Ingredient Profile: Tomatoes


Vegetable Profile: Tomatoes

Origin of Tomatoes

Tomatoes are native to Central America and had been brought to Europe by the Spaniards. However, Europeans initially thought that they were poisonous so they did not gain popularity for quite some time. They were right to a certain degree as tomatoes belong in nightshade family of plant and they contain alkaloids –substances can cause adverse reactions in sensitive individuals.

Tomato Varieties

Here’s a list of commonly available tomatoes:
• Apollo
• Sweet grape
• Beefsteak
• Truss tomatoes or on-the-vine tomatoes
• Red cherry
• Cherry cocktail
• Cherry gold
• Tommy toe
• Mini yellow pear
• Heirloom tomatoes
• Roma
• Cherry Roma
• Oxheart
• Tiny Tim


Tomatoes are available all year around. They are grown just about everywhere in the world, either in the open or under glass. If you don’t like the fresh ones this month and only want them for cooking, buy them canned.

Selection of Tomatoes

Choose firm, heavy, well-formed tomatoes that are free from deep blemishes. Avoid over-ripe and split ones. The colour should be deep red and even. Pale ones –unless they the natural yellow variety—tend to have less flavour.

Storing Tomatoes

Tomatoes should be stored at room temperature or in a cool but not cold place. Keeping tomatoes in the fridge is not ideal as the cold reduces their flavour. It is advisable to purchase them close to serving time. Use tomatoes within 7-10 days if they are red. If they are green, ripen them in a dark, slightly cool place.

Preparation Techniques

Tomatoes are usually considered a salad ingredient but they also make a fine cooked vegetable. They quickly lose their shape when cooked, though.
To peel tomatoes: First, cut a cross at the bottom of tomato –not too deep. Dip into boiling water for about 1 minute, then plunge in cold water; slip off skin. Alternatively, pierce the tomato with a fork at the stem end. Hold the tomato over a low flame, turning slowly, until the skin pops. Remove from the flame and peel the skin away.
How to seed tomatoes: An easy way is to slice the tomatoes in half, then gently squeeze and press out the seedy portions. Then dice or cut in sections as called for.
Other preparation methods: Peeled or unpeeled tomato slices or wedges.
Chopping tomatoes: Wash, remove the stem and core. Then chop them into small pieces.

Cooking Tips for Tomatoes

Grilling tomatoes: Start with firm tomatoes and slice them in half horizontally. Brush with olive oil. Grill until stripy grill marks form. Flip and repeat. Sprinkle with salt.
Stuffing tomatoes: Slice them in half horizontally and scoop out the inside. Fill with your choice of filling (deep-fried eggplant, breadcrumbs, cheese, spinach, mushrooms, rice and quinoa are some possibilities). Slice them in half horizontally and scoop out the inside. Bake at 400ºF/200ºC/Gas Mark 6 for 20-30 minutes.

Where to Use

Tomato is the main ingredient in passata (pizza sauce), tomato paste, ketchup and a variety of pasta sauces. There are many dishes featuring tomatoes. Here are some examples:
• Mexican salsas
• Sauces like in this Smoky Tomato sauce
• Soups like Gazpacho
• Sandwiches
• Stews like Zucchini Stew with Green Lentils
• Vegetable bakes
• Raw salads like Shepherd’s Salad with Sumac or Sumaklı Çoban Salata
• Bruschetta
• Sun-dried tomatoes as in Bruschetta with Cream Cheese and Tapenade
• Pasta sauces like Spaghetti with Bolognese Sauce or Fusilli Pasta with Eggplant and Corn
• Breaded green tomatoes (not very common in Australia, however, this one for my friends from the US)

Complimentary Flavours

Here’s a list of ingredients which I believe go nicely with tomatoes:
• Fresh basil leaves
• Olive oil
• Parsley
• Dill weed
• Garlic
• Onion
• Chives
• Oregano (fresh or dried)
• Parmesan cheese
• Peppers
• Capsicum
• Chilli
• Black pepper or white pepper
• Tarragon leaves
• Balsamic vinegar
• Curry pastes like Nyonya curry paste and Harissa
• Yoghurt

Nutritional Profile of Tomatoes

When the tomato is perfectly ripe, it is a highly nutritious vegetable, containing a good level of vitamin A, C, K, manganese, folate, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium. Tomatoes also contain 95% water.

Health Benefits of Tomatoes

The biggest health benefit of tomatoes is its lycopene content. This anti-cancer ingredient is the most powerful antioxidant among the carotenoids and is the pigment that makes tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit and strawberries red. Tomatoes are the second lycopene richest plant, watermelon being the first. Lycopene is more readily absorbed when tomatoes are cooked and oil is added. You don’t have to look any further than your pasta sauce with olive oil in it. However, heating foods destroys vitamin C along with other nutrients.

The other anti-cancer substances tomatoes contain are coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid which combine with nitric oxides in certain foods to prevent them forming cancer-causing nitrosamines.

Special Note on Tomatoes

In botany, tomatoes are actually fruit, not a vegetable. No wonder why I sometimes feel like eating a whole tomato over the sink.

How to Put Together a Cheese Platter

cheese platterHow to Put Together a Cheese Platter

Entertaining? How about putting together a cheese platter? Gathering around a delightful cheese plate and some wine is becoming more and more popular these days. So this post is all about how to put together a decent cheese platter that everyone will enjoy.

Assembling a cheese platter sounds easy but there are a few rules to follow. Here are basic guidelines to get you started:

Choosing Your Cheese

All you need is three different types of cheese and maybe more if you have a large number of guests but always in odd numbers –it’s a French thing. However, there is no need to overwhelm anyone’s palate. So, aim for different textures like hard, soft, semi-soft, aged or choose your cheese made from different types of milk like goat’s, cow’s or sheep’s milk.

cheese platter

For a well-rounded cheese platter, choose a good variety of cheeses. Here are the suggestions:

• Semi-hard cheeses like cheddar, Colby, Edam and Gouda
• Blue cheese varieties like Roquefort, Danablu (Danish Blue), Cabrales, Gorgonzola and Blue Stilton
• Soft ripened varieties like Brie or Camembert
• Hard or aged varieties like Parmesan, Romano or Asiago
• And if you would like to add a fresh type to your cheese platter I recommend Chevre (fresh goat’s cheese)

How Much Cheese to Serve?

The amount of cheese you serve depends on how many people are invited. Obviously, if you are planning to serve an after dinner cheese platter, you will need less amount of cheese. In that case, allow 60gr of cheese per person. If the cheese platter is the only food on offer, then the amount of cheese would be 90-120gr per person.

Shopping for Your Cheese Platter

Artisan cheese shops can be a bit intimidating with their wide variety of unpronounceable products. However, it is totally expected to ask questions and even taste before you buy. There is a French cheese shop on the ground level of Drummoyne Shopping Centre –factory outlet, to be precise. Every time we go there to do buy some shoes and clothes, we end up buying cheese although cheese is never on our shopping list. You know why? Because they always carry something different and interesting. For us, it’s like education. There are many places like that in Sydney where you can buy artisan cheeses and they help you choose the right type of cheese for your guests.

If you prefer to try your nearest supermarket, that is also fine. I seem to find a great variety of cheeses at our local Wollworths these days. And they are guest-worthy, too.

Sometimes, you get farmers bringing their produce to local markets. This is extra special because they tell you stories of how each block of cheese is made. Again, you taste and buy.

cheese platter

Sweet and Savoury Accompaniments

One thing you need to consider when you choose accompaniments for a cheese platter is this: The other foods you serve with cheese can intensify or even change the flavour of cheese. Some of these accompaniments are sweet, some of them are savoury. I have grouped them together here for you.

cheese platter

Savoury Accompaniments
• Crackers like water crackers have neutral taste and they are good for soft cheeses. Biscuit crackers, on the other hand, are ideal for hard cheeses. If you have any guests with coeliac disease, serve gluten free varieties like rice or potato crackers.
• Raw, toasted or smoked nuts like walnuts (goes especially well with blue cheese) and almonds
• Marinated olives (always serve with a little spoon and make sure they are pitted)
• Vegetarian deli slices like Tofurky hickory-smoked, smoked ham style, oven roasted, Vegusto, and Sanitarium deli slices are all suitable.

Sweet Accompaniments
• Fresh fruits like grapes (red, green or even champagne grapes), apple slices, pear slices, berries and figs
• Dried fruits like fig, muscatel clusters and apricots
• Jams like fig jam or quince paste (membrillo)
• Chutneys (they go nicely with hard cheeses in particular)
• Honey (raw or otherwise)

Cheese Knives

• If you buy a wheel of cheese, you will need a big, sharp and sturdy knife to cut it. A sharp chef’s knife would do the job. Just dip it into hot water and wipe before you cut the wheel.
• To serve cheese, provide a different knife for each type of cheese to avoid mixing all the different cheese flavours together.
• Cheese knife sets these days come with a lot of useful pieces. One of them is serving prongs or forks. They make it easier to lift cheese slices from the board onto the individual plates.
• For cutting soft cheeses, either use a wire cutter, spatula or a knife with holes. Because soft cheeses are stickier than the others.
• Use the right knife for the right cheese. Please refer to the photo.

cheese platter

• If you’re serving marinated cheese in oil, a small fork or a spoon will suffice.
• Cheese knives with short and stubby blade and cheese planes are ideal for slicing hard cheeses like Parmesan.

Wine and Cheese Pairing

Wine and cheese pairing is actually a huge topic and should be tackled in a separate post. Still, I need to talk about it here as wine and cheese are inseparable.

Here’s the problem though: you have an assortment of cheeses –at least three—and each one has its own characteristics as well as its corresponding wine. This makes wine pairing tricky for a cheese platter. So, we need to focus on one type of wine that will be broad enough to complement all three cheeses. And for that, I have two recommendations for you:

  1. Riesling –especially off-dry—is one great choice because it’s low in alcohol yet sweet with tropical fruits. Acidity and mineral content make it a broad enough to pair with many types of cheese.
  2. Alsatian Gewürztraminer is another great choice; it’s dry and yet floral. So it would create a nice contrast to savouriness of cheese.

Additional Tips

• Remove cheese from the fridge and let it rest on the counter for at least 30 minutes before serving –an hour is better—as cold deadens the flavour of the cheese.
• Let your guests slice their own semi-hard cheese. Pre-slicing cheese allows it to dry out around the edges.
• Hard cheeses like parmesan will crumble a little and it’s OK.
• Rennet is used in the production of cheese and is derived from stomach lining of calves. Many cheeses we buy today are made with rennet. However, I see “suitable for vegetarians” on the label more often these days. Some vegetarians tolerate the fact that their cheese is made with animal rennet but some don’t. If you are catering for vegetarians it may be wise to include cheese made only with vegetarian rennet.

Turkish Stuffed Zucchini or Kabak Dolması

Turkish Stuffed Zucchini or Kabak Dolması

I order our fruits and vegetables –along with some other pantry items –through Harris Farm to be delivered to my door every week. They now have this “imperfect picks” option. Basically, your usual fruits and vegetables that don’t look good on the outside. The ugly guys, so to speak. However, they taste good and are cheaper as well.

We’re having friends over for dinner on Friday night. So I put together a menu after I talked to them if they were allergic to anything or if there’s anything they don’t like –standard dinner party procedure. Based on what I’ll be cooking for them and our weekly menu items, I put my order in. Luckily, the ugly zucchinis I ordered happened to have large bottoms! That means, they are large enough to stuff!

Turkish Stuffed Zucchini Kabak Dolması

A note on vegetarian mince: I used Quorn vegetarian mince in this recipe because I can’t get Linda McCartney’s mince anymore in Australia and I really don’t like Sanitarium’s mince. The other alternative to vegetarian mince is The Redwood VegiDeli Gourmet Meat Free Mince but I find it quite expensive and not so easy to get. Quorn mince, on the other hand, can be purchased from Woolworths or Coles, depending on the branch.

A note on an absent ingredient: The traditional Kabak Dolması has rice in the stuffing mix and we have it with plain buttered pasta as a side dish –very German/Austrian, I know. I didn’t use rice this time because I was planning on making a rice pilaf as a side dish and didn’t want things too rice-y. Well, I didn’t make the rice pilaf in the end but dolmas were already cooking when I made that decision. Let’s not talk about it, shall we?

Turkish Stuffed Zucchini or Kabak Dolması

4 large pieces zucchini

For the Stuffing Mixture:
4 tablespoons Quorn vegetarian mince, thawed (see note above)
½ small brown onion, chopped finely
1 small tomato, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon Turkish pepper paste (hot)
A drizzle vegetable oil
A large pinch Turkish dried mint
Salt to taste
A pinch ground sweet paprika

For Garlic Yoghurt:
4 tablespoons Greek style plain yoghurt
1 large clove garlic, crushed
1 twig fresh dill, chopped

• Peel and carve out the fleshy part of zucchinis.
• Mix together the vegetarian mince, chopped onion, chopped tomato, Turkish hot pepper paste, vegetable oil, chopped dill, dried mint, salt, black pepper and ground paprika.
• Fill the hollow parts of zucchinis with the stuffing mixture. You will have some extra stuffing mixture.
• Place the extra stuffing mixture in a saucepan and lightly cook. Carefully transfer the stuffed zucchinis into the saucepan and fill up the gaps between dolmas with boiled water. Put the lid on and once it starts to boil, reduce the heat.
• Meanwhile, prepare the garlic yoghurt by mixing together yoghurt, crushed garlic and fresh dill weeds. If it’s too thick, add a few drops of water until you reach the right consistency –it should be a little runny. Set aside.
• When stuffed zucchinis are fully cooked, serve immediately with garlic yoghurt. Afiyet olsun!

Turkish Stuffed Zucchini Kabak Dolması

Turkish Pepper Paste (Biber Salçası)

Turkish Pepper Paste (Biber Salçası)Turkish Pepper Paste or Biber Salçası

Some like it hot, some like it sweet. Whichever you prefer, Turkish Pepper Paste (Biber Salçası) is the ultimate ingredient of every Turkish pantry.

Turkish Pepper Paste (Biber Salçası) –also called kırmızı biber salçası –is made from crushed and sun-dried red peppers. Salt is added as a preservative so that it would last through the winter. There are two varieties: hot pepper paste (acı biber salçası ) and sweet pepper paste (tatlı biber salçası).

Pepper paste is used widely in Turkish cuisine. However, my mother was not a huge fan of it or anything hot. I remember the first time I tried pepper paste; I had itchy arms for a day although it was mixed with plain tomato paste and not hot at all. Eventually, I learnt to like it. Now I use it all the time like in the winter, I use it in clay pot dishes. In the summer, mostly in mezes and dips.

Back in Turkey, making your own pepper paste at home is widely practiced in villages and small towns, even today. Village ladies make large quantities of pepper paste when the peppers are in season and abundant. Then the pepper paste is left to sun-dry, usually on a terrace. Sometimes, they sell their produce at their local markets, too.

For those of us who cannot get home made Turkish pepper paste, a store-bought ones are ideal. They come in glass jars (see photo below) and you can get them from shops specialising in Turkish or Middle Eastern food. Check out my list in “Where to Buy” section below.

Turkish Pepper Paste (Biber Salçası)

Where to Buy

In Sydney – Australia, hot pepper paste I available through these shops:
Gima Supermarket
31 – 35 Queen Street
Auburn NSW 2144
Phone: 02 9749 4588

Arzum Market
61 Rawson Street
Auburn NSW 2144
Phone: 02 9649 9327

Izmir Delicatessen
Shop 5, 471 Seaview Street
Dulwich Hill NSW 2203
Phone: 02 9568 3243

Oriental and Continental Food Wholesalers
43 Carlotta Street
Artarmon NSW 2064
Phone: 02 9906 8990

Sometimes Super Sahel Persian Market and Deli has the pepper paste. They also sell hot nuts 🙂
Address: 337 Penshurst Street
North Willoughby NSW 2068
Phone: 02 9417 6766

In the US, Turkish pepper paste can be ordered online through Tulumba and they deliver nationwide.

Where to Use Turkish Pepper Paste 

Generally, pepper paste is used in stews, main dishes, pide, lahmacun and börek mixtures, mezes, dips, spreads and in sauces. More specifically, Turkish pepper paste can be used in:
Famous Kisir (spicy cracked wheat salad). This is the style what we normally get from Turkish fast food places in Australia and in New Zealand although that’s not how my mum used to make Kisir.

Turkish Pepper Paste (Biber Salçası)Stuffed Cabbage Leaves or Lahana Sarma (above) I use hot pepper paste in the actual stuffing mixture as well as the sauce I cook stuffed cabbage leaves in.

Turkish Pepper Paste (Biber Salçası)Turkish Spicy Spread or İzot (Biber Reçeli) This is an incredible meze; the first meze to run out when we have guests.

Turkish Pepper Paste (Biber Salçası)Spicy Bean Dip, VegFusion Style (above) I made this one Turkish by using Turkish pepper paste.

Turkish Pepper Paste (Biber Salçası)Savoury Bulgur Pilaf with Banana Chilli (Meyhane Pilavı) Hot pepper paste add so much flavour to this pilaf (above).

Turkish Pepper Paste (Biber Salçası)Turkish Pastrami Flavoured Faux-Chicken (above)

Turkish Pepper Paste (Biber Salçası)Turkish Pastrami Flavoured Cannellini Bean Stew (above)

Please note that Turkish pepper paste should be stored in the fridge.

A Middle Eastern Classic: Babaganoush

A Middle Eastern Classic BabaganoushA Middle Eastern Classic: Babaganoush

Babaganoush is a Middle Eastern classic and it is one of those mezes I learnt from a neighbour back in Turkey. Thank you Asiye Teyze!

Babaganoush showcases smoking eggplant (aubergine) over flame and this is where that distinctive smoky flavour is coming from. However, you could do the same thing with barbeque. The recipe below covers both cooking methods.

A Middle Eastern Classic: Babaganoush

1 round eggplant (aubergine)
Juice of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons tahini paste
2 cloves garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon ground cumin
Salt to taste
Ground sweet paprika, to decorate
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling (optional)
Pitta bread, to serve


To smoke eggplant (aubergine): Prick eggplants a few times with a fork or tip of a knife. Over a gas flame, evenly char the skin of eggplant, turning regularly. Transfer to a plate and when cool enough to handle, peel the skin. Drop the eggplant into a bowl filled with cold water. Wait for a few minutes and then squeeze out excess water with your hand.
• Chop smoked eggplant finely and transfer into a bowl. Add lemon juice, tahini paste, crushed garlic, cumin and salt. Stir until smooth and well combined. If the mixture is too thick gradually add a little water. Drizzle with olive oil if you like and serve with pitta bread.

How to Barbeque Eggplant (Aubergine)
The rules are the same as smoking eggplant: Prick the eggplant a few times with a fork or tip of a knife. Place the eggplant directly over the flame and barbeque, turning to char on all sides until the skin blisters and the eggplant is completely soft. Remove from the heat with a pair of tongs. Allow to cool and peel off the blackened skin. After this stage, follow the recipe.

Savoury Herbed French Toast, VegFusion Style

Savoury Herbed French Toast, VegFusion Style is a savoury version of French toast; a total contrast to its sweet cousins. They make excellent lunches so I make them for me and my husband during the weekends. They are also a great way of using stale, left over bread. I always serve them with a little bit of raw salad as it freshens things up a great deal. In this recipe, I used fresh tomato salad but you can use whatever you have in your fridge at the time. Green salad is another alternative or even coleslaw would go well.

You may have noticed the fact that the recipe does not have much in the way of measurements. The reason for that is because I never use measurements for a recipe like this myself while making savoury French toasts.

The recipe below serves 2 hungry people.

Savoury Herbed French Toast, VegFusion Style

Savoury Herbed French Toast, VegFusion Style

Ingredients for Tomato Salad:
1 large tomato, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
Lemon juice

Ingredients for French Toast:
2 eggs
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Dried oregano
Dried mint (spearmint)
10 slices French stick (stale works better than fresh)
Oil for pan-frying
Fresh chives

To make the tomato salad: slice the tomato and place on serving plates. To make the salad dressing: Whisk together extra virgin olive oil, salt and lemon juice. Drizzle over tomato slices.
To make the French Toast: Crack the eggs in a bowl. Beat the eggs with salt, freshly ground black pepper (if you want, you could use white pepper instead), dried oregano and dried mint (spearmint). Set aside.
• Slice the bread into 10 even slices. Set aside until the frying oil is ready.
• Heat the oil in a heavy-based, large frying pan. Dip the bread into egg mixture and drop them into hot oil. You could do them in batches. Once one side of the bread is golden brown turn them over and fry the other side too.
• Drain the slices on paper towel.
To serve: Arrange French toast on serving plates next to the tomato salad and sprinkle all of them with fresh chives. Serve immediately.

Big Bites Pure Vegetarian Restaurant, Singapore

Big Bites Pure Vegetarian Restaurant, Singapore
Big Bites Pure Vegetarian Restaurant is located on a busy Serangoon Road in Little India, Singapore. The place is not far from famous Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple and that’s how me and my husband ended up at Big Bites in the first place. We were just visiting the area and suddenly hunger kicked in.

The Food
Big Bite’s incredibly extensive menu –including a section for children—seems to have pretty much every example of Indian food from idlis, chaats, dosas, oothapam, sizzler dishes to biryani. Indian bread section includes roti, naan, chappati, pratha and kulcha. Even the dosa section in their menu has a large variety of dosas which I have never come across anywhere else before. North and south Indian thali are also available although they call them meals.

Big Bites Pure Vegetarian Restaurant Singapore

Although they call themselves pure vegetarian, it’s just vegetarian from what I observed. However, they have a sign saying “Jain preparation is available upon request” and that means they are capable of preparing vegan food. Jain food in India although being lacto vegetarian excludes dairy if animal cruelty is involved. So, vegans should be catered well hereat Big Bites Pure Vegetarian Restaurant.

The Service
I must admit, being an Indian restaurant, the service didn’t even have the smidgen of Indian hospitality or friendliness. We didn’t know that they had a variety of desserts downstairs which were not on the menu. So, we ended up buying sweets on our way out.

The Ambiance
Ground floor has some chairs and tables and a large buffet of Indian sweets. However, you dine upstairs. The dining area upstairs was quite stuffy but they didn’t seem to be using air conditioning. It’s not only you are in a humid climate but also consuming hot and spicy food. I think they should reconsider their cooling plan. Clearly leaving the windows open doesn’t help at all.

Big Bites Pure Vegetarian Restaurant Singapore
The Verdict
While Big Bites seems to be the only sensible choice when you visit Little India, the food is oily, the service is unfriendly and it is quite hot upstairs in the dining area.

Big Bites Pure Vegetarian Restaurant
70 Serangoon Road
Singapore 217975
No website
Phone: +65 6297 6297

Little India and Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple
Little India is the perfect place to buy little trinkets, souvenirs, Indian CDs, movies if you’re into Bollywood and gorgeous saris. I believe the best place for shopping is Little Indian Arcade which is located on Hastings Road. I remember buying incredibly colourful Indian bangles there.

Big Bites Pure Vegetarian Restaurant Singapore

Food is a huge part of Indian culture and the shops around Little India have everything an Indian cook would need from herbs and spices to fresh produce. For everything else, locals go across to Johor Bharu, Malaysia. How do I know this? Because, we travelled to Johor Bharu with a local to buy some string hoppers.

There are a few Indian temples around the area. My favourite one is Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple which is one of the oldest temples in Singapore. It was completed in 1880s and is dedicated to Kali: the goddess of destruction (Kali can be seen in the photo below: the upper right corner).

Big Bites Pure Vegetarian Restaurant Singapore

When we arrived at Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, there was this full-on ceremony happening with live music. You can see the main worship hall in this short video below.

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple
141 Serangoon Road
Singapore 218042

Stir-Fried Vegetables with Ginger and Cashew Nuts

Stir-Fried Vegetables Ginger Cashew NutsStir-Fried Vegetables with Ginger and Cashew Nuts

My husband and I decided to have a whole Thai week; cooking our favourite Thai dishes for the entire week. He made his famous Pad Thai and Thai Green Curry and I made Roasted Faux-Duck Curry and Stir-Fried Vegetables with Ginger and Cashew Nuts –the subject of this post.

The recipe comes from a vegetarian cooking class we did together in Bangkok. This one was one those dishes we actually cooked during the class taught by May Kaidee. It took me quite a long time to make another attempt outside Thailand but when I did, it turned out to be quite something.

Stir-Fried Vegetables with Ginger and Cashew Nuts

Serves 4

2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 pack prepared tofu
1 small carrot, chopped
½ onion, coarsely chopped
1 small tomato, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 birds eye chillies, finely chopped
¼ broccoli, broken into florets
¼ cauliflower, broken into florets
8 pieces woodear mushrooms, torn into small pieces
12 tbsp water
2 tsp vegan fish sauce
2 tsp sugar
4 tbsp Lamyong Mushroom (Oyster) Sauce
4 tbsp grated ginger
4 tbsp dry-toasted cashews

• To prepare the tofu, drain the whole pack and pat dry. Place the tofu on a plate with two layers of paper towel on and wrap the tofu up with the paper towel for better absorption. Put another plate on top (upside down) and stack up a few heavy books. Change the paper towel about an hour later and repeat the process until the tofu is dry. Then cut the tofu into small squares. Heat 1 cup of oil in a wok and fry the tofu until golden brown. Drain and set aside. Discard the oil and wipe the wok with a paper towel, getting it ready for the vegetables.
• Heat the oil in the wok and add carrots, onion, tomato, garlic, chilli and prepared tofu. When they are cooked thoroughly, add woodear mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower and water. Cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.
• Add vegan fish sauce, sugar and mushroom sauce. Once the mushroom sauce starts to dissolve, add ginger and cashews. Carefully stir all the ingredients and serve immediately.

A Harbinger of Spring: Asparagus

A Harbinger of Spring: Asparagus 
Asparagus is a tender stem vegetable belonging to the Asparagaceae family which is closely related to Liliaceae plants like garlic and onion. With its mildly pungent flavour, it has been recognised as a prized delicacy since ancient times.

Origin of Asparagus
Asparagus is is believed to be originated in the Middle East from where it soon spread to China, Egypt and Greece. According to historical evidence, asparagus was already known in Egypt 3000 years ago and in Greece it was cultivated as a medicinal plant about 2000 years ago. The Romans were the ones who brought it with them to the European countries they conquered. Today it can be found everywhere with a mild climate and sandy soil.

harbinger spring asparagusVarietals
Asparagus is available in green, white and purple varieties, green being the most common of all. White asparagus is produced by growing stalks underground therefore is more delicate and difficult varietal to harvest. Purple asparagus is smaller in size and fruitier in flavour. However, unlike green asparagus, it is high in sugar and low in fibre.

Wild asparagus, on the other hand, is an edible wild plant, not a cultivated one like green, white and purple asparagus. It grows just like nature intended; pollinated by insects and seeds spread by birds. I personally enjoyed wild asparagus during our trip to Paris in 2015. Here’s a snapshot from a green grocer in Monmartre.

harbinger spring asparagusAsparagus Season
In Europe, the asparagus season runs from March until the end of June. Then the plants must be allowed to rest in order to produce the next season’s asparagus. However, we seem to be able to enjoy asparagus all year around these days as it is imported from a number countries including Peru and Mexico.

Choose asparagus with tightly closed, even-sized, compact tips and firm, brittle stalks that are green almost entire length except for white asparagus. When you snap fresh asparagus, it should be crisp, moist and juicy. By the way, thickness is not an indication of tenderness.

Storing Asparagus
Asparagus should not be rinsed before it is stored. Wrap stem ends of stalks in wet paper towels; seal inside a plastic bag and keep in the fridge or trim off the base of stems about 1cm and place in a plastic. Alternatively, stand covered with plastic wrap in a glass containing 1cm water, and store it in the fridge. Use as soon as possible —3 days maximum.

harbinger spring asparagusPreparation Techniques
Because asparagus grows in sandy soil, it is important to wash it throughly under running water —especially the tips—to remove all traces of sand. Always wash asparagus just before you use them.

To snap off tough ends, grasp stalk with both hands and bend with gentle pressure. Asparagus will tell you exactly where it should be snapped. The reason for this is any stem below bending point has the potential to be too fibrous and woody. Same thing goes for wild asparagus too.

White asparagus should always be peeled whereas green ones need peeling only if they are woody. I use my good old potato peeler for the job.

Cooking Tips for Asparagus
Before I get to specific cooking methods, there is one thing I’d like mention here: If you are cooking large amounts of asparagus, it is worth buying a special asparagus gadget like an asparagus steamer —it is sometimes called asparagus kettle. Because asparagus has thicker stems which takes longer to cook while the tender tips cook a lot faster, this gadget makes it possible to cook the asparagus upright so the heat is gentle on the tips as they stick out of the water and they get only steam as a heat source. Before you know it, they are gently done to perfection.

Boiling Asparagus: When boiling asparagus, use as little water as possible so that it loses the minimum amount of flavour and colour. This is especially important for the green variety. Do not overcook asparagus as it is considered as a culinary crime.
Pan-frying Asparagus: This is my favourite method. Melt the butter in a large frying pan and add the asparagus. Fry until it is just tender but not completely dead. The butter will help asparagus to brown well and keep it soft while retaining its flavour. Pan-fried asparagus is best used in side dishes.
Steaming Asparagus: There is no doubt that steaming is one of the healthiest cooking methods. Steam asparagus for about 4-6 minutes and immediately drop them into cold water. This’ll stop cooking process and keep the colour green too. Steamed asparagus is best used in salads.
Barbecuing Asparagus: Brush asparagus with oil and barbecue over medium-high heat for 2 minutes, turning often. It should be just tender at the end of cooking process.
Roasting Asparagus: Preheat oven to 260 °V/500 °F/Gas Mark8. Arrange asparagus on a baking dish in a single layer. Drizzle with olive oil. Roast, turning halfway through roasting until browned, about 10 minutes.
Cooking Wild Asparagus: Wild asparagus can be eaten raw or steamed —the best method—sauteed, boiled and baked briefly. However you cook it, don’t kill it.

Where to Use
Asparagus can be used to prepare salads, purees, flans, frittatas, soups, vegetable bakes, souffles, pizza and in a large variety of pastries.

Complimentary Flavours
Here’s a list of ingredients which I believe go nicely with asparagus:

  • Melted butter
  • Hollandaise sauce (an absolute classic)
  • Pine nuts (lightly toasted in a non-stick pan)
  • Fresh parsley (I prefer flat-leaf parsley)
  • Smoked tofu
  • Mustard (Dijon mustard, that is)
  • Chives or garlic chives (both work beautifully)
  • Classic vinaigrette
  • Olive oil
  • Sour cream
  • Fresh basil
  • Garlic
  • Mayonnaise
  • Shaved parmesan or gruyere cheese (You just need to make sure that asparagus is cool enough before you add any type of cheese)

And, wild asparagus goes nicely with these ingredients:

  • Fennel
  • Leeks
  • Citrus
  • Garlic
  • Aged cheeses
  • Basil
  • Cream
  • Quinoa
  • Lettuce
  • Butter
  • Spring onion (green onion or shallots)
  • Chervil
  • Eggs
  • Thyme

If you’d like to add anything else to the list, please do so at the comments section.

Nutritional Profile of Asparagus
Asparagus is packed with nutrients which play a significant role in our health. To be precise, it is a great source of B1, B2, B6, C, E, K vitamins, calcium, magnesium, zinc, folate, iron, phosphorus, potassium, copper, manganese, selenium and chromium. It is also free of fat, cholesterol, low in calories and carbohydrates and high in dietary fibre –the most notable one being inulin—which makes it an ideal vegetable for dieters.

Therapeutic Uses of Asparagus

Throughout the ages, asparagus has been prized for its medicinal properties. Due to a diuretic amino acid called asparagine, it has the capacity to eliminate water through the kidneys. Also helps to cleanse the arteries of cholesterol and is useful in vascular problems such as hypertension and arteriosclerosis. In Chinese herbology, the underground tubers of asparagus are used to tonify the fluids of the kidneys and moisten the lungs. Due to its cooling properties, asparagus is also used to treat diabetes, tuberculosis, lung congestion and chronic bronchitis.
Wild asparagus (Asparagus racemosus) contains saponins.

Special Note on Asparagus: The Urine Smell

Some people smell it, some people don’t. However, there is an interesting compound called asparagusic acid which creates the smelly urine is the culprit here. After it’s been digested it breaks down into sulfur-containing compounds and like everything with a little bit of sulfur, it produces the unpleasant smell. Just saying…

Fresh Herb Profile: Dill Weed

Dill weed, an annual strong aromatic herb, native to the southern Europe and Mediterranean regions. Today, fresh dill is used extensively in Ashkenazi cuisine as the Ashkenazim adopted the flavours of Eastern Europe.

fresh herb profile dill weed

The fresh dill is a fast growing aromatic herb which has the appearance of a miniature fennel in that both have hollow stems, feathery leaves and clusters of pale yellow flowers. And when it comes to its flavour, the flavour of dill is clean and delicate with a subtle hint of anise or liquorice. Both dill seeds and the weed or leafy part can be eaten.

Other common names: Dill weed, garden dill, green dill and dill seed.

Botanical names:
European Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Indian or Japanese Dill (Anethum sowa)

Family: Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae)

Growing Dill
Sow the seeds in a sunny, well drained soil in spring and autumn. Dill grows best in a light, medium rich soil with plenty of moisture.

Buying Fresh Dill
Look for bunches which look bright green and fresh. They should have no sign of wilting or yellowing.

Complimentary Flavours
The fresh fronds of dill are used in a wide range of vegetable dishes, fresh salads, borsht soup, scrambled egg, omelettes, vegetable salts, white sauces, salad dressings, cucumber pickles (dill pickles) along with dill seeds and herb vinegars. Finely chopped dill leaves are particularly good with cream cheese, yoghurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, boiled eggs, lemon, white rice, bulgar and fromage frais. In the vegetable department, fresh dill compliments vegetables like: artichoke, peas, broad beans, tomatoes, potatoes, particularly with new potatoes, celeriac, zucchini (courgettes), carrot, leeks, beetroot. Fresh dill also combines well with other herbs like parsley, spearmint, garlic, cress, basil, bay leaf, coriander and fennel whereas the seeds combine well pickles like cucumber pickle, carrots, rye breads, pumpkin and cabbage.

Dill seed, on the other hand, flavours and helps the digestion of, steamed cabbage, coleslaw, sauerkraut, cucumbers, various chutneys, pastries, breads, sauces and cooked root vegetables and are the ultimate ingredient of dill pickles -pickled cucumbers.