Cheap eats

My children’s father came from a family where cash was tight, yet all the children grew strong and healthy. My late mother-in-law (my God, how I miss her) was an expert in making a little money go a long way, and she was famed for her huge family parties which cost very little.

She would spread Sunday roast with stuffing, so that the little meat goes a longer way, fed more people. Till this day, I make stuffing in honour of her. Her sausage rolls too had always been supplemented with breadcrumbs, carrots and apples, all to make the little meat stretch that little more. So even though I am not constraint by finances, my sausage rolls always have lots of additional bits in them, not just meat.

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My mother-in-law never wasted anything. Even carrot shavings had their uses, either in sausage rolls or cakes. I urged her to write a thrift recipe book, because there is something beautiful about ‘free’ food. I hate wastage.

One of the things my mother-in-law used to do with meat carcasses was to boil them down into nutrient-packed broth. Sometimes, she would add pearl barley to make a meal out of it; at other times, she would just make her children drink it. And yes, her children did grow big and strong – my sister-in-law, a marathon runner, was one of the torch-bearers at the London Olympics.

So I continue her tradition. I boil down meat carcasses with vinegar, so that no part of an animal that give its life goes to waste. I normally throw whatever I have lying around into the pot.

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Today, I made a clear broth. Feeling like trying something different, I added ginger, lemongrass stalks and coriander seeds to the pot, amongst my usual leftover fruits and veggie.

I ladled the fragrant broth over this and it was absolutely delicious Asian noodle soup, as well as being healthy and almost free.

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A rather delicious fish and reaction rates

I try to infuse what I teach my child with wonder, humour and relevance, though it must be said, much of the International Baccalaureate Diploma chemistry syllabus for chemistry is rather dry.

I am stuck with teaching her about catalysts: energy diagrams, industrial applications, features. It’s no fun, unlike thermodynamics where we could debate endlessly about the universe, the concept of free energy and chaos.

So here goes:

Perhaps the most incredible catalysts are the biological ones, namely enzymes. They are remarkably complex and specific, often made from many thousands of atoms and a few metal ions. Enzymes are folded in such a way that they can hold the reactant molecules in their “pockets” of their complex structures, using hydrogen bonds and electrostatic forces between groups of atoms with opposite charges, to facilitate a particular reaction happening. And because biochemical reactions often happen in a series of discrete steps rather than in a simple straightforward manner, the interactions between the catalyst and the reactant molecules change with each different stage, like some molecular ballet taking place within the living body, stabilising the intermediates birthed from each pirouette. It is these multiple interactions that make enzymes so specific in their participation, and what that makes the living body truly a miracle.

You want to do an amazing chemistry experiment on catalysts? This is what you need:

1 whole fish, cleaned
Juice of 1 lemon
1 bunch of parsley, chopped
1 inch ginger, peeled and grated
Olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Marinade the fish in lemon juice. Leave in the refrigerator overnight. Then place the fish in the middle of a large sheet of baking parchment. Season generously with salt and pepper, drizzle olive oil generously on the fish and scatter parsley and grated ginger over it. Bake in an oven heated to 375°F for 30-40 minutes, until the flesh flakes off.

The acid in the lemon juice catalyses the breakdown of peptide chains in the fish protein in a process called hydrolysis. The H+ ions of the lemon juice (citric acid) accelerates the reaction of the amide group (-CONH-) with water, bringing about the breakage of the peptide link (C-N bond).

In fact, you don’t even need to cook the fish – for example, the Peruvian dish Ceviche – but that’s another experiment altogether; the Kadazan-Dusun folks from Borneo has a dish called the Hinava, which is pretty similar to Ceviche, and I have had the good fortune to taste it on several occasions.

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Photo from recipegreat.