Monday, February 22, 2010

Beef and Potato Madras Curry

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Beef and Potato Madras Curry
Home Cooking

Sometimes, I really dread coming up with material to yak on about in these posts. This is particularly the case for throw-together recipes where the true backstory is nothing more elaborate than "I decided to cook something using what little ingredients I had available". The same applies for most cafe posts because the usual story is that I was wandering around the city thinking "where haven't I tried?" and I'll stop at a new location with the intent of blogging it.

Thankfully I have a genuine backstory to this curry. My grandparents came back to Australia after a trip to the states. One of my cousins gave granddad a gift of curry powder. Apparently, he had researched the products available and found that this particular brand of curry powder was multi-award winning.

I've heard before that making curry out of something labeled 'curry powder' is the ultimate in casting aside any claim to authenticity. That's OK. I won't claim this recipe will produce anything like a traditional Indian curry. The curry powder I'm using was handed to me from my granddad - the brand is 'Sun Brand' and the tin reveals that it's actually produced in USA. My neighbor claims that this powder smells/tastes like any old supermarket curry powder so I'm sure you can substitute.

Beef and Potato Madras Curry
Serves 4

  • 400g chuck steak, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 3 large potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 3 carrots, chopped
  • 1 cup beef stock (or water)
  • curry powder
  • cayenne pepper
  • chili flakes
  • honey
  • olive oil
  • garnish with: chopped coriander and natural yogurt

1. In a large frying pan, stir-fry the beef, onion and carrots on high with some oil.
2. Add the curry powder to taste. Add the other spices (cayenne pepper and chili flakes) and adjust to your personal liking.
3. Cover with water or beef stock. Simmer for 20min.
4. In the meantime, boil the potatoes until they're just under-cooked.5. Add the potatoes to the curry in the last minute.
6. Add honey and salt to taste (you could use regular sugar).
7. Stir through gently and serve warm with natural yogurt and coriander.

This curry looks misleadingly slow-cooked but we didn't take very long at all to whip it up. I suppose you could slow-cook the meat to make it more tender but where time is lacking, chose a better cut of meat as this allows you to cook it for less.

Sexy white flesh of potato contrasting against saucy brown

For us, the winning component of this curry dish was the potatoes. Boiling the potatoes separately and adding them in the end is my granddad's method of keeping them waxy and intact. It might be a personal thing but I find that this textural variation really adds a new dimension to the curry. Rather than having mushy, half-dissolved potatoes soaking in the sauce, the whole chunks of just-cooked potato allow them to stand out as a distinct component of the dish.

Curry close-up

We've made variations of this curry with the addition of chickpeas, tomatoes etc. You can get pretty creative. I personally wouldn't mind just potato and beef without carrot but hey, this is up to you.

A portion of this curry was offered to my Indian housemate who a)laughed at the fact that we used beef (apparently not many Indians use beef) but b) said that it tasted pretty good.

Happy Hours Tea Bar

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Happy Hours Tea Bar
Shop 91, Sunnybank Plaza, Sunnybank

My parents and I did a hectic dash around Sunnybank last week. We had a list of chores to get through including picking up my contacts. This was an urgent matter because my slackness and lack of organization meant that I was up to my last pair of fortnightys and literally needed new boxes ASAP.

Parking around Sunnybank can be stressful (*cough* Market Square, I'm thinking of you) so we tend to grab lunch near wherever it is we need to be. In this case, it was Sunnybank Plaza.

Dad was in the mood for beef rolls which to me, is a blast from the past. Back many years a go, my family used to grocery shop in Welcome and lunch on beef rolls from the adjacent Half Time Cafe. That cafe has now changed its name but they still serve similar food so I'm not sure of the conclusion to draw there...

In any case, we did go and dad did get his beef rolls. Mum and I ordered 2 lunch plates. They were dished out cafeteria-style where you get rice and you chose 1 meat dish and 3 veggie dishes and they ladle it out onto a large plate. Happy Hours also serves an assortment of buns, snacks, drinks etc. Great uni-student feed.

Beef rolls

The beef rolls are a roti-like pastry with braised beef, spring onion and sauce inside. They were really cheap too.

Beef roll cross-section

Kind of like a hybrid non-duck Peking wrap. They're greasy but very delicious and flavorsome.

Meatball lunch plate

The lunch plate I got had a rad meatball creation. I also chose some simple veggie sides. I particularly liked the eggplant. My favorite style of eggplant is braised, spicy and for want of a better word, 'mushy'. This stuff was ultimate in mushiness. Eggplant heaven.

Fish lunch plate

Mum's plate contained fish, which I avoided. She also had some picked vegetable dish that was way too sour for us to handle. Dad was joking that it wasn't sour from lemon or vinegar but that they just added straight acid to achieve that sourness. Actually he might not have been joking. I think that HE thought he was serious...

I think Happy Hours Tea Bar is a nice place for a really casual, unfussy and hearty meal. The style of food is homely and the prices are pretty good too.

Hummingbird Cake

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Hummingbird Cake
Home Cooking

For no reason besides slackness in updating, this post is actually outdated by about 3 weeks. I baked a hummingbird cake for my parent's Chinese New Years family feast. For me, an excuse for baking a full-sized cake is always appreciated and half the fun is choosing what I want to make.

To cater for my then-urgent banana bread cravings, I pushed aside all thought of creating anything chocolate, coffee or cream cheese-based in favor of a fruity cake. To avoid baking an actual banana cake/bread (which would provide no sense of accomplishment whatsoever since banana bread, after scones, are my most-baked items), I searched around for something a bit more 'dressed up'.

I found this recipe for hummingbird cake from Joy of Baking. Hummingbird cake is one of those things at the back of my mind that I've always wanted to try. My imaginary version had always involved honey but upon inspecting the recipe, I realized that it's basically a banana cake beefed up with pecans and crushed pineapple. Sounds simple enough but the combination has an attractive tropical vibe and the cream cheese frosting won me over.

I tried to follow the original recipe exactly but when I baked my cake, I poured the batter all into one tin rather than dividing it amongst 2 tins. As a result, I panicked throughout the whole baking process and modified the temperature/times to prevent the outside from burning before the inside set. It turned out well but the recipe I'm posting below is the original so you are supposed to use 2 tins.

Hummingbird Cake
Makes 1 x 22cm diameter cake

  • 1 cup of pecans, toasted and finely chopped
  • 3 cups of plain flour
  • 2 cups of white sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 3/4 cup neutral-flavored vegetable oil (I used canola)
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 225g can crushed pineapple (do not drain)
  • 2 cups mashed ripe bananas (the more brown and speckled they are, the better)
  • Whole toasted pecans and shredded coconut for garnish (optional)
For the pecan cream cheese frosting:
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 227g cream cheese, room temperature
  • 450g icing sugar, sifted
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup pecans, finely chopped

For the cake...

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Butter two 23cm diameter round cake pans and line the bottoms of the pans with a circle of parchment paper.
2. Place the pecans on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for about 8 minutes or until lightly browned and fragrant. Let cool and then chop finely. Set aside.3. In a large bowl whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and ground cinnamon. Set aside.4. In another large bowl, mix together the eggs, oil, vanilla extract, pineapple, mashed bananas, and finely chopped pecans.5. Add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture and stir until combined.
6. Evenly divide the batter between the two prepared pans and bake for about 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean (remember I stuffed up and baked using just the one pan so my photos aren't representative of the proper procedure. I then cut my cake in 1/2 horizontally to create 2).7. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack. After about 10 minutes invert the cakes onto the wire rack, remove the pans and parchment paper, and then cool completely before frosting.

For the frosting...

1. Beat the butter and cream cheese, on low speed, until very smooth with no lumps.
2. Gradually add the sifted powdered sugar and beat, on low speed, until fully incorporated and smooth.
3. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Beat in the vanilla extract and then stir in the finely chopped pecans.
To assemble the cake...

1. Place one cake, top side down, onto your serving platter. Spread with about a third of the frosting.2. Gently place the other cake layer, top of cake facing up, onto the frosting, and spread the rest of the frosting over the top and sides of the cake.3. I then coated the sides with shredded coconut and decorated the top with whole pecans.4. Refrigerate the cake for about one hour so the frosting has time to set.

I had reservations whilst making this cake but at the end, everything pulled together nicely. The cream cheese frosting didn't let me down and complimented the tropical flavors of the cake. Not only that, it kept everything nice and moist.

The only critique I have is that the frosting and cake together was a bit too sweet for me. Next time, I would reduce the amount of sugar in the batter.

Silly bite shot since the portion in my hand is tiny

Otherwise, this is a visually impressive cake and it's very easy to make. You don't even need a mixer for the batter - can just fold the wet and dry ingredients together by hand.

My family tend not to be impressed by fruit-based cakes but I had a lot of positive feedback for this one.

Charis Seafood for a Prawn Feast

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Charis Seafood

Alright... so, I do like uni. That aside, my classmates and I were all in for a treat last week when a power failure meant we had 2 days off. To say we were pleased with this outcome is just about the greatest understatement of the year. When we heard the news, my girlfriends and I milled about for a while debating the most appropriate way to celebrate.

We decided to go to the coast. A bit of an adventure was had along the way... long story short, I was locked out of my house and ended up climbing in through the kitchen window. After a very brief moment of absolute joy, I realized I was locked out of my actual room too (I live in a sharehouse by the way). We ended up fishing my keys out of my bag by means of perching on the outside stair railing.

My friend immortalized this achievement and even digitally framed it

After finally getting to the coast we lost all sight of what to do there. It was raining and gloomy so the beach seemed inappropriate. But once you've taken the pains of driving down to the water, it's a bit of a waste to say, go see a movie, check out generic chain stores or eat at KFC.

We made the most of our proximity to the ocean by selecting a nice seafood market. My foodie friend recommended Charis Seafood market (although she had conveniently forgotten what it was called and tried to Google 'pelican seafood coast' on her iPhone for a mysterious reason unknown to all others).

(I'm trying to find ways of starting paragraphs without using 'we'. I fail...)

We got to Charis in the end and I was first and foremost impressed with the size of the market. The left of the building is where you order cooked seafood to eat (burgers, fish and chips etc). On the right is a large room with displays of fresh seafood to purchase.

After an executive decision made to NOT get fish and chips (in hindsight, perhaps a shonky decision), my friend bought a half kilo of cooked prawns to share.

I've never been much of a prawn fan before. Especially plain, cooked prawns. They just seemed bland and boring, not to mention resembling little ocean insects (sorry, I have a graphic imagination).

These ones knocked my socks off. They were huge, succulent and sweet. Absolutely wonderful with the cocktail dipping sauce. We all agreed that these were fabulous prawns.

Although our trip to the coast was spontaneous and at times, without direction, one of my favorite moments was munching on the prawns outside Charis with the weather moody and heavy all around us.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Biscotti Regina (Queen's Biscuits)

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Biscotti Regina
Home Cooking

It was one of those days where I just HAD to bake something. Actually, I was ALREADY baking something but that's not the point; once you catch the bug, it's quite persistent. The more accurate description of my mood at the time was that I just HAD to continue baking despite not knowing what I wanted to make or what I wanted to eat.

Settled down to research

My normal mode of action in these types of situations is to flip through my countless supply of cookbooks and find something that can be done with whatever ingredients I have in the pantry. On this day, I happened to be in my parents house. The act of looking through cookbooks with a goal in mind is so enjoyable to me that I even took the time to make myself comfortable with a bowl of noodles and set up in front of the couch. I had short-listed a few of my most fundamental baking cookbooks to use as reference.

In the end, I went with a biscotti recipe from Nick Malgieri's 'The Modern Baker'. It's called Biscotti Regina and is a once-baked biscotti covered with sesame seeds. I divided the original recipe by 3.

Biscotti Regina
Makes ~ 12-15 cookies

  • 1 cup and 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • tiny pinch of salt
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • egg wash: 1 egg beaten with a pinch of salt
  • 2/3 cups untoasted sesame seeds

1. Preheat to 160 degrees Celsius.
2. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of a food processor. Pulse several times to mix.
3. Add butter and pulse repeatedly until butter is finely mixed in, but mixture is still cool and powdery.4. Add egg and vanilla, and pulse repeatedly until dough forms a ball.
5. Briefly knead the dough to make it smooth. Shape dough into a rough cylinder and divide dough into 4 equal pieces.
6. Roll 1 piece of dough into a rope about 25-30cm long. Cut dough into 6cm long cylinders. Repeat with remaining pieces of dough, lining up cylinders on the left side of your work surface.7. Prepare a cookie sheet/baking try by lining it with parchment or foil.
8. After all the cookies have been formed, place egg wash and sesame seeds, each in a separate shallow bowl, next to the cookies, and place baking pans to their right.
9. Drop one of the cookies into the egg wash and use a fork to turn it over so it is completely covered. Use the fork to lift it out of the egg wash, letting the excess drip back into the bowl, and place it on the sesame seeds. Use a second fork to roll the cookie around in the sesame seeds to cover it completely. Use same fork to transfer the coated cookie to one of the prepared pans.
10. Bake cookies until they are risen, firm, and sesame seeds are golden, about 30 minutes. Wait for them to completely cool down before munching.

Note: to store, keep cookies between sheets of wax paper in a tin or plastic container with a tight-fitting lid at room temperature.

The fragrance of the sesame toasting in the oven was rather irresistible. Once the cookies have cooled down, they're extremely crispy. I've never made biscotti before and these were so easy to bake. The little bite-sized pieces are crunchy and crumbly and go excellently with a cup of hot tea or coffee.

On an odd side-note, my parents thought the Biscotti Regina tasted a lot like a Shanghainese cookie from their childhood. They liked them too (perhaps for that reason). Biscotti is a very understated style of biscuit - never flash, complex or overwhelming in its flavors. These fit that description in that they're very simple but also addictive.

Bite shot


Vapiano Italian Restaurant

We're always really excited about new things cropping up in Brisbane. A few months back there was a period that I didn't really step into Brisbane City. When I finally go the chance to, I noticed a LOT of change. Brisbane is great for a lot of things but it's hardly famed for being fast-paced. The new shops along Albert St (near Queen St Mall) were a pleasant surprise to me.

The little arcade is called Albert Mall and contains a few trendy developments including a branch of Little Singapore, a specialist loose leaf tea shop and of course, Vapiano.

I wandered up to it when they first opened and felt mildly curious but not enough to eat there. I had also heard from a mate of mine that there was a new restaurant in Brisbane that had potted herbs on the table for you to tear directly into your meal. Though this is obviously a novelty factor more than anything else, I admit that it appeals to me.

Last week, I finally made the connection that Vapiano WAS the restaurant with this concept and I arranged a visit straight away. Actually, I've been twice in the past week which should give you some insight as to how much I liked the place.

Firstly, Vapiano is very much a concept restaurant. By that I mean that, especially in Brisbane (sorry if it sounds like I'm picking on the city but let's be real here), you're unlikely to have come across any other restaurant like it. In fact, I've eaten at many restaurants and cafes here and there but Vapiano was all new to me.

As soon as you walk in, you're given a card that works a bit like a GoCard.

The left of the restaurant is the bar... which I won't comment on since I haven't ventured into that side.

The right of the restaurant has a long counter divided into separate sections. Behind the counters are the staff in the open-style kitchen.

After consulting the menu, you decide what you want to order and line up accordingly. For example, if you want a pasta dish, you line up in one of the pasta queues. If you want pizza, line up in the pizza queue.

When you make your order, you'll be asked to touch the Vapiano card on sensor at the counter. The order is then registered on your card so that when you exit the restaurant, you present the card at the cashier and pay before leaving.

All the food is made fresh at Vapiano. In particular, I was impressed by the fact that the pizza dough is actually rolled out before your eyes. Yes, they do flip it in the air.

Similarly, the pasta is cooked and the sauce is constructed before your eyes.

If you need to customize your dish, there's plenty to work with

Both times that I've been to Vapiano, the hours were a bit obscure (I'm talking 2pm on one occasion and barely 5pm the other) so it was hardly peak hour. I'm not sure if it's 'supposed' to work this way but one time, my friend was waiting in line to order pasta and there was only one staff member serving that queue. He had to take the orders and cook the pasta himself.

Rather than taking orders from multiple customers and then cooking, we had to wait for him to finish cooking for the girls in front before we could even get the order in. We then had to stand around there for him to finish cooking our dish. It wasn't a VERY long wait but it was a bit, well, 'awkward'? With the pizza, my other friend got a buzzer so we could retreat back to the table and wait for the buzzer to go off when the pizza was ready rather than stand around the counter like idiots. If that's how Vapiano is supposed to work, I much prefer the buzzer system and acknowledge that there might be teething problems early on, especially during unconventional eating times when staff are limited.

Prosciutto e funghi - ham, mushrooms, our own tomato base, mozzarella

The pizza we chose was a very simple creation with ham and mushrooms. The base was gorgeous - soft and fresh. I quite liked the flavors of the sauce but the topping was ordinary. I don't blame the cooking or the ingredients... I think it's more that I'm too food-spoilt to be impressed by ham and mushroom on pizza.

We chose a classic pasta dish that first time I visited Vapiano: a chicken and bacon carbonara. You are allowed to choose the pasta shape too, which is nifty because there's a bundle to pick from, including 2 wholemeal options. I went for 'conchiglie' for no reason besides that I've never heard of it before. Typical me.

Carbonara - onions, bacon and egg in a cream sauce

The pasta was pretty awesome. I'll honestly say that it didn't seem 'gourmet' at all but it was cheesy and creamy and there was an abundance of chicken, bacon and extra cheese on top. Good in a sinful way. We had the option of extra garlic or chili but my friend resolutely forbade chili so I asked for garlic. The pasta WAS garlicky. I loved it. Actually... um (just thinking about whether or not I should reveal this), I HAD eaten lunch only a couple of hours beforehand and I was planning to eat minimally on this trip. Ended up munching half the pizza and basically fighting my girlfriend off for bits of pasta.

'Stolen Recipe' mango-flavored iced tea

Special mention will go to this awesome mango-flavored green tea. Vapiano probably doesn't deserve credit for this (unless they secretly brewed and bottled the beverage, which I doubt) but it's an awesome tea and I recommended it to my other mate the second time I went. He liked it too. I normally don't like sugary, flavored drinks. In fact, I'm not a big beverage fan in general (ESPECIALLY IF IT'S FIZZY) but I liked this. Muchiously.

Second time I went to Vapiano, I had 2 objectives: be healthy and try something different. I opted for a salad but failed in my first objective because I succumbed to the heartiest-sounding salad on the menu and didn't reject the creamy dressing. You can choose out of several dressings. When I seemed indecisive, the lovely chef gave me a little sample plate of bread and salad dressing. I opted for the nizza dressing which is simultaneously creamy and tangy.

Complimentary bread

I was also given a plate of complimentary warm bread which I ate dipped in olive oil. Perfect in its simplicity. I am a faithful fan to good quality warm bread.

Insalata nizza - mixed leaf salad, tuna fish, cucumber, onions, olives & egg

The nizza salad was HUGE. I spooned off half of it to my friend because one serving was way too big for me. There's LOTS of tuna. Lots of everything in fact. I thought it was decent but not amazing and at the end of the day, I think it's just because tuna isn't the greatest meat on the planet. No offense to tuna fans but if the tuna was replaced by say, grilled chicken or even sparse amounts of anchovy, my enjoyment would have increased drastically. When I'm eating a tuna salad I can't help but think 'canned'. I realize that I was the one who chose this dish. So I should just shut up now.

Or, move on to the next dish review.

Pollo amatriciana - chicken breast, Vapiano's own tomato and herb sauce with onion, mushroom and bacon

Which, also happens to be my favorite pick. My uni friend chose a chicken pasta with pappardelle. It didn't look amazing. I mean, it looked like cooked pasta barely covered in sauce. I was offered a taste which I knew I'd take up but I wasn't in a hurry to do so. When I finally got to my sample, I was very impressed. The flavor was intense and complex. The pasta sauce looks like the bottled variety but it's a very deceitful appearance. I would have liked more chicken though.

Herbs at your table

With everything I tried at Vapiano, I was seeking for ways to incorporate the fresh herbs. It's harder than you'd think! Maybe it's because I'm a cooking n00b and don't really know what's good for complimenting different flavors. I ended up throwing an unknown herb, torn from my table, onto my tuna salad. I think it was mint. It didn't really 'go' with the dish but I had my fun.

Aside from the little hiccups in Vapiano's system (i.e. the awkward wait for pasta), I really enjoyed eating there on both occasions. The environment is clean, modern, open and comfortable. I like the trendy innovations like the touch card, the cafeteria-style ordering and of course, the little herb pots. I like the fact that it's bang in the CBD where it's easy for me to get to. I like the food, some dishes more than others, but enough to make me want to try more.

(p.s. I just spotted desserts on the website menu. I wasn't aware of this? I must go back!)

Vapiano on Urbanspoon