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!

Message Of A Thousand Thoughts

A friend of mine sent the following message:

“Come over for lunch one day before we move back, the renos are almost finished. We can have a swim and eat at the Country Club so I can get the most value out of this mind-numbingly exorbitant rent I’ve been paying these last few months.

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After you wrangle the kids to finish their breakfast, threaten to cut their screen time if they don’t stop fighting and raise your blood pressure trying to get them to school on time, meet me at my apartment after school drop off. It shouldn’t take you long since you won’t have the kids whining at you or fighting each other because someone took their red Lego piece which they absolutely need right NOW and no other red Lego piece will do, while you pack their drinks, snacks, swimmers and towels. You’ll just have to get your own stuff. You’ll just have one little bag. Remember those days?

But wait! There’s more! We’ll get to swim BY OURSELVES. Remember how that feels? No? I didn’t think so. Let me remind you – you get into your swimmers and then get into the water! Get it? You won’t have to wrestle with the kids while you pull their rashies over their heads as they protest that it’s too tight. You won’t have to bribe them to go to the toilet beforehand and then risk a melt-down as you stretch their goggles onto their heads and readjust for 20 mins until the goggles are just right. You won’t have to think about all that for one day. Imagine that!

It’s lovely to see the kids having fun, but this time you won’t have to stand in the water shivering while the kids jump and splash at you. You won’t have to piggy back them around the pool. You won’t have to have a heart attack if they go under water and not surface after 2 seconds. No readjusting their goggles because it’s too tight or the water’s going into them or it’s gone foggy.

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We can just swim how we want, when we want and for as long as we want. Breaststroke, freestyle or no style, it doesn’t matter. No interruptions! Except of course when we feel hungry. Not when they’re hungry and need a snack and it won’t be the snack you’ve packed and then – well, there won’t be ‘and then’ because that won’t happen on this day. Then let’s have a hot shower. Straight away. No shivering as we rinse the kids. No fights to dry and clothe them. No wet feet, no wet hair to dry. No Mum, why are you taking so long in the shower? I want to go. Hurry up I’m bored.

Oohh, the menu will be fantastic. We can order ANYTHING we want. It can be spicy, it’ll be non-kid friendly, it can be ANYTHING. Duck and fig salad. NZ snapper with mussel cream sauce. Confit duck with creamy potato mash. We won’t have to share. Any of it. What’s more, we can eat when the food’s still hot. No cutting up their food, no picking out green bits and no scraping sauce off. We don’t have to order chips. Unless we want to. And we won’t have to pay crazy money just so the kids can order deep fried chicken nuggets out of a packet straight from the freezer to you for $15.

Ahhh. Can things get any better? How about dessert? Not just vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. How about a lemon curd tart? Coconut and passionfruit slice? A macaron? Maybe even a flourless orange cake. With cream. All for ourselves with a quiet cup of tea. No Mum, I’m bored. I want to go home. Can we go home now? We won’t have to leave until we want to. Well, until it’s time for school pick up.”

Ok, the actual message read:

“Come over for lunch one day before we move back – the renos are almost finished.”

But I think the person who said “A picture says a thousand words” was limiting themselves to only one side of life.

Top 8 Tips for a Happy Garden

I love the visual boost to the senses that plants give me. I love their different shapes, astounding array of colours, the smell of (some of) them and their captivating flowers. I also love their versatility and resilience – it’s amazing how they can grow in a crack in the footpath and even sideways off a rock. And their seeds do amazing things – some stick to animal fur (or your socks) or are light enough to be blown by the wind and hence catch a free ride to distant suburbs or the next street to set up home in new place.

Plants are reassuring – there’s life and it’s continuing!

Our backyard is rimmed with lovely greenery of different shapes and sizes, with no big thanks to me. Daddyken loves nothing more than planting, watering and tending to the plant’s needs, which works really well for us.

He doesn’t even mind touching worms and grubs, and he’s kindly passed that endearing trait on to the Cherubs. In theory I don’t have a problem with this, as long as they wash their hands twice with soap immediately after. However, my little darling Cherubs like to share every one of their grub findings with me. Look what I’ve got mum! A baby caterpillar! Look at the long fat worm! This grub is blue and white!

But after a few episodes of Er, maybe we’ll move that worm away from the pot of spaghetti Or Ohh that’s great! … but best take that lizard away from the frypan in case… Or Ah! AHHHH! Take it away! Take it away! AHHHHH! we now have an unspoken understanding that they will call from the back door and wait for me to come to them.

Our vegie patch is a thin strip of land along the side of our fence where it basks in the northern sun all year round. We won’t ever  be able to live off our little patch of land, but it does supply us with seasonal vegies like spinach, bok choy, beans, snow peas, lettuce, beetroot, coriander and parsley, along with the year round rosemary and chives.

We don’t use chemicals on the plants, so it’s a bit of extra work for Daddyken to look after them. And it’s not fool proof, but we’re happy with being able to harvest without worrying about pesticide residue and not too fussed about a few pre-eaten leaves. We’ve only had this vegie patch for a few years, but we’ve learnt a few things along the way which helps make life a little easier for us, the plants and the insects.

This is our (yes, I’m involved, albeit indirectly!) list of the Top 8 things we do to help our garden grow and thrive:

1. Keep eggshells: We crumble them up and scatter in the garden bed because slugs and snails don’t like the sharp edges of the egg shells. If you can, leave the eggs to dry in a bowl for a day or two first – it makes it easier to crumble up and won’t stick to your hand.

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2. Sow seeds at different times: Daddyken staggers his seed sowing so we can harvest the crop throughout the season. That way, we avoid getting a glut of them for a week and then nothing for the rest of the time.

3. Mix it up: Daddyken sows his seeds in random places and plants a variety of vegies. This helps to confuse the bugs if there’s an assortment of leaves, sizes and colours. Orderly rows of the same plant would help the bugs to remember where our juicy sweet peas are and it’ll be party season for them night after night.

4. Let the plants go to flower and seed: Firstly, we’re helping the bees with their pollen collection and it looks pretty. Secondly, we let the flowers go to seed so we don’t need to sow the following year – the seeds will just germinate when the weather’s right. We always get lots of tomato seedlings each spring without doing anything at all.

5. Keep a few weeds in winter: Leave them to grow and flower because sometimes it’s all the bees have access to in the colder months, and bees aren’t too fussy about whose pollen it is.

6. Keep pruned bits: after Daddyken prunes our hedge or other large plants, he cuts them up and uses them as mulch in the garden.

7.  Grow bottoms! When I buy coriander, leeks or chives, they come with their roots, which I cut off and Daddyken puts them into the dirt. More often than not, they’ll grow from those roots and we get free plants. If they don’t, they’ll just rot and feed the soil. If I have to buy basil or other herbs, I’m never able to use the whole bunch, which I then forget about and find them black and slimy in the fridge a few weeks later. I now put the left overs into water and leave them in a sunny spot. They’ll then usually grow roots for Daddyken to plant in the garden.

8. Worm farm: we have an agreement with our worms – we give them our food scraps and they give us worm juice (aka worm wee), which is a fantastic fertilizer for our plants – it does have a slightly fishy smell, but luckily it doesn’t linger. We also have less rubbish in the bin as a result.

At the moment, we have bees buzzing, spinach thriving, coriander everywhere, beans pushing their shoots out and the occasional grub which adores our bok choy (but everyone has to eat don’t they?). We also have cute little lizards sunning themselves on the low brick wall ready for the Cherubs to catch. Eeek.

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Thanks to S from down the road and Cousin M for introducing Daddyken to gardening based on the Permaculture model (Permanent Agriculture and Permanent Culture). The intention of this type of gardening is for sustainability and self-sufficiency.

Poh’s Prawn & Yuba Beads

There are many, many dishes I would so love to cook, but if I find any one of my three recipe deal breakers in it, then I’m out.

And my 3 recipe deal breakers are:

  1. Too many ingredients are involved

If the ingredient list runs over a page, it’s just not going to happen, because at the end of the day, I really, really just want to eat.

2. Ingredients are too hard to get

Wakame, wakame, why-fore aren’t thou at the local Chinese grocery store? I don’t want to be tripping across town to source anything. I just want to eat.

3. Twice cooked anything

If I have to cook something two times before I can eat it (hello crispy skin chicken), I move on. Who has the time and desire to wash an extra pot?

I saw this recipe in a DVD episode of Poh’s Kitchen. It actually contains deal breaker number 3, but I didn’t know this when I decided to make it. I only saw the beginning of the segment when she introduced all the ingredients and then the end when she deep fried the beads. Ooohhh, I’d eat that. I’m going to make it!

I was making ginger tea during the actual making and cooking part. Some people would say that it’s quite an important part to watch when learning how to make a dish. I say I was in need of some tea at that precise time and forgot, or didn’t even think to pause or replay the segment.

I did print out the recipe afterwards. But by the time I realized you had to steam AND deep fry, Daddyken had already invested some time into getting me the ingredients and mum had already washed and peeled 2 small bags of chestnuts they had harvested from their garden, especially for the dish.

But as it turns out, I’d happily eat it and make it again. It was crunchy on the outside and the combination of the pork and prawns is a favourite pairing of mine, of which you’ll find in many Chinese dishes. It also reminds me of some of the dumplings you’d get at Yum Cha.

I also score two bonuses with this dish:

  1. It’s gluten free because it uses bean curd skin so Daddyken can eat it
  2. There’s no carb in bean curd skin, which means I can have a guilt free pig out!!

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And despite the double cooking, it was surprisingly really easy to do.

Poh’s Prawn and Yuba Beads

Ingredients

  • 500g fresh prawns, shelled and chopped (so there is still a bit of texture)
  • 250g pork mince
  • 1 ½ tsp corn flour
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 ½ tsp white pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 5 large shiitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water squeezed and chopped finely
  • 1 tbs shaoxing rice wine (chinese cooking wine)
  • 150g water chestnuts, julienned
  • 250g Chinese soft bean curd skins (Not the pale yellow brittle sort. This one is a golden colour and translucent and should be very flexible in the packaging)
  • Lemon wedges to serve

Cooking:

  1. Mix all ingredients except for bean curd and lemon wedges. Work mixture with hand till it is very sticky and opaque.
  2. Lay out the bean curd skin and smooth out the folds and wrinkles. Cut off the rounded part of the skin to make it into a rectangle and easier to roll (see notes below on what you can do with the left over bean curd skin).
  3. Spoon the prawn and pork mixture onto the skin in a long thin line so that when you roll it over it is about the thickness of a regular sausage. Leave a 3cm space from the left edge and six centimetres at the other end. Ensure you tuck the mixture right in, under the bean curd skin so there is not a big cavity as this will cause the skin to split easily. Roll about four rotations.

4. Now with kitchen string, start by tying and knotting from left to right, making small balls along the sausage, so it resembles a chain of beads. You should be able to fit seven to eight per chain (or you can make larger ones like the ones I’ve made). Repeat process till all filling is used.

6. Place the chains in a dish or bamboo steamer (they can lay close to one another) and steam for ten minutes. Cut at the tied intervals and remove string.

7. In a wok heat oil to medium and deep fry the beads till they are golden. Drain on paper towelling.

8. Serve with lemon wedges and rice

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Note:

  • Recipe rewritten from Poh’s Kitchen, with my own small additions. I love watching Poh’s cooking shows not only because she cooks the type of Asian food that I love to eat, she doesn’t take herself too seriously and her warmth and energy is really infectious.
  • ‘Yuba’ means tofu or bean curd skin, and is made from the skin that forms when you boil soy milk (just like the skin that forms when you boil milk).
  • Poh actually recommends eating these beads with chilli oil, but since the arrival of the Cherubs, we’re not used to eating spicy foods anymore, so we opted out.
  • You can make Chinese ‘mock duck’ with the left over cuts of the bean curd:
    • Wet the bean curd skin and place in a square baking tin
    • Brush a little bit of soy sauce, Chinese five spice powder, sesame oil and hoisin sauce on top, and put another layer on top
    • Repeat with the spices and oil with each layer
    • Steam for 10 mins
    • Bake, covered in the oven for another 10 mins.
    • Cut into pieces and eat with rice.

Spring Feelings

Before I had kids I don’t think I ever appreciated the seasons – I never really sat down to appreciate the changes that they brought. Granted, Sydney’s seasons aren’t as dramatic as, say Canada, but we do have subtle changes. And thanks to the Cherubs, I’ve been forced to slow down and watch the seasons transition while I sit on the grass as they play at the park or while they take their time to decide if they’ll get changed now or in 2 hours or never.

Summer in Sydney is dry and hot. And when it’s humid, your energy’s zapped even before you wake up from an uncomfortably hot night where not even the fan can make a difference. But it does mean the beach, bbqs, slathers of sunscreen, your washing drying to a crisp in less than 3 hours on the clothes line (the smell of sun dried washing is spectacular!), ice-cream (especially hazelnut and pistachio) and ice cold home-made lemonade. Spring rolls with vermicelli salad, mangoes, rice paper rolls, lychees and fish and chips on the sand with the sea gulls eyeing your catch.

Autumn’s allure is when the deciduous trees drop their beautiful yellow, red, orange and brown forms all over the footpath. They’re soft underfoot, and then go crispy after a few weeks, and there’s a wonderfully satisfying crunchy-crunch-crunchy-crunch as the Cherubs walk and jump on them.

It’s a nice change from the draining heat of summer, a time when your skin gets a bit of a reprieve from the glare of the sun. This lovely mild weather is soothing and comfortable, but I can’t fully enjoy it because I know that the colder season is due. However, there are spaghetti and meat balls to be had, Mexican burritos, lemon grass pork with carrot and radish pickles and home-made pizza.

I love how the wattle tree blooms in winter, and how the late afternoon sun shines through the window in our back room and I can snatch a quick snooze in its rays before the Cherubs discover, yet again, my hidey spot. But I dislike the winter season because that’s when we all inevitably get sick.

It’s hard enough looking after yourself when you’re coughing and sneezing and your body aches all over, but try that with kids in the mix. In my youth, I would have just laid on the lounge and watched awful daytime TV, but now there’s no real down time even if you feel crappy, your head hurts and your nose is like a leaking tap.

Also, my ability to weather any chill factor has declined with the passing of each winter. So (now that we’re safely out of the winter season) I confess to wearing THERMAL UNDERWEAR in winter. And my goodness did I LOVE it. Because I was WARM and I was SMILING (I hasten to add though, that I didn’t buy them -my mum gave them to me and I took them because I didn’t want to offend her). Maybe it’s because they’re a size too big for me, but my only gripe is the cut of them. Not much thought has gone into how they could flatter the shape of the body. Both (okay, I’ve got 2 pairs) the pants go way up above my belly button. Sexy is not the word.

But yummy is most definitely the word for the comfort foods of this season. Duck noodle soup, Chinese roast pork with crackling, lamb shanks with lentils and tomato, roast lamb and massaman beef curry.

My all-time favourite season is Spring. It hails the end of the need to wear (ahem) layers of clothes. It hails the end of the colds and flu, chilly nights and freezy toes. It brings with it the promise of any type of food because it’s Spring – tis the season for anything! And the other most bestest thing of all? The amazing spring flowers that I never noticed until my Cherubs came.