To people who farm, it is the climate that determines what is in season. But for us city folk, the ‘seasons’ run around the schedules of promotions and sales – and, of course, our own momentary cravings.
For this dish, we have a large bag of scallops because they were half-price at the local supermarket. We have broccoli because they were freshly in, from Australia no less, in the wet market. And as for the cherry tomatoes? Mum likes them. And why shouldn’t she?
Taking advantage of the Chinese New Year sales, we finally have a proper flat-bottomed pan, which means we can pan-fry stuff without oil splattering everywhere. Which in turn means the revival of a classic.
Here we use pomfret, but honestly any fish with firm flesh that doesn’t flake when pan-seared should do. Spanish mackerel (batang) and tuna are awesome with this treatment. Sear, then cloak in the night-dark sauce and plenty of aromatics to finish, wafting the aromas of caramel, ginger, garlic… not all good things take a long time.
The Singapore Met Service forecasted that February would be dry and windy, but they only got the second one right. Every day there’s been either great towers of clouds looming past, or out-and-out thunderstorms. It’s not exactly going out weather, in other words. But who needs going out when you can have stew?
Or maybe I can claim the shiny patina of Korean-ness and call this a jjigae instead. It’s got all the basic components of Korean cooking, all the bright colours and pungent aromas – kimchi, garlic shoots, leeks. Into this mix goes the hefty flavour of rendered, charred, golden roast pork (sio bak).
Be warned: this is not first date food. This is only for when you already know it’s real.
Two serendipitous encounters came together to make this dish – one from months ago, one from this morning. The first was Taiwanese XO sauce, a mash-up of chili with several sorts of dried seafood, a specialty of the seafood-rich Penghu Islands. Last year a friend gave us two jars of the stuff; there’s still half a jar in the fridge.
Then, while out buying shallots and lemongrass at the wet market, I came across bags of beautifully mottled baby brinjals. (They’re called graffiti eggplants, it turns out. The more you know.) We don’t even eat brinjals usually, but I just couldn’t resist.
Their partnership was inevitable. One is a soft, Ditto-esque flavour mimic, taking after whatever accompanies it. The other is light spice and sweetness surfing on a vast, surging wave of seafood umami. They fight hunger.
I don’t really remember when my mum came up with this recipe, but I do remember what it was like having this for the first time. I remember we didn’t have the ingredients to make another soup, and anyway there was a bunch of celery that needed using.
Why that celery was there to start with, I have no idea. Western celery, the thick sort, has never been big in our kitchen; even now we mostly use it just for this, or for stir-fries. But its aroma – clean, fresh, botanic – really does a lot for this soup. Most hot soups are great for chilly days when it’s raining outside; far fewer are suitable when the sun is blazing away. This is one of them. (That it’s full of vegetables is nice too.)
There’s no lack of Korean TV shows, and one of my favourites is still Three Meals a Day, especially the Gochang season. It’s a fun show – the farming, the cute animals, four men bumbling about but in a positive way.
Then there’s the way Chajumma cooks, which is – for want of a less gendered term – just quite manly. There’s a big pot over a fire. You throw stuff (good quality stuff, of course) in it. Then you check if it’s cooked, and serve it up. It’s not careless cooking by any means; it’s attentiveness without neuroticism, mindful yet still relaxed. And it always looks so good.
Sadly I don’t live in a place where cabbages and Cheongyang chilies grow in the front yard, so a supermarket will have to do. That, and a Korean restaurant nearby which is willing to sell a tub of reasonably mature kimchi at a reasonable price.
Yes, yes, I know. I know what you’re going to ask. We’ve just passed Christmas, is it a little bit too early for a CNY-ish recipe? To which I say, pah! Zipdelah! Speth! Of course it isn’t too early.
If there’s one thing that makes Chinese New Year more bearable by far than the Westerners’ holiday season, it is that it doesn’t expect us to eat things we would actively avoid for the rest of the year. Who in their right mind roasts a turkey in March? There’s something better called chicken.
But there is always a space at the table for Pacific clams. Good old Siliqua patula, it turns out, is a particularly broad razor clam (a dagger clam, then?), and its exuberant springiness, the rich brine with a hint of meatiness in it, makes it good for a quick stir fry with just about anything. Just be sure not to fry it past the point of rubberiness.
As we all know, if we’ve been paying attention in science class, it was Louis Pasteur who proved that food spoils due to bacteria from outside (rather than spontaneously sprouting bacteria). And he proved it so elegantly – a sterilised flask of broth, isolated from the outside by a swan-necked tube. Bacteria can’t get in – therefore the broth stays fresh.
It’s a very fitting experiment for a Frenchman, too, because French cuisine has been utilising this technique of preservation for centuries. Their tradition of meat-based wizardry, as practiced in the charcuterie, relies on this method for some of France’s most famous dishes, submerging meat in fat that then forms a solid seal against bacteria. Confit de canard is one such dish, and so are rillettes.
They’re basically the French cousins of pulled pork – the same dry-heat low-and-slow process, teasing pork into flavourful fibres, but with an added dose of smoothness in the use of lard. And it’s easy to make too.
To make this recipe I’ve used an oven, but you can probably do it over low heat on a stove as well – experiment and tell me how it goes!