When Devina Balathevan first started working, she found herself eating out often. Soon, she got bored of the endless routine of restaurant meal after restaurant meal and decided it was high time she started cooking healthier, home-cooked meals instead.
Nearly 10 years later, 32-year-old Devina has become a dab hand in the kitchen and is adept at churning out wholesome meals that require minimal fuss.
“I learnt mainly through the Internet and I’ve been cooking consistently since then. I want to eat wholesome meals, so I try to use good ingredients and minimise processed foods and things like that,” she says.
The former banker now runs her own company and is often busy, which is why she plans meals ahead of time and favours dishes that can be prepared over the weekends and assembled on weekdays. Like pasta sauces, for example.
“Pasta sauces are easy to make and open to interpretation – you can tweak it according to your own tastes. And they can be prepared in advance, so you can cook it and freeze or refrigerate it. The bulk of the time is spent preparing the sauce, so once you get that out of the way during the weekends, on weekdays, it’s just about cooking the pasta and heating up the sauce and throwing things in. During the week, I just add whatever ingredients I have in the fridge into the sauces,” she says.
Devina’s sumptuous, flavour-rich homemade tomato-based sauce, for example, is made from scratch with fresh tomatoes. “I roast tomatoes in olive oil and butter for 45 minutes and then I puree it – it’s up to you how chunky or fine you want it to be,” she says.
Then there is her unique pumpkin-based pasta sauce, which she concocted after realising there were few, if any, options for pumpkin sauces in the market. “I like pumpkin and there aren’t many things out there with pumpkin – it’s always pumpkin curry or roasted pumpkin – that’s it. There’s nothing else that I’ve come across. So I wanted to do something pumpkin-based and I thought it would be quite easy, because once it’s roasted and mashed up, it has a similar texture to tomato, just slightly thicker,” she says.
While pesto is traditionally made with basil and Parmesan cheese, Devina’s version alludes to her wholesome approach and omits the cheese entirely. As she doesn’t like basil, she uses baby spinach leaves instead. “This is a cleaner version that has a fresh taste,” she says.
Devina has even cleverly worked in pasta sauces into appetisers, an ingenious idea best represented by her recipe for portobello mushrooms stuffed with delicious homemade lamb bolognese sauce. “This sauce came about through a lot of trial and error and is a recipe that I stick with now. And the stuffed portobellos are easy treats to make for parties – I often make them for gatherings,” says Devina.
In an attempt to actively document everything that she cooks in the kitchen, Devina even started an Instagram account (@bankerinthekitchen) where she catalogues most (“most” being the key word here) of her cooking experiments. “Sometimes I’m so hungry, I just end up eating the food straight away, before I have a chance to take pictures,” she says, giggling.
As a busy working adult, Devina understands that time constraints are often the greatest obstacles to home cooking, which is why she is a staunch believer in taking shortcuts wherever possible.
For her pasta sauces, for example, she often chucks ingredients into the oven, rather than using the stove, because this gives her more time to do other things.
“I don’t think there’s much difference taste-wise, whether you roast tomatoes for 45 minutes on the stovetop or 45 minutes in the oven, but it’s just more convenient for me to put them in the oven so I can go about my work, rather than watching food on the stove. And I think that’s key – if you have a job and want to cook consistently, you have to find these kinds of shortcuts or methods that work for you,” she says.
CREAMY PUMPKIN AND SUNDRIED TOMATO PASTA
2-3 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 tbsp sundried tomatoes
2-3 tbsp sundried tomato oil (optional)
water, if necessary
dash of cream
4 tsp minced sage leaves
salt to taste
200g penne pasta, cooked al dente (reserve some pasta water)
chilli flakes, for sprinkling
To make the pumpkin sauce
Pre-heat oven to 175°C. Chop pumpkin into large cubes (skin on). Place pumpkin in a single layer on lined baking tray, and roast for 30 minutes or until fork tender. Once cooled, scoop out the pumpkin flesh and blend until smooth.
In a large pan, add olive oil and fry onions until translucent. Add garlic and fry until softened. Add pumpkin, sundried tomatoes, sundried tomato oil (if using) and stir. If the sauce sticks to the pan, add some water. Stir cream into the sauce. Finally, add sage and salt to taste and stir until evenly distributed. Let cool slightly.
Toss the cooked pasta in the pumpkin sauce. Add some pasta water (as required) to loosen the mixture when tossing. Sprinkle chilli flakes and serve immediately.
FRESH CHERRY TOMATO, CHICKPEAS AND CARROT PASTA
For tomato puree
750g plum cherry tomatoes
olive oil, to coat the tomatoes
1 tbsp butter, cubed
For tomato sauce
2 to 3 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp sugar
1 cup chickpeas, cooked
1 carrot, ribboned
1 tsp chilli flakes
salt and pepper to taste
200g spaghetti, cooked al dente (reserve some pasta water)
To make tomato puree
Pre-heat oven to 175ºC. Coat tomatoes in olive oil and arrange in a single layer on a lined baking tray. Place cut butter on the tomatoes. Roast tomatoes for about 45 minutes. Once cooled, pulse/ blend until desired consistency is achieved (together with the oil and juices). Set aside.
To cook tomato sauce
In a deep pan, add oil and fry onions until translucent. Add minced garlic and fry a little. Add tomato puree, tomato paste and butter and mix in evenly. Add sugar and stir to distribute. Toss chickpeas in and let it cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Turn off heat, stir in carrots, chilli flakes and salt and pepper to taste. Let cool slightly.
Toss the cooked pasta in the tomato sauce. Add some pasta water (as required) to loosen the mixture when tossing.
BAKED PORTOBELLO MUSHROOMS STUFFED WITH LAMB BOLOGNESE SAUCE
For the lamb bolognese
2 tbsp olive oil
2 to 3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium red onion, diced
1 cup carrots, grated
500g minced lamb
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp dried basil
3 tbsp tomato paste
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
3/4 cup red wine (optional)
2 cups chicken broth
1 can whole tomatoes
1 tsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp fennel powder
2 bay leaves
1/2 tbsp chilli flakes (more if you can handle the heat)
1/2 cup milk
salt and pepper to taste
For the portobello mushrooms
40 portobello mushrooms
olive oil, as needed
1 ½ cups to 2 cups grated Parmesan cheese (modify if you like it more/less cheesy)
To make the lamb bolognese
Heat olive oil and butter in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and cook until translucent. Add grated carrots and cook for a few minutes. Put the lamb in and cook until browned. Toss in the dried oregano and basil and add tomato paste, garlic and Worcester-shire sauce and stir for awhile to combine.
Add red wine, chicken broth, canned tomatoes, fish sauce, cumin, fennel, bay leaves and chilli flakes and stir for awhile to combine. Pour in milk and stir until evenly mixed. Season with salt and pepper. Let simmer on low heat for 2 to 3 hours until desired thickness is achieved. Set aside to cool.
To cook portobello mushrooms
Pre-heat oven to 175ºC. Remove stems and gills and clean mushrooms thoroughly. Lightly coat with olive oil.
Place mushrooms, gill side up on a lined baking tray. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove mushrooms from the oven and wipe away any excess liquid.
Fill the mushroom caps with bolognese sauce. Sprinkle grated parmesan on top.
Continue baking for another 10 minutes or until cheese is melted. Serve hot.
CHEESE-FREE BABY SPINACH, WALNUT AND PINE NUT PESTO
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted, plus 2 tbsp more for garnishing
1 cup baby spinach leaves
1/4 cup walnuts
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
squeeze of lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
200g capellini pasta, cooked al dente (reserve some pasta water)
balsamic vinegar, as desired
a handful of parsley leaves, for garnishing
Lightly dry-toast the pine nuts over medium-low heat until lightly browned. Set aside to cool.
In a blender or food processor, blend the baby spinach, walnuts, toasted pine nuts, garlic and extra virgin olive oil until smooth. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Blend again to combine.
Toss pesto with pasta until well coated. Add some pasta water (as required) to loosen the mixture when tossing.
Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and garnish with parsley and toasted pine nuts.