For dinner last night, I decided to fix an enormous bowl of pesto cream linguine – one of my signature dishes. It’s one of those things that’s an absolute doddle to make, if I may steal a line from the divine Nigella Lawson. You just saute minced onion and garlic in some of the oil from a pack of store-bought pesto, throw in whatever veg or proteins you fancy, add the pesto and a bouillon cube for flavour; let it bubble, throw in the cream, bring to a simmer, then toss in the pasta. An easy-peasy effort if there ever was one.
This simple recipe is one of many that I’ve shared through this blog or among friends both off- and on-line. Other recipes I’ve passed on to willing cooks or bakers include my totally moreish rum butter cakes in all their iterations, toffee bars, Chinese roast pork, and goodness knows what else.
In this day and age when information can be shared conveniently with the global community, it is easy to share recipes, to get feedback for them, and to see where they can be tweaked for improvement. Not too long ago, however, sharing recipes was actually a no-no for many home cooks.
It is something that is almost anecdotal but applies to cooks throughout a broad cultural spectrum: people spend the better part of their lives perfecting certain recipes and building up a culinary repertoire of their most sumptuous specialties. Because of the labour, the effort expended on the development of these dishes, many cooks opted not to share the recipe with others, guarding those lists of ingredients and procedures jealously and zealously for a lifetime. Indeed, in many cases, some of the greatest dishes ever created in the history of gastronomy are gone forever – never to be tasted by future generations – only because their creators took the secret of cooking them to the grave.
One case is particularly personal: my maternal grandmother was known to bake a magnificent torta . This rich, eggy cake made with lard, not butter, was a great family favourite among her children and a treat they all looked forward to. Unfortunately, as with all those cooks of old, my grandmother guarded the recipe with her life and did not share it with anyone – least of all her five daughters for various reasons only she herself knew. She did, however, write it down; possibly, the old girl meant to pass it on to someone before she departed this life. However, when my grandmother died in early 1998, it is galling to know that nobody got the torta recipe. This is not because she chose to hold it back in the end, but because of the petty quarrels among her children (an extremely long, convoluted, issue-ridden thing that annoys me to no end), no one’s gone back to her house to retrieve it!
Thank goodness, then, that home cooks nowadays have more sense and willingly pass the recipe on for dishes that are sure to please families and friends to those who are keen on working in the kitchen to produce, if not culinary wonders, dishes that are guaranteed to be enjoyed by appreciative diners. In that way, we are no longer in danger of losing recipes and thereby losing part of our culinary heritage.
I have not, of course, given up on getting my hands on my grandmother’s torta recipe. I’ll be able to make it, eventually – either from her notes or I’ll find a reasonable facsimile thereof and make that particular dessert my own. In the meantime, let me share with you one of my own recipes: this is a rather complicated bit of cookery – one for grand family feasts or, as we call it at home, Sunday dinner. It features pata tim, that classic Chinese braised pork leg, but has the added virtue of being served on a bed of noodles. Goodness knows it isn’t traditional; but it is stonkingly good – and I am proud to say that the recipe is mine to share.
So, what recipes did your grandmothers leave to you – or has your family lost certain treats because someone didn’t leave the recipe behind?
- 1 kilo sliced pork leg with the skin on (sometimes sold as ‘pata chops’) water
- 1 tablespoon rock salt
- 2/3 cup dark soy sauce
- 3/4 cup shaoxing wine or rum
- 1 medium can button mushrooms, drained and the liquid reserved
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced into half-moons
- 1 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 8 cloves garlic, cracked and peeled
- 1 Chinese chorizo (lap cheong), sliced into thin strips
- 3/4 cup white sugar
- 2 star anise, broken into segments
- 2 bay leaves (laurel)
- 1/8 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1/4 cup rendered lard or cooking oil
- 1 pork bouillon cube
- 2 small bundles (or 1 large) pechay (Swiss chard) or bok choy, washed and divided
- 400g pack pancit Canton (wheat stick noodles, available at Oriental groceries)
Place the pork, salt, and enough water to cover the meat in a pressure cooker over medium heat. Pressure-cook until somewhat tender (meat will soften more thoroughly as it braises), about ten to fifteen minutes. Remove the meat from the pressure cooker, reserving the cooking liquid [pork stock].
Pour the lard or cooking oil into a large saucepan over medium heat. Once it sizzles, add the onion and cook until softened. Add the garlic and cook until the cloves have browned, then add the star anise and peppercorns; stir-fry until fragrant. Add the Chinese chorizo and cook for two minutes. Throw in the meat and carrots and stir-fry for about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the bouillon cube, brown sugar, reserved mushroom liquid, soy sauce, shaoxing wine or rum, and 1-1/4 cups of the reserved pork stock. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and allow to simmer for 45 minutes.
When the meat has simmered for 20 minutes, add the mushrooms and bay leaves. Toss in the pechay during the last five minutes of cooking. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Blanch the pancit Canton in boiling water for five minutes. Drain well. Place half the noodles on a serving platter. Top with the cooked pata, vegetables, Chinese chorizo, and some of the sauce. Serve the remaining noodles and sauce on the side in separate dishes Serve whilst still hot.