Monday, September 27

A Vegetable re-Torte

My sister Truffle attracted you with beautiful chocolate decadence crowned with Inca gold (see Truffle's post). I show you sinister dark green foliage with veins of blood red - the realities of swiss chard. Truffle, you will be proud and happy to know that I have gone back to the organic vegetable delivery service.

Last week's delivery consisted of small red potatoes, dark plums, grapefruit and swiss chard. The plums disappeared within two days and my colleagues were met with the citrusy wafts of grapefruit at 3:00 PM two days in a row. Sunday came and I was still left with the potatoes and swiss chard. I ruffled through my favorite cookbook by Jamie Oliver, a wedding gift from a dear school friend, and came across a fish pie recipe that I had made once before. I had found the perfect solution to consuming both vegetables. The potatoes were the perfect sweet topping for the pie and the swiss chard its ideal bitter companion.

I par boiled thin slices of the potato in salt and layered it on top of the fish that had been doused with sour cream and grated left-over hard cheese, which in turn were seated on sauteed onions, celery, green peppers, chili flakes and capers (not Oliver's original recipe). The whole dish went into the oven at 400*F. The leftover potato slices were fried in olive oil.

The swiss chard was more of a challenge. Never having made it before, a little internet research led me to believe that sauteing them with garlic, salt, pepper and vinegar would do the trick. I faced my challenge of chopping up what seemed to be an entire bush of the plant on a small chopping board and looked for a pot big enough to accommodate the mass. I watched with disbelief as the entire thing reduced to a fifth of its original volume and fussed over it with self-doubt as the vinegar went in and its fumes shot out. I added sugar to retain its color and breathed deeply for courage before serving it to my two children. The verdict? I loved it, my children put up with it, but unfortunately, my husband, born to vegetarian brahmins, did not care for it. Ah well, I can't win 'em all!

Truffle, I commend you. You dare do these things that I would not dream of - ordering vegetable sides in Spain and fresh cut vegetables in trendy London restaurants! I thought I was brave ordering organic food, battling with unknown chards and then serving them to my family in my small town of Davidson in rural North Carolina. You, my dear, are definitely far braver.


London boleh!

I’m trying out a modern-day media technique of showing you a photo of a pretty face (in food terms) to get you to read this post. It’s a dessert I had in Salamanca – a chocolate brownie with Incan gold (the head chef was from Peru)!

So back to my post. As you know, my most recent travels on the Continent were in Spain, where we were attending a family wedding. Now, I love many things about Spanish food (see here for evidence), but I also can’t deny that part of me that needs more than just meat for sustenance. And the Spanish don’t seem to have a very close relationship with vegetables.

This was part of the reason for my frustration during that week of travelling – everywhere we went, I had to make special requests for veggies. Often, our requests were greeted with looks that combined “Why would you want that…?” with “That’s not the way we do things here” and “I can see you two are going to be trouble…”. But I had to stick to my guns and not be afraid of looking like a weirdo as I persisted against the bureaucracy. It’s quite surprising, really, because I’ve always felt that Spain was the best country in Europe for customer service. (My husband explains the reason for this: “Spanish people, darling. They just start shouting.”)

And so, after a week of having to fight to get my greens, we flew back to London and ended up at our favourite restaurant on our first evening back. As we were seated at our usual table, I got a real craving for some fresh vegetables. You see, I’ve been reading this book on healthy eating (more on that later) that suggests asking for fresh cut vegetables instead of the bread they give you before the meal. The principle behind the eating plan is that your body will get to its ideal playing weight if you don’t get in its way with fake, processed and unhealthy stuff that upsets your body’s chemical/hormonal balance. A part of the programme is to eat lots of fresh veggies, which trains your body to want more (in the way eating lots of sugar sets it up to want more sugar) – hence my craving.

It is surprising how difficult it is to get the simplest thing on Earth that is in any restaurant kitchen. The restaurant’s duty manager looked more and more panicked as I explained that I would like some plain, cut vegetables please. Gamely, he went to the kitchen (in case Gordon Ramsay hasn’t done enough PR for his profession, I should just mention that head chefs and cuddly bunny rabbits have very little in common…). He came back and offered me a carrot soup that was on the menu. I jumped on the offer of carrots and asked if I could have just the carrots cut up. This time when he went back to the kitchen, I suspect he got thrown out.

I thought it just wasn’t going to happen, when he came back with a large oval bowl full of fresh lettuce, carrot batons, cucumber and radish. I was delighted, but he was still looking a bit sober. I realised why when he explained that the vegetables weren’t from his restaurant, but from the Lebanese place nearby.

I was impressed. People living in London often complain that things are slow here, you can’t get what you want, that service isn’t as good as in other parts of the world. However, I thought, where I had heard ‘no, no, no’ all week, I was finally back in a place where you could sometimes hear a ‘yes’. I appreciated how intelligently he had solved the problem, and I thought to myself that London could indeed do it (in Malay, London boleh!).

And just before anyone inclined to that reflex pulls out the Anglo-Saxon card from their Uno pack, I should point out that the duty manager in question was French. When I later explained to him my veggie-deprivation of the past week, he said he understood where I was coming from. In France, he said, in Michelin-starred restaurants of a bygone era, they would serve fresh, cut vegetables before the meal. The vegetables were of such good quality that they could be served on their own. And they would taste excellent. Just imagine the sweetness of those carrots and the fresh perfume of those cucumbers and lettuce leaves.

Incidentally, Cinnamon, there’s another reason you should keep going with the organic delivery!



Friday, September 17

Waste Not, Want Not

I’ve always thought that was such an odd expression. While the meaning is (to most people who are not me) clearly “if you don’t waste it, you won’t be left wanting in the future”, my imagination has always thought it sounded more like one of two things. The first is “don’t waste it, and don’t want it”. I’m convinced it’s all the fault of that comma…

Anyway, semantic wrinkle in the Universe duly denounced, I move on to today’s topic, which is another wrinkle in the Universe it would be nice to have ironed out. During my recent trip to Spain, it was necessary for us to stay in a few hotels. By the end of the week, I was thoroughly tired of the experience. More on that in the future, but one of the things that started overwhelming me by Day 6 was the amount of food that gets wasted in hotels.

The photo above shows that part of the standard delivered-to-the-room breakfast which we didn’t touch. In addition to all of those rolls and pastries came an abundance of eggs, ham, sausages, sautéed veggies, toast, juice and coffee/tea which we just managed to finish. Is someone seriously expecting anyone (triathlon-types excepted) to eat all of that as well?

I didn’t sneak any photos, but buffet breakfasts on this trip told a similar story. Piles of scrambled eggs, fried eggs, chocolate cakes, fruit tarts, mini-sandwiches, sausages and bacon soaking in grease, enormous quiches, fruit salads and what not assembled and waiting, and most of it getting packed up at close of breakfast and taken away behind the screens to be quietly done away with. I wonder if hotels think you need to see mountains of food at your disposal so that you don’t feel so bad paying them high rent for small spaces.

There is broader issue here. Almost everyone throws away a lot of food at the end of a day – restaurants, bakeries, patisseries, sandwich shops and supermarkets. True, some do give surpluses away to charities, but they are a slim minority. And my question is: why are we producing so much if we can only eat so much?

I’m going to keep an eye out on this issue and find out more, but for the moment, I wonder if small steps wouldn’t help. For example, after taking that photograph, I thought that maybe next time, if I know I’m not going to have the pastries, I should just let room service know and ask them not to bring any. Maybe, just maybe, this could filter through to the kitchen’s purchasing decisions. This strategy will not be without its challenges (try explaining to a chef or waiter in Europe that you want something that’s not on the menu – more on this in a future post), but I’ll give it a shot. Which brings me to my imagination’s second interpretation of the “waste not, want not” mantra: waste not what you don't want.

I’d be glad to hear from our readers if you’ve felt similarly about food wastage in hospitality and catering establishments, or if you have any experiences and tips to share.



Wednesday, September 15

Birthday Pastries vs. Birthday Blues

I get the birthday blues every year. I think it started when I turned 24 while I was living in London. I was in the M&A department of a blue-blooded British investment bank, lived in a smart part of London, and had a tall, blond, public-schooled investment analyst for a boyfriend. That was the year I realized that I added little value to the world even though I worked 14 hour days. I could play no musical instrument, no sport (except for badminton, but is that really a sport?), and I did not know how to paint nor produce anything of artistic value. I realized that if I were suddenly hit by a bus, no one would miss me for anything I did. So, I embarked upon a mission of self-improvement, which was half Singaporean and half Virgo in nature. I decided to take up various courses - piano lessons in Hampstead, art lessons on the Strand and tennis lessons in Regents Park.

Many years have passed since that point in time, 13 to be exact. I can now paint huge canvasses of acrylic and oil and can play decent tennis. No, I didn't get very far with my piano, but my two lovely children are learning to play piano, violin, tennis and golf. I have a handsome doting husband (neither blond nor English), a good, steady career, a beautiful house with a koi pond, and a burgundy BMW. However, I still get the birthday blues.

Today is my birthday. Three days ago on Sunday, as my birthday blues started settling in, my fabulous girlfriends from Davidson turned up at my house for a surprise tea party. The five of us get together regularly for glasses of wine, dinners and movies and have been compared with famous posses like the one in Sex in the City - some of the fashion and very little of the sex. The fab four, Artichoke Dip, Brown Sugar Cookie, Fruit Salad and Texan Chili, turned up at my door with huge smiles and tea from Gevalia, cucumber sandwiches, scones, clotted cream, raspberry jam, and brown sugar cookies. The warmth and affection was just what I needed and I smiled through it all, not revealing the blues I concealed in my heart.

At work today, I had a similar special treat as Swiss Chocolate took me to a new French Bakery in Uptown Charlotte, Amelie, and treated me to pastries and coffee. The greedy guts that I am, I wanted to try two pastries instead of one, and she smilingly obliged. I chose the chocolate eclair and my all-time favorite, the almond croissant and washed it all down with some French roast coffee. I also got to sample some of Swiss Chocolate's plum tart. They were all very good and the almond croissant was exceptional.

My mother once said to me, "Cinnamon, wherever you go, you manage to make really good girl friends. You are very lucky." She's right. All through my life, in all the cities I have lived in, I have managed to surround myself with a tight group of girl friends. Maybe, I am always looking to replace my original tight group of four sisters. Whatever the impetus, I am indeed fortunate. I may not be able to move people with music, nor art, will probably not win a trophy for tennis, but if I were hit by a bus, I think my sisters and friends will miss me.

The pastries won the battle this year.


Monday, September 13

Real Tapas

Just before my trip to Spain (for a family wedding), I’d promised to tell you about the famous Segovian suckling pig. Well, unfortunately Hubbie fell ill as soon as we reached Madrid, so a trip to Segovia was out of the question. The pigs escaped us once again! Thankfully, Spain isn’t by any means short of other wonders to please the palate.

My favourite has to be the Jamon Iberico de Bellota. This is an entire leg of pork that is cured and then carved by an artisan into thin (but power-packed) slices. Apologies to my wonderful Italian friends, but eat your heart out, Parma! The flavour and texture of the jamon is incredible. The pigs (of the black Iberian variety) are reared free range, and they spend their cushy lives wandering oak forests and feasting on acorns (bellota). According to popular belief, the bellota is what imparts that extraordinary nutty punch to the jamon’s flavour (and the pigs’ easy-going lifestyle is what results in the firm yet yielding texture of the meat). We had plenty of it at the wedding reception, having stationed ourselves on the trade route between the carving table and the marquee full of guests.

Another favourite Spanish classic of mine is paella. There are varieties featuring chicken and rabbit, but I prefer the seafood kind. My father-in-law makes a mean paella, and the first time he treated us to it, he was surprised to learn that South Asian cooking (e.g., Cinnamon’s beloved biriyani) uses saffron as well. Indeed, paella and biriyani seem pretty similar to me – rich rice dishes with meat and the magical saffron. I figure this must be due to the Arab influence in Spain through the Moors and the Arab/Persian influence in South Asia (through, for example, the Mughals). I’m hoping to get a copy of the family paella recipe to share with you, but I didn’t want to hold up the post for it, so you’ll just have to be patient!

What I can share with you though is a recipe for my final favourite; that simple classic, which serves as breakfast, lunch on the go, or a light dinner with salad: the Spanish Tortilla. Having grown up thinking of a tortilla as a round flat bread, the Spanish egg tortilla took me by surprise. Modern versions at boutique hotels feature some sort of deconstructed omelette, but imho you can’t beat the true tortilla – one that looks almost baked like a cake. I asked my husband (whose tortilla recipe this is) what the secret to a good tortilla is – his response: “you have to make sure the potatoes are really happy”. Translated from Spanish into English, I think that means lots of time, attention and good quality olive oil. Que Aproveche!

1. Ingredients: eggs, large onions, potatoes, plenty of olive oil, salt, pepper (and chorizo if you like it)

2. Chop the onions finely. Peel the potatoes and chop roughly into small cubes (not more than about an inch a side).

3. Heat olive oil in a large frying pan, and once hot add onions and potatoes. Cook until the potatoes are reasonably soft and on the verge of browning (but not completely there yet).

4. Whisk eggs and add some salt and pepper. When the onions and potatoes are ready, add the eggs (ensure an even distribution) and turn the gas to a low setting.

5. If you like, add a few slices of chorizo, but make sure it goes into the liquid egg mixture and doesn’t sit on the surface (because chorizo doesn’t taste so good if it cooks on the frying pan surface).

6. Once this side is cooked to your satisfaction, turn it over by sliding it from the frying pan onto a plate and turning the plate over onto the frying pan.

7. When it’s ready, serve it with a nice lemony-dressed salad and good quality baguette. If you have leftovers, you can make Spanish sandwiches with butter and baguettes.



Tuesday, September 7

Back to the Fearrington

Prince Charming and I have now been married for 10 years. We had two weddings in the year 2000 to accommodate a timely green card application. The first was in April - a small affair in San Francisco. Immediate family and a few friends gathered at City Hall in the morning to witness our legal union and we had 50 guests join us in the evening to enjoy the food, wine and the view at the Carnelian Room at the top of the Bank of America Tower. A few months and a green card application later, we had a grander get together of 1,400 guests in Chennai, India for our Hindu wedding with two receptions and that encompassed meals prepared by a famous chef of that time, Arusuvai Natarajan, and a gala dinner at the Fisherman's Cove Resort that ended with fireworks. Yes, fireworks.

You might remember that we went to the Fearrington Inn back in April to celebrate our SF wedding (see Picture! Picture! Picture!). Well, as creatures of habit and nostalgia, we decided to go back to the same place for our August anniversary too. Once again, it was perfect. The weather was a cool 73⋅F, the gardens gorgeous, and the food simply impeccable.

Everything went like clockwork, and we chose the wine pairing to go with our three-course meal again. The sommelier, Max, did a remarkable job once again and paired each dish with a nice wine. What I liked was that he chose wines that I had not heard about, but what surprised me was that they were mostly sweet! Gerwurztraminers and Rieslings! And an Austrian wine I had not heard of but whose name just rolls off the tongue - the Grunerveltliner. As we analyzed why the sweet wines went so well with our beef carpaccio with pesto creme, Charming's foie gras with English ginger cake, my lobster tortellini with lime and vanilla dressing, we realized it was because every dish had a good dose of .... sugar. Don't worry, I am not complaining (see post on sugar). Just observing. Anyway, with each glass of wine, I found it harder and harder to remember the names and vintages, and Max was kind enough to write them down for us and I have attached it here for you ... and me. I am not very good at filing paper away.

Look at the list. Who in today's fast paced lap-top tapping world writes like that? That writing is more from times past... In any case, it's going to keep us going back to the Fearrington for future anniversaries.



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