Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Indonesia in Amsterdam

For years, my daughter had wanted to visit Amsterdam. We were cautioned by friends that parts of the city - particularly Dam Square - might be too seedy for innocent children.  But hey, who were they kidding considering where we live?  The women in the windows surely piqued our fascination and wonderment with "Why?".  But as a thirteen year old peering into the unfortunate life and living conditions of Anne Frank - who herself wrote her published journal on the cusp of teenhood - it felt like the right time for us to visit Amsterdam.

For me, Amsterdam came with the added fulfillment of tasting the Indonesian food that many claim is better if not just as good as that found in the archipelago.  Alas, we missed our flight and had to compress our itinerary.  But save for missing out on the oldest Indonesian restaurant called Sama Sebo, our remaining two days centered around nothing but Indonesian food and not much of a bite of anything Dutch.

We tried Restaurant Blauw which was slightly out of the city center and nestled in a well-to-do (or so the driver told us) neighborhood.   Think a quieter Notting Hill.  The place was packed and even though we had a reservation and were on time, we had to wait a full 90 minutes.  As a tourist, I wanted to soak in the atmosphere with a Heineken but was suggested a Bintang beer.  The Dutch waitress explained that Bintang began in Indonesia with technology from Heineken.  

We were greeted with a mini fete when the plethora of bowls arrived.  So this was rijsttafel.  Proudly, I explained to my kids that the Chinese New Year tok panjang originated from the concept of rijsttafel. The food was worth the wait.  Maybe we were hungry, not just then but after a long time of not having had good, spicy Asian food - the food of my childhood laced with the spices I grew up with.  This was not garam masala, bird's eye chili or kaffir leaves but the candlenuts, coriander, star anise, cumin, lengkuaskunyitassam and lemongrass, and long red chilis of my youth.  And it felt and tasted good.  When the Indonesian waitress came over with a complimentary bowl of keropok fish crackers, my kids' eyes lit up.  Yes, these were the crunchy munchies we would stock up when we went to Singapore to visit Kong Kong.  And the ones I would lug back from Asia Mart if I shopped in Chinatown.

The next day, I wanted to try a fusion sample of how the Dutch would incorporate Indonesian cuisine into their local diet.  Hence, I ordered the Indonesian pancake filled with "chicken, onions, mushrooms and leek in an Indonesian peanut sauce, served on a bed of bean sprouts with crispy onions, prawn crackers and a green salad" at the Pancake Bakery.  I was not disappointed by the substantial meal, made all the more delicious with an accompanying beer.  (It was our second consecutive day there, not too far off from the Anne Frank House.  It seemed so bewildering that the Franks could hide in a place that seems so central, or perhaps, Prinsengracht now seems so much more central thanks to Anne Frank.).

Our concierge, whose parents are actually from Indonesia and have some Dutch relations, reaffirmed that we had to dine at Blue Pepper.  The chef is considered a living legend and her cooking takes a different angle from the traditional style.  I was intrigued and wanted to taste what a contemporary version of rendang and soto ayam would be like.  The servings were presented clean and minimalist.  The service was excellent.  On her way out to a waiting cab, the chef Sonja Pereira, paused to greet us.  She simply reminded me of an elegant lady who exuded colonial nostalgia, a romantic representation of the descendants of a time when the Dutch once ruled the Indonesian islands.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Chicken Run

When my kids were younger, they loved this claymation movie called "Chicken Run". It was a very cute movie with chicken characters with names like Rocky and Ginger. The chickens were trying to avoid getting slaughtered and hatched a plan to escape their chicken coop, a la concentration camp style - which was the inspiration for the movie.  Sadly, I never paid my full attention and probably, had never seen it in its entirety.  Later on, my sister gave me a whole bag of stuffed toys that she had collected from a McDonald's Happy Meal promotion.  I was just about to give away them away, when upon inspecting the toys, realized that they resembled the entire cast of the movie.  I've since kept them because they formed a very special part of my children's lives.

I too have my own chicken memory.  My mother bought me two little chicks at a time when I was learning about the growth cycle of chicks in Science class.  The chicks grew up in our backyard, only to be threatened by the street cat.  My mother therefore gave the chicks to our housekeeper to raise.  "Hanky and Panky", as I called them, grew big and sturdy and obviously very fleshy.  They were later served up as my chicken curry for Chinese New Year.  I was traumatized and went on a chicken strike for a few months - a rite of passage for many tweens.

There are two chicken recipes that I tried this past week that are worth jotting down.

Buffalo Wings were served up for Super Bowl Sunday, albeit my take with Lingham's Chili Sauce.  (Adapted from "The Joy of Cooking").

1 1/2 pounds of chicken wings, cut into 2 pieces at the joint.

1/2 cup of plain flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon Old Spice seasoning

Set an oven ay 350 degrees F.

Coat the wings in the mixture of flour and seasonings.

Heat up a wok or deep frying pot, add enough corn oil and heat.  Add wings to the hot oil - a single layer will do.  Fry for about 10 minutes.  Transfer the cooked wings to a baking tray and leave it in the oven to warm.

Meanwhile, to prepare the sauce, combine in a saucepan over low heat:

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons hot pepper sauce, such as Cholula or Tabasco

1/2 cup of Lingham's Chili Sauce

1/4 cup of Heinz ketchup

Remove the wings from the oven and arrange on a platter.  Drizzle the sauce over the wings before serving, tossing to coat gently.

Last night, I prepared Grilled Chicken from "The Aleppo Cookbook" - a city so much in the news and a heartache to watch it get destroyed by war.

Marinate the night before,

2 pounds of chicken thighs, make deep cuts through the skin and flesh

9 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/2 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 tablespoon salt

The day of, remove the chicken an hour before cooking.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F, place the chicken in one layer in a baking pan and cook for 45 minutes.  In the last 10 minutes, you could turn up the oven temperature to 300 degrees F to finish off.

Serve with boiled potatoes.  (I also added cauliflower to the tray of baking chicken, tossed in the remaining marinade, about halfway into the cooking.)


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Victoria Sponge Cake

My first memories of strawberries - me as a child sitting in the supermarket trolley as my sister wheeled me around the aisles of the old Tay Buan Guan.  Then she picked up a punnet of strawberries.  A fresh and sweet whiff - a scent I'll always remember - not to be confused with the saccharine smells associated with the Strawberry Shortcake character.

I've always fancied the Victoria Sponge cake and was enticed by an attractive food shot in 'Mary Berry's Complete Cookbook'.  (She of the 'Great British Bake Off").  So I made the cake today, my way.

Cake Ingredients
6 ounces soft butter
6 ounces sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
6 ounces self- raising flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

Strawberry jam
2 cups heavy cream, whipped until thick
Strawberries, sliced to decorate
Sugar for sprinkling

Grease a 9 inch tin (or two 7-inch tins) and line with parchment paper.
Set oven at 350 degrees F (or 325 degrees F convection).

Whisk the butter and sugar, followed by one egg at a time.  Add the vanilla essence.  Continue at high speed until the mixture is pale, smooth and thick.

Sift the self-raising flour and baking powder.
Fold in the flour and baking powder.

Pour the cake mixture into the tin (or divide between the two 7-inch tins).  Bake in the oven for 25 minutes.  Remove and leave to cool.

Peel off the parchment paper.  Spread the strawberry jam, followed by the whipped cream.  Decorate with sliced strawberries and sprinkle some sugar on top.  (If you are working with two 7-
inch halves, spread the jam and half of the whipped cream on top of one sponge, top with some strawberries slices.  Place the other sponge on top, press down, then spread the remaining jam and whipped cream on the top layer of the second sponge, followed by the remaining sliced strawberries and sprinkled sugar.)   

Thursday, January 19, 2017

An Italian-American dinner

Everytime I watch a movie or TV show where there is a scene of an Italian American family dinner, I would be so mesmerized.  I would be the outsider looking in, imagining an intimate Sunday dinner where Tony Manero or Tony Soprano would be smacked by Mamma for pinching some cold cuts, the same Mamma who would later come out with a big dish full of baked ziti, and a bowl of luscious meat gravy.  This past weekend, I was the insider for a change - after 20 years of living in America.

Mamma Pasqualina in this case is 81 years old.  An immigrant from southern Italy, her husband and her acquired a hardy home that came with the ideal cold basement cellar for storing her home-made sausages, pressed wine and bottles of sauces.  There were rows of glass bottles, arranged with metal pots and trays hand carried from Italy, no less.

The moment we stepped into her home that snowy afternoon, the table scene itself and the awaiting plates of food evoked the words from this book "Elodia Rigante's Italian Immigrant Cooking".

Note the cross stitch embroidery. 
".....it was customary for the younger generation of American-born Italians to go to their parents' home for dinner on Sundays.  During those dinners, there was always a lot of talk, and a lot of laughter.  Many important matters were discussed, usually with a great amount of passion!  Much of the conversation took place in Italian - and I watched the old-timers tell jokes and laugh until they cried.  Or sometimes, they would talk politics, getting louder and louder and poking the air with their hands for emphasis!  They would talk about work, about food, about the family.  Those weekly get-togethers served an important cultural purpose in our lives - the family bonds were kept tight."

We experienced every single one of these moments that night.  Laughing at my husband for secretly eating up the torrone nougat at home while I accused everyone else of stealing it.  Listening to her talk about her childhood in Italy, and then about her grandchildren.  Or for that matter, about her listening to the Pope's sermon every weekend and following the news on the Italian cable channel.

It is worth noting that Sunday dinner is a misnomer.  It tends to start around 2pm and ends at 8pm, staggered by appetizers, then something hot off the oven, followed by a pause to clean up and then a preparation of cappuccino to go with the dessert.  It's all supposed to be very relaxing.

A proud grandmother, Mamma placed several photo frames of her children and various grandchildren, at different ages, on the shelves and walls in each and every room.  Like my mother, she too had more than one kitchen.  There were a serving kitchen beside the dining area; a work kitchen in the basement to knead her pasta, bake her crunchy Dead Man's Bones (something like biscotti) and taralli rings, and the cellar with a large wooden wine press to squeeze out the last of the fermented grapes.  And Mamma was particularly meticulous to a fault.  Everything was spick and span.

She served us dinner on pristine white linen with cross stitch embroidery done by herself for her wedding trousseau.  And of course, my kids, husband and I stained it with our gravy.

Mamma also taught herself to cook - like my mother.  She felt the need to learn to do so for pure survival.  Living in a small town atop a hill, the concept of a restaurant or supermarket was unheard of.  One lived off the slaughtered pig and learnt to make do with what the pig offered, every part of it.

Meat gravy with meatballs, sausages and ox tail.  

She taught me a few tips.  "Don't fry the meatballs".  Plop them into the gravy so that the meatballs soak up the sauce. If you sear the outside of the meatballs, you would essentially seal them off.  "Tiramisu only takes 20 minutes to assemble".  Hers was the creamiest and as my kids exclaimed, "Out of this world".  The savoiardi lady fingers need to be soaked in Italian coffee and then layered with egg-drenched mascarpone cheese.  Restaurant versions are often more watery because they line the lady fingers on the inner sides of the tray and pour the cheese on the inside.

I sometimes judge the success of a meal by how much my son eats.  He gave a double thumbs up seal of approval by finishing all of his large bowl of baked ziti, and helping himself to a second portion of tiramisu.

We only hope that Mamma will invite us once again soon.

Indonesia in Amsterdam

For years, my daughter had wanted to visit Amsterdam. We were cautioned by friends that parts of the city - particularly Dam Square - m...