SINGAPORE - This has been a year of doing things differently.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a lot from us, but in a strange way, it has also given a lot. It has made us stop to think about what really matters in life, and how we want to shape it going forward.
It has shown us what is possible, if only we dare to try. It has shown us how strong and resilient we can be, when push comes to shove.
And it has laid bare our vulnerabilities.
So often, we go about life with our game faces on. We want people to think we are unfazed by whatever life lobs at us. We put on a show of strength, even when we're struggling or having a difficult time. We pretend everything is okay, especially when it is not.
Well, this blasted pandemic has ripped away that veneer. Isn't it freeing? To tell a friend you need to talk or vent? To ask for help? To accept help? To acknowledge that it's okay not to be okay?
So, yes, we can go on and on about how the pandemic has upended our lives. It has. Of that there can be no doubt. Some of us have been hit harder than others, and it is so difficult to see the bright side of things, to find a way to move forward, when confronted by devastation and loss.
And yet, we do need to move forward, past this. With a new year starting soon, it's time to gird our loins for what 2021 will bring.
But first, Christmas.
I don't know what I'll be doing; I just haven't had time to think about it. But it looks unlikely that I'll have the usual ham and turkey type meal. For some reason, I am craving spice and heat.
And there are so many choices from all the home-based food businesses that sprang up this year, as people turned to selling food after losing their jobs.
Or I might cook. I usually try not to - beyond making stuffing or roasting potatoes or putting together a salad. I like a relaxed Christmas, one where I don't have to run around like a headless chicken. But this year, I cooked more than I have in the last five years combined and it has been very satisfying.
It could well be a huge breakfast on Christmas day for my parents and me. If I do that, then I know I'll have some homemade crumpets on my table because, this year, I got my bread-making groove back.
We'll drink champagne with our eggs and crumpets, and I'll toast to the fact that my parents are well, that they have not fallen ill with the coronavirus so far. We'll probably Zoom or FaceTime with Mei, my sister, who works in Hong Kong. This year, we did not let travel restrictions stand in our way of connecting with our loved ones overseas.
For Christmas Eve, I might make something too, something manageable so the three of us are not saddled with leftovers for weeks.
I might make a laksa seafood pie. Seafood for Christmas is not outlandish at all.
Australians tuck into prawns and oysters at Christmas - it is summer Down Under and roasts are hard to contemplate in that heat.
Italian-Americans have The Feast Of The Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, with seven types of seafood dishes. It comes from the Roman Catholic tradition of not eating meat on the eve of a feast day.
I am not religious, but seafood sounds like a plan.
Because I live in Singapore, I want my seafood pie to be vibrant with familiar local flavours. Hence the laksa. That should also satisfy my craving for spice and heat.
If you have an heirloom laksa recipe, please make a proper laksa for your loved ones. I envy them. I won't be making the rempah or spice paste from scratch, when store-bought is perfectly fine. My favourite one is from Prima Taste.
When I told a friend about my plan, he says simply: "There cannot be too many laksa leaves."
We agree on that. I'll use a whole 50g tray of it. While that sounds like a huge amount, there is really not much left after picking and discarding the stems and withered leaves.
For seafood, I will have a look at what's fresh in the wet market or supermarket.
I chance upon trays of whitebait at the supermarket and buy one to add to this pie. Prawns and squid too. And a thick fillet of salmon - you want an oily fish for this, one that will not dry out.
If you're using shell-on prawns, don't waste the opportunity to get some extra flavour for free. I boil the heads and shells in water to make a quick stock to add to my pie filling.
The whole idea is to make a thick, richly flavoured seafood stew. It should not be too watery. Water will leach from the seafood while the pie is baking, so I scatter panko crumbs at the bottom of the baking dish to absorb as much of it as possible.
My parents love mashed potatoes, so I use 1kg of Russet potatoes for the topping. If you don't want something so carb-heavy, use 800g of spuds. Any less and you might not be able to cover the surface of the pie. You could also use half mashed potatoes and half mashed cauliflower as a topping. Or forget the spuds and clap a sheet of puff pastry on top of the pie filling, and slash the pastry here and there to let the steam escape while it bakes.
If seafood does not appeal to you, use boneless chunks of chicken thigh instead.
If laksa is not your favourite, then be inspired by something else. Assam pedas? Thai green or red curry? Tomyum? Korma? Mala? Spice pastes for all these are easily available.
The possibilities for seafood pie, and for life, are endless.
Laksa seafood pie
- 1 to 1.2kg seafood (I used salmon, whitebait, squid and prawns), weighed after trimming and removing shells
- 250g onions (about two medium)
- 50g laksa leaves on the stems
- 800g to 1kg Russet potatoes
- 2 tsp salt
- 100g salted butter
- 200g shredded cheese, divided
- (I used a mix of cheddar and mozzarella)
- 2 Tbs cooking oil, plus 1 tsp for greasing
- 200g store-bought laksa paste
- 125ml water or prawn stock
- (see step 1)
- 100ml coconut milk
- 80g panko crumbs
1. If using shell-on prawns, save the heads and shells and make a quick stock for the pie. Rinse the shells under running water and drain well. Place in a medium saucepan with 250ml water and bring to a boil. Continue boiling until stock is reduced by half, to 125ml. This will take eight to 10 minutes over medium high heat. Strain the stock and set it aside. Discard the heads and shells.
2. Cut the fish into thick chunks. If using salmon, pull out the pin bones first, and leave the skin on so the pieces keep their shape. Devein the prawns, if using.
Rinse the squid out under running water and pull out its head and transparent cartilage. Cut it into rings. Discard the cartilage. Cut off the eyes and head, but reserve the tentacles.
If using whitebait, rinse under running water and drain.
3. Chop the onions finely and set aside. Pick the leaves off the laksa leaf stems. Discard brown and withered leaves and the stems.
Give the leaves a quick rinse under running water and pat dry with paper towels. Chop them finely.
4. Scrub the potatoes. Place them in a saucepan with the salt, bring to a boil and cook until a knife pierces through the potatoes easily. Peel the potatoes, cut into rough chunks and put them in a large mixing bowl.
Add the butter and 100g of the shredded cheese. Mash until smooth. Have a taste and add salt if you need to. Cover the mashed potatoes and set aside.
5. Spoon the cooking oil into a large frying pan or wok set over medium heat. When it is hot, add the onions and cook them for two to three minutes, until translucent. Turn the heat to medium low. Add the laksa paste and fry for four to five minutes.
Add the 125ml of water or prawn stock, stir to mix, turn the heat up to medium high and bring to a boil. Pour in the coconut milk and stir to mix. Add the seafood. If using salmon, that should go in first, followed by the prawns and other seafood. Squid should always go in last to prevent it from overcooking.
6. When all the seafood have turned opaque, turn off the heat. Add the chopped laksa leaves and stir them through the seafood.
7. Preheat the oven to 200 deg C and place the metal rack in the middle of it. Line a baking tray that is larger than the baking dish with foil. This is to catch drips if they happen.
8. Lightly oil a deep, ovenproof baking dish. The one I use measures 32cm by20cm. Scatter the panko crumbs at the bottom. Spoon the seafood into the baking dish, using the back of a spoon to even out the layer. Spoon the mashed potato over the seafood, smooth out with the back of a clean spoon. Scatter over the remaining cheese.
9. Place the baking dish on the lined baking tray. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the top of the pie is bubbly and golden brown. Let it rest 10 minutes and serve.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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