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red rice plate

Lovely lemur friend M gave us some dried chilies for Christmas and when the cold snap hit, it seemed like the perfect time to use them in something deeply warming and savoury. It turned properly cold here last week and I think everyone had some version of the same idea: comfort cook meats! There was an unprecedented queue at the local butcher and he told me everyone had been buying braising meat to the point that they had actually run out of pork belly. I swithered a bit and decided on a chicken and a few plump house-made chorizos. Nothing makes me feel quite so thrifty as using every part of a chicken and the chorizos reminded me of the Mexican chilies awaiting me at home.

Red rice is a hearty and very unassuming dish. It can be as simple as rice cooked with a tomato-based salsa and as such, you might think of it as a side dish rather than the main event. But it’s a palette made for variations and additions, and I like to add a bit of meaty flavour and a load of dark greens (it absorbs seemingly limitless amounts of them) to turn it into a one-pot meal. Besides, Mr Lemur has a bred-in-the-bone Latin American love for plain rice dishes and, after all, some of the world’s great dishes begin from nothing more than rice and chicken. This is one of those dishes that seem to involve a lot of steps but few of them call for close attention. It takes more time than effort so it’s the perfect thing to make over a weekend and it will feed you happily for days. Read the rest of this entry »

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Before I flew to Vietnam, I did some research on places I didn’t want to miss and top of my list of sources was of course Anthony Bourdain. I’m a big fan of his – some of my foodie friends find him sexist but I have actually found him to be pretty aware of the gender politics of growing, cooking and selling food – and his love for Vietnam is well known. So, I watched his Vietnam episodes of No Reservationsagain and made some notes in the bible of my travels, a little black moleskine notebook. I marked out several places that Tony recommended in Saigon for my attention, a couple of which also came up on food blogs. Great, all very organised. When we arrived in Saigon, I noted that I had starred Côm Niêu as especially interesting. The trouble was, I didn’t at all remember why! Thus began one of our more perplexing evenings…

My inability to resist pork products is pretty well documented at this stage, so when Mr Lemur makes a run to the local shops to pick up some things for dinner, Ready Steady Cook-style, he knows he can’t go wrong with a chunk of pig. This time he returned bearing organic pork shoulder from the Nice Butcher and peas, asparagus and tomatoes from the Overpriced Greengrocer. Keeping things simple, I decided on a Mexican spice-rub for the pork and red rice with vegetables as an accompaniment. They can all go into the same oven and don’t need too much attention. Lovely!

The spice-rub idea came to mind because my good friend K is coming to stay, and last time he visited he brought a wonderful recipe for Mexican pork. That one was a bit more complicated and involved cooking the pork covered, at the very bottom of the oven, for several hours. It was sublime but more of a weekend project. This dish is a bit more practical, so long as you shove the pork in the oven as soon as you get home and don’t mind eating at mildly continental hours. I’m generally happy to eat at 9pm, but if you skip lunch as we tend to you can get more than a bit peckish. On this occasion I had both Mr Lemur and the cat basically wailing at me by the end, but the pork was worth it. Although there’s no sauce with this dish, it isn’t dry because the shoulder should be really moist, the spice flavours imbue the meat, and tomato rice is basically cooked with its own salsa.

Ancho roast pork shoulder

  • 1 pork shoulder
  • 2 tsp ancho powder
  • 1 heaping tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 heaping tsp Mexican cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin seeds
  • a pinch of cloves
  • 1 tsp salt (plus extra for skin)

Heat oven to 350 F / 180 C / gas mark 4. Mix the spices in a small bowl and then rub thoroughly all over the pork. You want to work the spice rub into all its crevices, leaving the skin free of course. Make sure the skin is scored (your butcher will probably have done this), rub it dry and rub in a bit more salt. Place pork in a small oven dish and stick it in the oven.

Cook for three hours, turning occasionally but keeping the skin facing up. When it’s done, let rest for ten minutes then slice and serve with rice and vegetables.

Serves 4-6

Mr Lemur has had a bit of a cold and, since I am Jewish, I naturally turn to chicken soup as a curative. But the old style Jewish penicillin doesn’t really do it for me as a culinary project and besides, I firmly believe that the best things for a cold are ginger, chilies, garlic and citrus. Like all cold remedies, they’re not going to cure it but they do make you feel slightly better about being sick. So I decided to make soto ayam, the Malaysian/Singaporean/Indonesian version of chicken soup that is about as soulful as a chicken soup can get.

I’ve made soto ayam before with noodles and with rice, but my Singaporean friend G suggested I should try it with ketupat, which are pressed rice cubes. G is a fellow foodie and is always sending me interesting nuggets of Southeast Asian food lore to consider. He knows exactly what’s going to pique my interest and ketupat, with their very specific twist on an ordinary ingredient, are right up my alley. They’re made by cooking rice inside a woven basket of coconut leaves. The rice has little space to expand and so cooks in a compressed form, making little rice cakes. Neat, huh? The only problem is that many Asian cooks buy the baskets ready made and weaving them oneself looks rather challenging, even assuming you could get hold of coconut leaves.

Frankly, it looks like the kind of craft project I’d make a total arse of. Luckily,  Sunflower Food provides a cheat’s guide to ketupat, which involves cooking rice then mashing it with a potato masher, forming it into a block, and pressing it under weights. Since I’ve never had the original, I can’t say how close this version comes, but it is certainly easy and the resulting blocks had a good texture.

As with the various starches that can go into a soto ayam, the soup itself has many variations. Most involve turmeric that turns the soup a lovely yellow colour, but I’ve seen versions that are pale and milky looking too. What they all have in common is chicken cooked in a spice-scented broth that then forms the basis for the soup. The cooked chicken is shredded and added back into the soup, along with an array of possible toppings. My version draws from James Oseland’s method of frying the spice paste before adding it to the broth (a method that I’ve found really useful in cooking Malaysian-style dishes) but I have a somewhat different balance of spices. Mr Lemur is still looking a bit peaky but I think he’s much better for the soto ayam.

Soto ayam / Singapore style chicken soup

  • 2 chicken leg and thigh portions
  • 1 litre or so of filtered water
  • 8 shallots
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 3 inches of fresh turmeric
  • 1 inch of ginger
  • 1 inch of galangal
  • 4 stalks lemongrass
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 star anise
  • 3 lime leaves
  • 1-2 limes
  • 1/2 a long red chili (or 2 smaller red ones)
  • a handful of cilantro
  • a handful of beansprouts
  • 12 or more blocks of ketupat
  • salt and cooking oil

Pour the water into a large pot. I got the filtering tip from Oseland also, and it makes sense that for a clear soup, you really want the water to taste good. Add the chicken pieces, star anise and lime leaves. Bash up the lemongrass a bit with the back of a knife and add. Add a good pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, skim the surface and simmer for about 45 minutes, till the chicken is beginning to fall off the bones. Remove the chicken and set aside to cool. (Make sure your cat doesn’t eat it.) Discard the flavourings from the broth but keep the broth. When the chicken is cool enough to touch, pull it apart into fine shreds.

While the chicken is cooking, prepare the spice paste and toppings. First, slice four of the shallots thinly and fry until brown. Set these aside for later. Slice the chili thinly, wash the beansprouts, and pull the leaves off the cilantro. Put all these toppings aside.

Next, put the peppercorns, coriander seeds and cloves in a mini prep or spice grinder and process till powdered. Roughly chop the remaining shallots and add to the ground spices in a mini prep along with the garlic and the peeled and chopped ginger, galangal and turmeric. Process till smooth and then fry for five minutes or so in the same pan used for the shallots. You’ll want to be quite generous with the oil as this paste drinks it up, and stir often to avoid burning. When the paste doesn’t smell raw any more, add it to the broth along with the shredded chicken.

Now simmer the soup for another 10-15 minutes, to give the flavours time to meld. When the soup is ready, take it off the heat and squeeze in the juice of 1 lime (or more) to taste. Check for salt now too. To serve, put several ketupat blocks in the bottom of a bowl and ladle over the soup. Top with beansprouts, cilantro leaves and fried shallots. Other possible toppings include mint, pineapple cubes, shrimp crackers and sambal oelek.

Serves 2

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