Sun-tanned and A Few Kilos Happier: Part I

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It was the H who introduced me to travelling without much of an itinerary.  In my natural state, I am the sort of person who, before leaving on a holiday, would want to know where we would be putting up each night, what we would be doing each day, and where (preferably even what) we would be having each meal.  But that first 6-week-long back-packing trip across Europe with him all those years back changed things somewhat.  It was then that I got my first taste of being able to wake up in the morning and deciding there and then to catch a train to another country just because I’d had enough of a place.

We were in Amsterdam.  Pretty as it all was, I was limping about because of a torn ligament, an injury I sustained from jumping off a cliff into a waterfall while canyoning in Interlaken some days earlier.  Our accommodation left much to be desired, with a bed that was way too small for the both of us, and a breakfast room where we shared a table with a young American couple – the girl wouldn’t stop whining to her boyfriend about how the eggs weren’t the way she liked it. So as you can imagine, I was not in the best of spirits.  One morning I woke up and decided on a whim we should just leave.  I didn’t care that we hadn’t seen a single windmill yet.  And so we got on a train and left.

Of course, when travelling with the kids, we don’t just pack a few suitcases and catch a flight somewhere with no accommodation waiting for us at our destination.    In fact, when the kids were younger, there was actually a lot of planning and preparation needed (I can’t express adequately how glad I am that we are past that).  Anyway, now we always book accommodation at the very least before we get on the plane. And while I don’t plan our itinerary until we actually get to the place, I still do enough research beforehand to know what we might like to do while we’re there. But I generally like to keep our program flexible and relaxed.  A lot does depend on the weather and how we feel each day.

I was on holiday with the family in June.  By no means was it a culinary tour of any sort, but since we were going to be eating out at every meal for 3 weeks, we thought we should at least make some of those inevitable extra calories count for something.  After all, we were in California.

Now please know that waxing lyrical about food is not something I do very well. In that sense, I’m not much of a food reviewer.  I’m much better at enjoying it than I am at describing how I much I enjoyed it.

So there were a couple of memorable meals we had, but let me start with REDD.

REDD
Yountville, Napa Valley, California

We drove from San Francisco to Napa Valley on a Monday morning and after visiting some wineries, made our way to Yountville for lunch.  We had a lunch reservation at Redd, but were a little concerned by some reviews which suggested that kids might not be entirely welcome.  However, our experience was nothing like that.

I liked the simple, modern interior with big windows which let in lots of natural light. The atmosphere was casual and cheerful.  Servers were young and friendly, chatty yet professional. And while I wouldn’t exactly call it a family-friendly restaurant, not for a moment were our kids made to feel unwelcome.  Plus the food was excellent.

We started with the Cold trio of Foie Gras. Although I’m generally not very big on foie gras, I thought this was incredible. My favourite was the pistachio-crusted one, which was so smooth, creamy yet delicate.  (But now that California has put a ban on foie gras effective 1 July – see article here – I’m assuming it would no longer be on the menu).

We also had the Glazed Pork Belly, which was cooked in soya sauce and therefore had a very Asian flavour.  It reminded me of the char shu pork we get at Japanese Ramen restaurants (think Tampopo Black Pork Char Shu or the Char Shu Pork Belly from Ippudo or Marutama), but in thicker slices.  Caramelised and braised till very soft, and fat melt in the mouth.  Served with an apple puree which was very pleasant.

The daughter’s Roasted Chicken was juicy and tender.  I liked how it was served atop a succotash, which is essentially a vegetable stew comprising corn, beans and other vegetables, giving it somewhat of a home-style feel.  Pretty amazing, just as our server had promised.

The H ordered the Duck Confit with Foie Gras Meatballs.  I thought it was pretty good, though not awesome. It could also have been because we weren’t so hungry anymore by the time we tucked into this, that we didn’t enjoy it as much as we’d hoped to.

The son still tends to favour familiar flavours over anything new or exotic.  We got him the Steamed Pork Buns because it sounded like a take on Kong Bak Bao, which is one of his current favourite foods. We weren’t wrong about that.  The difference was that the pork belly was diced and roasted, caramelised but still firm.  Buns were done very nicely.  Fluffy and yet with some oil on the outside so the skins were a little golden.  The texture of the buns were more melt-in-the-mouth than your usual bao (steamed buns) or mantou.  However, the son’s initial interest in his main course quickly waned once he realised the pork wasn’t melt-in-the-mouth the way it is with good kong bak, nor were the buns quite the same as his favourite bao.  I suppose we were setting ourselves up for disappointment, because it’s really hard to be satisfied with anything else if you’re comparing it to Kong Bak Bao.

Now the star of this meal had to be the Caramelized Diver Scallops. The scallops were seared perfectly on one side almost to a golden crust.  Each was juicy and bursting with flavour. We couldn’t get enough.  The scallops came served with a cauliflower puree, cauliflower florets, almonds and a balsamic reduction. And who knew that something like cauliflower puree and florets could taste so heavenly? So. Amazing. So much so that after we’d had this as a starter, I couldn’t resist ordering the same thing in a bigger portion as a main.

It’s a pity that by the time we were done with the mains, we had no more room for dessert.  Even then, REDD was one of our most pleasant dining experiences in California this time round.

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Seafood Spaghetti in Prawn Stock

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You know, the amount of time I spend in the kitchen is inversely-proportionate to the amount of time I spend exercising.  There are only so many hours in a day after all.  So if there’s been a spate of relentless cooking or baking, it is safe to assume that I haven’t been exercising much (and shall soon be facing the natural consequence of eating more and exercising less).  But if I haven’t been cooking much, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve been exercising more.  It just means I haven’t been cooking much.

Lately, I’ve actually been trying to eat a little healthier, so my kitchen has been seeing a lot more fresh and steamed veggies, fish and chicken breast.  Not too exciting.  And I’ve been craving local hawker fare for some reason.

Anyway, this was dinner last night.  We’ve been cooking dinner for my in-laws the past couple of weeks since my mother-in-law recently had surgery done on her right shoulder.  My father-in-law is a big fan of spaghetti.  So I made this seafood spaghetti yesterday with him in mind.

This is good stuff.  But make the prawn stock. You won’t regret it.  It makes all the difference.

Ingredients

500g spaghetti
25 medium-sized fresh prawns
Approximately 400g salmon fillet, skin removed and cubed
2 medium-sized squid, skin and ink removed, sliced into rings
2 whole garlic, chopped
Fresh Italian parsley, chopped roughly
Olive oil
5 chilli padi (bird’s eye chilli), seeds removed, sliced into thin rings
Salt and black pepper

Method

Poach prawns in water with shells on, till cooked.  Remove from water and shell them.  Set aside heads and shells.  Slit backs of prawns and de-vein. Set aside.

Return prawn heads and shells to the poaching water, bring to boil and simmer for about 30 minutes to make prawn stock.  Strain stock. Set aside.

Cook spaghetti in a big pot of water, with 2 tsp salt added, on high heat so it’s bubbling, until it’s almost cooked but not cooked through, and then drain.

In a skillet, heat enough olive oil to coat the entire surface of the pan at medium-high heat.  Pat salmon dry and toss in some salt to season.  Place salmon cubes into skillet to cook one side at a time till browned on the outside and cooked through. Do not overcook.  We want it done medium, not well-done. Remove from skillet with a slotted spoon.  Set aside.

Put squid rings in the same skillet, saute quickly till just cooked, and remove with slotted spoon. Set aside.

In same skillet, saute chopped garlic till cooked, then put in the chilli and saute for a couple of minutes.  Put in the prawns and turn them over when they just start to curl on the first side, and then allow them to curl on the other side as well before adding about 4 ladles’ worth of prawn stock.  Return squid and salmon to the skillet.  Be gentle with the salmon – try not to let them flake or break up.  Allow everything to simmer in the stock for couple of minutes and then season with salt.

Add the spaghetti to the skillet and mix well, then allow to simmer in the stock for a bit.  Add more stock if it is too dry (there should be some liquid at the bottom of the skillet). Toss once or twice while simmering. Once spaghetti is cooked, add salt and black pepper to taste.

Serve sprinkled with chopped Italian parsley.

Serves 6.

Pasta Frittata: Breakfast at home on a Sunday

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I remember coming across a recipe for spaghetti frittata some years back,  and thinking it was a great idea for leftover pasta.  But somehow it was only this morning that I tried making it.

We had some leftover penne pasta tossed in a vegetarian tomato-based sauce from last night’s dinner, and so while my brood were crawling out of bed this morning, I crept downstairs, turned on the oven to preheat at 180C, then whisked 5 eggs with 75g of grated parmigiana, and mixed in the leftover pasta (just under 300g).  Then the mixture was poured into an oiled baking pan, which was popped into the oven to bake at 200C until cooked and a golden crust had formed.  Took about 25 minutes.  And that was all it took for a yummy, savoury breakfast, which felt a lot more like brunch.

Honestly, I’d make this again if only to inhale that mouth-watering aroma which wafted in my kitchen as it baked.

Home-made Roti John

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It’s the school holidays again and I’m loving it!   Apart from the kids being able to sleep in and take their time with breakfast, and me not having to worry about ensuring they have every morning a clean set of school uniform, clean shoes, school snacks, homework and getting them to school when the sun is barely up, I like that they have the time to just hang out together, relax and play.

We try not to schedule too much for our kids (none of those enrichment classes – just piano and sport), but even then, they don’t get as much playtime as we used to when we were kids, what with schoolwork, tuition and their other activities during term time.  Sad. So I love the school holidays. I usually try to take time off work to be with them at home.  Sometimes I think I might love it more than they do!

Anyway, one of my favourite moments in life is when the kids are sitting at the kitchen island while I make breakfast. This morning, I thought it was time that we finished up that half a baguette which nobody seemed interested in eating.  So I decided to transform it into something a little more exciting: Home-made Roti John.  We ate it with some Maggi chilli sauce and it was good! Half a loaf of baguette gone in under 10 minutes.

Ingredients

Olive oil
1/2 a brown onion, cut into rings
2 tsp chopped spring onion
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp soya sauce (add to eggs)
1/2 tsp sugar (add to the eggs)
Half a loaf of baguette, sliced across and halved (so you get 4 pieces)

Method

Heat about 2 tbs olive oil in a frying pan, and saute some onion till softened (I like them charred slightly at the edges).
Add spring onions, and saute for half a minute, then add eggs to pan.
Place baguette pieces face down onto the eggs and allow the eggs to cook.
When eggs are cooked, cut through the egg between the pieces of baguette with a spatula (so that you may turn them over individually).
Drizzle some olive oil over the crust of the baguette, then turn them over, to get the crust crispy.
Once the crust is crispy, remove, place face up on a plate, sprinkle some spring onions and black pepper over it, and serve with chilli sauce.

Spaghetti with Bacon and Mushroom

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The H requested we have pasta for dinner before this evening’s race.  I did a quick check in the fridge and I was pleased I could use up various stray ingredients accumulated over the past couple of weeks: A handful of button mushrooms, 200g of bacon (cos I accidentally bought more than I needed for the boeuf bourguignon on Mom’s birthday), 3/4 can of diced tomatoes, about 2 cups of tomato sauce, a few tbs of tomato paste, some sun-dried tomatoes and some capers.

We ended up with this yummy spaghetti which had us going back for seconds and thirds. Halfway through dinner, my daughter asked if we could have this for dinner again tomorrow.  Pleasing them pleases me.

Here’s the recipe:

Pasta Sauce:

Heat 1 cup olive oil in a skillet and saute 3 tbs chopped garlic till cooked.
Add about 200g sliced bacon and saute for about 2-3 mins, then add sliced mushrooms and saute till browned.
Stir in finely-chopped sun-dried tomatoes and capers, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, about 2 tbs tomato paste, and simmer, stirring, until diced tomatoes are softened and sauce is thickened.
Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Cook 350g spaghetti in a pot of water with 1-2 tsp salt over high heat.
Once spaghetti is cooked, drain and toss well with the sauce and 2-3 tsp chopped Italian parsley in a large bowl.

Serves 4-5.

Moving On

I am often asked how it is that I have the time to cook, bake, run regularly, and at the same time keep a job and manage a household with two kids.

Well, apart from not watching very much tv, I’ve been working either 3-day weeks or half days for the last three years. By and large, the job has virtually been stress-free, and I have actually been able to leave my work at the office. As a result, I’ve been able to challenge myself to keep fit, cook and bake, see our house reconstruction through, and most importantly, get to know my kids a lot better.

I’m thankful every day for this, as well as the changes in my life during the last three years.  But while this stint has been a blessing and a Godsend, it was never meant to be permanent.  I’m going to be moving on after next week.

It’s occurred to me that saying goodbye to the people I’ve worked with here won’t be the same as when I left my last job.  Exactly three years ago, I was getting ready to leave not only the practice of law, but a place at which I’d grown up professionally. It was an emotional experience for me, for quite apart from leaving behind what felt like home and people who were like family, I was starting a new chapter in my life.

In a journal entry dated 30 May 2009, I wrote:

“Letting go and leaving has been so difficult. When I first joined the firm, I was just starting my second year of practice, before husband and kids. So much has happened in my life since then. And I’ve seen so many people come and go, made so many good friends in the process … … Leaving has been like having to tear myself apart from someone I’m in love with because he’s no longer good or right for me.”

While it will not be as difficult this time around, I remain grateful for the privilege of serving among my colleagues, and for the insights I would not have gained otherwise.  The experience has been a very enriching one for me on a personal level. It has broadened my perspective.  It has been humbling and sobering to see how my work sometimes directly impacted individuals and their families.

Now I am looking forward to yet another new chapter, one which promises new challenges, yet with the comfort of familiarity and old friends.

On 25 March 2009, after I’d decided to leave my previous job and take on this current one, I wrote:

“A new chapter of my life will soon begin. I approach it with eager anticipation. I thank God for his faithfulness and goodness. I marvel at how He always takes care of me.”

Those are exactly my sentiments today. I marvel at God’s faithfulness despite my shortcomings and imperfections, and how He always provides.

Interesting how life often seems to come full circle.

I’ve moved!

Hello there!

Yes, I’ve moved here. And I’m excited!

All content published on the original blog on blogger have been imported, so you will be able to view all my earlier posts right here.  There remain some minor formatting issues in the imported posts, so do pardon any mess while I try to tidy up a little around here.

If you’d like to keep updated on my posts on this blog, do click the “Follow” button at the top left of this page or on the top of the menu bar on the right.  If you’ve been following the original blog, do remember to follow this site from now instead, as I will no longer be updating on blogger.

While I’m getting acquainted with this new site and working on improving things a bit, I’d love to hear your suggestions, comments or feedback.  Just leave me a comment or email me at lifeisdelish.sg@gmail.com.

Cheers!

S.

Capellini with Lumpfish Caviar: Lazy Posh Nosh

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We had the pleasure of hosting dinner on Saturday for some awesome people who’d played a significant role in my life as I matured professionally.  It was all pretty relaxed, and we had a really nice evening with them.  But since I’d been cooking and baking for a good part of Friday afternoon, and cooking and eating again on Saturday evening, I didn’t feel like fussing over dinner on Sunday.

So with some lumpfish caviar we had in the fridge, some fresh basil and chopped garlic, I put together an easy 15-minute pasta for Sunday dinner which still made us feel rather spoilt.

Ingredients
(Note: quantities are estimates only)

130g Capellini (Angel Hair Pasta)
5-6 tbs olive oil
2 tbs chopped garlic
6 fresh basil leaves, sliced/shredded
1 small jar (about 1.5-2 tbs) lumpfish caviar
Salt to taste

Method

Boil pasta in big pot of water with 1 tsp salt until al dente, then drain.
In the meantime, heat up olive oil in a skillet, then saute chopped garlic till cooked.
Toss hot pasta in a large bowl with the cooked olive oil, garlic, caviar, and basil leaves.
If too dry when tossing, add a little of the water which the pasta had been cooked in.
Add salt to taste.

Serves 2.

Carrot Walnut Cake: My Favourite Kind of Sugar Rush

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Carrot Walnut Cake with Orange Zest (Photographed by my friend M)

I’ve been in a reflective mood the past couple of weeks, trying to be quiet and still so that I could think.  Every once in awhile, I feel the need to do this to help me regain equilibrium. It helps me ensure that I’m not just going through the motions or going with the flow. Life has too many distractions; so it’s hard to remain constantly focused on that which really matters.

I’ve been cooking, though; I just haven’t been blogging. And that one time I wanted to share my new Seafood Hor Fun recipe here, I found that the photographs had vanished from my memory card.

I’ve also been baking Carrot Cake. I’ve been a fan of the Carrot Walnut Cake at Cedele for a long time.  Sweet, moist, nutty and covered with a wonderful cream cheese frosting, it was the only carrot cake I cared for.  Of course I never imagined that I’d be able to produce a cake like that in my own kitchen.  But about a year ago, fuelled by one of my episodic bursts of baking energy, I hunted down a Carrot Walnut Cake recipe which, much to my delight and excitement, enabled me to do just that.

This brought a smile to her face

The daughter shares my passion for this cake.  She requested I bake one for her birthday earlier this month. But although my previous attempts at it based on the Epicurious recipe for Carrot Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Icing did produce cakes which were literally swooned over, I’d experienced some difficulty and had to make slight adjustments to the oven temperature and baking time.  I also had to tweak the frosting to get it the way I liked. So since I wasn’t confident that I would get a consistent result, I thought I should practice and experiment a little more.

Apart from working with the Epicurious recipe, I also tried an alternative but similar recipe: the Hummingbird Bakery Carrot Cake I came across on Food Stories.  This one had pecans and orange zest as added ingredients.  In fact, the daughter’s birthday cake was based on this, except that I omitted the pecans and cut down the icing sugar for the frosting (I used only 3.5 cups).

So we’ve been having plenty of very delicious carrot cake around here.  Over a span of 2 or 3 weeks, I made whole cakes as well as cupcakes and shared them with some family, friends and colleagues, all of whom I believe were happy they could help in the sampling.  A pleasure to the tastebuds, albeit a bane to the waistline. 

Cupcakes for the colleagues

The two recipes vary only slightly. In fact, the difference in the resulting taste could escape some if we didn’t have both cakes together for comparison. Overall, the daughter and I prefer the Epicurious one because the cake comes out a little more moist, and a hint richer and sweeter, which I attribute to more sugar and egg. I was also not very keen on the orange zest in the Hummingbird/Food Stories recipe, although the H liked the addition.

Both recipes result in very delicious carrot cake – the sort of cake you can’t just take a bite of.  You’ll want to eat the whole slice even if at first you didn’t intend to.  Trust me.

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” – 1 Corinthians 10:31

I wouldn’t last 3 days on a diet

When food is a passion, thank goodness for exercise!

Top L-R: Chwee Kueh, Tiong Bahru Market; Crab Bee Hoon, from my mom’s kitchen; Banana and Walnut Pancakes with Gula Melaka Syrup, Food for Thought; Bone Marrow stuffed with Snails, Esquina Tapas Bar
Bottom L-R: Kway Chap, Serangoon Gardens Market; Clams in Tomato and Herb Broth, Pietrasanta; Beef Carpaccio with Rocket and Shaved Parmesan, Pietrasanta; Chocolate Cake, from my kitchen

Apart from cooking, the other thing that gives me a high is a good long run. This is ironic coming from me, since I used to abhor any activity which caused me to break into a sweat.  I especially disliked running, which made me feel inadequate because I was never any good at it.

It’s been about two years since I got into running.  It was January 2010. I’d just been through what must have been the toughest year of my life.  I’d switched jobs, moved the family and all our worldly possessions out of our flat and into a rented apartment, seen my mom through an emergency heart surgery and then bothparents through cancer treatment, all within the space of 8 months.  I was emotionally exhausted, and had started to feel somewhat numb from all of it.

One evening after work (the new job meant I’d get home from work with at least an hour’s worth of daylight to spare), I suddenly decided I needed some fresh air and exercise.  So I dusted off my Adidas trainers which I hadn’t seen in about a year, and went out for a jog.  I had no idea where I was going when I walked through the door.  I just ran, emptying out my mind, admiring the homes in the neighborhood and daydreaming about what our new home would look like when it was finally completed.  It felt good. So in a day or two, I did it again.  And again.  Until it became something of a habit.

I didn’t run fast. In fact, sometimes my pace would have been comparable to that of a brisk-walker.  I was probably covering no more than 3km initially, my only goal being to keep running, and to only stop when I got home. But being the ‘Type A’, result-oriented personality I am, I eventually needed a longer-term goal to keep me from getting bored (I am working on a cure from this condition).  So I signed up for a 5km race.

By then, I was probably running 3 times a week.  On the days I didn’t have to be at work, I would run in the morning.  And when it was wet, I’d run on the treadmill. There were days when I’d complete the 5km route I’d intended to run, and feel like I hadn’t gotten enough, so I’d just continue to meander my way through the housing estates and just run till I felt tired.  I began to love how running made me feel so free, yet in control. And I knew the turning point had come for me when one morning, having awoken with a migraine, I chose to try running it off instead of sleeping it off.  For a girl who used to feign menstrual cramps in order to be excused from P.E., this was significant.  And considering that I could barely manage 2.4km in the past, being able to run a 5km race was quite an achievement. Especially since I didn’t even come close to finishing last.

I did a 10km race 3 months after that 5km. Then I went on to do a 12km with the H (who’d been a middle-distance and cross-country athlete in school), which further boosted my confidence because I’d finished faster than a significant percentage of the male participants. I’d planned on doing my first half marathon in December last year but by the middle of the year I was restless, so I began training for the Army Half Marathon scheduled for September, completed the race in a respectable enough time, and went on to do another in December.

I’m never going to be among the fast runners in a race. But that’s hardly the point.  The personal challenge is what this is about.  I mean, who would have thought that the girl who once struggled in her 3-inch heels to keep up with Senior Counsel on the way to Court would one day be running half marathons? Certainly not that particular Senior Counsel, I know that for a fact.

Running gives me a sense of liberation which I’ve never experienced.  I strap my Timex around my wrist, lace up and just go. With no bag, no phone and nobody else.  For that hour or so, I tune out and relax. I love it best when there are no fixed routes, no target times, no schedules, and I just go wherever my feet take me.  Like this morning.  I’d planned on a slow 12km, because I’ve been nursing a sore foot and haven’t run longer than 9 or 10km since December. But I ended up doing something like 19 or 20. Three whole hours to myself.  I didn’t even take my iPod. Instead, I listened to the sound of my own breathing, my footfall, and the street noise; and enjoyed the quiet calm along the canal. At some point I even managed to lose my way.

Sometimes when I am preoccupied with other demands on my time or other pursuits, I start to put off running.  I’ll admit that the main reason I’ve never allowed myself to let up completely, is that I don’t want to have to replace my whole wardrobe when finally nothing fits anymore!  This is the reality, with slowing metabolism.  And because I am incapable of going on a diet to lose weight.  Yup, I wouldn’t last 3 days on a diet.  And so I come back to it even if I’ve been on a lull for awhile, and have started to forget how good it feels to be out there running.  And once I start, the high keeps me coming back for more.

Running is something I do for myself. Not because I have to, but because I want to. It makes me feel strong and free. And it leaves me believing I could take on the world.