Is it just me or does food taste bland these days?
This has been a bad year for peaches, one of my favourite stone fruits. A cold snap in the United States in mid-February has affected harvests. Resourceful supermarkets have turned to other countries for stocks, but the quality has been uneven.
One punnet of four Spanish peaches is sweet and juicy, but when I go back for more, I get rock- hard specimens which taste neither sweet nor tart. Large, beautiful ones from Korea turn out to be all looks, no taste. I have even had dud Japanese peaches, and they are usually reliable.
Plums are dicey too. Sometimes, the only flavour I can make out is the tartness right under the skin.
It is the same thing with meat. Chicken, unless organic and costing $60 each, needs a lot of help to be palatable.
The worst crime has got to be what is being done to lamb. Because so many people here hate the gamey flavour of the meat, our lamb chops have none of the distinctive flavour that I love. If I wear a blindfold, I could be eating beef for all I know.
MAKE IT YOURSELF: FLANK STEAK
800g flank steak (below) 50g fresh coriander, roots attached
3 to 4 bird's eye chillies
3 to 4 large cloves garlic
3 stalks lemongrass, white lower part only
Zest and juice of one large lime
4 Tbs fish sauce
1 Tbs Thai palm sugar, soft brown sugar or honey
2 tsp grapeseed or peanut oil
For the dipping sauce
25g fresh coriander leaves
1 large clove garlic
2 bird's eye chillies or to taste
Zest and juice of two large limes
2 Tbs fish sauce
Thai palm sugar, soft brown sugar or honey to taste
1. Rinse the steak under running water, pat very dry with paper towels and place in a resealable plastic bag.
2. Roughly chop up the coriander, including the roots; chillies and garlic. Place in a blender or food processor. Discard the first layer and root end of the lemongrass and slice what is left crosswise into thin rounds. Add to the blender or food processor. Add the lime zest and juice, fish sauce and palm sugar. Whiz up the mixture until it becomes a wet paste.
3. Pour the marinade into the resealable bag with the steak, press the bag to remove the air and seal it. Massage it to distribute the marinade evenly over the meat. Refrigerate for at least four hours and no more than eight hours.
4. About 45 minutes before cooking, remove the steak from the fridge. Scrape off as much of the marinade as possible, pat the meat dry with paper towels and place on a large plate. Let sit at room temperature for 30 to 40 minutes.
5. In the meantime, make the dipping sauce. Chop the coriander leaves, finely chop the garlic and slice the chillies. Place in a small bowl. Add the lime zest and juice, and fish sauce. Stir together. Have a taste and add Thai palm sugar to taste. Let sit at room temperature.
6. Place a grill pan, a cast-iron pan or a heavy- bottomed frying pan over medium heat for four to five minutes.
7. If your pan is not large enough to fit in the whole steak, cut the steak in half crosswise and cook one piece at a time. Rub the oil over the steak.
8. Place the steak in the pan. Cook 31/2 minutes. Do not move it. After 31/2 minutes, flip it over to the other side with tongs and cook another 31/2 minutes. This will get the steak to medium-rare. Do not cook the steak for more than four minutes on each side.
9. Rest the steak on a large plate, loosely covered with foil, for 15 to 20 minutes.
10. Slice the steak against the grain, which is to say, crosswise. Place on a serving platter and serve immediately with the dipping sauce.
Speaking of beef, that has gone the way of lamb too. Unless you pay top dollar for the good stuff, it is all pretty dismal. There are, however, ways to ensure a flavourful meal without breaking the bank, at least where beef is concerned.
The trick is in choosing the right cuts. Flank, hangar and rump are not known to be tender, but they deliver plenty of robust flavour and, when you bite into the meat, you know exactly what you are eating.
These cuts, which are less expensive than bland tenderloin or splurge-night ribeye, have become popular with chefs who want to offer well-priced dishes that deliver on flavour as well.
Better yet, they are easy to cook at home.
After too many earnest meals comprising fish, seafood and chicken, I have been craving beef. Most times, the beef I eat comes in small portions and is usually from Japan. I rarely cook it at home, but when the longing becomes intolerable, I head out to get a fix.
At the supermarket, I see stacks of flank steak at a good price and buy a piece. It is too much for one person, but has the potential to yield four or five meals for an investment of about $30. That is not too bad, especially when a piece of ribeye, my favourite cut of beef, can cost that much - and usually more - for one serving.
Flank steak, a lean cut which comes from the lower abdominal muscles of the cow, can be tough, but there are ways to mitigate that. The marinade I use contains lime juice, which breaks down the tough fibres.
It is also important to slice the meat against the grain. This is easy to do. In flank steak, the fibres run down the length of the slab of meat. Simply slice it crosswise, perpendicular to the fibres.
Another way to ensure the steak does not get tough is to cook it quickly. If you prefer beef cooked medium-well or well-done, flank is not the right cut for you. It needs to be seared for a short time to get the meat to medium-rare or medium.
There is a school of thought that says it is pointless to marinade meat because the flavours never penetrate deep enough. This does not apply to flank steak, as far as I can tell.
Instead, the meat takes on all the flavours of the marinade and it is possible to eat it without a sauce. While testing recipes, I even add two tablespoons of coconut cream to my Thai-style marinade and it works beautifully, giving a rich, rounded flavour.
The marinade ingredients are easy to find - they are just chillies, coriander, garlic, lemongrass, lime zest and juice, and fish sauce.
Use good fish sauce for cooking. When trying to figure out what to buy, look for brands made in Vietnam with only two ingredients: anchovies and sea salt. Some brands carry an N rating on the bottles. The N is for the nitrogen content for each litre of fish sauce. The higher the number, the more refined the sauce.
I swear by Red Boat Fish Sauce, which I order from Amazon.com. The 40N version is good for cooking and the 50N version is a condiment to be used tableside. It adds lots of umami to grilled meats and even Chinese New Year yusheng.
You might be tempted to leave the marinade on when cooking the beef, but it is much better to scrape off every bit of it and pat the meat very dry before cooking. The marinade will burn in the pan and any moisture on the surface of the steak will cause it to stew rather than sear.
Always oil the meat, rather than the pan, before cooking. This helps to reduce oil splatters, the bane of my cooking life.
It is also important to let the meat rest on a plate after cooking, loosely covered with foil, for the juices to redistribute.
Then, it is a matter of slicing and serving. For the first meal, I have the steak alongside a vegetable stir-fry of baby corn, sugar snap peas and lotus root.
The next day, the steak is terrific in a salad with shredded napa cabbage, strips of carrot and lots of coriander leaves, dressed simply with fish sauce and lime juice or with any leftover sauce from the recipe.
I also pile the slices in a sandwich with mayonnaise, pickled daikon and carrot; and fold them into warm flour tortillas with shredded white and purple cabbage, coriander leaves and a sprinkling of crushed peanuts.
Any leftovers I just eat out of the container while raiding the fridge.