Friday, 29 May 2015

Basil Pesto Bash

More adventures in pasta! This time, another classic: basil pesto, based on a version of this recipe, which I pared down to the basics.

I was told that pine nuts was the way to go, even if it burned a hole or two in my pocket. But the recipe with cashews was also fine, the nuts imparting a rich, creamy and nuttier feel to the mix. And no "pine mouth", either.

Plus, cashews are cheaper and can be used for other things without much apprehension. Pine nuts? You'd probably measure it by the gram for salads and stuff.


Roasting the cashews and garlic (unpeeled) for colour, aroma and
flavour. The garlic was easier to peel afterwards.


This batch was officially my third. This time, I made extra to store and see how long it lasts before the colour becomes unappetising. I'm thinking three days but I hope to finish the lot in five or six.

A simple list: basil, cashews, garlic and olive oil. I'll only stir in the powdered Parmesan and more oil before digging in. Odd, how I didn't attempt this before the bolognaise.

The first time, I'd used one of those fancy hand-cranked choppers. It, a.k.a. Batch Zero, didn't turn out well. It wasn't even pesto-y. All fresh ingredients.

The next couple of times, I made something better with the blender. But the pitcher was tall and ingredients so few, the blades simply tossed the stuff to one side and ended up blending air instead.

So it was pulse-stir-pulse-stir with a bamboo chopstick, stirring and mashing the basil leaves before adding oil and pulse-shake the blender-pulse-shake the blender until done.

I would've done the job in half the time or less with a pestle and mortar.


Forgot to grab an Instagrammable shot of the pesto in the jar.
Still nice to look at, though.


The results were pretty much what I'd wanted: something pasty but not gooey, with still recognisable bits of basil or cashew. Versions #1 and #2 were a tad spicy from the extra garlic, but that was minor.

For Batch #3, I used three bags of basil (from Jaya Grocer), washed but not dried. I only discarded the main stems, not those on the leaves (mostly). The cashews and five cloves of garlic (unpeeled) were tossed in a hot pan for a bit to roast, like this other pesto recipe.

I decided to add some crushed, unroasted cashews and a fresh garlic clove later. While blending, I didn't use too much olive oil, maybe less than 100ml in total.

It turned out better and not so garlicky - darn, should've added an extra clove or two. Also, the crushed but not pulverised cashews added more texture and character - in hindsight, a good idea. It all went in a jar that went into the fridge.

Next: dinnertime! While the pasta (by now demoted to condiment by the greatness of pesto and SHEER HUNGER) boils in adequately salted water, I just spoon out a portion of pesto into a bowl and mix in the cheese and more olive oil. Add a bit extra you can swipe with a finger afterwards; it's fun and yummy.

I drain the pasta and, when it's still hot, toss it well in the cold pesto. No need to oil the pasta further.


Delicious and addictive. A pity it won't stay green (enough) and fragrant
for long. Can't keep this for more than five or six days after all.


Delicious. And addictive. I've had basil pesto linguine for three days and I'm still not bored. But basil is a herb and you know what they say about herbs, right?

Whether one bag or three, it's still a bitch to make with a blender. I also plan to add lemon juice in the future. But nothing more, perhaps. I like this recipe and I don't want to mess around with it too much. Next time, maybe I can make things easier by using more basil and shredding the leaves into finer bits.

And mint. Would be interesting with mint. Three to five good-sized leaves for a three-bag batch. Not too much; mint can be overpowering. Just enough to add that mountain-fresh zing. But no chilli. Makan kaki Melody once seasoned a batch of my basil pesto with chilli flakes, the HERETIC.

And I think I just pared the list of restaurants I go to by another fifth.

...Well, of course pesto has non-pasta applications, just as there are different kinds of pesto, like the laksa pesto I had (so it's been done elsewhere). I recently had a chicken pesto pizza, and I've thought of stirring it into fried rice or using it as a condiment for fried or grilled chicken. It would depend on what the pesto is made of.

Nope, still not messing around too much with the basic recipe.

If you're making for friends, do ask whether any of them have nut allergies - yes, even for pine nuts. Anaphylaxis is no joke. Alternatively, you can omit the nuts and add more cheese.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Don't Fling Stones At This Joint

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 27 May 2015


♪ Flingstones, eat at Flingstones, Subang Jaya's modern hip café
Right in SS15, loads of porky goodness done their way... ♫


...Sorry.

I'd heard about this place that offers, among other things, an aglio olio-style pasta with bacon and crispy bits of fried pork lard ("NOOOOO", shrieked my liver). But makan kaki Melody was in another state, celebrating a new career milestone, and I had no excuse to go there on my own.


One evening, outside Flingstones Café


Then I received an invitation to lunch at Flingstones from Mel's buddies, Wendy and Sam.

Located along Jalan SS 15/8, on the same row as Starbucks and situated across Taylor's College, the café doesn't quite stand out (it was something else when Google Street View passed by). But once you step inside...

...not much stands out, either.

Well, perhaps for the names of some of their offerings, which say nothing about what's in them at all. Have fun figuring out why "Snow White is a Nutcase", whether you want "One Night with Cendolman", and ... why is a Michael Jackson song and an English rock band on the menu?


Just a small sample of Flingstones' brand of whimsy


I admit, it made us curious.

None of us wanted crispy pork lard, so we settled for the Oink-Oink Ribs, while Sam had "One Night with Cendolman" and a Gula Melaka Latté, followed by a BLT sandwich.

"Cendolman" turned out to be a cake with layers of pandan sponge, gula melaka-infused sago pearls and coconut cream, topped with gula melaka jelly, that evokes memories of the cooling traditional streetside treat.


"One Night with Cendolman", a slice of Malaysia in a cake


Sam didn't fancy her beverage, though. Coffee and gula melaka both have this smoky, earthy thing going on and she couldn't get used to tasting both in the same cup. Plus, she thought it was too sweet. I had a sip and found it okay, but I'm partial to weird coffee drinks.

The ribs, tender and coated with a sweet and slightly sour plum sauce, were bone-sucking good. Perhaps too good, to the point where I injured my mouth trying to get at every last bit of sauce, after tearing off the tasty bits caveman style.


Not Flintstone-sized, but the sight, smell and taste of the Oink-Oink Ribs
will rouse the caveman in you


Sam also loved the battered and fried orange and purple sweet potatoes that came with the ribs - a welcome change from the sticky sweet-sour sauce on the ribs. However, we saw little difference between a half rack (which was more of a three-quarter rack) and a full rack. Was the chef in a good mood?

When I saw that Flingstones had the "Dirty", I knew what it was, having seen something similar offered elsewhere. Here, in a glass where the rim was powdered with cocoa, was a layer of espresso that would slowly meld with the cold milk it was sitting on, like a painting in progress. What wasn't welcome was the swirl of whipped cream on top. At least the coffee was good.


Partners in crime: the "Dirty" (left) and the "Smooth Criminal" (photo by
Wendy Lok). So, Annie, are they OK, are they OK, Annie? "I don't know, I'll
have to try them."


Time passed and we had a ball shooting the breeze, but I felt the need for another beverage or something. "Hit me with a 'Smooth Criminal'," I told the cashier.

What came was an egg-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream in a glass, perched on a bed of grass jelly, and a tiny flask filled with espresso. Like the "Cendolman," the jelly provided that added texture to what would've been a run-of-the-mill affogato.


Chu yau char angel hair pasta: sinful as heck


Wendy loved everything. She's not picky. She said she'll return for the ribs.

Flingstones Café
Jalan SS15/8
47500 Subang Jaya
Selangor

Mon-Fri: 10am - midnight
Sat-Sun: 9am - midnight

Non-halal

Phone: +603 5879 9468

E-mail: flingstonescafe@gmail.com

Facebook page
Which she did one Saturday evening, and this time Melody was around for the ride.

As expected, the bacon and pork-lard angel hair pasta was great, but only if your thirst is the kind that only pig fat can slake.

Hidden inside the strands of well-lubricated pasta was one or two pieces of cili padi, so be careful.

In the end, all that's left on the plate was about a teaspoonful of pork-lard crisps, in spite of fears of growing waistlines and fat-smothered livers.

But it'll be a while before we'd miss this dish again.

Until then, we're eating clean. And fitness buff Sam gave me some kilo-shedding tips.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Book Marks: To Write Good Books, China Censors And Genre Snobbery

Working in publishing doesn't mean you'll learn how to write and publish a good book, as Patricia Park learns. Things were different when the shoe's on the other foot:

Part of the difficulty with writing is that it's an unruly, inefficient process. I'd create painstaking outlines, only to off-road the narrative. I wrote longhand in spiral notebooks—for every ten words I put down, I'd cut nine. Then I'd type up my work, print it out, and edit again by pen.

...In a misguided moment (among the many), I took the passing advice of a writing instructor who found my protagonist "distant" and rewrote half a year's work from the first-person voice to the third—only to return eventually to the first-person. It's a process that generates a lot of waste. Years' worth of work ended up on the cutting room floor.



Two things in Hong Kong: China's control over the sale of sensitive books in the island territories (which has been around for some time) and the decision to close City University's MFA programme might have something to do with Occupy Central.

Madeleine Thien, a Canadian novelist and tutor at the University, seems to think the closure could be political, and fears for her students and the youth of Hong Kong.

Recently, one of my students wrote to me: "Freedom of speech is dying in Hong Kong." In its abrupt closure of a small programme, City University has chosen to make the act of writing a political battle. For five years, we occupied a small and unique place: a learning environment in which there were no hard and fast dicta, but in which we cultivated the awareness that language is thinking. Language can diminish and language can enlarge. For our young people, to read and to be read matters.

With regards to book censorship, this report on how Chinese censors are changing the content in imported works without the authors' knowledge is ... well ... perturbing.

US novelist Paul Auster told PEN he did not discover the changes made to the translated version of his book Sunset Park until after publication in China last November. He said he felt his book was mutilated. The plight of dissident and Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is a minor plot in the book. The publisher cut several pages, and in other places replaced the dissident's name with "L."

Oh, China. What else can I say?



Over at Salon, Rachel Kramer Bussel has problems with somebody's "cultural snobbery masquerading as concern for the impending downfall of society".

Everyone is entitled to read, watch and listen to whatever they want. Personally, I'd rather see people reading something than reading nothing. ...if you're so concerned with society being dumbed down, why not try to tackle the problem of illiteracy or education or library funding?



Life doesn't come with trigger warnings, says Lori Horvitz in The Guardian, so why should books have them? "Do we, as citizens of this uncomfortable and unpredictable world, have the luxury and privilege of receiving 'trigger warnings' before being exposed to disturbing material about subjects like the Holocaust, lynching, murder and rape?"

Horvitz is, according to her Guardian profile, a "Professor of Literature and Language at University of North Carolina at Asheville, where she teaches courses in creative writing, literature, and directs their Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program."



Find out how Terry Pratchett's Night Watch cured Sam Jordison's post-election blues.

There is some wonderful, inspiring material in this novel about the rule of law and the benefits of simple decency. There's fiery rage at the injustice of society – and yet also gentle delight in the way things keep on moving in spite of that injustice, and a determination that people can do the right thing. At a time when I've felt pretty bleak about human nature, it's been a ray of light. Come the next election, one of the first things I'll want to know from my candidate is how much Terry Pratchett he or she has read.

I think Jordison's not a fan of the Conservative Party.



"Is this the forgotten book that inspired Douglas Adams?" asks Scott Pack, who found similarities between Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Richard Cowper's Worlds Apart.

Though he doesn't feel his analysis is conclusive, he's "willing to bet that Douglas Adams was aware of this book and may well have read it before writing The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Worlds Apart was published in 1974, Hitchhiker was first broadcast in 1978. Cowper, the pen name of John Middleton Murry Jr, was a popular SF writer throughout the 1970s. Never a huge bestseller, he was nonetheless well known in SF circles and I find it unlikely that Adams would not have heard of him.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Book Marks: Extreme Openness, Neverending Drama

A forum in Universiti Malaya to discuss new phenomena in the local book publishing industry was cancelled supposedly because of a ban on Faisal Tehrani's books. The forum was originally scheduled to be held at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, but was shifted to UM - probably for the same reason.

On a slightly related note: I found an interesting old video clip on YouTube: an Edisi 7 segment in 2013 talking about Lejen Press dan "Isu Keterbukaan Melampau Buku Alternatif" (the issue of extreme openness in alternative books).

I guess in some quarters, this is still an issue.



After Borders threatened JAWI with legal action if Nik Raina's case not dropped, this happened. But the joy was shortlived when JAWI denied withdrawing the appeal, which is now likely to be heard in the Federal Court this August.

Cukuplah, wei.



Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in a lecture that closed the recent PEN World Voices festival, warned against "codes of silence" in American life (but she could be speaking of similar things in other places as well.

Using the contrast between Nigerian and American hospitals as an example, Adichie pointed out that Americans like to be "comfortable". And she worried that the comfort has brought "dangerous silencing" into American public conversation. "The fear of causing offence, the fear of ruffling the careful layers of comfort, becomes a fetish," Adichie said. As such, the goal of many public conversations in the United States "is not truth ... [it] is comfort".

"To choose to write is to reject silence," Adichie also said.


Let's move on:

  • On page 20 in the 13 May edition of The Sun, Adifitri Ahmad speaks about his graphic novel Taubat Si Tanggang, published by Maple (pronounced "Ma-PLUH", apparently) Comics. The story and concept are interesting, and I heard that if it's well received, there will be another volume.
  • The Perak Academy launched four books by local writers at Sekeping Kong Heng in Ipoh. Star Metro has a bit more about one of the books that were launched.
  • RIP William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well.
  • Wandering food journalist Robyn Eckhardt shares the story of "A Day in the Life of a Singapore Hawker". It's a tough life, and reminiscent of what our hawkers face.
  • Writers Margaret Atwood, JG Ballard, AS Byatt, et al. share their early reads.
  • "A history of pigs is a history of humanity". A Q&A with Mark Essig, author of Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig, at Salon, which also features an excerpt from the book.
  • No idea how "sea lion" became a verb until I looked it up. This tweet made me.
  • Sh*t book nerds do, according to Book Riot. Whoa, really?

Monday, 18 May 2015

In The Company of Good Food

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 18 May 2015


Famished after a day at work, I drifted past the different restos in Jaya Shopping Centre, finding nothing that caught my fancy.

Then I remembered a place on the fifth floor.


Good Food and Co. at Jaya Shopping Centre


Good Food and Co. was an unremarkable two-level café with and open kitchen and several desserts displayed on top of a chiller. A food blog waxed lyrical over the egg dishes, and I'd begun turning to eggs for a pick-me-up.

That was way back when. Several dishes the food blog mentioned were no longer available. One of the first things I tried was the shakshouka, an egg poached in an earthenware dish of spicy tomato-based vegetable stew. This was served with slices of crusty bread that's baked on the premises.


The shakshouka, Good Food and Co's go-to, must-try staple


Even without the optional merguez sausage, the shakshouka, said to be of either Middle Eastern or North African origin, made a hearty and healthy meal. Serious vegetarians can probably ask the chefs to omit the egg. Don't worry - the owners, head chef Jonathan and his wife Lydia, are nice and approachable.

So, on this fine day, I went up to Good Food and Co., who had just introduced a laksa pesto pasta with chicken. Since then, I've had it three times, and each tasted a little different as they tweaked the dish.


Laksa pesto chicken pasta - Malaysia on a plate, kind of


What hit me were the flavours, which tasted like they came from a Malay grandma's rural backyard garden. I imagined (you don't ask, okay?) laksa leaves, chilli, a bit of lemongrass, maybe torch ginger flower and peanuts, tossed with some fettuccine and well-marinated chicken. You also get lime wedges.

I had an ulam spaghetti somewhere a long while ago, and in hindsight, a pesto made out of herbs and condiments in laksa or nasi kerabu isn't all that far-fetched. But to actually come up with it...

Three times. Maybe there was a fourth. I stopped counting since the brain went over the laksa pesto cliff. Seems unfair to some of the other items on the menu that also look interesting.


Possibly among the best brownies you'll ever have in the Klang Valley


Since then, I introduced another makan kaki to this place while Melody was out of town. Irene's roast chicken, sitting on a puree of pumpkin with salad on the side was well made, as was my beef salami pasta with soft-boiled egg. A quirky touch was nesting the egg, still in the shell with the top taken off, upright in a bed of pasta.

I was not keen on dessert, but Irene sort of insisted. Her choice of a brownie with ice cream piqued my interest in the carrot cake, which I saw being iced with butter cream behind the counter by lady boss Lydia.


Homely home-baked carrot cake


Then again, the desserts, including the salted caramel cake and blueberry muffins, look so inviting, even with the uneven surfaces on the cakes and icing. Like the breads, some were baked within the premises.

Good Food and Co.
Lot 5.02, Level 5, Jaya Shopping Centre
Jalan Semangat, Seksyen 14
46100 Petaling Jaya
Selangor

Mon - Sat: 11:30am - 9pm
Sun: Noon - 9pm

Pork-free

Phone: +603 7931 5156

Web site | Facebook page
Both were delightful, especially the brownie, which Irene said she would return for. Not a light endorsement from someone who surgically removes every bit of chopped green herb from her main courses before digging in.

Good Food and Co's fare is simple, unpretentious yet tasty. Just a few good ingredients, some technique and a lot of care, served in a homely setting.

Even their current weekday special: a rice-and-chicken dish with a sunny-side-up egg, is so well done, with moist and tender chicken.

And as the last mouthful finally, reluctantly, slides down your gullet, you can't help but wonder: what will they come up with next?

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Book Marks: Fixi Is Popular, GerakBudaya Raid, And Minor Updates

The Popular-The Star Readers' Choice Awards is back. Looks like the fiction category is dominated by Fixi. Specifically, the English-language Fixi Novo imprint.

I swear I could hear Fixi boss Amir Muhammad laughing as I read it.

However, I have a problem with this paragraph:

To vote, you can fill up voting forms, available on this page on the right, as well as at all Popular and Harris bookstores nationwide. Or you can vote online at either popular.com.my, facebook.com/popularmalaysia, bookfestmalaysia.com or facebook.com/bookfestmalaysia.

I actually looked around for "this page on the right", wondering what was going on. Guess they weren't paying attention when shifting the text online.

Another Fixi Novo book, a compilation of creepy, mind-messing short stories titled Here Be Nightmares by Julya Oui was longlisted for the Frank O' Connor International Short Story Award. Oui has come a long way since her first published compilation. Let's wish her all the best.



The Home Ministry raided the GerakBudaya booth during the KL International Book Fair last week and seized copies of several books, including the controversial Money Logging.

The ministry has also banned four books by Faisal Tehrani, including the flagged Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang, which, according to that Malaysian Insider report, "were found to have contained Shia elements".


Plus:

  • My job would be a lot simpler if the writers followed these rules (which I tend to break myself, unfortunately). But isn't it inconvenient, to have metaphorical rulebooks or style guides hovering over your head, especially when you're struggling to get a first draft out?
  • Yesterday, 5 May, was the 151st anniversary of the birth of Elizabeth Jane Cochran, otherwise known as Nellie Bly, the American journalist who pioneered a "new kind of investigative journalism" (I find the term "muckraking" derogatory). Slate ran a piece on her, which includes a link to some of her work, archived by NYU Libraries (in PDFs, and some of the files can be huge).
  • RIP Joshua Ozersky, food writer and food editor for Esquire. Damn, dude was only 47.
  • This review of a restaurant by Jay Rayner sparked a flurry of legal letters. Considering it's Rayner, it's probably not the first (or last) time.
  • Sunili Govinnage read books by only minority authors for a year and learnt how white the reading world is.
  • Somebody's Kickstarting an emoji translation project. In light of news that Malaysians are among the world's heavy emoji users and the On the Fastrack strips highlighting icon-based communication, I wonder if we will end up not being able to read or write.
  • An interview with Dr. Gary Weitzman, co-author (with Aline Alexander Newman) of the National Geographic book, How to Speak Cat.

Also, I'm not blogging about the company's books anymore. The company has set up another Facebook page, which they are updating regularly; go there for updates or to comment, commend or raise hell.

And the revived MPH Writers' Circle has a Facebook Group (login required) for aspiring authors, illustrators, photographers, ghostwriters or editors.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Something Off-page

I was ill for a long while, between mid-March to almost mid-April. I feel fine now, but the sense of dread over getting sick again remains.

Every year, when I visit my grandparents' shared grave, I always pray for one thing: health. But with me getting sick due to bad eating habits, lack of sleep and exercise and an overall unhealthy lifestyle, I've come to wonder...

What do I need to be healthy for, apart from work?

My relationship is in pieces. My social life has shrivelled. I'm not motivated enough to write or try new things. Even book-related events no longer interest me.

At the KL Alternative Bookfest, my mood was ruined by the roadblocks and lingering illness that I didn't enjoy the atmosphere. Poor Ted Mahsun, he bore the brunt of it.

"What?" he asked, rooting me on the spot as I turned to leave, perplexed that all I did was give him a 'hi'. "I only get a 'hi'?"

"Everybody gets a 'hi'," I said reflexively. At that point, it was true. Physically I felt like shit and I couldn't stay there any longer. And I couldn't forget what happened several years ago when I wrote a certain article. I wasn't ready to reconnect.

On top of it all (among other things), I'm still grappling with what I've learnt something about myself early this year that pretty much explains:

Why I'm such a socially inept introvert. And why my responses in a social setting feel ... pre-programmed? Like I picked it up from a book.

Why I can eat, do and enjoy the same things over and over and over again - until boredom finally sets in.

Why I don't mind or prefer to be alone most of the time.

Why I tend to get thrown off by unexpected changes in my daily routines.

Why I generally find animals more appealing than people - and why I hate crowds.

Why I communicate better in writing than oral on-the-fly presentations (where I trip over my ideas and words).

Why I can go on and on about certain topics in a lecturing tone, ignoring the level of interest of other people, making me look like an arrogant schmuck with zero EQ (so I'm told).

Why I can tunnel deep into a topic or subject and soak up whatever I can about it (Javascript, HTML, CSS, prongramming languages) - and totally ignore stuff I'm not interested in (like math and RPG programming).

(Probably) why I am such a Chinese New Year hamper of neuroses: fear of heights, fear of dirt, and so on.

And I spent over RM200 and waited three weeks for two books that would enlighten me on this to arrive. Think I only needed one. But the books can wait.

Right now, I'm in the middle of fixing some of those bad habits that keep making me sick, so I've put a lot of recreational reading and writing on hold. I don't even see the point of writing all this down.

Maybe I'm just good at forgetting what pains me.

But perhaps I shouldn't forget.

Maybe it's because I keep forgetting that the same hurt keeps recurring, like my throat and sinus infections.

To keep all of that at bay, some things will need to change.