In praise of shiso – and eggplant.

My good friend sent me some home-grown shiso leaves along with a recipe for eggplant which I cooked the other day.  Shiso leaves aren’t available here where I live but I must search out a plant I can grow as it’s a wonderful herb. I’ve only ever used the tiny ones that are sold more as garnishes with raw fish dishes (perfect with sashimi) but I love their flavour and was interested in the eggplant recipe that made use of them.  

Shiso is a member of the mint family and has large teardrop-shaped leaves with serrated edges.  It comes in both a green and reddish purple form.  It’s also known as Japanese basil, perilla and beefsteak.

The original recipe doesn’t call for mushrooms but I couldn’t resist the large portobellos I spotted at the market and they go really well with the eggplant.   I served this with some basmati rice topped with wasabi furikake (seasoning).

Eggplant, goat’s curd, katsuobushi and sesame

Serves 4
3 eggplant (about 425gm each)
3 large portobello mushrooms
sea salt flakes
vegetable oil, for shallow-frying
1 tbsp each roasted black and white sesame seeds
3 radishes, thinly sliced into rounds on a mandolin
30gm goat’s curd
2 nori sheets, coarsely torn 
 
Soy marinade
125 ml (½ cup) light soy sauce
125 ml (½ cup) rice vinegar
2 tbsp white sugar
To serve:
shiso leaves and katsuobushi*

 

Cut eggplant lengthways into 2.5cm-thick wedges, sprinkle with salt and stand in a colander for 10-15 minutes. Thickly slice mushrooms.

Meanwhile, for soy marinade, stir ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-high heat just until sugar dissolves (2-3 minutes). Set aside.

Rinse salt from eggplant and pat dry with paper towels. Heat a large frying pan over medium heat, add some vegetable oil and shallow-fry eggplant in batches until golden-brown on both sides and tender (6-8 minutes), adding oil as necessary. Transfer eggplant to a bowl.  Add some more oil to the frying pan and saute mushrooms until golden but still firm.  Add to the eggplants and pour soy marinade over to marinate at room temperature (1 hour).

To serve, drain eggplant and mushrooms from the marinade and arrange on a serving platter, dot the goat’s curd around, scatter with sesame seeds, radish, nori sheets and shiso leaves and serve topped with the katsuobushi.

*Katsuobushi are bonito flakes, available at Japanese grocers.  

I couldn’t get any goat’s curd so I used some soft goat’s cheese instead.  Ditto with the Katsuobushi – I had some bonito seasoning that I use to make dashi stock and sprinkled that over the dish.  It may have not looked as pretty as in the recipe but it tasted sensational.  I also didn’t read the recipe properly and instead of tearing the nori I shredded them.  Oh well, next time I’ll know and plan in advance.

Nevertheless, I do encourage you to try this dish – it’s very easy to make and you won’t be able to stop eating it.

Good news:  I’ve just found an online seed place that sells shiso and have put in my order!

Galangal poached salmon with pickled beetroot

I saw some lovely fresh salmon the other day and couldn’t resist – despite not knowing what to do with it.  A lot of the time the fish up here looks a bit tired and uninspiring, so when I see something that catches my eye, I buy it.  These pieces looked good enough to eat raw.

My usual salmon dish is quickly grilled and drizzled with a ponzu style dressing and  served with soba noodles, finely sliced radish, cucumber, spring onion, green chilli and fresh coriander.  It’s one of those dishes that you can whip up in no time.  A good stand-by, but one I was sick of.

I’ve been playing around with pickling: radishes, cucumbers, grapes (!) and recently, thinly sliced beetroot.  I wanted to do something with some pickled beetroot and had some radishes in the fridge that needed to be used. I envisaged the pickles as being more ‘candied’ than vinegary.  Beyond that I had no idea of what to do with the fish.  And I was loathe to purchase any more ingredients.  We’re about to move and I need to get through as much fridge produce as possible.

I also had a nice fresh piece of galangal (I’ve become quite a fan of this lemony, ginger-like root) and some coriander that was a bit wilted but had good roots so I decided to make a stock: galangal, coriander roots, ginger, peppercorns, kaffir lime leaves and a bit of salt went into the pan.  When it had come to the boil I added a splash of fish sauce and squeezed in half a lime, put the fish in, brought it back to the boil, switched it off, put the lid on and let it sit for 10 minutes.  It’s as easy as that.  If I’d had any lemongrass, that would have gone in too.

For the pickles I finely sliced a radish, small beetroot, largish shallot and a long green chilli.  The pickling liquid was cider vinegar, sugar, salt and water. Easy peasy.

To assemble I shredded a baby cos (because it needed eating), flaked the poached salmon and added the pickled shallots, chilli, radish and beetroot and tossed it all together with chopped coriander and mint, a dash of fish sauce and squeeze of lime juice.  Garnished with some shredded lime leaves.  Success.  It was a great combination – not just of flavours but also of textures.  Sadly it didn’t look too pretty (for some reason I can’t do pretty) but it sure tasted good.

I’m sure if I had time to think and shop I could do justice to these ingredients and create a more spectacular dish.  But given that it was a weeknight and I was cooking from my fridge, I think I did pretty well.

 

In search of produce

One of the things that I really miss about living in Sydney is the availability of good produce.  We were lucky enough to live in the inner west between a hub of asian shops and the heartland of little Italy.  There, you could purchase freshly made cheeses, including the sublime fior de latte and freshly made ricotta (I can still taste the gorgeous flavour and texture of fresh, warm, just made ricotta), rabbits, veal and pork and fennel sausages from the butcher, fresh pasta from not one but two pasta shops, beautiful home grown vegetables and the loveliest tomatoes from Frank’s green grocer (whose son happens to be a very accomplished opera singer!) and smallgoods  and salumi and everything else you could possibly want in a jar or tin from one of the delis.  And of course the bread rolls.  Freshly made each day, the bakery has been for over 50 years, it was  well worthwhile to queue on  Saturday morning for a bag of little crunchy ciabatinni.  No wonder we put on weight!

Short walk in the other direction brought us to the noise and smells of our local Chinatown (home of best ever Shanghai dumpling shop) where I could get almost anything I ever wanted in the way of Asian produce, including really good cheap pork from the butcher (I do think that no-one knows pork better than the Asian butchers).  In that strange little precinct there was also a Polish delicatessen (perfect for jars of sauerkraut and Eastern European sausages) and a little South American/Mexican shop full of exotica such as tins of tomatilloes, hominy*, chipotle in adobe**, and more.  A short drive to the edge of Sydney Central is where all things Thai can be procured.  There, I could always find tiny little pea and apple eggplant, pickled peppercorns and garlic, fresh betel leaves, a range of chillies and all the herbs required for Thai and Vietnamese dishes.

For more exotic spices, Herbie’s was just a few doors down from my yoga studio in Rozelle as was the Essential Ingredient where all manner of wonderful cooking (non) essentials could be had – passionfruit pashmak anyone?

Cooking was never an issue in Sydney, sometimes things required bit more planning but I was always certain of being able to find the produce I needed.

I don’t know why, but I didn’t think that obtaining produce would present such a difficulty here in Noosa, after all, it’s a well-heeled area and people come here from all over the world and the eastern seaboard.  So imagine my shock when I went in search of raddichio only to find – well, not to find it.  Mostly I just got blank looks when I asked for it. I was shocked.   Same thing happened when I went to buy some instant polenta the other day.  It wasn’t in any of the supermarkets and the one place I thought would have it (where eventually I did manage to find raddichio) they were a bit flummoxed that I would want something ‘instant’.  How to explain that in this instance ‘instant’ is not a bad/cheap/reviled thing.  Who wants to stand at the stove stirring polenta for 20 minutes getting burnt with hot splatters?  I’ve been a fan of instant polenta for years and having cooked both, can’t really tell the difference.

A walk along the supermarket aisles should alert you to what kind of place you are in, especially the bread aisle.  If it’s full of fluffy white stuff with not a decent rye to be found and if you can’t find pumpernickel, you know you are in white man territory.  Ah Queensland. Fortunately I have managed to find most of the things I need but the quality isn’t quite the same.  Buying a block of packaged parmesan is not the same as going in to the deli and having a nice wedge cut for you.  Ditto proscuitto:  no-one cuts it and layers it on sheets of paper with such care as the Italians – which is why the queue in the deli takes forever.

I give thanks to Pardon’s Fruit Market- my go-to green grocer near the yoga studio (is that just serendipity?) for providing beautifully fresh bunches of coriander, herbs, galangal, turmeric and freshly sourced fruit and veg as well as stocking a range of Herbie’s spices and some lovely pasta, good bread and the occasional other weird thing.  It’s where I go for my daily cooking needs immediately after a yoga class.  They also happen to do great juices and really good coffee.  So for now, all is manageable.  I just have to send away for food parcels of instant polenta and pea eggplant.

hominy
*Hominy is maize that’s been dried, then soaked in an alkaline solution to remove the hull and germ, causing the kernels to swell in the process which not only improves the nutritional content of the corn, but also gives it a more complex flavor and aroma. It can then be ground into masa for tortillas, or sold whole—dried or cooked—as hominy corn, the signature ingredient in traditional Mexican posole***. Cooked hominy is about triple the size of a raw sweet-corn kernel, but has an unmistakably nutty-sweet “corn” flavor.

**Chipotle in adobo is a rich, smoky, spicy Mexican sauce (adobo) of smoke-dried, ripe jalapeno chillies (chipotle). It’s as hot as hell and as smoky as an ashtray, in a good way.

*** Posole  is a traditional soup or stew from Mexico made from hominy, with meat (typically pork but chicken is also good), and seasoned and garnished with chile peppers, onion, garlic, radishes, avocado, salsa and/or limes.

It’s time for winter greens

The weather has started to turn cool.  There’s a decided chill in the evenings and the mornings are frosty, cold.  Too cold to pad about in bare feet and I’ve even had to put a throw rug onto the bed. Brrrr.  Daytimes though are sunny and bright and sometimes hot – 29 degrees the other day.  Balmy, autumnal weather – more like Indian summer than the emerging of winter.  When I browse at recipes all those hearty cold climate dishes just don’t seem right. Springtime offerings from the other side of the world seem more appropriate and so I’ve been eating more vegetable-based dishes, creating salads with kale, zucchini, asparagus, poached chicken, goat cheese and more.  Heartier than the summer ones and sustaining for the evening chill.

This week I made:

  • Kale salad with a dijon-tahini dressing for recipe click here
  • Chicken, zucchini, asparagus and cos lettuce salad with pine nuts
  • Soup (using the leftover poached chicken water as base for the stock) with kale, leeks, butter beans, peas and crumbled feta
  • Peppery chickpeas with South Indian spinach
  • Sloppy  polenta with a wild mushroom ragout.

lemongrass-poached chicken with harissa tomatoes

In response to requests for the lemongrass-poached chicken recipe, click here.
This is such a great and super easy way of cooking chicken breasts which can have a tendency to become dry when grilled or oven-baked. If you don’t have lemongrass to hand, just omit and add more ginger. I sometimes throw in the end of leeks as well. An added bonus is that the left over poaching liquid makes for a good basis for a soup or stock.

The uses for poached chicken are endless; great as a basis for a laksa chicken dish, numerous salad dishes such as my favourite Vietnamese Chicken Salad and even for ever-so-delicious chicken and herb sandwiches.

All in a week’s eating

Cooking every day can become a chore – especially if you’re concerned about what you eat (i.e., you want good food) and have cut out certain foods from your diet.  I try not to have too many carbs and so have reduced my intake of pasta.  Where once-upon-a-time a pasta meal was a staple (so quick and easy with endless variations), these days it’s become a bit of a treat. Ditto rice.  So what do I eat?  Fish, vegetables, salads, curries, meat. The usual. But recently I have became really bored with the food I was eating.  Just seemed to be the same all the time. I was tired of salmon, tuna, beef, chicken, smoked trout salad etc etc etc.  And when there’s only two of you, choices are further limited (you can’t really do a roast just for 2 people).

It’s time to become inventive, or, as I have done, go back to some classics.  So this week I have cooked:

  • seared pork loin with a pineapple, coriander, chilli and sweet potato salsa;
  • fennel risotto with a pear, parmesan and rocket salad;
  • chicken poached in ginger and lemongrass with harrisa roasted tomatoes;
  • duck breasts with fig, radicchio, witlof and burnt lavender honey;
  • caprese insalata;
  • morrocan inspired roast chicken with a sweet potato, dried cranberries and cashew couscous.

Tonight it’s pot au feu – an ever so easy one pot dish with chicken, pork sausages, leek, zucchini, carrots and potatoes.  Actually this is one of those dishes where you can throw in anything at all.  I first came across it in a tiny little bistro in Paris that was at the end of our street.  A quirky little place place that seated a dozen people at most and served traditional French bistro food; it quickly became our favourite place for a glass of wine and a bite to eat.  When I first made this dish I use to take great pains to ensure that all my vegetables were shaped to size (not knowing that restaurants either employ people for this task or else buy their produce already cleaned and shaped).  I would meticulously peel away my potatoes and carrots and zucchini to make sure their ends were nice and round and they were all the same size – made for a lot of wastage but the dish did look very nice.  These day, I just chop.  Life’s too short.

And for tomorrow?  I have a hankering for some good old fashioned corned beef, complete with baby carrots, cabbage  and horseradish sauce.  Not something I’ve cooked often (actually only once and then quite some time ago) so I’ll keep you posted as to its success (or otherwise).

For now, bon appetit.

Pumpkin time

Thai-inspired pumpkin soup

As a child I really disliked pumpkin. It made me gag. I would rather eat boiled cabbage than pumpkin. My mother used to make a particularly vile (or so I then thought) dessert with pumpkin and rice; it was a variation on rice pudding. I hated it and dreaded those nights when it was on the menu. We always had a 3 course dinner: soup, main, and dessert. And we had to eat all three; even not wanting ice-cream and jelly was not an option – had to sit at the table until we ate it all. Not unusual for those days  post war when so many of our parents’ generation had had either little or no food. Times of scarcity and hunger. No wonder the idea of “more is better” was the overarching philosophy. There was too, the constant cajoling: “eat it up – think of all the starving children/people in Africa”. This never made sense to me – I was happy to send my unwanted dinner to starving people. Surely that would be noble and reasonable?

As a young adult my aversion to pumpkin continued and it always surprised me that people liked it, so I began to try it in various incarnations. I once made an American-style pumpkin pie – surely something so popular should taste good?  Alas, it tasted of pumpkin.  I didn’t even like pumpkin soup.  And then one day at a dinner at a friend’s house pumpkin soup was served and to my surprise, I actually liked it. Essentially because it wasn’t sweet: instead of using milk he used orange juice and had included some chillies. From then on, pumpkin soup became part of my repertoire.

Whenever I made this soup I ensured that I put enough chicken stock to give it some saltiness to combat the sweetness of pumpkin.  (I have to confess that in  those days I used to use stock cubes.  Nowadays I make chicken stock just about every week – it’s practically the only thing I have in my freezer – apart from vodka!) The addition of freshly chopped chillies towards the end and a good cracking of black pepper, grated orange zest and some chopped coriander gave it further depth.  For balance and richness I used to put in a couple of tablespoons of sour cream.  Later on I changed to yoghurt which was just as good, without all the fat and added calories.

More recently I made a pretty standard pumpkin soup with potatoes, carrot, pumpkin and chicken stock and after pureeing added fresh chillies, coconut milk, fish sauce and lime juice.  Delish.  So much so that it has now become one of my passions: variations on a theme of pumpkin soup.

If you’re not a fan of the traditional sweet flavoured pumpkin soup, try this one.  Even my daughter loves this soup and she’s not a soup person.  Nor a pumpkin fan.  In fact, once when she was little (just over 2yrs old) after announcing she was hungry she then insisted – when confronted with pumpkin soup – that she really wasn’t hungry after all.  Despite it meaning that there was no dessert or anything else. Now that’s a serious pumpkin aversion.  Fortunately though, I’m not of the school that thinks kids should eat everything they’re given.  My philosophy is:  if you don’t want to eat it, that’s fine, but there’s nothing else.  My other food rule is:  if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it, but you have to try it first.  I said this to my daughter when she was around 3 yrs old at Christmas when we were having oysters.  I had assumed she would not like the look of them and therefore not eat them. She loved them.  And they have been her to-go-for special dish ever since.

A couple of days ago with the weather turning cold and having had enough chicken soup to last me a lifetime, I decided it was time for pumpkin soup.  I had some freshly made Thai-style curry paste left over from a batch I made for a chicken and apple-eggplant curry so thought I would use that in the initial stages of the soup together with some finely chopped lemongrass.

First I sweated some chopped  onion and then added the curry paste and the lemongrass and stirred till it became lovely and fragrant and then added the vegetables:  pumpkin, potato, carrot and some ends of a fennel I had,  stirred to coat in the oil and spice paste, poured in freshly made chicken stock, simmered till the vegetables were cooked and left it to cool.

That evening, we went out to listen to some food bloggers at a General Assembly event, coming back home quite late.  We brought some fresh bread on the way home and then all I had to do was puree the soup and put it back in a pot to heat up then add a tin of coconut milk (I use Ayam because it doesn’t have any gum or preservatives.  Its the only one I have found that is just coconut and water so I figure its worth paying more for it), fish sauce and some salt (because it still tasted a bit sweet) and finally, a good squeeze of lime juice.

I have to say, this version of the soup was absolutely delicious.  Fragrant (lemongrass, lime leaves and coriander), spicy but not too much, and deeply aromatic and complex (due to the fresh spice paste mixture). Served with fresh chopped coriander and thinly sliced lime leaves (I have a tree in my courtyard) and the baguette – its was the perfect post-event supper.

While I still haven’t ventured on the pumpkin pie journey, my distaste for this vegetable has turned into an appreciation of how teaming it up with spices and “umami” flavours changes it into a delicious food.
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Measure for measure – now you’re cooking

image
I read lots of recipes – for me they’re like mini novellas; short stories that fire my imagination. I have some favourite recipe books – Ottolenghi’s Plenty, Karen Martini’s Where the Heart Is, and (embarrassingly) Bill Granger’s Bill’s Food – though I must say in both my defence and Bill’s the recipes in his book are really good – easy and delicious and I would recommend them to anyone starting out on their cooking journey. Then there are some long-time treasures such as David Thompson’s original Classical Thai Cuisine  and Luke Nguyen’s My VietnamStephanie Alexander’s original A Cook’s Companion is a never ending source of information and inspiration and then there are all the issues of Gourmet Traveller – dating back to the 90s but now in digital format on my iPad.

Mostly though I just make it up as I go along. I generally follow a new recipe to the letter and then next time tweak it. Improvise. Sometimes this happens because I haven’t read the recipe properly and forgotten to buy some of the ingredients; other times it’s because I’m cooking from whatever I have to hand and the recipe is just a guide. This is where my saviour Google comes in: what flavourings/how long to cook pork belly? Within nano seconds I have a whole list of recipes for pork belly. The problem then is to sort through all the dross and find exactly what you want.

My other source of recipes (because sometimes I just can’t think of what to make) are the  ones in the Saturday papers. Often they provide great inspiration and Neil Perry’s recipe page in The Sydney Morning Herald’s magazine is usually very do-able.

But sometimes, sigh, recipes can be really exasperating. When, for instance, a recipe calls for 40g of rocket. Really? 40 grams? Who measures rocket? It’s like specifying 15g mint leaves. What is that? Why not just say: “a handful of rocket”? (which, by the way is around 40g). And what’s 15g of mint or coriander?

Now I know that real chefs are very precise in their measurements – after all, they need to ensure that every dish that goes out is exactly right; that each time you have a certain dish its exactly as it was last time. Consistency. There is no room in a professional kitchen for improvisation when cooking for patrons.  I’ve seen chef’s working in concentration on plating up – its quite a thing to see – such precision.  But for the home cook?

I’ve been cooking long enough to be able to gauge by eye and feel. I know that 50ml of lemon juice is roughly 1 medium lemon and that 250ml is about 1 cup. I would much prefer a recipe stated 1 tsp rather than 5ml. (Up until very  recently I only had a measuring jug that had increments of 50 ml so trying to guage what 25ml was – let alone 5 – was rather haphazard).  And after all, cooking is an art, not an exact science (unless you’re Heston Blumenthal) and we all have different palates.   When I’m cooking Thai or Vietnamese dishes I always go by taste.  I don’t even bother with tablespoon measures.  I know approximately how much fish sauce and palm sugar to put into a nuoc cham and always, I taste and adjust.  Of course you could buy all those little sets of measuring gadgets but my kitchen drawers are already cluttered with too many utensils and besides, it’s just one more thing to wash.

So, just to make things easier for those who have no idea how much 10ml lime juice is, here’s a rough guide to some of the things that have perplexed me in recipes:

  • 5ml = 1 tsp
  • 20ml = 1 tbs
  • 75ml = roughly 4 tbs
  • 250ml = 1 cup (just your standard  teacup)
  • 120ml is almost half a cup
  • 40g = 4 tbs
  • 40gm coriander is a small bunch of coriander (just the leaves)
  • Half a lime is about 1 tbs (20ml)

Should you have any measuring tips, do let me know. Happy cooking.

 

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Can’t help but cook

I can’ help myself. I have a need to cook or at least be involved in the process.

Recently I had surgery on my right hand which rendered me quite incapacitated – amazing how many things I couldn’t do – including cooking, opening jars, bottles, squeezing toothpaste etc. I was most frustrated one day when my husband had gone out and I wanted to open up a bottle of sparkling red (perfect for late autumn afternoons). I thought it would just be a matter of undoing the foil and then twisting the cork with my left hand. Alas, no. It also required the use of my right hand to hold the bottle tight. Which I could not do.

For the first couple of days while I was still aneasthetised and sedated with pain killers I was quite happy for M to do the cooking – I didn’t even feel the need to make a decision on what to cook/eat. I told him I was happy just to leave it all to him. Day 3 however, things changed. M was going to cook some kangaroo fillets and serve them simply with some greens and I suggestd that the woodfire roasted capsicums would make a good addition – both in terms of colour and texture and flavour. Easy. However in the interim I had been watching Rachel Koo’s Cosmopolitan Cook – an episode where she was in Sweden and had cooked venison steak with pureed celeriac and pickled blackberries. She had also quickly pickled some finely sliced carrot to look like petals. Sounded divine. And I thought that the kangaroo would do well as a substitute for venison. So whilst shopping I was on the look out for something to pickle – not blackberries – but something small and crunchy. I found tiny little baby turnips – perfect. Also found some lovely little dutch carrots and a big celeriac. So when we got home I made up the pickling mixture and trimmed the turnips (bit of an effort given my invalidness) and set them to pickle. I wasn’t sure how they would turn out as all the recipes I had read called for turnips to be pickled for at least a week. Fortunately though they were just right. I had quickly blanched them beforehand but they still retained a nice crunch.

The celeriac was beyond me so I simply gave instructions. Meanwhile M had done his own bit of research into celeriac and had sautéed it with fresh thyme and garlic and then steamed it till it was cooked and mashed with a fork.  Not how I would have done it as I had envisage a very smooth white puree spread on the plate and the kangaroo on top, but it was absolutely delicious; so much so that I could have just eaten that on its own!!

I did have to apologise for my intereference but I just couldn’t help myself. While M is a really good cook he’s often a bit pedestrian while I’m always on the look out for new ways of doing things and even though I may not set out to get inspiration from a cooking show or recipe, inevitably I do get inspired and want to create something that sings on the plate and palate.

However having overstepped the mark yesterday I have sworn to not interefere with his ideas and repertoire – after all, everyone has their own way of doing things and I think he likes to cook for me as much as I like to cook for him.

So I shall embrace my debilitation and just sit back and enjoy being catered to.

 

Baby turnips
Baby turnips

Variations on a theme of pasta: Thai style

One of my favourite pasta dishes is a Thai flavoured version of spaghetti marinara.  I  have a fabulous fishmonger who always has beautiful fresh seafood in his marina mix – no extenders, just really good fresh produce, a mixture of scallops, prawns, octopus, calamari, salmon and white fish.  Its always so fresh you could eat it raw (but dressed).

I finely chop lemongrass, ginger, garlic and chilli and saute in a pan.  Once its fragrant I add some passata or (my recent fab find) tin of baby roma tomatoes, fish sauce, a touch of sugar and lime juice.  Then I throw in the seafood and cook for about 5 mins.  Then finish it off with finely chopped lime leaves and serve with chopped coriander and an extra dash of fish sauce and lime juice.

I cook the pasta at the same time as the marinara sauce so that they’re ready within minutes of each other. Cooking time (all up)? 15 minutes. Jamie Oliver’s not the only one able to make great meals in less than half an hour.
This is a truly delicious fragrant and light way to have a marinara.  An asian twist on an old time favourite, but please, can we not call it fusion?

Bon apetite.