Prosperity: Crispy Skin Pork Belly

As I’ve mentioned before, the Chinese believe that having meat or even just a lot to eat is a sure sign of prosperity.

If you’ve ever been to a Chinese wedding at a Chinese restaurant, you’ll know what I mean. It’s an 8 to 10 course meat and seafood fest, with vegies just there for aesthetic reasons.

I loved those banquets (I’m at an age where pretty much all my friends are married, and I now have to wait for the next generation to offer me such a feast). I could never pace myself properly and was always almost too stuffed to eat the moreish carb-rich longevity noodles they serve at the end. I said almost, because you need to balance all the protein with something and it may as well be a plate full of white noodles. And then it would be disrespectful not to eat the desserts on offer…

Many years ago, a Chinese friend’s dad came home grumbling about a Chinese couple’s wedding he had attended at the Hilton Hotel in the city. He complained about only being served 3 courses, how they brought out huge plates but didn’t fill them up – there was only a tiny bit of food in the middle, and the only option for dessert was the wedding cake! He consoled himself by driving down to Chinatown afterwards for congee with salted pork and century egg for supper.

The same thought process applies to Chinese New Year – duck, chicken, pork, beef, fish, prawns and abalone – preferably all served in the same meal. The goal is to stuff yourself to the brim, and the aim is to still have food left over because it means you’ll have a prosperous year. And who doesn’t want a prosperous year?

One of my favourite meats is pork belly with crispy skin. The Chinese sometimes refer to pork belly as ‘three layered meat’, but I think ‘three layered fat’ is more to the point. However, meat (and fat) this tasty shouldn’t be shied away from – just embrace the amazing flavoursomeness, the juicy, tender layers of white pork lovingly sandwiched between soft, melt-in-your-mouth fat, topped off with crunchingly fabulously fatty crackling… just don’t embrace for too long or too often. It’s definitely a sometimes food!

With Chinese New Year just around the corner, in honour of those gluttonous protein packed banquets and looking forward to many more, here’s my easy crispy skin roast pork belly recipe.

Crispy Skin Pork Belly

Serves: 6 people

Gluten free

Ingredients:

  • 750g pork belly (ask your butcher to score the skin for you)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese 5 spice powder

Sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Prep:

1 day before:

  • Scrape the bristles off the pork rind if there are any
  • Dry the pork rind with a kitchen towel
  • Rub the pork with the salt and spice
  • Leave uncovered overnight

Cooking:

  • Take out the pork an hour before cooking
  • Preheat oven to 240 degrees celsius
  • For the sauce, combine the ingredients and set aside
  • Place pork, skin side up on a rack in a roasting tin
  • Roast for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 200 degrees celsius
  • Cook for 40 – 45 minutes until crispy
  • Let the pork rest for at least 10 minutes and cut into pieces
  • Serve with the sauce, rice and vegies

Notes:

  • Yes, you do need to prep this up the day beforehand (I sometimes do it 2 days before) because you want to dry out the skin as much as you can – this helps with the crisping process. The advantage of doing the prep the day before is that all you have to do on the day is pop it into the oven.
  • Score the skin in widths that you would like to serve the pork in. This makes life easier because you can just slice along the score lines when you’re ready to serve.
  • The skin should crackle and bubble. During the cooking time, if the skin isn’t bubbling or blistering – take the pork out and brush the rendered fat sitting on the bottom of the tin onto the skin – this will help the crisping process.
  • The lemon in the hoisin sauce helps to cut through the fattiness of the pork.

Camping Glory

I am, at this very moment, basking in the glory of a victory.

Daddyken, for some weird primal reason, bought a tent a few years ago, presumably with the hope that I would eventually want to camp anytime soon. My requirements for a camping trip includes running water – both hot and cold for a shower and an actual flushing toilet – all within the confines of my own tent, decent cooking facilities, comfortable beds and not having to carry my own accommodation with me… requirements which funnily enough weren’t conducive to the type of camping trip he had in mind.

He and the Cherubs happily camped in the backyard for a few summers, while I communicated with them from within the comfortable confines of our house via a walkie-talkie. I thought it a most satisfactory state of affairs until I accidentally organised a day trip to Cockatoo Island in the middle of Sydney Harbour. Unfortunately it had camping facilities which I was impressed with, and then Daddyken played his For my birthday I would like to go camping card.

*#^%*%>!$^.

On Daddyken’s birthday, the day started out lovely – warm and sunny, with blue skies and serene fluffy white clouds above us. We drove 10 minutes to the ferry wharf, lugged our 4 sleeping bags, 1 camp chair, tent, snacks, dinner, 2 air mattresses, 1 mallet, air pump, clothes and other paraphernalia onto the ferry and in 5 minutes we were at Cockatoo Island. I know, I know – it’s not a bona-fide camping trip out in the bush where we’re communing and roughing it with nature – but that pull-along suitcase weighed a tonne ok?

We pitched our tent close to five women who had opted for the glamping option (tent, bed and chairs are already set up for you) and had just started a bottle of wine.

By the time we finished pitching our tent into the hard dry earth in the windy afternoon, the women were onto their second bottle of wine. At least.

The afternoon was idyllic. The Cherubs climbed down the rocks that surrounded the island and played in the water. We explored the island’s buildings which were mostly built by convicts, sandstone tunnels built during WWII, discarded ship yards (ships used to be built here for the war) and made seagulls furious by peering into their nests.

The evening sent the day-trippers home, and in the half-light of dusk, the island transformed into an amazing communal world where there were no fences to keep people from traipsing right across the front, back or side of your tent. Kids played handball and soccer in the open spaces, music wafted in from the wedding across the other side of the water, the women campers were still into the wine (we only ever saw them drinking by their tents, walking to the cafe to buy liquor or walking back from the cafe with liquor), kids scootered around, seagulls squawked, families cooked dinner on the BBQs, we ate our sushi (who wants to fuss with sausages when you can eat sushi purchased earlier that morning?), we admired the tents adorned with Christmas lights, toasted marshmallows in the bonfire and the Cherubs did not once ask to play on our phones.

And then night came.

A camper tripped over one of our pegs and confiscated it. With horrifying images of being executed in the dark of night by vengeful campers, I apologised profusely, retrieved our offending peg and hammered every peg in until they bent.   The change in temperature from day to night caused the Cherubs’ asthma to join the camp-out, so they coughed, wheezed and their noses ran.   For fear of being eaten alive by mozzies (and also execution by revenging campers) I zipped the tent up securely so we could slumber uncomfortably in an extremely small, hot and stuffy space not designed for unseasoned campers.    Memo to Seagulls: There is absolutely no need to SQUAWK all night. I get it that your rookery is close by and you’re trying to protect your chicks and eggs – but ALL night? Really? Don’t you need a rest so you can squawk even louder during the day since you’ve built your nests right next to the walkways of this island where at least a hundred people tramp through every day?    The volume of the dance music from across the water competed with the rhythmic coughs from the Cherubs.     Now I know why those 5 women drank all afternoon.     Did you know that not all campers sleep at a reasonable time and walk around discussing in high volume how the contract hasn’t been signed and so they won’t be able to go in extremely close proximity to the sound absorbing walls of your tent ?         We should have brought pillows because that would have helped Soccer Boy with his blocked nose and he wouldn’t have had a sore neck and woken me up each hour to reacquaint me with his woes.     For your information, Cockatoo Island is very well lit, so when you get up at 1 am to take your Cherubs to the toilet because they can’t sleep because it’s hot and stuffy and loud and they’ve got a runny nose and they’re not comfortable and you were just on that magical cusp of sleep – you won’t stumble around in the dark and trip over a tent peg (which should have been hammered into the ground properly in the first place).    The patter of rain on the roof of one’s own home is comforting, but the patter of rain on the tent roof IS NOT.    Also for your information, the first ferry of the day from Cockatoo Island back to your car which will take you back to your home where it’s quiet, you don’t have to rock on an air mattress with 2 wiggly boney kids, there’s pillows and no seagulls scream at you, DOES NOT start at 4 am. So when your Cherub tells you he wants to go home NOW, you can let him know that you’ve already made it very clear that even though you would also dearly love to get off this wonderful adventure that THEY all so excitedly embarked on – We. Can. Not.

And then morning arrived at 6:30 am courtesy of the violent rock of the air mattress as the Cherubs sat up and chatted like they slept like, well, angels all night.

Daddyken said Let’s never do this again.

I would have video taped that statement, but based on the night we had, I knew I didn’t even need to bat an eyelid. I couldn’t anyway, my eyes were so tired each time I blinked I ended up having a snooze.

We performed our toilette, ate breakfast, packed up and joined the throng of bleary eyed campers at the ferry wharf.

Happy Birthday.

Summer Tapioca Pudding

Ah summer. How I wished for your visit the minute winter reared it’s chilly head…

Summer. When the washing dries to a crisp after only 2 hours. When it’s already 25 degrees by the time we finish breakfast. When it’s all dim inside the house because we close the blinds and curtains to keep out the sneaky glare of the hot sun. When it’s even too hot to wear a singlet and shorts to bed.

When it’s MANGO season! Mangoes here in my cereal, mangoes there in little cubes in a bowl – mangoes everywhere in my smoothie!

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Summer brings a plethora of yummy tropical fruits – watermelon, lychees, cherries, strawberries and blueberries. And mangoes.

Ah mangoes, how I miss you when all I have during dreary winter is apples and oranges and pears.

But enough of dreariness! Winter is a distant 5 and a half months away, and summer is everywhere NOW! Let us revel in the fruits that summer has to bear…and make tapioca pudding topped with my favourite coloured tropical fruits – and that includes MANGO!

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What an amazing colour combination!

I chanced upon a tapioca pudding recipe in the newspaper a while ago and it brought back memories of my childhood when my mum used to make it for us. The childhood version I had didn’t have any tasty fruit on top, even though we always only seemed to have it in summer, and it was a lot runnier than how I make it. But I still remember it being yummy and sweet and full of summeriness!

My take on the pudding has a lot less sugar, but I still have to confess that it’s a pure carb-fest (tapioca is made from the starch of the cassava plant, a root vegetable)… but sometimes a carb-ie detour is just what one needs when one decides to indulge : )

Tapioca Pudding with Summer Fruits

Gluten free

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 2 tins of coconut milk
  • 500 ml of milk
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
  • 1/3 cup small tapioca pearls
  • Mango, watermelon and blueberries – or whatever fruit you like.

Let’s make pudding!

  • Mix all the ingredients except the fruit together in a pot and soak for about 20 minutes
  • Turn the heat onto a medium heat and bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes or until the pearls become soft and translucent

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  • Make sure you stir every few minutes, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot and move the pearls around otherwise the pearls will stick to the bottom and burn
  • Take the pot off the heat and let it cool and then chill in the fridge
  • Chop the larger fruit into little cubes so all the fruit are basically the same size
  • Spoon the tapioca into bowls and top them with the fruit
  • Garnish with a mint leaf if you’re so inclined!

Notes:

  • The pudding can also be eaten warm, in which case you can enjoy it during winter
  • The pudding will become gluggy after you’ve chilled it, but it’s still very yummy! If you don’t want to eat it warm but not keen on glugginess, you could add a little bit of water or more coconut milk to make it runnier.
  • Also, if you’re not keen on milk, just substitute the milk for water instead. This does mean that you’ll get a thinner consistency, but I think it’ll be just as good.

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Fund-Raiser Biscuits

The call’s out. It’s the annual Christmas-Twilight-Market-fund-raising event for the Cherub’s school.They’re asking for volunteers to help out at a food stall, sell tickets, set up or pack up.

This is probably going to get me into some trouble, but I never volunteer to do any of that. I don’t want to set up or pack up and I don’t want to stand for 2 hours cooking and serving dumplings (especially since at the last fund-raiser, they ran out of dumplings by the time I got to the front of the queue. I’m not bitter about it though).

I’m exhausted by the end of each day without having to do extra work as it is. I like to browse the stalls at my leisure, sit down when I want and eat when I want. Besides, they need people to give their funds, so they can actually raise funds right? But kudos and thank you to the amazing parents and teachers who do volunteer their time and energy, I absolutely admire their generosity : )

However, the beauty of fund-raisers is that there’s always a cake stall! And I’ll happily bake something that I would love to eat for the stall. In the last few years, I’ve baked things like oatmeal and raisin cookies, banana muffins, chocolate crackles… all sugar reduced, whole-meal flour and with 70% chocolate where applicable.

It’s not a competition, but why do I always only see the school kids running around with biscuits laden with sprinkles from an unnatural origin and cupcakes piled 3 cms high with garish coloured icing sugar. Bless my little Panda, she always dutifully buys one of my ‘natural’ looking creations and eats it quietly next to me.

Again, it’s not a competition, but this time round, I’m gonna join ’em (ok, so the Cherubs pleaded with me to make something yummy AND fun – but don’t I always??). This year, I’m going to try to make plain WHITE flour  butter cookies dipped in chocolate (Panda’s request) and HUNDREDS and THOUSANDS (Soccer Boy’s request)… Ok, I still reduced the sugar (but not to Sally standards, promise it’s just a small reduction) and the chocolate is a mix of milk and 50% dark chocolate. Did you know milk chocolate has 3 times more sugar than 70% dark chocolate?!?

And if I don’t see cute little kids with butter cookie, chocolate and hundreds and thousands smears on their faces at the markets, I have 2 kgs of icing sugar at home and I’m (sort of) not afraid to use it for the next fund-raiser.

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Butter biscuits dipped in chocolate and sprinkles

Makes: 50

Egg free

Ingredients:

  • 250g softened butter
  • 120g (3/4 cup) sifted icing sugar
  • 375g (2 1/2 cups) sifted plain flour
  • 200g chocolate of your choice
  • Sprinkles (OPTIONAL!!)

Let’s bake!

  • Beat butter and icing sugar  with electric mixer until light and fluffy
  • Stir the flour into the mix in two batches until just combined
  • Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth
  • Divide the dough in half and roll each half into a 25 cm log
  • Cover each log in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about one hour or until firm
  • Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius
  • Line a baking tray with baking paper
  • Cut the logs into 1 cm slices and place them 2.5 cm apart on the baking tray
  • Bake for about 10 mins
  • Let the biscuits cool on the trays
  • Boil water in a pot
  • Pour the sprinkles (if using) into a small bowl
  • Break the chocolate up into pieces and put into a metal heat proof bowl
  • Put the bowl on top of the pot, making sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water
  • Mix the chocolate occasionally until the chocolate has melted
  • Dip the biscuits into the chocolate
  • Dip the biscuits into the sprinkles bowl
  • Leave to set on a tray lined with baking paper or if it’s a warm day, just pop it into the fridge to set.

Notes:

  • When you’re creaming the butter and sugar, you can add the grated rind of a lemon or lime, vanilla essence or any essence you prefer. You can also add nuts to the biscuits before you bake them. I just made plain biscuits this time because the Cherubs asked me not to try anything fancy : (
  • In case you’re wondering – I didn’t buy the 2 kg of icing sugar. My sister A’s neighbour had a lot of it and gave it to AA doesn’t use icing sugar, so she gave it all to me : )

 

My foodie friend, the freezer.

As much as I would love to make totally amazing, fresh and inspired meals from scratch every night of the week with a wide smile and sparkle in my eye… when I’ve been out all day, just had a hard week, or my day involves the Cherubs trying to maim each other because he/she is staring at me well only because she/he said I was a bum but it’s because he/she said I was a custard… I just prefer to hide in my favourite corner of the family room with my mug of ginger tea, some nuts and the Food Channel.

But when the darlings eventually hunt me down for some sustenance because they couldn’t find custard anywhere, even with half an hour to go until dinner, I still feel the need to feed on something with reasonably complex flavours. And bread with peanut butter doesn’t come anywhere near complex. Ever.

And that’s where my large upright freezer with the 3 drawers and 3 shelves rescues me from my distress.

I freeze raw, marinated and cooked food, so in the afternoon, morning (or the night before if I’m unusually organised) I just take out a protein/pre-cooked meal of choice to defrost and I’m ready to cook or reheat at the end of the day. Perfect for those times when someone gets hurt because he/she said there’s a chicken on my head.

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So here’s a rundown of what’s in my freezer-for-those-rainy-days.

  1. Frozen meat

Portions of meat are handy when I haven’t had the chance or energy to go to the shops. Just defrost, marinate (or not) and cook.

Lamb cutlets or steak are a great standby because they don’t take too long to defrost.

2. Frozen meals

If I’m already crushing the garlic or mincing onions for 4 people, it won’t take that much extra time to crush or mince and cook for more. So when I make teriyaki chicken (a firm favourite with the Cherubs) or pretty much any dish, I cook 2 kgs of it, put the excess into large glass containers, let them cool down and then freeze.

If you’re more organized than I am, label the containers so you know what’s in them. Otherwise, I’ve never had too much trouble identifying what’s in the containers and I’m also pretty flexible. If I’ve taken out spaghetti bolognaise and it turns out to be burrito mince, I just pack the pasta and parmesan away in the fridge for another day, pull out the tortillas and grate some colby cheese. No sweat.

The meals I find perfect for freezing, especially because they taste better the day or week later are: butter chicken, burrito mince, spag bol and soups.

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3. Marinated meat

I get fresh meat, marinate it and pop into the freezer. This is for the meals which once cooked, I don’t think really stands up to freezing and reheating. Or when I’ve got a rare burst of energy, I just get some meat and marinate it. I then just have to cook it when I need it.

The meals I marinate and freeze are: honey soy chicken mid-wings, lemon garlic chicken mid-wings and lemon grass pork or beef.

4. Frozen veges and herbs

I always keep a pack each of frozen peas and corn. They’re yummy, healthy and cook in a flash. Sometimes if I’ve forgotten to cook rice, or we’ve just got enough left over rice for 3 people, Panda will happily have peas and corn as a substitute. Also in there is ginger, galangal and lemongrass, so I have access to them when they’re not in season.

I admit I’ve got a whole freezer to play with, but that’s only been a recent occurrence. Previously I had a normal fridge with a little freezer section. I’ve never played tetris, but Daddyken thinks I’d be amazing at it considering how I was able to pack a few week’s worth of frozen meals into that little freezer. But back then I also just made less ‘extra’ portions for freezing.

So while I’ll never be able to manage a wide smile or sparkle every night of the week, or ever, at least someone’s got a chicken on your head doing a poo, employees at American restaurants are still being caught doing every dodgy thing they’ve ever done exactly on the one night that the surveillance cameras are on, care of Food Network’s Mystery Diners, and I still get to eat food I love.

Beef Noodles With Gravy

When we’re on our way back home from a holiday, whether it’s been 2 nights or a week, I invariably say I want something wet when the subject of dinner pops up. Something soupy or something sauce-ie. Something noodlie.

No matter how fantastic the holiday was – whether we’ve been dining fine or fast, I always want something wet upon my return. It’s like the wonderfully comforting feeling of sleeping in your own bed again. It’s like a welcome home hug… for my taste buds.

This dish is similar to something I would order after a trip away – with the inevitable pain of holiday unpacking and washing to do, you didn’t think I’d say ‘cook’ would you?! It’s crammed full of flavour, slippery chewy noodles, tender, juicy beef and vegetables to help that holiday digestion.

The Cherubs are picky with the type of vegetables they eat, so I just put everything in separate bowls on the table and they just pick what they want and put it together themselves. It also means I don’t have to get the timing right with when to add the vegetables and beef together, so I won’t have a mix of over and under cooked food. Less stress, more happy. But most importantly of all – that gravy’s wet. Home Sweet Home!

Beef Noodles With Gravy

Ingredients

  • 250g noodles of your choice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 350g rump steak, sliced thinly
  • 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 garlic clove finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon cornflour
  • 1 bunch bok choy (or green vegetable of your choice)
  • 1/2 bag bean sprouts
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Fried shallots (you can get these from any Chinese grocery store or fry your own), coriander and lemon, to serve
Sauce
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
  • 1 spring onion finely chopped
  • 400ml chicken stock
  • 3 tablespoons oyster sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
  • 1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cornflour

Let’s cook!

1. Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions

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2. Drain the noodles and mix in 1 teaspoon of the sesame oil, transfer to a bowl

3. Combine the beef, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, garlic cornflour and the remaining sesame oil and mix. Marinate in the fridge for an hour.

4. Blanch the vegetables in a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds, drain well and transfer to a bowl.

5. Heat a wok or deep fry pan over high heat and add the oil (make sure the oil is very hot).

6. Drain the beef and stir-fry in 2 batches for 1 minute or until it changes colour. Remove the beef into a bowl.

7. For the gravy: In the same pan, stir-fry the ginger and spring onion until fragrant.

8. Add the rest of the sauce ingredients (except the corn flour) and bring to the boil.

9. Combine the cornflour with some water to make a paste, add to the sauce and simmer until thickened.

10. Add the beef back into the wok or pan and toss quickly to coat with the gravy. Transfer to a bowl.

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To serve

Put the bowls of noodles, blanched vegetables, beef and gravy, fried onions, coriander and lemon at the table. Let everyone serve themselves with what they want. The usual process is to put the noodles at the bottom, then the vegetables, beef and sauce, fried shallots, coriander and a squeeze of lemon. Mix and enjoy!

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Bo Luc Lac (Shaking Beef)

It’s always good to have a few recipes where you’re guaranteed a favourable reception when you take the plate to the table. No one wants to bring a dish out after all that effort in the kitchen just to get heart-felt exclamations of Oh not this! or I don’t want to eat it. I want a cheese sandwich or worse still – stoned silence.

Soccer Boy isn’t too keen on eating meat, but will always ask for seconds when I serve bo luc lac. It’s a Vietnamese dish and translates to ‘shaking beef’ – not because the beef’s scared of being eaten, the crazy amount of garlic will make anyone scared of opening their mouths again, or the eaters are scared to actually eat it, but because you’re supposed to shake the wok to sear the sides of the beef.

For some reason, the transition from cold Winter to warm Spring weather always reminds me to make this dish. And the beauty of bo luc lac? The combination of the fish sauce and garlic is an amazingly strong flavour combination, resulting in a very yummy and moreish meal. Yay! We’re having ‘look luck’ for dinner! It’s fresh and light. It’s quick to prepare and cook. Bring it on!

Vietnamese Shaking Beef

Serves 4

Gluten Free

Ingredients

  • 400g beef sirloin or rump cut into 2cm cubes
  • 6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • ¾ tablespoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Lemon wedges and coriander, to serve

Let’s get shaking!

  • Combine all the ingredients (except lemon and coriander) and coat the beef well with the marinade. Let it stand for at least 1/2 an hour, or in the fridge for about 2 hours.
  • Preheat a wok over high heat and add 2 tablespoons oil to coat the pan
  • When the oil is hot, add the beef in a single layer (there should be a sizzling sound – if there isn’t, take the meat out and wait a little longer). Don’t move the beef around – let it sear for about 1 minute
  • Grab the wok by the handle and give it a quick shake to flip the meat to sear the other side for another minute
  • Shake the wok again and check to see that the sides of the beef are seared and even a little charred and the meat is medium rare – this should only take another 3 minutes.
  • Take the beef out and serve with the lemon wedges, coriander, fresh vegies and rice.

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Notes:

  • I always cook 2 kgs of this dish (!) and so prefer to cook on the bbq because I can do a large amount at once on the hotplate, with the heat at super high to get that spectacular char on the meat that I think is an absolute must for this dish.
  • My mum sometimes forgoes the rice and just wraps the beef in a piece of lettuce with a squeeze of lemon and coriander. Yummy!