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.


In Which There is a Box of Instant Ice Cream…

Yes, it's a box of ice cream mix.  Such things DO exist...
Yes, it’s a box of ice cream mix. Such things DO exist…

As someone born in the mid-1970s and a child of the 1980s, I grew up reading Reader’s Digest and, consequently, the ad-driven recipe booklet inserts that came within it for nearly two decades.  These were an almost endless source of fascination for me  In the booklets from the late ’70s, there were ads featuring instant ice cream mixes, most of which were made by the RFM Corporation under the brand name Hans which later became synonymous with instant gelatine desserts.

Ice cream mixes were a way for folks to get their dose of cold, creamy goodness at home without having to make a run to the supermarket freezer section.  These were also dead-simple to make: just stir the powder into some milk, chuck it into the freezer, and you were good to go in a few hours.  Of course, when the local ice cream wars began heating up in the mid ’80s and Yankee brands like Dreyer’s, Breyer’s, and Ben and Jerry’s became available in Manila supermarkets, ice cream mixes pretty much became as outdated as shag carpets and miniskirts.

But, as in fashion, what goes around comes around: ice cream mixes are making a comeback – but, this time, they’re imported from Korea.  Beksul Authentic Desserts at Home are now available in selected Oriental groceries within the Greater Manila Area.  The novelty for these is that all you need to do is whisk the powered mix into 200mL of warmed milk, freeze it for a few hours, et voila: dessert is served.  It isn’t as rich or as creamy as standard-issue ices, but it’s a pretty interesting concept.  (Oh, and stick to the chocolate!)

In Which There is a Tin of Corned Lamb


I’ve mentioned this numerous times before: lamb is not a very popular meat here in the Philippines.  For one thing, very few people have considered raising sheep as viable commercial livestock.  For another, most Filipinos don’t like the robust, gamey flavour of the meat.

But for those of us who actually like lamb, there are ways of getting our fix at the local supermarkets: freezer sections hold such popular cuts like chops, legs, and loins and grilled lamb – either chops or kebabs – are best-selling meals at several local restaurants.  And now, possibly to add lamb to possible breakfast meats, meat processing giant CDO has introduced corned lamb to the market.

Kind of like corned beef, but leaner and somewhat gamier
Kind of like corned beef, but leaner and somewhat gamier

CDO’s corned lamb is the most recent addition to its Highlands Gold line of premium tinned meats which started off with its premium Angus corned beef.

Upon opening the tin, you quickly get a whiff of a somewhat gamier aroma than what you’d get upon opening a tin of corned beef hash.  But you’ll also notice that the pink meat is more tender and there is considerably less fat and gristle in the mix.

Straight from the can, the lamb is actually tasty enough on its own.  But, truth be told, much of its savour comes out when it’s cooked.

Saute it up and serve
Saute it up and serve

The easiest way to prepare this is as regular hash: saute an onion and some garlic in a bit of olive oil, then add the lamb.  Interestingly, considering how fresh lamb is cooked for a shorter time than raw beef, corned lamb takes a little longer than corned beef to get crisp at the edges.  Let me assure you that it is worth the wait: you get a nicely seasoned heap of shredded lamb that is tender to the bite, meaty and still a touch succulent.

I daresay you could serve this the Filipino way with rice and a fried egg or go totally Brit (or Aussie or even Kiwi) and serve the crisped-up lamb on top of mashed potatoes.  In which case, mint sauce may be necessary.  😉

In Which a Classic Meat Dish Gets a Couple of Unconventional Twists…

Seafood kare-kare and bagoong with hot rice
Seafood kare-kare and bagoong with hot rice

Kare-kare, a slow-cooked stew featuring oxtail or pork leg braised till tender in a rich peanut sauce, has long been a mainstay of weekend dinner tables and the groaning boards typical of the local fiesta scene.  As stated, it’s usually made with hearty oxtail or fat pork legs both cooked until the meat is so tender that it falls apart when you prod it with a fork.  However, many home cooks, restaurateurs, and institutional caterers have put their own spin on classic kare-kare, using unconventional ingredients to either make the most of seasonal produce or use up leftovers to prevent wasting food.

Seafood kare-kare is one such variation on the theme.  Here, fresh squid or cuttlefish, mussels, and chunks of fish – usually chunks of fresh tuna belly or blue marlin – are simmered in the peanut sauce.  The addition of finely-cut slivers of ginger keeps the dish from getting too odiferous for diners and, by serving it with bagoong alamang [fermented shrimp paste], the briny condiment brings out the sweetness of the aquatic ingredients.  It is also considerably healthier than the beefy or porky original, so it goes over well with dieters.

On the other hand, some cooks use leftover lechong kawali [deep-fried pork belly with crunchy, crackling skin] or crispy pata [deep-fried pork knuckle] as their protein of choice.  The end-result is a shortcut version called crispy kare-kare which is, nevertheless, quite a treat as the bits and bobs of pork are fried to a crunchy golden-brown and provide a contrast to the sauce-softened vegetables.  It is not the most diet-friendly dish, but it goes down a treat.

Both of my favourite variations of kare-kare are sold at our regular lunch provider, Tezman Convenience Store over on the Upper West Side of the BGC.  The seafood version (P 60.00 per bowl) is loaded with good things: while the mussels are few and far in between, the generous chunks of marlin and squid make up for it.  The crispy version (P 55.00 per bowl), on the other hand is an excellent go-to dish for lunch as it is crunchy, flavourful, and highly satisfying.

Tezman Convenience Store:  Ground Floor – Kensington Place, 1st St., Bonifacio Global City, Taguig

In Which a Vegetable Extravaganza Graces the Dinner Table…

A fresh and colourful mise-en-place
A fresh and colourful mise-en-place

Lo Han Chai – also known as luohan zhai or, more poetically, Buddha’s Delight – is a dish that my family frequently enjoys whenever we go out for lunch at one Chinese restaurant or another.  While we enjoy it invariably as a side to a meaty main like three-cups chicken or char siu (asado) pork, vegetarians can actually order it as a main in its own right.

As its name suggests, it was originally prepared for religious celebrations within Buddhist monasteries and lay communities.  It is most commonly eaten on the eve and the first day of the Chinese Lunar Year as a way of purifying the body and preparing the self to receive the blessings of the new year.

In its most basic form, it is a selection of various fresh and preserved vegetables stir-fried then braised in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar; indeed, it is easy to surmise that classic chop suey takes much of its substance and technique from this dish.  Lo han chai can be made with any number of vegetables, but the traditional mix includes Savoy cabbage (Chinese cabbage / wombok), cubes of deep-fried tofu, bamboo shoots, wood-ear fungi (tengang daga), carrots, and black mushrooms – either the ovoid straw mushrooms or the meatier-tasting shiitake.  Nevertheless, the only thing that probably limits the home cook is one’s imagination and the availability of produce at one’s greengrocer’s.

Yes, that is a HECK of a LOT of veg...
Yes, that is a HECK of a LOT of veg…

Truth be told, the recipe for lo han chai varies from cook to cook.  Strict vegetarian households will obviously not choose to use meat broths or oyster sauce.  More omnivorous folks will gladly welcome the addition of either or both to add an extra dimension of flavour to the dish; there are even those who choose to throw in prawns or scallops to make the dish more interesting.  Some, like myself, swap the Savoy cabbage for fresh, local greens such as pechay (a Filipino vegetable whose closest point of comparison would have to be Swiss chard) which has a sweet, mild flavour, and a crunchy texture.  Some chuck the tofu in fresh, while I prefer to use the restaurant method of deep-frying the tofu first to firm up the texture.  And there are those who use stinky tofu to enhance the dish; honestly, you have to draw the line somewhere and my line gets drawn here.  (Stinky tofu in my lo han chai?! [Shudders])

My spin on the dish is quite easy to do and shows off the fresh flavours and textures of the different vegetables I used.  I should warn you at this point, however, that cooking lo han chai at home is fairly labour-intensive: you have all that chopping and dicing to do on top of the stir-frying and braising.  (Believe me, a moment’s inattention led to a nasty, self-inflicted cut when I first cooked this!)  But believe me when I say the effort is most definitely worth it: even hardened non-veg eaters and picky kids will enjoy it.  😀

Serve it on top of steamed rice or, as shown here, on top of blanched noodles
Serve it on top of steamed rice or, as shown here, on top of blanched noodles

Lo Han Chai

For the stir-fry:

  • 1 carrot, peeled and sliced into half-moons
  • 3 blocks firm tofu (momengoshi), deep-fried till golden and diced
  • 2 bunches pechay or bok choy or 1 bunch Swiss chard, stems diced and leaves sliced into strips
  • 1 medium (approximately 300 grams) can shiitake or button mushrooms, drained and liquid reserved
  • approximately 100 grams fresh oyster mushrooms, cut into strips
  • 1 pack dried wood-ear fungi (tengang daga), soaked
  • approximately 100 – 150 grams fresh baby corn, sliced on the bias
  • 1 head of broccoli, broken into florets and the stem peeled, trimmed, and julienned
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 small red onion, sliced thinly
  • 6 – 10 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed, peeled, and minced
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube (optional if you’re making this all-vegetarian)

For the braising sauce:

  • Reserved mushroom liquid with enough water to make 2 cups total liquid
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 3 tablespoons oyster sauce or vegetarian substitute thereof

Combine the sauce ingredients in a bowl and mix well.  Set aside.

Put a wok over medium heat.  Once it heats up, add the oil.  When the oil sizzles, add the sliced onion and the white part of the spring onions; cook till softened.  Add the garlic and cook until the garlic has browned a little at the edges.  Add the carrot slices, julienned broccoli stem, and the pechay stems; stir-fry for about two minutes.  Drain the wood-ear fungi and cut into thin strips.  Add these along with the shiitake and oyster mushrooms; stir fry for two minutes more.  If using the bouillon cube, add it at this point and toss with the vegetables until it has more or less dissolved.  Add the baby corn and broccoli and stir-fry for three minutes.  Pour in the braising sauce and stir the dish well to coat all the vegetables.  Cook until the sauce is bubbling and slightly thickened.  Toss in the pechay leaves and the tofu; mix well and cook an additional two to three minutes.

Remove from heat and move to a serving platter.  If desired, as shown above, pour the cooked vegetables over blanched noodles.  Scatter the green spring onions over to garnish.

Serves 8 as a side dish; serves 4 as a vegetarian main.