Sunday, February 24, 2008

Eat Your Type

Our waiter greeted us with “Hello, my name is Mike, and my blood type is O. What’s your blood type?” Yip, our waiter. I was at a restaurant, not a blood bank.

Lynette and I and a couple of other ladies started this lunch thing last year. We don’t meet regularly and it’s not always the same group because people are out of town all the time, but whoever can make it will go and we usually try to eat at new places or where we know the chef.

This time the venue is the newly opened My Blood Type restaurant at the Golden Shoe Building in the financial district. Bertrand, the executive chef is a fellow teacher at Palate Sensations and has worked in various hotels and restaurants. In fact we have been waiting for the restaurant to open ever since he told us that he was working on the menu at the end of last year. The menu comes divided according to blood types, and then there is one called “friendly” suited to all blood types. They do not use artificial flavors, refined sugar, saturated fat or processed food in their cooking so you can eat to your heart’s content without feeling guilty.

The menu for type B (my blood type) was long on starters and desserts but short on main for some reason, so I opted for two starters. My first starter was lightly seared yellow fin tuna on a bed of salad greens served with citrus dressing. The taste was light and refreshing and healthy food doesn’t get any better than this. My next starter was a little unusual. Normally people want their food to be savory, no? Well, the ricotta cake was slightly sweet, and lemony. It was still very nice but I was just not expecting anything sweet before dessert.

The food my lunch companions ordered are a very nice shrimp and mango salad wrapped in grilled paper-thin zucchini slices; a slightly garlicky pasta; and a very juicy and flavorful grilled rack of lamb. I was told Bertrand used to man the grill station when he worked at Flutes at the Fort so grilling is obviously his forte.
To finish off lunch we picked three desserts to share: peach tart (which was recommended to us by the owner), jasmine tea jelly with lime sorbet, and chocolate covered pandan chiffon cake. The peach tart took us by surprise because we didn’t want to order it initially, thinking how good could a peach tart be? Well, it was pretty amazing. Instead of almond or crème patisserie, which is usually what comes in a tart, it was filled with a peach compote made on site. To top it off, little balls of peach flesh was poached and lightly caramelized with a torch. From taste to presentation it was perfect. The tea jelly had a very mellow jasmine taste but all our taste buds were woken up by the tangy lime sorbet. It’s the perfect ending if you had eaten something heavy, such as lamb or a creamy pasta. We were a little disappointed by the pandan chiffon cake, however. Since the restaurant only uses spelt flour, the “chiffon” cake didn’t rise the way chiffon cakes are supposed to rise and the delicate pandan flavor was overpowered by the thick chocolate covering. On the other hand, the dessert that another group of friends that I happened to run into at the restaurant was excellent, according to them. I think it was the raspberry short cake parfait?
Minor hiccups aside, I was pleasantly surprised by how good the food was at a so-called health restaurant. When it comes to food I usually believe that if it’s healthy it can’t taste too good, but I have to say I am changing my mind on that. Just a little though, because you won’t see me baking without butter or eggs any time soon.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Have you Lo-hei’d this year?

Last Saturday, we went with Lynettte and a group of friends to the lovely Sichuan Do Hua restaurant for a Chinese New Year celebration dinner. But, wasn’t CNY last week? Yes, and no, because traditionally CNY is celebrated for fifteen whole days, ending with the lantern festival on the fifteenth day. So we were well within the celebratory period.

Lynette had outdone herself by booking the most beautiful private room in the restaurant and before we even finished wooing and aaahing, two waiters served us tea kung-fu style. Now that’s service with panache!

One must-have Chinese New Year dish in Singapore is Yu Sheng, which means raw fish literally. It is actually a salad with sashimi and various other ingredients, all carrying auspicious meanings. The way to eat it is called Lo Hei, which is Cantonese for “lifting up.” The restaurants usually prepare long chopsticks (about a foot long) so everybody can stand up around the table and use the chopsticks to toss, or throw the salad in the air, depending on how you look at it. Some say that the higher you toss, the more luck and prosperity the new year will bring. Even though we have lived in Singapore before I had never taken part in Lo Hei or eating Yu Sheng until then. In fact, only a handful of people in our group have had it before so the novelty factor caused us all to giggle like little kids while enthusiastically scattering salad greens and precious abalones all over the table. We only stopped when someone pointed out that if we carried on like that there’d be nothing to eat.
According to our Yu Sheng expert (a Singaporean and two Italians who have eaten it before), Si Chuan Do Hua’s version is a little different. They included abalone and a crispy fish skin, and also used a very nice plume sauce for the dressing. I loved it so much I had two heaping servings and would’ve had more if there was any left.
Besides the Yu Sheng we also had the following dishes: eight treasure seafood soup sans sharks fin, steamed red grouper, braised prawn in spinach sauce, DongPo pork, scallops in potato basket, fried noodles, and a dessert of longan and red date soup.

Everything was delicious, although I was puzzled as to why there weren’t any spicy dishes since the chef is from Si Chuan, home of Ma Po tofu, until Lynette reminded us that she was the one who picked the menu, hee!

At the end of the dinner we were served fortune cookies! I was tickled to see those because I didn’t think anyone else used them except Chinese restaurants in the US. When I opened my cookie, I found a fortune that said I had won a $50 dining voucher. But the best part was, I had two fortunes in the cookie, which means I won two vouchers. Now if that’s not an auspicious sign for the new year, I don’t know what is.

Friday, February 15, 2008

So how did you spend your Valentine’s Day?

Here’s how I spent Feb 14th, 2008

12amv – 1:45am
Emergency Room of Mount Pleasant Animal Hospital
Libby and Cherry Garcia got into a fight and Libby’s two upper canines were ripped from her gum. The one on the right is pointing horizontally out instead of down. Her upper lip couldn’t even close properly. After a shot of antibiotics, pain relief meds and some blood sample we were sent home.

Dead tired, but had to make sure the dogs are ok sleeping in the same room after a big fight. Libby ended up sleeping on my side of the bed with her E-collar on and Cherry slept at the foot of the bed between Jason and I.

9am – 10am
Mount Pleasant Animal Hospital
Dropped Libby off to get her teeth fixed. Since she had to go under general anesthesia anyway I asked the vet to scale her teeth. She looked so timid and helpless and her upper lip was still pushed up by the uprooted canine I almost bursted into tears in the exam room.

CK Tang, 4th floor
Bought a set of jungle animal figurines as cupcake toppers for a friend’s daughter’s jungle themed cake order.

11am – 4:30pm
Baking cupcakes, chocolate with chocolate butter cream and lemon with lemon butter cream, plus a small cutting cake for above mentioned jungle themed birthday party. I hate rushing things when I make desserts, but I had no choice. I actually wanted to make the cake toppers with fondant, but it was too last minute. Good thing I scouted out the plastic figurines as a backup. I am very glad I had this cake order to take my mind off Libby, otherwise I probably would’ve resort to retail therapy and bought things that I’d regret later.

Mount Pleasant Animal Hospital
Back to pick up Libby. I was hoping her left canine could be saved but she came out with both canines gone. The bill from both visits added up to be about $500, a lot lower than I expected, but I would’ve paid anything if they could’ve fixed her canines instead of pulling them out.

Camp Rd grassy area
Walking/training Cherry Garcia to heel off leash. Jeffrey the dog trainer thinks that if I train Cherry more vigorously with higher expectations, the dogs will stop fighting. At this stage I’m willing to try anything.

After a quiet dinner, I Finished up my royal icing/pretzel stick coconut trees for the cake. The royal icing didn’t have enough time to dry thoroughly so a lot of them cracked. I tried my best to patch them up, hopefully they won’t crack after I put them on the cake.

When we were waiting at Mt. Pleasant Animal Hospital’s ER, I called The Animal Recovery Centre at Greendale Ave and Balestier Rd, to see if the vet there could see us sooner (the wait at Mt. Pleasant was more than an hour). After describing the situation to the technician I was informed that the vet did not think it was important enough for him/her to come in and see Libby, even though I was willing to pay the $260 night call rate. I told the technician again that Libby’s teeth were completely ripped out and that she was in pain, but the vet still didn’t think it was a big deal. In fact, they didn’t even think it was serious enough to book me the first appointment the next day. They wanted me to go in at 2pm! They also mentioned getting an ultrasound before determining what to do. This is the point where I hung up and decided to never go to the Animal Recovery Center again.

I had one bad experience with them when I took Cherry Garcia in for a very severe case of diarrhea. Libby had something similar in Tokyo. The vet there took a stool sample, determined the bacteria that was causing it and prescribed the right medicine. She was better the next day. At the Animal Recovery Center, they didn’t want to do any test but instead gave her a broad-spectrum antibiotics, which didn’t cover anaerobic bacteria because from experience, even I know the diarrhea was probably caused by something in some garbage that Cherry ate, which is perfect breeding ground for anaerobes (see, I haven’t completely forgotten my training in clinical pharmacy). They also gave her some vitamin shots, which were expensive and completely unnecessary. The bill came up to almost $300 and Cherry continued to have diarrhea for the next week. Needless to say, I was not impressed, and the only reason I called them that night was because I was willing to do anything to relieve Libby’s pain faster. I was prepared to pay through the nose but I never expected the vet to be so cold-hearted and uncaring. If his child had some teeth knocked out I would like to see his reaction if his dentist told him to wait for more than 14 hours for treatment. I know we couldn’t perform the surgery that night, but at least we could give her some pain relief and antibiotics. Hasn’t he ever heard of endocarditis? I just think that someone who has so little compassion has no business being a vet.

On a more positive note, the friend whose daughter is having the jungle themed birthday party runs a medical foster home called Blue Sky Healing Homes in Beijing. She temporarily houses and provides medical care to orphans who go to Beijing for medical treatments. Often times she ends up being the one to raise money or finds doctors to treat the kids. It’s a great cause and she does it with her own money plus generous donations from people like you and me. So instead of giving each other presents this Valentine’s day, we are donating to her organization. Take a look at her website and I hope the stories will inspire you too.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Grow Your Own – Verbena

I am not much of a gardener. In fact I have never been successful at keeping anything alive for more than a year, except for those hearty house plants genetically engineered to take abuses such as long periods of draught when we travel and constant blast of cold air from the A/C vent. I do try to keep a little herb garden though because I use fresh herbs in my cooking so much. My little herb garden sits under the slit of window that opens in my kitchen and usually consists of rosemary, basil, mint, parsley and whatever else I could find at the nursery. None of them ever live very long so I am constantly replacing them, which is probably a good thing because the longer they live, the more sickly they look. So what am I doing here entering the “Grow Your Own” monthly event? Firstly, just because I am not good at growing things doesn’t mean I don’t want to be better. By entering this event I was hoping to get inspired by other people's green thumbs. Secondly, the wonderful rule of the GYO event actually says, “You can use something that was gifted to you, but the giver must have personally grown or raised the item.” And there lies my solution.

Recently a friend of mine dropped off a bag of freshly picked verbena that her friend grew in the garden. Verbena, of all things! I was beyond excited. Next to lavender, verbena might be my second favorite herb, and it’s not easy to come by in Singapore. In fact, I have never seen it sold anywhere, potted or cut.

My first encounter with verbena was through a wonderful shampoo that Loccitane used to make. It has a very fresh lemony scent and makes your scalp feel all tingly and fresh. I fell in love instantly. (I still haven’t forgiven them for changing the formulation to include lemon, resulting in a significant drop in the tingling sensation.) But the first time I had verbena in food was when we were in Provence last summer. They were in everything from salads to soups to desserts. The most memorable was a wonderful verbena ice cream we had at an Alain Ducasse restaurant/country inn called La Bastide des Moustiers, so it was this ice cream that I set out to recreate. I used a recipe that I found on Epicurious and largely followed it. The result was nice, but I found the verbena flavor to be mild. If I ever get my hands on some more verbena (my friend says she’s planning to get a sprig from her friend and plant it herself) I’ll double up on the amount of verbena and try again.

Here’s the unaltered recipe. Feel free to increase the verbena quantity.

1 cup packed fresh lemon verbena sprigs
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar

Bring verbena, milk, cream, and 1/8 teaspoon salt to a simmer in a small heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, then remove from heat and let steep, covered, 30 minutes.

Whisk together eggs and sugar until combined, then whisk in verbena mixture. Return mixture to saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard thickens slightly and registers 175°F on an instant-read thermometer (do not let boil).

Immediately strain thourough a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing on and then discarding solids. Cool custard, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes, then chill, covered, until cold, at least 2 hours.

Freeze custard in ice cream maker, then transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, about 1 hour.

After making the ice cream, I still had a little bit of verbena left. So I used it in a soup, recipe also from Epicurious. This soup tasted similar to a fish soup that my Vietnamese friend used to make, but she puts tamarind in hers instead of the herb mix in this recipe. I have to admit the flavor of the verbena gets somewhat lost because of the chili and fish sauce, but the flavors do blend beautifully. The way to eat this soup, as my Vietnamese friend has shown me once, is to either pour soup and contents all onto a bowl of white rice, or to pick out the contents only, pile it on white rice and pour chili sauce over it. Try it both ways, and see which way you like better.

So if you happen to have a handful of verbena, not quite enough to make ice cream, then I suggest you give this a try. Or if you don’t have verbena, lemongrass can be used in its place.

1 pineapple (preferably labeled "extra sweet"; about 3 1/2 lb)
About 2 qt water
2 skinless boneless chicken breast halves (3/4 lb total)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
4 (1-inch) fresh red Thai chiles, minced, including seeds
3 tablespoons minced garlic
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1/2 lb fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps thinly sliced
2 large tomatoes, chopped (2 cups)
1 cup fresh mung bean sprouts (2 oz)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh lemon verbena
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt

Cut peel from pineapple in a thin layer and discard, then trim outer layer of pineapple, cutting just deep enough to remove eyes but allowing pineapple to remain intact, and transfer trimmings to a blender. Quarter pineapple lengthwise and cut out core, then coarsely chop core and transfer to blender. Purée with 2 cups water until smooth. Pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a 2-quart glass measure, pressing hard on solids (discard solids), then add enough water to measure 8 cups pineapple broth.

Cut remaining pineapple into 1/2-inch pieces and put in a bowl.
Place chicken between 2 sheets of plastic wrap. Gently pound chicken 1/4 inch thick with flat side of a meat pounder or with a rolling pin. Cut chicken across the grain into 1/4-inch-wide strips and transfer to a bowl, then chill, covered.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté chiles and 2 tablespoons garlic, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 1/4 cup fish sauce and boil until sauce is reduced by half, about 2 minutes. (Fish sauce will be extremely pungent when first added but will have a mild flavor in soup.) Add pineapple broth and bring to a boil. Stir in pineapple pieces, mushrooms, tomatoes, bean sprouts, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and return to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes. While soup simmers, heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté remaining tablespoon garlic, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add remaining 2 tablespoons fish sauce and simmer until sauce is reduced by half, about 2 minutes.

Sprinkle chicken with remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper and add to garlic mixture, then sauté, stirring, until just cooked through, about 4 minutes.

Stir chicken into soup along with herbs and salt and simmer 1 minute.