Thursday, September 29, 2011

Singapore and Malaysia: Travels with Ibu and Pak

Magnificent orchid display at the Singapore Botanic Gardens
The blog has been a bit quiet lately because I took a short and unexpected holiday to Singapore and Malaysia.  Just thought I would share some of my travels with you. 

All in all it was a great trip: fantastic food, wonderful gardens and lansdcapes, warm and friendly people, inexpensive and easy to get around.
A truly inspired archway of orchids, Singapore Botanic Gardens

We started off in Singapore (this is expensive) and much has changed since Gavin Young's 1991 fantastic travel book "In Search of Conrad" but he sums up the place much better than I could.
Torch Ginger, Singapore Botanic Gardens

"The skyscrapers of Singapore's newly created seafront shoot-up have a self satisfied look, shining like dragon's teeth in the sunshine.*  They proclaim both the rewards of hardwork and a new hard-headed Singaporean-Confucian attitude to the wicked layabout modern world. 
 At the same time one cannot deny that those icing sugar towers, those shiny dominoes announcing MONEY make a spectacular background to the scores of cargo ships and tankers of all sizes and nationalities that spread themselves across the anchorage in neat rows like a fleeet waiting for some cock-hatted admiral to review it." *(Very smoggy when we were there from the fires in Sumatra).
A must see if you are in Singapore are the Botanic Gardens - a beautiful and welcome green space full of the most spectacular display of orchids and tropical plants.
Okra, chokoes, bitter gourds, snakebeans, eggplant on a market stall in Little India
We also get a chance to catch up with my daughter's old friend Claudia - a professional chef - who took us for a sumptuous seafood meal at Long Beach on Dempsey Hill with black pepper crab and razor clams - the kind of food that Singapore is famous for.

Perhentian 'Tuna Bay'
Next we took the overnight 'jungle' train through from Singapore in the south to the north of Malaya.  All I can say was that it was 'interesting', nothing like the photos in the internet site (no buffet car!!) but the scenery was spectacular. 

We then spent a heavenly five days on the Perhentian Islands with the best snorkelling I have ever done.  Clear blue waters, live coral and spectacular sea life including turtles, fantastic tropical fish and even baby sharks.  To walk off the beach into clear warm waters and be surrounded by hundreds of rainbow coloured fish I think is becoming a rare thing.

Penang - our 'limo'
Penanga Hotel
Back to Kota Bahru on the border with Thailand and then a day long bus trip west to Penang where we had one of those lucky breaks - the gorgeous Penaga Hotel in central George Town, part of the UNESCO heritage site.  

The Penaga is one of the few hotels in Malaysia with 'green' credentials and an eclectic mix of modern art and furniture and antiques, converted from old shop houses.  They have an 'artist in residence studio' with two lucky Australians currently staying there sponsored by the owners.  We spent a happy few days covering the 'art trail' of Penang by rickshaw, taking in the sites and feasting on the famous Nyonya food (Malay/Chinese).  We travelled far and wide looking for good, authentic food and on the last night had one of the best meals of our holiday in the Penaga 'Cinnamon' restaurant- 4 courses for MR28.50 (about $9A)
Nutmeg and mace drying on the streets of Penang

Temple sign - how you know your in the exotic East
Food is a funny thing.  It can be the simplest thing, but if you are starving and you get what you are craving for - it can be the best.  It was like that when we got off the train from Singapore after 13 hours.  While we were waiting for the boat to the Perhentians I found a Kopi/Roti open-air cafe (Coffee/Bread).  Here a man in a Malaysian long shirt with songkok hat was making a kind of stuffed pancakes from scratch.  My mug of strong black Malaysian coffee with a stuffed banana and coconut pancake was one of the best things I have ever eaten.

We discovered a real mix of cuisines in Penang, a lot of it familiar to us from our travels in Indonesia with the added flavours of Thai, Indian, Sri Lankan, Chinese, Vietnamese and Western.
B-b-q lobster and prawns with tom yum soup and kang-kung
Berjaya, Langkawi
Our final stay was on the beautiful island of Langkawi - a three hour ferry trip from Penang.  We stayed on the north west part of the island on the edge of the Machinching Geoforest Park at Pantai Kok. 

It was an incredibly beautiful location with soaring jungle cliffs full of wildlife - lizards, squirrels, birds and lots of monkeys.  Langkawi is also duty free so a cold Tiger beer will cost you about 30c.  I was beginning to get addicted to $4 Mai Thai's so it was time to head for home.
Macaque monkeys, Langkawi
The lovely Pantai Kok marina, Langkawi
The delight of travel are, for me, those unscripted moments - the unexpected places and people that you meet and one snapshot is from Penang.  We had gone to Fort Cornwallis and Michael was enjoying every exhibit, while I had taken a rest in the shade by the ticket booth, when suddenly the aged Chinese ticket seller pulled out her mouth organ and started playing a medley from 'The Sound of Music'.  By the time she got to the second bar of 'Edelweiss' I was laughing with her and singing along.  Her furious husband appeared from his nap under the table and, in spite of his loud remonstrations in Chinese, she continued with a wink and a wave as I left playing a lively rendition of 'You are my Sunshine'.  Happy travels!
Sunset in the Perhentians (with lots of smog from fires in nearby Sumatra!)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Recipe: Homemade Bread with Baked Ricotta

I used to think that bread making was a real art form and that you needed weightlifting muscles for all that kneading - not true!!  I have got into the habit of making this bread at least twice a week because it is so easy and so delicious (and, have you seen the price of real bread recently?)

500 g organic flour (I use a mix of spelt and wholemeal)
2 level tsp dried yeast
1 tsp salt
1 level tsp sugar
2 tbs olive oil
350 ml filtered water (approx)
handful pitted olives
1/2 cup polenta

1.  I use the dough hook on a food processor, but you can do this by hand.  Mix together dry ingredients.
2.  Add oil and slowly add water until it forms a dough.  Continue to beat for 10 minutes until dough becomes elastic.
3.  Leave to rise in a greased bowl for approx. 2 hours in a draught free place.  I use my laundry.  I loosely cover with some greased plastic wrap and a tea towel over the top if it is a cool day.  Should double in size.
4.  Punch down on a tray scattered with polenta.  Shape however you wish.  I then either press half olives into the dough or brush with an olive oil/salt/fresh rosemary mix.
5.  Leave for another hour.  Heat oven to 200oC
6.  Bake for approximately 30 minutes.  You know when it is cooked when it if slightly golden and it sounds like a drum when you knock it with your knuckle - and it smells heavenly!!


500 g ricotta (the 'cake' kind)
1 tbs chopped chives
1 tsp fresh marjoram or thyme
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
salt and pepper
1 tbs olive oil
1 free range egg

1.  Use the oil to well grease an ovenproof ramekin or souffle dish.  Scatter with the chilli flakes.
2.  Mix all the other ingredients together.
3.  Pour into the dish and bake with the bread for approx. 20 mins.  It should puff up and go golden.
4.  Cool slightly and turn out onto a plate.  Delicious for lunches, picnics, breakfast and sandwiches.  Will keep for a few days in the fridge

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Recipe: Kale (Cavolo nero or Tuscan Kale))

Tuscan Kale - I prefer this to any other variety for it's flavour and ornamental look when it's mixed among a flowering border.

I was sitting in Brunswick Heads the other day having my hair cut by Gini, hairdresser extraordinaire (and roller derby queen), when she asked me what you do with a garden full of kale? 

I have to admit that it has taken me a while to warm to all kinds of 'greens' - for they are too redolent of my childhood school dinners and the pervasive smell of boiled cabbage lingering in the damp corridors, along with malingering, bored teenagers. 

Kale has changed all of that.  It's fancy name of cavalo nero just means black cabbage in Italian. (It's like finding out the Casanova just means Newhouse!)  It becomes every day instead of exotic.  

It's part of the large cabbage family of Brassicacea - botanic name Brassica oleracea acephela - and therefore susceptible to pests of this family - particularly the cabbage white butterfly.  

What changed my mind?; it's incredibly easy to grow, cold hardy and long lived, it doesn't smell when you are cooking it, it's extremely versatile to cook with and very good for you at the same time.

KALE is very nutritious: a good source of folate, vitamin K, iron, iodine, calcium and Vitamin C and fibre.

TIP:  When the stems get long and leggy, just cut the top off and it will sprout from all sides giving tender, new succulent growth.  Just make sure it gets some water and you give it a liquid feed.

Cavolo Nero and Bean Soup:  This is a delicious Sicillian recipe (freeze what you don't use)
400g dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight and cooked in salted water until tender (they are firmer than the canned variety but they can be used instead)
2tbs extra virgin olive oil, plus extra
2 sticks celery, diced
1 carrot. chopped
1 brown onion, chopped
1.5 litres chicken stock
1 cup halved, fresh cherry tomatoes
200g cavolo nero, shredded (discard thick stems)
Shaved parmesan, to serve
Juice of a lemon

1.  Heat 2 tbs of oil and saute onion, carrot and celery for about 5-10 minutes stirring often.
2.  Add tomatoes, stock, cavolo nero and beans and simmer for another 15 minutes.
3.  Add salt and black pepper to taste
4.  Serve topped with shaved parmesan and a drizzle of olive with bread recipe (to follow)
5.  I like to add the juice of a lemon.  See what you think
Other ways to use kale:
Sauteed:  Shred it, removing the midrib, and blanch in hot water for about three minutes.
Meanwhile heat a fry pan or wok with some olive oil.  Toss the wilted kale in the hot oil for about 1 minute.  Add sea salt and pepper.  Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice.  Serve with any kind of meat or fish.  You can beetroot tops in the same way - they are delicious and a favourite in Greek cuisine.  
Breakfast:  Blanch some covolo nero (stems removed), drain and chop roughly.  Divide between individual buttered ovenproof dishes and break two eggs into eat dish.  Add a handful of grated cheddar cheese (can be fetta), salt, cayenne pepper and bake in a moderate oven until cheese is golden and eggs are cooked. (You can add a bit of cream too)
With pasta:  Sautee some day old sour dough breadcrumbs with olive oil, anchovies, fresh chilli and lemon zest.  Meanwhile blanch some shredded covolo nero.  Mix together with fine spaghetti.  Drizzle with olive oil and top with freshly grated parmesan.