seafood soup 海鲜羹

There were various types of roast ducks made with different Chinese herbs. We opted for crispy duck with Dang Shen (党参). The skin was very crispy and tasty, and the flesh was tender and full of flavour, touched with Chinese medicinal herbs. This was very good.
Crispy duck with Dang Shen (党参)

House special Xiao Er tofu (小二豆腐). We ordered this without knowing what it was and it turned out quite nicely. They were pieces of tofu that had been mashed up with fish paste and shredded vegetables, reformed and cut into shape, friend and then served with a sauce.
House special Xiao Er tofu (小二豆腐)

Spinach with gold and silver eggs (菠菜金银蛋). Essentially spinach cooked in stock, with chunks of salted eggs and century eggs. The salted egg yolk gave much flavour to the stock and I love century egg. I will have to cook this dish myself at home (one more way to use up century eggs), it does not look difficult. I will be sure to post the recipe when I do. What AP and I really loved were the whole cloves of fried garlic in the dish!
Spinach (菠菜金银蛋)

Stirfried greens with crispy cuttlefish, with celery, sugar snap peas, carrots and gingko nuts. It was a simple stirfry but very nicely done. The fried cuttlefish scattered on top gave an interesting depth of flavour. I think it would work well with fried ikan bilis (anchovies) too.
Stirfried greens with crispy cuttlefish

Towards the front of the restaurant, the decor was more 'informal', imitating roadside food stalls that were prevalent on the streets of Singapore decades ago.
Not-so-mobile stalls

Old style dining

Lanterns

There were different card promotions for different days of the week. I paid with my UOB credit card that evening and received a 10 per cent discount. Our bill, including service charge, GST and card discount came to around SGD$95 (US$62/£44). Fairly economical for a good meal at a nice restaurant. I think we should have ordered one more dish since there were five of us (we did have plain rice), but we were nicely full, not overstuffed. The quality of food was good, the decor was outstanding. Portions were not big but certainly adequate. The food was not too oil or too salty. Their roast duck was very good indeed. I would definitely check out this restaurant, either at Jurong Point or at a location near you. The website below lists the various outlets available.


Dian Xiao Er
Jurong Point #03-26/27
Singapore
Tel: (65)6792 6268
Website: http://www.dianxiaoer.net/

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