Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Recipe: Strawberry Compote

A simple but useful dessert sauce that serves as a wonderful accompaniment to things like panna cotta and other creamy desserts, as the tartness of the strawberries cuts through the richness of the cream, while its sweetness ensures a good blend of tastes.

Ingredients (Makes 1½ cups)

1 cup strawberries, diced
2 Tbsps Cointreau or Grand Marnier
2 Tbsps sugar

Strawberry Compote meez

In a bowl, mix the strawberries, liquor and sugar. Toss well to make sure that everything is mixed together.

Macerating strawberries

Allow it to macerate in the refrigerator for an hour or two. The sugar draws moisture out of the strawberries, creating a syrupy-sweet strawberry sauce for you with no effort at all.

Strawberry compote

Using a hand-held blender, blend everything roughly, leaving a few small chunks of strawberry to give the compote some bite, and use accordingly with your dessert.

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Recipe: Panna Cotta

Italian food has a reputation for being very rough and ready, with its hearty stews, soups and pastas that Italian grandmothers throw together with yesterday's bread and ingredients so ripe that they aren't much good for anything else. This sort of cooking seems rural and pastoral in contrast to the haute cuisine of French cooking, simple versus sophisticated.

However, I find that the simplicity of Italian cooking belies the very real skill needed to pull it off. Simple and heartfelt though it may be, it still requires the perfect balance of timing, tenderness and temerity to produce an inimitable risotto or squid-ink pasta.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Italian desserts. To make an ephemeral tiramisu is no mean feat, even though the ingredients are basic. One of my favourite Italian desserts is panna cotta, which is basically cream cooked with gelatine, producing a rich yet sublime dessert that when made correctly, is in that magical state between liquid and solid that can practically be inhaled.

Numerous attempts at panna cotta have always disappointed me, as the result has always been either too firm or too liquid, usually because gelatine measurements are always so imprecise. Finally though, I've managed to produce a decent panna cotta with a recipe that doesn't have all kinds of odd measurements.

Panna cotta can be either unmoulded to stand on its own, or served in its container. If unmoulding, use small containers like ramekins or even disposable plastic containers, but if serving in situ, use classier stuff like wine or martini glasses.

Panna Cotta (Serves 8)

1 satchet powdered (about 1 Tbsp or 10g) gelatine
2 cups (500ml) heavy/thickened cream
1½ cup (350ml) milk
1/3 cup sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla or 1 vanilla pod

Served with strawberry compote

Panna Cotta Meez

Notes on ingredients: Gelatine measurements differ from brand to brand, and some of you may opt for gelatine sheets instead, but basically you want enough gelatine to set 500ml of liquid, even though you have about 850ml. This is because the cream will set slightly when cooled. Even if you can't get heavy cream, just use single/whipping cream and do not change the amount of gelatin. Vanilla pods can be bought from specialty stores like Culina or Phoon Huat. Ramekins can be bought from Shermay's Cooking School.

How to split a vanilla pod

Remove the seeds from your vanilla pod by splitting the pod in half and scraping them out with a knife.


In a large saucepan bring cream, milk and sugar just to a boil over moderately high heat, stirring. Do not let your mixture boil vigorously as your cream might curdle.

Gelatine in cream

Remove pan from heat and stir in gelatine and vanilla with a whisk. Make sure all the gelatine has dissolved, and that there are no lumps remaining.

Ice bath

Strain through a sieve into 8 ramekins or martini glasses, in order to remove all the burnt vanilla seeds and undissolved gelatine, and cool in an ice bath to room temperature. Chill containers, covered, in a refrigerator for 4 hours or overnight.

Panna Cotta

If serving in situ, simple spoon the strawberry compote onto the surface of the panna cotta, or even simpler, serve with fresh berries and a sprig of mint.

Panna Cotta

If unmoulding, run a knife round the edge of the panna cotta, and let the container sit in warm water to expand. Never use hot water or your panna cotta will melt. After two minutes, invert the container onto a plate and thump it a bit to dislodge the panna cotta. Spoon the strawberry compote over and garnish with syrup, chocolate sauce, mint and other such decorations. Your panna cotta should be wobbly, balanced delicately being a solid jelly and liquid cream, so that it melts tantalisingly in your mouth. If for any reason you don't achieve this, fiddle with the milk and cream measures: more milk to make it less firm, and less milk to make it more so.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Recipe: Braised Lamb Shanks

Sometimes, when looking for a recipe, I come across not one, but two, that look promising. Instead of choosing between the two, I prefer to combine both in the hopes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes this works, but other times one isn't as fortunate.

In this case, I found two recipes, one here and another here. The first I chose because I really liked the addition of porcini mushrooms, and the second because I thought the first lacked a suitable amount of braising liquid.

Ingredients (Serves 8)

4 cups hot water
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms
Zest of 2 oranges
Juice of 3 oranges
4 bay leaves
4 large fresh rosemary sprigs
8 whole cloves
Extra-virgin olive oil
4 onions, chopped
4 carrots, chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
8 lamb shanks
3 cups (1 bottle) dry red wine
2 cups veal stock
1/2 cup tomato paste

Lamb shank meez

Notes on ingredients: Dried porcini mushrooms have to be bought at a specialty store, like Culina or Indoguna. Get lamb foreshanks rather than hindshanks, as they're smaller, tastier and less smelly. You may find that 8 shanks take up a lot of space, so what I did was to split them into two batches of four, cooked in two separate pots.


Combine 2 cups hot water and mushrooms in a bowl. Let stand until mushrooms soften, about 30 minutes.

Sweat vegetables

Heat some olive oil in a wide pot over medium-high heat. Sweat vegetables until softened, about five minutes or so.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer vegetables to a separate bowl.

Brown meat

Add more oil to the pot and brown the lamb, in batches, as evenly as possible. You can see just how big the hindshanks are here. Not only do they take long to cook, they take long to eat too. Once all the lamb has been browned, return them to the pot.


Using a slotted spoon, add mushrooms, then mushroom soaking liquid, leaving any sediment in the bowl. Add orange peel and juice, herbs, wine, and tomato paste. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Add stock to the pot and bring to a boil again. If the level of liquid doesn't cover the lamb, top it up with wine, stock or water. I used water, which result in a somewhat diluted sauce.


Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. By this time your braising liquid should have changed colour, becoming saffron coloured.


Return the vegetables to the pot and partially uncover it. Simmer until lamb is tender and the meat is falling off the bone, turning every 15 minutes, about 1 1/2 hours longer.

Falling off the bone

Your lamb should look something like that once you're done with it. Note that the meat has also become much darker.

The recipe then instructs you to "Transfer lamb to bowl. Boil until sauce is thick enough to coat spoon lightly and is reduced to 5 cups, about 35 minutes. Discard herbs and orange peel. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper."

Personally, I wouldn't really bother, because it's nigh-impossible to discard the herbs and orange peel without tearing out your hair. Reducing the sauce is a good idea though, but 35 minutes seems a bit excessive.

Lamb shank

Spoon the lamb and sauce onto a plate. You may choose to include some of the vegetables and mushrooms, if you so desire.

In all honesty I wasn't very pleased with the way this turned out, as the lamb wasn't quite tender enough and tasted a bit bland despite my best efforts. Also, there was far too much of it to eat. I might try this again with foreshanks though, and perhaps less water.

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Recipe: Tomato Soup

I remember tuning in religiously to Nigella Lawson's Forever Summer programme every morning. I was really enamoured of the way she used seasonal fruit and produce to evoke such visceral delights that not only looked and tasted of sumer, but made you glad that you were alive.

Tomatoes were often a key ingredient, especially fresh ripe tomatoes bursting with vibrant juiciness and succulent with flavour. While such tomatoes are rarely to be found here, I've always enjoyed the idea of using them in a dish nonetheless. They seem to lend themselves most naturally to soup, so I thought I'd give it a shot. Recipe taken off Epicurious.

Ingredients (Serves 8)

1.8 kg tomatoes, halved lengthwise
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
3 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups chicken stock or low-sodium broth
Garnish: fresh oregano sprigs or basil leaves

Tomato soup meez

Notes on ingredients: If I made this again I would have included some chopped basil leaves, because as Jamie Oliver so coincidentally reminded me today in an episode where he made a different tomato soup, tomatoes and basil are best mates.

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat to 180°C.

Roasting tomatoes

Arrange tomatoes, cut sides up, in 1 layer in a large shallow baking pan and add garlic to pan. Drizzle tomatoes with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. "Halved lengthwise" means cutting across the tomato, not through it. The first two halves you see on the left have been halved crosswise. That's wrong.

Roasted tomatoes

Roast tomatoes and garlic 1 hour, then cool in pan on a rack. After they've been roasted, the tomatoes swell and become sweet. The garlic too, softens and becomes buttery.


Cook onion, oregano, and sugar in butter in a 6- to 8-quart heavy pot over moderately low heat, stirring frequently, until onion is softened, about 5 minutes.


Add tomatoes, and basil, if you're using it, to the pot. Squeeze the garlic cloves, getting out all the softened sweet garlic, discarding the peels, and add it in.

Tomatoes and stock

Add stock and simmer, covered, 20 minutes.

Less stock

By then your stock should have boiled down a bit, and the contents of your pot should evoke wonderful feelings of a carefree summer's day.

Tomato soup

Purée soup in batches in a blender (use caution when blending hot liquids), then force through a sieve into a cleaned pot, discarding solids. This ensures that you have a texturally cleaner soup, and as the seeds and skin are a bit acidic, it improves the taste too. Salt and pepper to taste and simmer 2 minutes.

Soup bowl

Divide soup among 8 bowls and garnish with oregano or basil leaves.

Apparently this can be made a day ahead and stored, but I'm not really keen on that idea, as I feel tomatoes should be consumed at the height of their freshness.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Review: Choupinette

We had originally decided to try Bather's, but unfortunately I had not anticipated that the restuarant would be closed for lunch on Saturdays.

Eventually we decided to have lunch at Choupinette, a little place along Bukit Timah road, just down from The Cellar Door, which sells nominally French food and breads.


The place is tiny, probably accomodating 20 people or less. It was packed when we got there, but we managed to grab two seats by the window. Half of the tables were occupied by Francophones, so this is a good place to go to improve you French. Unfortunately, I couldn't really understand what the adults were saying. Even more unfortunately, I couldn't really understand what the kids were saying either.


May decided to get into the act by donning my shades. Very BCBG. Très French. The prices on the menu were surprisingly expensive, comparable to a place like Sebastien's. We decided to go for the set meal, since it seemed to make the most sense. Salad or Moussaka or Lasagne, Dessert and Drink for $20+.

Iced Chocolate and Mocha

The iced chocolate or mocha drinks here would cost you about $5 normally, and are truly dreadful. The iced chocolate hardly tasted of chocolate; instead it was bland and put me in mind of really diluted chocolate milk. As for the mocha, well, May didn't even finish hers.


We both had a lasagne ($16), which was passably decent. Very cheesy, though I couldn't recognise the cheese used. Soft and gooey, but not stretchy like mozzarella. Definitely not the best lasagne around.

Chocolate Mousse

I decided to have the chocolate mousse for dessert, which is a bit of a risk even at the best of times, since mousse contains uncooked eggs. The mousse I was given ($7) was actually quite large, and didn't look very promising. Sure enough, my spoon encountered resistance the moment I dipped it in; the mousse was much too dense. Valiantly, I tried a spoonful, and can safely say it was quite inedible. There was a rather unpleasant aftertaste to the chocolate, a soury bitterness that I did not feel came from the cocoa content.

Creme Brulee

The creme brulee ($6.50) was better, but as you can see, doesn't really inspire confidence. In fact, it looks very much like a burnt egg tart.


Choupinette also retails bread, but given the disappointing standard of their food, I wasn't particularly keen to try out their baked goods.

So now that we've established that the food was rather abysmal, what about ambience and service? Ambience was okay, laid-back and casual, if a bit chintzy from the gauzy blue curtains and shells. In true French fashion though, service was pretty awful. We stood around after enterring the place for some time before it dawned on someone that we might require a table. Subsequently, we were not attended to until one of our neighbouring diners ordered a coffee and rather pointedly suggested to the waitress that we might like to order. After our meal, I had to specifically request for our dessert despite having made eye contact with the waitress for about five seconds. To all waitstaff who may be reading this, if a customer stares at you right in the eyes, it's possible that he's absolutely enthralled by your beauty, but chances are you've forgotten something and he's getting impatient.

I can only imagine that French kids like eating here, because I can think of no other reason to come here.

Choupinette (French, casual)
607 Bukit Timah Road
Tel: 6466 0613
Location: 4/5
Ambience: 3/5
Service: 1.5/5
Food: 2/5
Overall: Évitez d'y aller. Avoid like the plague.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Review: Buko Nero

Buko Nero

Buko Nero is a tiny (and I do mean tiny) Italian-fusion restaurant nestled away in the Tanjong Pagar area. The name itself is a play on the Italian "buco nero" or "black hole", though I'm not entirely sure why it's spelt with a K.


The restaurant can only accommodate 20 people, and reservations are a must as the place is almost always fully packed. In the time we were there, every single table was occupied, and they even had customers coming in at 9pm. In fact, I hear most times reservations have to be made a month or more in advance.

So what explains the restaurant's popularity? Not its location, certainly. Not its ambience, either, for while the place is charming and cosy but with enough stylish sleekness with its modern eclectics, I don't see people going there to admire the design. The only explanation then, has to be the food.


What was pretty amazing is that all the food is prepared in this small kitchen, manned by only the chef-owner, Oscar. Just goes to show that it's not difficult to cook for 20 with the right equipment and preparation. The entire restaurant is staffed by only three people; Oscar, his wife Tracy, and a lady I assume is Oscar's mother. This makes service very personable, as you are constantly attended to by one of the ladies, who are more efficient than most poorly-trained waitstaff. The great thing about Buko Nero is the set dinner, which is affordably priced at $35 for five items, but unfortunately nothing I saw on the set menu made me interested enough to order it.

Ham and Melon

Our meal began with a complimentary amuse-bouche, basically an updated version of the traditionally Prosciutto e Melon, dressed with spring onions and a brush of sweet balsamico. Nice.

Bresaolo salad

My sister ordered a portion of the bresaolo and mozzarella salad. I quite liked this combination, the slight saltiness of the cured meat and buffalo cheese giving flavour to the otherwise uncharacteristic vegetables.


Next we had some tomato and mozzarella crostinis, topped with prosciutto and kaiware (daikon sprouts). These little suckers pack quite a punch, owing to the fact that they're laced with truffle oil. Great as one-bite morsels, these shouldn't be too difficult to replicate as canapes at home with the right ingredients.

Porcini mushroom soup

My real starter was a porcini mushroom soup ($9.50), laced with a generous dash of truffle oil. I would think that a soup made from porcini mushrooms would be prohibitively expensive, but either the chef knows a way to extract a maximum of flavour from his mushrooms, or the porcinis have been mixed with regular funghi. Either way, the soup wasn't more expensive than others you'll find, but it was much more intensely aromatic, with notes of porcini and mushroom melding well to give a really thick and heady soup.

Citrus Sorbet

The chef kindly provided all four of us with a citrus sorbet palate-cleanser even though it was an item on the set menu. I'm not a great fan of palate-cleansers, and this didn't really work for me. I assume the citrus fruit used was grapefruit or blood orange, and I'm not very fond of the bitter aftertaste of these fruits.

Beef Tenderloin

My obligatory meat course: pan-fried beef tenderloin with potatoes and asparagus ($28). This was pretty good, even with the mundane vegetables. I was quite intrigued by the sauce, which contained some ingredients I found hard to place. The fist taste was sweet, almost syrupy so, which then faded to tartness that played on the tip of your tongue.

Green Tea Panna Cotta

My sister ordered a Green Tea Panna Cotta, topped with azuki beans, which I decided to try, and found to be fairly interesting; the green tea flavouring was mild and subtle, though the panna cotta's consistency was a bit thick.

While Buko Nero has much to recommend it, I find there are a number of factors that would make me reconsider a return visit. First, its location. Tanjong Pagar is one of the most dreadful places to come for dinner, especially if you drive, because parking is always a problem. Even if you don't drive, I have no idea where the restaurant is in relation to the MRT. In addition, the nightlife of the area leaves plenty to be desired, as it is packed full of nightclubs and KTV joints. Second, having to make a reservation a month in advance is very off-putting, because even though the food was good, I don't think it can claim to be El Bulli or The Fat Duck calibre. Lastly, a la carte dishes are not particularly cheap, further reducing incentive to make advance bookings.

Buko Nero (Italian fusion)
126 Tanjong Pagar Road
Tel: 6324 6225
Closed on Sundays
Location: 1.5/5
Ambience: 3/5 (questionable environs)
Service: 4/5
Food: 4/5
Overall: Probably one of the better fusion restaurants around, if you can stand the wait.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Review: Max Brenner

In the beginning, the Lord created chocolate, and he saw that it was good. Then he separated the light from the dark, and it was better.

I think the only truly acceptable discrimination based on colour is in distinguishing between light and dark chocolate. No true chocolate-lover could ever admit a fondness for milk chocolate without risking immediate and vociferous condemnation and exclusion.

Max Brenner's chocolate bar, thankfully, is a good place for chocolate lovers. I'd always heard of it, but never quite knew where it was. I knew it was somewhere in the Esplanade, but as I'm hardly in the area, and never really ventured beyond the Concert Hall, it's not a place I'm terribly familiar with.

Nuts just take up the space where the chocolate ought to be.

Still, I'd a chocolate appointment to keep with Dawn, and we decided that Max Brenner would be the best place to get our chocolate fix. Supposedly started by some bald Israeli guy named Max, there are now outlets in Australia, Singapore and the United States.

Chocolate Bar

Now, there is a bar in Max Brenner, although I'm not entirely sure you can order alcoholic beverages from it. It just seems to be a counter for preparing snacks and drinks.


I really like the layout of Max Brenner. Everywhere you look evokes chocolate. From the dark wooden furniture, the muted, mellow lighting, and of course the row upon rows of chocolate products.

It's not that chocolate is a substitute for love. Love is a substitute for chocolate. - Miranda Ingram

Max Brenner offers a whole range of chocolate eatables and beverages. I vaguely remember there being non-chocolate stuff, but honestly, who pays any attention to that?


Dawn had the very interestingly named Suckao ($6), which involves melting your own chocolate over a tealight candle and mixing it with some milk to make a lusciously rich chocolate drink. The drink gets its name from the fact that you have to suck it up through a thin metal straw. This is possibly the one thing you must order here, because it's really really good.

Hug Mug

I had a Venezuelan dark chocolate drink ($5), served in a "hug mug", because apparently you're supposed to cup it with both your hands, almost as if you're hugging it. Cute, if a little gimmicky. This was pretty good too, one of the more decent hot chocolates I've had in a while, though I didn't like the bits of chocolate at the dregs of the drink.

There's nothing better than a good friend, except a good friend with chocolate. - Linda Grayson, The Pickwick Papers

And naturally I'm the latter option, as you can clearly see from Dawn's, ah, transcendental expression...


My one complaint though, is that service could do with some improvement. I stood at the entrance for a good minute and a half, in full view of the waitstaff, before someone approached me to ask me if they could help me. Apparently I'm not the only one who has complaints about service; see here, here and my comments. So be prepared for bad service if you're thinking of going, and I would recommend only ordering the smaller items like the Suckao and chocolate drinks, rather than the other items like the souffle or fondue, which have been the source of much unhappiness.

Max Brenner (Chill Out)
8 Raffles Avenue
Esplanade Mall
Tel: 6235 9556
Sun - Thurs: 12pm - 11pm
Fri - Sat: 12pm - 12am
Location: 3/5 (variable depending on your mode of transport)
Ambience: 4/5
Service: 1/5 (points deducted due to the plethora of complaints about bad service)
Food: 4.5/5 (how can chocolate be any less?)
Overall: Worth checking out if you have a chocolate tooth, but beware the bad service!.

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