Friday, December 19, 2014

Fettuccine with Creamy Onion Mushroom Pork Chops

Okay, so you may think that I'll never be caught dead with a can of Campbell's in my hand. That is indeed true to a very large extent. But hey, on a clammy winter day when you are time-pressed and in need of some TLC, cracking open that creamy can of Campbell's that's been sitting quietly and patiently in the rear of the pantry might just do the trick.

Like anything from a can, using canned soup doesn't have to be boring or bland. This is the time when you gourmet things up a little bit with some added basic ingredients and a touch of fresh herbs. 

And so I dashed to the supermarket for some half-lean, fresh bone-in pork chops and cremini mushrooms and ended up with easy breezy creamy pork chops served two ways, two different days. Instead of pan-frying the chops, I deployed my Panini Grill for a speedy way to flash cook my chops before dunking them to a simmer in the creamy sauce, keeping them still tender, moist, juicy, and minimizing the mess and cook time!
Smother your tender chops and pasta with creamy onion and mushroom sauce!

To prepare...
Fettucine, for two servings
4 bone-in pork chops
1 can (305g) condensed cream of onion
1/3 cup water
1/2 lb. (227g) cremini mushroom, cleaned and sliced
1 onion, brown, yellow, or red, roughly chopped
3 cloves of garlic
Butter or cooking oil
Fresh thyme sprigs
Parsley, chopped, for garnish
Salt and fresh ground black pepper

1. Cook fettucine al dente according to package instructions in well-salted water.

2. Sprinkle pork chops with salt and pepper. Grill on preheated Panini Grill lined with baking paper until barely done, flipping once, about 3 minutes. Reserve drippings. Alternatively, pan fry on skillet with vegetable oil over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes or until browned on both sides.
 
3. In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Saute garlic and onion with mushrooms and thyme. Set aside.

4. Stir cream of onion and water in saucepan and bring to a boil. Add pork drippings, mushrooms mixture, and pork chops and simmer until the pork is cooked through. Drain pasta and serve topped with pork chops and creamy onion mushroom sauce. Buon appetito!

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Serve with sauteed sugar snap peas and baked sweet potato for a lower-carb take

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Grilled Swordfish with Mango Pineapple Passionfruit Salsa

For the last couple of weeks, Hong Kong has gone under a shroud of gloom that summoned artic precautions both in and outdoors. With my penthouse smothered in a dense, dreary fog that made it difficult to tell day from night, food photoshoots at home came to a complete halt. As the cold front finally lifted, revealing once again breezy, crisp mornings, the Penthouse Kitchen is brisk to get back on track with something sunnier than ever. Hold off on the down jackets and long johns, 'cuz we are going tropical this time!

My pantry recently overflowed with produce I lugged home from Bangkok and Singapore. Mangoes, chilies, red onions, and limes (all of which cost a fraction of what we will pay in Hong Kong) unite with the pineapple and passionfruit that I have at home, and it occurs to me that I have everything needed to create a vibrant tropical salsa that could brighten up even the gloomiest of days.

Mango Pineapple Passionfruit Salsa - sweet, refreshing, with a kick of fire!
This cool, sweet, fresh salsa, highlighted by a tang of citrus and emblazoned with a kick of heat, pairs exceptionally well with hot seafood as it provides delicious contrast to the rich flavors of the ocean. Passionfruit pulp adds an interesting crunch to the salsa. Pair this refreshing salsa with firm, meaty grilled swordfish - also known as "steak of the sea" - and you could almost picture a lazily swinging hammock and hear the splashing surf on a warm Caribbean beach.

To prepare...
2 swordfish steaks
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the salsa:
2 ripe mangoes
1 cup diced fresh pineapple
1 passionfruit, flesh scooped (optional)
1 very small red onion, minced
1 long red chili, seeded and finely diced
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint 
1 lime, zested and juiced





 1. Slice off the two fleshy cheeks on either sides of the mangoes, cutting as close to the pit as possible. Score flesh into a 1/4-inch dice. Scrape fesh from mango skin with a knife and let drop into a medium bowl.


2. Combine mango with pineapple, passionfruit, red onion, chili, cilantro, lime zest and juice. mix gently and set aside.

3. Preheat grill. Rub or spray surface of fish with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill, flipping once, until barely just cooked through, about 4-5 minutes. Transfer swordfish to serving plates, and top with mango salsa. Enjoy!!


Note: Try this salsa with grilled chicken, or toss in a salad with avocado and butter lettuce!

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It's a trip to the tropics with this simple, colorful combo of fruit & surf!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mentaiko Pasta | Cod Roe Pasta

Browsing through Lonely Planet Japan, one line sticks in my head: "...drawing influences from the entire continent, the Japanese have spent millennia taking in and refining the cultural bounties of Asia to produce something distinctly Japanese." Japan's exceptional ability to assimilate, adopt, and ameliorate foreign ideas and creating something uniquely their own while keeping its deep-rooted traditions intact is truly fascinating.

In fact, Japan's geographic scope of cultural influences far extends beyond Asia, as is particularly evident in its well-established culinary arena. From beers to bread and pastry-making, from pasta and pizza to curry, Japan has absorbed influences and mastered techniques from India to Italy and, in turn, successfully created culinary specialties that are as authentic as they are distinctly Japanese. This simple Mentaiko Pasta (明太子パスタ) is a case in point.

Consisting of as few as just a couple of main ingredients and requiring no more than ten minutes to prepare, this popular dish is a classic example of East meets West and a testimony that simplicity rules. Mentaiko, essentially fresh pollack or cod roe that is brined and seasoned (color may range from pink to bright red, and flavor from mild to hot), is the star of this dish, its brininess balanced out by the creaminess of olive/avocado oil and butter, while shisho leaves offer up an interesting herbaceous note that contrasts impeccably with the intense "essence of the sea." Each ingredient practically sings on your tongue as you savor every mouthful!

Simplicity - and fusion - at its best. Now, care for chopsticks... or a fork?

I recently returned home to my penthouse kitchen set to work with mentaiko fresh from the supermarket in Japan. While some home cooks swear by heavy cream and even mayo, I opt for avocado oil (and some butter) for slightly more heart-healthy and - in my opinion - even better results.

To prepare...
400g dried spaghetti
1/2 cup, approx. 80g, mentaiko (I used mild mentaiko)
1/4 cup avocado or olive oil
Black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
Green shiso leaves*
Generous sprinkling of nori strips
Dried chili pepper, finely sliced, for garnish (optional)

*Note: if unavailable, substitute shiso with other aromatics such as Vietnamese mint as in my case, which works wonderfully!

1. Boil pasta al dente according to package directions.

2. Cut each roe sac in half, squeeze and scoop out the roe from each half, discarding the membrane. Add avocado/olive oil and black pepper and gently stir to combine.

3. When the pasta is done, drain thoroughly and add to the bowl with the mentaiko sauce. Add the butter and toss until butter is melted and each strand of pasta gets an even coating of sauce. Serve garnished with nori, shiso, and chili slivers. Bon appetit いただきます!

Adapted from Marc Matsumoto's recipe on No Recipes
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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Whole-wheat Flaxseed Carrot Cake Pancakes

Weekend is finally here, and nothing can beat a leisurely brunch of fresh fruits and a stack of steamy, fluffy pancake hot off the griddle, piled high. Trade ordinary flapjacks for bright, nutrient-rich wholewheat carrot cake pancakes fortified with flaxseeds and warm spices and you have a satisfying, feelgood breakfast that even kids will love.
I recently opened my fridge to a bag of Australian carrots waiting to be finished and I thought "hey, pancakes." Hearty pancakes. No one needs an excuse for pancakes, especially when you put carrot cake into a pancake, and realize these decadent stacks of joy can be an easy way to incorporate flaxseeds - which are packed with fiber and omega-3 - into your diet. Replace, or mix in, plain flour with whole-wheat flour, and you have more reasons to enjoy pancakes as they hold you over lunchtime.

If you incline to indulge a little, just a little, drizzle some pure maple syrup over your pancakes and dust with some cinnamon sugar. If you want to go all the way out, make a maple cream cheese frosting, or top with a pat of Whipped Maple Cinnamon Butter, and drool as it magically melts over those hearty, fluffy, warm blankets.

Kate Taylor's recipe on "Cookie+kate" calls for a cup of buttermilk, a commodity not readily found in many countries. Thanks to her sharing, I have learned how to make my own buttermilk with as simple as milk and fresh lemon juice.

Decadent, fluffy pancakes with loads of goodness!
To prepare...
1 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup ground flaxseed
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Dash of ground cloves
1 egg
2 tablespoon brown sugar
1 cup buttermilk*
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups finely grated carrots
Cooking oil, for griddle

*Tip: Combine 1 cup milk with 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Let stand for 5-10 minutes then proceed as directed.


1. Preheat oven to 90C/200F to keep the pancakes warm before serving. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

2. In another bowl, whisk together the egg, brown sugar, buttermilk, and vanilla.

3. Stir in the carrots, then dump the wet mixture into the dry mixture all at once. Stir just until incorporated. Do not overstir. Let the mixture rest for 5 minutes while you make the whipped maple cinnamon butter, if using.

4. Heat a large nonstick skillet or griddle and coat with oil. Spoon a scant 1/4 cup batter into the hot pan, using the measure cup to slightly pat down the batter. Cook, flipping once when tops are covered with bubbles and edges look cooked, until the pancakes are golden on both sides.

5. Keep pancakes warm in the oven while you continue with the remaining batter. Serve with maple butter and real maple syrup. Enjoy!


Adapted from Kate Taylor's recipe on Cookie+kate
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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Whipped Maple Cinnamon Butter

I was never really fond of maple syrup. Maybe the likes of Aunt Jemima's Original Syrup - readily found on many American breakfast tables, laden with high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and unintelligible chemicals - have forever tainted and mangled my taste for "maple syrup." For years I have shunned the wildly misunderstood amber liquid and reached for honey. Until recently I did no more than picking those glass bottles up on a supermarket shelf - sometimes shaped like a maple leaf - gawking at their prices then putting them down - all the time erroneously believing that pure maple syrup tasted the same as dear Aunt Jemima's. But as temperatures drop, and as leaves turn auburn and golden, my craving for the unique, rich flavor and caramel-like sweetness of maple syrup grow. I returned home from San Francisco with my first ever bottle of hundred percent pure, Grade A maple syrup. One taste, and I bid farewell to Aunt Jemima. Real maple syrup, much to my delight, is much runnier, lighter, and less cloying than its artificial cousin. A revelation that is grievously belated, but never too late.

Wonderful as a flavored spread on toast... or more!
Not long ago America was all head over heels for anything maple and bacon. Maple syrup shone in myriad forms - as a glaze, as a compound butter, as a main component of the sweet-and-savory duo. I remember how maple butter makes anything on a menu instantly a notch fancier. There is no denying that this airy, fluffy whipped butter makes anything good - from pancakes to waffles, french toast to cornbread, baked yams to sweet potato fries - just slather some on and experience pure magic as the butter melts into something warm.

Try it with Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Wilted Baby Spinach in Honey Butter. Replace butter with whipped maple butter!

Whipped Maple Cinnamon Butter may sound fancy, but it is certainly easy. Sara Wells from "Our Best Bites" shares her secret of adding powdered sugar to make dreamily fluffy, sweet compound butter - just gotta give it a try!

To prepare...
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 1/2 tablespoon powdered sugar
2 1/2 tablespoon real maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1. Place butter and powdered sugar in a mixing bowl and beat with a mixer until combined and smooth.

2. Add maple syrup, cinnamon and nutmeg. Beat slowly until incorporated then whip on high speed until light and fluffy. Serve at room temperature, or keep for about a week in the fridge, and up to several months in the freezer. Enjoy!


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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Thanksgiving Sandwich, with Caramelized Onions

I have many reasons to be grateful this year. Friendships come and go; some fade over time, some bud and grow unexpectedly, and some are made to last. I was invited to two hearty thanksgiving dinners this year, one on a dear colleague's handsome terrace near downtown Hong Kong, another on Thanksgiving Day in suburban Piedmont, California, at the charming family home of a dear friend whom I have known since college. 

Thanksgiving this year is particularly memorable, not only because I have finally had my first official turkey dinner, but also because of the friendships that it strengthens and creates, the love that goes into preparing this age-old tradition, and the warmth that travels around the table. Need I mention the food - the turkey, the scrumptious sides, the stuffing, the homemade cranberry sauce, the pies (my college friend Kelley prepared not one, but five pies - namely pecan, pumpkin, and apple pie - It was like a salacious fantasy come true). Having the chance to work alongside Kelley's mother - a remarkably loving, gentle, and soft-spoken woman - made the night all the more special.

Kelley and her mother, Miye, made sure no one walked out hungry
Of course, neither nights did I leave hungry nor empty-handed. Both my colleague Ava and Kelley's mother spoiled their guests with an inexhaustible array of food and leftovers. I greedily lugged home turkey, stuffing and all the works, which I happily devoured over the course of several days. For variety's sake, I changed up the presentation a bit, and one obvious way to go is the almighty Thanksgiving sandwich. 

To up the ante, I topped the fixings with caramelized onions - the tender, candy-sweet-and-savory topping that complements beautifully the savoriness of turkey stuffing and plays off the tart sweetness of cranberry sauce. An already luscious sandwich just sky-rocketed to the next level.

To prepare...
Several slices of hearty farmer's bread, grilled or toasted
Turkey meat
Stuffing
Salad greens
Cranberry sauce
Caramelized onions

For the caramelized onions...
2 onions (yellow, brown, or red), sliced
1 tablespoon butter, extra-virgin olive oil, or a mix
1-2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Brown sugar (optional)
Water
Salt

Pile on the icing on the cake!
1. Heat olive oil and butter in a wide, thick-bottomed pan on medium high heat. Add onions to pan and cook very slowly on medium low heat for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent onions from sticking and burning. Scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan as the caramelization proceeds.

2. When onions are softened and tinged golden, add sugar and cook a further 10 minutes. If necessary, add a little water to prevent onions from drying out or sticking. When onions have reached a desired shade of brown, deglaze pan with balsamic vinegar and salt onions to taste.

3. Stack your sandwich and top with cranberry sauce and loads of caramelized onions. Enjoy the taste of Thanksgiving!

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Wilted Baby Spinach in Honey Butter


With Thanksgiving right around the corner, families across North America are reuniting and busy putting their final touches on the menu for the most significant celebration of the year. Sweet potatoes, yams, and pumpkins take center-stage in family kitchens far and wide alongside the requisite roasted turkey. Everywhere seems to hum with joy and anticipation that this meaningful holiday brings.

Even though Thanksgiving may not be celebrated in Hong Kong, this could hardly deter me from injecting a dose of fall festivity into my kitchen. With just a handful of ingredients and no more than a few simple steps, the following recipe - adapted from Food Network host Robert Irvine's original - will surely warm up your day and have you scrambling for seconds.

Perfect as a side for a magnificent Thanksgiving spread, and no less stellar as a filling, nutritious meal on its own, this flavorsome roasted sweet potato dish trumps an ordinary mash or green salad. What's more? With so few steps and so little to wash, this dish might just be your answer when you have too much on your plate preparing for the Great Turkey Dinner.

To prepare...
2 medium to large sweet potatoes, cleaned (peeling optional), cut into 1.5-inch cubes
Drizzle of vegetable oil, to toss and coat
Half a red onion, or 3 shallots, diced
2 large handfuls of baby spinach
1 tablespoon honey
Small knob of butter* (less than 1 tablespoon)
Handful of pecans, toasted

*Note: Using quality butter makes a world of difference since the butter is the ingredient that brings together the entire dish. Or, add some flair with Whipped Maple Cinnamon Butter (recipe), and substitute honey with pure maple syrup!


1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F. In a large bowl, toss sweet potatoes in oil to coat. Place on baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes.



2. Remove briefly from oven and toss in the onions and continue to roast until potatoes are tender, approximately another 15 minutes. Meanwhile, have the honey, butter, and baby spinach handy.



3. Transfer sweet potatoes to the same large bowl. While piping hot, drizzle honey over the potatoes and add in the butter, mixing well. Gently toss in spinach. The heat from the potatoes will wilt the greens.


4. Serve warm and drown in the heavenly aroma of roasted onions and honeyed, melting butter! Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! 

Adapted from Robert Irvine's recipe on Food Network
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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Eat, Surf, Cook | Bali

Dear home cooks,

It has been a couple of weeks since my last entry. As some of you might have figured, Alvin's Penthouse Kitchen took some time off, but has hardly stopped cooking or gorging while on vacation!

On an unrelenting quest for adventure, my holiday this month took me back to the enchanting Bali, nearly six months since my last visit. Aspiring to pick up a new sport and a rather extreme challenge, I signed up for a week-long surfing course by the crashing shores of laid-back Kuta, West Bali.

In just days, I experienced the high of standing up on a surf board, the adrenaline rush of successfully catching and riding a rapidly breaking wave. I have, on the other hand, also endured the power of nature as waves double my height slammed like speeding trains, occasionally sweeping me into a helpless heap of laundry tumbling under ferocious currents. The biggest lessons I learned? Get up no matter how many times you fall. And don't mess with Mother Nature.

Fragrant seeds, nuts and spices: the foundation of Balinese cooking
Aside from beach bumming like a surfer, I dove into the world of Balinese cooking. On multiple occasions I have heard this comment from fellow travellers regarding the lack of "good food" on this Island of Gods. And boy, are they sorely mistaken. Apart from the host of international cuisines catering to tourists, Bali boasts a complex, distinctly Balinese food culture, blending indigenous traditions and foreign influences with Indonesian regional cuisines.
Ayam Betutu, a popular Balinese dish

Unlike many parts of Indonesia, Bali's inhabitants are predominantly Hindu, with every aspect of Balinese life steeped in religious belief. Pork, though rarely found in majority Muslim Indonesia, is widely consumed in Bali, making this world-famous island even more magical for hog-lovers like me.

Until attending my cooking class, I had only a vague concept of Balinese food from exploring restorans, warungs, and masakan padangs. Specialties such as bebek betutu, ikan pepes, and sate lilit feature prominently in many restaurants alongside Indonesian favorites like nasi goreng and sop buntut. Rice is consumed almost every meal, with an incredibly complex blend of spices permeating every element of a Balinese dish and its mesmerizing array of spicy sambals.

So what exactly makes Balinese cuisine so remarkable? I decided to find my answers by learning it hands-on. From candlenut to the torch ginger, we learn the basics of Balinese flavors and the base wangen - or fragrant spice paste - used in all ceremonial foods and most everyday dishes. We grind our own ingredients and cook off at the wok station, getting our hands "dirty" massaging meat and tossing salads, finally culminating to a feast of nine dishes all created from scratch.

Grinding spices the traditional way!
Paket Gurame Bumbu Oles
Not only did I walk out will a full belly, but also returned home with a deeper understanding, craving and respect for Balinese food. I look forward to experimenting at home at Alvin's Penthouse Kitchen and sharing with you all!

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Classic Red Wine Sangria

As I write this entry, I am probably already tipsy. What better way to start your day than to wake up to some booze laced with your daily serving of fruits and vitamin-C? (Alright, keep moderation in mind, guys. Especially those who went to bed over booze.) Joke aside, I am ecstatic as I whip up this giant pitcher of classic Sangria because not only is it a breathtakingly glorious day out today (good weather should never be taken granted for), my long-anticipated leave is also nearing on the horizon. I may not have a travel buddy this time, so to take advantage of my week and a half off, I am considering to take up a challenge, to learn something completely new and wild - and it might just be surfing in Bali. Stay tuned for updates!

Order a glass of Sangria at a bar or restaurant, it may set you back a hefty bunch. Make it at home, and you will soon realize that this traditional Spanish favorite costs little more than the wine you choose. It requires no mixological skills - only time in the cooler to allow flavors to mingle.

Sangria is peculiarly forgiving when it comes to variations in ingredients. Add more juice or soda for a sweeter drink, go easy on the brandy, or tip in other fruits such as peaches and halved grapes. Use fresh, quality orange juice or squeeze your own, none of that concentrate crap.

People tend to think of Sangria as a summer drink, but in fact it is just as delightful any other day, at a party, weekend brunch, or a cozy candlelight dinner like tonight with close friends. One does not need a reason to celebrate with Sangria.

To prepare...
1 bottle (750 ml) red wine (I used an Australian Shiraz) 
Orange juice of two oranges, freshly squeezed (approx. 1/2 cup)
1/4 cup brandy
1 tablespoon Simple Syrup*, or more to taste (*equal parts sugar and water, heated until sugar dissolves, cooled)
1 apple, Granny Smith or Pink Lady, cored and cut into 1-inch pieces 
Orange and lemon slices
1 can of lemon-lime soda (optional)
Fresh mint sprigs


In a pitcher, combine the red wine, orange juice, brandy, simple syrup, and fruit. Stir to combine and refrigerate until drink is chilled and flavors are blended, 4 hours up to overnight. Serve over ice and garnish with sprigs of mint. Add soda if desired.
Any hour is happy hour with a pitcher of Sangria. Salud!
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Monday, October 27, 2014

Leek and Mushroom Tart

There are three things that, when swirled together in a skillet, smell absolutely heavenly. They are mushrooms, garlic, and butter. Say no more. I just hover over the stove and innn-hale.

Pair sauteed mushrooms with leek - the elegantly long, weighty cylindrical bundle of leaf sheaths, recognized by its white, yellow, and green hues and bold flavors of onion, shallots, and scallions - and you've got fireworks going off in your kitchen. Layer the ensemble on buttery, flaky pastry, dress it with gruyère or goat cheese (or even sour cream), and spruce it up with a touch of fresh thyme - and there you have a sensational tart that is sure to carry you deep into the woods into the French countryside.

Make your own pastry if you have the time and the energy; otherwise, go for puff pastry sheets like I did and practically have this delicious tart piping hot out of the oven in 40 minutes. Serve as an appetizer, a vegetarian main dish, or tote this savory tart to a holiday gathering; just be sure to grab a slice before it vanishes!

Rinse in between sheaths to remove any dirt
To prepare...
1 sheet puff pastry, thawed if frozen
2 leeks, parted in the middle and thinly sliced into half moons
1/2 lb. (227g) cremini mushroom, cleaned, stemmed, and sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of butter
85g cheese of your choice (eg. crumbled goat cheese, gruyère. I used 1/3 cup of grated cheddar)
1/4 cup milk
1 egg
Fresh thyme and flat leaf parsley, chopped

1. In a skillet, melt 1/2 tablespoon butter over meduim-high heat. Briefly sauté garlic, then add mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are soft and have released their juices, 3-4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.


2. Melt the remaining 1/2 tablespoon butter. Add leek and sauté until softened and barely browned, about 4-5 minutes. Set aside.



3. Preheat oven to 200C. Place baking sheet in oven to warm up. In a small bowl, whisk together the cheese, milk, egg, and a generous pinch of pepper.


4. Roll out puff pastry on baking paper. Lightly dust pastry with all-purpose flour if too sticky. Spread the cheese mixture to within 1 inch of the edge of the dough. Cover with leek, and fold the edges of the dough over the filling to make a free-form tart.  

5. Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet along with the baking paper. Bake until the crust puffs and both the crust and the leeks are golden, about 15-20 minutes. Scatter mushrooms over the leeks and bake for 5 minutes more.

Tip: Adding in mushrooms towards the end can prevent the mushrooms from drying excessively. If added in the beginning (pictured on left), lightly cover the filling with foil halfway through baking, like I did.



Sprinkle tart with thyme and parsley, serve!

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Honey Roasted Pumpkin and Zesty Couscous Salad

Muggy, steamy days are finally giving way to crisp and breezy mornings. The blistering sun has softened, casting warm, glowing beams as it retires earlier each evening. Everywhere, shopfront mannequins are exchanging capris and tees for cardigans and plaids, signaling that - at long last - Fall has arrived.

In Hong Kong, Autumn is as pleasant as it is transient, no longer so much a distinct season as in the past, but more of an elusive transition into the dry, and sometimes harsh winter. With that said, fall is unquestionably my favorite season to do just about anything: taking a leisurely stroll, hitting the outdoors, having a barbecue... all without the fear of a heat stroke. Heck, even my garden plants seem to be perkier these days. 

A dear friend currently positioned in Saudi Arabia was in town last week and I promised to throw a cozy dinner party for three. Planning a dinner menu is like composing an orchestra: how does each dish flow with one another? What is the sequence of preparation? I needed a substantial salad cum starch that is at once guilt-free, easy to make, and most importantly can be made ahead of time.

With fall and Halloween around the corner comes a plethora of pumpkins big and small, ready to either be carved or thrown into an oven. A rudimentary survey of my pantry has me rounding up a basket of seemingly incongruous ingredients: a box of couscous, some oranges, and an assortment of dried berries and nuts. Surely with a little creativity these can turn into an amazing salad. 

Some simple web-surfing quickly captures my attention on a fascinating recipe that laces them all with accents of aromatic herbs and zesty orange. With a little tweak and some simplifications, the result is an explosion of bold flavors and a tantalizing palette of colors. So delightful and captivating it is with its combination of berries, pecans, and the perfumes of orange, it is like a little bit of Thanksgiving and Christmas, summer and fall all in one! Makes a wonderful side for fish and poultry, and definitely Thanksgiving-worthy.

To prepare...
600g pumpkin, peeled and cut into 2 cm cubes
2 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup orange juice
3/4 - 1 cup couscous
A large handful of dried cranberries and currants
Orange zest of one small orange
2/3 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 bay leaves (optional)
1 bunch of fresh mint leaves
1 bunch of fresh coriander leaves
1/4 cup chopped pecan nuts, toasted

Dressed in honey and olive oil, heading for the oven
1. Preheat oven to 180/200C. Line a baking tray with baking paper. In a large bowl, toss pumpkin with honey and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Place in a single layer on prepared tray. Bake for 20 to 25 min until caramelized and tender.

2. In the same bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons orange juice and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Set aside.

3. Meanwhile, place couscous, cranberries, currants, and half of the orange zest in a large heatproof bowl. Place water, remaining 2 tablespoons orange juice, salt, and bay leaf in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. (Alternatively, mix orange juice with 2/3 cup chicken stock)

4. Pour over mixture and cover bowl with foil. Stand for 5 min or until liquid has been absorbed. Fluff couscous with a fork to separate grains.

5. Add pumpkin, mint, coriander, nuts, and orange dressing to couscous mixture. Gently toss to combine and garnish with remaining zest. Enjoy warm or at room temperature!

Note: if making ahead of time, leave herbs, dressing, and nuts until just before serving.

Adapted from Claire Brookman's recipe on Super Food Ideas
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