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Hunger Management

Penne full of memories

Banish post-holiday blues by recreating a dish eaten abroad

It used to be that returning from a vacation, my suitcase would be filled with clothes, shoes and bags. And back in the Stone Age before amazon.com, I would leave Singapore with a book list. If I went overboard and bought too many, I'd nip into the nearest post office and mail them back to myself.

But these days, I can order clothes, bags, shoes and books online.

Of course, in my travels before, I'd get food - Marmite XO, jars of jam, interesting tea, chocolates and such. I still look out for these things.

But heavy glass jars are getting edged out by other kinds of food.

  • MAKE IT YOURSELF: FENNEL MEATBALL PENNE

  • INGREDIENTS

    1 Tbs fennel seeds
    500g minced pork
    2tsp chilli flakes
    1 tsp flaky sea salt
    2 to 3 large cloves garlic
    200g grape or cherry tomatoes
    400g broccolini
    500g penne
    2tsp olive oil
    Salt to taste
    10g Italian parsley (optional)

  • METHOD

    1. The night before cooking, toast the fennel seeds in a small non-stick pan over medium heat, moving the seeds around the pan, until fragrant and lightly browned, about two minutes. Pour onto a plate and let cool. After 10 to 15 minutes, pour the seeds into a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and pound or process until fine.

    2. Place the pork in a medium mixing bowl. Add the fennel, chilli flakes and sea salt. Mix well with hands. Cook a tiny bit of the pork mixture by microwaving it or placing it in a toaster oven. Taste and add more salt or chilli flakes if needed. Cover the bowl with clingwrap and refrigerate overnight.

    3. Before cooking, take the pork out of the refrigerator. Bring a large pot of water, with 2-3 Tbs salt added to it, to the boil.

    4. While it is boiling, peel and finely chop the garlic. Set aside. Rinse the tomatoes under running water, pat dry with paper towels and halve them. Rinse the broccolini under running water and pat dry with paper towels. Slice off and discard the last 1cm of the stem. Cut the rest of the broccolini into 5cm lengths.

    5. Shape level tablespoonfuls of the pork mixture into balls. You should have 22 to 24.

    6. Pour the penne into the boiling water and cook until al dente.

    7. In the meantime, heat the olive oil in a large, deep and wide pan over medium heat. Cook the meatballs in two or three batches. Do not crowd them. Cook on one side until brown, then flip over and brown the other side. Transfer to a bowl as they are cooked.

    8. When the pasta is ready, scoop about 250ml of the starchy pasta water out of the pot and set aside. Drain the pasta.

    9. To the same pan that you used to cook the meatballs, add the broccolini. Stir-fry for about one minute, then add the chopped garlic. Stir for 30 seconds. Do not let the garlic brown. Add the tomatoes and stir-fry for another one or two minutes. Add the pasta and stir to mix it all together. If the pasta looks dry, add some of the cooking liquid to the pan, 1 or 2 Tbs at a time. Taste the pasta and add salt if necessary. Add the meatballs and give the pasta a final stir.

    10. Scoop into a large serving bowl, top with chopped parsley if using and serve immediately.

    Serves six

These days, I love seeking out and bringing home loaves of good bread. I managed to bring back three large loaves from Copenhagen and my family and I enjoyed the crusty, chewy bread.

A couple of years ago, my mother and I went mad for Brown Sugar Mochi Bread from a bread chain in Sydney called The Dough Collective. We sampled it at the store, bought a loaf then returned to clean out the stock in the shop. The bread, studded with walnuts, had a slab of that brown sugar mochi running down the length of the loaf. It had the texture of Chinese New Year nian gao but with a much more enchanting flavour.

Since then, I have made it a point to bring home a loaf or two from my travels. Alas, The Dough Collective has stopped offering that wonderful bread but, in Australia, there is always Golden's crumpets and pide, a Turkish bread.

If you are wondering how I am able to finish all that bread before it goes stale, well, I don't. When I get home, I wrap the loaves in clingfilm, then stuff them into resealable freezer bags and freeze them. They will keep at least a month - usually longer.

That is what I do with butter I buy from my travels too. It is such a luxury to eat artisanal butter from farmers' markets. I have bought butter from nearly every place I have visited. The trick is to freeze the blocks and then pack them into handy cooler bags and stash them in the checked-in luggage.

Hard cheeses, especially those covered in wax, are easy to pack into suitcases too, although I have brought back soft ones, such as camembert and blue cheeses made in Japan. I also went a little mad in a cheese shop in Bordeaux.

On my recent trip to Queensland, Australia, to visit my sister, we ate creamy avocados every day. We would buy them from a roadside stand. It ran on an honour system - take what you want and drop the money into a locked metal box. We drove by an avocado farm one day, screeched to a halt, and discovered the stand offered bags of seven or eight avocados for A$3.

I brought back as many as I could carry. Same with the firm, sweet strawberries we inhaled on the trip. At A$2 a punnet, I decided to risk it and bought a sturdy plastic container from the supermarket.

If you are thinking of doing the same, make sure you fill, but not overfill, the box. Too few berries and they knock against each other and bruise. Too many and they get squished.

Along with the avocados and strawberries, I brought home a bag of purple carrots, which we'd enjoyed during the trip.

The cheese and butter went into the suitcase, the fruit and vegetables into a large cooler bag that was my carry-on luggage. In a booze shop, customers can help themselves to boxes to hold their purchases. I found one that fit the cooler bag. In went the avocados and carrots. The strawberries, refrigerated until the last moment, sat in their box right on top.

Everything survived the journey.

If you are thinking of doing the same, go to the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore's website to see what you can or cannot bring back for personal consumption (ava.gov.sg/explore-by-sections/food/bringing-food-into-singapore-and-exporting/bringing-food-for-personal-use).

When I checked recently, I was startled - and pleased - that travellers can now bring back pork products from Spain.

I remember looking longingly at legs of jamon Iberico and letting out huge sighs of sadness that I could not bring them back to Singapore. I was especially miffed that I could not bring back jamon bones. Can you imagine the flavour of the stock they'd make?

I must plan a trip to Spain soon.

Why, you ask, do I go to all this trouble? Jamon is available in Singapore, as are good bread, butter and cheese. Even purple carrots, although you might have to take out a second mortgage on your home to afford them.

I guess this is one small way of extending a holiday, of banishing the post-holiday blues that set in when the plane makes contact with the tarmac at Changi Airport.

Yes, the food runs out eventually. The memories, however, live on and inspire.

On this latest trip, we cooked an awful lot with the produce we bought from farmers' markets.

One night, my sister made a quick pasta dinner with silverbeet leaves (how I wish we could get them here regularly), purple carrots, sausages and olives.

In Singapore, I recreate the dish using broccolini (kale, spinach and even kailan would work) and tomatoes. Instead of pork sausage, I make meatballs using minced pork flavoured with fennel and chilli flakes.

The meal comes together quickly and although the produce here is not as good, it is a quick and easy dinner to make on a week night.

As I tuck into my penne, I remember the sunny and cool days in Queensland, the terrific food, the unusual Pokemon I managed to catch.

I cannot wait for my next holiday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 23, 2016, with the headline 'Penne full of memories'. Print Edition | Subscribe