Friday, 17 December 2010

Tarte Fine Aux Pommes

Why is it that when you want to make something sound posh, or chic, you give it a French name?  I wasn't aiming for chic with this pudding - although I have to admit it did look lovely - but rather I wanted something that didn't use huge amounts of cream.

I'd volunteered to make a pudding for our Book Club meeting last night.  An easy task I'd thought...  but I was quite surprised how difficult it was to find recipes that didn't involves too much dairy produce.  This wasn't because of any allergies, or indeed health reasons (as if!), simply that dairy products here are hard to find.  They're all imported from Australia or New Zealand and they're a) expensive and b) sometimes not-quite-right, not quite what you're expecting, often because many of them are UHT.

I've recently acquired the excellent Nigella Kitchen book, and thought I'd make my first recipe from that...  but nothing inspired me, mainly because every recipe in the 'My Sweet Solution' section included 300ml double cream, or 500g mascapone.  So I turned to Nigella Express, a book that I rarely use, and sometimes have twinges of guilt about.  (Do you ever feel like that?  Guilty that you don't use certain cookbooks enough?)  Anyway, I discovered the Tarte Fine Aux Pommes (Fine Apple Tart perhaps?) and decided that it fit the bill perfectly.

The recipe can be found here and I made no alterations, other than to increase the caramel sauce a little - I used a heaped tablespoon of both the butter and sugar.  It was also quite slow to take on the caramel colour so I gingerly spooned in a little of the lemony water that the apples had been soaking in.  It bubbled up madly - so be careful - but it did the trick, loosening the sauce a little and helping it magically to brown.

I thought that I had bought a block of puff pastry, but when I defrosted it it turned out to be 10 squares of pastry instead.  I put them together like a jigsaw, sealing the edges with some beaten egg, and slicing some up to make a raised border.  You can see the joins as the edges rose - all very rustic!

I cut up all 3 apples that I had bought (I used Granny Smiths) but found that 2 was plenty.  The other apple was eaten uncooked, using the wedges of it to scrape the leftover caramel sauce out of the pan...   Mmmmm!

We had a lovely evening at Book Club (despite no one except me liking Eat Pray Love..!?!  Ah well!) and there was food galore - gorgeous curries, and several puddings.  I really didn't mind having leftovers to take home though - I enjoyed a generously-cut oven-warmed slice of it this morning with a cup of coffee.  It was fabulous, rather like a Danish pastry, and definitely much nicer warmed than cold.  I can't honestly say that I could taste the caramel sauce very distinctly, but I think it just added to the sweet butteryness of the filling - a lovely contrast to the crispy flaky pastry.  I'll definitely make this again.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Rice Porridge

We eat rice a lot.  Thai Jasmine rice by choice - known in Malay as Beri Wangi!  We often cook too much rice - usually accidentally, but we're now doing it more and more on purpose as we've discovered some great ways to use it up.  There's Nasi Goreng of course - fried rice - which barely needs any kind of recipe as it's such a good use-everything-up kind of dish.  Another similar dish is rice porridge.

In Asia rice porridge is a popular breakfast dish.   We ate in in our hotels in both Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City.  When we're at home we eat it at any time of day - it's a great lunch, or light supper.

It's served plain, but with a variety of condiments.  Here in Vietnam (the picture above was taken in the Continental Hotel in Saigon) these were sliced pickled vegetables and chicken 'floss', that strangest of meat products!  However, you can really add whatever you like to it - as long as you include a generous slug of fish sauce, and a squeeze of fresh lime.

It's the simplest thing to make, and you only need a small portion of leftover rice.

When your rice is cool, cover it with cold water and place it into the fridge overnight.  The rice grains will absorb the water and swell up.

Drain off any excess water and scrape the rice into a saucepan along with some chicken stock.  We make stock every time we have a chicken so generally have a tub or two of it in the freezer, but have also used bottled stock concentrate here to good effect.

At this point it's nice to add some celery which flavours the soupy liquid.  Rob and I differ as to how we like this - I chop the celery very finely, while Rob - as you can see - throws large chunks of it in.  This offends my aesthetic sensibilities somewhat, both visually and culinarily (I prefer the porridge to be smooth not chunky), however I don't suppose you can complain too much when someone else is cooking!

Simmer the rice and stock for a while.  I don't know how long, we tend to just leave it bubbling gently on the stove for up to an hour.  By this point the grains of rice will start to break down and it will begin to look more like porridge than soup.

From now on it's up to you to add whatever you like.  An essential for me is nam pla, or fish sauce, but I'm aware that this is a love-it-or-hate-it kinda thing, so if you're in the 'hate' camp then go for regular light soy sauce. If you like some chili heat then finely chop a birdseye chili and mix it with the fish/soy sauce to sprinkle on the dish to taste.

I think a generous handful of chopped coriander is also important, either fresh or frozen (if frozen stir it through while the porridge is still on the heat).

Chopped spring onions add a nice crunch and a squeeze of fresh lime juice really lifts the flavours.  We've also used crispy fried garlic (chopped and fried until golden brown) and crispy fried onions (which we buy in packets). 

My new favourite topping however is a tin of this...

I'll take a punt on the fact that your reaction to this picture would have included the words "Yuk!" or "Gross!" but hear me out - they're delicious!  I noticed them in the supermarket soon after we arrived and had often picked them up and given the tin a shake.  Eventually the rattle of the tin got the better of me and I threw some into my basket.  I was fully prepared to hate them, but you know me, I'll try most things.  However, I love them - they're crispy, crunchy, salty with a slight sweetness (the clams especially) and strangely addictive.

I find half a tin scattered over the rice porridge just perfect.


Last year...

 This year...

And I honestly couldn't say where I'd rather be. 

I find myself yearning for the snow in England, but I'd be willing to bet that most people in the UK would happily swap their snow for our heat.  I suppose we all want what we can't have.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Merry Christmas!

I know, I know, I'm usually the one complaining about Christmas coming too early - it's too early to hear carols in September, it's too early to buy mince-pies in October, etc, etc.  But this year it's all a bit different.

Being a Muslim country most people here just don't celebrate Christmas.  There is a sizeable Chinese population here so some Chinese-run stores (such as Hua Ho supermarket) embrace the season, as do some of the local hotels with an international clientele, but generally Christmas just isn't happening here.  In many ways it's quite refreshing not to be assaulted by Christmas paraphernalia for months, and in this climate it would feel odd for those of us used to Christmas in England or Canada to be getting festive...  but it's also a little strange.

Generally Rob and I tend to eat Asian food here in Brunei.  I've always found it fairly unsatisfactory to try to recreate favourite dishes from home (not to mention horribly expensive) so it's rice and noodles most days for us!  Delicious, and healthy too (we've both lost half a stone since arriving here in August).  However, we decided that we just had to do a proper Christmas Dinner.

We're off to Thailand for Christmas, so we actually had our own Christmas at the weekend - on the 12th December.  The 'tree' (Brunei-style) has been decorated for a while...

We bought a chicken because the only turkeys we could find here were huge - far too big for two.  We did spend lots of money in the non-Halal room in Supasave though, and bought streaky bacon and cocktail sausages as I couldn't imagine doing Christmas Dinner without bacon-wrapped chipolatas!

Rob has always had Chestnut stuffing for Christmas, and it's a tradition I'm most happy for us to continue.  We have rejected the tedious and labour-intensive routine of boiling and peeling chestnuts for this and now use a packet of chestnuts - surprisingly easily available here - and equally as delicious as the hand-peeled ones.

In an effort to keep the expats happy Supasave is stocking sprouts imported from Australia.  They were extortionately expensive (over $13 per kg) but I bought some because, well, it just isn't Christmas Dinner without them is it?  They weren't great though - too big and rather chewy - so I don't think I'd bother again, Christmas or not.

We also had carrots, roast potatoes, roast parsnip and cheesy cauliflower - another of Rob's (and my) favourite roast dinner accompaniments.  I rejected the tins of cranberry sauce and instead we had my homemade apple-chilli jelly, which I had brought over from the UK (a small nod to Asian cuisine in a very British meal!).  And Coleman's English Mustard.  Of course.

We had also imported a Tescos Finest Christmas Pudding!  It had been lurking in our cupboard in the UK for ages - years probably, since I have made my own for at least the last 3 years.  I seem to recall Rob buying it because it was half price...  if you know Rob you'll know that that's pretty typical!

It wasn't the greatest pudding ever, not a patch on a home-made one, and not helped by the fact that we microwaved it and the microwave timer got stuck so it had a rather longer cooking time than it should have done!  However, we flamed it with rum, and doused it liberally with Rum Sauce and it did the job.

It was a delicious meal and it made us think that, despite the tropical climate and lack of air-conditioning in the kitchen, we might cook a roast dinner occasionally - this was our first one since we arrived at the start of August.  We could tell we're just not used to it any more though - we were both positively groaning, we felt so full afterwards!  Still, that's the way a Christmas Dinner should be!

I hope your Christmas Dinners are equally delicious.

Friday, 10 December 2010

More Walking - Bukit Shahbandar

Whilst Tasek Lama is a perfect hour-long jungle walk, Bukit Shahbandar is rather more hard-core...  Bukit is Malay for 'Hill' and Shahbandar translates as 'of death'.  It doesn't actually.  But it should.

There are many trails through Bukit Shahbandar, as you can see from the map.  But the map is deceiving in many ways...  firstly it's more than slightly inaccurate, and secondly it gives no indication of gradient, making it look deceptively easy.  The 'proper' route around Bukit involves taking the outer paths on the map, visiting all of the nine pondoks along the way.

Walking away from the landscaped play-parks at the park entrance you are faced with your first challenge - a long pull up lots of concrete steps.  It's a great workout and certainly raises your heartrate.

Once you reach the top there's a really nice section along a ridge, through the jungle on paths that are relatively flat.  At this point I'm generally feeling pretty good about my fitness levels

The views into the interior of Brunei are amazing, and I always gawp with wonder at just how much of this country is covered with rainforest.

From hereon in the paths tend to deteriorate somewhat...  the heavy rainfall here means that any deforested patch of ground is fast eroded.  It makes climbing up the hills very hard work!

Rob clambers up to another pondok. Somehow, no matter how early we set off, we always reach this bare section when the sun is high enough to beat down on you, and there's nowhere to seek shade!

Luckily you soon head back into the shade of the jungle.

There are some lovely pools and streams for a refreshing splash of cool water.

They sometimes include some exciting local wildlife as well!

The wildlife spotting is my favourite way of distracting myself from my aching legs.  I never fail to be delighted by the sight of these pitcher plants hidden in the undergrowth.

The final killer slog is up one last set of steps (always much longer than you remember them being last time) up one final hill to a pondok that consists of yet more steps..!  The first time we did the walk we staggered on up to the viewing platform, but a bad case of wobbly-legs-syndrome mean we haven't bothered since.

Views out to the Empire Hotel, and the South China Sea beyond.

Arriving back at the carpark it would be hard to find a more welcoming sight than this...

Well, OK, a chilled lager might be slightly higher up my list of possible welcoming sights but hey, this is a dry country so we'll make do with a chilled coconut.

Jogging around Bukit is popular with the fitness fanatics among us - I've heard of several people who can complete the circuit in a little over half an hour.  However, we prefer to walk - that's exercise enough - and tend to take about 2 hours over the whole thing (not including the coconut drinking!)

Thursday, 9 December 2010

A Walk at Tasek Lama

In the UK our default leisure activity is to walk.  We've been lucky enough to live in some beautiful areas with walks literally from the door of our house, and we also spend most of our holidays in the UK walking - in Shropshire, South Devon, Dorset, Yorkshire, the Peak District and of course the Lake District.

Here in Brunei the walking is very different, but we still try to get out at least once a week.  During term-times we walk every Thursday afternoon, lead by one of my colleagues who knows the jungles of Brunei far better than we do - we've quickly learned that one bit of jungle looks very like another, and there are no OS maps here!

So when Rob and I walk on our own we stick to the recreational parks here, which generally have very well-marked trails.

We've recently discovered a park called Tasek Lama (translated as Long Lake).  It's very close to the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city, and there are some great views of the city as you walk around.

The park entrance is landscaped and popular with families because of the children's playgrounds there.  It's been really nicely done.  The bins (that's one in the foreground) are shaped like tree-stumps.

There are lots of lovely plants alongside the paths.  These leaves always seem to be catching the morning sun every time we walk there.

The park is popular with walkers and joggers (although I can't understand why anyone would want to move any faster than a leisurely amble in this heat!) and there are lots of paths.  We've discovered a circuit that takes us exactly one hour which is about right - much longer than this and the heat and humidity really start to get to you.  A longer circuit will take you past the lake, after which this park is named.

The toughest bit is near the start where you're faced with a long steep hill.  The fact they've built steps to help you is nice...

but the fact that the torrential rains have eroded them so badly means that they almost make it harder to climb up!

 Still, the views from the top are impressive - and there's often a little cooling breeze there too.  This is the Jame'Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque.

Once the hill is conquered the path is fairly clear and level.  Many jungle walks leave you totally disorientated as the vegetation is so thick that you completely lose your bearings with the lack of visible landmarks, but on this walk you can orient yourself pretty easily once you know Brunei - there's usually a distinctive mosque in view!

It's always reassuring to see a signpost though.

Our circuit brings us out of the jungle beside a small fenced building on a hill, surrounded with barbed wire.  I have no idea what it is, but this sign always makes me laugh.  Actually it makes me a bit scared too, hence we've never investigated further!

The final section of the walk is down a tarmacked road.  From here you can see the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in the centre of the city, as well as Kampong Ayer, the water village beyond.

At the bottom of the hill you reach the main road and it's only a short walk back up the road to re-enter Tasek Lama.  The first time we did this walk we discovered Lim Ah Siaw - the pork market run by and for the Chinese population here.  Being a Muslim country pork is rarely seen here so this is a useful place to know about if you're craving some crackling!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

A Busy Week...

Since I last blogged...

* I've finished my first term teaching here.  So nice to have 4 weeks off - and we're looking forward to our holiday in Thailand in a couple of weeks.  We'll be spending some time in Bangkok, then a few days on Koh Samet.

* We've had a couple of exciting visitors to the house, one by day - on the pondok,

and one on the window by night.

 * We've dragged out the Christmas decorations and filled the house with fairy lights.

* We've decorated the Christmas pot-plant (they don't sell 'real' Christmas trees out here, and we didn't want a fake one).  There's lots of old favourites on the tree...

But the new decorations for 2010 are my mosaic baubles, made by me at our mosaic classes run by Paula.

* We've also had our Loan Service Christmas Ball, this year with a Medieval theme.  It was a superb evening, the Community Centre was brilliantly decorated, and everyone had made such an effort with their costumes.  I adapted an outfit I already had (adding sleeves and a pointy hat) and I made Rob's.

It was a bit of a sad time too as we had to say goodbye to Paula and John.  Saying goodbye to friends and neighbours is an inevitable and all-too-regular part of military life - and this goodbye was tinged with envy that John and Paula are heading back to live in lovely snowy Edinburgh!

They'll be much missed here, but I know they'll enjoy their new life back in Scotland - and I'm sure we'll meet again!