It’s been five months since I last posted in this blog. This is not to say that I’ve scrapped it entirely; indeed, my current line of work has made me even more enthusiastic about food, cooking, and dining out.
It has been, to be perfectly honest, a roller-coaster year. There have been some serious downs and equally serious ups: triumph and tragedy all on a single plate. My paternal grandmother, the last of my grandparents, died at the end of November. Paired-off friends broke up, single friends found partners, and – alas – I found myself estranged from the person whom I still consider one of my very best friends. Too many words said and left unsaid, again. But I’ve made new friends, met lots of new people, gone to numerous places, and eaten my fill of amazing dishes cooked by some of the best chefs.
I’ve learned a great deal about food over this past year thanks to interviews I’ve done for work and also because of a number of chance meetings that came about because I love traipsing through the city for new gastronomic treats. I daresay there is still so much for me to learn.
In the meantime, bear with me. I’ve hardly had time to write for the blog, but if you follow me on Instagram, I daresay the photos and the tempting descriptions of my latest culinary projects and restaurant jaunts will be worth the visit.
Twelve years of food writing; still here, still hungry, still writing.
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.
“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.)
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 teaspoon Shaoxing wine ormirin
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.
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.
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.
Chocolate Red Velvet Cake
For the Cake:
1/2 cup vanilla-flavored margarine or soft unsalted butter
1-1/2 cups granulated white sugar
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.
It all started with a recipe from American Iron Chef Judy Joo featured in an old issue of Where Women Cook Magazine. The pictures were certainly tempting: a whole slab of roasted pork belly slathered in a rich, thick sauce bundled into an iceberg lettuce leaf with some rice and kimchi. Mouthwatering would have to be an understatement here.
The dish in question was a roasted pork belly bossam, a modern spin on a traditional Korean specialty. Bossam (보쌈) is a dish commonly served in autumn, just as families are preparing a fresh batch of kimchi from the year’s vegetable harvest or, as the period is called in Korea, at gimjang time. It is also a drinking-man’s dish, as it is usually featured as an anju, or one of a set of dishes made to accompany soju or other alcoholic beverages.
In a traditional bossam, a whole slab of pork belly is simmered down with ginger and other spices to remove the gaminess of the meat. The boiled pork is allowed to cool, then cut into thin slices that could be wrapped with kimchi and other condiments in a lettuce leaf and eaten like a hand-roll.
Judy Joo’s spin on the dish is twice-cooked: the pork boiled till super-tender in a miso and garlic broth, then slathered with a second miso paste – this time with ginger and honey – before roasting. The end result is a meltingly tender slab of pork with a subtle, nutty taste of soybeans and a hint of spice.
When I decided to cook the dish recently, I realized that I would do well to grab a tub of doenjang or Korean soybean paste (Korean miso, if you will). Doenjang has a coarser texture than the more common white and red Japanese soybean pastes with nubbins of crushed soybean that impart an almost peanutty nuance. Here, it is used to season the pork in two ways: first as the base of the simmering solution, then as part of the marinade rubbed onto the meat before the second phase of cooking.
One thing I had to change was the cut of meat. I still used pork belly, but – as seen here – I had to use pork belly ribs as these were what I had on hand at the time. Also, I didn’t bother roasting: we found that grilling the pork on a smoking-hot grill pan with some dark sesame oil works just fine.
The result: very tender pork that falls apart as you prod it with a fork with a subtly sweet and nutty taste and aroma that goes very well with spicy kimchi and just-cooked rice.
Grilled Pork Belly Bossam
1-1/2 kilos pork belly ribs
1-1/2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
For the broth:
2 tablespoons doenjang
8 cloves garlic, crushed
1 inch of ginger, sliced but unpeeled
1 onion, cut into eighths
For the grill rub:
2 tablespoons doenjang
1-1/2 tablespoons grated ginger
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon kochujang or sriracha hot sauce
Place the pork and the broth ingredients in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Turn down the heat and simmer for 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Allow the pork and broth to cool completely. Remove the pork and reserve the broth for other dishes.
Combine all the ingredients for the rub and smear generously over the pork. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight to improve the flavor.
Heat the sesame oil in a grill pan over medium heat. Add the marinated pork and cook for about 10 minutes, turning at the halfway mark. Serve with rice and kimchi.
Crab cakes are something straight out of Ruth Reichl’s autobiography Comfort Me with Apples. In chapter two (The Success Machine), she takes lump crabmeat, mixes it up with breadcrumbs and a host of other good things, forms the mixture into patties, and fries the lot up in a lot of butter. Reichl cooks these cakes in a fit of pique; worried sick that she doesn’t know what’s up with her then-husband (artist Douglas Hollis) who’s always away doing projects and who, alas, doesn’t seem to want to properly settle down and have children. It’s a situation that seriously warrants luxurious, decadent, fattening, but so-comforting dishes such as proper Baltimore-style crab cakes.
While my own emotional state isn’t at all that rosy at the moment, I have not been prompted into cooking crab cakes at home. Things aren’t that bad (well, not at the moment, knock on wood!), but a case of the blues calls for stodgy, tasty things. Probably not the healthiest course of action, of course, but a spot of deliciousness on the tastebuds helps to lift one’s mood.
This what I was hoping for when I decided to try some nosh over at Coco Hut.
Coco Hut is run by the same team behind popular burger and taco joint Army/Navy. But while A/N does Tex-Mex grub in the midst of faux military decor, Coco Hut served fried chicken and seafood with a more laid-back, island-hopper vibe.
For this particular lunch, I opted for the kani cakes and a plate of pancit palabok. Oh, and to wash things down: a large glass of teamarind. The teamarind is a tamarind-infused spin on iced sweet tea; this sweetly tart concoction is served ice-cold and goes down a treat on a hot summer afternoon.
The kani cakes were, alas, not quite crab cakes as these are made with surimi crabsticks, those faux crab-flavored fish cakes used for California maki. Nevertheless, these make a (just-acceptable-enough) substitute as they work well with the mozzarella cheese and jalapeno bits. The exterior of each “crab” cake is well-breaded with crispy panko and shatters when you sink your teeth into it; the crisp exterior gives way to the soft, gooey center. Dip these babies in sweet chili sauce and you are good to go.
I must confess, though, that I was a trifle disappointed with Coco Hut’s spin on pancit palabok. While I like this sort of noodle dish good and saucy, this was too saucy and the amount of noodles felt rather short. I think I would have been better off ordering the garlic chicken sotanghon I saw on the menu. But, nevertheless, it was a fairly good meal.
Coco Hut: 2nd Floor – Bonifacio Stopover, 2nd Avenue cor. 31st St., Bonifacio Global City, Taguig
Pancakes are the sort of breakfast you have when you want to take things easy and you aren’t exactly in any hurry. For most Filipinos, it is a taste of luxury – and an accessible luxury at that. For this reason, Pancake House remains one of the country’s favorite restaurants – and continues to be so despite the entry of foreign franchises such as IHOP and Slappy Cakes. And for those who can’t be bothered to leave home to satisfy a pancake fix, instant pancake mixes are a dime a dozen and are all dead-easy to use..
However, even the fluffiest, most golden pancakes tend to lose their appeal if that’s all people get for the most part. Variety being the spice of life, there are as many variations on pancakes as there are ways to tell a joke. These days, aside from the usual buttermilk and chocolate variants, you can get matcha-infused flapjacks, pancakes studded with chocolate chips, banana-walnut cakes, and even pancakes made with cake mixes to yield flavors like red velvet or even birthday cake with sprinkles.
Today’s recipe, however, is different. Rather than appropriating the flavors of the West, I decided to play up tastes taken from our neighbors in the Southeast Asian region. In this case, I decided to make pancakes from scratch inspired by an Indonesian snack: murtabak.
A popular halal street snack in many Muslim countries, a murtabak is a cross between a crepe and a turnover in that it consists of flour-based pancakes folded over a sweet or savory filling. For the most part, these are usually savory things and are usually filled with beef or lamb mince before being doused with curry, gravy, or a soy-vinegar dip.
My recipe was inspired a specific variety of the dish commonly eaten in Indonesia called murtabak manis. For this dish, the pancake batter is sweetened and flavored with either vanilla or almond extract. The resulting griddle cakes are then filled with a mixture of chocolate, cheese, and crushed roasted peanuts before being folded over and handed to eager customers.
This recipe gets its basic form from Nigella Lawson‘s recipe for American breakfast pancakes. However, once you’ve added the grated chocolate and cheese, you get something totally different from a standard-issue Yankee johnny-cake. Not too sweet and intriguingly savory at the same time, these come into their own sandwiched with lashings of peanut butter and finished off with a drizzle of honey (not syrup).
Murtabak is normally eaten as a snack in the afternoons, but I can’t see any reason why you shouldn’t have these for breakfast. 😉
Murtabak Breakfast Pancakes
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon brown sugar (preferably muscovado sugar)
2 eggs, beaten
30mL corn or canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
225 grams all-purpose flour
25 grams grated dark chocolate
15 – 20 grams grated Parmesan or Edam cheese
butter for greasing the pan
peanut butter and honey, to serve
In a large mixing bowl, sift together the dry ingredients save for the chocolate and cheese. Whisk together the oil, milk, vanilla, and eggs. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the egg mixture. Beat very well until a smooth, creamy appearance is achieved. Add the chocolate and cheese and mix until well combined.
Heat a griddle or a large frying pan over medium heat. Add just enough butter to grease the surface. Add batter by 1/4 cup-increments and cook for about a minute on each side; immediately transfer to a serving dish.
To serve, allow four pancakes per person (they won’t be very big, really). Spread one cake with peanut butter and top with another; continue spreading until you have a stack four cakes high. Drizzle over with honey.
To everyone whom I worried with my last post, let me apologise in all sincerity. It has been an extremely difficult time and I have not had the easiest time coping with all the stress. Rest assured, however, that I am on the mend; I’m taking some time away from the rat race for a bit – taking advantage of the APEC holiday, to be exact – to get myself back on track.
But, anyway, to the business at hand: I adore the cold Asian noodles served at Peanut Butter Co. over at the Paseo Centre in Makati. It’s a dish that never fails to satisfy: cold noodles tossed in a creamy, tangy peanut and sesame vinaigrette topped with freshly grated cucumber and diced tomatoes. As stated before, it’s like a cross between Indonesian gado-gado and a Vietnamese noodle salad.
Unfortunately, given where I work these days, it has become nigh-on impossible to get my favourite lunch. (Previously, I only had to traipse down the length of Paseo de Roxas, et voila: lunch is served!) So I’ve despaired of ever getting to eat it again unless I had the moxie to make it myself. (And, you know, of course, that I do.) That said, I went through Google to look for a recipe.
It wasn’t easy to find one that suited me, of course. Some recipes were dead-fiddly to do; others would force me to hunt down ingredients that were virtually impossible to find in this part of the world unless one braved traffic (and believe me when I say Manila traffic makes the situation in Bangkok look like a kids’ playground) and then some. Finally, I found one that I could very easily tweak to suit my temperament and tastebuds.
This recipe is adapted from the one featured in The New York Times, an amalgam built from the collective input of author Sam Sifton, restaurateur Eddie Schoenfeld, and chefs Martin Yan and Marian Burros. The NYT recipe uses fresh egg noodles which aren’t exactly easy to find. Thus, I swapped these out for ramyeunsari, those Korean noodle packets that come without flavourings. You could also use the noodles in standard instant noodle packets; just save the flavouring packs for another use. Since I couldn’t find any sesame paste, – tahini or the Chinese kind – I just increased the amount of peanut butter in the mixture, which is a very good thing as it amplifies the nutty savour so integral to the success of the dish. Also, if you haven’t got any chili-garlic paste, a squirt or two of sriracha or any other red-pepper hot sauce works wonders.
Note that this recipe is easily doubled in case you feel like feeding a crowd.
Takeaway-style Asian Noodles
1 pack ramyeunsari noodles or 2 standard packs of instant pancit canton, flavouring packets saved for another use
2 tablespoons creamy/smooth peanut butter
1 tablespoon sesame oil, plus additional for sprinkling
1 teaspoon chili-garlic paste or hot sauce, or to taste
2 tablespoons finely shredded Chinese (Savoy) cabbage
2 tablespoons shredded cucumber
1 tablespoon diced tomato
Cook the noodles in boiling water for about 3-4 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold running water; drain well. Transfer to a clean dish and toss with a sprinkle of sesame oil. Refrigerate for about 10 minutes.
While the noodles are chilling, make the dressing by combining the soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, peanut butter, remaining sesame oil, ginger, sugar, and chili paste or hot sauce. Whisk well until properly emulsified. Pour over the chilled noodles and toss well. Refrigerate an additional 10-15 minutes for the flavours to meld.
Transfer the dressed noodles to a serving bowl and top with the vegetables. Consume immediately.