Saturday, April 26, 2008

Forever Summer

Asking someone to choose their favourite herb is a bit like asking a mother who is her favourite child. You love them all equally but in different ways. Because I cannot imagine cooking without herbs, I have lots of both Western and Asian varieties growing in my garden or in pots. However, thyme flatly refuses to grow here, and a rosemary shrub brought back from Provence survived a few months until some nasty insect attacked it in my absence. Dill grows sulkily, refusing to develop a strong flavour and to stand up straight and strong.

However, all kinds of basil seem to love this climate; I have “Thai” horapa basil, lemon basil, Italian basil and another Italian-basil-on-steroids (a gift from an Italian chef who grows it in Brunei for one of his restaurants there) which has an incredibly intense flavour and aroma, and really big leaves.

Because it’s bright and sunny today (after a fierce storm, wind and flooding late yesterday), and because there are lots of tomatoes in my fridge begging to be eaten before we go away for three days tomorrow, I decided to make this excellent iced tomato soup as part of tonight’s dinner. It is from Elizabeth David’s Italian Food. This dog-eared copy was bought in 1965, the year before Australia went decimal, and cost only 5/-. I reckon I’ve had a lot more than my 5 bob’s worth from it over the years.

good slurp of olive oil
750 g ripe tomatoes (good quality, not nasty supermarket ones), peeled and chopped
1 large clove garlic, smashed and chopped
fresh basil, chopped
pinch of sugar
salt and black pepper to taste
600 ml good chicken stock

Heat the oil in a pan, add the tomatoes, garlic and basil and cook gently, stirring from time to time, for just 5 minutes. Add the seasonings and stock, bring to the boil, cover and simmer another 5 minutes only. Transfer to a bowl, cool, then refrigerate until really cold. Scatter with more fresh basil and a little black pepper when serving.

Friday, April 25, 2008

All Fired Up

Ever since we chanced upon a Breton festival at the hamlet of Keroscoet in France many years ago, and watched the baking of bread in an ancient wood-fired oven, I’ve had a yen for my own.

Since that’s a tad impractical when you live less than 6 degrees north of the equator, I’ve devised my own form of oven which produces a loaf of bread that has the incomparable texture and flavour of bread baked in a wood-fired oven. And my “oven” is created using everyday terracotta items you can buy locally: a wide dish sold to put under pot-plants to catch the water, and a huge Indian-made curry pot that I bought in Singapore more than 25 years ago.

Here’s how it works. You make your dough (see later), turn your electric oven to 230 degrees Celcius and put in the empty dish and pot. After 12-15 minutes, when the terracotta is thoroughly heated through, you remove them from the oven, slap the bread dough on the dish, invert the curry pot (which, by an incredible stroke of luck, is exactly the same diametre as the dish) over the bread and put the whole “mini-oven” into the electric oven. Leave for 30 minutes, then remove the curry pot cover. Put a sheet of aluminium foil loosely over the top of the bread to stop the top burning and return to the electric oven. Lower the heat to 180 degrees and cook a further 25 minutes. Cool on a rack.

I also use the pot-plant dish as a pizza “stone” and bake Arab bread on it. Here’s our favourite bread recipe using Wendy’s Non-patented Wood-fired Oven Equivalent.

Although this is not that healthy, since it’s made with white flour, it doesn’t have nasty bread improvers, stabilisers and other chemicals. It also happens to be the easiest bread I’ve ever made as it doesn’t require needing. All you need is time.

3 cups white flour, sifted
1/2-3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 (yes, only one-quarter) teaspoon dried yeast
1 1/3-1 1/2 cups water

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, then stir in the water to make a rather wet dough. It’ll be a bit claggy, not a nice smooth ball, but don’t worry. Simple cover the bowl with a plastic bag and leave to rise in a warm place for about 12 hours. Sprinkle a tea towel liberally all over one side with flour, then tip out the bread onto the tea towel and shape roughly with your floured hands into a ball. Flip over part of the tea towel to cover the bread and leave to rise (about 1-2 hours). Bake as directed above.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Fleeting Moment

The Japanese believe that ephemeral beauty is to be valued even more than beauty which lasts. As I sit here swooning with the fragrance of translucent white pigeon orchids, I'm inclined to agree. Our huge old pink-flowered frangipani is almost swamped by this easy growing orchid, which has a very predictable pattern of flowering: exactly 9 days after a sudden drop in temperature together with rain, innumerable tiny white blooms with a streak of daffodil-yellow on the top of the lip burst open and release the most incredible fragrance. Either on the tree or arranged in an antique blue bottle on my desk, the pigeon orchid blooms will have faded by this evening.

So much beauty and for such a short time. I get the feeling that Nature (this time with a capital N) is reminding us to treasure every moment to the fullest.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Kitchen Aid

No, unfortunately I don’t have that Rolls Royce of kitchen appliances, the incredible do-everything Kitchen Aid, although my lucky daughter does. But what I do have is this cute little plastic pastry cutter, something both Tiffany and I bought at a Chinese stall during the Sydney Food Show a few years back.

“Perfect for curry puffs!” I said. I don’t often make curry puffs or samosas, but it’s always handy to know my little cutter is there hiding under the satay skewers, vegetable grater, tongs, measuring cups and other junk in my kitchen drawer. I pulled it out this morning and used it to help create my curry puffs, which have a filling of potato, boiled egg and green peas spiced with chilli, cumin and sour mango powder (amchur).

I normally follow my own recipes but this time, decided to use one from one of my favourite Indian cookbooks. I dutifully made my own ghee yesterday and this morning made the dough and set about filling it. To my surprise, the amount of dough is nowhere near sufficient to hold the given quantity. Tant pis! That’s helped me decide what to have for dinner tonight when mon capitaine returns from Kudat. The potato and pea filling as a vegetable dish, with marinated chicken kebabs (I just happen to have chicken fillet in the fridge), Basmati rice, home-made yoghurt and a nice fresh tomato & red onion salad.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Another Weekend in Borneo

Although I rarely drink tea (and even then, only green Japanese or Chinese tea), we stayed Saturday night at Sabah's only tea estate, sprawling over the hills to the east of Mt Kinabalu. We had a marvellous swim in the river carving its way through boulders in the rainforest, and in the morning, I got up very early to see wonderful views of Mt Kinabalu (4,093 metres) and watched a big Crested Serpent Eagle.

Not too far from Sabah Tea Garden, the Poring Hot Springs are part of the huge Kinabalu Park, and although the bathing area has become a mess (how lovely it was 20 years ago, before the hordes of tourists), there is a fantastic orchid research centre. In addition, the world's largest flower, the Rafflesia, blooms in the surrounding forest and we were lucky enough to see one of these unreal flowers, about 80 cm across!

But the biggest surprise of the day was when we were wandering about the orchid garden and came across a female orangutan — completely free — who looked as if she had a hangover. These astonishing creatures lived wild in the Park, maybe some still do, but Jackie (as this lady is known) grew up in captivity. She normally returns to the forest every day and wanders back at night for a free banana or two from the Parks' staff, but last Sunday, she was sick so hid out in the Orchid Centre.

We went looking for orchids but came across an orangutan. Even after all these years, I find that Borneo still comes up with surprises.

Monday, April 14, 2008

There IS Such a Thing as a Free Lunch

Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, when Western hippies poured into India in search of holiness and hash (probably in the reverse order of importance), Sikh temples in popular areas were obliged to close their doors to freeloaders who took advantage of the Sikh tradition of hospitality. The Sikhs believe there should always be sleeping space in the temple — albeit on the floor — and free (vegetarian) food for anyone who asks.

Today, I once again enjoyed the Sikh tradition of the free lunch or langgar at Kota Kinabalu’s charming and architecturally idiosyncratic temple. The occasion was Vesahki, the celebration of the founder of Sikhism’s birthday, with special prayers followed by the usual communal lunch.

I had been invited by my good friend Balvinder, who married her English boyfriend at the temple 5 months ago; her family took their turn to host the meal, and in the usual manner, women from the community got together early this morning to make giant pots of dal, mixed vegies, chapati, Basmati rice, salad and rice pudding (yes, Mary Jane, but it was flavoured with cardamom).

As is traditional, men waited on the tables — regardless of their wealth or status. How democratic! It almost persuades one that a religion of such egalitarian ideals is worth joining. However, when it came to washing up afterwards, it was a women’s-only affair. Ah well, I guess nothing’s perfect!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ladies That Lunch

Yesterday, I joined a couple of other women for lunch in a restaurant (North Indian, in case you’re curious), something I do maybe once every six months. Today, I’m happily working away at home, writing about the avifauna of Tabin Wildlife Reserve and looking forward to seeing the birds there once again in a couple of weeks.

However, my stomach tells me it’s getting close to lunchtime so I stared in the fridge but nothing spoke to me. I went out into the garden to see how my tiny rocket seedlings survived the night of rain after yesterday’s transplanting and there it was, lunch staring me in the face: Asian pennywort.

This herb grows wild in much of Asia and used to be in our lawn in our Singapore home at Rochester Park. It was Jamie’s job to pick the daun pegaga for Fatimah, our wonderful Malay amah who kept the house clean, the clothes ironed, the dishes washed and was second mother to the children. Fatimah always said this plant was “good for women” and it is, indeed, a very valuable medicinal plant: rich in vitamin A, good for purifying the blood, boosts the memory and concentration (well, so they say), lowers blood sugar levels, relieves the pain of arthritis and rheumatism etc etc. I just love the slightly bitter taste and often add a handful to some fresh pineapple and whirr it in the blender to make a pale green and alarmingly healthy drink.

In Sri Lanka, this plant is known as gotu kala and is often made into a side-dish called Mallung, which is what I’m going to have for lunch, mixed with some grated coconut (a tiny packet removed from the fridge), onion, lime juice and dried mackerel flakes (katsuobushi).

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Vegetarian Caviar

I really am slack. Here's my daughter, with one husband, two kids, three jobs and god knows what else going on in her life, still writing funny, sophisticated, thoughtful stuff in her blog every few days. I haven't made an entry for a whole week. She puts me to shame — and drives me to my blog.

So I'll share with you what I found in Kudat market this morning. Wednesday's the best day of the week, as all the Rungus tribal folk, the Bajau islanders and so forth come in for the Tuesday tamu or big open-air market, and stay overnight to sell the rest of the goodies around the pasar or regular market.

I found a Bajau woman from the big island of Banggi north of here selling wonderful tikars (woven mats made from dried pandanus leaf). Just as Tiffany believes one can never have too many pairs of shoes, I believe one can never have enough tikars, mats, Oriental rugs and the like. So I bought a perfectly plain, double-sided mat that I'm currently trying to get the creases out of.

The mini-grapes in the photo? They're my favourite seaweed which is like vegetarian caviar, and which you find very occasionally here at Kudat. It's known as lato and when you bite into it, the plump little "grapes" just explode in your mouth, spraying it with flavour and juice (and minerals). After rinsing the lato and getting rid of any thick stems, I toss it with mild rice or coconut vinegar (or even lime juice), some sliced shallot, shredded young ginger and diced tomato. I can scarcely wait for lunch today!