Jane F Ragavan
THE STAR – No matter how much we enjoy cooking, we sometimes struggle to think of what to put on plates. But in an environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic, cooking has become a source of stress and burnout for many of us.
I got really sick of cooking for a while recently. And when I found myself eating rice fried with cabbage, frozen peas and the same seasoning for five days straight because I was too lazy to prepare anything more complicated, I knew I was suffering from cooking fatigue.
Pandemic cooking burnout, it turns out, is not uncommon. The initial enthusiasm and gusto with which novices and cooks alike embraced the challenge of lockdown cooking and baking have somewhat fizzled due to fatigue and frustration.
The cooking rut is not the fault of the flat sourdough starter; it’s probably just a combination of the stress of a prolonged pandemic, monotonous meals and days, and maybe just plain tiredness.
It’s hard, but the best thing we can do to fight our burnout is to face it – rather than avoid the kitchen. Plus, we still need to eat.
Among the most recommended coping mechanisms is to try cooking with others and to experiment with new dishes.
Trying new recipes is easy when you have a wide choice of ingredients, but limit what you can cook with and there’s a real challenge – like the young man on the Tasty channel on YouTube who made breakfast, lunch and dinner using five ingredients: eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, onions and all-purpose flour.
I thought he did a good job with his choice of dishes: eggs in purgatory, Spanish tortilla and potato gnocchi.
I followed his cue and put eggs, potatoes and flour on my list but replaced the onions with green onions (both an aromatic and the leaves are like a vegetable) and the tomatoes with long red chillies (as a Malaysian, I am compelled to always include spicy heat in my food).
My “rules” were that the dishes need not include all five ingredients; and salt, pepper, sugar, soy sauce and oil were the only pantry staples that could be used.
The challenge didn’t produce the most nutritious dishes (no green vegetable included, after all), but it was enjoyable and proved that having just a few ingredients at hand is no obstacle to making a variety of meals.
Most importantly, it got me excited about cooking.
FLATBREAD EGG ROLLS
An omelette sandwich with a difference. The flatbreads are similar to Mandarin pancakes for Peking duck.
For the egg rolls
Salt and pepper
One to two stalks of green onions, chopped
Oil, for frying
Two medium potatoes, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks (optional)
Half to one tablespoon soy sauce
Black pepper, to taste
One red chilli, finely diced
For the flatbreads
200g all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
Half fine salt
One tablespoon neutral oil, plus extra for rolling
100 to 120ml warm water
Make the flatbread
Combine the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Mix in the oil.
Add the water a little at a time until the flour starts to clump together. Bring the mixture together into a rough ball. Cover and set aside for 15 minutes.
Knead the dough into a smooth soft ball. Cover and rest for one hour.
Roll out the dough into a thick log and cut into 10 pieces. Flatten each piece into a thick disc.
Place two discs on the work surface and brush one side with oil. Sprinkle a little flour on one disk and stack the other one, oil side down, on top. Press them together to flatten out further, then roll out the stacked pairs into a 20cm circle.
Heat a non-stick frying pan over medium. Add the two-layer rounds and cook on one side until blistered and browned in spots, about 20 seconds. Flip and cook the second side.
Remove the cooked round and carefully peel it apart into two thin flatbreads while still hot. Cover with a clean dish towel.
Repeat with the remaining dough, making a total of 10 flatbreads.
If this is too complicated, make the flatbreads one at a time. They are thin and take only seconds to cook.
Optional filling: Fry the potato matchsticks in a little oil. Add soy sauce, cover the pan and cook until tender. Season with plenty of black pepper.
Make the egg rolls
Beat the eggs lightly with salt and pepper to taste.
Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add a splash of oil. Pour two to three tablespoons of the egg mixture into the pan and swirl until roughly 20cm wide. Sprinkle chopped green onion and chilli, if using, onto the wet egg.
Place a flatbread on top of the egg and press lightly to stick, then flip over and cook for a further 30 seconds.
Transfer to a plate. If using fried potato, spoon some along one end. Roll up. Repeat with the rest of the egg and flatbreads.
POTATO DUMPLINGS WITH CHILLI DRESSING
The dumpling wrapper is slightly chewy as it is made with the starchy water from the cooked potatoes.
300g potatoes, peeled and quartered
Two stalks green onions
Salt and pepper, to taste
300g all-purpose flour
Six long red chillies, deseeded and cut into chunks
One tablespoon sugar
Boil the potatoes in lightly salted water until tender. Drain well, one cup of the cooking water. Mash the potatoes and cool.
Separate the green and white parts of the green onions. Finely chop both parts.
Mix the mashed potatoes and almost all the green part of the scallions (leave some aside for garnishing at the end). Add salt and pepper to taste.
Place the flour in a bowl. Stir in a pinch of salt and one tablespoon oil. Make a well in the centre and add about three-quarters of the potato water. Stir, adding more water a tablespoon at a time if necessary, until the mixture comes together into a rough ball. Cover and rest for 15 minutes. Then knead the dough again to form a smooth ball.
Divide the dough into four portions. Roll out each portion into a thick log and cut into eight to 10 pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each piece into a thin circle. Place one to one-and-a-half teaspoons of the potato filling in the centre of a dough circle and press the edges together firmly to form a half moon. Crimp the edges if you like. Place the dumplings on a lightly floured plate.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil; salt lightly. Boil the dumplings in batches. When they float, leave them in the water for one to two minutes longer, then transfer to a plate. Drizzle a little oil over the dumplings to prevent sticking.
This step is optional but it adds flavour to the dumplings. Heat one tablespoon oil in a sauté pan and pan-fry the dumplings lightly. Remove from the pan.
In the same pan, add the chillies, the white part of the green onions and a large pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the chillies start to blister and soften. Turn off the heat and blend the mixture into a purée. Add a quarter cup of water and sugar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Return the pan to the heat and simmer until thickened slightly.
Divide the dumplings between four plates and spoon the sauce over them. Sprinkle with the green leaves.
POTATO & GREEN ONION PANCAKES
Serves two to three
These pancakes are a slight variation on gamja-jeon, a Korean snack. Instead of grating the potatoes, they can also be blended into a rough purée.
For the pancakes
600g starchy potatoes
One to two stalks green onions
1/4 tablespoon salt
Oil for pan frying
For the dipping sauce
Two tablespoon soy sauce
Two tablespoon water
One stalk green onion, finely chopped
One red chilli, finely chopped
Coarsely grate the potatoes. Place in a tea towel and squeeze out the liquid over a bowl. Let the liquid sit for 10 minutes – the starch will sink to the bottom. Pour away the water and add the starch to the grated potatoes.
Separate the white and green parts of the green onion. Mince the white part and cut the green part into long pieces. Add the minced white part to the potatoes and mix well.
Heat two tablespoons of oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add half to three quarters cup of potato mixture to the pan and spread it evenly into a circle. Press two to three pieces of green onion leaves onto the pancake. Cook until the bottom is light golden brown, two to three minutes, turning down the heat if the pancake browns too quickly. Flip the pancake and cook the other side until golden brown and the green onion is charred. Repeat with the remaining potato mixture.
Serve hot with the dipping sauce.
HOT EGG DROP SOUP WITH POTATO
This is a simple soup with a hint of heat.
Two stalks green onions
One red chilli, stalk removed
One litre water
One tablespoon soy sauce
Salt and pepper
Separate the white and green parts of the green onion. Leave the white part whole; chop the green leaves on the diagonal.
Wash the potatoes well. Peel the skins and reserve them for the stock. Cut the potatoes into two cm cubes.
Place water, white stalks, potato skins and chilli in a soup pot. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes.
Remove the solids from the stock and discard. Add the potato cubes and soy sauce to the stock and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender.
Beat the eggs with salt and pepper to taste. Slowly pour the eggs into the pot while stirring slowly so they spread out in ribbons.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat and garnish with chopped green onions.