What to Cook: Quick, Healthy Weeknight Meal

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

So… in my last post I had asked you all to come clean and tell me what you’d like me to write/change/do on the blog; and I loved reading all the comments and personal emails that I received from you. A lot of you (almost everyone that wrote in, actually) said that you’d like to see more frequent posts from me. And boy did I hear ya! I had just received my new Erin Condren planner a few days prior, and immediately set to work on my blog editorial calendar. I mapped out posts I have stockpiled as drafts, and dedicated days to developing, cooking and testing new recipes. So keep those emails and comments coming in and let me know what kind of recipes you’d like me to dish out. One of the emails I received came from Supriya, who had this to say:

Hi Meena, I’ve been a long time reader of your blog and have enjoyed a ton of your recipes. Many of them appear on my dinner table on a weekly basis and have become family favourites. Although I’m proud that my kids enjoy and readily eat almost anything I put on their plates, they’ve recently started to get a bit fussy when it comes to dinner. They’ve been requesting pasta a lot lately, and while I do indulge them most times, I’m not too happy about serving them a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs each week. I’d like to try something more whole with a ton of veggies. They do enjoy eggplant and spinach lasagna, but frankly I need something that is quick, simple and delicious! Can you help? An over-worked mom, Supriya

Well Supriya, first off, let me congratulate you on having such good eaters as kids. If your kids will readily relish a helping of eggplant and spinach lasagna – that’s half the battle won! Personally, I love having pasta on my weekly meal rotation as well. Let’s face it – it’s fast, easy, and with a little creativity, can be made wholesome as well. I made this recipe sometime ago for a surprise b’day party I threw Hubby Dear. It was one of the sides with the main Eggplant Parmesan dish I made. The crowd loved it, and needless to say, Hubby and Baby Dear as well! It’s quite easy to prep and can be enjoyed either warm or cold. I’ve made with various pasta shapes (macaroni being Baby Dear’s favourite, and rotini or penne, ours), and whatever veggies I have on hand. Give it a try, and I’m sure you and your family will keep asking for more!

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(RE)Thinking Green: Halloumi, Mango & Chickpea Salad

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

I’ve never been one to have salads as my main meal. For me, dinners always mean a well-rounded, balanced plate decorated with a serving of protein, a generous helping of vegetables and a side of carbs. Using this rule of thumb, I create fresh dinners for us almost every night. The theme, menu and flavours differ each night – but the essence often remains the same.

A couple weeks ago, I decided to spend a rare quiet Sunday huddle in a corner of our family room, equipped with my laptop and a large mug of steaming hot chocolate. It’s been so long since I made the time to just sit and read my favourite food blogs. I decided to start with some oldies that I have since lost touch with. Saffron Trail, One Hot Stove and Rasa Malaysia were once blogs that I would never miss reading each week. Blame it on a rambunctious toddler who seems to get into trouble every 5 minutes, or just me trying to put more on my plate than I can possibly manage; but somehow, I’ve missed visiting these sites for the past few months. And my, what a joy it was to revisit these old but gold friends! I came out that evening refreshed, full of new inspiration and more than a boat full of recipes bookmarked to try before this year ends in exactly three measly months!

One such recipe that I just had to run into the kitchen and give a go at was Nandita’s Curried Chickpea Salad with Mango – which she herself was inspired to make by Yotam Ottolenghi. It sounded absolutely delicious! I had planned on making Sloppy Joes that night for dinner, and this salad seemed like it would pair wonderfully with it. I used my own spin and made my version of the salad to suit mine, Hubby Dear’s and of course, the notorious Baby Dear’s tastes. I kid you not when I say that this kid knows good food. Following right in his mom’s footsteps I guess!

Here’s my version of the salad inspired by Nandita, who was inspired by the great Ottolenghi. Serve this along side a simple grilled chicken and some toasted garlic bread for a truly delicious, comforting meal.

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A Day in the Life: Quick Fried Rice

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

As much as I’d like to show to the world what a Super Mom and Power Girl I am, having everything under control all of the time is far from it. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are the days that Baby Dear is whisked off to daycare bright and early in the morning. These are the days where I can run errands, get most of my freelance work done and enjoy a cuppa ‘Joe with my feet up at 3PM. Tuesdays and Thursdays, we take it easy and have fun by going to the library for story time, watching a lot of Disney Jr., and just playing and doing mundane things around the house! Of course, no two days of mine are ever alike. Here is just a glimpse of what my Monday looked like:

7:45 – Drove Baby Dear off to daycare.
8:45-9:45 – Headed to the gym and worked out for an hour while watching CityLine.
10:00 – Took a shower, made the bed, started a load of laundry and prepared breakfast.
10:30-1:30 – Sat down to a working breakfast while catching up on emails and other blog related things on my to-do list.
1:30 – Made a quick bite to eat from last night’s leftovers and watched some Food TV.
2:00-3:00 – Quick clean up around the house, another load of laundry, checked on emails and a to-do list for tomorrow.
3:00-4:00 – Sat down to my afternoon cup of coffee with some delicious homemade chocolate-oatmeal cookies, while I worked on a few blog posts for the upcoming week.
4:00-4:30 – Prepped for dinner.
4:45 – Off to pick up Baby Dear while battling the crazy weather!
5:30 – Finally home, changed into jammies and settled Baby Dear with his toys while I prepped his dinner.
6:30 – Fed Baby Dear his dinner of Spinach Parathas, Dal and Baingan Bharta.
6:45-7:30 – Snuggled on the couch with Baby Dear; he watches some TV and I read a new cookbook I just received in the mail.
7:30 – Hubby Dear swoops in, Baby Dear jumps to greet his daddy and follows him upstairs to get changed while I heat up andset the table for dinner.
8:00 – We all sit down to a family dinner. Yes, Baby Dear is on dinner #2!
8:30-9:30 – Hubby Dear and Baby Dear are whisked away from the kitchen and spend some quality play time while I clean up the kitchen, pack Hubby Dear’s lunch and run the dishwasher. I almost never turn off the lights until my kitchen counters and sink are empty and clean; makes starting off the next morning so much more peacefully!
9:30 – We’re off upstairs to read Baby Dear his bed time story and tuck him in.
9:45 – We drag our feet to bed. Hubby Dear does a final check on his emails for the nightand I catch up on some TV or Youtube. We both then pick up our reading material of choice, he’s currently on a Sherlock Holmes kick and I go through my never-ending blog feeds. Within minutes, it’s lights off!

Wow! Just typing that out makes me want to take a nap. But it’s Wednesday today – Baby’s day out and Mommy’s day to attend her weekly cooking class. It’ll probably be mid-afternoon by the time I’m home and not much time left to prep a big dinner before I have to leave to pick up my ‘lil prince. Day like these are perfect for a quick one-dish meal that’s got a little of everything in it. This Fried Rice is what’s for our dinner tonight. This is another easy breezy recipe that hardly takes anytime at all and can be put together in minutes. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve cooked this up at the end of a long tiring day. And it never fails to please me!

So tell me, what do you feed your family on a busy day?

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From One to Another: Peanut Noodles

Peanut Noodles recipe by www.hookedonheat.com

I taught my first hands-on cooking class last night at one of the amazing LCBO kitchens. The class was called ‘Tasty Bites’, and comprised of mainly finger foods and appetizers – my absolute favourite kind of meal! Some of the recipes we worked on during the class included Skewered Chicken Tikkas with Raita, Roasted Red Pepper Hummus with Spiced Pita Chips, Mint Kebabs with Tatziki and the ever-so-popular Ginger-Chilli Shrimp served along side a Tangy Corn Salsa.

Throughout the class, as I was giving tips and tricks on how to cook a quick, healthy and delicious meal on a busy weeknight, it suddenly dawned on me that it would be very easy to turn any one of the recipe pairings being taught in the class into a complete and nutritious meal. For example, the Mint Kebabs could be rolled into a pita with a dollop of Tatziki and some lettuce and tomato, to make a delicious Mediterranean-inspired sandwich. The Chicken Tikkas could be served along side some rice and Raita, for a delicious Indian flair. Throw in some chopped cucumbers and tomatoes into the Corn Salsa, top it with the Shrimp and you’ll have a filling and tasty salad in a jiffy. The best though, is that each and every recipe does not take more than 30 minutes from start to finish – prep time included!

It was fun watching the guests getting busy in their work stations, eager to perfect the recipe picked out for their respective table. I’ve taught a number of cooking classes, all in the format of a demonstration, but never a hands-on where the students follow the recipes and make it themselves. All in all, it was fun time had by all – the food was devoured, cooking techniques were learnt and perfected, wine was paired with every course, and I came home with a happy heart. And a rumbling tummy.

Taking cue from all the wisdom I had just shared mere minutes ago, I decided to whip myself a big bowl of yumminess. The noodles were set to boil while the sauce warmed up in the microwave and the veggies were being chopped. 20 minutes in, I was snuggled on the couch with my feet up, enjoying my well-deserved hot dinner.

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Take-out Cooked-in: Vegetable Hakka Chowmein

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

Until a few years ago, I adored Indian-Chinese cuisine. So much so, that I would gladly stop by our nearby Hakka joint to pick up an order of Chowmein, Chilli Chicken and Spring Rolls, every other week. But over the past two years or so, nothing I’ve tried from their menu has seemed to tantalize my taste buds. I don’t blame the particular restaurant however, since I’ve had the same disappointing feeling no matter which Hakka restaurant we go to – and no matter how highly recommended it comes. Almost anything we’ve ordered has been a flavourless, salty plate of mush. I’ve come to realize that since I’ve started to reduce our salt intake through healthier cooking and eating habits, a lot of the take-out options we used to love don’t quite appeal to us anymore. Just goes to prove that if you reduce the amounts of oil and salt in many of these fast-food items, there’s not much left to be desired.

Now that Baby Dear is an independant ‘lil brat who chooses to entertain himself by nosying around the house, I find myself with enough time to whip up a delicious wholesome dinner almost every evening. Almost. The last couple weeks had been a whirlwind of hot summer days outside, impromtu BBQs, and lawn maintainence. So when this past weekend rolled by as a long one for Canada Day, we were delighted to take it slow and make full use of the heat advisory warning by chilling indoors with the AC cranked up and a bunch of fun movies. It was the perfect excuse and occasion for me to spend some quality time in my kitchen. Baby Dear is a big fan of noodles made anyway, and we were craving some Hakka food ourselves – that definitely called for some wok time!

This recipe is simple, quick and delicious. It’s a definite crowd pleaser and can surely be catered to suit your tastes. I kept it vegetarian since I had a wonderful stock of fresh veggies in my fridge and served it along side some Honey-Garlic Chicken Wings. If you’re up for it, toss in some sliced chicken or shrimp to take this a step further. I’ve also kept the heat level on the mild side since Baby Dear was eating it as well; but if you’d like a slight kick, then add in some finely chopped green chillies. On a lazy weekend afternoon or a busy weeknight, this would make a wonderful meal served by itself. Try it, and I hope you enjoy it as much we did.

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No Can Do – Masala Mushrooms

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

Growing up, the only mushrooms I ever had were the ones my Mom drained out of a can to spread on pizza. It may sound completely appetizing, but I loved it. So much so, that I would actually fish out and pieces I could find on leftover slices of the pizza. And yes, sadly, pizza was the only time my Mom opened the can of mushrooms. It wasn’t until I actually moved to Canada that I had my first taste of a real, fresh mushroom. One bite, and I was blown away. The canned stuff felt like rubber and I was instantly obsessed. Still am, to this day, mushrooms remain a favourite vegetarian option for me. Only second to the humble eggplant, of course!

When my parents were visiting during the early months of Baby Dear’s birth, my Dad had a craving for mushrooms. Like many people from Indian households back home, where mushrooms were a very rare sight at the dinner table, he wanted to know what they were like. He had often heard and read of recipes where mushrooms were cooked in a thick, almost dry masala base. He asked me to cook up a batch for him. I was more than than eager too!

It was almost too simple to put together. Like most Indian recipes, I started with a base of onions and tomatoes, slowly sauteing it till all moisture evaporated and the flavours of the various spices had a chance to deepen. Next came the mushrooms, a few more minutes of slow cooking, and voila! Dinner was ready. My Dad had waited a long while to eat mushrooms cooked this way, and his expectations were pretty high. He took a bite, looked at me, and said that I HAD to teach my Mom this recipe. My Mom’s retort – they didn’t sell mushrooms at the vegetable market she shopped at!

This is a recipe I often fall back on on days when the heart desires something meaty, rich and lip-smackingly good! I’ve made it for fancy dinner parties, used it as an extravagant side for a simple Dal-Chawal, and also as a filling for sandwiches and wraps. I chose white button mushrooms since they easily take on robust flavours and shine through. I suspect creminis and oysters would also work well, but honestly, I have yet to try them this way.

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A Change of Heart: Black Bean Chili

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

The past weekend we had some of our closest friends and family join us to celebrate Hubby Dear’s b’day. It was a surprise party I managed to pull off for him at the very last minute. And that was after I sent him 3 big, fat helium balloons and a box of chocolate covered strawberries to his workplace. Yes, I know, I AM the most awesome wife there is. But don’t worry, I more than let him make up for it on my b’day by making sure I am showered with a boat load of presents! Ladies, if you want to know how I do it, it’s simple – give him a list of all the things you want and make sure to let him know where to get them at. And if your hubs is super busy trying to get multi-million dollar deals for his company like mine is, then just give him a hand by shopping for yourself. With his credit card. Like I do.

Anyway, where was I? Right, awesome wife! Who gave him a fabulous surprise party! And might I add he had no clue. Even with a fridge full of food. But most importantly, even with a clean, pristine home on a Saturday. With Baby Dear around. Yup, he sure didn’t see it coming! Needless to say, it was fun and of course, a tad bit tiring for me too. But to see a large crowd gathered in our home, over delicious comforting food – I’d do it again, in a heart beat!

There was a time when we would have large dinner parties like it was nobody’s business! I would cook a lavish buffet of food, making sure there were at least a few of everyone’s favourite dishes. I have been told that some skip their lunch knowing that sitting down for dinner at our table would totally be worth it. I have also been told (by Hubby Dear, of course) that when I entertain, I turn into this crazy cooking monster who has all the burners on her stove working at once while the food processor’s running and the oven on full steam! Yes, I admit, I do tend to go a bit overboard – most times making twelve different dishes for ten people. And that’s not including appetizers and dessert! But alas, that was all pre-Baby Dear.

Which is why I have no idea what possessed me to send out that email ten days before D-day to a collective group of fifteen. And the fact that I actually pulled it off, has me even more stunned. What I have learnt from it though, is that I have in fact, changed. I’m no longer the Kitchen Hitler who shuns away anyone wandering in while she’s cooking. I do however, blame that on the tiny apartment kitchen we had. Our kitchen now, in our new home, is literally the center of it all. It’s bang in the middle of the main floor, connecting both, our dining and family rooms. It’s open, with an island in the middle where Hubby & Baby Dears often sit while I rustle up something yummy. The island is also where some our friends sat and munched while I continued getting dinner ready at the b’day party, all the while making me feel part of the festivity and not a short order cook!

This weekend is Canadian Thanksgiving, and while there will be some among us who won’t let anyone tip-toe into the kitchen until all the food is perfectly set in their respective serving dishes on the table, I encourage the rest of you to accept all the help you can get and be thankful for those hands that do. As for me, I’m making a large pot of spicy chili in my beautiful red dutch oven, and serving it up alongside some chips, roast potatoes and fixin’s. After all, I’ve never been one to serve a turkey. It just takes too much time!

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Intro to Indian Food, Part 5 – Cooking Curry for Beginners: Pindi Chana

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

I get quite a few emails referring to a past post of mine, How NOT to Cook Indian food, from people confessing to me their creative and not so creative ways of imitating Indian flavours. As much as I love reading each and every one of them, it makes me want to pull my eyes out when I see how much people actually enjoy Indian food, but yet, how ignorant they are about what actually goes into it. A common misdemeanor is of course, by far, the liberal addition of that yellow powdery substance known commercially as curry powder (say it with me now, YUCK!) to a quick saute of chopped onions and tomatoes.

Curry is undoubtedly one the most popular Indian dishes, and can vary in style, colour and flavour depending on the region and kitchen it comes from. Although I can in no way humanly possible, map out step-by-step recipes for every curry that exists, I will try and share with you a few simple tips that I often use myself to create a lip-smacking bowl of curry with little, or no effort needed whatsoever. As with any classic dish, Indian curries vary in taste, colour and style within regions throughout the country, and every household has a secret family recipe that they claim is the best ever!

One thing to note here however, is when I mention the word “curry”, I am clearly pointing to a gravy-based dish of either meat or vegetables. To begin with, let’s start by breaking up a curry into its basic components:

Flavour base: I often like to start with deciding the flavour base for my curry. This would be the main ingredient that would dominate the flavour of the curry dish, and could range anywhere from a simple blend of spices to coconut, yogurt or tomatoes. Deciding on your flavour base before you start to prep ingredients for the cooking will also help you to estimate what spices, meat or vegetables would best compliment it.

Feature ingredient: This would usually be the meat or vegetable that would carry the dish. In many cases, more than one feature ingredient can be used, but be sure to either group items that compliment each other well, or give you a wonderful contrast. Adding peas and carrots to a potato curry would bump up the blandness of the potatoes. But combining squash and sweet potatoes together, might not be such a great idea.

Flavour enhancers: This is undoubtedly my favourite part of the curry, and by far, a highly important one. They can range anywhere from herbs, spices and condiments or sauces. When picking a flavour enhancer, keep in mind that you always want to choose something that would enhance the flavouring of the dish, and not overwhelm it. It’s often best when you get a slight hint of the flavour in the background, giving the other components of the dish enough weightage to bring it out together.

To make a fabulous tasting curry, it’s always best to look at each component separately, and try and combine them together in such a way that they go well with each other. For eg., if I had decided to make a coconut based curry, then I would normally pick fish as my feature ingredient, and ginger, lemon grass, and curry leaves as my flavour enhancers. The sharpness in the ginger and curry leaves would be well balanced with the lemon grass and coconut; and the fish, being much bland in taste, would carry all the flavours fairly well.

To give you an idea of how versatile curries can be, here are three very different recipes that are simple to make and can easily be adapted to suit any kind of taste preference:

Tomato-based curry with yogurt and whole spices:

Heat oil in a thick-bottomed pan and saute some cardamom, peppercorns, bay leaves, cinnamon stick and cloves, till they begin to sizzle. Add sliced onions and green chillies, and fry for 3-5 minutes on medium-high heat till onions turn pink and tender. Stir in some ginger-garlic paste and saute for another minute or two till it starts to gives out oil. Add red chilli powder, cumin powder, turmeric, coriander powder and garam masala, and fry for a minute. Mix in chopped tomatoes and salt, and cook for a few minutes till tomatoes pulp and releases oil around the sides of the pan. Slowly stir in beaten yogurt forming a smooth gravy base.

This curry base would go extremely well with chicken, paneer, mushrooms, and potatoes. A variation on this recipe can be seen here – Dahiwali Chicken Curry

Coconut-based curry:

Toast dried red chilies, cumin seeds and coriander seeds till fragrant. Grind in a food processor to a fine powder and set aside. Heat oil and saute garlic and curry leaves till fragrant. Add onions and fry for a few minutes till tender and pink. Add ground spices and turmeric, and fry for a few seconds before adding coconut milk.

This curry base would go extremely well with chicken, fish, tofu, and many leafy greens like spinach and bok choy. A variation on this recipe can be seen here – Coconut Chicken Curry

Tomato-based, tangy curry:

Add mustard seeds and curry leaves to warm oil and allow to sizzle. Once they begin to splutter, add sliced onions and fry till lightly browned. Add tomatoes, garlic, chilli powder, turmeric and salt, and cook for 5-6 minutes till tomatoes pulp. Add tamarind extract and stir to blend well. Add water and green chillies, and cook covered for 15-20 minutes.

This curry base would go extremely well with chicken, fish, and almost any vegetable. A variation on this recipe can be seen here – Hot & Sour Chicken Curry

These are just a few guidelines and examples to help you understand the versatility of the Indian cuisine. By all means, trust your instinct and experiment flavours with love with those new to you, and you never know; you may just create a masterpiece!

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The Working Cook: Sauteed Spinach with Potatoes

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

My day started with me jumping out of bed realizing that I would be late for a meeting with one of my freelance clients. The leisure morning beauty regime I had planned for myself earlier (read: filing my nails into shape considered somewhat normal and putting on some nail polish) had to be ditched while I settled for a quick shower. The meeting went well, lasted for a couple of hours over large cups of fabulous coffee and never ending bites of warm buttery croissants, and ended with me bagging a couple of new assignments. That was followed by a mad dash home to vacuum and hide all the piled up papers, books and unmentionables under our bed to make the home look invitingly presentable to some last minute guests. dirty dishes where haphazardly shoved into the dish washer, and a sweet aromatic rosemary candle was lit. Amidst all the hoopla of trying to make my world look slightly more normal than it actually was, thoughts of food were attacking my brain cells.

I usually maintain a well stocked fridge, freezer and pantry – enough to whip up a lavish multi course meal without heading for the nearest grocery shelves. But not today. The expected guests were close friends who’d much rather have a simple home cooked meal than be flattered by a flambe of sorts. And I had to admit, I was almost out of breadth and ready to crash when I finally entered the kitchen. It had to be a meal that was quick to prepare and didn’t require much effort from me and of course, had to look grand. The one thing about me that you might have noticed by now is my obsessive need to make the people I feed feel extra special. Most dishes I settle for while entertaining are often a breeze to pull of, but you’d never guess that by looking at the spread. And that’s exactly how I like it to be!

I put out a pack of cut-up chicken to defrost with a plan of making a quick deliciously simple curry. I threw a few cups of fragrant Basmati rice into a pot of water with some aromatic spices for a Pulao, and started to tear up crisp lettuce for a quick tossed salad. Just as the rice started to emit a faint saffron aroma and the curry bubbled under a low simmer, I realized that I was missing a vegetable side dish. I found a large bunch of spinach sitting in my fridge, right after I spotted the basket of potatoes on my counter, and I knew just what I was going to be serving – the perfect accompaniment for the spread I had intended.

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The Joys of Greens: Chilli Tofu with Beans and Bok Choy

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

Over the years it has dawned on me that I am perhaps more Malay than Indian when it comes to my food choices. Offer me a generous plate of stir-fried Kangkong and I would forgo the pot of Butter Chicken without so much as a second glance. Well, maybe it’s that easy for me since I never liked Butter Chicken anyway. But a plate of Biryani – now you’ve me getting greedy and highly confused on what to pick!

The main difference I find in the way vegetables are usually cooked in India and Malaysia is the amount of time it takes. Indian vegetables are often cooked to the max – entirely absorbed of all the seasonings and completely cooked through. Which would easily explain why I was never a fan of the dreaded Alu Gobi – who likes a cauliflower all mushy and soft? We recently had a BBQ party where I grilled cauliflower florets marinated in yogurt and spices till they were tender, yet still retained a slight crunch; it was to die for! Malaysian vegetables on the other hand, are often lightly stir- fried. The dish results in a burst of flavours and the veggies maintain their rich colour and crispness.

A couple of days ago I found myself at a gem of an Asian grocery store. This tiny place carried all sorts of Asian greens you could imagine, complete with all the hard-to-substitute fixins’ like Kaffir lime leaves, galangal and garlic chives. I had finally found my candyland. Spending the time there feeling, picking, and smelling the vegetables transported me to my childhood days – those where Mom would often dish out quick Malaysian vegetable dishes that I would actually enjoy eating.

I finally got home two hours later laden with two large bags of fresh produce and another one with a treasure trove of Southeast Asian pantry essentials. From Laksa, Thai curry and Tom Yum pastes to the best curry powder blends my pots have ever touched upon, I am now fully equipped! Each time I’ve looked into my pantry the past few days, I come out with a wealth of ideas for my next upcoming meals. And receiving this delightful book in the mail a couple of weeks back has only made it worse! I’ve been churning a wonderful array of fusion dinners for us and Hubby Dear’s waistline is having to bear the brunt of it. Let’s just say that it shouldn’t come as a big surprise to him when I hand him a gym membership as his b’day gift!
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