Friday, June 29, 2007

Provence, here I come

I never thought I’d be so depressed going to Provence. We’ve been talking going with our friends Albin and Agnes for years and finally made the booking in February. Both Albin and Agnes are food lovers and avid cooks so the idea is to go for two weeks, rent a villa, go to the market in the morning, lay by the pool during the day and cook and eat and be merry. Agnes is bringing all her food recipes and I am in charge of desserts. We have also talked our friends Gaurang and Christine into joining us for the first week. It promises to be a great vacation for all.

Then three days ago something happened at work and Jason had to cancel. My first reaction was to cancel my trip too, but we have two other couples expecting us there and it just wouldn’t be nice to not show up. So now I’m going solo. While poor Jason’s stuck at work, I have to figure out how to get myself from CDG airport to Gare Lyod, use the rail pass to catch the TGV to Avignon, find the rental car office and drive myself to our villa in a little village called Murs, which is 30km away. I feel like I’m in a nightmare where I’m a contestant in the Amazing Race, except I don’t have a partner to read the map while I drive. Albin and Agnes are nice enough to come and meet me at the train station so I can just follow their car back to Murs. I hope I can remember the roads because two days later I am going back to pick up Gaurang and Christine.

We are hoping that Jason can come and join me for the second week, but there’s a chance that he might not make it at all. So there I was, going to the supermarket before I leave to stock up for Jason, and somehow I found myself shopping for clothes. This is what I do when I get depressed, I shop. A shirt, a pair of pants, a skirt, a necklace and a pair of earrings later, I don’t feel any better. That’s the thing about depression shopping, it rarely makes you feel better but you just can’t help yourself. I’m hoping the beautiful scenery in Provence and the company of good friends will do the trick.

Provence, here I come, alone =o(

Monday, June 25, 2007

Aurum - Pure Gold

A while ago my friend Lisa asked me if I had ever heard of this restaurant in Spain where they do crazy stuff with food. She was referring to molecular gastronomy by Ferran Adrià at his restaurant El Bulli, which is only open half the year. Ferran Adrià spends the rest of the year in his “lab” developing new recipes. She said it sounded really interesting and wondered if there was any place in Singapore where they serve up food that way. To be perfectly honest, I go through some pretty elaborate steps sometimes to make my desserts look pretty but I’ve always preferred my food to look like food. That said, being the open-minded person that I am (tee-hee), I’m always up to trying new things, especially when it comes to food. As luck would have it, there is a restaurant in Singapore called in Aurum that does this type of avant-grade food and Palate Sensations has convinced the executive chef to do a demonstration class. I thought seeing how the food was made would be a perfect way to get to know what the big fuss is all about, and I can make up my mind about the food after actually tasting it. I promptly signed us up for the class, and even though it was a month in advance, the class was almost full!

A month flew by quickly and today was the day of the demonstration. Even though I didn’t know where Aurum was in Clark Quay, the place was hard to miss. The reception area downstairs looks like a morgue, with a secret passageway that leads upstairs hidden behind one of the panel of stainless steel “body drawers.” After making my way up the narrow spiral staircase, I find myself inside a dark room fitted to look like a disco bar, except one side of the wall is a stainless steel lined kitchen space. The bar tables and stools are shaped like scored medine pills and the overhead lamps in the kitchen resemble surgical lamps in OR’s.

Being Singapore, even though the class was supposed to start at 10am, some particpants arrived fashionably late and it wasn’t until 10:30am that the lesson finally got on its way. Executive chef Edward Voon introduced his whole team to us at the beginning of the class. A lot of them have represented Singapore in international competitions and most came from large hotels. The team is young and energetic and you get a sense that these guys are all really passionate about the food they make and there is good comraderee among the team members.

The first item on the menu was Sicilian Green Olives, but of course there is a twist. The olives are blended to a thick emulsion with olive oils and calcium chloride. This is left to settle overnight and scooped up in rounded tablespoonfuls and dropped into a solution of sodium alginate, which is a seaweed extract and helps the liquid olive emulsion to solidify into spheres resembling olives. The “olives” are given a final rinse in clear water before being placed in a spoon to serve. Chef Edward warned us not to bite it open but to eat the whole thing and sure enough, as soon as you bite into one, the entire “olive” bursts open to release the intensely flavored olive emulsion inside. The experience was quite awe inspiring, especially after seeing how it was made right in front of our eyes.

The next item was Parmesan cheese on toast, except parmesan was parmesan water (paremesan cheese with the oily part taken out, cooked and piped out in a siphon). It was light as air in texture and had all the cheesy flavors without the heaviness.

The third item was carrot cotton candy. Carrots were blended in a thermomixer (which blends and heats up the mixture at the time, allowing some water to evaporate) into a thick paste. It was then rolled into a thin piece (think fruit roll-ups) between parchment paper and let out to dry over night. The carrot “paper” is then torn into small pieces, and threaded onto skewers. It was then to the cotton candy machine where they were coated in cotton candy. It brought back memories of carnivals and summer fairs and the carrot flavor combined surprisinly well with the sweet candy taste.

We moved onto the appetizer of Confit and Cured Atlantic Salmon, Broccoli Couscous Salad, Verjus Apple Emulsions and Mango Relish after the snacks. This was the dish that won Chef Edward a gold metal at an international competition and let me tell you it was well deserved. The salmon was cured in sugar and salt for two hours before being sealed in a vaccum bag with lemon peel, peppercorn, bay leaf, lemon thyme and olive oil. It was then poached in a 60C waterbath for 20 minutes. After tasting this, I’ve decided that this is how I am going to cook my salmon from now on. The texture was amazingly smooth and the flesh maintains the vibrant deep red color without ever turning into the yucky milky pink color that you normally associate with cooked salmon. This beautiful piece of fish is plated with Broccoli Couscous Salad, Verjus Apple Emulsions and Mango Relish.

The soup course followed and I have to admit that at this point all I could think about was how hungry I was getting watching all that cooking so I wasn’t paying as much attention to the cooking method. Luckily, the Pea Soup with lemon compote, spinach and nutty langoustine was pretty straight forward. The pea soup consists of peas only with only a little bit of water added to assist blending. The taste was pure and refreshing and played off so well with the slightly tart citrusy lemon compote and the fragrant langoustine. Another course that can be done at home, yay!

The main dish came next, which was a Crackling Suckling Pig with Citrus Puree, Ratte Potato Terrine, Gin & Juniper Sauce. The pig was cured in salt and juniper berries for one hour, poached in a vaccum bag for 14 hours, baked at 180C for half and hour, and then deep fried! Definitely not doing this at home! The surprise of this dish for me was the citrus puree. The pith part of the lemon peel was used, but because of the blanching process, which was repeated six times, and the overnight soaking in syrup, the resulting puree had none of the bitterness but all the fragrant citrus taste. I just might try this at home one of these days when I make lemonade and don’t want to waste all that lemon skin, maybe.

We finally make to the dessert dish: Vanilla Ice cream served with Nitro Green Tea & Olive Oil and raspberry petals. What’s raspberry petals you say? They are the individual segments of a raspberry. To separate them, liquid nitrogen was poured over raspberries in a tray. This has a similar effect of freeze drying the fruits, allowing the berries to be smashed into individual components withouth crushing them. The other topping was made by blending green tea powder into olive oil and whisking into a pool of liquid nitrogen. This process makes the mixture into little millet-sized particles. I first had my doubts about how a green tea olive oil concoction would go with vanilla ice cream but the resulting combo was surprisingly good.

I had to rush out at this point because I have scheduled a macaron class at home, but Chef Edward had one more surprise in store for us. It’s called “where’s my cappuccino.” The technique involved was apparently top secret as Chef Edward kept on blocking my field of version so I couldn’t see how it was made. The little cup was served upside down on a saucer. When you pick it up, you think there’s nothing inside, and you only see the foamy mixture after you flip over the cup. Whimsical? Yes! Creative? Definitely! Yummilicious? You bet!

Needless to say, Lisa and I are now converts and we are plotting to bring our husbands back for a degustation dinner.

Aurum, Block 3C, The Cannery, Clark Quay
** Aurum is moving at the end of July to another location within the Cannery, at which time it will be closed for two weeks.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Cherry Millefeuille

Just a very short post to report that I finally found a way to use up the bad griottes. Following some blogger’s suggestions, I removed the griottes from the alcohol syrup and soaked them in syrup instead, hoping the strong alcohol taste would leech out. That didn’t work.

Along came Cherry, who virtually put me on house arrest because I had to watch her constantly, sneaking to a different room only when she’s taking a nap. During one such long day at home I found a recipe for cherry millefeuille using both fresh American cherry and alcohol soaked griotte. The griotte is chopped and cooked and reduced to a semi-confit. This is then made into a griotte cream for the bottom layer. The top layer is standard pastry cream with cut fresh cherry halves embedded inside. I thought it was fitting to make a dessert with cherries, to honor Cherry’s arrival into our family, plus I had a whole day to kill.

The feuilletage inverse came out pretty well, after I turned the AC way down and used a tray of ice water to cool the marble counter. I was worried about shrinkage during baking since I needed the entire surface of my 30x40cm baking sheet to get three slices large enough to fill my long rectangular mold. Luckily the shrinkage was minimal and I managed to cut out three pieces with only a few slivers of cut-offs left. Cooking the griottes turned out to be the magic trick as it mellowed the harsh alcohol taste, allowing all the layers to pull together harmoniously. Unfortunately, since it took me the whole day to make it, we didn’t get to eat it until the next day. By that time, the feuilletage layers have soaked up some moisture and were a little soggy. If cherries are still decent when we come back from France I’m going to make this again, and this time we’ll eat it right away.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Meet Cherry Garcia!

We spent the last five or six years wanting a second dog to keep Princess Libby company. She indicated earlier on that she’s partial to golden retrievers and border collies. Since border collies usually require plenty of outdoor space for exercise we decided that a golden retriever is more suitable for our city lifestyle. The plan was to get a golden retriever puppy after we come back from France at the end of July. Her name was to start with the letter “J”, after Jason, since Libby has my initials. Well, so much for planning.

Last week, when I was browsing through photos on flickr, I saw a cute puppy in one of my contacts’ photo stream. It’s a four-month old mongrel puppy waiting to be adopted. I fell in love instantly, not only because she’s cute, but also because she reminds me of Libby when she was a pup. We drove out to meet her the very next day with Libby in tow. She seems to be a happy and healthy puppy so we decided to take her home for a one-week trial, mainly to see if Libby would accept her as a second dog.

One week later, things are looking good for the puppy. Libby has been, for the most part, tolerant of the new addition to her pack. Wrinkled lips and growling does occur every now and then, but it’s all in the necessary education of the new pup. For a pup that was paper-trained, she’s only had three accidents in the house in the past week.(update, she had two more accidents on the day I wrote this post, sigh) I’ve been taking her out every time she wakes up from a nap and every time she eats, which amounts to every 2-3 hours. The aim was to not give her any chance to do her business inside. Today, she came up with a way to tell me that she wants to go out by going to the hallway door and wait. What a smart little girl! We changed her name from Cherish to Cherry, short for Cherry Garcia. And she is here to stay!

On the non-toilet related fronts however, she’s not such a good girl. When she first arrived she had the bad habit of mouthing people when she plays. I am a firm believer that under no circumstances are a dog’s teeth ever to touch human flesh, except during teeth brushing so I have my work cut out for me. She still chews things that she shouldn’t (just today her sharp puppy teeth cut through the power cord to our cordless phone in 2 seconds) but she’s getting much better with people. She needs constant supervision and either doesn’t understand the meaning of “NO” or is too stubborn to listen. She tests her limits constantly and is not discouraged if her attempt fails the first time. We have to remind ourselves constantly that she’s only four months old and can’t be compared to Libby, who’s just about the most perfect dog one can hope for. It is frustrating training a puppy but I do know that if we are strict at the beginning our lives and hers will be much easier later on. We can always spoil her later, when she’s grown up to be a well-mannered adult, but for now I’m sounding like a broken record: “NO Cherry!” “Ouch Cherry!” “Off Cherry!” “BAD DOG, Cherry!”

See more of Cherry's photos here.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

BBBB, aka, Beer Braised Beef Brisket

When I saw the one off event Cook and Eat Meat hosted by Home Mades to raise awareness of iron deficient anemia, and to get more women to eat meat, I thought, why not? I haven’t been anemic since adolescence, but I’m a woman, and I do crave a big hunk of nicely cooked meat once in a while. Although I enjoy a nicely grilled medium-rare wagyu steak, I usually leave Jason to order that and take a few slices from his plate. Don’t get me wrong, I normally like dishes where you can actually taste the food, and nothing epitomize this better than a well executed steak, but somehow when I think of meat, more hearty dishes such as cassoulet, braised pig trotters, oxtail soup and beef briskets come to mind. I could almost never pass them up whenever they’re on the menu, especially beef briskets, be it a steamy bowl of beef brisket noodles or a beef brisket clay pot. I like the gelatinous tendons cooked to soft, melt in your mouth perfection, and the multitude of flavors soaked up in the meat.

While I was in Shanghai recently I stumbled upon a food magazine called Betty’s Kitchen. It is just a normal glossy filled with recipes and cooking tips, but the magazine also runs a website which updates regularly with more recipes and feedbacks from readers. When I finally got around to type in the url, the first page that popped up contained a beef brisket recipe cooked in beer. I’ve always stayed away from Chinese dishes with complex flavors because the recipes never really tell you how much of the ingredients to add, but Betty’s recipe was very detailed and contained none of the cryptic descriptions so common to Chinese recipes. The addition of beer to the cooking stock also piqued my interest, for I really enjoy the taste of alcohol in my food.

Chinese braised meat dishes usually involve hours of slow simmering and watching the pot to make sure it doesn’t boil over. I usually circumvent this by using my slow cooker, but now that we’ve moved to Singapore where the voltage is 220V, my Cuisinart 110-volt slow cooker had been put into storage. Not wanting to be tied to the stove for half a day I decided use my Le Creuset dutch oven. I did the prep work before noon, place it everything in the Le Creuset and brought it to a simmer. I then slid everything in the oven set to 80 degrees Celsius. At this temperature, the stock is barely bubbling, just below the boiling point, and it’s heated from all the directions, much like a slow cooker. Cooking it this way allowed me to go out for lunch and tea with friends and come home to a kitchen smelling of wonderful braised beef brisket, just in time for dinner.

That night we ate the beef with a bowl of white rice and some roasted baby carrots. The next day, I boiled some eggs, cut a few slits into the surface and cooked them in the meat stock until the eggs turned brown. We then had beef brisket noodle soup with the eggs. The flavors were so robust and multifaceted that it was quite possibly the best beef brisket I’ve ever had.

Here is the recipe with some modifications: (I increased the amount of rock sugar because I like some sweetness in my braised meat)

1.2kg Beef brisket
8 dried red chili pepper
80g ginger, minced
3 carrots, roughly chopped
15 white button mushrooms
10 cloves garlic
3 whole star anise
3 bay leaves
15 whole Sichuan peppercorn
1 tsp anise seed
3 tbsp rock sugar
250ml light soy sauce (Sheng Chou)
18 oz beer
1 tbsp vegetable oil

1. Cut brisket into large pieces
2. Heat vegetable oil over medium heat. Add rock sugar and stir fry until golden
3. Add Sichuan peppercorn, chili pepper, ginger and garlic
4. Turn heat on high, add beef brisket and stir fry until most of the liquid is gone
5. Add beer and the same amount of warm water. Bring to a boil and skim top
6. Add light soy sauce, star anise, bay leaves, and anis seed. Bring to a boil
7. Cover and simmer for 2.5 hours, until meat is tender
8. Add carrots and mushrooms. Cover and simmer for another half an hour