Fragrant Chicken Noodles

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Some love affairs just seem to last forever. Like mine with Thailand. It’s been almost eight years now since I returned from there, and yet I still experience waves of nostalgia from time to time. Not purely for Thailand, but for Asia in general, as there were a couple of trips to the north as well. Take last weekend, while out shopping for strollers, and overhearing a couple of ladies having a conversation in Mandarin, I became a bit weepy and teary-eyed.

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Nostalgic. For living amongst a culture not my own. Nostalgic. For daily hearing a language not my own. Nostalgic. For hot, salty, spicy meals bought at a roadside stall for one dollar a bowl. Nostalgic. For my moto and being allowed to ride wearing flip flops. Nostalgic. For sounds, sights and smells now only a memory. Nostalgic. For a life and lifestyle that was perfect for a while, free and easy, where food was cheap and English not widely spoken.

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In honour of good times in the ‘Land of Smiles’, I’ve made a dish that I love but rarely eat. These fragrant noodles are salty and herby, with a little sugar and spice to round things out. Spiked heavily with fish sauce, this dish is not for the faint of heart. If you prefer a milder flavour, may I suggest substituting some of the fish sauce with lime juice; it will help balance out the saltiness. Alternatively, customise to taste with sugar, vinegar and/or chilli flakes.

How about you? What triggers nostalgia for you? Is it a song, a smell, a conversation…?

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Fragrant Chicken Noodles
Vermicelli noodles here soak up the flavours of red curry and fish sauce, and are garnished with lashings of fresh coriander and strips of stir-fried chicken.

Serves 4

Ingredients
2 teaspoons oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
250-300g rice vermicelli (I used Chinese vermicelli or glass noodles)
1 ½ cups fresh coriander, chopped roughly
500g chicken thigh fillets, thinly sliced (use breast fillets if you prefer)
2 teaspoons red curry paste
1/3 cup fish sauce
2 tablespoons soft brown sugar
4 spring onions, sliced (green scallions)

Method
Mix fish sauce with sugar in a small bowl. Set aside. Soak rice noodles as per directions on packet (do not boil). When soft, drain well in a colander.

Add 1 teaspoon oil to wok and fry garlic and curry paste for 1 minute or until fragrant. Add chicken and stir-fry until brown, adding more oil as required.

Finally, add the noodles, coriander, spring onions and fish sauce mix to pan. Stir and toss; warming all ingredients through before serving.

*Serve with a squeeze of fresh lime juice to help balance the flavours. Or, if you prefer, customise to taste with a sprinkle of caster sugar, a drizzle of white vinegar and/or a pinch of dried chilli flakes.

Best Ever Date & Banana Bread

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It’s kind of funny, but not really surprising, that some of my clearest memories of high school relate to food. I was already addicted to baking, and completely obsessed with collecting recipes. I remember staring out of the window during typing class, wondering how soon the lunchtime bell would ring so I could tame my raging hunger. There were the huge Valentine ’s Day cookies our class made and sold for a fund-raiser one year. And every Friday night, homemade burgers and thick shakes, and special sauce for dipping fries.

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Then there was the amazing Scandinavian-style birthday cake that is my only memory of a friend’s fourteenth birthday party. It was large, donut shaped and filled with custard. I’d never seen anything quite like it. Some twenty years later, and this friend and I are probably closer now than we were then. Recently, while watching our kids play, I mentioned to her how I remembered this cake (and little else), and she laughed. I couldn’t tell if she was perhaps just a little bit offended that I recalled the food more than I recalled anything else!

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And last but not least, there was this amazing banana bread, baked by a friend’s mother and served warm from the oven with vanilla ice cream. I’m not even sure what the event was or why; but I was in foodie heaven, and have never forgotten it. Perhaps that is why I love this date and banana bread so much. Another melt and mix recipe, the secret is in the method. By slowing warming the banana, butter, sugar and dates together in the pan, it fuses the flavours to create lush caramel undertones, which are best enjoyed while the cake is warm.

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Best Ever Date and Banana Bread
Brown sugar, butter, dates and banana fuse together to create warm caramel undertones in this wonderfully comforting version of your new favourite banana bread!

Makes 12 thick slices

Ingredients
3 ripe bananas, mashed (approx 1 cup)
120g unsalted butter
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon bicarb soda (baking soda)
1 cup soft brown sugar
140g (1 cup) chopped dates
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 ½ cups self-raising flour

Method
Preheat the oven to 180deg C. Grease and line a large loaf tin (based measures 10 x 20cm).

Place butter and mashed bananas into a saucepan and melt on low heat. Stir in the brown sugar, bicarb soda and milk and stir until the sugar appears to have dissolved. Add the chopped dates and let the mixture cool to room temperature before stirring in the beaten eggs and flour. Don’t over-mix.

Pour mixture into prepared loaf tin and bake for 40 – 45 minutes. (*Check at 30 minutes, and if the dome has cracked or split, cover loosely with a foil tent for remainder of baking time). Cake is done when a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

Serve warm or cool with butter.

Banana cake slices can be frozen and defrosted (and then toasted for breakfast).

Adapted from the Cake Mistress

Curried Beef and Vegetable Soup {Lauk Sayor}

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It was terrifying finding myself alone, in a foreign land, surrounded by people, but none of whom I knew. I had just left my hometown, flown seven hours via Kuala Lumpur to Penang, Malaysia to pick up my visa from the Thai consulate there. What no-one knew was that I was due to arrive in the middle of a 4-day public holiday. I visited the consulate several times, hoping beyond hope that they would be open. No such luck. The Indian taxi drivers sitting outside the hotel all knew my name and destination by heart. I made some desperate phone calls to HQ and they made sure my hotel booking was extended. I visited the travel agent and got my flights changed. I waited. I cried. Finally, I accepted the facts, overcame my fears and played tourist, exploring Georgetown and beyond.

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Wandering the streets, and snapping pictures on my newly acquired camera, I made a point of sampling the local fare. There was Indian food from a hawker joint near the hotel, and some delicious fried noodles wrapped in a banana leaf bought from a shop on the side of the road… Subsequently, I went to live in Thailand for two years and fell deeply in love with all things Thai, but especially their food! There a few favourite Thai dishes I make, but only one Malaysian. It comes not from notes I made while travelling, but from the yellowing pages of a tiny, obscure book, “Recipes of the Orient” that I found in a second-hand bookstore once, a long time ago.

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Claiming to contain “Over 70 easy-to-prepare recipes from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, India, Thailand, Taiwan, and China”, it is full of unique and interesting dishes, many of which I have not been game to try! But, as is my practice with any new recipe book, I scoured it for attractive meal ideas, and noted, “try” on several that caught my attention. This one, called “Lauk Sayor” (or Curried Vegetables) hails from Malaysia, has relatively few exotic ingredients and an uncomplicated method. Once made, it got the big tick of approval, and I’ve been making it regularly ever since.

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Lauk Sayor {Curried Vegetables}
A soup for those who like Asian flavours but prefer their curries with less kick.

Serves 4

Ingredients
½ lb (250g) bowler or chuck steak (I used gravy steak, often labelled as ‘slow cooker’ beef)
¼ medium size cabbage
½ lb (250g) French beans (green beans)
1 large potato, diced
1 onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 heaped teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons peanut oil (or other)
2 cups coconut milk

Method
Add one level tablespoon of salt to 3 cups of water and cook beef on low burner for about an hour.

In the meantime, clean vegetables and neatly cut them into small pieces.

Take the meat from the burner and pour steak stock into deep bowl.

Put the (peanut) oil in the empty pan and fry onion and garlic.

When half done, add curry powder and sugar, and stock and coconut milk.

Last of all add vegetables and the shredded meat; when the vegetables are cooked the dish is ready.

*This could be eaten with rice, but we prefer to eat it as a soup.

Wagon Wheel Slice

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Another birthday, another reason to design a new dessert recipe! Alex organised his party this year around a distinctly 1940s theme, so I thought I’d adapt something that was launched around the same time – the Wagon Wheel biscuit… one of his favourite snacks! The original marshmallow and jam sandwiched between two thin shortbread biscuits becomes a layered delight beginning with a brown butter biscuit base spread with a thin veneer of raspberry jam, smothered with a layer of fluffy marshmallow, and topped off with swirl of dark chocolate.

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Although I found a recipe for this slice on-line, it called for store-bought marshmallows, which troubled me somewhat. I wanted to make my own (how hard could it be?), and therefore dug out an old cookbook I’ve had for roughly 20 years now. Published as a fundraiser for a campsite where I used to work, all the recipes are tried and true. One of my favourite fish dishes comes from it, as does my Dad’s signature boiled fruit cake. They included a marshmallow biscuit slice, and I’ve adapted both the base and the marshmallow for this luscious Wagon Wheel Slice.

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Because I wanted the option of browning the butter for the base, I’ve gone with melting it instead of creaming the butter with the sugar this time. It yields a nutty, buttery, shortbread-like biscuit, which is exactly what I was hoping for. The raspberry jam was store-bought, of course, but the marshmallow – so easy to make your own – is a whipped confection made with gelatine and lots and lots of sugar. As for that final layer, I chose to use regular dark chocolate; but go with whatever suits your fancy – 70% dark or milk chocolate – it’s up to you!

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Wagon Wheel Slice
Layers upon layers of sweet goodness; first the shortbread, then the jam, marshmallow and chocolate. Party food doesn’t get much better than this!

Adapted from the El Shaddai cookbook and Taste.com.au

Makes 24 pieces

Ingredients
For the base:
60g (¼ cup) unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup caster sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 cup + 2 tablespoons plain flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch salt

For the jam:
1/3 cup raspberry jam (I used Rose’s brand)

For the marshmallow:
2 dessertspoons gelatine powder
1 cup water
1 cup caster sugar
1 cup sifted icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence

For the chocolate layer:
185g dark chocolate, broken into pieces (I used dark choc chips)
50g unsalted butter, extra

Method
Preheat oven to 180°C/160°C fan-forced. Grease a 3cm-deep, 16cm x 26cm slice pan. Line base and sides with baking paper, extending paper 2cm from edge on all sides.

Melt butter (NB. This is your chance to brown the butter, but this is totally optional). In a heavy-based saucepan, melt butter slowly, then when completely liquid, raise heat and allow to froth, stirring constantly. As froth subsides, butter will begin to stick to pan, creating a brownish substance on the surface of the pan. This is good. The butter should now have a nutty aroma. Once the butter has browned, take off heat immediately, before it burns. Set aside to cool slightly.

Add sugar and egg and mix well. Add sifted flour, baking powder and salt and stir until dough comes together. Press mixture into prepared pan. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden. Spread warm base with jam.

Meanwhile, soak gelatine powder in 1 cup of water (give it at least 10 minutes to soak properly). Add 1 cup caster sugar and dissolve gently in a saucepan over a low heat, then raise heat and boil for 8 minutes. Allow to cool slightly and then add 1 cup of sifted icing sugar. In a large, deep bowl, beat with an electric mixer until white and thick (should take about 3 minutes). Add vanilla essence, and beat until well combined. Spoon almost all* of the mixture over jam layer and place in refrigerator to set.

Place the chocolate and butter in a small, clean, dry heatproof bowl. Place the bowl over a small saucepan of barely simmering water over low heat (make sure the bowl doesn’t touch the water). Use a dry metal spoon to stir gently for 2 minutes or until chocolate melts and is smooth. Pour evenly over marshmallow layer and smooth the surface with a knife.

Refrigerate for 2 hours or until set. Stand at room temperature for 5 minutes (I waited about 30 just to make sure the chocolate wouldn’t crack) before cutting into pieces with a hot knife and serving.

* I find that this makes a little more than needed, but this isn’t a problem! Just lightly grease a small plastic container and pour excess in. Place in refrigerator for a few minutes to set, and you’ve got a quick, sugary treat for snacking on while the Wagon Wheel Slice is still under construction.

The Lazy Cook’s Melt and Mix Cocoa Brownies

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Yup. I’m the lazy one. The Lazy Cook. And impatient, too! Especially when eager to get some of this super-easy, chocolate melty, gooey brownie goodness past my lips! Quick and easy is the name of the game these days! Especially with a little one around, who though now occasionally ‘helping’ me with the baking, also has other priorities – like throwing balls, drawing pictures and reading stories – with Mummy (caps, bold and underlined). These brownies fit the bill.

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None of this getting out the electric mixer, making even more dishes! *Rant Alert* Have you ever noticed how dishes multiply and have babies? I swear, when I come back to the kitchen after scolding the toddler for sitting on the cat spending quality time with the toddler or hanging out the washing, there are twice as many dishes as I remember sitting there on the sink, gloating at me. I ignore them, hoping they’ll go away. (They don’t.)

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Thank God for the dishwasher (which by the way I only just started using after many years and yes, I’m a big fan)! And for quick and easy brownie recipes. One-bowl brownie recipes. Or, to be technical, a one-saucepan brownie recipe. This one had me at ‘hello’. I did have to adjust the pan size and baking time, but now that I have, they’re perfect. Pretty much. Just ate four pieces in one sitting, and no, my hips are not thanking me. But I’m certain you will.

You’re welcome.

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The Lazy Cook’s Melt and Mix Cocoa Brownies

Prep time 15 min
Total cooking time 20 min
Makes 16

Ingredients
80g (2 ¾ oz) butter
40g (1 ½ oz/ 1/3 cup) unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch process)
145g (5 oz/ 2/3 cup) caster sugar
2 eggs
60g (2 ¼ oz/ ½ cup) plain flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
100g (3 ½ oz/ ½ cup) dark chocolate chips

For fun:
A handful of mini M&Ms

Method
Preheat oven to 180C (350F/ Gas 4). Grease and line a baking tin 20 x 20cm (8 x 8 inches) with baking paper.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, then stir in the cocoa and sugar. Add the eggs, stirring to combine.

Sift the flour, baking powder and a pinch of salt into the saucepan, then stir to combine. Add the chocolate chips and stir until just combined. Do not beat.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, sprinkle with mini M&Ms and bake for 18 minutes, or until shiny and set. Don’t be tempted to leave these longer in the oven. If they are still slightly squidgy, this is good.

Allow to cool in tin, then remove to a board and cut into 16 pieces.

Eat warm, while the chocolate chips are still melty and soft.

Adapted from Family Circle’s ‘Baking – A Commonsense Guide’

Eggplant and Sweet Potato Curry

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Given the predominance of cake on this site, you would be forgiven for thinking we think we live on the stuff. Truth is, I get more excited about sweet than savoury, but we do eat healthy meals. The reason they often don’t make it to the blog is because by the time I’m making dinner it’s too late and too dark to start taking pictures, and then by the next day it’s either all gone or packed away in the freezer for next time. But I have had every intention of sharing some of our favourite meals. It just takes a bit of organisation; like making dinner in the morning. So that’s what happened today.

It felt so good to be ready for the toddler’s dinner by 5pm, that I think it will become a habit!

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Recently I asked some friends for their favourite winter warming recipes, and realised too late that I should have included a disclaimer. Most the recommendations were for soup, which I rarely make, and for pumpkin soup, which I *never* make! I think sometimes the dishes you grow up on are not always the ones you want to replicate in your own kitchen. And my mum made a lot of soup! But I like curries. We both do. We especially enjoy Thai curries, and ones without a lot of meat. So, although we have been blessed with spring-like weather lately, winter’s not over yet.

In anticipation of a few more cold, wet and rainy days, let’s put the wok on and cook up a curry.

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This one is a fairly recent addition to our favourites list, but is now on rotation so that we have it at least once a month. Especially in the cooler months, its warmth is welcome. Given that it’s so quick, tasty and budget-friendly, there’s no wonder we love it. And given hubby’s aversion to anything fishy, I particularly love that it was written without the need for exotic Asian grocery condiments. No fish sauce here, just salt. And if you don’t have access to Thai basil, then regular sweet basil will do!

Chock full of vegetables, this Thai-style curry is ready in thirty minutes and even better the next day.

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Eggplant and Sweet Potato Curry
Adapted, barely from Julie Goodwin

Serves 4

To convert this into a meat meal, reduce the volume of vegetables and add 600g browned chicken thigh fillet while simmering.

Ingredients
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
¼ cup Thai red curry paste
½ sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1.5cm cubes (about 2 cups)
1 eggplant, peeled and cut into 1.5cm cubes (about 4 cups)
1 x 400g tin crushed tomatoes
1 x 400g tin coconut milk
1 tablespoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup basil leaves

Method
Place oil in a wok or large heavy-based pot, and over low-medium heat, stir fry the garlic until softened. Add the curry paste and stir for another minute, until fragrant.

Add the sweet potato and eggplant and toss to coat in the curry paste. Add the tomatoes, coconut milk, brown sugar and salt. Bring to the boil and reduce the heat. Leave on a high simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sweet potato is tender and all the vegetables have cooked through. Taste and add more salt or sugar if required. Remove from the heat and stir through basil leaves.

Serve with steamed jasmine rice.

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Lime & Coconut Cake {gluten-free + dairy-free}

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Sometimes it pays to keep your mouth shut. Make that all the time. But I like honesty; I prefer to be truthful. So I say it like it is. Or rather, I say what I’m thinking. Not always a good plan.

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We were out for coffee, two other gal pals and I. One, a dietician, works giving advice to those who are suffering with obesity or malnutrition or other issues, such as food intolerances. The other two of us stay at home mums with a penchant for baking. The dietician made a request for any tried and true gluten-free recipes, to which I may have replied, “I have a few…” and our other friend said, “It’s easy. I just replace the regular flour in any cake recipe with GF flour.”

“It’s not that simple,” I blurted (in my best condescending know-it-all voice). And regretted it immediately.

“Isn’t it?” she replied innocently. “I do it all the time”.

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And she was right, of course! This is her recipe, as given (verbatim): “One cup SR flour, one cup sugar, one cup coconut, one cup coconut milk. Mix and bake in moderate oven till you smell the ‘ready cake’ smell ;)” I was sceptical, but excited to see if it would work. As soon as I could, I went and bought some GF flour and followed her instructions (with my head already full of tasty alterations). At exactly 55 minutes, the ‘ready cake’ smell began to waft through the house, and I removed a lovely, moist, lightly browned coconut cake.

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Lime & Coconut Cake {gluten-free + dairy-free}
I have had fun playing around with the ingredients a little, but really wanted to keep it simple for sharing here on the blog. As a result, the only changes are a reduction in sugar and the addition of some lime zest and a simple glaze.

Ingredients
1 cup self-raising GF flour
1 cup desiccated coconut
2/3 cup caster sugar
1 cup coconut milk
Zest of one lime, finely grated

For the glaze
½ cup pure icing sugar, sifted
2 ½ teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice

Desiccated coconut, extra
Lime zest, extra

Method
Preheat oven to 180degrees C (350 degrees F). Grease and line a small loaf tin (base measures 7 x 3 inches).

Mix all ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Pour into prepared loaf tin and bake in a moderate oven for 50 – 55 minutes, or until risen and lightly golden brown. Allow to cool in tin for a few minutes before removing to wire rack to cool completely.

Make up glaze with ½ cup icing sugar and 2½ teaspoons lime juice. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon desiccated coconut and ½ teaspoon finely grated lime zest.

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