Monthly Archives: December 2013

BOOKS – Anthony books ‘em

My friend Anthony Koh whose roving bookstore I blogged about a couple of months ago, is on track to achieving his dream – a physical bookstore for writers. It may take a while but he’s getting there as his business gains traction and more lovers of the written word are aware there’s someone passionate about promoting reading and writing in an age when many only have enough attention for short messages and videos.

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Last Sunday, he held his fourth book fair at the Armenian Church. ‘We had our first at Caffe Pralet, a cafe cum culinary school in Tiong Bahru area. The second book fair was in their old kitchen. The third was held at The Arts House in conjunction with a writing workshop that I conducted.’

As the Church is the oldest Christian church in Singapore, opened in 1835 and gazetted as a national monument in 1973, Anthony had tourists as well as locals of all ages wandering in. ‘I don’t know if they came in for the books or they just looked at them after a tour of the church compound.  Possibly, the former because I hung two book fair posters outside the gate.’

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The response has been encouraging as Anthony gathers new customers. ‘Our very first customer in the morning was a bibliophile from the Philippines. Like me, she can’t stop buying books. She wasn’t aware of our book fair but she saw the posters, walked in, and bought a bag of books from us! The other early customer was a school librarian who was strolling in the garden with her husband and overheard my conversation with the Filipina. She was so inspired by what I do that she invited me to go to her all-boys school to fire up the students’ interest in reading.’

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After a few fairs, Anthony has a better idea of what people like. ‘I would say books on writing and award-winning novels sell equally well, followed by quirky books. I observed that people who bought books on writing also asked for books on grammar. We had several books on grammar but they flew off the shelves in the first two book fairs. Sales of books on writers and literary criticism has been slow.’

Anthony tells me the website I mentioned is wrong, so here we go again – visit http://booktique.weebly.com or https://www.facebook.com/WriterBooktique  to find the next Booktique location.
For all book lovers, what could be a nicer gift ?

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REFLECTIONS – Mary, Mary quite extraordinary

What would you do if you saw the Virgin Mary?

I would seek medical help.

David Guterson’s book Our Lady of the Forest (Bloomsbury) brings the phenomena of Marion sightings to life, not in some misty, ethereal way, but in today’s chaotic, skeptical world.

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Would the Virgin Mary appear to an asthmatic 16-year-old non-Catholic mushroom picker sheltering in a campsite? This darkly funny story of losers in a fading town is as mesmerizing as Ann Holmes’ visions. When word of Ann’s forest encounter leaks over the internet, the community of faithful descend in hordes to share in the miracle while the investigating priest is convinced the girl is hallucinating.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the visitations are real or imagined.  Whether balderdash or God working in mysterious ways, it makes you think about where you stand, and that theology and evidence go out the window when pitted against faith and hope. But surely, that can’t be bad when it brings solace and comfort – something to ponder on Christmas day.

FOOD – Japanese homecooking

You think the Japanese diet revolves around sashimi, sushi, soba and ramen? Not so according to mother of four and food columnist, Tamako Sakamoto. Globalisation has influenced home kitchens around the world, bringing to dining tables flavours of distant lands.

We’re not talking about gourmet ingredients like langoustine or kurobuta pork but of paella and Sangria being served in an Asian home or a Thai salad and lemongrass tea as part of an Aussie barbecue. Sometimes, it’s a mish-mash of cultures so comfortably adopted that we think of it as our own.

For instance when I saw Tamako’s recipe for Simmered Layered Cabbage which she describes as a Western-style dish, it immediately brought to mind the Cabbage Rolls served in Singapore Eurasian homes. Layering mince and cabbage and leaving it to simmer until cooked, yields an attractive cake-like main dish in a tasty broth. Compared with cabbage rolls, this is almost effortless to cook but rich and so meaty that my son’s girlfriend asked whether it was dog food.

Needless to say, dogs love it but a doggie version should exclude bacon, salt, soy sauce, stock cubes and onion. And for humans, I reckon I should use much more cabbage and cut back on meat.

From Tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets) to Korean pancakes and Pumpkin Pudding, Tamako’s repertoire is just what you need if you are feeding children of any age. Her dishes are wholesome, hearty and appealing.

She inspires mums to cook for their family because you only have so much time to do so.

“As my children grow up and leave home, the amount of food I prepare will gradually be reduced. The days of struggling to prepare incredible amounts of food will not last for the rest of my life. So, I’ll enjoy these days of cooking for great appetites and be thankful for the joy that we are able to share around the table.”

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I also tried her Japanese Potato Salad (look for newly published cookbook – Cook Japanese with Tamako, Marshall Cavendish Cuisine). Potato salad is pure comfort food but be sure to use Japanese mayo like the Kewpie brand. For carnivores and hungry teenagers, try –

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Simmered Layered Cabbage

Serves 6-8

1½ medium cabbage

60 g (2 oz) panko breadcrumbs

120ml (½ cup milk)

1 onion

900 g (2 lb) minced pork and beef mixture

1 egg

1½ teaspoon salt

Ground black pepper

3 bouillon cubes

1 tablespoon Japanese soy sauce (I used Chinese light soy sauce)

600 ml (2½ cups) water

2-3 bay leaves

5 slices bacon, roughly chopped

Herbes de Provence or other herbs, optional

  1. Carve out the hard core of each cabbage and discard. Peel the cabbage leaves carefully and parboil for 2-3 minutes or until pliable. Drain, then slice off the hard veins. Soak the panko in the milk. Peel, then slice off the hard veins. Soak the panko in the milk. Peel and mince the onion. In a bowl, mix the minced meat with the onion, panko and egg. Season with salt and pepper and mix well.
  2. Spread one third of the cabbage leaves flat in a flat-bottom pot. I usually use an oval pot measuring 27 x 22cm (10 x 8½ inches). Place half the meat mixture on top of the cabbage leaves and spread out evenly. Smooth the surface. Repeat the process to make cabbage and meat layers, ending with a layer of cabbage. Press down with your hands to compact the layers and smooth the surface.
  3. Add the bouillon cubes and soy sauce to the 600 ml (2½ cups) hot water. Pour the liquid over the layers of cabbage. Place the bay leaves and bacon on top. You may add a sprinkling of herbs, such as herbes de Provence for a tasty touch. Simmer covered on the stovetop for 50-60 minutes. Slice and serve.

REFLECTIONS – All I Want For Christmas Is A New Right Breast

Hwee Hwee Laurence has a wish –

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On 10 December 2013, Jean-Claude Mas, the founder of the company Poly Implant Prothèses (PIP) that made defective breast implants not conforming to medical standards, was judged in court in Marseille.  He was condemned to four years’ imprisonment, fined 75 000 Euros and not allowed to work anymore in medical-related fields.

I suspect I was one of the last people implanted with a PIP because just two months after having the mastectomy operation, I received a letter from the hospital informing me of this.  The ‘re-shock’ was almost too much to bear.  And of course, over the following months, the hullabaloo over this scandal was reported almost daily in the news and it certainly was not good for the morale especially when one was undergoing chemotherapy.

You might ask – why did I have an implant in the first place?  Am I so vain about keeping my breasts?  Or did my husband want me to have an implant?  The answers are ‘No’.  I never wanted an implant or any breast reconstruction.  My husband’s only aim was that I get well, and if he ever mentioned the possibility of an implant, it was because he was concerned that I might be psychologically ‘disturbed’ by my asymmetry.

I had an implant because every one of the doctors I met related to my cancer strongly advised that I should.  At that time, I had the impression that feminity is an important aspect for French women since at first,  nobody could believe that I really did not want an implant.  ‘You are still young!’ they said.

So why did I give in?  I did so because I did not know otherwise.  I had never had cancer or a mastectomy, never knew what it would be like to be flat on one side nor what it would feel like to have an implant.  In the end, shouldn’t doctors know best?  Which is why I wished that, because they knew better than me, they had fought harder to stop using PIP implants once problems started, not continued to do so until the last few months before ‘higher authorities’ decided against it.

I have been advised to remove, no – to change – the implant.  So far, I have not plucked up the resolve to go for another operation.  Also, I have been considering not having a new implant.  But then, I am now so used to having it that I am scared to have to readjust to being asymmetrical.

The one thing I have learnt from all this is – let’s not cry over spilt milk (or silicone – ha ha!).  I could have regretted listening to the doctors, but then without an implant I could have hated my lopsided body, too.  I can continue to rave and rant at Monsieur Mas but what good would that do to my health?  Better to just let go and get on with life.

My annual check-up is coming up soon and I will have to make a decision by then.  So maybe – a new right breast would be what I will be getting this Christmas.

FOOD – Have a Merry Meatless Christmas

Been busy. Been thinking about shopping for Christmas gifts and not doing much about it. Noticing my blog-lag, my friend Hwee Hwee Laurence has kindly sent suggestions for easy dishes, especially appreciated since I don’t eat meat.

Christmas is the season for turkey, goose or chapon (capon in English – cockerel or rooster castrated to improve the quality of its meat for food.  Serious!)  For animal-lovers or those who have vegetarians on the guest list, it might be difficult to come up with a few substantially satisfying menu dishes other than the usual veggie sticks with dips.  Of course, wine and cheese is always an elegant option, but then the average Singaporean might not be adventurous enough  to enjoy a cheese platter.

To help you with this problem, I have selected a few of my family’s favourite French vegetarian dishes.  They all taste good, but most importantly, they are easy to make and almost foolproof.  They are also good accompaniments to a selection of roast meats and sausages should you make these available to your carnivorous friends.

Some of the dishes can also be prepared in advance so that it leaves you time to be with your guests, which to me, should be the purpose of the party.

Many Singaporeans do not use the oven often, but I think it is one of the easiest (and least messy) ways of cooking.  You can prepare everything (in the roasting dish which can also be used to serve) in advance, cover with cling-wrap, keep refrigerated overnight, then bring to room temperature before putting it into the oven.  The other utensil that is most handy is a hand-held blender (with interchangeable attachments of whisk and grinder).

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Zucchini and Tomato Bake

Tian Provençal – a centuries-old dish that gets its name from the shallow casserole dish, tian, in which it is traditionally cooked.

(My 10-year old son can make this all by himself – it’s that foolproof).

1 large onion, sliced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

300g tomatoes, sliced thickly

300g zucchini, cut into 1 cm-thick rounds

1 teaspoon dried herbs of Provence

4 tablespoons grated Swiss cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Preheat oven to 200 °C.

Spread the onion and garlic over the base of a shallow baking dish.

Arrange alternating rows of zucchini and tomatoes over the onions.

Sprinkle with herbs, salt and pepper.

Drizzle over olive oil.

Sprinkle cheese all over and bake for 30 min until vegetables are tender and cheese is golden-coloured.

Best served hot, with crusty bread to mop up the juice in the baking dish.

(This dish can be assembled beforehand and popped into the oven about 30 min before serving. You can also use a mixture of zucchini, tomatoes and aubergine).

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Cheese Puff Ring

Gougére – a savoury pastry from Burgundy, traditionally served with red wine.

(This is like the cream puff that I used to know in Singapore, except that it is savoury.  Do not be intimidated by this relatively unusual way of making the dough.)

300 g flour

½ teaspoon salt

Pinch of pepper

Pinch of ground nutmeg (optional)

200 ml water

50 g butter

3 eggs, lightly beaten

150 g Swiss or cheddar cheese, cut into small cubes

2 tablespoons fresh chives or spring onions, chopped

Preheat oven to 200 °C.

Line a baking sheet with non-stick paper.  Sift together flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg.

In a saucepan, bring water and butter to a boil.  Remove from heat and add dry ingredient all at once.

Beat with wooden spoon for 1 min until the mixture is well-blended and starts to pull away from the sides of the pan.

Place pan back over low heat and cook for about 2 min, beating constantly.

Add beaten egg, one tablespoon at a time, into the dough, beating thoroughly after each addition.

Continue until dough looks smooth and shiny and when you drop it from the spoon, it should pull away and fall slowly.

Add cheese and chives and mix well.

Using 2 large tablespoons, one to scoop and one to scrape off, drop adjoining mounds of dough onto the baking sheet to form a ring (this is the traditional way – I prefer to make individual puffs).

Bake for about 25-30 min until puffed and golden brown.

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Cauliflower Gratin

Gratin au choufleur – a classic vegetable supper dish in French homes.

(My younger sister loves gratin but finds it too much effort to try to beat the batter to smoothness only to be disappointed when it still ends up ugly and lumpy.  That is, until I showed her my magic handheld blender.)

1 medium cauliflower, broken into large florets

25 g butter

4 tablespoons flour

400 ml milk

½ teaspoon ground herbs of Provence

Pinch of ground nutmeg (optional)

Swiss or cheddar cheese, grated, to scatter

1 chicken or vegetable stock cube (optional, but it does make a difference in taste)

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 180 °C.

Boil cauliflower florets in a large pot of salted water for 8-10 min until just tender.  Drain then arrange in a shallow baking dish.

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, add flour and cook until just golden, stirring constantly.

Pour in half the milk and stir until flour is just moistened.  It will be lumpy but do not panic.

Reduce the heat, and using the handheld blender, stir until the flour mixture becomes smooth, then continue to stir and blend while adding the rest of the milk.

Add herbs of Provence, nutmeg, stock cube, salt and pepper to taste.

Continue cooking and stirring with the blender for about 5 min, adding a little more milk if you want your white sauce to be more fluid.

Pour the white sauce evenly over the cauliflower, sprinkle cheese over the top and bake for about 20 min until bubbly and golden brown.

(Other variations include using broccoli florets instead of cauliflower. Gratin of sautéed leek with hardboiled eggs arranged on top, or chopped spinach with hardboiled eggs make good one-dish meals.  This can also be prepared half a day in advance and baked when needed.  If you find the white sauce becoming too dry, carefully poke a few holes and add a little milk before baking).

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Reflections – So smart

When I asked for the Nokia Lumia 925 a few months ago, the telco service executive asked three times whether I was absolutely certain that was what I wanted. He couldn’t believe his ears when other customers were opting for the usual suspects – Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy.

My son talked me into buying the Nokia Lumia when I was looking for a smart phone. He’s a faithful Lumia fan, extolling its virtues despite Nokia, of late seeming to have lost its hip quotient. He loves the design and features, and the attention to detail.

I must say I have no regrets after four months of Lumia gazing. It’s user-friendly and the camera has been all I’ve needed for shots of our pets, plants, holidays and for this blog. With the built-in Microsoft Office, it syncs with office mail and all my work appointments are updated with reminders dogging my day.

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The worst thing about it is the frequency at which new models appear. For instance, the Lumia 1520 comes with a bigger screen (6”) with a 20MP PureView camera, optical image stabilization enable sharp images evening he dark (some of my photos in this blog could have been better if I had this). Dang!

Also, better audio with four microphones. There’s also a 1320 with something called MixRadio that is configured for ad-free music. I don’t care as I don’t need it but the maps and free cloud storage feature sounds useful. Pre-orders start from 27 November 2013, so if you’re shopping for a phone, it’s truly worth considering.

FOOD – Chinese Home Cooking

That’s the title of Sam Leong’s new cookbook (Marshall Cavendish Cuisine). But don’t kid yourself. The multiple award-winning chef’s idea of homecooking is nothing like what you’d get in most households. But that’s just what we’d expect of him.

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First, there’s an upmarket restaurant feel to many dishes – Double-boiled Stuffed Chicken & Ginseng Soup, Pan-seared Beef Rolls with Black Pepper Sauce (attractively packed with enoki mushrooms); and an extravagance that makes some dishes more suitable only for festive occasions or celebrations eg Mustard Greens Stir-fried with Dried Scallops uses 12 dried scallops while Radish Cake is not so humble when it comes with Seafood and XO Sauce.

As always Sam Leong is innovative, so if you want to surprise the family with some fusion, try his Double-boiled Coconut Soup with Baby Abalone or Crispy Cod Fillet with Mango Salsa finishing off with Warm Pumpkin Crème Brulee.

To satisfy the ones looking for food they might have grown up with, he’s included his grandmother’s best dishes – Steamed Chicken with Fermented Bean Curd and Steamed Mince Pork Petites with Salted Egg Yolk. There are also simple dishes like Stir-fried Prawns, Steamed Fish, and Seafood Fried Rice but always with a flourish.

I am going to try the Steamed Tiger Prawns with Minced Garlic served with glass vermicelli – looks delicately delicious. The pork ribs look enticing too – whether with sweet and sour orange sauce or five-spice powder (recipe follows). Don’t skip this if you don’t have all the ingredients listed. Even without eg the mirin, sake and torch ginger, this will taste terrific and you can get away with one type of chilli.

Crispy Pork Ribs Coated with Five-Spice Powder

Serves 4

Pork ribs 400g (14½ oz), cut into bite-size pieces

Water 1.5 litres (48 fl oz/6 cups)

Ginger 3 slices

Spring onion (scallion) ½

Dried chillies 5

Red chillies 2

Star anise 1

Bay leaf 1

Oyster sauce 2 teaspoons

Dark soy sauce 1/8 teaspoon

Chinese cooking wine (hua tiao) 3 teaspoons

Sugar 1 teaspoon

Cooking oil for deep-frying

Corn flour (cornstarch) 200g (7 oz)

Five-spice seasoning (combined)

Chicken stock, 100ml (3½ fl oz)

Salt ½ teaspoon

Honey ½ teaspoon

Sweet mirin ½ teaspoon

Sake ½ teaspoon

Lemon juice 1 teaspoon

Minced garlic 1 teaspoon

Minced ginger 1 teaspoon

Minced torch ginger bud 1 teaspoon

Five-spice powder ½ teaspoon, mixed with 1 tablespoon Chinese cooking wine (hua tiao)

  1. Bring a pot of water to the boil and poach pork ribs to remove any surface scum. Drain.
  2. Put pork ribs in a pot and add water and all remaining ingredients, except cooking oil and corn flour. Simmer over low heat for 1½ hours or until pork ribs are tender. Remove ribs and discard contents of pot.
  3. Heat cooking oil for deep-frying. Coat ribs with corn flour and deep-fry until brown and crisp. Remove and drain well.
  4. Heat ½ tablespoon oil in a wok. Add pork ribs and five-spice seasoning and toss well. Dis out and serve.

FOOD – Cooking the Rustic Way

In the 300-year-old Laurence house in south-west France, it’s time to put the woodstoves to work. Hwee Hwee is ready for the delights of country living where frugality = cosiness.

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When I tell my friends in Singapore that we use woodstoves to heat our house in winter, their jaws drop in amazement.  They simply cannot imagine what it is like, or else they imagine us living like in the Little House on the Prairie.   I tell them that wood is the best heating source.  It warms you up three times – first when you cut it, then when you carry it, and lastly when you burn it.

We use woodstoves simply because it is the cheapest source of heating and also because we constantly have to clear our land and that provides a good supply of wood for burning.  Besides, flames flickering in woodstoves give a lovely ambience.  The downside is that I have to empty the ashes and clean the stoves once in a while and that makes me feel rather like a Cinderella who, despite having found her prince, still has to do housework.

My husband tells me that in olden France, there would be a cauldron always burning on the stove or in the fireplace.  Vegetables and meat were constantly added to simmer and stew, and the main evening meal of country folk consisted of a hearty soup and crusty bread.  So much so that nowadays when you call the family to dinner, you would still say à la soupe or ‘to the soup!’

I, too, revert to cooking the rustic way in winter.  Winter is the season of stews and hotpots and the best way to cook meat until it is meltingly tender is to stew it slowly over the woodstove.  It fills the house with a rich aroma and when the children come home from school, upon opening the front door, they always take a deep breath and try to guess what is for dinner.

Another lesser-known way of cooking on the woodstove is to use what my husband calls a potato cloche.  It is rare antique thing nowadays.  I have one that has been in my husband’s mother’s family for many generations.  It is an earthen cloche with three half-rings that act either as handles or legs.  It is extremely useful for cooking root vegetables.

 I fill the cloche with scrubbed potatoes, turnip, celery root or beetroot.  Then I put an old heavy frying pan on top and invert the whole thing so that the cloche acts as a cover for the vegetables.  This assemblage goes on top of the woodstove to be roasted slowly and the result is slightly-browned root vegetables, rather crispy on the outside and soft in the insides.  I love the thought that so many women of the family before me had stood in their kitchens and roasted potatoes in this cloche and it always made me feel somehow connected to a mother-in-law I have never met (she died of breast cancer years before my husband and I were married).

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Autumn and winter are also seasons for pruning trees and making bonfires.  On the weekends, the kids have to help wheelbarrow the cut branches and heap them on the bonfires, a job they do not really mind because they know that as a reward, they will be allowed to roast marshmallows over the hot ashes.  But bonfires are not just for marshmallows.  Believe it or not, I have cooked the following dish in a bonfire although a normal oven will serve just as well.

 

Bonfire Baked Apples

4 large apples

1 packet (230 g) ready-to-use puff pastry

Brown sugar

Grated cinnamon

Butter, cut in pieces

Remove the core and seeds of the apples, taking care not to cut through all the way to the bottom.

Into each apple, put some brown sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and a small piece of butter (all according to your taste).

Cut the puff pastry into four, and use it to wrap each apple well, pinching the tops of the pastry to close it.

For the bonfire method, wrap each apple securely with aluminum foil and gently put them into the hot ashes.  Cook for about 20 minutes until pastry is brown and puffed and apple is soft.

For the oven method, preheat oven at 200 °C.  Line a baking tray with non-stick baking paper and arrange the pastry-covered apples on it.

To have a nice golden-brown colour, brush pastry all over with beaten egg (optional).

Bake for about 30 minutes until pastry is golden and puffed and apples are soft.

I decorated mine with sprigs of apple leaves.