Posted in Home Cooking, The Flavors of Asia, The Well-read Foodie

In Which the Blogger takes on a Chinese Eggplant Dish…

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So fiddly to make, but definitely worth it

It’s one of those days: the newly-minted freelance writer has just a bare minimum of professional writing to do, the help has gone on her annual fortnight-long vacation out of town; it’s been raining buckets, and one is in a quandary as to what to cook for dinner tonight.

And so…

“I’m heading out to do a cake delivery,” I told my sister yesterday.  “Might head to the supermarket to get some ingredients.  Three-cups chicken okay with you?”

My sister considered this for a bit and said, “No, but could you try cooking stuffed eggplant instead?”

Stuffed eggplant in this case is not the fabled imam bayildi of Arabic cuisine or the melitzanes papoutsakia of Greek cuisine.  No: it’s actually jiān niàng qiézi [煎釀茄子], a type of dimsum served at many restaurants specializing in Cantonese cuisine.

In this case, the slimmer purple Asian eggplants are cut into 1-1/2 inch chunks that are partly split through the middle and filled with a prawn forcemeat.  The stuffed chunks are first fried, then steamed and served with a sauce compounded from garlic, sesame oil, and oyster sauce.  In some recipes, the process is reversed: the stuffed eggplant is first steamed and then fried.  However, the fry-then-steam process works for me, so I stuck to that.

Whichever method you choose, though, the end result is a rich-tasting dish that works better as a main course rather than a dimsum tidbit.  Serve this with a large bowl of steaming hot rice to add scrumptious comfort to cold, stormy evenings.

The recipe I used was adapted from the one featured on The Woks of Life.  But because several family members are allergic to crustaceans, mine features an all-pork filling and uses the more pungent black rather than white pepper; the filling also featured a tablespoon of rendered lard.  Believe me when I say it adds the right amount of punch, loads of flavor, and a much-appreciated richness.

The authors of the original recipe say you can skip stuffing the eggplant all together and use veg stock to make this vegan-friendly.  But, given my general aversion towards vegans, – who, I’m sorry to say, are the biggest hypocrites in both a political and a culinary sense – why mess with a good thing if you don’t have to?  Oh, but feel free to replace the pork with minced white fish or ground chicken; I don’t recommend doing this with beef or lamb, though.

(Oh, and according to my sister, this dish tastes every bit as good cold and eaten for breakfast the day after.)

Stuffed Eggplant

For the Stuffed Eggplant:

  • 4 medium-sized Asian eggplants, trimmed and cut into 1-1/2 inch chunks
  • 1/4 kilo ground pork
  • 1 tablespoon rendered lard or bacon fat or vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 4 spring onions, finely chopped + additional 2 spring onions, also finely chopped
  • generous dash of black pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine or mirin
  • Additional 2 tablespoons lard for frying

For the Sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon lard
  • 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/2 chicken or pork bouillon cube
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • ground black pepper to taste

Slit the eggplant chunks lengthwise through the middle, but do not cut all the way through.  Just leave enough to form a hinge on one side.  Set aside.

Combine all the remaining ingredients for the stuffing until a rough paste is formed.  Stuff the prepared eggplant with about 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons of filling per piece.  Chill for at least 10 minutes.

Heat the additional lard in a large frying pan over medium heat.  Fry the chilled eggplant until browned on both sides; place the pieces in a heat-proof bowl that can fit comfortably in a steamer.  Place three cups of water into the lower chamber of a steamer and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Lower heat to a simmer and place the bowl of eggplant chunks in the upper chamber.  Cover and steam for 10-15 minutes.

While the eggplant is cooking, make the sauce.  In a pan over medium heat, saute the minced garlic in 1 tablespoon of lard and the sesame oil until fragrant.  Add the bouillon cube, oyster sauce, and soy sauce.  Cook until the cube has dissolved.  Add the water, stir, and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat and add the cornstarch slurry; cook until slightly thickened.

Remove the cooked eggplant from the steamer and pour any juices in the bowl into the sauce; stir well.  Put the eggplant in a serving dish, drizzle with the sauce; scatter over the remaining spring onions.

Serves 6.

Posted in Home Baking, Sweets for the Sweet, The Well-read Foodie

In Which One Bakes a Proper Red Velvet Cake…

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In the tin

Red velvet cake is something of a pseudo-tradition in my family because my sister always asks for something similar to it for her birthday.

The first time she asked for one resulted in a deep purple dessert dubbed the Sky at Dusk because it was the color of a night sky and decorated with stars cut out of cake trimmings on top of a lemon cheesecake frosting.  This would eventually be followed by the much-darker imperial velvet cake and other similar treats.

And finally, this: a real red velvet cake.

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Ready to serve

And not just any red velvet cake, mind you: this monster is a chocolate red velvet cake.

The average red velvet cake is, pretty much, a butter cake loaded with red food coloring.  However, the original red velvet is a cocoa-flavored butter cake that took its characteristic maroon hue from the chemical reaction between acidic buttermilk and the more alkaline cocoa powder.  Unfortunately, many modern red velvet cake recipes add just a smidgen (two tablespoons or less) of cocoa and load up on food coloring; not cool, if you ask me.

Mine is adapted from the one from the Hershey’s Kitchen – but has the added advantage of a quarter-cup of chocolate chips tossed into the deep red batter before baking.  Thus, this one has ample chocolate flavor and is considerably richer and more satisfying than the red velvet cake you’d pick up from some commercial bakery.  Add the fact that the icing on this particular cake is a caramel cream cheese frosting, it was a cake that definitely put a smile on my sister’s face on her special day.

And, believe me when I say this is guaranteed to make you smile, too.

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Sheer and absolute delight in every bite

Chocolate Red Velvet Cake

For the Cake:

  • 1/2 cup vanilla-flavored margarine or soft unsalted butter
  • 1-1/2 cups granulated white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons red food coloring
  • 1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 cup buttermilk or 1 tablespoon vinegar + enough milk to yield 1 cup total liquid
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda

For the Frosting:

  • 1 bar (8 oz.) cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup caramel-flavored margarine or soft unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup icing or confectioner’s sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees / Gas Mark 4.

Grease and flour a standard-sized regular Bundt or fluted Bundt pan.

Cream together the vanilla margarine and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, cocoa powder, and vanilla; mix well.  Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda.  Tip half the flour mixture into the cocoa mixture.  Mix well and pour in half the buttermilk; mix until well combined.  Tip in the rest of the flour mixture and blend well with the rest of the buttermilk until a smooth batter is achieved.  Stir in the food coloring and mix until well-incorporated.  Fold in the chocolate chips.

Pour into the prepared cake pan and bake 55 minutes.

While the cake is baking, make the frosting.  Using a hand-held mixture at medium speed, whip together all the ingredients until soft peaks form.  Chill for at least 15 minutes.

Remove the baked cake from the pan and set onto a serving plate, reserving any crumbs.  Allow to cool completely before frosting.  Top the frosted cake with any reserved crumbs.

Serves 12…just.  ;)

 

 

Posted in Sweets for the Sweet

In Which There is DIY Ice Cream for Milo-holics…

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Cream, condensed milk, Milo…

I grew up drinking Milo, Nestle’s malted chocolate milk drink.  Well, to be exact, I grew up eating Milo – scooping up the powder with a tablespoon and scoffing the lot with impunity.

As I grew older, though, Milo became a running gag in my life on account of the infamous Milo biscuit episode of my years in college.  Fortunately, that incident has mellowed into a funny memory and I have moved on to using Milo for better desserts that are a lot gentler on teeth.

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Yes, there’s a Milo packet there.

Case in point, this nifty malted chocolate ice cream.

This no-churn wonder is flavored with Milo for a gloriously dreamy cream ice that is richly chocolaty despite its rather pale beige appearance.  I threw in another childhood treat – Kit Kats – to make it even more decadent.

I like to think of this recipe as all your guilty childhood pleasures all grown up and skirting just the very edge of divine decadence.

Mind you: this is going to be a lot richer than your usual ice cream, so keep servings modest.

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Have a scoop…or two.

Malted Chocolate Ice Cream

  • 2 cups heavy or all-purpose cream
  • 1 cup condensed milk
  • 1/2 cup Milo
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 4 four-finger Kit Kat bars, diced

Whisk together the cream, condensed milk, vanilla, and Milo.  Pour into a covered container and freeze for 1 – 2 hours.

Remove the semi-frozen mixture from its container and place in a large mixing bowl.  Using a hand-mixer, whisk at highest speed until at least double in volume or until soft peaks form.  Fold in the diced Kit Kats and scrape into a covered container.  Freeze at least six hours or overnight.

Serves 12.

Posted in Home Baking, Home Cooking, Uncategorized

In Which There is a Pizza for a Weeknight Dinner…

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The “Before” Shot

I don’t work full-time anymore.  These days, I work as a consultant for the corporate governance advocacy I was working full-time for about a month ago.  It’s a healthier set-up, really: I don’t have to weather through the increasingly chaotic traffic of the Greater Manila Area five days a week and I don’t have to be cooped up in an office for the greater part of my day.

It is a schedule that has improved my health: I sleep better now and I am able to keep my stress down to a tolerable level.  Also: it’s given me more time to work on my poetry, the novel that has remained stalled for weeks, as well as cooking and baking.

The last one has led to a greater amount of experimentation in the kitchen: not just for special occasions or weekend dinners, but for weekday meals, as well.  And so, this pizza…

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The “After” Shot

The crust for this is different from the schiacciata base I normally make from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess recipe which calls for baking the pizza at a high temperature first, then lowering the temp for the last two thirds of cooking.  This recipe is a much simpler one from Penny Stephens‘s What’s Cooking: Italian.  Less flour is involved and you only need to cook it at a constant, middling temperature.  The resulting crust is pleasantly crispy at the edges, deliciously fluffy and chewy within.

The topping I used features two ingredients with a smoky flavor profile: tinapang bangus (hot-smoked milkfish) and char-grilled eggplant.  The meaty smoked milkfish acts as a foil to the sharp yet sweet tomato sauce I used as a base and the eggplant adds a welcome, somewhat bittersweet nuance that was quite satisfying.

I also added olives for a salty zing and capers because they go so well with fish.  You can skip the capers, if you like.  But please keep them in; I insist: they make this already interesting dish more appealing.

This makes for a light but satisfying meal, particularly if served with a good soup (from scratch, mind you; the additional effort is worth it) or a crisp, fresh salad.

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Serve with a good soup made from scratch

Tinapizza

For the Crust:

  • 350 grams all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 250mL water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 packet (7g) instant/fast-acting yeast

For the Topping:

  • 1/2 cup cooked and flaked tinapang bangus or any hot-smoked fish
  • 1 medium-sized Asian eggplant, peeled
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • 1 red onion, sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1/2 a chicken or fish bouillon cube
  • 2 tablespoons Italian seasoning or 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil and oregano
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup sliced olives
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained (optional)
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup additional grated cheese (mild Cheddar or mozzarella)
  • 2 tablespoons water

Heat the water and 1 tablespoon olive oil on HIGH in the microwave for about 45 seconds.  Combine the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast in a large mixing bowl.  Make a well in the center and pour in the water and oil.  Mix well.  Dust your hands with flour and knead the dough for 10 – 12 minutes until it forms a smooth ball, dusting with more flour from time to time.  Cover with a clean dishtowel and leave to rise in a warm, draft-free place for an hour.

Grease a lipped cookie sheet; set aside.

Grill the eggplant or cook in a large, ungreased frying pan until charred, blistered, and tender all over.  Allow to cool for a few minutes, then chop coarsely.

Heat two tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat.  Saute the sliced onion until softened.  Add the garlic and cook until the garlic has browned a little at the edges.  Add the herbs and cook till fragrant.  Add the bouillon, cook till it has dissolved, then add the eggplant and tomato sauce.  Thin the sauce a little with the water and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and cook for about ten minutes; add the brown sugar and stir until it has dissolved.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool for fifteen minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees / Gas Mark 6.

Punch down the risen dough and press into the prepared cookie sheet.  Cover and leave to rest for ten to fifteen minutes.  Uncover the dough and evenly spread over the sauce.  Evenly scatter over the smoked fish, olives, and – if using – capers.  Evenly scatter over the cheeses.

Bake for 20 minutes.  Turn the oven off at the end of baking time but leave the pizza inside for an additional ten minutes.  Remove from oven and slice into sticks.

Serves 8.

Posted in A Girl at Lunch, Restaurant Hopping, The Flavors of Asia

In Which One Encounters the Nicest Bánh Mì

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Take a bite…  It’s all right…

Bánh mì is actually something of an ambiguous culinary term.  In Vietnamese, it just means “bread” – as in any kind of bread, but most likely the baguette-like buns introduced by the French when they held sway in Indochina.  However, thanks to the Vietnamese diaspora scattered throughout the world, a bánh mì is known to be a small baguette sandwich loaded with everything from rustic liver pate to bits and bobs of unique Vietnamese charcuterie even to such oddities as chicken and pork floss.

I’ve had bánh mì in a number of local Vietnamese restaurants but, by far, the most authentic – and possibly the tastiest – has to be the Traditional bánh mì from Bon Banhmi.

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As you can see, it’s loaded.

This sandwich stand started out with a single shop in San Antonio Village, the heart of Makati’s foodie hipster zone.  It has since branched out and has outlets throughout the Makati area.  The one closest to me is actually on the twelfth floor of the GT Tower along Ayala Avenue but it offers virtually everything from the original – including a real Vietnamese sandwich mistress running the stall.

Whatever sarnie you choose, though, you can expect it to be good; excellent as a matter of fact.  Craving beef?  They have one with grilled beef.  Pork?  Take your pick: roasted with crackling skin on, meatballs, or barbecued.  Chicken fans can have one filled with shreds of chicken floss and veg-heads can have a baguette loaded with crisp greens, crunchy fresh cukes, pickles, and cilantro sprigs.

But take it from me: what you want – and what you will eventually crave for – is the traditional.  This is Bon Banhmi’s version of the bánh mì dac biet or bánh mì huynh hoa: a baguette stuffed with three kinds of Vietnamese ham or sausage plus pickles, salad greens, and dressing.  The meaty triumvirate featured here has cha lua (pork headcheese), cha gio heo (a pork sausage similar to Italian salami or mortadella), and cha thu (red-rinded pork shank ham); and this is aside from the generous schmear of Vietnamese liver pate and a rich, creamy homemade mayonnaise that tastes absolutely lush and buttery.  A scoop of daikon and carrot pickles helps cut the porky richness while fresh cucumber and cilantro add crunch and zing.

It really is one of the best sandwiches you’ll ever eat: the bread is crispy from start to finish, keeping its crusty integrity despite the creamy pate and mayo as well as the juices from the pickles and the spicy dressing.  Every bite melds together into a refreshingly savory whole and the chef doesn’t skimp on any of the ingredients.  Truth be told, it isn’t a bad deal for P 99.00 for a medium or, better yet, P 119.00 for the large.  (Get the large; you won’t regret it.)

Grab an iced coffee and settle down for a meal that wouldn’t be out of place in the streets of Saigon.

Posted in Home Cooking, Sweets for the Sweet, The Joy of Snacks

In Which One Gussies Up Her Toast…

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Not quite Shibuya Toast, but every bit as good…possibly better

Shibuya Toast is a dessert commonly found in Japanese or Korean cafe franchises.  It is, in essence, what it is: toast slathered with sweet toppings.  However, the toast in question is definitely not the same toast you scarf down for breakfast.  Au contraire, what these establishments do is grab a hunk of bread – say a quarter of an unsliced loaf – chuck it into the oven to crisp up, then load it up with syrups and conserves and goodness knows what else.

For this reason, I’ve never been inclined to order it.  For all that I’m for decadent desserts, turning your toast into a groaning behemoth of massive, sugary proportions is just overkill.

For the same reason, I prefer a little more constraint to my dessert toast.  I don’t want a hunk of bread; a somewhat thicker-cut sandwich slice works enough for me.  I don’t need all the bells and whistles of Nutella, matcha syrup, chocolate ganache, and gobs of sweetened adzuki bean.

Truth be told, all I need is a generous schmear of good peanut butter thickly slathered over the bread and a drizzle of wild honey.  Five minutes in the toaster gives the peanut butter a richer flavor and renders the honey crisp like thin, wispy shards of properly made caramel.  I finish it off with a scoop of plain, honest-to-goodness vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of more honey.  Easier to eat, no need to share; a divinely decadent dessert for one given elegant restraint.

Posted in A Girl at Lunch, A Whole Lotta Spice!, Restaurant Hopping, Uncategorized

In Which Kebab Factory Gives Mediterranean Classics a Quirky Twist…

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Why is my flatbread on a spike?

I am of the opinion that authenticity is something to consider with regard to dining at establishments specializing in the cuisine of specific countries or regions.  For this reason, Japanese restaurants always seem to have a traditional aesthetic and Mexican taquerias always look like a mercado de la puebla in Oaxaca or Acapulco.

Following this unspoken, unwritten rule, many restaurants specializing in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and South Asian food look like the inside of a Persian harem with elaborately decorated lanterns, reproductions of Moghul Period art, and the requisite decorative hookah in the corner.  So it comes as a surprise that The Kebab Factory looks absolutely modern – and pretty much looks like a standard-issue present-day cafeteria because the food is prepared at a steam table at one end of the restaurant and is served on dinky melamine plates.

But don’t let that keep you from enjoying the wealth of flavors this joint offers.  In fact, a hint of quirkiness makes your meal more interesting.  Case in point is the starter shown above: baba ganoush with flatbread is presented in a somewhat unusual manner.  Instead of dishing up this tasty eggplant dip in a bowl or a small soup plate, this creamy melange of roasted eggplant, yogurt, and garlic is served in a highball glass with a drizzle of olive oil, a dusting of tart sumac with a hint of chili, and a whole green olive plunged into the center of the dip.  Additional chopped olives are also mixed into the dip, the zingy tart taste balancing the smooth, creamy, smoky bitterness.  Even the flatbread is presented differently: layered onto a paper spike – the kind you usually see in professional kitchens (for finished orders) or editorial offices (for finished assignments).  Crisp around the edges and chewy in the middle, these wedges are the perfect size for scooping up the baba ganoush.

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Kebab Trio Ultimate Plate (L-R: lamb, chicken, beef)

TKF also has platters to share under the heading Ultimate Plates.  One nifty choice is the Kebab Trio which has a three-kebab assortment on top of a bright yellow biryani with crisp coriander-seed pappadums and grilled tomatoes on the side.

I daresay that no extenders seem to have been used in the kebabs as these were meaty all the way through with the cumin-spiced lamb becoming a personal favorite.  The well-seasoned beef comes a close second, but the chicken – while perfectly spiced and flavorful – was on the dry side.  The mildly spiced rice works a treat with the meats, complementing rather than overpowering the flavors.

That said, what The Kebab Factory lacks in aesthetics, it certainly more than makes up for in flavor and savor.

The Kebab Factory: Ground Floor – SM Jazz Mall, Nicanor Garcia cor. Jupiter Sts., Bel-Air, Makati