This year, Chinese New Year is celebrated on 8 February 2016 to mark the Year of the Monkey. The equivalent Vietnamese celebration is called Tet, one of the most important events in my family’s calendar.
As a child, my mother went to great lengths each year to prepare a feast which could feed our entire neighbourhood. The menu always featured a sticky rice cake filled with mung beans and pork, a turnip cake, endless platters of spring rolls (egg rolls), roast pork with gorgeously seasoned crackling – all served with fresh vermicelli noodles, picked carrots and daikon, and an abundance of fresh salad and herbs. There was always a soup on the menu, too; often a light chicken broth with bamboo shoots. Each dish had a significance and the ingredients were always carefully chosen to welcome luck and prosperity into the family.
I know all too well that planning meals ahead of time, doing the grocery shopping in bulk, and even cooking in advance, are the easiest paths to a stress-free suppertime, but being organised often takes time and time is a scarce commodity when there is a toddler and newborn in the equation. And so I often find myself at the supermarket without a clue as to what to cook for dinner, except that I am relieved to have arrived there with both kids still alive. But then begins the mad dash to complete the grocery shopping before one or both kids decide that the cramped fruit and veg section is the appropriate forum to suddenly air their wailing complaints. This often means quickly filling the shopping basket with familiar foods which I know I can randomly throw together to create a meal, and the most common protein I turn to is chicken.
It is a rare occasion for us to celebrate Christmas in Zurich, a rather welcome change as it has given me the opportunity to cook on Christmas Day, something which might prompt fear and dread in most people but has instead filled me with glee as the Christmas season started to approach.
My mother used to cook a lot with chicken wings when I was younger. I’m not sure if it was just because they were cheap, or if she merely enjoyed cooking them. I certainly enjoyed eating them. She would sometimes make soups and broths using just chicken wings, but often she would marinate them in lemongrass, chilli and garlic before grilling them until they were bronzed and crispy. Just how I would like them.
A fragrant and soul-soothing beef pho is often what I crave when only a steaming bowl of noodle soup will do. But when time is sparse and I don’t have 3 hours to potter about in the kitchen, a chicken pho is a rather wonderful alternative.
There’s Chinese food, and there’s American-Chinese food. I wasn’t even aware of the latter until we were posted in Chicago for a few years where lunch with colleagues was often at P.F. Chang’s or Big Bowl, two popular Chinese restaurant chains in the US. There, the menu often featured the likes of Sweet & Sour Chicken, Honey-Glazed Chicken, and Mongolian Beef; Chinese food which is rarely eaten by the Chinese themselves but which are very popular with westerners.
As someone who squirms at the thought of eating livers or offal of any kind, I happen to love pâté. Perhaps because it is a crucial component of a Vietnamese Banh Mi, a staple in my childhood diet, that I have long-acquired a taste for this velvety spread.
A Vietnamese pâté is one of many culinary inheritances from the French colonial occupation, and the Vietnamese like theirs with a bit of texture and spice. It is often made with a mixture of chicken and pork livers and can even include a variety of other meats and offal to add texture and flavour. Smeared onto the soft interior of a crisp baguette, layered with some garlic mayonnaise, slices of pork belly and a generous touch of picked carrots with fresh coriander and chillies, and you have yourself a lip-smacking Banh Mi.
A little while back, I had posted quite a few reviews on recipes from Rachel Khoo’s delightful French cookbook, The Little Paris Kitchen. For a short time, it looked like I was cooking my way through the book, and indeed I was – just a lot of the recipes haven’t made it to my blog for various reasons. Having been distracted by some events in recent months, I’m hoping to do a little catch-up here on the blog, starting with this post on Rachel Khoo’s Chicken Dumpling Soup, to be followed shortly by an in-depth review of a few other recipes from The Little Paris Kitchen.
For me, The Little Paris Kitchen has been a choice cookbook purchase this year. It’s rather rare that I am inspired to cook so much from one cookbook, even when a recipe hasn’t worked out or if I find the instructions to be a little confusing, or even when a recipe doesn’t even excite me in the first place!
When I first saw the segment on Rachel Khoo’s cooking show for her Chicken Dumpling Soup, I marvelled at how simple it looked, but I never thought I would actually try to make it; when I think of a chicken dumpling soup, I think of my mother’s version which is heady with coriander (cilantro), spring onions, pepper, chillies and lime. Now that is a soup which can comfort and chase the blues away.
But in the spirit of trying new recipes, I gave Rachel Khoo’s version a try.
The weather has been blisteringly hot in Zurich lately, which should be a welcome change given the torrential rain which we’ve had in the preceeding months. But after a few days of soaking up the sun and several impromptu lakeside evening picnics, the lack of air-conditioning has become quite evident and I find myself quietly (and guiltily) yearning for the cooler weather to return. This is especially since I have discovered that our kitchen happens to be the warmest room in our apartment, a place which I have suddenly been trying to spend as little time as possible so that I can be elsewhere to catch the breeze. It has been quite an unusual predicament for me, trying to plan meals which require minimal time spent in the kitchen when it is often a place I escape to.
But the last few days finally saw the rainfall and thunderstorms return, as well as my appetite. And in an effort to demonstrate to my husband (well, mostly myself!) that I remember how to cook a proper meal, I set about preparing a curry feast.
A visit to most Chinese restaurants will reveal curry puffs on the appetiser menu and I am always a sucker for anything wrapped in pastry. I could sometimes quite happily forego the main dish and just sit down to a huge serving of curry puffs, but afraid of any negative reaction this could elicit in public, I’ve never quite gone that far. So making curry puffs at home, and eating them by the plateful in private, is the far better and more ladylike option.
Chinese curry puffs can be wrapped in a variety of different pastries, such as filo pastry, wonton wrappers, spring roll wrappers or puff pastry. The restaurants typically serve them deep-fried, but baking them is also an option, especially if you are using puff pastry.
It was never really my intention to cook my way through Rachel Khoo’s The Little Paris Kitchen, but so rarely has a cookbook resonated with me so much that I have found myself trying a new recipe from this book every few days since I first purchased it. If only I had this level of enthusiasm for all of my cookbooks!
With the weather warming up recently in Zurich, I was curious to try the Coq au Vin Skewers so that we would have an excuse to fire up the barbeque for the first time this year. But unlike most casual barbeque recipes, and as with most of Rachel Khoo’s recipes so far, this dish required quite a bit of advance preparation. Though, this is perhaps more a feature of French cooking than Rachel Khoo’s cooking style in itself.
In fact, this was the first recipe I tried from this book. I love marinated and grilled chicken and am always on the lookout for new recipes, though I think my mum makes the best version which I have tried endlessly to recreate and which comes close but, of course, it can’t quite compare. Like most Vietnamese mothers, mine works from taste memory rather than from written recipes, yet her dishes seem to sing each and every time. Sadly, I think I missed out on that gene and am trying to make up for it by learning from different recipes and lots of trial and error in the kitchen.
One of my all-time favourite Vietnamese dishes is chicken curry with sweet potato. My mum makes this dish using a whole chicken which is first marinated in a special mixture of Vietnamese curry powder and other seasoning, and then slowly simmered on the stove with an array of aromatics until the chicken is tender and almost falls from the bone. Towards the end, she adds potatoes and/or sweet potatoes which has been deep-fried so that it keeps its shape in the curry, and the whole dish is served with loaves of crusty baguette (preferably from a Vietnamese bakery) to soak up the lovely curry sauce. The bread is undoubtedly French-inspired as this is one of the few Vietnamese meals which is not served with rice or noodles.
I dream constantly of my mum’s curry and, over the years, I have developed my own recipe which at least satisfies my taste buds but still falls short of my mum’s version. It is a dish which requires a bit of planning and preparation, so definitely not something I would attempt during the working week.
I find it rather comical that I often look to non-Asian chefs for inspiration on Asian dishes. Take Bill Granger, for example. Most of his savoury recipes are Asian-influenced and, whilst they may not correspond exactly to what is served in Chinatown, they always taste fabulous. In fact, he has a way of scaling down and simplifying recipes so that the dish still reminds you of the traditional version, but it employs the trademark Aussie casualness which is often in stark contrast to the hectic energy in most Asian kitchens.
Rachel Allen is the same. I don’t think she has spent extensive periods in Asia like Bill Granger has, but her Asian-inspired recipes are the sort of dishes which I like to eat at home. This is one thing which I love about globalisation, the blurring of borders – it is totally acceptable to take the coriander, ginger and chillies from the Thai palate and apply them to a chicken for your Sunday roast. A meal which takes the best of both worlds can only be wonderful.
After seeing the mouth-watering photos of this dish made by Carrie from thePatternedPlate, as well as reading other rave reviews about this yet-another Yotam Ottolenghi recipe, I couldn’t wait to try this dish.
Gado-gado is essentially a salad dressed with a satay sauce. As far as satay sauces go, this is perhaps the most complex recipe I have ever come across! There are quite a lot of steps involved, not to mention quite a lot of ingredients. As you can see from my photos below, I used small red onions in place of shallots. I have a tendency to gather a small collection of different coloured onions and shallots and recently decided that, as a compromise, small red onions should do the trick whenever “onions” or “shallots” are called for. The sauce takes about an hour to make, so you will have to factor this time in when making this dish or perhaps even make the sauce the day before.
When hubby is on his own, he tends to cook really simple food like pasta. Just pasta. Oh and maybe a grating of parmesan cheese if there happens to be some in the fridge. Or he might just boil potatoes. Or he goes all out and raids my cookbook collection to produce something really elaborate and exquisite, and will then cheekily send me a photo to show me what I’m missing out on.
After a recent brief spell on his own, I came home to find a 2kg bag of potatoes in the kitchen. They had been sitting there for a bit and I felt I had to do something with them tonight or else they were destined for the compost.
To be honest, I was rather skeptical of this recipe when I first saw it. I’m not sure how the Thai would feel about having this dish ascribed to their region as I suppose it is more “Thai flavoured” than authentically Thai. Nigella makes the same faux pas with a Vietnamese soup in Kitchen but I’ll save this discussion for another time!
I think it’s hard to improve on a simple roast chicken, but the moment I tried it Thomas Keller’s way, I think it will be hard to prepare a roast chicken any other way!
Earlier this year, my husband and I spent 4 amazing days in Las Vegas. As with any trip to a new city, I always research the food and restaurants in the area beforehand, planning most of our meals long before we even arrive. And who knew that Las Vegas would be such a foodie paradise??!! Vegas is known for being excessive and with restaurants owned by the likes of Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Nobu and Mario Batali (to name a few), why travel anywhere else when you can just go to Vegas?? 😉