Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Recipe: Claypot Rice

This post came about because of a long-forgotten memory. Back at university, I used to make chicken claypot rice, or "sar-po-fun" in Cantonese, in the house rice-cooker. My housemates would gather at the kitchen table for dinner and my housemate from HK, R. would wait patiently for everyone to help themselves, then she would pick up the rice pot gleefully and scrape the bottom, where the caramelized rice had burnt into a crispy surface.

This is the best part, she would say happily. She's getting married in May. I had a sudden thought of reviving this dish over New Years and while shopping for "lian huo" or "New Year goods/food" at Chinatown, I picked up some chinese sausage (lup cheong) and fragrant dried mushrooms.

In Sinagapore (and probably everywhere else), there are two kinds of dried mushrooms. There are the chinese mushrooms, which are thicker, tend to have more white then brown surfaces and these are firm and turgid when cooked, providing excellent texture for eating but they have no real smell. The japanese kinds, tend to be flatter, with less bite but are more expensive becuase they have a nuanced and deep flavour and aroma.

I like to make my claypot rice with both types, for a good hefty bite and good taste (the picture above shows the two kinds of mushrooms). I also like to find as many types of sausage, there's the regular lup cheong, there's also a darker liver sausage and in Macau, they make a really yummy, short, sausage, which I always thought, growing up, was a blood sausage, but I think it's some variation of the liver and extra fat pork sausage.

I've lately seen some websites referring to lup cheung (臘腸) as smoked sausage. Lap cheung is so named because its made during the lunar month of December, the 'Lap' Yuen (臘月) in ancient Chinese. It can be 1) wind-dried (most common; cookery classics say the wind can preserve the meat's 'umami' whereas sunlight can enchant its 'scent'), 2) baked or 3) smoked (least common; because the sausage is already well-seasoned).

The recipe that I use is fairly standard and general. The only thing that I think I do different and am fairly particular about is that I line my rice cooker with a lotus leaf. I feel that really gives the dish a unique and heightened flavour.

I tried to ask the proprietor at the dried goods store where to find lotus leaves. When I was in the US, it was very easy to find at any Chinese supermarket. My untrained non-Asian housemate went off and at my bequest, returned successfully with a stack of dried lotus leaves from Ranch 99, so I always assumed it was neither very difficult nor very labourious to procure. Strangely, in Singapore, they seem to be a lot rarer.

I was told to try some Chinese herbal stores but over the weekend when I was at Tekka market, I thought I'd test the hypothesis that you can buy Anything at Tekka market. The store keepers there are terribly helpful, they kept shaking their heads but pointing further into the market and saying "maybe there got". So I kept walking deeper and deeper into the market for a hot half an hour, losing faith with each row of stalls and almost giving up when I reached the very back and no one had any.

Then this old lady hanging about one of the stalls, pulled my sleeve conspiratorially and whispered "pssst, psst!" while pointing upward at a shelf in her neighbour's stall. Sure enough, right at the top, I saw two stacks of dried lotus leaves! I walked around to the front of the stall but the owner was nowhere to be found. Not wanting to leave empty handed, I stood on tip-toe and carefully extracted three dried leaves, then left a dollar on the stall counter before walking away.

The process:

The first thing you need to do is boil water and soak the dried mushrooms till they are whole again. Also, the lup cheong, like all sausage, comes with a skin, which needs to be removed. The skins are nowadays made of synthetic material- you need to plunge the sausage in boiling water, then quickly immerse it in ice water, then slice open one end of the skin and like a stocking, pull it off over the whole sausage.

Cut up some chicken meat (I like to use chicken thighs after removing the skin, as the meat is more tender than fillet) and marinade the meat with some dark soya sauce, a spoonful of oyster sauce, some chinese shao-xing wine, some sesame oil and a handful of diced scallions, cilantro and spring onions. You can choose to cut up the sausage and add it to the marinade with the mushrooms, or leave them both unmarinated. Marinate the meat for a couple hours or covered, overnight.

When you marinate, you don't want to drown your chicken in sauce. You need to stir fry the chicken, mushrooms and chinese sausage together and if you have drowned it in sauce, pour away most of it when frying or your rice will become too salty. Don't fry too long until the meat dries because the chicken will cook again in the rice cooker.

Then measure out your rice and wash it, draining out the water. Heat some sesame oil in a pan with chopped ginger, garlic and spring onions and dry fry the rice. (You're meant to fry the rice with the chicken fat that you cut off the thighs but it's optional).

Wipe and rub down the lotus leaf, inside and out, with warm water. You'll probably find that the water just trickles off the leaf, just like when it's in a pond. Spread the leaf open in the pot of the rice cooker, forming a rough bowl with the leaf. Tip in the rice and fill to required level with chicken broth (either home-made or packaged).

Ladle the chicken, sausage and mushrooms over the surface of the rice. If you want, wash some chinese green vegetables like bak choy or brocollini and lay it on top of the chicken. This will steam in the heat and cook naturally.

Wrap the edges of the lotus leaf inward, over the rice and ingredients. If you start with a decently large leaf, there should be enough to form a wrap over all the ingredients. Close the lid over the leaf and cook normally. When the rice is cooked, the chicken and vegetables will be steamed and you can unwrap the leaf package and sprinkle fresh cilantro and spring onion over the dish and serve.

It has the most heady smell as and after its cooking, literally you can smell the meat and sausage juices melting into the cooking rice. This is a pretty rich and filling dish. If you have poor liquid to rice measurements, you may have to add a little more broth, or if it's too wet, open the cover and continue depressing the cooking switch on the rice cooker for some additional minutes, allowing it to cook and aerate at the same time.

Variations include adding some salted fish to the dish, or marinating some hard boiled eggs and adding those into the mix.

Review: Relish

This past week, I had a cousins lunch at Relish, the new burger eatery opened by Willin Low, the proprietor of Wild Rocket.

I have to thank Rachel Balota for the people photos on this post. If you are in need of a photographer, who is not only super gifted with her eye for colour and beautiful composition, which you can check out here, but wonderful and accomodating to work with, definitely contact this crazy talented girl.

Relish is always crowded, everytime I go and it has the undefinable joie de vivre of good and popular restaurants, that is, this feeling of happiness and a happy place. It's full of light and fun, more comfortable then pretentiously trendy.

Maybe it's the cheerful yellow walls, the high breezy ceilings and unassuming hardwood floor, the young and enthusiastic service, or the stacked fat burgers and clever selection of complementary Belgian beers but whatever the case, it's a fantastic place, particularly for a midday meal as it allows you to experience and enjoy the saturation of colours and smells of the day.

The menu is simplicity itself, which is usually a good thing. There are three salads, three side orders, 10 burgers and three desserts. There are also 10 beers which can be paired with your choice of burger, as well as some wines, floats, soft drinks and coffee and tea. Unless otherwise specified, the meat in all the burgers comes medium rare, which in my biased opinion is exactly as it should be.

We had two orders of the original Wild Rocket burger and two orders of the Ramlee burger. I like the original burger but since I'd had it often at Wild Rocket, I was looking forward to trying something new. The Wild Rocket burger is a 170g patty of chopped-up chuck and ribeye in a bun with fresh arugula leaves, sun-dried tomato relish and a Sarawak pepper cream.

I was particularly taken with my Ramlee burger, yes, don't say it, this was a $19 burger so of course it's not what you get in the street.

Look at how thin the omellete is and how it folds neatly over the patty!

It even slices evenly, to display the envelope of egg. It was juicy and slightly spicy, yet light enough for each mouthful to taste both of solid meat and fluffy bun. It was very good and I enjoyed it throughly.

Another yummy burger is the Mexicana burger, which I've tried before but didn't have this time. This is the Grilled Beef Burger with the open face fried egg.

While it's true that it's not the cheapest burger joint and the clientele is both modern and well-heeled (the week we were there, former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan was enjoying lunch with some friends whilte being watched by security detail), I feel Willin's Relish is an experience because the burgers are very generous, with a thick patty and chunky home-made chutneys where the quality speaks for itself.

I would call ahead for a table! As they say, go grab their buns.

#02-01 Cluny Court (next to Serene Centre)
501 Bukit Timah Road
Singapore 259760
Tel: 67631547

Recipe: Yorkshire Pudding and Vegetarian Quesadillas

Remember those BBQs from your teenagehood? A gaggle of guys and girls crowded over a smoky pit eating half charred or half cooked pieces of skinny chicken wings, tough satay and canned Coke?

Those are terrible memories! Maybe it wasn't even about the BBQ at all, just to have something to do and a reason to invite people to gather. Since then, I've learned the value of a orangewood grill but never really been tempted to go back and stand over a charcoal fire.

Life throws you curveballs though. After many years of neglect and in preparation to host some college friends for a remember-those-times dinner, we finally got down to reviving the BBQ pit that my parents built into the garden many decades ago. It was exciting, building the grills, discovering that since my teenage years, Singapore has progressed to the point where we now have quick-burning charcoal (charcoal soaked in kerosene) and packs of hickory and applewood chips.

As luck would have it, the day dawned bright and windy but as it went on, grey clouds overshadowed the BBQ (although the weather was still perfect for outdoor eating). In the end, we had to make do with a makeshift BBQ but hey, it was worth it for a reason to wake up early to go to the market for some fresh produce. I was so happy I entirely overbought food (or so I thought but them good college friends came with matching appetites).

The beef above was a combination of 4 steaks of Grain-fed Ribeye and 2 steaks of Wagyu Ribeye from the Swiss Butcher and a 800g bone-in Cote de Bouef that I had bought and froze over Christmas from Greengrocer. The regular ribeye was surprisingly reasonable and very well marbled but the Wagyu is almost quardraple the price!

I must admit that the Wagyu does taste more tender and the Cote de Bouef was superb, of course the guys claimed it for themselves! I've heard it referred to as a super-prime, or a beef loin plus a beef rib, or in the US, a T-bone, which is the combination of a NY strip and the Tenderloin strip.

Sadly I have no picture of the largest cut of meat, since it took the longest to cook. The marinades were very simple, just lemon, a splash of red wine, rosemary, parsley and sliced garlic. The fragrance and juice was an explosion of meat, lemon and smoked applewood!

After a weekend of watching Jamie Oliver DVDs, I decided to make his Yorkshire pudding recipe, although the method of dumping batter in smoking hot oil struck me as a bit worrisome. I needn't have worried though, the recipe does work out perfectly and I'll definitly be making these from now on, it was both a cinch and a crowd pleaser!

Yorkshire Pudding
1/2 pint (285 milliliters) milk
4 ounces (115 grams) all-purpose flour
Pinch salt
3 eggs
A odourless vegetable oil like sunflower or grapeseed

1. Preheat oven to 220 C
2. Mix the batter ingredients together with a hand whisk or blender. Let rest for 10 minutes or a couple hours. The longer you rest the batter, the higher your puddings will be.
3. Preheat a Yorkshire pudding tray or a shallow muffin tin with 1/2-inch (1 centimeter) of oil in each section. The oil will heat up in the oven and when it's sputtering hot, quickly pull out the tray, ladle batter into each.
4. Put it back into the oven and cook for around 15 to 20 minutes until crisp and puffy, don't open the oven door before then or they won't rise.
5. Things to watch out for include, make sure your batter is not lumpy by mixing the eggs together first. Put a tray under the muffin tray in the oven to catch the spillover oil. Make sure your oil is Really Very Hot, or the batter will not cook immediately.

Don't forget to season the batter, as I did (producing somewhat bland although puffy puddings) and don't panic if the batter looks limp when you replace the tray in the oven, it Will puff up, just wait with the oven door closed!

These are the crayfish and squid that I bought from Tekka market in the morning, marinated in ginger juice with cilantro, chillis, lemon and a splash of white wine.

These are the crayfish after they're cooked, they don't entirely turn red so it's a bit deceptive. The BBQ squid was very good as well and significantly cheaper than the crayfish, which were about $22 for 7 medium sized ones, although they were fairly fat and meaty.

I also bought some lamb chops which I seasoned with herbs (thyme, mint and parsley) and ground cashew nuts and some sausages from Swiss Butcher, their white veal sausages and fat chipolata sausages are excellent and are I suppose, the higher grade alternative to the chicken picnic sausages or frozen chicken frankfurters from those teenage parties!

To keep the guests filled up while the meat was cooking, we made some quick vegetarian quesadillas. I'm slowly coming round to the idea that these are super effective and convenient snacks (this from someone who only ever ate egg white quesadillas with mushrooms in California). The filling of grilled capsicum, cheddar cheese and cilantro really is light and yummy. We omitted the roast chicken (which you can put in for a more filling regular meal) so that it would make a better snack and we finished several rounds of these.

Vegetarian Quesadillas
2 capsicums, 1 red and 1 yellow
A handful of spring onion stalks
A large bunch of cilantro
1 package of shredded cheddar cheese
2 large portobello mushrooms
Sour Cream
Wheat or flour tortillas

1. Roast two capsicums over an open fire till the skins are mottled black
2. Scrape away the skins and chop up the capsicum flesh
3. Roast two portobello mushrooms and dice it up
4. Mix into chopped cilantro and spring onion, mix in the chedder cheese
5. Pan fry some flour tortilla, spread the insides with sour cream and fill
6. Lay on a cutting board and quarter
7. Variations include adding sundried tomatoes, guacamole or shredded roast chicken.

We also had an awesome salad from J. who completely outdid himself again. I entirely forgot to take pictures of it but it was particularly amusing because he snitched his mom's yu-sheng plate to contain the mountain of salad he'd made. It was a most imagenative combination as well, mixed salad greens with cherry tomatoes, sultanas, hazlenuts, walnuts, all mixed with a clever chutney jam sauce. Suffice to say it was a gigantic plate and it was all finished.