In Which There is a Different Sort of Citrus Beverage from a Jam Jar…

Yuja-cha
Yuja-cha

Yes, I know it looks rather like marmalade – specifically one made with bitter-tart Seville oranges – but here’s the kicker: this stuff is actually a fruit tea!  It’s a mad notion, I know, but this 600-gram jam jar contains enough citron tea to stave off colds and soothe sore throats for the coming cold season.

This is yuja-cha.  It is, for all intents and purposes, a type of Korean marmalade specifically created not for slathering on bread or scones but more for dissolving in hot water to make a warming, soothing, rejuvenating drink in chilly weather.  It is part of a long Oriental tradition of steeping preserved fruit, flowers, and herbs in hot water to make beverages that are both refreshing and healthful.

To be quite specific about it, yuja-cha is the name given to the prepared drink.  The marmalade itself is referred to as yujacheong or yuzu (citron) paste.  Yujacheong is prepared by first washing bright yellow (ripe or slightly underripe) citrons in salt water, then drying them up.  The dried citrons are, then, finely sliced and marinated in dark honey or a heavy sugar syrup for a few days until the paste is ready to use.

One takes a heaping tablespoon of yujacheong and dissolves it in a mug of hot water.  The fragrant steam helps to clear congested sinuses, the honey calms down ragingly sore throats, and the tangy citron provides plenty of vitamin C to stave off nasty viruses.

Saveur Magazine featured yujacha in its 2014 Saveur 100 list of the best things to eat, drink, and read, citing it for its lovely citrus taste and warming qualities.  Interestingly, it also works well when prepared like lemonade: a tablespoon dissolved in a tablespoon of hot water and topped up with chilled water – still or sparkling – over ice works wonders on hot days.

If you’re lucky enough to grab a jar of yujacheong (and if you live or work in the Bonifacio Global City, the many Oriental groceries keep it in stock for P 280.00 per 600-gram jar), you might also try my spin on the classic Dark and Stormy cocktail as a refreshing sipper with plenty of sassy, bittersweet, tart bite.

Seoul Stormcloud

  • 1 generous tablespoon yujacheong
  • 1 tablespoon hot water
  • 1 shot dark rum
  • ginger ale
  • ice

Dissolve the yujacheong in hot water; allow to steep for a few minutes.  Add the rum and pour over ice in a tall glass; top up with the ginger ale.  Muddle with a swizzle stick; serve immediately.

Serves 1.

In Which Lunch was a Turkish Spin on Mediterranean Favourites…

Turkish tea to whet the appetite
Turkish tea to whet the appetite

I confess that I have a soft spot for Mediterranean cuisinekebabs and baba ganoush, fresh and zingy tzatziki and honeyed baklava.  I love the bright  flavours, the judicious use of spices on properly grilled or roasted meats, and the emphasis on freshness with regard to fruit and vegetables.  Throw in the fact that the food of the Med is also deliciously healthy, and who wouldn’t be sold on it?

Much of the Med-style cuisine I’ve had so far has been either Greek (via Cyma) or Persian (care of Persia Grill).  Thus, when given the opportunity to try the Turkish way of cooking things, I certainly did not hesitate.

A tangy sort of baba ganoush and still-warm lavash
A tangy sort of baba ganoush and still-warm lavash

Feta Mediterranean occupies the space where a rather wan little Sicilian establishment used to be.  While its name skews more towards Greek cuisine, its specialties are done to Turkish recipes.  That said, while the names of the dishes on its bill of fare are familiar, there are a few differences that are more than subtle – differences that put a unique savour to these dishes.

Case in point: Feta’s baba ganoush is not the smoky, creamy, slightly peppery veg pate served at Persia Grill.  Instead, it’s more like a yogurt dip enhanced with pockets of smoky roasted eggplant and a drizzle of good-quality olive oil.  It is a tangy, tasty dip for the lavash bread – soft and puffy in spots, flat and shatteringly crisp in others – but one that shows off more of the tang of yogurt and the sharpness of garlic.

Chicken şiş kebab on lavash with rice and a salad
Chicken şiş kebab on lavash with rice and a salad

I opted for the chicken şiş kebab for my main.  I’m not really a fan of grilled chicken in restaurants as I’ve had dry, stringy, poor excuses for grilled fowl – and breast meat, at that! – too many times.  But this, thank goodness, was not a disappointment.

Feta’s chicken is grilled in such a way that the white meat remains juicy and succulent, edge-of-a-spoon tender as a matter of fact.  And it is not the flavourless provender served at other establishments: the meat was rubbed well with a tangy, earthy combination of cumin, sumac powder, and turmeric.  The earthiness of the cumin blended very well with the zingy turmeric, creating flavours that were properly spicy but not to fiery.  The tart sumac added a touch of acidity: a fruity, but not quite citrus, counterpoint.

While the salad served was just shredded iceberg lettuce, sweet onion, and tomato, it was crisply fresh and went nicely with the herbed yogurt served on the side.  The rice was also a treat: slightly sweet and the perfect foil to the sharper, more pungent ingredients.

I have no regrets in trying Feta Mediterranean.  Indeed, I’m looking forward to having another meal there.  :)

Feta Mediterranean: Chefs’ Avenue – 3rd Floor, Festival Supermall, Alabang, Muntinlupa

In Which One’s Bakery Run Brings in Some Portable Breakfasts…

The end-result of my grand scamper through Tous les Jours
The end-result of my grand scamper through Tous les Jours

I apologise for the radio silence that has marked this blog for the past two weeks.  Much of my time has been occupied by several projects at work, campaigns and advertorials, mostly.  There have also been a few family events that have not really been the happiest, but I’m still up and running and working and, of course, eating.  (I know I’m screwed big time when I don’t have an appetite!)

A recent Saturday solo jaunt pretty much turned into a bakery run when I sauntered into Tous les Jours and began scoping out new things to nosh.  Of late, I’ve been eating some fairly sketchy breakfasts because of the bloody traffic on the way to work.  That said, portable options like sandwiches, rolls, and buns score high with me and I’ve been keeping an eagle-eye out for new things I can happily scarf down with a quick cup of coffee or nosh on the bus ride to work.

A pumpkin muffin and coffee
A pumpkin muffin and coffee

Tous les Jours’ pumpkin muffin is one such treat.  This properly stodgy and brightly orange-coloured muffin – actually more like an incredibly dense, massive cupcake – is studded throughout with bits and bobs of candied pumpkin.  The effect is that of slightly crisp bits of lightly sweet, melon-y pumpkin against the sweet, buttery, moist density of the rest of the muffin.  Delicious enough on its own, but even better when eaten with some cream cheese and a cup of coffee.

I think I may have over-toasted it, but it was lovely nevertheless.
I think I may have over-toasted it, but it was lovely nevertheless.

I also got an almond kouign amann and a black rice bun with black sesame cream cheese.  I haven’t nibbled on the former, but the latter – with its faintly nutty savour and creamy, cheesecake-sweet innards – made for another smashing breakfast with an iced vanilla latte.

So, what do you eat for breakfast when you need to rush?  Or do you skip eating altogether and just gulp down your coffee?

In Which We Talk About How Sardines are Divinely Delicious…

This was last night's dinner...
This was last night’s dinner…

For many middle-class and upper-class Filipinos, tinned sardines are something you buy in bulk – not so much for home consumption, but more for donation drives either at school, at church, or for some civic organisation or other.  Many people in either socio-economic bracket are of the opinion that sardines in those common-looking cylindrical tins were poor people’s food – certainly not to be eaten by people who fancied themselves as “top-drawer/living room lace” sorts.  Personally, I think they’re just picky, finicky, and hate food - period.

Growing up as a middle-class Filipina, I found myself in the minority: I was a person who happily ate tinned sardines on a regular basis.  During Lent, tinned sardines in tomato sauce would be sautéed with red onions and garlic and sotanghon (mung bean vermicelli) would be thrown into the sauce; it was what we had for Friday dinners as an alternative to fried fish or a fish-head sinigang.  Sautéed sardines sans the sotanghon would be served over plain white rice for breakfast, along side fried eggs with decadently runny yolks.

As I grew older, my father – a great fan of sardines, himself – introduced my palate to other varieties of our favourite preserved fish.  Bottled sardines – usually prepared Spanish-style, which is to say soaked in olive oil with whole black peppercorns, salt, and either or both pickled olives and chilies – appear regularly on the family grocery list, a healthier source of protein (and a tasty one, to boot) when one felt all tuckered-out with meat and poultry.  There would also be the Portuguese sardines that came in flat, rectangular tins you opened with a wire key; piquant, savoury fish that were magnificent when eaten with hot pan de sal, fresh out of the neighbourhood baker’s oven.

And there are the gifts of homemade Spanish-style sardines we have received from friends throughout the years: pressure-cooked fish – so soft that you could eat them bones and all – in olive oil with equally homespun pickles, eaten simply over hot, white rice.  It’s a meal, as shown above, that helps squeeze out the stresses of the day, so soothing to the belly and comforting for the soul.

...and this was breakfast today.
…and this was breakfast today.

A more recent addition to my stash of fishy favourites is fried sardines.  These are, essentially, pre-fried sardines that are braised in savoury sauces prior to canning,  It’s a totally different spin from the usual “poach and braise” approach to canning sardines and makes quite an impact on both taste and texture.  Fried sardines have more of a chew to them as opposed to the crumble-on-impact tenderness of regular sardines.  As such, the cooking method also allows the use of richer, more robust-flavoured sauces.  The 555 line features a hot-and-spicy variant together with bistek (soy, calamansi lime, and caramelised onion), escabeche (Oriental-style sweet and sour sauce), and – my personal favourite - tausi (oil, onions, and fermented black beans).

The tausi variant is a local spin on a popular Chinese product called dou chi ling yu or freshwater carp (dace) cooked with fermented black beans.  It is an intensely umami affair that beautifully plays off the strong flavours of the fried fish with the pungent, salty taste of the fermented beans.  Both tausi-fried sardines and tinned dace share that rustic deliciousness that prompted Chinese food writer Lilian Chou to write these glowing words of praise:

“When I open a can to eat with white rice, I inhale every last morsel, right down to the oil at the bottom, which I drizzle over the top.  One tin transforms a bowl of plain grains into the most satisfying and flavoursome of meals.”

Divine deliciousness!
Divine deliciousness!

As with other kinds of tinned sardines, you can eat fried sardines right out of the can.  Personally, though, I prefer to drain a little of the oil into a pre-heated frying pan.  I’d frizzle in some sliced onion just till the individual strands are soft and pliable; minced garlic follows in, cooked till just beginning to turn golden at the edges.  Throw in the sardines and any remaining liquid from the tin – oils and all – and heat through.  Lump the deeply-fragrant mess onto a bowl of hot rice; take a moment to savour the pungent steam that wafts off of it and dig right in.

If anyone tells you that you’re a Philistine for enjoying such a plebeian meal, just shrug, turn your nose up at them, and enjoy your meal even more.  They’re the uncultured Philistines with their unadventurous appetites; you, on the other hand, have a better sense of what is divinely delicious.

In Which There is a Shortcut Version of Spaghetti Puttanesca for One…

A cheat's version of puttanesca...
A cheat’s version of puttanesca…

Spaghetti puttanesca is one of those great examples of pasta cookery that has fascinated both professional and home cooks since the 1950s when it was first cooked by the Italian chef Sandro Petti in response to a starving and grumpy customer’s demand of “Facci una puttanata qualsiasi” – which pretty much translates to “Take whatever rubbish you got in that kitchen and plate it up quick; I’m hungry!”

Classic puttanesca features a sugo – a sauce – made with tomatoes, anchovies, garlic, and capers which give it a tart, salty, piquant character.  (The version cooked in Naples, however, eschews the anchovies for some reason.)  It’s something that you could whip up in a jiffy, seeing how you just saute everything together and dump it over pasta.

To make this recipe even faster and more convenient (not to mention budget-friendly), the folks at Jeverps – makers of Excellent Pancit Canton – actually advocate the use of their Hongkong-style pancit canton (egg and wheat noodles) which cook faster than conventional pasta as well as spicy tuyo (salt-dried fish marinated with black pepper, chilli, and garlic in olive oil) instead of anchovies.

My spin on this is actually a whole lot faster: I use ramyeunsari – a packet of plain ramen noodles, no sauce or broth packets – which cooks for just three minutes.  After draining, you plate them up, douse over the speedy sugo puttanesca, and you are good to go with a totally zesty meal.

Puttanesca Pronto

  • 1 packet ramyeunsari (available in many Oriental groceries; you may also choose standard ramen packets, just set aside the flavour packets for something else)
  • 2 tablespoons flaked spicy tuyo
  • 2 tablespoons oil from the spicy tuyo
  • 3 tablespoons tomato sauce
  • 1 tablespoon capers, drained
  • 2 spring onions, finely chopped

Prepare the ramyeunsari according to package instructions.  Drain well; set aside.

Heat a pan over medium heat.  Add the oil from the tuyo and allow to sizzle.  Add the white part of the spring onions; cook until softened and add the tuyo flakes; cook for about a minute.  Add the tomato sauce and bring to a boil.  Remove from heat and stir in the capers.

Pour the sauce over the noodles.  Sprinkle over the green part of the spring onions to serve.

Serves 1.

In Which One Bakes Leftover Candy-bars Into Decadent Blondies…

Now THAT is a LOT of candy...
Now THAT is a LOT of candy…

Halloween is over and done with for yet another year and, for those of you who have survived trick-or-treat, you probably find yourself in a quandary as to either a) how to deal with your kids’ mountain of goodness knows how much sugar or b) how to deal with any leftover candy bars.  Chances are, you probably have several varieties that are left uneaten for one reason or another.

While trick-or-treat still isn’t that much of a common thing here in the Philippines, Filipino families nevertheless share the dilemma of too many uneaten candy bars.  This happens when relatives abroad send care packages or come home with balikbayan boxes full of candy assortments.  Things like Kitkats, Twix, Snickers, Nestle Crunch, most items under the Hershey’s brand, and Toblerones are coveted and gobbled up wholesale.  However, things like Butterfingers, Milky Ways, 3 Musketeers, and Mars bars are usually given the cold shoulder – and end up occupying valuable space in cold storage.

So what does one do with all these chocolate-covered sugar bombs?  Why, bake with them, of course!

Buttery, oaty, chocolatey goodness in every bite
Buttery, oaty, chocolatey goodness in every bite

In case you’re worried that baking with candy bars may lead to a too-sweet confection, let me allay your worries.  My candy bar blondies are buffered with plenty of oats and chia seeds for a wholesome chewiness that pretty much offsets the throat-catching sweetness of the candy.  Likewise, the use of salted butter and margarine keep things on an even keel in terms of both flavour and texture.  Another thing: be sure to cut these small to keep them from getting too rich and cloying.

These are the perfect thing to serve at grown-up coffee mornings or tea breaks, but if your young uns are still up for a sugary treat despite their Halloween sugar rush, serve these with a big glass of cold milk.  :D

Candy Bar Blondies

  • 1 - 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 - 1/2 cups rolled or quick-cooking oats
  • 2 tablespoons chia or sesame seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup salted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup margarine
  • 1/4 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • approximately 1-1/2 cups chocolate-covered candy bars, coarsely chopped

Cream together the butter, margarine, and sugars  Add the eggs, vanilla, and baking soda; mix till well blended.  Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until well-combined.

Your dough should be nice and solid
Your dough should be nice and solid

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees / Gas Mark 4.  Grease and line a large rectangular cake tin and evenly press in the dough.

Bake for about 25 – 30 minutes.  Allow to cool completely before cutting into bars.

Makes approximately 64 bars.

In Which There is a Beautiful, Grape-studded Slab of Fresh-baked Bread…

Ready to go into the oven...
Ready to go into the oven…

I’ve been ill this past week and busy for quite a while before that, so I have sadly neglected this blog and you, my dear readers.  But never fear, I’m back with quite a bit of baking you’ll want to consider now that red grapes – specifically seedless red grapes – are rather plentiful in the fresh produce section of most local supermarkets.

I was watching Aussie Masterchef Adam Liaw‘s Destination Flavour: Down Under a couple of weeks ago and was positively gobsmacked by his spin on a traditional Italian bread called schiacciata all’uva - or flatbread studded with fresh grapes.  It was a very simple thing with the bread made with a mere four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast.  Fresh grapes were pressed into the dough after the first rising, rosemary sprigs as well; a goodly amount of olive oil was drizzled over before baking.

The end result was a loaf of bread that was golden-crusted on the outside, airily fluffy within.  The grapes added wee pops of sweetness that were a pleasant contrast to the touch of salt and the freshness of the rosemary.

It’s also a doddle to make: you toss everything into the bowl, stir them up into a shaggy mess, knead, allow to rise, press into the tin, top, prove, bake, and you’re done!

Focaccia with grapes is a treat
Focaccia with grapes is a treat

This grape and rosemary focaccia is adapted from Adam Liaw’s recipe.  Don’t balk at the fact that it uses more flour than the previous focaccia / schiacciata recipes I’ve featured on this blog; the resulting bread is actually a lot lighter and fluffier with just the barest hint of salt for savour and the sweetness of the grapes for balance.  It’s just the thing to serve as an appetiser for Italian-inspired meals or as something to go with drinks and cheese for an evening with friends.

Grape and Rosemary Focaccia

  • 600 grams all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 2 teaspoons rock salt or sea salt, divided
  • 400mL hand-hot water
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin or pure olive oil, plus more for greasing and drizzling
  • 1 cup seedless red grapes, halved
  • 1 sachet instant yeast
  • 2 teaspoons dried rosemary, divided

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, yeast, and a teaspoon each of salt and rosemary.  Make a well in the centre and pour in the water and oil.  Mix until you achieve a shaggy mess.  Knead for about five to ten minutes, just until the dough is satiny.

Grease a second bowl with some olive oil and roll the dough ball in it.  Cover and allow to rise for an hour.

Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees/Gas Mark 6.  Grease a rectangular roasting tin or a lipped cookie sheet.  Uncover the dough and punch it down.  Press the dough into the prepared tin and dimple it over with your fingertips.  Press in the grapes and scatter over the remaining rosemary.  Evenly drizzle over more olive oil and sprinkle the remaining salt over the surface.  Cover again and leave to prove for 30 – 45 minutes.

Bake the bread for 25 minutes.  Remove from oven and serve immediately with balsamic vinegar or cheese on the side.

Makes 1 loaf.