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.

Approximations of the Nachos kind

I’ve mentioned the bountifulness of my pantry in a previous post, but what I didn’t mention was that its bountifulness means that I usually forget what’s in it. Sometimes I come home from the shops with 5 packets of pasta, only to find the pantry overflowing with their identical carb-loaded buddies. And then when I think I’ve got something in there, I actually don’t.

I used to flavour my beef for nachos and burritos with little sachets of Mexican seasonings purchased from the supermarket. Of course, one day when I started to cook nachos for dinner, my pantry yielded not even one little yellow packet.

Now Daddyken wasn’t home at the time, so it would have meant I either had to bribe the Cherubs with some lurid-coloured, sugar-infested sweet, or endure the wrath that is the Cherubs being dragged from whatever life-changing thing they were doing, into the car, in order to go to the shops just to buy a $2 sachet of ingredients that was probably more than 50% not natural.

So I rallied up my spices and winged it… and my family didn’t even flinch. Now the reason wasn’t because of my amazing culinary ability to reproduce authentic recipes based on the ingredients in seasoning packets, but because they’re used to me changing recipes on them. And unfortunately, they’ve never been to an actual Mexican restaurant… We have Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian and Italian restaurants in the suburbs, but Mexican restaurants aren’t common – they’ve only really started to pop up in the city in the last few years.

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I’ve also found out recently that nachos isn’t actually an authentic Mexican dish. It’s Tex-Mex! Reminds me of when I tasted ‘Beef in black bean sauce’ for the first time in a Chinese take-away when I was a teenager. I couldn’t believe I was Chinese and had never come across the dish before! (there’s a reason why of course – it doesn’t actually exist in the dark, salty, gooey-sauce form that’s offered in take-aways). I have also never ordered it since.

Luckily Daddyken loves my approximation of Tex-Mex Nachos. It’s easy to make and the accompaniments make it light and fresh. And I hope that when we do eventually make it to a Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant, they won’t be too startled with the difference in taste!

My Tex-Mex Nachos

Serves 4

Gluten free (if using corn chips)

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 red capsicum, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 500g minced beef
  • Small bunch of coriander (plus extra for serving)

To serve:

  • Avocado, tomato, lettuce, chopped
  • Coriander
  • Grated cheese
  • Sour cream
  • Lime
  • Corn chips or tortillas (cut into wedges and toasted in oven)

Cook:

  • Heat olive oil on a medium-high heat and add the onions
  • Cook for 3 minutes and add the capsicum
  • When the onion and capsicum is soft, add the spices and tomato paste, and cook for 2 minutes
  • Turn the heat up to high, add the mince and cook until the mince is cooked through
  • Turn the heat to low and simmer for half an hour
  • Add the coriander and simmer for another 10 minutes

To serve, spoon the meat mixture onto a bowl of corn chips or tortillas, add a spoonful of each of the veges, cheese, sour cream, coriander and a squeeze of lime.

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Notes:

  • The general method is to put the cheese with the meat under the grill for a yummy melted cheese sensation. We don’t – just because we think it’s yummy as it is and it’s also too much effort!
  • Daddyken likes to add store-bought tomato salsa to his nachos, but I think it’s fine without.
  • Eat without the corn chips or tortillas and you’ve got yourself a yummy, filling carb-free meal!

What’s in Honey Soy Chicken Wings?

I’ve espoused the virtues of chicken wings before in a previous chicken wing recipe, but I’m surprised it wasn’t for this honey soy recipe (probably because I’ve made it so many times I’m on auto-pilot and forget that I’m actually making them).

The actual name of the dish is pretty misleading. If you just mixed honey and soy with chicken wings, it’ll taste pretty flat. It should actually be called Garlic, ginger, honey and soy chicken wings, because it’s really the garlic and ginger that gives it that delicious kick. When I first found the recipe, I scoffed because I really did just want to mix honey, soy and wings together. Who wants to fuss with garlic and ginger? Well, you need to if you want something yummy.

If the Cherubs have a friend over for dinner for the first time, there’s a fair chance they’ll ask for honey soy chicken wings to be served. It’s almost an initiation ritual – if you like these wings as much as I do, then you’re ok and we can definitely be friends. Thus far, luckily for the Cherubs, the wings have received a resounding thumbs up from everyone. And I usually then get a text from their friend’s mum asking for the recipe. So here it is!

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Honey Soy Chicken Wings

Serves: 6 people

 Ingredients:

  • 2 kg chicken mid-wings
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 6 garlic cloves, finely grated
  • 2 tablespoons ginger, finely grated

Cook:

  • Preheat oven to 180 degrees
  • Line 2 baking trays with baking paper
  • Mix honey, soy sauce, garlic and ginger in a large bowl until combined
  • Add the chicken mid-wings and mix well
  • Arrange the mid-wings in a single layer on the baking trays
  • Bake for 20 minutes, then turn mid-wings and bake for another 20 minutes or until the chicken is nicely browned.
  • Serve with rice and steamed vegetables or salad.

Notes:

  • Mid-wings are the wing bits of choice in our family, but if you’re keen on meatier parts, go for the drummettes.

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.

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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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!

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 : )