Friday, 25 May 2012

à la française: Home-cooked French Cuisine - Week 1

In the past two weeks, I've thrown myself headfirst into a new hobby - cooking! :D I've never actually done much cooking at all for the most part of growing up but now that I'm really getting on in my mid-20s (gahhhhhh), I figured it's high time I start learning to relish being in the kitchen learning to wield some dangerous tools. 

As you probably know from my previous post, after visiting Paris for a really short period of 6 days recently on my way back from Montreal, I've gotten into a little obsession heightened interest regarding the French culture; specifically what it's like to be a French woman. It's really fascinating to read about their approach to food and their eating habits. One thing I've learnt is that they don't have the habit of snacking - ever. No such thing as idly munching on chips/crackers when bored or in need of some form of stimulation as so many of us often do. Because processed foods/junk foods are merely empty calories. If the quality of the food isn't good, might as well not eat it at all. Instead, if you're hungry, it's better to snack on something simple and healthy (fruits/nuts/fresh bread etc) to tide the hunger temporarily while still keeping a good appetite for the next meal. It's something I've found incredibly helpful in approaching my meals in the day too. When I feel hungry before meals, instead of racing for the nearest edible thing I can find, I try to remind myself that the good, substantial meal will come soon and when I do eventually sit down for the meal, I try to eat a little slower than I did before, allowing for better digestion and appreciation of the food. It's worked most of the time this week, except for dinner just now when I was too hungry and scarfed down a whole bunch of pizza. =X Not a great feeling after. 

But this is a new approach to food I'm learning, so it's always going to take awhile at the beginning. After that rather long preamble, I'm finally going to say what I've been meaning to say, which is -- I've started a little project for myself! A little culinary endeavor - 1 French dish a week, starting with recipes from the incredible British chef, Rachel Khoo's , gorgeous cookbook, The Little Paris Kitchen. I happened to randomly find it in Kinokuniya the other day and it's the most BEAUTIFUL cookbook I've ever had (not that I've had many) or laid my eyes on. The creative direction, the photography, the bits of illustration done by Khoo herself...everything about this cookbook is sheer perfection.


So every Saturday, I'm going to be trying out a recipe (at least one!) from this cookbook and while I'm not sure how long exactly this little project is going to last, I sure hope I would have tried at least 15 recipes by the end of the next few months. God knows school is only going to get busier but since the crazy part isn't for a month or two, I'll see how far I can get. 

For Week 1, I managed to cook two dishes! :D Just because I happened to have some time last week and wayyy excited about embarking on it. They are
1. Ratatouille
2. Poulet aux champignons avec une sauce au vin blanc 

(Which really just means Chicken and Mushrooms in a white wine sauce. :D Sounds way cooler in French, non?)

I suppose I chose to attempt Ratatouille because it's a veggie dish and I'm a huge fan of veggies. Plus, it looks pretty simple, mainly just a huge mixture of all sorts of veggies stewed together. AND, it was also featured in movie of the same name starring the cutest Rat ever, Remi. :) 

I LOVE the riot of colors of fresh vegetables. Capsicums (tri-colored) are probably my favorite veggies to see and handle. 


Left: One of my favorite smells? Garlic and Onion frying in olive oil. MMMMMM. 

Right: LOTS of tomatoes were required for this dish. 

It basically involved tossing all the cut up veggies into a large roasting tin to bake in the oven for about an hour. 

Photobucket Et voilà! :D Really a good dish to start off with for beginners, I feel. The only thing was that it really came out kind of soft and boggy, probably because of all the juices from the tomatoes (mainly) and the other veggies mixed together. I wonder if I should try to take out some of the tomato pulp/seeds next time to reduce the water content before it goes into the oven? It's nice when there's a bit of sogginess to it but for my first attempt it was a little too soggy for my liking. What happened to the crunchiness of the capsicums and zucchini?

Photobucket This basically is enough to feed around 5 people as a main course veg or starter veg for lunch. 

The next dish was the Chicken and Mushroom in White Wine Sauce. :D I actually REALLY liked how this one turned out! I'm usually not a fan of cream-based sauces but this one was pretty good. Plus, since I'm the chef, I'll be able to tweak the recipe to my liking the next round and add in a little less cooking cream. The reason it's so tasty is probably because of all that butter that went into the sauce. MMM. Only problem with this dish was that my sauce turned out a more PASTY and less SAUCE-like than expected. Probably because I was distracted and let the sauce bubble up too much. Am started to figure out the whole, "if you want it to thicken up, let it boil more, and if you want it to be more liquid, add more chicken stock" thing. :)

So Week 1's dishes were pretty successful. I ended up eating the Ratatouille for pretty much the entire week though. O_o But it's good, because at least I get to bring home cooked food for lunch every day at the hospital. I learnt from a student in Montreal who told me that every Sunday night she cooks a huge load of pasta and keeps it in the fridge to reheat at lunch the entire week. It's such a money-saving idea too! :) It IS a little more troublesome to have to keep heading to the pantry to use the microwave while everyone else is already off buying lunch... but I think it's a worthwhile habit to continue. Here's a little video clip of Rachel Khoo's cooking show! :D I'm in love with it. If you love food, colors, beauty, French cuisine, Paris... you're going to love this show. It's got so many elements of perfection. Let me know if you watch/have tried her recipes/have any tips! :D


Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Mont Royal trek

One of the must-dos when in Montreal would be a climb up their beloved mountain, Mont Royal. According to the tour guide of the bicycle tour that I was on, Montrealers revere their mountain so much that they will take great offense if you refer to it as a 'hill'. ;) While it's not that bad a climb and quite manageable for people of all ages, I still got pretty winded 3/4 of the way up. And I blame it on both my dismal fitness level and that fact that winterboots and winterwear is just plain heavy and makes climbing a lot harder. So this was in early March when the streets were covered in snow and the temperature hovered around 0 degrees Celsius daily.

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When I saw this, I couldn't help but think - humans are innately masochistic. Who the hell would do this to themselves?? And then I ended up climbed on. (But at least I'm not as crazy as those guys in their sneakers running up and down the stairs/the Mountain.)

I think whenever I'm halfway up SOMETHING e.g. a flight of stairs leading to a supposed fantastic view from the top of a building/monument e.g. Arc de Triomphe in Paris/ Eiffel Tower) I always question my intentions angrily, all the while gasping for air with aching thighs. But then the minute I reach the peak and receive the view that spreads on out to the horizon in its infinite beauty... there's no doubt that it was all worth it.

Photobucket Here's my favorite shot of the city below. Going at dusk is probably the prettiest time. Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket (Mont Royal, March 2012) 

And just a bit of trivia - Montreal derived its name from the name of the mountain, Mont Royal, (Hint: say it fast and French-like) which was so named by the French explorer, Jacques Cartier in 1535. 

I miss miss miss Montreal so much! Especially now that the weather in SG has just gotten excruciatingly oven-like. -_-;; And to think that when I was there I sort of craved the state of not feeling cold immediately after leaving the bathroom after a hot shower. All these little things that we either love/hate depending on the circumstances.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

à la française: Tips for Eating Well

Right before coming back to Singapore from Montreal, I was able to go to Paris for 6 wonderful days. :) It was just a fantastic time, and not just because I was able to meet up with Donald after being apart for awhile (he's doing his exchange too in Germany), but there's just something so special about that city, even in the rain. (And it rained pretty much EVERYDAY we were there) It definitely helped that I'd gotten used to seeing so much French in Montreal, but only after going to Paris did I realize how easy I'd had it in Montreal where pretty much everyone is effectively bilingual. 

That said, there will be posts dedicated to waxing lyrical about Paris but for this one, I just wanted to introduce some new stuff that I've learnt about the French, namely, some secrets about the way they eat. It's a topic that's much-discussed and it's definitely of interest to me -- how is it, that they are able to eat all that DECADENT food, and still remain slim, with relatively great health? I suppose I got a little worried after all those pastries in both Montreal and Paris and well, being someone who's always been a bit preoccupied about weight and healthy eating (ask any of my friends ;p), I figured there's no better time to take a leaf out of the French's book. 

The book, The French Twist: Twelve Secrets of Decadent Dining and Natural Weight Management, by Carol Cottrill, was simply fantastic. I devoured it in just a few days over the past week and there have been so many gems gleaned from it! But just as a teaser, here are the 12 secrets that she's written about: 
1. Embrace your individuality, your beauty, and your natural weight. 
The French woman accepts her body and rather than strive to attain a model's physique and weight through strict, obsessive diet and exercise, aims to keep herself at her natural weight through natural means. Here's the thing - they tend to regulate their weight through relying on internal cues, such as eating slowly enough to know when they are almost full and satisfied, then stopping, rather than relying on external cues such as when their plate is clean or when the TV show they are watching is over. 

2. Do not resist that which you crave. The more you resist, the more it's likely to come back to you. 
Diets are not the way to go. Because most of the diets revolve around restriction and denying oneself of certain types of foods. Rather than abstain from or deny oneself certain types of foods e.g. chocolates/carbs completely, it's better to give in to cravings but learn to eat in moderation. And after awhile, you'll realize that when you can have something and you've eaten a bit of it already, you don't crave it so much any more. 

3. Quality over quantity. 
Well cooked food from fresh produce is always better. "Elevate the quality of your food, and you will naturally eat less because high-quality, nutrient-dense food delivers the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients we need to feel satisfied." 'Nuff said. I do know that it's often the higher quality foods that are more expensive and hence less accessible to certain groups of people. It's something that should/needs to be changed but in the meantime, it's also good to consider that spending more money on healthy foods also means you'll be able to spend less money on recovering from illness. Investing in your health is probably the best form of investment you can make for yourself. 

4. Eat pleasurably. 
The French have a way of eating leisurely and savoring their meals. I never thought of it this way until reading the book but, "Hunger is the best sauce". And from the French point of view, instead of rushing through and scarfing down food when hungry, it's better to wait, feel the hunger and savor each bite slowly, enjoying the food through heightened senses. 

5. Everything in moderation. 

6. Real food is the way to go. 

7. Eat smaller portions and adjust your appetite accordingly. 
 Try eating smaller portions and in a slower, more leisurely manner, listening to your body as you do so. And once you reach a point at which you're satisfied but not stuffed, it's time to stop. And the remaining portions can be taken away (if you're at a restaurant). Gradually, you will learn how much food your body really needs rather than how much you yourself assume you need. 

8. Remember your metabolism is at play. Your body's metabolism changes depending on the time of day (with our digestive force being the most active at lunchtime) so we should eat accordingly. Lunch should be the biggest meal of the day, and it's not good to skip breakfast because when the body senses it's not getting enough energy, our metabolism rate slows down. Also, getting enough sleep is important!! With less sleep, the hunger hormone Ghrelin increases while the fullness hormone Leptin decreases. That's a simple way of putting things but everyone knows that without sleep, one just feels peeved. Interestingly, being aware helps with digestion because digestion begins at the 'mouth-watering' stage. By always being aware of what we're eating and tuning in to our senses, it's easier to be completely satisfied with a meal because we've been completely present. 

9. The French approach to exercise - be active doing what you enjoy. 
Apparently there aren't so many gyms in France because people tend to lead naturally active lives. Moderate exercise is really all the body needs and the best way to go about exercising is to "find pleasure in movement". It's better to find an activity we enjoy and feel pleasure in, rather than force ourselves to exercise in a certain manner that we feel is punishing. 

10. Make each meal a ritual to enjoy. 
 Cultivating dining rituals help make meals more enjoyable and allow you to focus on enjoying the meal and the company. This helps you focus on savoring and enjoying the food rather than be distracted by something else such as the TV. 

11. Know what you value and work towards it. 
 A simple equation, but a meaningful one at that: Value + Action = Outcome. I like this. Because it really does break things down into bite sized portions for thought. If you value your health (value), you will try to eat better quality food in a healthy manner (action), and this will be beneficial (outcome). So it's always good to remind yourself of your values and know what whatever action you take in accordance with those values with result in a particular outcome. If you value convenience or instant gratification, you might end up eating fast food or engaging in a quick fix diet, the outcome of which is more likely to be poorer health or a diet that doesn't work.

12. Eat the French Way 

There's a lot more that could be elaborated on for individual points but it's getting late and I'm getting sleepy. But I did want to introduce these tips for healthier eating. At the end of the day, I do like the way the French go about things. Instead of going on a diet to control weight, they don't deny themselves anything but rather, go about eating in moderation, sensually and pleasurably, with all the attendant benefits. It's so common-sensical, yet not everyone does it. 

Along this note, I've embarked on a little change in my life for myself, that of cooking my own lunches to bring along to school. I figured with this, there are multiple benefits -- 1. I'll be able to control what goes into my food, and I'll be able to pick healthier, better quality ingredients 2. I'll be learning a new, very necessary skill in life (God knows my culinary skills are just above the level of non-existence) 3. I'll be able to control the portion sizes. 4. I get to save some money! Furthermore, it's something that I've learnt from my time spent in Montreal. Pretty much everyone there at the hospitals packed their own lunches! Even the cafeterias came equipped with microwave ovens and toasters for people to reheat their food. It's not something you see often in Singapore, lemme tell you that. And once again, it makes SO MUCH SENSE. I'm glad that it's something I picked up from Montreal. Traveling rocks for reasons like these; when you can assimilate some aspects of another culture into your own life. 

So for the very first week, I decided to make a huge load of two things to pack to school over the course of a few days: 
1. Tabouleh Salad 
2. Eggplant Pomodoro Pasta 

I fell in love with Tabouleh Salad after my housemate in Montreal, Jessica, made some. And not only that, it was available in all the supermarkets and there were so many Lebanese restaurants to eat at! SIGH. <3

Instead of Bulgur, I used couscous because there happened to be some at home and I've no idea where to find Bulgur O_o. The first attempt came out pretty well! Just a little too soggy/lemony but nothing that a little bit of quantity tweaking won't solve.
The Eggplant Pomodoro dish actually turned out really well! :) It's easy enough because it's all just about cutting up the ingredients and then frying them. What really helped with the taste though, were the green olives and capers because they added the saltiness to the mix (so I didn't need to add any additional table salt).
PhotobucketI'd forgotten to add the garnish on. :) It just looks way better with that burst of green. 
More to come soon!

Montreal in March

The one thing I'll always sort of chide myself for is not really having researched beforehand about Montreal before I'd applied to do my elective there late last year. :p There were only a few things I knew -- 1. McGill is a great university 2. Montreal is in Canada 3. Everyone who's been to Montreal has said it's an amazing place. And with that, I applied to do 2 months of electives there! :) Pretty reckless bold eh? It was only after I'd got accepted that I actually did some googling, namely "weather in Montreal", and only when I saw the digits "-10" did my jaw drop and the question, "What the hell have I gotten myself into??" actually entered my mind. But weather apart, Montreal was FANTASTIC. :) And in fact, at the end of the day, I'm actually glad that I went in March and April because it's not the peak tourist season at all, so it was easy for me to get around. Streets and metros weren't crowded, bakeries weren't extremely packed... And it was the season for sugaring off. It just seems like at any particular time of the year there's always something special to do/look forward to. That's the beauty of being in a place with seasons. 

So here are some photos from the very first week when I went there. My mum had accompanied me to settle me in :D so there are a couple of photos of her in her big Eskimo coat. My sis and I tease her incessantly about it. 
Photobucket This beautiful building is the City Hall (Hôtel de Ville de Montréal) in Old Montreal or Vieux Montreal. Isn't it gorgeous? :) Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket Horse-drawn carriages! Apparently it's a great experience but I always have a feeling that it's a tourist rip-off. Photobucket oldmontrealforblog-1 Left: The Pointe-à-Callière museum right in the heart of Old Montreal. It's a great museum to go to at the start of your trip because one of the main highlights is a 20 minute long multimedia show (OMNIMAX style) about the beginnings of Montreal. Plus it comes in about 7 or 8 different languages with a flick of a switch on your headset.
Right: Someone came down from the North pole. :) Photobucket Photobucket Maple Syrup tart at Les Délices de l'Érable. This specialty store is pretty famous in Montreal and it's got Maple Syrup EVERYTHING. Maple Syrups of different strengths, maple syrup cookies, maple syrup ice cream among others... A must-go for first timers! Prices are probably a little more expensive too given that it's a specialty store but it's one of the really convenient places to get souvenir snacks when you're hard-pressed for time. I ended up coming here again the day before my flight back to get a whole bunch of maple syrup and snacks for friends and family. Photobucket Photobucket Place Jacque Cartier. I was pretty shocked to see just these huge random blocks of ice. It wasn't snowing or anything so why on earth were they there and in such HUGE ass hunks?? Obviously I'm not well-versed in such natural phenomenons in winter so... away I snapped with my camera. It's a great area to go to during the weekends with plenty of people just milling around, taking a rest at the benches or watching pretty kick-ass street performers doing their thing. Photobucket A maple syrup stall! I wonder if they only have these in the Winter-Spring period? But these sell a lot of maple syrup snacks, especially the archetypal maple syrup taffy made syrup that's poured onto ice which freezes it quickly and it's then curled onto a stick. Bit too much sugar for my liking. Photobucket Photobucket Photobucket Lunch at a random cafe my mum and I ducked into before going for a play at a theatre nearby. Hot Chocolate and Coffee just takes WAY awesome when you're dying from the cold. Photobucket Photobucket Another view of the City Hall. :) I just love it.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

some things you don't forget

Hoooooo boy. 

It's been a looooong time since I last updated and that's always how it seems to go! But sometimes I feel that they more busy you are with life, the less time you have for blogging, and that can be a good thing as well, no? Most of the free time in Montreal was spent exploring and taking tons of photographs with the notion that I would get to editing them eventually when I got back to Singapore. Why waste precious time in Montreal editing there? Well, now I'm back. :(( MAJOR SIGH. But that's life. I just got back 2 days ago and after an awesome night celebrating my grandparents' 65th anniversary, I'm more or less settled down and ready to start diving into stuff again. 

The next few posts (and I think it's going to be quite a lot!) are going to be all Montreal related. :D I've got a gazillion photos of wonderful places that I visited in Montreal and will be coming up with a list of MUST-DOs/MUST-SEEs. It's such an amazing place and I really want to go back there again hopefully soon! But this time, I'll do my research well and go during the right months. March and April were really meh months in terms of the weird fluctuating weather. The next time it'll be July during the JAZZ FESTIVAL. :D Excited already. 

But back to the topic at hand.
PhotobucketPhotobucket Photobucket 
I'm so happy just reminiscing about moments spent in Montreal. This was the first tea I had over there. And by "tea", I really just mean any meal after lunch and before dinner but it doesn't have to involve the drinking of tea per se. We were waiting to meet up with my housemate for the first time and since we didn't have enough time to find a proper restaurant, we merely walked around the apartment building where she stayed and went into the first legit looking cafe on the main street, St Catherine. My mum ordered a Croque Monsieur (and I finally figured out what that was!) while I had a shepherd's pie. For those of you who don't know, Croque Monsieur is basically just a Ham & Cheese croissant but sometimes a baguette is used instead. :D I'd always heard about it/seen it in books but never really knew what it was. And I liked it soooo much more than my shepherd's pie that was a little on the burnt side. The Croque Monsieur had a really crispy, buttery, flaky croissant that went so well with the saltiness of the pieces of ham. After that, I was pretty much hooked. That was the first of a GAZILLION teas to come. 

I wouldn't say that it was the best cafe I've been into because most of the dishes (hot chocolate/shepherd's pie/latte etc)(except for that awesome Croque Monsieur) were pretty average. But I'll remember it because it was the very first cafe we ducked into, completely by chance, and it was small, dimly lit, cosy, and provided warmth from the immensely cold weather outside. 

La Croissanterie 
 1909 rue Sainte-Catherine Ouest, 
Montreal, Quebec H3H 1M3, Canada  

If you're used to tropical heat, early March is NOT a good time to visit Montreal. The temperature hovers around -5 to 0 degrees Celsius. And apparently it was the warmest winter they've had this year. Don't say I didn't warn you. ;)