In Which One Brings Pasta to a Potluck…

With dishes like these, who WOULDN'T love Potluck Friday?
With dishes like these, who WOULDN’T love Potluck Friday?

Where I work nowadays, we have a tradition known simply as Potluck Friday.  This means that lunch on the last Friday of the month is a communal thing as opposed to the individual lunches we usually grab everyday.  On Potluck Friday, there is food to share and there is a certain level of one-up-manship among those of us who cook.

My contribution for this month is a dinky little number that involves a few things you can hunt down at your local grocery and a few pantry staples.  It’s a pasta dish that plays up the classic flavours of bangus ala pobre (milkfish cooked with butter, garlic, and pepper) and adds them to standard-issue spaghetti, turning it into a regular feast to be shared among friends.  This dish has a bit of eggplant for a soft smokiness and a bit of spicy chorizo de Bilbao for warmth and zing.

For all of you kitchen habitues or even you kitchen-phobes, it’s a spot-on easy dish to make.  All it takes is a little effort: chopping, sautéing, and boiling up the pasta.  Try it for yourself; I’m pretty sure you and those you cook it for will be quite pleased.  ;)

Pasta ala Pobre

  • 250 grams spaghetti prepared according to package instructions, reserving 2 tablespoons of cooking water
  • 150 grams bangus sisig or Spanish-style sardines
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons salted butter
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 eggplant, peeled and diced
  • 1 fish bouillon cube
  • chorizo de Bilbao, finely diced
  • 2 tablespoons ginger vodka or white wine
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan or aged Edam cheese
  • wakame or nori furikake to garnish

Boil up the spaghetti till just al dente; drain, reserving two tablespoons of the cooking water.

Over medium heat, warm up the oil and butter till the butter has melted and begun to brown at the edges.  Add the onion and cook till softened.  Add the garlic and cook just till the edges begin to brown and crisp up.  Add the chorizo, diced eggplant, herbs, and bouillon cube; cook for about two minutes or till the bouillon cube has dissolved.

Add the sisig or sardines and cook for a few minutes.  Pour in the reserved pasta cooking water and vodka or white wine.  Stir and allow to boil for about two minutes.  Remove from the heat and toss in the cooked pasta.

Transfer to a serving plate and top with the cheese and the furikake.

Serves 6.

In Which the Coffee Helped Put the Blogger to Sleep…

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Coffee that’s supposed to help me relax?!?

Coffee is not exactly the best nostrum to use for getting to sleep.  On the contrary, it’s the sort of pick-me-up people drink to stay awake.  However, as there is an exception to every rule, there actually is a brand of iced coffee that can help you chill out.

RealBeanz, a Brooklyn, NY-based brewer, offers one such ready-to-drink coffee.  RealBeanz’s Relax is a decaffeinated brew mixed with milk and a touch of Madagascan vanilla to make a delightful, not too sweet sipper that goes down smoothly.  And, more than that…

What have they put into my coffee?!
What have they put into my coffee?!

…this particular drink is compounded with several herbs that have long been known in the practice of both aromatherapy and homeopathy to help lull the mind and body into a state of repose and relaxation.

Chamomile, in particular, helps alleviate the effects of stress and eases anxiety.  Lemon balm helps relax the drinker’s mental state and calms the psyche.  And there is a tinge of passion flower to help relax tense muscles.  So, you see, it’s the sort of coffee you can chug down at the end of the day – and still be able to grab forty, well-earned winks.

(Note: I found RealBeanz iced coffee in the chilled drinks section of Shopwise Supermarket in Alabang.  All variants are priced at P 117.00 per bottle.)

 

In Which We Talk About Binatog

Binatog for a lazy afternoon...
Binatog for a lazy afternoon…

The clang of a bell in the mid-afternoon is considered a herald of light yet satisfying eating in many residential districts throughout the Philippines.  An ambulant vendor on a bicycle cheerfully rings his bell between two and four in the afternoon – a sure sign that there is binatog on offer for hungry souls seeking something heavier than crisps but not as hefty as rice cakes.

Binatog is one of the simplest dishes in Philippine cuisine.  It is, basically, starchy white corn soaked in salt-water until the innards get all puffy.  The soaked corn is then drained and boiled in fresh water just until the skins on the kernels are beginning to slip off.  The cooked corn is then drained thoroughly and stored by vendors in a large, cylindrical container made of stainless steel.  Several smaller containers are attached nearby, each containing such accoutrements as freshly grated coconut, salt, and sugar.

A bowlful of binatog will set a diner back P 10.00 (about US$ 0.22), though individual diners have to provide their own crockery as there is no room on the vendor’s bike for even the flimsiest of paper plates or cups.  It is a deeply satisfying snack: the bland corn gains savour from the addition of salt (we never ask for sugar when we buy binatog) and there is a muted sweetness from the coconut.  It is, to me, the taste of summers past; it is a taste of my childhood.

In Which One Tries Her Hand at Home-smoking Pork…

Pork soaking in the curing solution
Pork soaking in the curing solution

I’ve noticed that there is so much media focus centred on bacon – bacon, of all things!  Those salty, smoky rashers and slabs of pork belly that are part and parcel of a good, lip-smacking breakfast and are also key to adding flavour and savour to dishes like pasta carbonara or sautéed broccoli or creamed peas.  Much of the bacon eaten here in the Philippines is supermarket bacon – either Purefoods-Hormel or Swift or CDO.  There are some who go out of their way to hunt down artisanal bacon from prominent delis or particularly clever entrepreneurs, buying sticks of picnic-style bacon, smoked pork loin, or gammon.

Believe it or not, there is actually a way by which home cooks can add smoky goodness to their favourite meat dishes.  This is what is known as tea-smoking.

Tea-smoked Pork Belly
Tea-smoked Pork Belly

Here, the pork is first soaked in a sugar-sweetened marinade for at least four hours before being roasted over a mixture of black tea and brown sugar.  It’s an absolutely easy thing to do and the results are totally delicious.

I should note, however, that I made this in a turbo broiler (multifunctional convection oven), as it keeps the smoke in and cooks the meat to perfection.  I’m still working out how to do this in a regular oven.

It may not be exactly like bacon, but it delivers on smoky goodness.  It’s a treat with mashed potatoes, but also works well when tossed into hot pasta or served with fried or poached eggs for breakfast.

Tea-smoked Pork Belly

  • 1 kilo pork belly

For the Cure:

  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons ginger wine or ginger ale
  • 2 star anise, broken
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil

For Smoking:

  • 5 teabags black tea (Lipton is what I used)
  • 5 additional teabags of whichever flavour of tea of choice (I prefer a mix of raspberry white tea and Earl Grey for a slightly fruity tang)
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar

Combine the ingredients for the cure and pour over the pork belly.  Allow to marinate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Place the ingredients for smoking in a disposable aluminium dish and place at the bottom of the turbo broiler.  Set the roasting rack over the aluminium dish.  Switch on the broiler and set to 350 degrees; leave on for 15 – 20 minutes to torch the tea mixture to smoking point.

Place the pork belly directly on the roasting rack.  Cook for 20 minutes, then turn over and cook for an additional 20 minutes.  Switch off the broiler but do not as yet remove the pork.  Leave it in there to absorb the smoke and develop flavour.

When the broiler has cooled completely, remove the pork and slice thinly.  Serve at once.

Serves 6.

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?