I used to joke that designers think words are just patterns… until I “met” Jon’s blog. And was totally blown away not just by the clever and beautiful comics treatment but the words. Ahhh, the words. Jon writes visually and from the heart. What more can one ask for really? A reader’s dream.
— Joan Lau, managing editor of The Malaysian Insider
So, we’re finally done with the 15-days revelry of ushering in of the new Chinese calendar. Hooray I say. No more waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of firecrackers blasting outside my window. You have no idea what a relieve that is. But other than that, how has the dragon year been treating you so far?
Chinese astrologers have always believed that a monkey’s best companion is the mythical dragon. Your guess on how this bizzarre equation came to be is just as good as mine. However, I’m not about to argue the facts if the stars are going to be on my side for the rest of the year. The new year has barely begun, and my luck has already started to change… for the better.
For one, I’m now a published writer for The Malaysian Insider. For those not in the know, the Insider is the country’s most popular news portal (calling it an online newspaper will be an oxymoron) and to be included into their family of established journalists/writers is a great honour in itself. It is also going to be a challenge for me to start writing to deadlines and having to explore newer ways to write my food essays. Who knows, this might just be a step closer to having my name printed on the cover of a book one day.
For the benefit of those who have missed out on my first article last week, I’m proud to include it at the bottom this post for your reading pleasure – with the permission of the Insider of course. Apart from the new writing gig, there are also a few more possible changes on the horizon. Until then, I hope the good dragon will keep blessing me (and you too) with good fortune and great health.
KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 30 — It is said that we often complicate the simplest of things. I, myself, am guilty on all counts when it comes to making a home-cooked meal, especially for my loved ones. A “simple” breakfast at home often includes toast with a side of grilled bananas and roasted almond flakes or scrambled eggs with a tomato and herb salad; a “simple” lunch is a plate of pasta tossed with baked meatballs made from chorizo and eggplants with a side dish that has either been poached, sautéed, grilled and/or roasted; and my idea of an instant noodles dinner comes pimped up with every imaginable seafood item possible. Heck, I cannot even serve up chips without whipping a dip up for crying out loud. But in my defense, these dishes usually take no more than 15 minutes to pull off. Arguably, that is quite simple right?
Five years ago, I wanted to thank my best friend’s sister and her husband for hosting our week-long stay in Singapore. Anyone would have just bought them a meal and be done with it but the brutal exchange rate would have drained all my savings. So instead, I decided to show my appreciation the only other way I know how – cooking a dinner on New Year’s Eve. It was to be a small and simple affair, I insisted, just for their family and friends. That night, I made them Citrus Fruit Salad with Pomegranate Vinaigrette, Chicken Ballotine with Glazed Bacon Wrap, Laksa Pesto Spaghetti, Vietnamese Baked Snapper and what I am sure was a “simple” dessert too. Unfortunately, I now cannot remember what that was.
Many things have changed since that dinner; my bestie is now happily married and living a sub-urban life in a quiet neighbourhood with her husband, her sister is celebrating a new lease on life and we have all somehow collectively managed to switch out of our previous jobs within that time span. Life has certainly moved on in more ways than one. But despite all these changes, the one thing that we have kept alive is our little New Year’s Eve gathering, albeit it is now hosted in Malaysia.
Life has certainly moved on in more ways than one. But despite all these changes, the one thing that we have kept alive is our little New Year’s Eve gathering, albeit it is now hosted in Malaysia. This annual tradition of getting together on the very last day of the year to feast and give thanks for all our blessings and to celebrate the true meaning of life – love and kinship – has made stepping into another new year a lot less scary.
And so it came to ushering in 2012. Taking inspiration from our year in travel and the things we have come to love, the menu was once again a “simple” affair.
Grilled Miso Aubergine and Avocado Wasabi dips with rice crackers and vegetable sticks;
Beetroot & Roasted Pumpkin Salad;
Roasted Duck & Lychee Curry;
Lap Cheong (Chinese Waxed Sausages), Luncheon Meat & Basil Omelette;
Platter of Chilled Bananas & Lime; Steamed Cassava and Banana Cake;
and Butter Pecan Ice Cream on Marie Crumb Base.
I must admit that my idea of a “simple” dinner might differ greatly from yours. But it is not every day that I spend around three to four hours in the kitchen just to prepare a meal. With a little pre-planning and organising — a trick I’ve picked up over the years from watching television chefs work and cookbook reading — I’ve come to realise that it is not very hard to prepare a “simple” meal for 10 people. It is a very possible task, even if you are not lucky to have a fantastic pair of kitchen hands to assist you.
If I could offer you any tips on cooking such a large meal it is, firstly, not to stress yourself out. Stick to what you know best. I usually go for simple recipes with flavours and ingredients I’m familiar with.
Also remember that in the larger scale of things, taste is a rather subjective matter. As you go along, you may be tempted to change a recipe to suit your palate – go ahead and knock yourself out. That is what cooking is all about. More importantly, never forget to cook with your heart.
Do not underestimate the use of seasonal fresh ingredients. They are the key to making your meal wholesome and affordable. However, the use of fresh ingredients also comes with another set of issues – the cleaning.
I am not above cheating. In fact, I absolutely condone it. Whenever possible, spend a little more and have somebody else do the dirty job for you. I make no apologies for using ready made curry paste, roasted meat from a neighborhood chicken rice stall, pre-cleaned (but never frozen) prawns, pre-peeled (but never crushed) garlic and onions, canned fruits and roasted nuts when it comes to making such meals.
Some may argue that it tastes better when you do it yourself. But I think it saves time and effort and are a necessary evil. Furthermore, it’s not like I’m out to earn myself a Michelin star or two.
One last thing, always remember that food is best presented beautifully. We humans are, after all, a shallow bunch and as the saying goes, our eyes usually feast first. All you need is some clean plates and a tiny bit of garnishing. With the emphasis on “tiny”, please. It is so easy to go overboard and push an entire garden plant into the middle of a platter. If you find yourself with extra bunches of fresh herbs, place them together in a clear glass container and use them as centrepieces instead.
Such large meals may not take five minutes to prepare. They will take a longer time to plan and execute, but I can assure you that the results can be very rewarding. Words simply cannot describe the kind of high I get when I see happy stuffed faces around the table by the end of the night. And that for me is the thing I draw pleasure most from.
I guess I am just simple that way.
This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider‘s Food column on 31 January 2012.