In Search of the Better Burger: On Simplicity…

Sometimes, keeping things simple is best...

There are times when one craves for something incredibly elaborate for lunch, but there are also times when all you want is something utterly simple – like a plate of rice and some sauteed veg, or a schmear of peanut butter on toast, or – best of all – a properly grilled burger.  No bells and whistles, no frills: just a properly grilled beef patty on a warm bun.

Beef, bread, a bit of veg - what more can you ask for?

Case in point: the Baby Brothers Burger at Brothers Burger.  Robust beef on an oatmeal bun, a slice of tomato, a few shreds of lettuce – and no: not even a drop of either catsup or mayo.  Ah, bliss…

The Rainy-Day Casserole

Pork, potatoes, and carrots in a mushroom blanket

Nothing is as comforting to the stomach as a good, rich, thick, and piping-hot stew or casserole for dinner on a cold, rainy day.  In this part of the world, rainy weather is a good excuse for putting dishes like savory beef caldereta or a tomatoey chicken afritada on the table.  However, if you’re having one of those days when you don’t want the savory tang of beef or the comforting taste of chicken and you find lamb too gamey for your palate, pork is a good option.

As in China, pork is the meat of choice for many Filipino families as people like the rich flavor particularly when grilled or battered and fried.  But one can only take so much in the way of roasts and breaded chops.  But while such dishes as menudo and nilagang baboy are found comforting by some people, there are times when even classic dishes fail to satisfy.

The dish shown above is my way of jazzing things up on a rainy day.  It’s a casserole of browned cubes of well-balanced pork (balanced amounts of fat and lean) with carrots and potatoes beneath a creamy blanket of mushroom soup and milk.  Bacon bits and grated cheese go on top before baking.

The end result is a delectable, satisfying dish that is best served piping-hot on a rainy evening with mounds of hot, fluffy rice.  Ah, comfort food, indeed!

Persian Flavors in the Philippines

Chelo Kebab Combination (Kebab Kubideh + Morg Kebab)

Pomegranate Soup, Marsha Mehran‘s novel about three Iranian sisters who open a Persian cafe in Ballinacroagh, Ireland, is one of my favorite stories and is a book that always seems to be beside my bed and flipped through in idle hours.  The prose is playful, the story touching and hilarious at the same time.  But it is Mehran’s descriptions of the native cuisine that really tugs at me as a foodie: so vivid, almost lurid, that you can actually feel your nose twitch at the imagined touch of cumin, your mouth will water at the mentioned tanginess of ripe pomegranate and preserved lime, and you will find yourself craving for such sweets as rose-shot baklava or the doughnut-like zulbia.

Inside Persia Grill

It’s actually fairly easy to get a Persian meal in this part of the world; here in the Makati area, there are already a number of kebab shops and shawarma – the roast-beef-in-pita-pocket snack so common to the Mediterranean and the Middle East – is a popular meal.  But, that, said it’s also easy to get a pricey Persian meal and, at the same time, it’s also easy to get a bad Persian meal.  Lucky for me, good and inexpensive Persian food may be found just a short walk away at – where else?! – Persia Grill.

Baba Ganoush and flatbread

On reading the menu, I was very pleased to see a variety of dishes I’d recently only read about in the pages of Pomegranate Soup: abgusht (meat stew cooked with chickpeas, potatoes, and preserved limes), mast-o-khiar (a cold, tangy yogurt soup), khoresh (stewed chicken), and dolmeh (only here, it refers to stuffed peppers; in the book, it was stuffed vine leaves).  I wanted to stay and taste them all, but I had but an hour for lunch.  Still, I wanted an enjoyable meal and that’s exactly what I got.

I started the meal with the baba ganoush, that classic roasted eggplant puree served with flatbread.  Persia Grill’s version of this appetizer is good and creamy, with the bitter-sweet flavor I find a sign of properly grilled eggplants.  A generous dribble of olive oil and a sprinkling of sumac (a sour powdered spice made with dried rhus berries) finishes the dish, giving it another dimension of mild sweetness balanced by a slap of tartness.  Spread on the warm flatbread, it made an excellent taste-bud teaser for the meal to come.

Beef and chicken kebabs up close

I usually order the Grill’s chelo kebab kubideh.  It’s a pair of kebab kubideh (skewered patties made with shredded – not ground! – beef mixed with cumin, cinnamon, paprika, and a hint of ginger) served with steamed long grain rice (chelo in Farsi), a couple of roasted tomatoes, a roasted green chili, a small dish of eggplant-yogurt dip, and a fat pat of butter you’re supposed to mix into the savory rice to add richness.

Today, though, lunch was the chelo kebab combination.  I would recommend this as a good way of making yourself familiar with Persian food.  What you get is a kebab kubideh and a kebab morgKebab morg is a dish where chicken breast fillets are marinated with lemon, onions, and black pepper.  The poultry is then cut into strips, skewered, and grilled.  Now, admittedly, I’m no fan of chicken breasts, but these are a fab exception.  Persia Grill’s kebab morg is citrusy without being overpowering, tender to the bite, and surprisingly juicy for a cut of poultry notorious for being tough and dry.  Eaten with the buttery chelo, it’s a savory alternative to the usual chicken barbecue.

The kebab kubideh, on the other hand, tastes more like lamb rather than beef.  I am not sure if it’s because the spices used to flavor it are the ones traditionally used for lamb in Arabic countries.  One other thing, the flavor profile is somewhat gamier than most other dishes involving ground beef.  Nevertheless, it’s really good and savory – and good value for money because the helping in the combo and the double-helping in the regular chelo kebab kubideh plate are quite generous.  Incidentally, if you want a different spin on the regular shawarma, order the Persian burger which features a kebab kubideh patty instead of the usual shreds of roast beef tucked into a folded pita.

The chelo – the long-grained basmati rice – tastes like it was cooked in a savory broth as I could catch hints of onion and parsley.  Saffron was obviously used sparingly, given the patches of brilliant yellow grains on the plate.  However, I take issue with the chelo because it was missing one crucial part: the famed tadig.  Tadig is what is known as tutong in Filipino and okoge in Japanese: the crunchy burnt layer at the bottom of the rice pot.  In other culinary cultures, that layer is the blessing-in-disguise that follows a cook’s negligence.  In Persian cuisine, however, tadig is cooked deliberately.  Once the rice is al dente from steaming or boiling, it’s layered in a deep pan and fried with olive oil.  This results in tender, fluffy rice on top and a crunchy cracker-like slab below that, as Marsha Mehran puts it, lures diners to the table like no other.

While the usual beverages are on offer (along with raspberry iced tea), I would recommend that you end your meal with the plain yogurt shake (dugh in Farsi) as it’s tangy, refreshing, and quite light.  (I noticed that the brand of liquid yogurt they use is actually semi-carbonated.)

I should warn you, though: if you’re going to the Valero branch of Persia Grill, you’d better get there early.  It gets really crowded and the noise level can get uncomfortable at times.  Still, if you’re up for something different, it’s one place you shouldn’t skip.

One other thing, Persia Grill was featured in Yummy magazine’s May 2010 issue as one of the best places to eat on the cheap.  Indeed, a good meal consisting of a drink, appetizer, and a two-kebab plate will set you back a mere P 350.00 (US$ 7.58) on average.  Not a bad deal, eh?

Persia Grill – Ground Floor, Valero Parking Area (beside Kitaro and just behind the Paseo Center), Valero St., Salcedo Village, Makati.

Chocolate Appreciation 101 Goes Patriotic

This month, Heavenly Chocolates goes native in celebration of Independence Day!  Chocolate Appreciation 101 for June features interesting insights on the cultivation of cacao in the Philippines and the impact of chocolate on Philippine literature and culinary culture.

Benjie Pedro and I will be your guides in this exciting gustatory adventure.

We will be serving single-origin Davao hot chocolate plus a regular groaning board of native delicacies.

To RSVP, email the shop at heavenly_chocolates@yahoo.com or call 666-22-08.

The Ultimate Chocoholic Frozen Delight

Midnight Truffle Chilly Burger

I take issue with the weather.  It was already blissfully rainy a few days ago, and now it’s blistering hot again.  😦  Shoot…

Since the weather’s turned warm and I’ve gone all cranky, chocolate would most definitely be on the menu.  I’m working on a new truffle and a batch of milk-choc clusters with a locally sourced treat for Monday’s patriotic edition of Chocolate Appreciation 101 at Heavenly Chocolates, but the ganache still needs to mellow down and I’m not about to start munching clusters lest I end up eating a lot!  That said, I decided to grab some serious chocolate ice cream therapy in the form of a Midnight Truffle Chilly Burger from Sebastian’s Ice Cream.

This particular monster consists of dark chocolate ice cream with a molten chocolate fudge center sandwiched between two large chocolate cookies and the sides rolled in cocoa powder.  What you get when you bite into this is a mix of flavors and textures: bittersweet with a slight hint of salt, brownie-grade chewy cookies, incredibly rich ice cream that you just know had to have been made with real cream and proper (45 – 65% cocoa solid) chocolate, the molten center spilling voluptuously with each bite and tasting better – smokier, more sinister – than the best chocolate fudge sauce.  The dusting of cocoa around the circumference adds a bitter note to keep this sandwich from becoming overly sweet.

One Chilly Burger will set you back P 120.00, which is quite a bit higher than those flogged by other purveyors.  But given the fact that it’s about as big as a good-sized burger (approximately as high and as wide as a Sango Master Burger), and is the perfect size for sharing, it’s certainly worth every cent.

But, as for sharing, well…  Why share when you don’t have to?  😉