If you think about it, hardly anyone cooks for two. There’s so much effort that goes into making a meal – the shopping, prep work, cooking and cleaning up, that it only seems worth the time if there are at least four people consuming the food. Which is also why most couples opt to eat out rather than go through all that trouble.
But for home cook Elaine Chiou, this goes against everything she believes in. Chiou is a media buyer who loves cooking and cooks every single day for herself and her husband. She thinks this daily ritual is much quicker and easier than most people are led to believe.
“You may think it’s not worth the effort, but that’s not true. So many times, I have thought about calling McDonald’s to deliver food, but that would take about an hour. So instead, I’d look in my pantry and say, ‘Okay, I have noodles, I have prawns in the freezer, I have seaweed, I can just combine it.’ Within 20 to 30 minutes, you have a simple meal and you know you have controlled the flavour and the sodium and you feel good after eating it,” she says.
Ironically, Chiou never cooked at all until she was in her late 20s, as there was no culture of cooking in her family.
“I didn’t come from a tradition of people cooking at home, because my mum was very busy. So every time, we would just eat out. But I was very interested in trying my hand at cooking, because I love eating!” she says.
Since then, Chiou has gone on to experiment with recipes, starting out with Indian food because she married an Indian man who loves curries.
“I wanted to make tasty, authentic Indian curries, so I bought a lot of Indian recipes books and learnt those principles and applied them to other cuisines as well,” she says.
Chiou’s meals for two are one-dish wonders designed around invention – whatever strikes her fancy in the supermarket or whatever happens to be in her pantry or fridge. Like her saffron prawn pasta, which is made up of ingredients she had available at the time. The pasta is delicious, with fat, tender prawns, bursts of edamame, spinach lurking in the foreground and an opulent undercurrent of saffron to tie it all together.
“It came about because I was experimenting with prawns and pasta. One day, I just had this crazy idea to add saffron in it. And then I realised it needed something more, so I added chopped spinach because I had it in the fridge. And it’s the bomb! The spinach gives it an earthy flavour which is integral to this dish,” she says.
Chiou also loves noodles and says she cannot go two days in a row without eating it, which is why a lot of her dishes have been improvised to include noodles. Like her poached chicken in silken noodles, which was adapted from a friend’s poached chicken rice recipe. The tender chicken and noodles are accompanied by a light, flavourful broth.
“I love my friend’s poached chicken rice so much, but I also love noodles, so I tweaked it, added my own twist to it, and also perfected the technique of poaching the chicken, because that’s how I like it,” she says.
While many of Chiou’s meals revolve around pasta and noodles, her butterfish porridge is also a treasured favourite. The porridge is a silken, creamy affair accentuated by the aquatic flavours of fish and seaweed.
“I started making plain porridge for my parents. Then I saw butterfish in the supermarket and thought it might be an interesting addition. When I put it in the porridge, I realised it worked really well,” she says excitedly.
Some of her recipes also pay homage to her husband’s roots, like her lamb dalcha pasta which actually came about by accident. “I had heard of dalcha, but I didn’t know what it was and had never really tried it. But one day, I tried making lamb and added spices and dhal. And then I was thinking ‘There must be this dish in existence.’ So I started researching and found out that it was called dalcha. But I didn’t seek out the recipe, it came to me,” she says, laughing.
Ultimately, Chiou says she has been able to come up with all sorts of creative meals for her and her husband because the more she cooks, the more she understands flavour pairings and how to mix and match ingredients.
“I think you can go about doing this when you know combinations. Then you can play around with ingredients,” she says.
In the past two years, Chiou’s arsenal of recipes has grown so vast that she started a blog, www.ciou yourfood.com, solely to document her growing collection.
“I thought I should just write down my recipes, so at least I can refer to it later. And that’s what happened because now when I cook, I refer to my blog for recipes,” she says.
In many ways, Chiou says cooking has changed her life and made her a different person.
“I stopped going out to eat and took joy in producing food, not just consuming it. It’s been a very personal journey and I can see myself growing. That’s why I feel like more people should do it because it’s very easy to cook meals for two every day,” she says.
SAFFRON PRAWN PASTA
Serves 2 to 4
5 jumbo prawns
salt to taste
white pepper to taste
ground black pepper to taste
1 tsp garlic powder
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp English mustard
oil, for cooking
4 to 5 cloves garlic
a few saffron strands
1-2 tsp English mustard
6 tbsp peeled edamame
2 cups chopped spinach
Marinate the prawns in marination ingredients and set aside for 1 to 2 hours.
In a pan on medium-low heat, add some oil and sear prawns for 2 minutes on each side. Remove from the heat and set aside.
In a pot of boiling water, cook pasta until it is 90% done. Drain and set aside.
In a large frying pan, add oil. When oil is hot, add garlic cloves and saute until garlic starts to brown. Then add butter, cream and saffron and stir well until incorporated.
Add English mustard 1 teaspoon at a time and taste before adding more. Add edamame and spinach and cook till spinach is wilted. Add pasta to the pan and stir to coat everything evenly. Remove from the heat, add prawns on top and serve hot.
POACHED SILKEN CHICKEN NOODLES
For the broth
1½ tbsp oil, for browning chicken feet
350g chicken feet
1 litre water
2 chicken legs, fat trimmed (keep fat for later)
2-3 stalks of lemongrass
6-7 garlic cloves, bruised
3 bird eye chillies, sliced
1 onion, chopped
2 tsp ginger paste
4 tbsp Shaoxing wine
salt and pepper to taste
3 stalks scallions, halved
2 tbsp goji berries
140g cream noodles, cooked
8 stalks of baby kailan, blanched
In a large pot, add oil and brown the chicken feet. Add water to the pot and boil for 1 hour. Once done, remove chicken feet and pour broth into a bowl.
In a pot over medium high heat, render fat trimmed from the legs. When the fat browns and releases oil, remove the fat. Add lemongrass and garlic. When the garlic browns, add chillies. Increase the heat and add chopped onion. When the onion becomes translucent, add ginger paste, followed by Shaoxing wine and some water to deglaze the pot. Then add salt and pepper to taste.
Lay chicken legs in pot and add water to just about cover them. Top up with the broth and scallions. Leave to cook on high heat for 7 minutes, then switch to low heat and simmer for another 23 minutes. Add goji berries in the last 10 minutes before the dish is done. Serve hot with cooked noodles and kailan.
BUTTERFISH & SEAWEED PORRIDGE
300g butterfish, marinated in soy sauce and white pepper to taste
¾ cup Calrose or Arborio rice
1½ litres water
½ dried squid
3 tbsp dried anchovies, washed and soaked
4 red dates
5 to 6 tbsp Shaoxing wine
3 tbsp of dashi soy sauce
a few dashes of white pepper
½ cup dried seaweed, soaked and cut to bite-sized chunks
2 large white fungus, soaked and cut to bite-sized chunks
1 cup dried wood ear fungus, soaked and cut into bite-sized chunks
Marinate fish with soy sauce and white pepper and set aside.
Wash rice until the water becomes clear, then add water into the pot. Add squid, anchovies and red dates and cook on high heat for a while. Switch to low heat when the water boils to avoid the rice burning.
Cook for 90 minutes on low heat, checking water level often. Keep adding water to liquefy porridge until you get a creamy consistency. Add Shaoxing wine, dashi soy sauce and white pepper. When the porridge is bubbling, add seaweed and fungi. Leave to bubble for another 5 minutes.
Turn off fire and add butterfish. Keep stirring the fish into the hot porridge, letting the residual heat cook the fish. Remove from the heat once done and eat hot.
LAMB DALCHA PASTA
500gm lamb, cubed
1 lamb shank
salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp curry powder
3 tbsp oil
2 star anise
8 cardamom pods
1 bay leaf
2 tsp cumin seeds, dry toasted
2 tsp fennel seeds, dry toasted
4 shallots, chopped1 red onion, halved
2-3 stalks of lemongrass (bruised)
5 sprigs of curry leaves
2 tsp ginger garlic paste
1½ tomatoes or 8 cherry tomatoes
2 tsp cumin powder
2 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp cayenne powder (or chilli powder)
1 tsp turmeric powder
¼ cup split peas/chana dal, soaked for 30 mins
salt and sugar to taste
½ cup seashell pasta, cooked
Marinate lamb cubes and shank in salt, pepper and curry powder for 3 hours.
Add oil in pot and fry star anise, cardamom pods and bay leaf. Then add cumin and fennel seeds and stir for 30 seconds.
On high heat, add shallots, red onion, lemongrass, curry leaves and ginger garlic paste. As the heat builds up and onions start to caramelise, add tomatoes followed by all the powders. Add a little water to dilute.
Finally add split peas and cover the contents with water. Cook for 2 to 3 hours on low heat or for 30 minutes in a pressure cooker, adding salt and sugar to taste in the middle of the cook. Serve hot with pasta.