It’s been a very busy three or four months since my last post.
I’ve settled in nicely at my current workplace and have managed well through my first five issues with the magazine. While there was a rather depressing incident involving the misspelling of someone’s name, it’s been a rather fulfilling and satisfying time.
However, that’s also meant that I haven’t had at all that much time with which to update the blog. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I’ve been too busy to cook. On the contrary, that’s something I’ve been doing a lot of lately.
And so, this salad. This takes inspiration from the horensou-bacon (sauteed spinach with bacon) I love from Tori Ichi, a yakitori joint over at the new wing of the Festival Supermall. The sublime salty, smoky flavour of the bacon goes down a treat with the spinach; just that and a mound of hot rice is just heavenly.
But since spinach isn’t exactly available all the time here, I’ve used kangkong (swamp cabbage / water spinach) to pretty much make the dish at home. I must say that it is rather savoury and, yes: it also goes well with hot rice.
Easy Warm Kangkong and Bacon Salad
1 bundle kangkong, stems finely chopped and leaves set aside
6 strips fatty bacon (trust me; you do not want to use the lean kind here), diced
1 small red onion or shallot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
In a pan over medium heat, cook the bacon until the fat has rendered and the meat has browned a little. Remove the meat from the pan; set aside.
Saute the onion in the drippings until softened; add the garlic and cook till browned a little around the edges. Add the chopped kangkong stems and cook till crisp-tender, about five minutes. Add the bacon and cook an additional three minutes or till the bacon is crisp around the edges.
Reduce heat to medium-low and add the reserved leaves. Cover and leave to cook for about two minutes, just enough to wilt the leaves. Add the balsamic vinegar and toss the kangkong and bacon till well-coated. Remove from the heat and season to taste.
(Oh, and by the way: I’m back and blogging…if a trifle sporadically.)
Long time readers know this about me: if there’s a new place to nosh, I’m on it; I’m there. More so if it’s a franchise of some foreign place I’ve only read about, say, on Serious Eats, Food 52, BuzzFeed, or Lucky Peach. In this case, I had to head for the Halal Guys to see what all the hubbub was about.
The Halal Guys started out as a dinky wee food cart in Manhattan in 1990 when its founders ran a hot dog cart on the southeast corner of 53rd St. and Sixth Avenue. Having been raised in the Middle Eastern / Mediterranean tradition of big, substantial meals, they figured that the lunch crowd probably found hot dogs unsatisfying for a midday meal. They ended up serving grilled chicken over rice with Mid-eastern sauces; the rest, as they say, is history.
I decided to start the meal with a classic: falafels. Php 99.00 gets you a four-piece serve that, if you’re peckish, can stand in as a light meal. These are hefty chickpea nuggets that are absolutely moreish: properly seasoned with just the right hint of earthy cumin to go with the nutty lentils that make up the mash. A splodge of white sauce – their spin on classic tzatziki – adds a tangy, garlicky touch.
Most people who have reviewed HG in this part of the world complained that the falafels they got were cold and stodgy. I think I was one of the lucky few who got a batch fresh out of the fryer as mine were hot, crisp on the outside, and creamy-chunky within.
I followed this up with a regular gyro platter (Php 299.00) – and found that I’d probably bitten off more than I could chew, so to speak, as the portion was massive. Here, gyro meat is shaved off the chunk revolving on a kitchen spit and scattered on top of a tasty, orange-hued rice pilaf along with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and sliced pita.
I confess: I was disappointed. I wasn’t sure what meat had been used in the gyro; I mean, I wasn’t sure if it was lamb, beef, veal, or a combination thereof. While it was grilled nicely with a proper char that crisped the outside, the texture reminded me of commercial lunch meats or cold cuts. Also, one could only have one sauce on top; you’d have to pay extra for an additional dollop – not cool in light of the fact that the original HG carts let you have extra sauce for free. Still, the rice and fresh veg were very good and just needed sauce to make it a meat-free meal.
I am not going to let this misstep stop me from going back, though. I am seriously intrigued by the chicken on fries and the basbousa (semolina and almond cake) on the dessert menu. Likewise, maybe I’ll just opt for chicken or falafel on my platter next time.
The Halal Guys @ SM Fashion Hall: 5th Floor – SM Fashion Hall, SM Megamall, Ortigas Centre, Mandaluyong
“Do you drink gin?” my colleague asked on a Tuesday afternoon just as things were winding down for the day.
“Sure I do,” I replied. Truth be told: gin is something like a personal introduction to alcohol for me. I remember stealing sips of my dad’s or my paternal grandfather’s gin and tonic when I was very young. But there’s a family joke that, to quieten my kicking in my mother’s womb, my mom had to down a G&T to shut me up…so I guess you could say gin and I go a way back – a long way back, actually.
When I was in college, I’d volunteer to sample gin cocktails whipped up by the HRM upperclassmen who were like big brothers to me. Whenever they were prepping for an exam in bartending (yes, there is a university class for bartending!), the way they muttered the names of each cocktail was like listening to a litany of sublime – and somewhat forbidden – delights: gimlets, martinis, Singapore slings, lime rickeys, Negronis… Unfortunately, by the time all my on-campus big brothers graduated, their successors – my batchmates and those a year or so behind me – were mad about mixing gin with instant grapefruit drink powder to make the infamous pseudo-cocktail gin pomelo. Needless to say that I washed my hands of the lot.
But back to the present: aforementioned colleague invited me to come along for a mixology event for Hendrick’s Gin at the Makati Shangri-La featuring mixologist Tasha Lu, the product’s brand ambassador for the Asian region. This fun, fabulous femme regaled us and everyone at the bar with three amazing cocktails.
Hendrick’s, before I go on, is a gin with a twist. Aside from the traditional mix of juniper and other botanicals, this particular distillate features Bulgarian roses and English cucumber to add a deliciously floral nuance with a fresh bite. As a result, this is a gin that lends itself to getting mixed with both strong and subtle flavours to add an innovative punch to traditional cocktails.
First up: the fresh-tasting gin garden. This cocktail features Hendrick’s gin shaken with fresh pineapple juice, torn cilantro [green coriander], lime juice, egg white, and a dash of cracked black pepper. It is a bright, refreshing drink: sweet but not cloyingly so, sharp without ripping a hole down your throat. The addition of black pepper at the end brings out the floral character of the base alcohol and adds a spicy, exotic aroma.
The fairy tale is a very girly concoction that will probably go well with ladies who sip Cosmopolitans. It’s a bright pink drink that combines the gin with a roasted juniper infusion and a poached rhubarb shrub; a dash of simple syrup adds a tad more sweetness and a rose petal is used as a garnish.
It’s a touch too sweet for me; personally, the simple syrup is overkill on my tastebuds. But I can see this cocktail’s appeal for those who don’t care much for the taste of gin. Nevertheless, it’s quite tasty and dangerously easy to drink…if you have a killer sweet tooth.
But Lu’s ultimate Negroni #2 was, hands-down, my favourite drink of the night. This bittersweet sipper features Hendrick’s gin and a host of bitter and sweet mix-ins. Along with the bitter Campari and sweet red vermouth that make up the traditional Negroni with the gin, Lu tossed in splashes of Aperol, an Italian aperitif made with bitter orange and rhubarb, as well as that infamous amaroFernet-Branca. Served over ice, this spin on the Negroni gives drinkers an additional dash of drama by appearing with a torched and glowing stick of cinnamon lightly resting on the rim of the glass as a stirrer.
Perfectly balanced, I consider this a great drink with which to unwind with friends at the end of the day.
I guess, for all intents and purposes, I’ll always be a gin girl.
It goes without saying that a good steak is one of the finest dining pleasures in the world. And by “steak” I mean a prime piece of beef: not pork, not chicken, not fish, and definitely not that horrendous slab of plant-based detritus the vegan terrorists are trying to talk us into eating. No, a proper, bloody steak.
When cooking at home, the cut of choice is a proper rib-eye: gorgeously marbled, preferably bone-in, meltingly tender, and cooks to a wonted medium in minutes on a very hot grill pan. When dining out, however, a filet mignon is just the thing to suit beefy cravings when one is feeling indulgent. And, once in a blue moon when nice dinner invites are accepted, there’s proper tenderloin.
A tenderloin is found on the lower back of the animal, usually the portion closest to the kidneys. In traditional butchering, the cut is further divided into three: the butt end which is shaved for carpaccio, the tail end which is minced fine for steak tartare and beef Stroganoff, and the eye from which the actual steaks are cut.
A tenderloin steak is at its best if cooked rare to medium rare: that way, you get the full impact of the ferrous tang of the meat tempered by the rich, buttery fat. Any more and you’ve needlessly toughened up the meat. Also: real gourmets know that a lean tenderloin is a curse against both God and humanity – what the hell is wrong with all those lean meat junkies?! You need that fat for flavour, for the love of everything holy!
Truth be told, a good tenderloin needs but a good sprinkling of salt, a faint dusting of pepper, and a small knob of butter melting upon its still-steaming, nicely charred surface. Mashed potatoes are a must, buttered veg is de rigueur. Truffle butter – or any other flavoured butter – is a matter of personal taste. But I say: bring it on, et laissez les bon temps rouler.
Oh, and a proper red is just the thing to wash it down.
That’s the only excuse I can give my dear readers: I’ve been busy. Very much so, as a matter of fact. So much, in fact, that I totally didn’t post anything in September, birthday post included. I think I needed time to get back in sync, find myself, and start over. The bulk of 2016 from February to mid-August had to be one of the most traumatic times – if not the most traumatic time – in my life. Suffice it to say that I am breathing easier now…plus, a surprise opportunity pretty much hauled me out of freelancing and right into a field I’ve always hankered to get into: lifestyle journalism.
But, now: for some food – and serious comfort food at that: ramen, specifically.
A recent grocery shopping trip led me to River Park, the most recent addition to the currently expanding Festival Supermall in Alabang. There are a number of interesting new restaurants, but the one I specifically wanted to try was Ashikawa Ramen Bangaichi.
A branch of a Tokyo-based chain, Bangaichi’s local franchise is held by the same group that runs the Vietnamese chain Pho Hoa. Keeping this in mind, one should not be surprised that the back of the large menu card offers Vietnamese dishes. But, while I’ve become a pho, bun cha, and banh mi fan, I’m not here for Indochinese flavours: I’m here for the ramen!
And a rather large and satisfying bowl of ramen, as a matter of fact. Bangaichi’s butter corn shoyu ramen (Php 340.00) is loaded up with al dente wheat noodles in a rich, slightly porky, wonderfully umami soy-based broth. A knob of butter melting in the hot soup adds a subtle richness that goes beautifully with bright yellow sweetcorn kernels, slivers of slightly tart menma (salt-pickled bamboo shoots), and fresh-tasting wakame seaweed. The bowl also comes with two generous slices of chashu pork: prettily charred around the edges with the char adding a welcome and somewhat nutty bitterness to the sweet, fatty meat.
Call me silly, but my way of eating ramen involves sipping down all the broth before getting down to the noodles et les accoutrements. Once the broth is gone, I sprinkle in some shichimi togarashi for a fiery accent and grind in toasted sesame for some nutty oomph. Toss everything together, and I am a happy camper.
How does this compare to the Sapporo Corn Ramen at, say, Shinjuku Ramen? Not bad, really; while it does not have the almost electric funk of the Shinjuku version (which has a touch of garlic to throw things for a loop), Bangaichi’s corn ramen holds its own very well and definitely is something to come back for on a rainy afternoon.
Ashikawa Ramen Bangaichi – River Park, Festival Supermall, Alabang, Muntinlupa
I don’t work full-time anymore. These days, I work as a consultant for the corporate governance advocacy I was working full-time for about a month ago. It’s a healthier set-up, really: I don’t have to weather through the increasingly chaotic traffic of the Greater Manila Area five days a week and I don’t have to be cooped up in an office for the greater part of my day.
It is a schedule that has improved my health: I sleep better now and I am able to keep my stress down to a tolerable level. Also: it’s given me more time to work on my poetry, the novel that has remained stalled for weeks, as well as cooking and baking.
The last one has led to a greater amount of experimentation in the kitchen: not just for special occasions or weekend dinners, but for weekday meals, as well. And so, this pizza…
The crust for this is different from the schiacciata base I normally make from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess recipe which calls for baking the pizza at a high temperature first, then lowering the temp for the last two thirds of cooking. This recipe is a much simpler one fromPenny Stephens‘s What’s Cooking: Italian. Less flour is involved and you only need to cook it at a constant, middling temperature. The resulting crust is pleasantly crispy at the edges, deliciously fluffy and chewy within.
The topping I used features two ingredients with a smoky flavor profile: tinapang bangus (hot-smoked milkfish) and char-grilled eggplant. The meaty smoked milkfish acts as a foil to the sharp yet sweet tomato sauce I used as a base and the eggplant adds a welcome, somewhat bittersweet nuance that was quite satisfying.
I also added olives for a salty zing and capers because they go so well with fish. You can skip the capers, if you like. But please keep them in; I insist: they make this already interesting dish more appealing.
This makes for a light but satisfying meal, particularly if served with a good soup (from scratch, mind you; the additional effort is worth it) or a crisp, fresh salad.
For the Crust:
350 grams all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 packet (7g) instant/fast-acting yeast
For the Topping:
1/2 cup cooked and flaked tinapang bangus or any hot-smoked fish
1 medium-sized Asian eggplant, peeled
1 cup tomato sauce
1 red onion, sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 a chicken or fish bouillon cube
2 tablespoons Italian seasoning or 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil and oregano
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup sliced olives
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained (optional)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup additional grated cheese (mild Cheddar or mozzarella)
2 tablespoons water
Heat the water and 1 tablespoon olive oil on HIGH in the microwave for about 45 seconds. Combine the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the water and oil. Mix well. Dust your hands with flour and knead the dough for 10 – 12 minutes until it forms a smooth ball, dusting with more flour from time to time. Cover with a clean dishtowel and leave to rise in a warm, draft-free place for an hour.
Grease a lipped cookie sheet; set aside.
Grill the eggplant or cook in a large, ungreased frying pan until charred, blistered, and tender all over. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then chop coarsely.
Heat two tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Saute the sliced onion until softened. Add the garlic and cook until the garlic has browned a little at the edges. Add the herbs and cook till fragrant. Add the bouillon, cook till it has dissolved, then add the eggplant and tomato sauce. Thin the sauce a little with the water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about ten minutes; add the brown sugar and stir until it has dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for fifteen minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees / Gas Mark 6.
Punch down the risen dough and press into the prepared cookie sheet. Cover and leave to rest for ten to fifteen minutes. Uncover the dough and evenly spread over the sauce. Evenly scatter over the smoked fish, olives, and – if using – capers. Evenly scatter over the cheeses.
Bake for 20 minutes. Turn the oven off at the end of baking time but leave the pizza inside for an additional ten minutes. Remove from oven and slice into sticks.
I am of the opinion that authenticity is something to consider with regard to dining at establishments specializing in the cuisine of specific countries or regions. For this reason, Japanese restaurants always seem to have a traditional aesthetic and Mexican taquerias always look like a mercado de la puebla in Oaxaca or Acapulco.
Following this unspoken, unwritten rule, many restaurants specializing in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and South Asian food look like the inside of a Persian harem with elaborately decorated lanterns, reproductions of Moghul Period art, and the requisite decorative hookah in the corner. So it comes as a surprise that The Kebab Factory looks absolutely modern – and pretty much looks like a standard-issue present-day cafeteria because the food is prepared at a steam table at one end of the restaurant and is served on dinky melamine plates.
But don’t let that keep you from enjoying the wealth of flavors this joint offers. In fact, a hint of quirkiness makes your meal more interesting. Case in point is the starter shown above: baba ganoush with flatbread is presented in a somewhat unusual manner. Instead of dishing up this tasty eggplant dip in a bowl or a small soup plate, this creamy melange of roasted eggplant, yogurt, and garlic is served in a highball glass with a drizzle of olive oil, a dusting of tart sumac with a hint of chili, and a whole green olive plunged into the center of the dip. Additional chopped olives are also mixed into the dip, the zingy tart taste balancing the smooth, creamy, smoky bitterness. Even the flatbread is presented differently: layered onto a paper spike – the kind you usually see in professional kitchens (for finished orders) or editorial offices (for finished assignments). Crisp around the edges and chewy in the middle, these wedges are the perfect size for scooping up the baba ganoush.
TKF also has platters to share under the heading Ultimate Plates. One nifty choice is the Kebab Trio which has a three-kebab assortment on top of a bright yellow biryani with crisp coriander-seed pappadums and grilled tomatoes on the side.
I daresay that no extenders seem to have been used in the kebabs as these were meaty all the way through with the cumin-spiced lamb becoming a personal favorite. The well-seasoned beef comes a close second, but the chicken – while perfectly spiced and flavorful – was on the dry side. The mildly spiced rice works a treat with the meats, complementing rather than overpowering the flavors.
That said, what The Kebab Factory lacks in aesthetics, it certainly more than makes up for in flavor and savor.
The Kebab Factory: Ground Floor – SM Jazz Mall, Nicanor Garcia cor. Jupiter Sts., Bel-Air, Makati