Main Meal

Tuna & Courgette Sweet Potato Pocket

Tuna & Courgette Sweet Potato PocketI have never been much of a lunch person, preferring to rather invest my finite enthusiasm for cooking towards crafting a decent dinner.

I suspect that my mid-day apathy is rooted in my years growing up in Malaysia, where lunch was pretty much a no-brainer as it invariably meant one thing: noodles! Beef Hor Fun, wonton mee or Char Kway Teow – a noodle obsession is easy to feed when you live in what is arguably the noodle capital of the world! Alas such lunchtime bliss is now 9000km away and my choices are somewhat less appealing these days. Here in South Africa a ‘sarmie’, pie or a plate of chips are typical lunchtime fare and needless to say, I would rather do without. Nevertheless, a man has still gotta eat so I found myself falling back on old Malaysian habits and having noodles for lunch, albeit nowadays I’ve been reduced to a bowl of a jazzed-up noodles of the 2-minute variety. More recently, however, I have been trying to cut down on complex carbs so even my trusty instant noodle-lunches have been a rarity of late, which is all well and fine, but this has led me back to my initial lunchtime conundrum: what the hell’s for lunch?

For the most part this has meant soup and these days my bowl of choice is minestrone. Since my carb-cutting I’ve eaten a lot of minestrone but as delicious as it is, there is only so much soup a man can sup! Desperate to move back to solid foods I searched high and low looking for a meal that was fast, tasty, filling and, above all, didn’t sabotage my diet. I had almost given up and was about to resign myself to my soupy fate until culinary salvation arrived in the form of a Men’s Health magazine (of all things).

Okay so the featured recipe was pretty basic, but it was ripe with potential. It was exactly what I had been looking for, it was just a tad dull (after all, it was inspired by a Men’s Health recipe), but with a just a few tweaks I knew I was on to a winner! Firstly, I added some coarsely grated baby marrow (courgettes) into the mix, then some finely diced fresh red chilli and red onion and everything was topped with a dollop of plain fat-free yogurt and a crack of pepper: the perfect low carb/high protein lunch in under 5 minutes! With my preferred noodle-lunch still 9000kms away, this sounds like a near-perfect lunch to me.

Click here for the recipe

Sticky Beef Short Ribs

If I had to pick a favourite cut of beef, it would simply have to be short ribs; cheap, tasty and meltingly tender, I just can’t get enough of them.

Sticky Beef Short RibsThe perfect marriage between meat, bone and fat, short rib is my go-to cut of beef for whenever I am doing a long braise, as it is perfectly suited to being cooked for extended periods. Whether it’s for a spicy Mussaman Curry, a comforting bowl of Beef Phở or a simple cider braise beef, short ribs works a treat with just about any style of cooking, so long as it is afforded enough time to work its magic.

Which brings me to this delectable dish! Robustly flavoured and so tender you can literally suck the meat off the bone, Sticky Beef Short Ribs is a great way to prepare this special cut. Although the dish has all the hallmarks of a classic Chinese style braise, the addition of Korean Soybean Paste (doenjang) does muddle the waters somewhat, resulting in a dish that is equally suited to both a Chinese or Korean spread. If you can’t source any doenjang, regular Chinese Bean Sauce would suffice, or, if you wanted to add a Japanese twist to the dish, you can always try some miso. Personally, if you can, I would stick with the doenjang as it adds a distinctly earthy depth to the dish that neither miso nor Chinese Bean Sauce does.  

Note: As with most other Asian braises, this dish is always best if made the day before, but is still delicious if eaten immediately. If you are making the dish in advance then it is best not to reduce the sauce immediately, but rather wait until you are going to eat it to do so.

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Idaho Stew (Beef Coffee Stew)

It was only when I finally moved to Cape Town to be with my partner that I realised I had, in fact, moved in with my own private flavourphobe.

From the very first meal I made us, it was abundantly clear that any thoughts I may have been harbouring about bringing about instant flavour-reform to his palette were a complete waste of time. His tastes preferences were set and I would simply have come to terms with the fact that there wasn’t going to be a belacan-epiphany or a glorious moment of garlic-redemption on the immediate horizon. Regardless how I felt about it, I had made my proverbial table so, for now at least, I was just going to have to eat at it.

Beef Coffee StewFor the first few months I dutifully made the plain dishes he enjoyed, but like all good spouses I was really doing what we do best – biding time. An errant garlic clove here, an extra splash of Worcestershire sauce there, little by little I tested the waters and after a while I began to introduce new dishes for his consideration. Some of these offerings were more successful than others, some were downright disasters, although with hindsight the roasted lamb with anchovies was particularly ill considered!

And then I discovered the recipe for this incredible stew.

On paper Idaho Stew fit the bill perfectly; it was a simple, old school beef braise with one small twist – it had coffee in it! It may seem minor now, but please remember that, culinarily speaking, South Africa was a very different place back in 2000. Back then the mere notion of sushi was downright provocative and the thought of cooking a savoury dish with coffee was considered, at best, daring to most South Africans (let alone my dearest flavourphobe)! So yes, back then this humble stew was a risk, but I had to try it, lest I be condemned to making sausage, peas and mash for the rest of my life.

So one night I bit the bullet and dished up my ‘daring’ new stew for dinner. With baited breath I watched as he eyed my latest offering with understandable suspicion. “What is it?”, he asked. “Oh, nothing weird, just a stew” I said, in what I hoped was my most casual voice. “Hmm, okay”, came the reply. Clearly he wasn’t convinced, perhaps the lingering trauma of that damn anchovy lamb was playing on his mind. In spite of his obvious suspicions he took a bite, albeit tentitively and after a moment of furrowed consideration he took another, then another – the stew was hit! It was only once his plate was cleared that I dared divulge the contentious ingredient.

“Coffee? Really? You can’t taste it”.

Wow, he was taking this surprisingly well.

“You can definitely make this again”.

Oh, sweet success!

“But next time may I have it with rice and not mash?”.

Sigh. Okay, so you’re still a freak, but I’ll take the win.

To this day Idaho Stew remains a firm favourite in his limited pantheon of acceptable meals and I still make it often, although he normally refers to it as “his coffee stew” suggesting a secret revelry in the kudos of his expanded palette. These days I usually have a couple of handy portions of this stew in the back of the freezer which I whip out for my partner when we have guests and the menu isn’t to his taste. Unfortunately, this seems to have given his much loved “coffee stew” a bad rep as one of “Brian’s meals”, which is, frankly, simply a byword for dull.

Nothing could be further from the truth! This rich stew is chock full of flavour and should appeal to the whole family…whether or not you dare to tell them that the secret ingredient is coffee is, of course, entirely up to you!

Click here for the recipe

Red-braised Pork Hock 紅燒蹄

Red-braised Pork Hock 紅燒蹄I love food that you can just gooi into a pot, forget about for a few hours and it still comes out tasting like heaven. Thankfully, Asian food is abound with such dishes, particularly so in Chinese cuisine.

Whilst synonymous with the much hackneyed “stir-fry”, Chinese food does love a jolly good braise. Beef ribs, pork belly, chicken feet – it would seem that the Chinese maxim is clear: if you have a pot big enough for it, then it’s good for a braise. Thankfully, it seems, pork hock fits both the maxim and the pot!

Richly flavoured, red-braised pork hock is an old school Chinese classic and is the perfect way to cook an otherwise troublesome cut of meat. Slowly simmered in what is essentially a classic master stock, the meat and fat is rendered meltingly soft – so much so, one can “cut” through it with just a chopstick. Stained a redish brown from the dark soya sauce, the silky sweet meat is tempered with depth, whilst the aromatic sauce is enriched with the rendered juices from the braised pork.

Admittedly, however, like most home-style Chinese cooking, braised pork hock isn’t the most aesthetically appealing dish. Resembling something of a gelatinous heap of meat, skin and bone, it is hardly a feast for the eyes. Rest assured, however, once you’ve taken your first bite you will quickly forget what it looks like.

Indeed, this dish is a triumph of flavour over style.

Note: the stock quantities may initially seem excessive, but the Master Stock can be kept indefinitely and develops depth of flavour each time it is reused. Simply strain the stock and store in the freezer until needed. Add a fresh set of aromatics to the stock and you are good to go.

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Makhani Murgh (Butter Chicken)

The chances are, this recipe is nothing like the butter chicken you’ve ordered countless times from your local Indian takeaway. I too have ordered it more times than I care to admit, so I know what passes for butter chicken these days and most of it is pretty dismal. So much so, I have actually stopped ordering it altogether, for fear it would put me off Indian food completely.

Makhani Murgh (Butter Chicken)As you might have gathered, I’m somewhat disillusioned about the state of butter chicken these days – especially when I consider what a wonderful dish it truly is! Unfortunately, this venerable dish has largely been reduced to being the poster-child for unimaginative and pedestrian Indian fare. When made well, however, butter chicken undoubtedly deserves its place amongst the great Indian classics. Rich, decadent and wonderfully spiced, this dish is a real winner and should feature in any Indian feast.

As tasty as it is, the real appeal of butter chicken is how easy it is to make! Primarily cooked in the oven, the dish frees up valuable stove space – a godsend when you’re trying to juggle up to six dishes on a 4 plate hob! Like most curries, butter chicken can also be made in advance and gently reheated before serving. In the case of butter chicken though, it should be placed under a grill to be heated through and lightly browned, rather than on a hob.

Note: Please do not ever be tempted to make butter chicken with anything other than chicken thighs, especially not breast meat, which will come out completely dry and taste terrible.

For more of my top picks for an Indian feast, please click here, or for more great Indian recipes from The Muddled Pantry, please click here

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Chilli con Carne

Chilli con Carne NachosBelieve it or not, but there was a time when I was completely at sea when it came to cooking and Chilli con Carne was my only lifeline!

Admittedly back in my university days, my Chilli’s “secret ingredient” was a packet of Knorr Chilli con Carne flavouring, but given the dish was also made with cheap soya mince, the dubious origins of its flavour-base was the least of its problems! That said, my Chilli was still the stuff of legend in my digs and its fame wasn’t without merit. In spite of its shortcomings it still tasted pretty damn good, but given my only real competition was marmite on toast, my culinary supremacy was pretty much a given!

Mercifully, my cooking has improved somewhat since those dark days and my Chilli con Carne has since had a much needed makeover. Rather unsurprisingly, the soya mince and glorified packets of MSG have fallen to the wayside and have been replaced with more natural ingredients, but don’t be fooled – this is still good eating, just on a slightly improved budget!

Aside from the exclusion of various e-numbers and MSG, key to the elevation of my Chilli from student fare to tex-mex bliss is the inclusion of some dark chocolate. By simply adding a bit of chocolate, this dish develops a depth of flavour that is hard to beat…give the Chilli sufficient time to mellow and you’ll have an overnight sensation!

There are many ways to eat Chilli. You can simply serve it with some plain white rice, topped with a spoonful of sour cream and snipped chives or you can use it as a filling for burritos by wrapping it up in a tortilla with salad and guacamole. These days, however, my favourite way to eat Chilli is by making nachos! Simply add the chilli to a pile of tortilla chips, sprinkle with all your favourite toppings and voilà: nachos’fantastico!

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Sang Choi Bao 生菜包

Sung Choi Bao I have always been slightly obsessed with Sang Choi Bao, but in a world gripped by LCHF (Low Carb High Fat) & Banting diet fever, this classic Chinese dish has found a renewed appeal. Literally translated as “lettuce package”, Sang Choi Bao is made with fatty pork mince which is then eaten encased in crisp lettuce leaves, making it a great option for those of us who are avoiding traditional carbs like rice – something that is quite hard to do with Asian food!

Like most Asian recipes this one does have a few specialist ingredients, all of which are readily available from good Chinese supermarkets, but feel free to leave out whatever you can’t source. The key to the dish is actually in the sauce and the various vegetables, rather than the recipe’s more exotic inclusions. Okay, so this recipe does call for a small amount of sugar (not strictly Banting, I know), but you can just leave it out if you are so inclined.

Substantial and satisfying, this tasty dish scarcely feels like a meal that forgoes anything; and although it certainly isn’t conventional, Sang Choi Bao is also delicious when eaten with rice.

Traditionally eaten with your fingers, Sang Choi Bao is great fun to eat, making it a good dish for sharing. I suggest serving it up in a big bowl surrounded by the lettuce leaves and just let everybody tuck in. You can expect lots of sticky fingers after dinner!

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Assam Prawns (Tamarind Prawns)

A common complaint about many Malaysian recipes is that they are usually complicated and often have a long list of intimidatingly exotic ingredients. Whilst the resulting meals are invariably worth the effort, for the most part this particular gripe about Malaysian food isn’t completely without merit.

Assam PrawnsLike most expat Malaysians, I am forever seeking out viable substitutes for ingredients that we just take for granted at home. Candlenuts (buah keras) get substituted with blanched almonds, galangal (lengkuas) with ginger, bokkoms for salt fish and so on. For the most part the integrity of the dishes are rarely compromised, but there are some ingredients for which there are simply no substitutes and the meal invariably suffers for their subsequent omission.

Thankfully, however, there are some great Malaysian dishes that defy these inherent pitfalls and are surprisingly easy to make, Assam Prawns being a case in point. Requiring just a few basic ingredients and a very short cooking time, Assam Prawns pack quite a punch for its meagre effort level. Provided you can source some tamarind pulp, this dish offers an authentic taste of Asia without any of the usual hassles and exotic ingredients associated with Malaysian cooking.

Beyond being ridiculously simple to make, Assam Prawns are a true Nyonya classic and were, with good reason, a firm family favourite at my grandmother’s dinner table. This dish has it all! Sweet prawns, slavered in a simple tangy tamarind coating; what more could you want? This is truly finger-lickin’ good food, Malaysian style!

Note: Whilst the thought of it might seem strange to non-Asians, part of the joy of this dish is eating the prawns with their shells on. Encrusted in all that lovely sweet tamarind sauce, the prawn’s soft shell is perfectly edible and is, in fact, a great source of calcium. A word of warning though, don’t eat the sharp tail-shells and don’t forget to suck the prawn’s head. I’m serious, the tail-shell will totally choke you and the head is amazingly sweet and tasty when sucked. Trust me, your ultimate enjoyment of this incredible meal depends on both of these tips, so get sucking!

To discover other delicious Malaysian recipes from The Muddled Pantry, please click here

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Thai Green Chicken Curry (Kaeng Khiao Wan Gai)

Arguably the most famous curry in the world, Green Curry is, for many of us, the poster-child of Thai cuisine. Disarmingly unintimidating, delicious and rewarding to make, it is hardly surprising that Green Curry has the equivocal honour of being as synonymous with Thailand as Spaghetti Bolognese is to Italy.

Thai Green Chicken Curry (Kaeng Khiao Wan Gai)In spite of the fact that it is a true Thai classic, Green Curry is actually remarkably easy to make at home. The first thing to consider is your curry paste and the eternal debate between homemade or store-bought. Whilst there are a wide range of fantastic ready-made pastes available, many recipes and chefs wax-lyrical about the absolute necessity of making your own, insisting, “that’s how its done in Asia”. Poppycock!

Now I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t make your own, I’m just saying you mustn’t get too hung up on doing so. The truth is that the only Asians making their own curry pastes are those who’s job it is to do so.

Okay, so whilst I do concede that a homemade curry paste is almost always nicer than store-bought, they invariably require a long list of ingredients that are difficult to source and often impossible to substitute. As part of this recipe I have included a homemade curry paste and the final dish is all the more rewarding for it, but if you can’t be bothered making it or you don’t have the ingredients, don’t despair – there is no shame in using a store-bought paste instead (as I often do). Thankfully, as with most curries, the success of the dish actually relies more on technique than ingredients; so rather focus on how you make the curry and less on the provenance of your paste. The chances are your curry will still turn out great!

For more delicious Thai recipes please click here, or if you need tips on stocking your Thai Pantry please click here.

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Cider Braised Beef Short-ribs

Being half Asian I naturally adore food packed with flavour and usually in my kitchen that means spicy and exotic, but sometimes I crave the simple home-cooked comforts of my mother’s land. It may be the inner-Brit in me, but there are days when you can just keep your kimchi and beef rendang – all I want is toad-in-the-hole or a proper Sunday roast!

Without a chilli nor spice in sight, this dish is the epitome of what I would call real British comfort-food. Made with just a few seemingly unassuming ingredients, this humble stew seems to come out with more flavour than was put in! Uncomplicated and yet rich with depth, this dish is the perfect example of good food, made simply.

Adapted from Leiths Meat Bible, this amazing braise goes well with just about anything. Feeling sophisticated? Serve it with classic mash potato and some sautéed kale with grapes. Feeling rustic? Just grab some fresh crusty bread and mop-up the delicious sauce!

Kimchi and beef rendang? Lord knows I still love them, but when old-school British comfort-food tastes this good, you could be forgiven for never wanting anything else!

Click here for the recipe