Beginner’s Tuna

Why can’t Auntie Sally just cook authentic Chinese dishes? My 17 year-old nephew J asked my sister A last year. She always makes weird fusion food.

Because she never learnt to cooked when she was younger.

I was always the prep cook. My mum or my sister A, who was 2 years older than me, did all the cooking. I chopped up vegetables, took out the sauces, and I distinctly remember once stirring the stir fry because A needed to blow her nose. When A and I moved out together for uni, I learnt how to steam broccoli using a steamer while waiting for her to get back from her lectures, so she could cook dinner.

Even being sent to Italy or interstate for work for a few months didn’t prompt me to actually learn how to cook and expand my repertoire of simple dishes like heating up canned tuna or frying a steak and eating it with rice or pasta.

Still with my prep cook credentials intact at the age of 26, I moved out with a friend and spent the first few months driving home on the weekends to pick up frozen containers of meals from my mum. This system worked really well for everyone involved, because mum cooked for 10 whether there were 2 or 8 people coming for dinner.

I only started cooking when, for various reasons, I wasn’t able to go home to pick up the meals and then became tired of takeaway. I now find that being able to combine a few ingredients together to create a tasty dish is one of life’s true pleasures!

My first ever fully-fledged dish was a minuscule step up from my away-from-home tuna days. It was pretty much just warmed up flavoured tuna, a bottle of pasta sauce, maybe some zucchini, and if I was feeling extra fancy, a scrambled egg underneath, served with rice or pasta. That original dish has morphed into this tuna pasta recipe, which, oddly enough, is one of my nephew’s favourite dishes!

Tuna Pasta

Serves 4

  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic gloves crushed
  • 1 can 375g tuna in olive oil
  • 1 can tomatoes
  • 140g tomato paste
  • 100g mushroom, finely chopped
  • 200g zucchini, finely chopped
  • Pasta (whatever you like)

Let’s cook!

  • Cook pasta according to directions
  • Pour the oil from the can of tuna into a hot pan and cook the onion and garlic until fragrant
  • Add the tuna and break the tuna up. Cook until you can see some of the tuna has browned
  • Add the mushrooms and zucchini and cook for 5 minutes
  • Add the canned tomato and tomato paste
  • Cook on low heat for about 30 minutes (the sauce should just be gently bubbling)
  • Season to taste and serve garnished with parsley

Notes

  • Feel free to increase/decrease the quantities of the vegetables and even the tuna to whatever suits you. I usually cook this by feel (and my mood!) – it’s a very forgiving dish, so if you don’t like mushroom, just omit, or add carrots!
  • As the canned tuna is already cooked, you don’t have to simmer it for 30 minutes if you’re in a rush. I do it when I can because I think it gives the dish more depth of flavour.
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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.

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 : )

 

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!

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.

Creamy Mushroom Soup

If my high school Economics teacher remembers me at all, I think he’d be proud that I’m consciously putting some economics theory into practice. Namely FIFO, or the practice of First-In-First-Out.

I’m trying to get into the habit of clearing out the fridge once a week, and I’m instigating a FIFE program. Or the practice of First-In-First-Eat – the older stuff to be eaten first before we buy fresh ones. It’s a bit of scary task because sometimes I really don’t want to know what mouldy/slimey/shriveled vegetable or fruit is lurking in the back of my fridge. Because if – ok, when I do find something, I feel bad having to throw it out (even if it does go to our pet worms), or worse, trying to find something useful to do with it. Like cooking it.

I knew my program wasn’t working too well when Daddyken came home from the shops with a lovely bag of plump, white button mushrooms (which I put on the shopping list). And I’d just found a bag of half shriveled brown ones (they used to be plump and white) crammed in the back corner of the fridge from 2 weeks ago.

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But you know sometimes when things just align and come together right before your eyes when you least expect it? Well, today was one of my alignment days. Daddyken asked me what I wanted to do with the 2 leeks that a neighbour had given him a few days before, at the precise moment that I found half a bottle of cream that was nearing its use-by date. Mushrooms. Leeks. Cream. Just like that Ebony and Ivory song, but with mushrooms, leeks and cream.

This is a mushroom soup recipe based on one that Daddyken’s aunt gave me a few years ago, but I never got around to making it because I’ve never accidentally had mushrooms, leeks and cream in the one place, at the same time, begging to be used. And I’m cooking another yummy non-protein meal. Destiny was never so obvious as today.

Creamy Mushroom Soup

Gluten free

Serves 3 – 4

Ingredients

  • 60 g butter
  • 1 – 2 leeks, white part only, chopped
  • 250 g mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons chopped chives
  • 3 – 4 slices sourdough bread (optional)

Let’s Cook!

  • Melt butter in a pot on medium-high heat
  • Add leeks and cook until soft
  • Add mushrooms, chicken stock, wine and Dijon mustard
  • Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes
  • Add cream and take off the heat
  • Puree with a stick blender
  • Stir in chives and serve with sourdough bread

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Notes:

  • I used 2 leeks because the ones we had were half the size of the regular ones I buy from the shops, and I also needed to use them up : )