Friday, December 31, 2010

Taiarelli baccalá e noci

It's always exciting to get hold of new ingredients and find the inspiration to make new dishes with them. I managed to buy a slab of baccalá (Italian dried salted cod), and decided to make a pasta out of it. Out of this large piece of fish, I decided to make a couple of different olive oil based pastas and one tomato based. This is the first recipe, and I will prepare and publish the other two sometime in 2011. In this dish, the taste of baccalá blends with the onions, while the nuts and breadcrumbs add some texture. I used "Taiarelli di trito" as it's my favourite pasta, but this recipe can equally work with spaghetti, linguini or bucatini.

For this recipe I used the following ingredients:
  • A chunk of baccalá
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, squashed
  • 1 onion
  • A few cherry tomatoes
  • 1 chilli padi, chopped
  • 4-5 walnuts and a few pistachios
  • A handful of breadcrumbs
  • Half a glass of white wine
  • Olive oil
  • Some grated orange peel (optional)
One or two days in advance, submerge the chunk of baccalá in cold water and place it in the fridge overnight (2 days is even better). Remove the baccalá from the water (discard the water), wash it and place it into a small skillet, covered in water, bring it to a slow simmer for about 20 minutes.
In the meantime, finely chop  the onion and slowly sweat it on a frying pan. Add some of the water from the simmering cod if necessary, to protract the cooking time. When the onion is nicely soft (about 20 minutes) make a cream by blending it together with a few spoonfuls of cod water using an immersion blender. Toast the breadcrumbs on a perfectly clean frying pan (without any oil), until lightly browned, and set aside for later. Chop the walnuts and pistachios with a knife, some coarse and some fine. Make a small incision into each of the cherry tomatoes.

Remove the cod from the simmering water, then break it into flakes and set aside. On a large frying pan, pour generous olive oil and bring it to the heat. Add the squashed garlic, brown and remove. Add the cod flakes together with the chopped chilli, lightly fry them, then deglaze with the white wine. Finally, add the nuts and the cherry tomatoes until they pop. Remove from the heat.
When the pasta is almost cooked, drain it and add it to the frying pan together with the rest of the ingredients, back on the heat. Reduce the sauce with some of the water from the simmered cod, add a couple of spoonfuls of the onion cream, lightly sauteé and serve in portions, topped by a couple of the cherry tomatoes, the breadcrumbs and some orange zest to taste.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Otto - Pasta dinner #2

This is my second review of Otto, which I tried for the first time earlier this year during a group pasta tasting. I must say I was not impressed by the pasta dishes I had back then, so this time I stayed away from all those which perhaps are not a match for my taste, except for one. I had 4 pastas in total, a good sample out of their complete pasta menu, which includes 8 pastas in total.

The Paccheri di Gragnano, con Ragout di Cernia, pomodorini Pachino ($28) e origano was actually a generous portion of paccheri, filled with chunks of grouper on a bed of a light fish stock based sauce, lightly sprinkled with spices and herbs and topped with Pachino tomatoes (a superb Sicilian variety of cherry tomatoes). The dish worked well, since the sauce was light enough to let the Pachino tomatoes speak for themselves. I would recommend this pasta to those who like light, fresh, subtly flavoured, sauces.

The Pappardelle al vino rosso con ragout di faraona e pancetta croccante ($24) was a more robust flavoured rustic pasta. The sauce was a ragout of guinea fowl tossed with some cream and sprinkled with tasty browned bacon chunks. The pappardelle had a nice bite and the crispy bacon added crunch and taste to the creamy sauce. I didn't prefer this pasta since I am never for creamy sauces. To my taste, this would have been better without cream, simply with a jus reduction. Flavour and texture were all there and the cream just kind of masked and confused the flavours.

The tagliolini al nero di seppia con gamberi e pesto delicato ($28) was a rather classic pasta, pairing homemade squid ink tagliolini with a generous amount of prawns and lightly sauteed tomato chunks. I would rate this second best out of the four. The flavours were well blended and the sauce had a good density which made it easily adhere to the tagliolini. I would prefer the tagliolini to be firmer in texture, but this rarely happens with homemade pasta.

Finally, I ordered one pasta which I already had during my previous visit: the spaghetti ai ricci di mare e bottarga di Carloforte (sea urchin spaghetti with grey mullet roe, $30). I didn't like this pasta then, and I am still unconvinced by it. It lacks of the freshness that I would hope to taste from a seafood based pasta, and the taste is somehow unnaturally sweet. Also, I wonder what brand of spaghetti was used; the bite/texture gave me the impression of a low quality grain (only the spaghetti had this issue, the other pastas were all top notch).

I would say that Otto is one of the few Italian restaurants in Singapore that serve decent pasta, but for a hefty price tag. With pasta dishes ranging from $24 to $38 dollars, which is in the top price range in Singapore, Otto has to compete with other restaurants that serve equal if not superior quality at more reasonable prices. On the other hand, the attentive and discreet service and soft, comfortably sophisticated ambiance make up for some of the extra cost, making Otto suitable for dating couples.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas Dinner @ Gattopardo

After cooking for friends on Christmas Eve and lunch, it was finally time to be served and enjoy a beautifully prepared Christmas dinner at Gattopardo. I was particularly interested in this menu because every single dish is a match for my taste, and stewed eel has always been one of my favourites. This happens rarely with set menus, as I normally like a couple of dishes and compromise on others that I wouldn't chose to eat otherwise.

I must say that it is hard in Singapore to find such a selection: a combination of regional dishes with a touch of modern to lighten up the flavours and make the food more suited for a multiple course meal. Every single dish was brilliantly executed and had something to say.

Amouse Bouche: Mackerel fillet with caramelised onions. A great start of the meal, this Sicilian style amouse bouche combined the sweetness of caramelised onion, with the saltiness of a small fillet of mackerel.

Carpaccio di ricciola con caviale Oscietra e erba cipollina (Amberjack carpaccio with Oscietra caviar and chives). This was incredibly good. This dish looks simple, and yet many restaurants don't get it right. They either make it too plain, or too sour, or just not very interesting. This carpaccio had the right balance between oil, salt, and sour. Sicilian salt flakes still in crystalline form animated the dish, busting bubbles of flavour as they dissolved into the palate.

Brodetto chiarificato di vongole veraci e porri (Light vongole broth and leeks). The base was a classic Italian "brodo" which brought back memories of when I used to live in Italy. These flavours were very nostalgic, since I haven't had this Italian classic for many, many years. On top of the base stock, there was a delicate but distinct taste of clams.

Tortelloni della vigilia (Homemade tortelli filled with red prawn, tarragon butter and saffron pepper cheese). This was an outstanding combination of textures, enriched by a smooth buttery sauce with deep, well rounded herb flavours. The cheese was just sufficient to give an extra kick to the dish, without overwhelming it.

Capitone piccante in umido e polenta di fave secche con finocchio selvatico (Spicy Italian large stewed eel, dry fava beans and wild fennel). Whenever I go back to Italy to visit my family, my mother knows that if eels are in season, I really appreciate plenty of "anguilla in umido", which is a thinner type of eel as compared to the one served in Gattopardo, slowly cooked in tomato sauce. This dish was a mouthful of goodness. First time I had polenta made from broadbeans, but I must say it was excellent: less grainy than the corn polenta, and lighter to the palate. On top of the polenta was a layer of tender and succulent eel, flavoured by a topping of slowly braised onions and a couple of reduced cherry tomatoes. It is only a shame that instead of a couple of bites of this, I could have eaten a whole plate.

Sinfonia di cioccolato e castagne (Chestnut and sabayon cream, chocolate flkourless sponge, cherry compote). Chocolate flavours emerged from the layers of sponge, lightened by chestnut-textured layers. The Amarene (Cherry compote) added a Christmas touch to this beautifully presented dessert.

I must say that I am never disappointed eating at Gattopardo. This meal gets me even more excited to try their New Year's eve menu in less than a week! Looking forward to dishes such as the Lasagna aperta con Branzino su salsa di Zucca e riduzione di Nerello (Open lasagna with seabass, yellow pumpkin and Nerello wine reduction), the Zuppetta piccante di Scorfano (Sicilian spicy scorpion fish soup), and the Quaglie ripiene al fegato d'oca (Roasted and stuffed quail with Foie Gras and spicy pork)!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sky on 57

Justin Queck's new restaurant is located on Sky Park, on top of the Marina Bay Sands, and opened just a couple of weeks ago. Well aware of the fact that new restaurants don't perform to their best from day one and need some time to warm up, I thought of paying them a visit to check out the view as well as the food.

The location is indeed breathtaking, and the interior is bright and extremely spacious, as you would expect from a restaurant in such a premium location. The overall theme is a sober classic modern. I opted for the set lunch menu, priced at S$48++ for 3 courses. You are requested to select a dessert, so starter, soup and main is not an allowed option.

The prawn bisque was ok, although definitely not one of the best I've had in Singapore. It's fairly hard to go terribly wrong with this dish, but I thought the surface of the soup was quite dried out, as if the dish had been standing somewhere for quite a while, waiting to be served. Not ideal.

My starter was poached eggs with mushrooms, pan fried foie gras and truffle oil. Nothing so exciting that I would order again, but decently put together.

The cod dish was a bit too bland. I didn't think that the sauce really worked with the cod, and the fish itself was perfectly cooked but didn't have any flavour.

The beef was tender enough, served with a nice demi-glas sauce which gave it some flavour. The braised tendons were very gelatinous and would be appreciated by many, although I am not that keen. Another dish that didn't excite me, although technically there was nothing wrong with it.

Out of all the food I had, I would say the the dessert was the only dish that had a soul, or something to say. The signature apple tart was beautiful, crispy and delicate. I would have this again.

The food was executed by the book but lacked in personality and tasted like standard hotel food, not something you would go out of your way to taste. The worst part was the service. I must say I have never had such poor service in a restaurant of this caliber. There was total lack of communication amongst service staff, and most of them have not yet been adequately trained. We asked for the bread multiple times to different waiters. When finally one took the initiative to put a basket of bread on our table, our waitress snatched the basket from us at the point that we were grabbing the first piece of bread and seeing our surprised faces she told us "he doesn't know" (meaning the other waiter doesn't understand the system). She then went away with the basket one meter away from us, grabbed a pair of tangs and came back to us to ask which piece of bread we wanted... there would have been more polite ways to achieve the same result!

Lots of waiters running everywhere, a lot of movement and little result. That is the impression you get when you sit at your table and watch the show. Being understanding, I am aware that it's difficult to get good service staff in Singapore, and this restaurant has only just opened. Said that, I would have expected a little more from the food.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Focaccia Genovese revisited

Last week I posted a recipe to make Focaccia Genovese, and this week I made it again with the intent to try a different, much stronger type of flour given to me by a friend. The stronger flour made the kneading process tougher, as the dough was even stickier and harder to manage.

This time I made two trays of it, one with mini plum tomatoes and Rosemary, and the other one with red onions and Rosemary. I blanched and peeled the cherry tomatoes, then oven dried them for an hour or so to enhance the flavour.

I cooked the plum tomatoes focaccia at a slightly higher temperature than usual (245C), which resulted in a thicker, crispier surface. An interesting result, although next time I will stick to 230C and I will wet the oven dried tomatoes to prevent them from slight burns.

The color contrast of red onions looks beautiful on bread both before and after baking. While red onions look better than white ones, their sweetness doesn't particularly suit this type of bread. I will go back to regular white onions going forward, since they have a more distinct onion taste.

I could without a doubt tell the difference between the two flours (Prima bread flour and my friend's strong Italian flour). I personally prefer the strong flour, which resulted in a more airy and spongy dough, with bigger bubbles through the section. Unfortunately I am not sure where you can source strong flour in Singapore, but a visit at the more exotic culinary shops might be worthwile.

72 hours beef short ribs

This is one sous-vide recipe that you will have read or heard about, as the 72 hours cooking time really stands out. You don't normally hear of meat being cooked for so long, as traditional cooking techniques are not suited to stretch over 3 days while retaining flavours and textures. So I decided to finally start the journey of this never-ending and inevitably well planned cooking process. As for any recipe, there are different versions at different temperatures, and I decided to cook mine at 57C for the first 48 hours, raising the temperature to 75.5C for the last 24 hours.

I seasoned the meat with a sprinkle of pepper and generous salt, then vacuum packed it together with a herb sachet containing rosemary, sage, thyme and a clove of garlic sliced into two. I then put the bags into the water bath for a continuous 72 hours. I recommend that no matter what, but especially if you are in Singapore, when you cook sous-vide over such long periods using an immersion circulator, you observe the following:
  • Cover the container either with its own lid or some cling film
  • Make sure that the packs are well into the water.  They will eventually develop some air and tend to emerge, and you might have to put some weight over them to keep them into place
  • Place a fan behind the circulator to ensure that it won't overheat. The last thing you want is your circulator to stop while unattended in the middle of the process, as you will have to throw away all the meat and start again.
  • Ensure that the bags are double sealed, since the bones can be sharp and may potentially damage the envelope. If necessary, you might consider double vacuuming within a second envelope.
After 3 days of wait, I was eager to extract the bags from the water bath and unveil the beauty of these slabs of meat. Pictured above, what the ribs looked like after I extracted them from their own envelope and drained the juices (set aside to make the sauce).

Now, time to make the outside crispy, seal the flavours and create a tasty Maillard reaction all around this gourmet cut of meat. I blow-torched the short ribs from every side, making sure that the outer layer of fat crisped up, sweating out some of its oil.

While slicing, the meat fell off the bone and really didn't take much effort to cut through! The slices revealed the fairly thick inner marbling which was already well visible before the cooking (see first photo on top). The meat, despite being perfectly pink as a "medium" would look like if you cooked a steak, actually tasted like a "medium-rare" throughout.

This is without a doubt a result that you would never achieve without sous-vide: the meat was tender, incredibly juicy, and felt almost like raw meat. Marbled with melting fat, crispy outside, but most importantly packed with flavour throughout! In actual fact, it didn't need any sauce since the natural beef flavour was enhanced by the balanced aromas released by the herbs.
This is the kind of result which makes you happy to be cooking sous-vide, and I will be making it more regularly.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The best Dan Dan in Singapore?

Dan Dan and Zhajiang mien are without a doubt my two favourite noodle dishes in Chinese cuisine, but unfortunately since they originate from the northern part of China, they are not commonly found in Singapore, and when they are available they are often substandard. After tasting Dan Dan noodles in different places, my favourites are Silk Road (Amara Hotel), and Sichuan Dou Hua (Parkroyal hotel). Having to choose between these two, I would prefer the Silk Road Dan Dan, although it's a very close battle. As you may know, there are two types of Dan Dan, dry or soupy, and some places make one version, some places the other. For instance, Lao Beijing serves Dan Dan noodles in soup. I am generally not a big fan of soupy noodles, so I will only be reviewing the dry version.

I have reviewed Silk Road before, so I won't spend any more words on environment and service, which are of pretty good standard.
Dan Dan noodles at Silk Road only cost $6.00. They come in a decent portion with plenty of minced beef a creamy rich sauce, and an extremely pronounced Sichuan peppercorn kind of spiciness which is guaranteed to numb your mouth by the end of it!
What distinguishes the way this dish is prepared at Silk Road is the lightness of the sauce. Other places make the sauce too rough and robust, resulting in a heavy, unsettling flavour. Well, this is where I come for my Dan Dan fix, and at every visit I make sure I also have the dry beef shaved noodles and a portion of  Sichuan deep fried chicken with dried chilli (this second one is only recommended if you can eat spicy food), which I reviewed in my previous post.
I can only say that if you like Chinese noodles and you haven't tried Dan Dan before, you might be really missing something!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Focaccia Genovese

Focaccia Genovese is my favourite type of Italian bread: flavourful, soft and crispy. Note that this focaccia is about 2 cm high (it's not the very thick type), and must be crispy on top. Unfortunately, it's one type of bread that must be eaten freshly baked, straight out of the oven, and you can't buy the original "Genovese" here in Singapore. For this reason, I decided to make it myself, and after a bit of research I got to this wonderful recipe by an Italian guy whose grandfather used to own a bakery in Genova:

His recipe exceeded expectations, so I will include it here in English since his website and video are both in Italian.

Making focaccia Genovese is a bit involving, since it requires the dough to raise 4 times and you MUST stick to the given timings, so you must be around it and you can't "leave and forget it". On the other hand, the result is amazing and well worth a try!

The ingredients are:
• 200 ml water at room temperature (30C)
• 20 g extra virgin olive oil
• 7 g salt
• 3 g (1 teaspoon) of Malt (or alternatively honey or sugar)
• 340 g of bread flour (I use Prima bread flour)
• 7-8g dry yeast

Put the water, the malt, olive oil, salt and half of the flour into a large bowl. Kneed it well until homogeneous. Completely dissolve the yeast into a bit of water (temperature @ 30C), then pour it into the dough, and kneed until fully incorporated. Then proceed with the rest of the flour and kneed until the dough is smooth and not excessively sticky. Cover the bowl and let the dough rest for about 15 minutes at room temperature (about 30C).

Fold the dough twice by slightly stretching it and then folding the two sides into the middle, once in each direction, first horizontally, then vertically. This is to strengthen it. You should end up with the dough shaped more or less rectangular as your oven tray (although smaller in size)
Pour some olive oil into an oven tray, place the dough onto it, oil it and change side so that both sides are well covered in oil (with the help of your fingers you can brush the oil all around it). Let the dough rest for 40-60 minutes, and it should have doubled in size by then.

Press the dough with your hands onto the tray, flattening it until it covers the whole tray. You should try not to stretch it in order to maintain a regular thickness throughout. You might find that it's quite elastic and that it needs a little bit of work to stabilise and cover the entire tray. Sprinkle abundant salt on top to give flavour to the focaccia and also to prevent the formation of a dried crust. Let the dough rest a 3rd time, for about 30 minutes.

Now it's time to make the classic depressions into the focaccia. Cover the dough with a few tablespoons of tepid water and some olive oil, then with your palms, massage the liquid on top of the dough to mix it and spread it uniformly. Now, with your fingers push into the dough with energy top to bottom, forming depressions as in the picture above. The oil and water should sink into the depressions, forming softer areas that will create the interesting different textures that are typical of focaccia Genovese.

At this point you can top your focaccia with your favourite toppings, such as cherry tomatoes, olives, rosemary or onions. In my recipe, I used sliced onions and rosemary. I would make the onion slices about 3-4mm thick to prevent them from burning.

Let the focaccia raise a 4th time, for about 60-75 minutes. Now it's finally ready for cooking. Put the tray into the oven at about 220-240C for 15-20 minutes. Remove from the oven, lift from the tray and let it slide onto a grate, or any surface that will let the focaccia breathe underneath. This is because if you keep it in close contact with the tray, the steam from underneath will make the base soggy instead of evaporating.

Let the focaccia rest for a couple of minutes, brush with some olive oil on top, slice and serve while still warm. The crust should be salty and crispy, while the inside must be soft and porous.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Red Bream Linguini

Sunday lunch, time for a pasta for two; the mood this time is "fish and tomato". This is a pretty classic pasta sauce, which surprisingly I haven't blogged about in 3 years of pasta recipes blogging. Linguini is the perfect pairing for this pasta, although you can also use spaghetti.

The idea is to make a mild tomato sauce, enriched with a fish fumet done on the spot. You can of course use other fish, and red mullets (in Italian - triglie) would be ideal for this dish, but I couldn't find them at the market, so I replaced them with red sea breams.

The ingredients for this recipe are:
  • 2 small red sea breams
  • 2 cloves of garlic, squashed
  • 1/2 Chopped onion
  • Parts of fennel bulb
  • Parsley
  • Tinned plum tomatoes, drained
  • 1/2 glass dry white wine
  • Olive oil 

Start by filleting both sides of the fish, then put into a skillet the bones and heads, together with the stems of the fennel bulb, 1/2 onion, and optionally other vegetables that you might have such as mushrooms and celery. Fill up the skillet with cold water, and put it on high heat until it starts to bubble, then turn the heat to very low. Your fumet will need to simmer on low heat for about 20 minutes or so before you can start to use it.
In the meantime, prepare all the other ingredients, by peeling and squashing the garlic and finely chopping half an onion. Chop the parsley and reserve the stems, and drain about 5 plum tomatoes from their juices by putting them on a sieve for some time.

When the fish fumet is ready, cover a frying pan with extra virgin olive oil, and fry onion and garlic until golden, then add some chilli flakes at this point if you would like this dish to be a bit spicy.

Turn the heat to high and pour the half glass of dry white wine, then quickly stir to make the alcohol evaporate rapidly. The evaporation process should not take longer than 30 seconds or so, if the heat is sufficiently high. At this point, add the parsley stems to the pan, pour a ladle or two of the fish fumet, and reduce.

Once reduced to about a third, add the tomatoes and chop them with a spatula until you reach the desired texture. Continue to cook for about 15 mins or so, adding additional fish fumet (which in the meantime continues to simmer in its own skillet) until the liquid is all finished. Reduce the sauce until it reaches the consistency you see in the picture, remove the parsley stems, add chopped parsley then salt as needed. Sprinkle some salt and pepper on the fish fillets, then place them into the sauce, cover the pan, and keep it on low heat for a couple of minutes (depending on the thickness of the fillets this may take longer), until the fillets are cooked throughout.

Boil some water in a large pan, salt it as required, then cook the linguini "al dente". remove them from the pan and drain them, pour them into the large frying pan and mix thoroughly with the sauce, adding some cooking water as needed to loosen up the sauce if required.

Serve on warm plates, and top with some chopped parsley or the leaves of the fennel bulb.
Now that it's time to eat, you won't regret having done all this work!
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