Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Feast and the Symbolic Dessert

It's been two days since Christmas day, but the little scratches on my fingers were proofs that the holidays were my days.

In my large family of farmers, educationalists, engineers, military people and artists, there wasn't anyone inclined into cooking. Tatay Inggo, a cousin of my grandfather's and the family's official chef, passed away many years ago of old age, and I think it was me who caught the apron :) So it was my turn to prepare the Christmas menu.

There were about thirty children and more than thirty adults who came and went to Mama Rosa's big house. So theoretically, a few things to remember about my menu include consideration to the people who will eat, the resources, time, etcetra, etcetera. Understanding my clan's appetite and various personalities, I decided to prepare something that will appeal to all: a little innovation of the familiar, a little introduction of the new but are sure to fill them, simple but elegant, and delicious but not too intimidating.

It took me more than two trips to the local grocery and the wet market. I also included ingredients we bought along the road while travelling from Manila to the province, but that being too special, I reckon that it would be much better to write about it on a separate post.

Here's the menu for a mixture of people -

Christmas Eve Dinner:

(Small, open-faced sandwiches that guests, specially children, can pick conveniently)
Christmas Chicken Roast
(Pre- ordered by my mother from a group of students who wanted to get their MBA'S one day)
Pata Tim
(A Chinese dish; pork leg marinated in pineapple sauce. This is a classic feast entree)
Christmas Ham
(Mostly received as gifts)
Buttered vegetables
(Mama Rosa - the one who owns the house- is very particular with nutrition)
Caesar's Salad
(Not only for the weight- watchers, but greens are good in cleansing the palate)
Spaghetti in red sauce
(The children, the children!)
Steamed Rice
(Oh... we can't miss this out)
Mango Panna cotta
(this one has its own story- see bottom page)
Bottles of beer, cheap wine, grape juice

Breakfast was the most challenging because after cooking the whole afternoon and sleeping at 4am (me and my siblings went crazy over the videoke) , I had to get up again at 7 to cook breakfast. So grabbing my apron and rolling up the white sleeves, I was out again in the kitchen.

Christmas Breakfast:

Seafood chowder
(Our province is a fishing community. We had guests who went all the way from the farms so I believed a warm rich soup would be suitable for them)
Yang Chow Fried Rice
(An improved version of the classic Filipino breakfast staple, besides, we had ham leftovers from the night before)
Bacon Slices
(A non- traditional part of the Filipino breakfast, so it feels good to serve this once in a while)
Spanish omelet
(You can't miss the eggs)
Fresh fruit platter
(Nutrition, aesthetic beauty, and common sense)
(Made from the local ground coffee)

Then when the breakfast dishes were kept, (and the rest of the family w out in the living room - I was at the kitchen!! Goodness.) Time to prepare the lunch!

Christmas Lunch:

Grill platter
(seafood, pork belly - for beer- drinkers, this is a classic favorite)
Baked Fish
(Planning this dish, I said we need to have something that would taste a little too different from the rest. Fish steaks marinated in ginger, peppers, lemon, and freshly- ground black pepper then dotted with butter 5 mins before taking out of the oven)
Kare- kare
(Beef tripe in peanut saucen and loads of succulent vegetables. My two sisters brought this up when we were planning the menu so... it's for them)
Chicken Roast
Citrus Salad in Honey- Vinaigrette Dressing
(This, too, has its own story)
Spaghetti, Red Sauce
(The kids will always tug at my apron if this is not available)
Macaroni Salad
(My aunt's specialty dish)
Plain Rice
(Christmas or not, we are a rice- eating population)
Christmas Cake
(My other aunt's special dessert)
Bottles of Beer, Soda, Cheap Wine

There. I never knew who picked what. Nevertheless, I am satisfied. Was I tired! Good thing the whole family helped in preparation, and I was just there to do my job. But what was really noticeable was, the serving platters seemed ravaged most of the time, and the children went back for more dessert.
I didn't bother warning them that the panna cotta had red wine sauce- nor did their parents ask what was in there. I didn't ask if they liked it or not, just got the theory - why it was so appealing to the kids - from what my uncle said: that molded dessert looked like a woman's breasts :P

Of Cuisines and a Traveling Bookstore

Where better to buy a cookbook than a bookstore that travels the world over?
The moment I came across the news that the MV Doulos was going back to Manila, I firmly decided to make the effort to go there- and leave at least with one book from the world's only floating bookstore. Besides, it was the ship’s last voyage after 93 years. So last after a brief meeting with my boss at lunch last December 21, I immediately went to the Manila port area where the ship was docked. A nice calesa- a horse-drawn carriage common in Manila and Chinatown took me to the ship.

Anyway, the MV Doulos experience wasn’t anything too grand, but the visit there was truly worth it. I headed to the cookbook area, though I should admit that there were plenty of other interesting volumes. The cookbook collection was quite charming- I spent about three- fourths of my stay there-flipping through French, Chinese, Italian and British cuisines. But what really caught my fancy was the hard-bound, full color Authentic Italian” - Christmas gift to myself (It was the first of the two Italian cookbooks I received this Christmas). Much has been said about Italian cuisine and every human being knows that Italy gave us more than just pastas and pizzas. But that book, compared to others I've seen, didn’t only contain recipes but notes on Italian traditions and places. So for someone who hasn’t been to Italy, every page was a true treasure :)

Friday, December 21, 2007

In white apron, and hungry...

I decided to write these thoughts as I stood there on the street corner, eating the most delightful food in the world…

Among the biggest virtues of chefs everywhere, I believe, is patience. And I am not talking about the eight-hour marinating of meats, nor the excruciating minutes we have to wait before we open the oven to check if our soufflé rose perfectly.

Last Wednesday, I had to exercise patience to the core: we had three catering services, so I was sure that was going to demand something from my sanity.

Eight to ten o’clock in the morning, I was busy at the back kitchen of the children’s canteen. The kitchen was hot, my fingers were sticky with flouring the chicken sticks- but truly, it was working for the kids that made me happy the most.

At eleven o’clock, we packed up for the first appointment in a far business district. I was just starting to ignore in my mind the heavy traffic and the midday heat. So seated there at the truck’s front seat in the immaculate white uniform with the driver and his assistant who relied on my directions on the road, I was somehow occupied with a handful of worries, counting the minutes for I was aware that we were already quite late. :p Good thing we found the building in that steel jungle; proceeded to the 17th floor, did the necessary preparations while courteously answering the questions of the client why we weren’t on time. We were feeding 75 employees- and I swear if we weren’t in the city, those people would have eaten us alive. (Though I should admit, those people were extremely satisfied afterwards :)

Anyway, after cleaning up the lunch mess, we had to prepare again for another dinner in the neighboring street. The driver got back to the commissary to get the food and I was left there to set up the site.

And man, was I hungry. It was six thirty in the evening.

There goes the irony of being a chef- you don’t get to eat what you serve. Besides, sometimes after all the preparation, the scent of food clings on your skin that you can’t stand to swallow a spoonful.

I was thoroughly absorbed in the food I was munching on. Although far from the paella, salpicao, ox tongue in gravy we were serving, it was too good that I stood there still, staring blindly at the motorists who were waving hello and mouthing playfully some questions I could not hear.

At that moment, I did not consider anymore that I make and serve food for people. I was suddenly aware of the basic truths of my existence: that I was a commuter, a worker, and was truly grateful for this life. I guess the chef’s patience schooled me into not ever complaining, even after the long hours of cooking and feeding- where our concern was not our own hunger but others’.

Oblivious of the perfections and imperfections of cooking, there I was- under the immense urban sky- a hungry person in chef’s uniform -enjoying the food bought from the convenience store across the street: warm tuna sandwich and Pepsi Max, no sugar. :)

And the day was far from over.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sweet Gift From Spain

Cockfights, santacruzan, and churros have one thing in common: that Spanish influence. and I strongly think nuestra madre vieja Espana gave us more than just Catholicism.

The delicious, crispy churros make me think of Spanish friars chomping a Sunday morning away as I did at the Lung Center Compound in Quezon City on a Sunday market. I was honestly delighted to see churros made ourdoors by an old man – and not in a fashionable kitchen and served on fine china. Plus that churrera was a curious little thing- and I think it is that gadget that makes churros a churros, like it was created specially for that sole purpose. It also reminded me of the very pragmatic pasta maker. Then, shaped like a teardrop (though churros are said to have taken the shape of the horn of a mountain goat), the dough is fried in deep, hot lard.

I notice the similarities of churros to one of its cousins - the beignets – though I haven’t tried yet if the latter are just as good when dipped in chocolate. Because as simple as they are, warm beignets just taste right with only fine sugar … But churros really is something else. The crisp crust and warm chewy insides harmonize perfectly with the thick, rich chocolate dip, and the feeling is just superb when a whole biteful is followed by a few sips of freshly- brewed barako coffee- sans sugar.
Hmmm… this makes me think that having colonized has its many advantages after all. :)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

8 Things I'm Passionate About

8) Food and mostly everything that comes with it
This culinary interest all started with our feisty (and equally admirable) house help who had a bilao of burong isda (salted fish) under our kitchen sink. Freshly- caught tamban buried in salt, aged, then fried to an indescribable goodness sided with fresh, plump, juicy, tomato. Best served with garlic fried rice and cafĂ© arroz. Just reach under the sink… and goodness will come forth.

So, food. People, time, place, the way I experience them. All things that come with glorious food.

7) Paintings of lovers, Literature, Poetry, Period War Movies and Music from the screen

I am a very sensuous person by nature and I appreciate the pleasures that life offers- good food, warm sand under my feet, human touch. In the same way that I appreciate things that others have made. When it comes to music, painting, literary work, poetry, I can be impartial to the artist. If I like the craft no matter where it comes from, then that becomes uniquely part of my life- it doesn’t have to be part of the mainstream all the time.

I think it is the same way I think of food.

6) Doing favors for others.
My view on doing favors is far from the good Samaritan’s or an angel’s or any other philosophy of goodness. Mainly for fun or just natural impulse. It’s like, your old tita asked you to clean up her entire closet reeking with mothballs, then without you asking, she ends up giving you some of her lovely vintage stuff that you can get creative with. This makes me happy many times over than I usually expect- all the time.

5) Working – for the fun of it
I consider myself lucky for getting the jobs that are truly close to my heart.

4) Living my life and my share of the world- 100% !

3) Friendships, Correspondence, Nice Strangers
A handful of cherished friends for me is more preferable than too many people whose names I don’t even know... although I admit to be one of the happiest persons in the world when it comes to my friends and family members.

I like correspondence. It has always been an unexplainable experience for me to get woven to persons from the other side of the world- whether you only communicate by writing. I respect my correspondents in quite a different way. Appreciating the goodness of others, taking time to listen and to learn from the lessons of their lives, and in time, realizing that your own life is transcending-– I believe is the best prescription for changing the face of the planet. Now that the world is shrinking at our fingertips and everybody knows what everybody is doing, we don’t need an audience except ourselves.

I love freedom at all angles: of the mind, from worries, and even from uniforms!
Except for my chef’s uniform, I really want to live like a free man and dress up like one. I promised myself that I will stop wearing uniforms anymore the year I celebrate my 28th birthday.

1) Change
I started appreciating change the older I become. Looking back, I love those fat teenage years after all. From the incredible changes that take place in food when they are cooked to the unpredictable change of seasons, so do I love the many changes that happen in my own life.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Over a Billion Mouths to Feed

There is a close parallelism between ancient food hunting to the modern times’. The nomadic primitives would leave one place after they have sucked its resources and find a greener pasture. That is a primitive way, as I’ve said, of doing things. These days we continue with the same food hunt with a more complex criteria: food price, quality, origin, etc.

I thought of these things Tuesday evening when I heard over the radio (on the long ride home) that there is another price increase on bakery products. How sad, our pandesal is getting smaller and smaller, and yet getting even more expensive. And how ironic, that even if we have a strong peso now, the prices are still up. Oh, yeah, the economics of supply and demand – the holidays are just around the corner and there’s too much money in circulation… But one thing that struck me about the news is that, many wheat fields around the world are getting smaller and smaller because growers give way to corn for biofuel. This issue has been featured in an international magazine almost two years ago, but at that time, I wasn’t feeling yet the impact on a more profound level.

What now is the solution? Is there any close substitute for wheat for our glorious breads, pastries, croissants, etc? Will I really have my wedding cake made with potato flour? But why not….

Anyway, this chain of information again gets me to think of my thesis in international food trade. I think of China, one of the country’s main partners in milled flour trade. I think of how it feeds its people. But what if China stops shipping to us precious flour because it has to prioritize its own people?

Sometimes I put myself in the shoes of a bakery entrepreneur. When local supplies are ravaged by high prices and your business is confronted with many competitors, you think of sharpening your spear and stay in the bloodshed for the mammoth market money. Or pack up and find where those elusive green pastures are.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Children of the Corn

Two days ago we were eating cheese corn in UP- the perfect boiled corn kernels sold by the cup then topped with cheese powder and dotted with margarine. A fine thing to eat to chase December cloudy and busy days away. It reminded me of better corn days, not the wonderful experience at the Tagaytay roadside but those that reminded of childhood love affair with corn: Cloudless blue skies, warm sunshine, summer clothes.

My favorite memories of summer include running down the corn farm of my grandfather. The corn used to grow taller than us, and at harvest, my greatest excitement was looking at the corn hair, and realized that they come in different colors: pink (yes, pink), gold, auburn, dark brown- whose silky texture and shine rivaled that of Barbie’s. I think it was from my grandparents (I grew up surrounded by many old people who’d get their medications from concoctions of boiled anything under the sun) I also that I heard, corn hair has medicinal properties, so after boiling clean corn in their husks, you could actually drink the water like tea. I tried that myself, and it doesn’t taste bad. For the health benefits, that I have to find out. Then the days were also full of corn- cooking: corn soup for lunch, corn on cobs with butter, and grilled corn late in the afternoon. If I knew enough how to cook back then, I would have tried numerous dishes to flavor those hot summer days.

Now many years later, that small farm is already a subdivision and part of that is our front yard. I went home last summer and there were these small corn trees growing at the side of our fence. I somehow learned to identify a little if the crop is already ripe for harvesting. So using my far-from-expert -judgment, I knew that that batch was ready. Removing the husks, I was greeted by plump, smiling, shiny little teeth carefully placed on the cob. It was of the white native variety whose seeds, according to the planter, were given by a farmer from a distant barrio. Placed alongside commercial corns- whether genetically- modified or not, our corn was far from perfect. But when boiled and brushed with a little butter and a sprinkled with some sea salt, me and my sister gobbled a potful in delicious silence. We loved that summer. And felt the luckiest children on earth because that corn was planted by our mother, and for sure, was free from any bacteria strain. :)

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Beautiful Dessert Station

I have never seen a dessert station as charming as the one at Kamay Kainan at West Avenue (Quezon City). Aside from the amazing meals at the main buffet (try their oysters- don’t forget the lemon), I was captivated by the wonderful array of native desserts in their bahay kubo - quivering gelatin (my favorite, I really dig this anywhere), colorful, warm guinataang halo- halo, the soft pichi- pichi, fried bananas- I just wanted to taste everything! I think they got the essence of the traditional Filipino food stall set up (like the ones we see on the roadsides) or the classic barrio fiesta. The idea of placing decorative preserves there is a combined idea of elegance and rusticity- and the result is just perfect.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Rainy Day Entree :)

One thing I love doing most during bleak rainy days is to stay at home doing my stuff. Whether that is working on a scrapbook, reading, cooking- anything just to be away from the Manila traffic. Rainy days particularly stir in me a kind of mood to become comfortable- nice pillows, hot chocolate or, yes, even Japanese horror flicks. And… food, of course. :)

When we were growing up in the countryside, there was never a rainy day where there wasn’t any food on the table. Sweet potato fritters, guinataan (banana, sweet potatoes, tapioca pearls, yam, jackfruit simmered in coconut milk), boiled bananas, cassava, or arroz caldo- these comprised our rainy-day menu. Then there’s “pinakro”- I don’t know the English word for this. It’s made with unripe green bananas, boiled, peeled then mashed with grated coconut and sprinkled with a little sugar. It tastes just… like rainy days (funny how there are food that taste like Christmas or the beach). Unripe bananas lose their tartness and just retain a nice texture that makes the product neither mushy nor sickeningly sweet. It is preferable to use brown or muscovado sugar with this because the large, easy-to-melt granules amuse both the palate and the tongue. This is a favorite food any time of the year, but the season where it’s most prevalent is usually after a typhoon. Why? Because after typhoon, many banana trees laden with fruits are felled … Farmers would normally reserve beautiful bananas for ripening, but since the storms just passed, unripe bananas go directly into the boiling pot, so do coconuts, sweet potatoes and wonderful yams… I hold dearly many memories of typhoon aftermaths. I used to love those days when I was younger, but this time it gets quite depressing because you already know a little about economics and the hard times … Anyway, it still puzzles me sometimes why those provincial ‘tiyas’ make such food so superbly. I loved that dish already way before I learned that bananas are great sources of potassium :)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Mad Motto

"I eat what I see, I see what I eat." - The Mad Hatter