Tuesday, March 17, 2009

chicken rice ambitions

i hated junior college. i did make some lifelong friends from my two years in that pressure cooker of a school and i have memories that will always make me smile, but being in the daily company of painfully overachieving 17 year olds definitely wasn't exactly a whole bag of fun. it was made worse when we were asked with regularity to state our goals in life and give detail as to what our college and career choices were. everyone seemed to know what they wanted - most wanted to go to NUS, oxbridge or ivy league colleges and be doctors, lawyers, psychologists, aeronautical engineers or other highbrow jobs. they told us the world was our oyster. aim high. make us proud. they wanted us to conform to their plan to produce a nation of clone overachievers.

when asked - i said tongue in cheek that i wanted to sell chicken rice. i thought it was a noble profession - selling chicken rice - peddling one of the nation's most favoured and famous national dishes. i was going to set up Chia Ann-May chicken rice. the adults, needless to say, were not impressed. of course in the end it seemed easier to give them the answer they wanted - yes, i wanted, more than anything in my life, to join the ranks of overworked doctors in the singapore medical health service. i suppose i trotted out that answer with such regularity and mock conviction that I started believing it myself. Let's just say i'm so glad God has much better plans. I'd be a terrible doctor.

i suppose i might not have been that good a chicken rice seller after all either - i thought to myself as i chopped up the chicken i had just made for dinner - it was a bit of a mess. jase had come over for dinner after church and was watching me massacre the chicken. he also had to help me forklift the chicken out of the pot. i normally would have cheated and used chicken pieces rather than a whole bird which would have been heaps easier. i suppose i was trying to do things properly for once. mrs fei-lo had given me a running commentary on how she made chicken rice, and after reading a few more housewife-esque online forums, i reckoned i could make a go at it. plus i hadn't properly caught up with jase since he returned from chile an age ago, and what better way to celebrate a friendship than with a whole chicken.

cooking the chicken wasn't rocket science - a whole free range organic bird, stuffed with half an onion and about two inches worth of ginger, covered with water and brought to the boil and then left to simmer for about 25 minutes depending on the size of the bird. it would have been a breeze if i had the right sized pot. which of course i didn't. my pot was just that tiny bit too small to have the entire chicken covered in water. so as the water boiled away, i looked on worriedly at its exposed breast, mocking me as it sat above the waterline, taunting me with potential salmonella scares. I did have the pot covered though, so i was hoping that some of the steam would steam the breasts to completion. there was some chicken-in-pot manouevering involved, and it was fine in the end, but not without a little bit of that unnecessary drama. jase was a little hungry and suggested that it'd probably be alright with a little bit of pink. i quoted SALMONELLA back at him. i didn't go through all that food safety training for nothing.

chicken broth from the pot was then used to cook the rice - studded with a couple of cloves of garlic and slices of ginger to give that fragrant edge. and a pinch of sea salt. i should have added a couple tablespoons of chopped onion too but i forgot. it was fine nonetheless. mrs fei-lo adds butter to her rice, but i didn't. i was saving my butter to make cake.

the highlight of the meal for me was the ginger scallion oil dipping sauce - minced ginger and scallion warmed through in vegetable oil. such simplicity but it really made a difference to the whole meal. heaped tablespoons of this stuff brings the bland boiled chicken out of its boring depths. i love it and i made the full fat version which is definitely the yummiest way. mrs alien had stopped by earlier that day with mr alien and alien junior while out on their sunday walk and gave me tips on how to make a low fat version – she uses just a touch of oil, and thins the sauce with chicken stock and a touch of soya sauce – it sounds delicious too and perhaps in my more virtuous moments I might try that one day.

i had a couple of side dishes to go with the chicken rice - blanched tenderstem broccoli in oyster sauce with garlic oil and garlic chips, tofu soup with the chicken broth and spicy prawn and pork wantons. nothing says welcome-back like wantons.

Monday, March 09, 2009

theo randall and the faff of the green/orange/pink bag

Warning: This blog entry is about a Girls Night out. And handbags. And Girl Friendly Cocktails. And a chickflick. And other lawyer-esque neuroses that only LG and I will fully appreciate. It may cause extreme headaches, more confusion about the female species (if you're not female) or a feeling of extreme boredom. Read at your own peril.

I'm not usually this indecisive. And it surprised me that we had stood in the Longchamp shop for more than 30 minutes having the green bag/orange bag/pink bag debate, much to the amusement of the shop assistant who was trying not to snigger. It was a very thought out debate I will have you know - the merits of each were weighted in very logical manner - mostly by LG. I'm just flappy and I had gone in just wanting the orange bag. We left with two orange bags. So much for the very long green bag/ orange bag/ pink bag debate. Though now I might save up to get a second green one.

Anyway. Dinner at theo randalls beckoned. LG had enticed me out with an evening of her fabulous company, and a chick flick. While LG's company was more than enough to entice me out, I reckoned I couldn't do the chick flick without a nice dinner and a couple of cocktails at least for strength and courage. Plus I'm grumpy when I'm hungry. grumpy rachel is best avoided.

LG is fabulousness personified. I've known her since we were fourteen, and at the risk of embarrassing her, she's always been one of my models of how-to-be-sensible-and-grown-up-and-totally-fabulous. Very good for someone as flappy and juvenile as me. Plus, she's one of the few people who will understand and have conversations with me about the importance of writing detailed and structured holiday itineraries (with space for spontaneity within reason), the joy of standardized filing labels and why organising your clothes by genre, colour and hanger type is completely normal behaviour. And the best way to mark-up and tag documents. But she's also one of the girlfriends I may have to kill one day because she-knows-too-much.

We had decided to go for the toptable offer menu instead of the full a la carte. More money for cocktails we thought. We started with their house apertivos - proseco with apero and blood orange puree, with bits of floating blood orange sorbet. A tad sweet perhaps, but it was a Girls Night Out and we were entitled on occasion to overly sweet Girl Friendly Cocktails.

I was glad LG decided to go for the ravioli with sage, spinach and ricotta, because I wanted that too, but I also wanted the seafood risotto. Risotto is such comfort food - the stuff you eat with a duvet on the sofa and a book and lots of black pepper. I loved the smooth, luscious grains of cannaroli, swathed in fishy stock, studded with bits of mussels, calamari, cockles and salmon. LG's ravioli was beautiful - pasta pockets with the right shade of thinness, and a delicate sage, spinach and ricotta filling which seemed to get the balance right between the cheese and the spinach.

I was trying to convince LG of my very potted version of wine pricing theory which I thought I read somewhere once - that restaurants screw you with the second cheapest and the second most expensive glasses of wine. It's human nature - people don't want to be seen as being overly cheap, so they shun the cheapest selection and go for the tier up. Or they don't want to be seen as overly flash and spending the highest amount on wine, so the go for the one just below. And restaurants are entitled to use that bit of human psychology to their benefit and impose the highest mark-ups on those two bands. But I suppose it's just my potted theory. LG very wisely ignored me, and also decided to ignore the sommelier and went for a second glass of the proseco cocktail. I had to eat my words when the sommelier recommended the second cheapest glass of red - I suppose I was mesmerized by his ravings about how it would raise my meal to transcendental heights and complete my experience of eating the medium rare fillet with salsa verde and rocket. I exaggerate. It was nice. Young, but relatively full bodied and wouldn't overpower the steak. That's what the sommelier said I think. But maybe he was just screwing with me. I've found this article in the Harvard Law Recorder that explains my potted theory with much more articulately.

We somehow pottered our way through the puddings - a lemon tart and a chocolate cake, both served with crème fraiche, which we drew lines down the middle and switched plates halfway. I find it's the best way - territorial pudding lines - to preserve friendship between girlfriends. Avoids the you-ate-more-chocolate-cake-than-me fight. But I suppose LG's much too sensible to ever have that fight with me.

the chick flick wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. I suppose I had set my standards so low I couldn't possibly have been disappointed. Or maybe I'm just flappy and in need of some brainless entertainment. We tottered to cocoon for cocktails after, which were brilliant - a little mandatory flirting-with-the-barman-who-is-making-us-the-cocktails-and-throwing-his-shaker-around-with-such-needless-panache. All a little bit of harmless fun and more Girl Friendly Cocktails. It's the only way to end a Girls Night Out.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

deanes and a pig and p in belfast

people gave us strange and pitying looks when we told them we were going to belfast for the weekend. why on earth would you go there?

to eat. which is pretty much my usual answer for why i go anywhere. a girl's gotta eat. i'd been wanting to go to deanes since i read a raving review an age ago.

the ever lovely P, partner in crime, super duper girlfriend and fellow lover of dresses, didn't need much persuasion. she trusts me too much i think.

having left our bags at the malmaison, first stop - st george's market. it's a lovely market - it's tiny, compared to borough, but it's cosy. as we threaded our way through the throng of food stalls, a brass band playing in the background, we walked past a man roasting a pig. we stopped and stared. did we have time for a roast pork sandwich? it was pushing 11, and we did have lunch reservations at 1. P and i came to a consensus - we'll share one, and we'll walk it off. how couldn't anyone not absolutely adore P?

and we were supremely glad we shared the roast pork sandwich - it was without a doubt, the best roast pork sandwich i've ever had. the meat was so utterly moist. i've never had roast pork so unbelievably, lusciously juicy. it almost didn't need the applesauce, which was smooth and sharp with a touch of cinnamon. we tried a little of the herby stuffing. and to top it all off, lashings of crackling. P didn't want her bits of crackling. so she gave me all of hers. again. how couldn't anyone not absolutely adore P?

lunch at deanes was a delight. they seated us near the kitchen, which afforded us a slight view into where the chefs were bustling about, plating up and squeezing little squeezy bottles. we had lunch with a delicious bottle of argentinean malbec which got lovelier as it got decanted and breathed. and as we drank our way through it, we got sillier. it's probably never a good idea to update your facebook status when you've had half a bottle of malbec and way too much silliness going on. but even without the malbec, p and i would have been silly anyway. that's what girlfriends are for. if you can't be silly with your girlfriend, who can you be silly with?

p started with a venison carpaccio. thinly sliced, slightly gamey tasting meat, with slivers of almond and a little cress salad, shavings of parmesean, and little cubes of picked shitake and butternut squash. i had the smoked salmon tart - a warm quivering slither of quiche - smoked salmon infused eggy custard just gently set on a thin, crisp tart base. it came with a watercress and carrot salad and smidgeon of dill and horseradish.

it was a tough choice between the duck and the beef. p had the duck, which came roasted with carrot dauphinoise, pickled pear, confit of more duck, savoy cabbage and a gingerbread puree which made the dish. it was a whimsical touch. the beef (locally sourced no doubt) came with bits of bone marrow and buttered green beans. and triple cooked chips. i was a little non-plussed by the chips if i was to be honest, but then again i've just had a whole summer eating frites in brussels.

puddings were a joy. simple but well done. i had lemon tart - not to curt, but just sharp enough. p had the creme brulee, studded with lots of vanilla specks. she had way too much fun cracking the caramelised sugar top.

i was convinced a weekend in belfast would not have been complete with a proper irish fry (with potato cakes) and irish stew - both of which we had on sunday. it was a little bit of a struggle finding somewhere on sunday morning that was going to do irish fry - Belfast has a strong christian tradition, and the city goes to church on sunday morning. I had been hoping to go to Brights, Chips and Things which i was told was the definitive place to get an irish fry in Belfast, but alas they were closed. we did find a cafe which did the trick. and then for irish stew - the lovely people at malmaison highly recommended Whites, Belfast's oldest bar.

so to all those people who gave me strange and pitying looks - i'll have you know i really enjoyed my weekend in belfast - the locals were absolutely lovely - we were chatted to, given detailed instructions and tips, and just made to feel welcome. people took the time. we had lots to eat. and of course, i had P. any weekend away with P is always going to be absolutely lovely, wherever we are.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

banoffee pie

i'm a terrible friend - i'm terrible at keeping in touch. having not properly caught up with M for ages despite having made several aborted attempts at meeting up for a pint, i rang him (almost crying) - please come cat hunting with me - i begged over the phone. and M, being the ever dependable bloke he is, came cat hunting with me. twice. he is a dear. he always has been - i will forever be grateful for his furniture assembly expertise and the time he bailed me out, cheered me up and bought me lunch when i got pickpocketed in the tube.

i'm trying to be a better friend. and so, i thought i'd make M a batch of mini banoffee pies to thank him for all the cat-hunting company. M's not really a foodie. but there was that rare occasion when he once raved about mini banoffee pies. they're a doddle to make.

i crushed a large bag of ginger biscuits with a rolling pin. one could use regular digestives. it just happened that i had ginger biscuits in the larder. the ginger was a nice touch in retrospect. adding enough melted butter to bind the crumbs, spoonfuls of the buttered crumbs were divided among foil cups and left in the fridge to set. i cheated and used ready made caramel, though one could always boil a can of condensed milk for the same effect. when the tartlets were set, the banoffee pies were assembled with a little smidgeon of caramel, a couple of slices of banana, a splodge of whipped cream (which hadn't really been whipped as such but rather pumped full of NO2 gas in an iSi siphon - less washing up that way) and a sprinkling of cocoa powder.

M - thanks for being a brilliant mate. i hope you enjoyed the rest of the banoffee pies.

Monday, March 02, 2009


i like l'anima. it's been a relatively new discovery, but there's something which feels familiar and comfortable about it.

maybe i like it because it's straightforward. it's unfussy. i like unfussy. it doesn't leave you guessing. the menu comes with a glossary of sorts which guides you through italian food patois.

maybe it reminds me of latium. i miss latium. i'm not sure why i haven't been back in ages...

i digress. back to l'anima. i'd been meaning to revisit since we first came for fluffymonster's birthday last december - i had the tagliolini with wild mushrooms and black truffle and pork belly with mash (and crackling). we didn't have their puddings, because i brought birthday cake from ann-may
. they were absolute darlings about the cake - they took our cake back to the kitchen and plated our slices up after the obligatory embarrassing birthday song and candle malarky. anyway, i wanted to go back and eat the exact same things. and pudding. it's not that i'm risk averse - the other offerings on the menu seemed fabulous - it's just that i know what i like.

so when an opportunity to have dinner with G. came up, i suggested l'anima. and G. was sweet enough to oblige.

having lost george (the love of my life) when he went missing a month ago, i grieved for a week. but i knew i was really sad when even though i had stopped crying, i lost my will to eat for almost three weeks (it's come back since theo randall and duck rice, but that's another story). it's really annoying, this losing my appetite business. i never really seriously lose my appetite. even when i'm sick. but for three weeks i ate very little and subsisted mostly on bananas, green tea, bits of toast and the occasional slice of cake because they were the only things i could fathom eating most days. i guess i wouldn't have minded if i lost some weight in the process, but fortuitous things like that never happen to me. so having arrived at l'anima with a somewhat shrunken stomach and my voracious gluttony not yet fully reinstated, i had to be tactical about what i was going to be able to eat.

i'm sure i could have eaten G. under the table. not that it's a competition. but i normally would have. i'm the greediest person i know. so while G. ate his charcoal scallops with n'duja and salsa verde with gusto – he graciously let me steal a quarter of one of his scallops. it was punchy - the saltiness of the n'duja and the slight tartness from the vinegar in the salsa verde. there was also a hint of something spicy. drizzled with lashings of healthy olive oil and served with a chunk of griddled toast.

nothing was going to stop me from having pudding. i decided to forego having a starter. i would have just ordered pudding. but i think that might have been a little too weird. you can't ask someone out to dinner and then just have pudding. so i had the wild mushroom fettucine with black truffle. don't think parpadelle al funghi at carluccios. nothing against antony carluccio and his eternal mushroom love fest. but this l'anima offering was nothing like that. you could taste all the earthiness of the mushrooms - a superb mix of chanterelles, morels and other bits. they must have been coddled lovingly in their own juices and lots of parsley infused stock and more olive oil, giving the mushrooms a lovely, shiny sheen, which when eaten with the scrapings of black truffle and the delectably blousy fettucine strands made me want to smile endlessly. the velvety slips of pasta slid down effortlessly. i could happily eat a whole heaping bowl of this anytime. i'd probably go bankrupt. but i'd be a happy bankrupt. i did think i preferred it a touch more when it had the slightly thinner tagliolini strands rather than the fettucine - it seemed slightly less delicate this way, but no less delicious.

i'm glad G. ordered the pork belly and mash. mostly so that i could take a picture of it for posterity. but i figured anyone who eats pork belly and mash and enjoys it can't be all that bad. i couldn't bring myself to ask for a forkful, seeing that he was tearing away at it with much enthusiasm. but i remember that it was fabulous - it was crispy moistness, with just sufficient fat rendered out in the roasting process, keeping the pork happily basted, but with a lovely golden crunchy crackling. it comes with a smudgeon of a honeyed spicy sauce, which cuts through the velvety mash and brings an added warmth to the luscious, glistening pork.
i wanted to eat everything on the pudding menu. and because i stopped reading when i saw gianduja cake (read chocolate and hazelnut yumminess). i almost didn't care what ice-cream it came with. it came with fiore di latte. i somehow read that to be coffee. my mind plays strange tricks on me when i read chocolate. fiore di latte, though not defined on the menu, literally means "milk flower". the wisdom of google tells me that fiore di latte is pure unflavoured ice-cream made only from whole milk, fresh cream and sugar. the soft pillowy cake was sufficiently chocolately, without being overpoweringly so. it came with a drizzle of raspberry coulis and a couple of poached raspberries, and a caramelized hazelnut. the ice-cream tasted of, well, milk – it was the type of non-custard based ice-cream that only Italians seem to do well (though on yet another rambly tangent, woollie just sent me a ramsay stem ginger ice-cream recipe he says I absolutely must try – he says it’s like eating frozen double cream).

i can’t remember what G. had for pudding. it was nutty and came with a fruity sorbet I think. it was lovely anyhow.

new is always nice. but it's even nicer if you like it enough to go back and get to know it better. I think l’anima’s going to be one of those places. though I think I’ll live dangerously and order something different the next time.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

rachel ramen

I was always remember the day I came up with the concept of rachel-ramen. pebbles, the Scotsman and i had spent a week traipsing round Hokkaido in a little rented Suzuki hatchback, driving to furano to see the lavender fields (and to eat some dodge tasting lavender ice-cream, and forgettable Japanese cheddar), cape erimo for the scotsman’s virgin experience with the atlantic ocean (where we kipped out in our sleeping bags beneath a lighthouse, and pebbles went stalking a fox), detouring to obihiro to eat buta-don, and asahidake where the two of them made me sleep in a tent and where I kept them up with my snoring. the snoring was payback for the tent.

we had started and ended the trip in Sapporo, and there we were, sitting on our backpacks, waiting for the train to the airport for the flight back to Tokyo. and as we waited, I wrote in my journal and came up with rachel-ramen.

I had in that week eaten an abundance of ramen. Hokkaido is known for the miso-ramen variant, heaped with crab legs and sweet corn. I absolutely adore miso ramen – the springiness of the noodles, the comforting earthiness of miso, the heady nuttiness of sesame oil, the bite of bamboo shoots, the freshness of a sprinkling of chopped scallions. sometimes you got cha-siew -slips of fatty rolled pork stewed in shoyu and mirin. I loved it when there was ni-tamago, with its set white, but quivering yolk. each ramen-ya had a different stock base, formulated through years of experience and hours of dedicated simmering. I always felt a slight tinge of melancholy as I came to the inevitable end of a ramen meal and as my soup spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl. it was as I was bidding adieu. it wasn’t just a bowl of noodles.

af had given me the worst insult by having french toast at hubbub just before he came to lunch. his excuse was that when I said I was making ramen for lunch, he assumed it was going to be pot-noodles-esque. pot noodles from my kitchen? and how long has he known me? only since we were seventeen.

the concept of rachel-ramen wasn’t complicated – I was just going to put things i liked rather than the usual ramen toppings of bamboo shoots, beansprouts, sweetcorn and cha-siew. and besides I hate sweetcorn. I’ve never seen the point.

I made the stock base by roasting a kilo of pork ribs till they achieved a somewhat honeyed hue, browned a couple of chicken thighs in the pan, and boiled/simmered the ribs and the chicken with carrots and half an onion for almost 12 hours. the end result was a thick, deeply brown and happily gelatinous stock which was then thinned with a little water and heaped tablesppons of shiro-miso to form the soup base. I wish I had time to get better ramen noodles, but had to do with the ones from the local oriental supermarket, which were adequate to a point and relatively springy. and to these noodles doused in soup, I topped the bowl with a handful of baby spinach which wilted in the hot soup, a panko-ed pork katsu loin fillet, a prawn and pork wanton, firm tofu slices, a sprinkling of chopped scallions and an extra tiny drizzle of sesame oil. I also added half an attempted ni-tamago. I had followed the promptings of various food blogs but when I cracked the eggs open to check on their progress, my heart sank when they turned out overcooked.

af was ultimately forgiven. he did after all eat the entire bowl of ramen. and we have been mates for a long time. I dug out my old japan journal and looked for the page with my rachel ramen ramblings on it and we had a little chuckle – save for a couple of extra ingredients, I almost got it exactly as I planned all those years ago.