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.
As a mother of an 8-week old baby and a 2 year old toddler, there is very little time for cooking at the moment. Actually, between the feeding, back-to-back nappy changes and pukey laundry, there is very little time to do anything else. To date, we’ve been unapologetically living off take-away most evenings, interspersed with some simple home-cooked pasta dishes here and there to break the monotony. Online shopping has been a godsend, especially for pantry items (and lots of nappies), and much has to be said for store-cupboard cooking.
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.
A trip to the Swiss mountains usually guarantees good, hearty, winter fare. After a day of heavy duty winter sports, the body is likely to crave something substantial, something loaded with calories. On a recent weekend away in the picturesque Swiss village of Kandersteg, my husband and I found it difficult to hold back when it came to mealtimes, despite the fact that neither of us had engaged in any strenuous outdoor activity which would have explained our hearty appetites. But as my husband likes to put it, some dishes taste best when served in the appropriate surrounding environment; a fondue somehow tastes better when served in the mountains in an old wooden hut where everyone is rugged up in their winter woollies.
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.
Long before cooking became a passionate hobby and was more of a matter of survival for me, I heavily relied on cookbooks to put together really basic and simple meals like … vegetable soups. Yes, for something which merely required a few ingredients to be cooked together with some stock and then thrown in the blender, I needed careful instruction on how to do exactly that. And who else to turn to for motherly advice in the kitchen, when my own mother was absent, than Elizabeth David.
Pot-au-feu literally translates into English as “pot on the fire”. It is a classic French beef stew, a peasant dish at heart. Traditionally made from beef bones and stewing beef, the broth is typically served as a clear soup, preceding the main dish of sliced beef with vegetables which have been cooked in the broth. It is honest and hearty French fare. Although the dish may take several hours to cook, you are not required to do much during this time, other than to skim the surface of the soup and to check that the meat is continually submerged. This makes it an ideal dish to make when you have time to potter about the kitchen and can look forward to a simple, yet satisfying, supper.
Recipes abound for pot-au-feu and they are all variations of the same blue-print. The beef bones are necessary to add richness and depth to the soup, and oxtails are perfect for this type of cooking, in part because you can also eat the tender and sweet meat later. But the stewing beef is what is traditionally served at the table, so you should find a cut which needs a few hours of cooking time, such as beef brisket or beef shank. In Switzerland, the beef is often labelled “Pot-au-feu”, making it clear what the cut is intended for. But “Bouilli de boeuf maigre” is also a good choice. In Australia, I recall buying cuts of meat simply labelled “soup beef” which would be perfect here. You could also use beef cheeks, which are wonderfully tender and flavoursome upon cooking, though they take longer to cook and you might need to order these from your butcher.
I have long been a fan of Nigel Slater, his books having been instrumental in my initial forays into the kitchen, along with Nigella Lawson and, dare I say it, the Australian Women’s Weekly. One of my favourite cookbooks would have to be Appetite, a hefty book filled with amazingly delicious recipes but provided in a manner that encourages the cook to develop some intuition in the kitchen. Rather than call for, say, 100 g of tomatoes, Nigel Slater’s recipes would instead ask for 3-4 medium-sized tomatoes, not only making it a bit easier to shop but also allowing the cook some flexibility.
I have been distracted in recent years by cookbooks from other authors, but this year hopefully marks a revisit of some old favourites. I was only reminded of Nigel Slater recently when hubby and I were browsing in the bookshop and Nigel Slater’s Tender Volume 1 & 2 were being sold together in a limited edition boxed set. Having lusted after these books for some time but trying to sensibly refrain from hoarding too many cookbooks in one year, I couldn’t resist a boxed set. And upon realising that Volume 1 was all about vegetables, and Volume 2 was dedicated to fruit, hubby generously offered the books to me as a gift, on the condition that they supported his New Year’s resolutions to eat more vegetarian and healthy food. Of course, honey …
With pumpkins in season, I was instantly taken by Nigel’s recipe for pumpkin laksa in Tender Volume 1. As a lover of all noodle soups, from the robust and herbal hit of a Vietnamese Pho to the equally comforting but milder-flavoured chicken noodle soup of the western palate, and not to mention the 2-minute noodles (or pot noodles) of my student days, I can rarely turn down a recipe for comfort in a bowl.
The following recipe is inspired by one from Nigella Christmas, a book which is always a great source of comfort and inspiration to me at this time of the year. Nigella Christmas is a colourful and calorie-filled collection of recipes which are ideal at Christmas, but also for parties and entertaining in general. Oftentimes throughout the year, I find myself cooking from this book whenever we have a large gathering, particularly since a lot of the recipes are in the “serves 16-20 people” category. Though, most of the recipes can easily be scaled down to accommodate more sensible headcounts.
As soon as the street vendors start setting up their chestnut-roasting stations in Zurich, I know that Christmas is around the corner. I adore these roasted beauties, their sweet and fluffy interior making for the perfect street snack when you need something warm and filling. Sometimes when the air is bitingly cold, a little bag of roasted chestnuts is the perfect excuse to warm your hands while you are waiting for your tram.
Don’t look too closely at this photo. No, really! A close inspection of this soup might not be so pleasant on the eyes, nor the tummy …
Having had a rather intense week at work, I have been resorting to Bill’s Everyday Asian when I haven’t been reaching for the telephone to order (another) pizza home-delivery. One particular evening, I felt that making this Sweetcorn Soup from scratch, using fresh corn, would be a welcome distraction from the stressful events which had been taking place in the office.
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.
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 would prefer to call this Poor Man’s Dinner but the truth is that I have countless meals which go by the same name! For me, a Poor Man’s Dinner is anything that is made from bits and pieces in the fridge and pantry, or which are made from really simple and cheap ingredients.
Last night’s dinner was a Potato, Carrot & Celery Soup, simply made by sautéeing 4 small potatoes, 2 small carrots and 3 celery stalks – all coarsely chopped – in some butter, and then adding about 1.5 litres of chicken stock, letting everything simmer away gently for about 30 minutes before blitzing the contents into a smooth soup. Hardly a fancy recipe but it sure is a good way to clean out the vegetable tray in the fridge!