A Weekend in Paris, 15-17th September

Thought I would post some photos from my weekend trip to Paris. Prior to this visit, I had always thought that the city was overrated but I have to say that I was completely won over this time by the beautiful architecture, picturesque gardens, good food, unparalleled pastries, and continental charm. To be fair Paris had perfect weather on its side so that helped too!

WS and I took the Eurostar from London Paddington into Gare du Nord — and such an easy, relaxing journey that was; none of that airport and flying faff! We stayed with my good friend from university, LJ, who was a great host and guide for us… I enjoyed some very yummy meals and well-planned day itineraries! She introduced us to a magnificent flavour combination — salted butter and caramel. We had crepes with LJ and her bf on the first night, and for dessert each of us got a salted butter and caramel with cream crepe, which might have been the best thing I have eaten and will eat this month. The following day, I even had a salted butter and caramel macaron, and I don’t even like macarons! Oh and don’t get me started on the French pastries… I don’t think Sainsburys pain au chocolats will ever be the same again!

So it was quite a chilled out weekend of sightseeing, eating, and catching up with LJ, with whom I haven’t spent very, if any, time since we graduated from Brown in 2010. I also spent a very enjoyable morning in a local supermarket looking for snacks and goodies to bring back home/for the office. Ended up getting some chocolate covered madeleines, mustard-flavoured crisps, white wine, and creme brulee chocolates. Love hanging out in supermarkets in foreign countries!

Also, one of the things I noticed about Paris, and Parisians in general, was the sense of effortless elegance. I don’t know how they do it, but everyone seemed completely at ease and stylish without pretence. (Perhaps I was made more aware of this because of my ‘foreign-ness’ but there is something to be said about the way continental Europeans carry themselves with a more relaxed air than do their British counterparts.) People take their time with their meals. They sip coffee and wine at lunch hours, or should I say, at all hours :P. And they’re not so rushed when walking. Once I stepped back into Paddington station on Monday evening on our way back, my footsteps accelerated without me knowing it, people were rushing to get somewhere, and we had to keep walking fast to avoid getting trampled… same old same old London story. Whereas in Paris, I noticed when walking on the streets that when I walked slowly, the pedestrians behind me didn’t get impatient and try to walk around me, which people living in England would’ve done straight away. Instead, they just carried on walking right behind us, and I would hear them chatter away with their companions and never try to ‘overtake’ me. This cultural difference really struck me, as I’ve always lived in cities where people are rushing to get to places. Sigh, well a holiday is a holiday, and now it’s back to reality… (but I’m not complaining though, Oxford is a nice place to live).


Spaghetti with Bacon, Asparagus and Mushroom

Fact — whoever came up with the classic combination of bacon and asparagus was a gustatory genius. (Same goes for the individual who thought of roast lamb and mint sauce; why on earth that works so well, I don’t know!)

Well I’ve taken inspiration from that very clever individual to whip up a very quick spaghetti dish, Spaghetti with Bacon, Asparagus and Mushroom. Short of buying a packet of ready-made cream sauce, I tried making this using single cream instead of whisking a combination of eggs and cheese for the sauce. Lazy of me yes, but some days after work I just want quick and easy, you know what I mean?

Spaghetti with Bacon, Asparagus and Mushroom

This makes for an easy and relatively inexpensive meal, and funnily enough the most expensive item in this dish would be the asparagus even though asparagus is a plant that actually grows very quickly. Something I learned after going out to Medley Manor Farm here in Oxford over the summer (for strawberry picking!) and was talking with the guy manning the asparagus booth who said that asparagus, in optimal warm conditions, grows up to 20 cm a day! That’s almost 1 cm an hour! He said that they’ll harvest it in the morning, take a break, then come back at noon to hack the asparagus stems down again. For such a fertile plant, asparagus sure is expensive and is marketed as a luxury foodstuff, though I guess it might be in limited supply because it only grows during the summer (the rest of the year it is left to grow into a very woody, tall hedge).

Here is the ‘recipe’, though please take my measurements of the quantity of cream with a pinch of salt — haha literally, too.

Spaghetti with Bacon, Asparagus and Mushroom

Ingredients for two portions
– 200 grams dry spaghetti
– 100 grams bacon, diced
– 150 grams asparagus (I realise this isn’t very helful, but use more than a handful…!), sliced diagonally into 2 inch pieces
– 10-12 mushrooms, sliced
– 3 cloves garlic, minced
– 120 ml single cream
– salt and freshly ground black pepper
– 1.5 Tbsps olive oil

1. Boil a pot of salted water. Curl in spaghetti when water has come to a boil.
2. In the meantime, heat a frying pan on medium heat. When making this dish I didn’t add extra oil as a lot of oil will be rendered from the bacon! Add in diced bacon, cooking both sides evenly so that it is crispy.
3. When bacon is done, set aside on a plate with paper towels to absorb excess oil.
4. Using the leftover oil in the frying pan, stir fry garlic, mushrooms, and asparagus. Lower heat to low-medium heat. Add a little water to the pan and cover the pan with a lid to gently steam the mushrooms and asparagus (this will soften the veggies). Do this for half a minute.
5. When spaghetti is almost cooked (should take about 9 to 11 minutes), add your crispy bacon back to the pan, drain the spaghetti (try to retain some of the hot pasta water), and then slide spaghetti into the pan as well. Mix spaghetti with the rest of the ingredients.
6. Add in single cream, mixing in hot pasta water so that you create a nice sauce to coat all of the pasta.
7. Dash salt and crack freshly ground black pepper over the pasta.
8. Serve piping hot!

I realise this is my third pasta post but I do love my carbs. Give me savoury over sweet meals any day 😉

Simple Chinese Braised Pork(紅燒肉)

Sorry for the slight hiatus in posts — I was in Paris last weekend for a quick getaway , and somehow got caught up with various things ever since! But as the Clouds of Oxford have decided to pour down every last bit of rain they’ve got on us today, I thought I would get to my backlog of blogging while I curl up at home … and first up in the queue, Chinese Braised Pork!

Soft pork shoulder spiced with Chinese spices and served with mushroom and egg

This was my first attempt at making Chinese Braised Pork, more commonly known as ‘Hong Shao Rou’ 紅燒肉. There are many versions of this dish typically made with pork belly. I realise that pork belly is not something that one normally stocks in the freezer, so I’ve used pork shoulder because I had some bought some the week before on offer and also because pork shoulder has enough fat to mimic the fatty layer one finds in pork belly. It was a bit of a gamble to be honest — I’ve never seen this dish made with any other cut of pork, but hey, fortune favours the brave, no?

Thankfully it turned out well; pork shoulder doesn’t have that thick layer of fat that pork belly does, so I adjusted by slicing the meat into smaller cubes, and adding water throughout to ensure that the pork was kept moist. You can see from the photo that a lot of the fat is still rendered into oil, but I guess that’s what makes this dish so yummy and great to eat with steamed white rice! And what I particularly like about this dish is that it is like Chinese cuisine’s answer to the standard and might I say slightly boring, beef stew. The cloves and star aniseed lend a different flavour to the meat; I don’t know quite how to describe it, but the flavour of the dark sauce becomes very warm, almost like a peppery cinnamon flavour. (But better than cinnamon… I’m not so much a fan of cinnamon.)

Chinese Braised Pork (紅燒肉)

Ingredients (serves four persons)
– 400-500 grams pork shoulder or pork belly. Slice so that layer of fat is evenly distributed across the cubes of meat — slice against the grain (perpendicular to the direction of the fibres of meat).
– 6-8 dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked in cold water and then drained after they have become puffy/reconstituted
– 4 eggs, hard-boiled in advance and de-shelled
– 2 garlic cloves, skin peeled
– water, 500 ml to start with, add more throughout braising process
– 2 Tbsp dark soy sauce
– 1/2 tsp Chinese 5-spice powder
– 1 star anise
– 4 cloves
– 2 Tbsp rock sugar
– 1 tsp salt
– 1 Tbsp mirin, or Shaoxing cooking wine
– 2 Tb vegetable oil
– salt and white pepper to taste
– 1 stalk spring onion, as a garnish

0. Prepare the pork by first blanching with boiling water. Drain away the water. This will lend itself to a cleaner stew of pork, without some of the scum that you sometimes get when simmering it.
1. Heat oil in wok, or deep bottomed non-stick pan on medium-high heat. When oil is hot, brown the cubes of fatty pork shoulder, adding the dark soy sauce to the wok.
2. When both sides of pork are brown, add in water, garlic cloves, mushrooms, Chinese 5-spice, star aniseed, cloves, soy sauce, mirin (or some kind of white cooking wine), rock sugar, salt. Cover wok/pan with lid. Turn down heat to medium or low so that the meat can simmer away slowly.
3. Simmer for at least an hour and a half. The longer you simmer the meat, the softer and more tender it will become!
4. Add in hardboiled eggs in the last 10 minutes or so. Taste the sauce and add a dash of white pepper, and salt if necessary.
5. Garnish with spring onion (optional). Serve with steamed white rice.

The smell of the spices reminds me so much of home… it is certainly a nostalgic dish, one to be made on rainy days, which are not rare in England. Now that the days are getting shorter, I’m going to have to slowly arm myself with comfort foods like this.

Pan Fried Chicken with Garlic Sauce – thanks to Kanzensakura

My take on Kanzensakura’s Pan Fried Chicken with Garlic Sauce

If there is one thing I need to have in my kitchen cupboard, it’s garlic. Take the onion, tomatoes and whatnot, but please, leave the garlic! It’s the smell of home, redolent of hearty dinners and simple suppers, of good times cooking and eating. I even love it when I catch the faint scent of garlic wafting from my hands after cooking.

My love of garlic led me to Kanzensakura’s post on ‘Chicken with Garlic Sauce’. I stumbled on the post two weeks ago and since then, wasn’t able to get it out of mind. The dish sounded easy, incredibly tasty, and also different: I’m used to stir-frying but this one called for browned, pan fried chicken. Yum. I could taste the caramelised garlic already. Click here for the recipe!

NB I didn’t stick to the measurements very closely (not having a tablespoon or teaspoon…), nor did I add sake because I don’t have any, but dinner still turned out amazing :D. It’s really important to let the chicken brown on each side before turning it, and also, to half cover the pan so that the chicken doesn’t dry out. Don’t worry about adding the sauce mixture much later too; it’s supposed to be more of a glaze, rather than a sauce.

Sigh, this definitely can be filed under my list of comfort food recipes… and it’s given me ideas on how I could do this with many other sauces… ginger, miso, black bean! Pan fried beef with black pepper, anyone?

Linguine with Prawn and Basil

In a slightly uncharacteristic show of impulsiveness, I bought myself a potted herb plant from the supermarket over the weekend. Potted basil only costs a few pence more than pre-packaged basil, so it’s quite a bargain as it’ll keep for longer and add a bit of green to the flat! One of my colleagues pointed out that the soil-to-plant ratio is a little too low though so it might be that I have to transfer Mr. Basil soon. In the meantime, here’s to fresh pizza toppings, lovely Thai-accented stir fry dishes, homemade pesto, pretty garnishes, and creative drinks. (Oh and about the name –  it just stuck within a few hours; it looked like a Mister Basil from the get-go but now that I spell it out, it looks and sounds oddly sinister…)

Nothing like waking up in the morning to the scent of fresh basil

So I decided to make use of the prawns in my freezer, and the leftover chilli and shallots I had from the Asian Mango Salad to cook a very quick meal: Red Pesto Linguine with Prawn and Basil.

Red Pesto Linguine with Prawn and Basil (prawns slightly obscured, oops! blame my impatience as i plated up…)

This was really quite quick to make, partly because prawns cook very quickly in the pan, and partly because I had used red pesto paste. I think next time I’ll try making this with chicken breast! Having said that, I do love my seafood in tomato sauce, and I think the prawns went very well with the bits of red chilli and shallot. Anyone object to pesto and seafood by the way? On hindsight I realise that pesto paste often contains hints of cheese from the Parmesan, so perhaps seafood isn’t the most ideal of pairings? (But green pesto and something like squid… now that must still work?)


Linguine with Prawn and Basil

Ingredients, for two main portions
– linguine, approx. 180-200 grams. I measure dry pasta in a weird way: using index finger and thumb, I make a circle, which to my appetite, represents about 2 portions of pasta.
– prawns, 200-250 grams. Easily replaceable with chicken breast or ham!
– shallots 3x, sliced thinly
– garlic 2 cloves, sliced thinly
– red pesto paste, about 3 tablespoons
– basil leaves, as much or as little as you like. (Go for a bunch; it’ll lend some great colour to the reds and oranges of the dish)
– red chilli 1x, de-seeded and chopped
– 1 tablespoon vegetable/sunflower oil
– sea salt and black pepper, to taste

1. Prepare pot of salted boiling water, curling the linguine in.
2. Heat a large frying pan/skillet on medium-heat. Add oil to pan. I use an induction hob so the hob (the cooker ring) takes awhile longer to reach the desired temperature, which means I add in the oil a little later.
3. Fry shallots and garlic until fragrant. Add in pesto and red chilli.* Fry for one minute.
4. Tip in prawns. Cook until they turn orange. Add a little water at this point.
5. Add a little basil and sea salt, then turn down heat from medium to low.
6. When pasta is ready (linguine takes 11-13 minutes), drain pasta, keeping the pot or another bowl underneath to retain some of the hot starchy water.
7. Add pasta to frying pan, and still on low heat, mix well with the pesto sauce, adding hot pasta water throughout so that mixture is not dry.
8. Sprinkle a little salt and crack black pepper over the pasta, then garnish with basil leaves.

*If you like very spicy food, then add the red chilli at the start along with the shallots and garlic. I think this makes the dish spicier because the added heat releases the capsaicin (the chemicals that make something taste spicy) and distributes this throughout the dish…!

So that’s one use of basil. Suggestions for how I could put Mr Basil to further good culinary use much would be much welcomed!