In Which There are Life Lessons Learned from Braising…

Braised pork leg is always a comforting meal...
Braised pork leg is always a comforting meal…

Of late, cooking braises has become something of a learning experience for me – and not just on a culinary level, but on a spiritual and an emotional one, as well.

Those who know me best are aware that the past two and a half months have not been the easiest of times for me.  I quit my job in December 2013, burnt out and worn out; I was totally at a loss as to what to do next with my life.  There have been job interviews, manuscript submissions, scads of freelance work – but the experiences have not always been good.  There have been outright dismissals, overt rejections, and times when clients would hedge about payment despite the fact that results were delivered on time and even on demand.  Truly, it has not been the easiest time.

So what does my life have to do with learning how to braise things properly?  Well, in learning how to cook a proper braise, I managed to learn a few things that I think everyone should know:

  • Some things need a longer time to cook than most.  In cooking, some cuts of meat tend to cook for a whole lot longer than, say, a chop or a filet mignon.  In fact, the average cooking time for things like pork belly and pork legs is at least 45 to 50 minutes; beef offal – tripe and omasum, most likely – and oxtail take at least an hour.  Like those tough cuts of meat, there are some things in life that cannot be rushed: in my case, finishing a novel took me the better part of ten months before I reached an ending that suited my purpose.  Likewise, some job applications are worth the wait and so are the answers of some publishers who claim to take at least six months before reacting to a manuscript submission.  Like the old saw goes, good things do come to those who wait…;
  • Sometimes, you have to make do with what you have on hand.  In cooking, this usually refers to the act of swapping one ingredient for another in case you ran out.  (Case in point: if you don’t have shaoxing wine or Japanese mirin in the kitchen, citrus-flavored white or clear alco-pop works like a charm.)  In life, however, it means one just has to grab each and every opportunity as it comes and to make the most out of it while it lasts.  Which leads to…;
  • The results may not necessarily look like the one in the cookbook/food magazine; that said, the results may not necessarily be what you expected.  Because of the intensity of the soy sauce I have in my home pantry, my Chinese braises – sanbeiji [three-cups chicken] and the pata tim [braised pork leg] at the top of this post – tend to look darker than the ones in the cookbooks or food magazines from whence I got the recipes – but this isn’t bad.  The same thing goes for one’s life: the results of one’s actions tend to be more than a little unpredictable – but they’re not all that bad.  Indeed, some of the best experiences in my life were totally unexpected.

That said, with a little patience, a little ingenuity, and a whole lot of hope, life can become something as delectably savory as a well-executed braise.

In Which the Blogger Bakes Red Velvet COOKIES…

I solemnly swear I am up to no good...
I solemnly swear I am up to no good…

It is no secret to anyone who has been reading this blog for the longest time that I absolutely hate Valentine’s Day.  I shun all the cheesy sentiments, the wonted sucking-up to loved ones with tawdry baubles, the bloody traffic jams, and the fact that you can’t get a decent meal anywhere because even the food courts are filled with calf-eyed couples pledging their undying love for each other over – only to break up the very next day.  It’s a very insincere pseudo-holiday and one that causes a lot more heartache despite the fact that it’s supposed to celebrate love and lovers!

The only things I like about Valentine’s Day are the color red and all that chocolate.  And today’s post features both of them in spades.

Red, fudgy, and utterly delicious...
Red, fudgy, and utterly delicious…

I recently found a jim-dandy recipe for Red Velvet Crinkles that have the dual virtue of being a nice, rosy red and exceptionally chocolatey due to the addition of melted chocolate and smoky cocoa powder into the dough along with plenty of dark chocolate chunks.

It’s the sort of thing that can satisfy the cravings of any hard-core chocoholic or Red Velvet fan.  They are incredibly moreish and utterly addictive – just the thing to soothe any bitterness one may feel at being single or the perfect present for someone you really care about.

Red Velvet Chocolate Crinkles

  • 1-1/2 cups brown sugar
  • 1-1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • scant 1/2 cup softened butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons red food coloring
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 100 grams dark chocolate, melted
  • 200 grams dark chocolate, coarsely chopped into chunks
  • granulated white sugar for rolling
  • sifted confectioners sugar for rolling
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Grease and line two standard-sized lipped cookie sheets with waxed paper or baking parchment.  Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees / Gas Mark 4.

Cream together the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs one at at time, whisking well with each addition.  Stir in the red food coloring, vanilla, and melted chocolate until well-combined.  Add the flour, baking powder, and chopped chocolate and mix until a soft dough is formed.  Chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour or overnight,

Roll tablespoons of dough first in the granulated sugar and then in the confectioner’s sugar. Place the dough balls at least two inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.  Bake 13 – 15 minutes; allow to cool on the baking sheets for five minutes.  Remove and allow to cool completely on a rack.

Makes approximately four dozen cookies.

Incidentally…  You can also bake this particular cookie dough into a batch of Red Velvet brownies!  Skip the chilling and pour the batter into a greased and lined rectangular cake tin.  Bake 18-20 minutes; allow to cool completely before topping with cream cheese frosting.  😉

In Which We Talk About Local Sausages…

Snags for breakfast!
Snags for breakfast!

Longganiza is the standard-issue / catch-all term used for sausages in this part of the world.  From the enormous salami-like tubes made on the premises and sold by wet-market butchers to the just-this-side-of-burnt skinless links served for breakfast at many fast-food joints, longganiza is a broad-spectrum favorite, its fans encompassing all age groups and socio-economic strata.  

Local snags are almost always made with pork and fall into either one of two categories: hamonado and de recado.  Hamonado sausages are so called because the end result of their curing process is a product similar in flavor and/or texture to sweet ham.  Brown or white sugar is added to the ground pork along with plenty of black pepper, rock salt, and fresh garlic.  When fried, these are magnificently caramelized on the outside and the flavor is a play on sweet and savory.  Hamonado-style sausages are most commonly made in Central Luzon, usually in the provinces of Pampanga and Bulacan; both provinces are known for their sweet-cured meat products, all of which are excellent with garlicky fried rice and fried eggs in the morning.  Interestingly, the sugar-growing Visayan provinces of Negros and Iloilo have a similar product: chorizo Ilonggo – a skinless sweet sausage lightly kissed with fresh garlic that goes down a treat on plain boiled rice with just a drizzle of fiery sinamak vinegar.  A product similar to the Ilonggo sausage is used in the resort island of Boracay to make the perennially popular chori-burger, a large bun filled with slices of sweet sausage in a sweetly peppery sauce.

De recado is a Spanish loan-phrase which pretty much means gussied up or loaded with ingredients.  Like the links at the top of this post, these are what I’d like to call powerhouse sausages, richly seasoned snags that pack a flavorful punch.  These are more savory than sweet, the addition of different spices, herbs, and – in several cases – vinegar greatly enhances the flavor of the pork.  These also lend themselves well to Western modes of cookery and serving food.  Indeed, de recado sausages are popularly added to Spanish paella; they add oomph to both cream- and tomato-based pasta sauces.  Also, these sausages are never out of place on pizzas or in po’ boy or Dagwood-style savory sandwiches. 

The spices and herbs used for de recado forcemeats depend on which part of the country the sausages were made in.  In the Ilocos Region where the bulk of the Philippine garlic crop is grown, local bulbs are crushed and mixed with pork, black pepper, and the dark, rice-hull vinegar of the north to make the famed longganizas de Vigan.  In the city of Guagua in sweet-loving Pampanga, locals play against type and produce a perky, vinegary set of links given a wild pop of finely chopped chili.  In my paternal grandmother’s home province of Nueva Ecija, the garlicky character is given a vivid hue through the addition of either kasubha (native saffron) or achuete (annato seed) to give the snags a nice, golden-orange color.  

Lucban, Quezon takes the crown in the sausage races with the famed longganizang Lucban.  These links are highly seasoned with dark cane vinegar, finely chopped local oregano, and a generous amount of pimenton rojo dulce (sweet red paprika) to give it a vivid scarlet appearance and the amount of fat used in the forcemeat melts off during frying.  The cooked sausages are, thus, smaller than most; but the flavor concentrated in the resulting meaty nuggets is just bloody fantastic.

I’ve never really been a fan of the hamonado style, but fry me up a bunch of de recado snags and hand them to me over rice or on a bed of fluffy mashed potatoes and I, dear readers, will be one very happy camper.

In Which the Ice Cream is a Small, Sunday Pleasure…

Keeping it small and sweet - this is how we do ice cream in southern suburbia!
Keeping it small and sweet – this is how we do ice cream in southern suburbia!

At the end of the Mass every Sunday in the small parish I’ve attended since my family moved to Muntinlupa in 1984, there are certain aromas, flavors, and sounds that have become part and parcel of the Lord’s Day in my part of town.

Almost as soon as the final notes of the recessional hymn have died off and are replaced by the chattering hubbub of exiting parishioners, one catches a whiff of fish balls being fried outside in a wok mounted onto a rolling cart.  There is the scent of fresh fruit sold by the ambulant fruit vendor who always has bananas and small kalamansi limes on her pushcart along with fruit in season such as mangoes, green-skinned native oranges (dalandan), or perhaps large, pale green-skinned guavas.  There is the familiar honk of the pan de sal (salt-bread) seller’s horn on his bicycle as he makes his rounds throughout the community; in the air, all other aromas are subdued by the scent of fresh bread baking at the panaderia (bakery) from whence the seller picks up his wares.  You can hear the taho (tau fu far) vendor shouting “Tahoo-o-o!” on his daily trot, shouldering the massive stainless steel cylinders holding silken tofu, dark brown sugar syrup, and sago.

And there is the cheerful tinkle of the sorbetero‘s (ice cream man) bell, calling children and their parents over to his cart to partake of what is popularly referred to as dirty ice cream.  This confection is so called because well-heeled matrons in past decades told their children not to eat it, claiming that it was “dirty” and prepared under unsanitary conditions.  Kids being kids, these well-meaning mothers were ignored and aforementioned ice cream was consumed with sheer delight.

Sorbetes, the Spanish word for that entire range of frozen delights that covers everything from fruity sherbets to lush ice creams, is the proper name for dirty ice cream.  It is not as refined or as unctuously creamy as commercially prepared ices, but it has the virtue of being both cheap and delicious as these are made with seasonal and locally-sourced ingredients.

It is a touch icier in texture; indeed, it isn’t uncommon to encounter a bit of a crunch from ice crystals.  It also isn’t as milky or creamy as commercial ice cream as there is a bit of coconut milk or cream used in the bases along with the dairy.  But you could really taste the fruit used in making these ices: the almost floral sweetness of fresh mango, the high and funky taste of ripe jackfruit, the creamy bittersweetness of avocado, and the nutty flavor of fresh, young coconut.  In times when no fruit of the earth is ripe enough for mixing in, local ice cream makers also make ices with cocoa powder (a sweetly smoky ice), ube (purple yam; the taro used by milk-tea brewers), and even cheese which makes a delicious salty-sweet iced treat.

Five pesos (approximately US$ 0.11) gets you a small waffle or sugar cone piled high with scoops of all three of the flavors currently available in the sorbetero‘s cart (He usually has just three) or of any one flavor of your choice.  Ten pesos gets you a small plastic cup with a spoon and fifteen gets you an ice cream sandwich where the ice cream scoops are piled into a split sweet bun.

Sorbetes on a Sunday morning…sometimes, life doesn’t get any sweeter than this.

In Which a Vegetable Stir-Fry is Given a Sweet and Sour Twist…

Sweet and tangy mixed veg
Sweet and tangy mixed veg

For most families, the notion of having mixed vegetables on the dinner table is regularly confined to three choices: standard-issue chop suey, the more substantial pinakbet (a ratatouille-like dish popular in the northern provinces of the Philippines featuring eggplant, kabocha squash, snake beans, and bitter melon cooked with bagoong [shrimp paste]), and – in the worst case scenario – frozen succotash (carrots, peas, and corn) sauteed in butter (or margarine).  While this does help people get their five-a-day dose of veggies, it can get monotonous very quickly and a little too often.

This dinky little recipe can help change that.  This is actually something of a twist on a recipe I found in a cookbook called Favorite Brand Name Chinese Collection.  The original recipe only featured green beans (French beans/Baguio beans) paired with cashews in a tangy sauce.  Since, at the time, I didn’t have any cashews, I decided to wing it and threw in a handful of chopped baby corn and button mushrooms.  And, since I didn’t have any rice vinegar either, I went and swapped it for an equal amount of balsamic vinegar which lent a pleasant sweetness and a balanced tang to the finished dish.

Let’s just say that even vege-phobes will like this fresh-tasting stir-fry; even picky kids will like it because of the flavors and the crunch of the vegetables.  Plus, it also makes a great meatless main dish when served over a bowl of rice.

Sweet and Sour Vegetables

  • 1 cup topped and tailed green beans, diced
  • 1 cup baby corn, diced
  • 1 can button mushrooms, drained and quartered
  • 1 small red onion, peeled and sliced into thin wedges
  • 1 tablespoon cooking oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon honey

Heat a wok over medium heat.  Add the cooking oil and heat just until it begins to sizzle.  Add the onion and garlic; saute for three minutes.  Add the vegetables and stir-fry for two more minutes.  Pour in the oyster sauce, vinegar, and honey; mix well.  Stir-fry for one more minute or till heated through.  Transfer to a platter to serve or use for topping a bowl of steamed white rice.

Serves 4.