'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

French baguette in one minute

There's no need for us mortals to cook or bake any more. See how this guy literally draws out a baguette! Baking doesn't get any quicker than this.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Braised pork belly with dried bamboo shoots 筍乾燜豬肉

東坡居士 蘇軾 (1037-1101)
In this age of globalisation, raw ingredients are no longer tied to their terroir and you can easily get most ethnic ingredient in every major city of the world. That being said, certain ingredients are only appreciated by people of that particular region, and sometimes they perish so quickly that they're just not the same when transported to the other side of the world. Take bamboo shoots for example, they get more fibrous every day and has an increasing bitter taste as it grows. Even after digging, its freshness and crunchy texture diminish by the hour - at least that's what people who have access to freshly dug bamboo shoots claim. In fact, many Chinese gourmets regard freshly-dug bamboo shoots as one of the greatest culinary experiences one could have.

In the west, however, most people's conception of bamboo shoots is of the tasteless, pallid canned variety that does nothing but fill up the generic chop suey or whatever take-away stir-fry. In Asia, however, bamboo shoots have always been a culinary delicacy, especially in Chinese and Japanese cuisines. In Chinese culture, bamboos are also a symbol of unrelenting moral uprightness. The great Song dynasty poet, politician, calligrapher and gourmet Su Dongpo (蘇東坡) famously wrote that: 

 'I would rather eat a meal without meat than live in a place without bamboo.
Eating without meat makes you lose weight, but living without bamboo makes you lose refinement.'

Dongpo pork, popular version
It was also Su Dongpo who supposedly invented the celebrated Chinese dish Dongpo Pork which is usually interpreted as red-braised pork belly with Shaoxing rice wine. It happens to be one of the first dishes I learnt to cook, but the dish I'm writing about today is a lesser-known version of 'Dongpo Pork'. It combines the two elements that are so dear to Su Dongpo - bamboo and pork - in a dish. Bamboo shoots come in a great deal of varieties, and for this braise I'm using dried, fermented bamboo shoots which have a rather acidic taste and mouldy smell. For non-Chinese people it would be somewhat of an acquired taste, but like all good things it's addictive once you've got used to it. The soaking and parboiling get rid of most of the unpleasant flavours of the bamboo shoots and they blend beautifully with pork belly. If you can find dried bamboo shoots, I urge you to give them a try, and hope that you'll be convinced!

Thanksgiving 2012

It's holiday time! I went to two friends' houses for thanksgiving this year. It was a busy schedule for a holiday, but one that's filled with laughter, joy and lots and lots of food. I'm thankful that I didn't have to do any savoury cooking and could just show up and be fed - how much better could it get?

Wednesday 21nd November

Arrived at Mark and Jaewon's house in Frankfort, Kentucky with Tim, Hitomi, Assaf, Noa and their cute little baby Mickey.

Mark, the victim of our thanksgiving dinner. He'll be slaving in the next two days.
Assaf and his 18-month-old baby Mickey.
Tim and Hitomi.

We just pottered about while everyone else was busy!

Monday, 19 November 2012

Cocoa génoise cake with Iron Buddha tea cream and milk ganache

Conquering génoise

I've waited for a long time to write about the génoise cake (海綿蛋糕). It's one of the most basic cakes, yet possibly the most difficult to make. It's the go-to cake in European cake-making and is often used as the building block for layer cakes. The main difficulties in making a génoise are the whipping of the eggs to its optimal (but not maximum) volume, and how not to deflate the batter when you fold in the flour and the fat. Even the most experienced bakers can fail a génoise. There're just too many variables involved, and each deviation would make a noticeable difference in the end. If my memory serves me right it was the very first cake I attempted - why a génoise, of all cakes?

Friday, 16 November 2012

Bolognese sauce

My eating habits aren't exactly great now, but I had really terrible eating habits when I was at secondary school in my teenage years in Hong Kong. After a much dreaded breakfast at 6am which usually consisted of oatmeal cooked with water and egg, I would eat three packets of crisps (the smallest size) from the tuck shop at school as my lunch. It goes without saying that the hot food served at the canteen was absolutely dreadful, so for my undeveloped taste buds crisps were infinitely preferable. As unhealthy as they were, three packets of crisps could hardly fill up a teenager's stomach for an extended period of time, so by the time I reached home at 4pm I would get hungry again. Time to eat a 'real' lunch. There were two routes I could go down - either heading to McDonald's or asking mum to cook spaghetti bolognese.

Now, I'm not entirely sure how my mum exactly prepared the 'spag bol' back then, but I can assure you that I would devour it in no time. I'm pretty sure that she just used a pre-made sauce and mixed it with minced pork and lots and lots of chilli. It goes without saying that it's by no means an authentic rendition of spaghetti bolognese, but it was one of my favourite things to eat back then - which was interesting since I didn't eat tomatoes in general (and still don't). I don't like things that are sour and tomatoes are just way too intense for me. Personally I find tomato-based sauces are slightly more edible than whole tomatoes - even though I do force myself to eat the odd slices of tomatoes in a burger every now and then for their healthy benefits.

The first time when I tried to cook an authentic bolognese sauce from scratch myself in my undergrad years, I was appalled by how complicated and lengthy it was/had to be. I had no idea that you're meant to brown the beef in small batches before braising it with the other ingredients - and by braising you're looking at almost two hours, if not more. Even now, I only make bolognese sauce every once in a while since it's really a major undertaking - but then I tend to make a huge quantity so that I can live on it for days. Once you've tasted the real stuff though, you'll find the commercial stuff so incredibly shallow. I would rather not eat spaghetti bolognese than use a premade sauce!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Black sesame pound cake

The virtue of frugality

I still remember the first time when I made 賽螃蟹 (a Chinese dish of stir-fried egg whites) back in boarding school, a friend of mine asked alarmingly, 'What are you going to do with all those egg yolks?' - and we're talking like 9 yolks here. 'To the bin, of course,' I replied, imperious and supremely confident in my own logic. Those poor egg yolks did end up in the bin of course, and ooking back I'm totally appalled by my attitude and ignorance back in those days. I secretly think that I inherited some of that 'wastefulness' from my mum, who never hesitated to throw away leftovers at dinnertime, even when my grandma wanted to save some tidbits for the next day.

I continued to cook like that for the first few years of my 'cooking life' (starting in boarding school) but gradually I started to think more (and harder) about where food came from. Not just where this particular sea salt was harvested, or whether my chicken is a Bresse - it's thinking about the lives of the animals who sacrificed themselves (unwillingly) for our sustenance and carnal pleasure; those farmers, fishermen and workers who worked an imaginably hectic life day and night so that we can just buy our food instead of having to hunt/fish/butcher/grow our animals or produce. It dawned on me that making the most out of one's ingredient is almost a moral imperative - a Kantian categorical imperative even.

So, I gradually tried to make the most of what I had. When I buy a whole chicken, I would save the feet, wing tips and head for making stock; I would save rendered chicken, pork and beef fat in individual containers so that I can cook with them; I would save grated ginger from squeezing ginger juice for frying rice with later; I would save excess tart crust for nibbling; I would add the peel when I poach apples or pears; I would try to pack most unfinished dishes when I eat out, and so on. Not only is it a healthy thing to do, being thrifty with every bit of your ingredient also means that you gain extra flavours at no additional cost. All those skins, peels and rendered fat can 'add' to your dishes in myriad ways and could have much, much better use than a knee-jerk tossing to the bin.

Of course, this is not to saying that I've reached the point where I would try to turn all those unused egg shells into something else - I heard that they are actually pretty good for you, by the way. But I do try to exhaust an ingredient as much as I can. This week I made some black sesame soup (芝麻糊), which is basically black sesame pureed with water and sweetened. Since I had to pass everything through a fine muslin cloth to remove all the 'bits', I was left with a lot of ground sesame. I then used this leftover sesame paste to make a black sesame pound cake. The leftover paste still had some moisture in it and helped keep the cake moist as well.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

World Peace Cookies, regional version

Et In Terra Pax Hominibus...

Those of you who are frequent visitors of food blogs might have heard of World Peace Cookies, a cookie that has captivated the hearts and minds of countless fellow bloggers and foodies all over the world. It is essentially a chocolate sablé (shortbread) studded with dark chocolate chips and fortified with sea salt - not your average sea salt, but the legendary fleur de sel ('flower of salt') from Britanny, France. It is hand-harvested by Breton women traditionally, and even in this day and age it is not mass-produced and is produced by small local enterprises. Fleur de sel is by and large used as a finishing salt - for sprinkling onto finished dishes - rather than merely making a dish salty. It has a finesse and purity in flavour that is quite difficult to describe when you taste it on its own, but wait till you taste it side-by-side with normal table salt and you will be shocked by how harsh the commercial stuff suddenly becomes.

World Peace Cookies are the creation of the great French pâtissier Pierre Hermé, who came up with the brilliant idea of pairing chocolate with salt in a cookie. The idea might raise some eyebrows in our day, but remember that the Aztecs didn't have 'sweet' chocolate at all, and it wasn't until chocolate was introduced to Europe that people started sweetening it with sugar. In recent years, chocolate with sea salt has been all the rage - chocolate with salted caramel, chocolate bars studded with sea salt, Ferran Adrià's famous toasted bread with dark chocolate and sea salt, etc.Whether or not Hermé was the first person to set the trend, the idea of adding fleur de sel to a chocolate cookie is truly a stroke of genius. Without the salt, they are moreish; with the salt, they are sublime.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Steamed chicken with shiitake mushrooms 北菇蒸雞

The fifth element

If you ask people how many flavours there are in food, they would usually come up with four: sweet, sour, bitter and salty (spiciness is actually a pain, believe it or not!). In the early 20th century, a Japanese scientist by the name of Kikunae Ikeda (池田菊苗) claimed that there's actually a fifth element in food: the umami flavour (うま味/鮮味). It's the deeply savoury, mouth-watering flavour that we associate with great savoury dishes. In a sense, is the flavour of flavour. It's distinct from plain saltiness, but a long-lasting 'flavourfulness' that literally make us salivate. By the way, research has shown that breast milk is the first taste of umami that humans encounter and is extremely rich in glutamates.

Interestingly, umami doesn't taste of anything on its own, but magnifies other savoury flavours and give a synergistic effect. Humans implicitly recognised this long ago and different cultures across the globe must have have been exploiting food rich in umami flavours since time immemorial. Foods rich in umami include fish, shellfish, cured meat (think bacon!) and certain vegetables (tomatoes and leek?). Fermented food, in particular, has long been used to give 'body' to savoury dishes. In East-Asian cooking soya sauce and fish sauce (nuoc nam) are absolutely indispensable, and they contribute depth of flavour to a dish in a way that salt cannot. Not to mention other Asian specialities like Korean kimchi, Japanese miso, etc!

Compared to Asian cooking, it seems that western cooking employs less fermented stuff for seasoning. Sure, there's cheese, wine, bacon and all that, but they're not used as basic seasonings. Interestingly, people in ancient Greece and Rome did use a kind of fermented fish sauce (garum) in their cooking. For reasons unknown to me, its use gradually died out in western cooking. I think it's for this reason - the lack of a basic seasoning that's rich in umami - that classical French cuisine relies heavily on reduction for distilling flavours. Despite its great sophistication, it is extremely time-consuming too.