Thursday, September 24, 2009

Living "A Moveable Feast" in Paris

My husband and I arrived from Paris late last night. It is early afternoon in San Francisco and the fog bank has not lifted at all in the Inner Richmond. The sun barely penetrates the slate grey sky. A cold wind dances in the tree tops just outside my window. A perfect day to stay indoors listening to Billie Holiday, sipping ginger peach tea and writing. It is late evening in Paris and I wonder if it remains as sultry as it had the been the past few nights we had spent there roaming around the Left Bank and Montmartre.

Autumn started to creep in yesterday on our last morning. It was finally cool enough for a trench coat and scarf as we made our way to a patisserie in Saint Germain des Pres for freshly baked croissants, past the cafes that were just starting to open and little shops with beautiful merchandise displayed in the windows. Down by the Seine we found ourselves alone on that little ship shaped island jutting out from under the Pont Neuf. The leaves of the horse chestnut trees and elms by the river have started to turn. A few golden and orange leaves were on the path leading down to the water. We sat at the concrete prow under the lamp post and the still lush weeping willow tree, watching barges and passenger boats cruise by. Hemingway wrote about this part of the river as being a popular fishing spot in "A Moveable Feast". I picked up a copy at Shakespeare and Company and wanted to pay homage to Papa Hemingway by having breakfast in that very same spot before we catch a plane home to San Francisco, quietly watching the city wake up, very much feeling how he felt when he wrote "I've seen you, Beauty.. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil."

This trip to Paris to celebrate our one year wedding anniversary has not only brought me closer to my husband and cement our shared passion for Art, Beauty and of course, good food and wine, but also to myself as a writer. Reading Hemingway is instructive because he chronicles in particular his process, how he knows that past a certain point in writing he has captured that elusive thing and that he can stop, feel good about having done good work, confident that the next day he can continue again. The people he surrounds himself with and are shaped by, the meals and wines he consumes to fuel his writing, and the role of hunger as a way to see Art more clearly. I love how he writes about going to see a Cezanne painting after skipping a meal and how much more connected he felt to the work on an empty stomach. But when he writes about food later on, it is in the vein of one who really does enjoy the simple pleasures of mopping up olive oil in his potato dish with bread, loving the dish so much that he orders a second serving.

I cannot write about Paris without writing about what we ate. This really is the heart of my food blog. But I will not do this all at once. Like one who has harvested the fruits of autumn for a cold winter ahead, I will be frugal and hold out on writing about them. Like Hemingway I will remain just a little bit hungry to sharpen the memory of those meals and what they meant as an experience shared with my husband who has brought me to Paris a second time. This amazing man who proposed to me at Pont Neuf two years ago and this year went out his way to give us the gift of our favorite city to mark the passing of our one year as married couple. Paris belongs to us, and we belong to each other.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Alchemy of Pancit Palabok

I made my first attempt at creating pancit palabok yesterday. Yes, “create”, not merely “cook”, is the correct way to describe how to prepare this alchemy of tubular rice noodles under a blanket of ground pork in a velvety sauce of achuete water and corn starch, topped with fried tofu, crushed chicharon, scallions, tinapa flakes, sliced boiled eggs, and poached shrimp. Served on the side are halved kalamansi limes to temper the richness with refreshing acidity and patis to play up the salt factor.

Pancit palabok can either be sublime when done right or be close to inedible due to incorrect preparation or if left to congeal on the plate by an inattentive diner. The right type of noodle is critical, as well as the addition of flaked tinapa which I found is the true heart of this dish. Reconstituted dried shrimp will do in a pinch, but seek out tinapa flakes or smoked trout it you can. And for a truly elevated experience, next time I will not only make my own sauce from scratch instead of using the packaged kind, but will also swap out saffron for the achuete seeds. Perhaps also play with the different thickening agents. Cornstarch is suitable, but what about ground rice flour made from toasting then hand grinding uncooked rice? Or maybe starting the sauce with a blonde roux instead? The same techniques that my Mom uses to make her kare kare sauce can be employed, but with much less butter and sans peanuts.

Truth be told this was an infuriating dish to make. I literally screamed at one point during the cooking process due to the ruined batch of noodles. Then there was the disappointment of finding out how slimy the reconstitutued salted croaker fish had become, a completely unsuitable substitute for the tinapa flakes. I had all four gas burners on at the same time, and a kitchen sink full of utensils, bowls and pots as the aftermath. This dish is no joke. It suffers no fools and will not wait. Five minutes after it is served it turns sullen, the otherwise wonderful sauce would have congealed, the rice noodles stick together, and the first bite will be savory paste and not that amazing silken experience of noodle, sauce and garnish married as one.

This is a dish that is best served to one who anticipates it, stomach growling, as my husband did yesterday afternoon when we spent our last day of the long weekend relaxing at home instead of venturing out to BBQs and Labor Day sales. In our sunny kitchen while he booked our flight to Paris for our upcoming one year wedding anniversary, I spent two hours dreamily re-reading the recipe from “Memories of Philippine Kitchen”, with visions of myself at Cendrillon in NYC getting coached by the authors of the cookbook. Reality set in as soon as I put my third pot on the stove: this was not a simple matter of whipping up a tried and true dish. I was in unknown territory: preparing, cooking, soaking dried croacker fish only to discard it, soaking dried shrimp as a Plan B, cursing at the ruined noodles, making a new batch, frying up squares of tofu and garlic, chopping scallions, grinding chicharon with mortar and pestle, and finally, hours later, assembling then serving the pancit palabok as our late lunch/merienda (Lurienda? Is this the next wave of in between meals, where instead of meeting for brunch one can issue a more provocative invitation for Lurienda?)

Was it worth the effort? An entire afternoon for what is essentially considered snack food, slurped down during long bus trips from Baguio to Manila, in a motel/restaurant in Pampanga famous for its pancit palabok, or in Carson at a Filipino buffet place with terrible food save for that one specialty? This highly caloric ode to salt, carb and fat, with more ingredients than can be counted with both hands? To a true enthusiast it is worth it. Was I happy with the final result yesterday? Not really. My husband who loves everything I make loved it, but I ate the pancit palabok with little joy, already dreaming up ways to improve the dish. But later on as I swiped an errant tofu along the bottom of the pot, I though, ok, not bad for a first try. No recipe to share this time because it still eludes me, the flavors and textures have not truly come together on that first attempt. Like an expensive purse just slightly out of my price range I consider pancit palabok aspirational cuisine, one that I will research, recreate and tweak until it becomes my own.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sabel in San Francisco

I am still jet-lagged after flying in yesterday from the Philippines via Hong Kong. In the cubicle world once more I am planning tonight's dinner. Something for the weary traveller who goes straight to the office with no rest, something soothing and delicious without being too complicated. Something that a tired wife who must go home after a full's day of work can easily prepare for her husband who will be working late tonight. Something that feeds the soul set free, the heart that has broken wide open from three weeks of travel up and down the Philippine archipelago, a dish that celebrates Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao: wild as the fern salad with organic field greens from Ben Cab's Sabel Cafe in Benguet. Bitter as the seed of lanzones I accidentally bit into while riding the Victory Liner bus from Manila to Baguio, hands sticky from peeling my favorite fruit. Sweetish as the giant taclobo clams we saw while snorkeling in the Coral Gardens of Hundred islands. Salty as the same said ocean waters. Sour as the sinigang made with batuan served to us at a sea side restaurant in Iloilo. Savory as the pancit Molo made by our family's cook in La Paz. Sweet as marang from the night fruits stalls of Magsaysay in Davao City. Nuanced as durian, a truly indescribable taste, one that gets lost in translation.

I know that this is an impossible dish to make, a clash of flavors that cannot be swallowed in one sitting. It is the taste of homesickness for what I left behind in Inang Bayan. It is the tang of sadness from the passing of a national icon the day that I also leave Inang Bayan, my Dad and I silently crying together in the car on the way to airport while listening to the radio announcing the death of former Philippine President Cory Aquino. It is the reheated leftovers of What Could Have Been but Isn't. It is the just picked freshness of what is and will continue to Evolve and Become. It is not a dish best served cold; it is fragrant steaming hot and sticks to the bone, a bowlful of forgiveness and redemption.

But back to practical matters: I will go to Molly Stones after work for sushi-grade white tuna and make Davao-style kilawin, with lemons, Thai bird chilis, cucumbers and radish. I will fry up some of the dried squid from Iloilo that passed customs yesterday. And I will make pinakbet the way Mom makes it, Ilokano style with a lot of bitter ampalaya. And when we drink water after the meal it will taste sweet.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pancit Molo Chicken Soup for the Balikbayan Soul

We arrived yesterday in Manila after almost twenty hours of travel. One of the first things I wanted to do as soon as I got over my jet lag is to shop for local produce and to make meals for my husband/travel companion and for Dad. At the kitchen in our home in San Mateo, Rizal I reacquaint myself with the cooking techniques of the Philippines. While preparing breakfast this morning I had my first lesson. Thinking the gas stove was like my own in San Francisco, I absentmindedly lit a match that sent a blanket of flame to briefly cover the entire stove top. My Dad grabbed the matches out of my hands and reprimanded me with a chuckle. “You have to light the match immediately after you turn on the gas. You cannot leave the stove on even for a few seconds longer than necessary.”
With a newfound respect for the kitchen ways I now prepare the broth for pancit molo soup, primarily to aid in restoring my husband’s health. He has been running a temperature since we landed in the Manila from Hong Kong, but I believe he has been fighting this fever even in San Francisco. I am relying on the old and proven powers of the chicken noodle soup to make it all better. I tell him that he has been running himself ragged with work and other obligations, and to not fight being sick anymore. Sometimes it is the body’s way to ask us to slow down. I tell him to not feel any guilt or worry that we are spending more time at home and not beginning our trek up north to Alaminos and Baguio as originally planned. . We will spend as much time at home for him to get better and acclimate himself to the weather and nuances of life in the Philippines.
I too need to acclimate and reorient myself to the sights, smells and sounds of Metro Manila and the neighboring rural town of Rizal. The kitchen itself is like a new baranggay to explore, with its own set of rules and nuances. Salt is coarse and due to the humidity, has a tendency to liquefy. Olive oil has a different flavor also because of the climate, less round and fruity but not altogether unpleasant. It is better to cook with the native virgin coconut oil or canola oil that holds up better in the tropical climate. The knives are thin, not as sharp as the ones I have back home in San Francisco. The pots are blackened from the butane gas stove flame that has a life of its own. The yellow flickering tongues lick the sides of the pot, curling around almost to the rim. I turn down the flames into a more subdued ring of blue, trembling beneath the soup broth but still very much alive. 
I write this in the newly built lanai where my husband rests on thin slats of the bamboo bed. The late afternoon sun smudges amber against the walls, lighting the capiz shell squares of the window/door that separates the lanai from the study, and they glow like pearls lit from within. I am keeping strong and in high spirits for my husband who cannot help but feel a little upset about slowing down our itinerary. I want to reach into him and pull out whatever it is that is making him sick. Early morning still jet lagged I woke up at 4am and gave him a healing massage, the kind that Mom has learned from her baglan research. I knead and pull with intention, and end the massage by sweeping my hands across his body to grab any toxic energy and casting these out, literally making movements to throw away the sickness, then clapping and snapping over him to clear the energy. Afterwards I sang Joey Ayala songs and rocked him back to sleep. Then I got up at around six am and did yoga in the front yard underneath the rambutan tree.
This evening I hope to cure him from the inside with soup that originates from Iloilo, where my father’s family and his Mom is originally from. La Paz where Lola lives and where we will go as soon as he gets better is adjacent to the town of Molo. The ubiquitous pancit Molo is derivative of the wonton noodle soup of the early Chinese traders who settled in the port town. It has been indigenized with the addition of fish sauce, crushed shrimp heads that lend a pink hue to the soup and other Filipino tweaks to the original recipes. My Mom has added her own flavors by the beginning with a very good French style broth from a whole chicken and root vegetables, the pot left uncovered and the broth not allowed to boil beyond a soft rolling simmer, the muck skimmed every so often then the entire soup strained. Then soft vegetables are mashed for its essence then discarded, producing a clean, golden hued pure broth. To this I will add the pancit molo from the town of Molo that Dad has in his freezer. Usually I make the molo from scratch, but in this case I will experiment with an already made product. Then I will also fry up some garlic for garnish. In the same pan I will sauté small diced carrots, celery and onions. The whole chicken I will shred before adding it back to the soup along with the sautéed vegetables. To serve I will garnish individual bowls with fried garlic and chopped scallions.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Nachos and Fava for Father's Day

My father is a professor/actor in the Philippines. Yesterday for Father's Day brunch at my in-laws I made a Moroccan inspired dish. It was one of those days where I really missed Dad and wished he could have been with us, sharing this dish with my father-in-law, his new fellow Visayan kumpadre. If my Dad were at lunch with us, I may have also prepared nachos from simple store bought ingredients thrown together and microwaved. In 2002 when I visited Dad it had been sixteen years since I had last been to the Philippines and an entire decade had passed since we had seen each other. For some reason he absolutely loved the nachos I made for him on Father's Day in our home in San Mateo, a semi-rural town just outside of Manila, perhaps because it is something he doesn't often eat in the Philippines or because he never thought it could be prepared so easily at home. Or maybe it was because he was happy to see his daughter and anything I prepared for him, even a reheated can of pork & beans, would have made him happy.

My Dad loves to eat and the maid had made a joke while he was gorging on the junk food nachos that "hobby ni Sir ang kumain, Ate." I think this Moroccan inspired dish, more wholesome than microwaved tortilla chips, American cheddar and canned jalapeno slices, would be to his liking as well.

Fresh, locally raised organic vegetables inspire me. I love this time of year because of what turns up at my favorite stores. I wanted to use the fresh fava beans I bought at the Ferry Building and one perfect baby cauliflower from Real Food Daily on Filbert Street. I wasn't sure what would best showcase these finds then I remembered a friend who married a Moroccan man and how she cooked with fava beans in some type of vegetable and lamb stew. I decided to recreate those flavors from memory, to cook from feel and sense without the aid of a recipe. I tend to cook without measuring and eyeball the portions.
The measurements are approximations at best and should be used more as guideline than hard fact. Taste often and adjust accordingly.

Moroccan Flavored Vegetable Stew with Spiced baby Meatballs

Vegetable stew
1 whole large onion, sliced fine
1 lb roughly chopped mushrooms
1/2 lb new red potatoes
1 cup chilled pinot grigio
1/2 cup tomato paste
4 tsp butter
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 tsp fresh ground cumin
1/4 tsp fresh ground coriander
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground white pepper
1 bunch dinosour kale or any hardy greens

In a heavy bottomed pot (I love using my Dutch oven Le Creuset for these types of dishes), melt 2 tsp butter along with 1/4 cup of olive oil. Add onions and begin to caramelize over medium heat for about 4 minutes. Add mushrooms and continue to cook for another 8 minutes, then add the halved new red potatoes for another two minutes. Add the tomato paste and immediately deglaze with the pinot grigio and bring back to a boil. Add all the spices and fleur de sel to taste. Add the chopped dinosour kale. Simmer uncovered while you prepare the meatballs.

Spiced meatballs
3/4 lb grass-fed ground beef
1/4 cup dried bread crumbs
1/4 tsp fresh ground cumin
1/4 tsp fresh groun coriander
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground white pepper
1 whole egg
1 tbsp fleur de sel
canola and olive oil (1/4 cup)

Combine all ingredients but do not overwork to keep the meat light and fluffy. Shape into mini meatballs (about 1 tsp full) and fry in oil until nicely browned (about 2 minutes each side). Drop meatballs into the vegetable stew to continue the cooking process and to mingle the flavors. (One of my sister-in-laws thought that the meatballs were made of lamb, but it is the combination of spices and the cooking technique that elevated the simple ground beef.)

Simmer stew and meatballs for another 10 minutes, add more pinot and some water if it gets to dry. The ideal amount of liquid is enough to make a nice sauce to ladle over brown rice, but not too much that it becomes a soup.

In a separate pot, boil water with a few fresh lemon rounds. Add the prepared fava beans (leave the skins in tact but take seeds out of the pods). Do not overcook! Test for doneness after about five minutes then set aside in a bowl to cool. In the same water, add the cauliflower and cook covered for about 3 minutes, then begin to test for doneness. Again, do not overcook the vegetable. Let cauliflower cool while you take the grey skins off the cooked fava beans, exposing the beautiful apple green color of the fava.

Drizzle the remaining olive oil and add the juice of half a lemon before transfering the vegetable stew with spiced meatballs into a nice decorative serving platter. Nestle the baby cauliflower in the middle, then sprinkle the fava beans as a garnish. Add chopped Italian flat leaf parsley and drizzle a few drops of fruity exra virgin olive oil.

Most folks ate this dish with rice at the luncheon, both brown and steamed white rice, but I would imagine this would also go well with a crusty baguette, pita bread or with a creamy polenta.

Friday, June 19, 2009

My own Burger Bar

A few ideas to expand on Hubert Keller's Burger Bar book:

1. Loco moco
Incorporate diced Maui onions into the ground beef, and fry up the hamburger patties. Use the pan drippings for a roux, adding chicken bouillon dissolved in half a cup of hot water, Maggi liquid seasoning, soy sauce and black pepper. Add sauteed shitake mushrooms to the gravy. Mound steamed rice on a plate, top with sunny side up fried eggs, place hamburger patties along side and cover in gravy.

2. Ultra lux adobo burger
Make chicken adobo the usual way, with the addition of chicken liver about five minutes before the dish is cooked. Refrigerate so that the sauce reaches a jellied form. Cut adobo jelly into cubes. Meanwhile, take the chicken liver and mash into a paste, mix into ground Kobe beef, truffles and roasted garlic paste. Form patties and insert adobo jelly cubes in a few spots. Create an indentation in the middle of the patty, then fry with indentation side up in a hot pan with oil skimmed from the adobo sauce along with additional canola oil. Use jumbo size pan de sal bread, spread with a thin layer of roasted garlic paste, adobo sauce. Place hamburger patties inside and top with caramelized onions, green zebra tomatoes and red leaf butter lettuce.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fruits in season

Is it only in Paris along the Seine in early autumn, a few hours before your longtime boyfriend proposes to you on Pont Neuf, that an apricot tart can be truly enjoyed? The glistening golden half globes with a thin veneer of syrup, that very first bite a juicy explosion in your mouth. The buttery, perfectly crumbly crust with a hint of salt to offset the sweetness of the fruit. The rich creamy custard that marries fruit to crumb, the glue that keeps the two elements united as one.

Is it only at the height of mango season in the Philippines that one can truly savor the fruit, as a child who goes for a swim in the ocean in the rain, carrying a mango tucked under her shirt, hanging on to the side of a boat before biting into the thin skin and slurping down the smooth flesh, juice running down her chin, salt from the ocean offsetting the impossible sweetness? It is only in the Philippines that a mango is a mango as I know it. Nothing you find in American stores comes even close, from the banal supermarkets to overpriced gourmet ghetto shops at Ferry Building, those sad imported mangoes from Mexico devoid of the floral smell and true taste, its essential mango-ness lost in translation.

But here in America local stone fruits are now coming into season that rival apricots in Paris or mangoes in Alaminos, Philippines. This morning for breakfast I had currant pumpernickel bread from Acme, a ripe soft cheese from Cowgirl Creamery called Mt. Tam, and the most melt in your mouth sweet miniature white peaches. A perfect way to begin my morning in the cubicle world.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The raw and the cooked

After work I headed for the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero, a five minute cab ride from my office. I had intended to only get ingredients for wild bay scallop ceviche. But when I saw the wild-caught ahi and fresh shucked oysters in a jar, I could not resist making a trio of the raw and citrus-cooked.

First the wild bay scallop ceviche. The fish monger gave me his favorite recipe: first wash the scallops, drain then pat dry with paper towels. Combine the juice of 2 limes, salt, jalapeno, tomatoes and avocados diced small, a handful of fresh coriander leaves and pour this over the scallops. Cover and chill for at least a half hour.

For the kilawin oysters, I rough chopped the oysters and tossed this in a simple marinade of white palm vinegar, diced red onions, salt, half a lemon and unseeded jalapeno.

I used a poke mix for the ahi tuna, soaking the seaweed in water first, then combining this with the rock salt and spice mix along with sesame seed oild.

I also prepared seared hanger steak that the butcher butterflied and spiced heavily with cumin and other pungent flavors. I sliced the steak on the bias and placed these in red butter lettuce leaves, topped with the scallop ceviche salsa for a healthy surf & turf "fajita".

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shalimar on Polk Street

I prefer Shalimar on Polk Street over the one that is across from Bourbon and Branch in the Tenderloin. The entire restaurant did not stop and stare at us when we walked in this time, although the last time at the Tenderloin branch we did stagger in at 2am into a restaurant full of Muslim men: one Italian/Iranian guy, a Filipino American couple and a Chinese American couple, all in different states of drunkenness after a long evening at the speakeasy across the street.

Tonight it was just my husband and I going to this popular Indian/Pakistani restaurant on Polk Street. We could have brought our own wine or beer, one of the perks of eating at Shalimar. But since I had a gin martini the night before at the Elite and I did just come from the gym and a massage, we had water and sodas instead. In line to place our order, I noticed a mural depicting the Shalimar Gardens
which, according to Wiki research, is a Persian garden built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The mural depicts modernity as well: next to the ancient building the artist fancifully paints in cars and billboards. One in particular caught my eye: next to some other billboard ad, in small script it read "Lahore." I wonder if many of the patrons got the reference or even cared, although I tend to think the latter the way folks uncorked wine bottles and sopped up saucy dishes with pieces of naan.

Hungry as I felt my mind started to wander and I repeated the word "Lahore" to myself. Such a beautiful sound, an incantation, hidden in the bustle of this urban restaurant on typical workday evening. As we made our way to the back to be seated, I remembered a novel I read about a young girl coming of age in Lahore around the time that India and Pakistan were divided. It made me think of cultural rifts and how families and neighborhoods can be torn apart by politics. I started to feel sad and dislocated myself, a Filipina born and raised in Manila but who considers herself more American now, no, more San Franciscan, be it one with roots that extend back to the homeland where my father still lives. I cheered myself up by watching naan being made by hand, studded with garlic and slapped into a roaring tandoori oven in what could have been a scene lifted straight from the novel set in Lahore.

But back to dinner after a quasi-literary/identity politics diversion. Although I wanted to order the lamb shanks so I could sop up the marrow with garlic naan while sucking on the hollow bones for any remaining fatty goodness, my husband vetoed me. Or rather, he made a face and so we went with a typical chicken tandoori dish which turned out pretty average. The real standout items were the stewed okra with slices of ginger and a beef dish with a sauce of green peppers and whole spices. Ordering the okra seemed to impress the cashier since garbanzo beans (chala masala) was the more popular choice. The okra was hot with chilis and pungent with just the right acidity to brighten the flavors. It reminded me of Bicol Express , a tongue-numbing spicy dish of stewed taro leaves, coconut milk, ginger, dried fish and slices of pork. Although of course, no pork would ever be served at Shalimar due to cultural and religious restrictions. It still amazed me though how food from two different countries made of completely different ingredients could taste so similar. I am inspired to find other examples in my own culinary meanderings.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Recreating a taste of Montmartre

Montmartre Caramelized Pork ribs in Creamy Polenta

This is the dreamfood that my husband to be and I had on the week we went to Paris and got engaged, autumn of 2007. We had been fighting earlier in the day and were swept up in the rain, the magic of Montmartre-- Sacré Coeur and Amelie and Picasso, and each other's nuances of moods and ravenous appetites. The bistro where we experienced this dish (and sadly, I forgot to write down the name and do not know the address, but can probably find my way there from Pigalle) was recommended by the owner of another bistro we had found in the Little Black book of Paris, but due to overbooking, could not accomodate us. The young, SF-Giants fan chef/owner bolted after us when we left his establishment and apologized profusely, and very kindly directed us to his friend's bistro just around the corner. It was a very Paris experience. Already tipsy from our pit stop at a very American sports bar to watch the Fiji and UK soccer game, hungry and in a better mood, we had no idea what awaited us at a tiny little bistro that specialized in artisinal wines and regional cuisine.

I tried to capture the elements of that dish, not knowing enough French or having the audacity to ask for the recipe-- so here is my interpretation of flavors and sensations -- the pull apart from the bones tenderness of the meat, how it was infused with spices and flavors I would never know, the caramel outer skin and the dreamy/creamy polenta to absorb all that sugary and savory richness. I've added seasonal vegetables to set off the richness and orgy of gustatory sensations, to make it more grounded. This dish will make you fall in love and should be made and consumed with care. A lovely dish for autumn and winter, or on a typical San Francisco summer evening. (Travel Tip! If you are in Montmartre, add to the whole experience by visiting the Musée de l'Erotisme in nearby Pigalle earlier in the day.

1 rack of pork baby back ribs (organic, if you can get it)
1 bunch leek, chopped roughly
1 whole white onion, studded with cinnamon sticks and black peppercorns
5 bay leaves
1 large golden apple, cut into thick rounds
1 unpeeled carrot, large cuts
1 handful of fresh parsley

1 cup jus
juice from 1 large pomegranate
1/2 cup Grade A maple syrup

1 cup water
1/2 cup combo white & brown sugar

Cooking instructions:
1. Wash the pork ribs in cold water, careful to take out any impurities
2. Line the bottom of large pot with the golden apple rounds, place ribs on over and add the spice studded onion and bay leaves.
3. Pour cold water (enough to cover meat and to make a nice broth)
4. Boil rapidly. As soon as the first layer of impurities foams up to surface, turn off fire and skim foam by placing several paper towels over the top, then taking out along with the impurities. Also ladle out any remaining gunky stuff.
5. Put back in low flame for 3 hours. Then take out pork ribs (keep whole if possible) and place in a shallow casserole dish.
6. Purify the broth by passing over several sieves. Set aside.
7. Take a ladleful of purified broth and place into a bowl. Take all the spices and vegetables; mash through a sieve, using the broth to liquify.
8. Take the liquified vegetable/spice and pass through a finer sieve. This will be used for the marinade.
10. To prepare marinade: cut pomegranate in half and squeeze out as much juice as possible into the vegetable/spice jus, careful not to add any seeds or foreign material into the marinade. Add the maple syrup and stir. By this time, the aromas will be intoxicating that you may be tempted to take little sips before pouring the marinade over the pork ribs. Make sure the meat is covered well by marinade, then wrap in foil and let sit overnight and into the day.
11. Come home from a long day of work and get ready for the most mouthwatering pork ribs of your dreams.
12. Take the marinated ribs and bring to room temperature.
13. Meanwhile, prepare polenta, adding sage and parmesan cheese as desired. Also, some pureed chestnuts would be very good.
14. Make side vegetables, such as mushroom ragout or ratatouille.
15. To make the caramel: Boil water and add sugar until liquid starts to turn blonde then smoky amber.
17. Take marinated ribs, drain a bit, then sear in caramel. Be careful!
19. Turn ribs over if you can, then add the marinade. Transfer to an oven-friendly dish and bake on 400 degrees for about 10 minutes, until the caramel skin forms and your mouth is watering
20. To serve: In a shallow large bowl, spoon a big circle of polenta. Around the circle, place the side vegetables artfully. Then, very slowly and with respect, take the Montmartre caramelized pork ribs and perch on the circle of creamy polenta goodness. Pour the natural sauce from the ribs, open a bottle of wine, and get a bit of crusty French baguette . Bon apetite!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Birthday Food

We were in Los Angeles last weekend to celebrate my birthday. My mother prepared my favorite dish, kare-kare. The secret ingredient: an entire stick of butter for the roux made with achiote and toasted rice powder. The oxtail was falling off the bone tender, the peanut butter sauce sublime, the accompanying fried bagoong alamang with bacon bits was almost guilding the lily. No vegetables to distract from the taste, although I would have enjoyed a bit of talong, sitaw, pechay and maybe banana blossom heart to sop up that amazing sauce. In discussing the kare-kare recipe, I suggested that maybe next time she make the peanut butter herself, toasting raw peanuts and grinding this with mortar and pestle. Not one to miss an opportunity for teasing us about our over-achiever tendencies in the kitchen, Kuya interjected,"And while she's at it, maybe she can also raise the ox and chase it for the tail."

To add to the birthday feast, my mother also served fresh oysters from the farmer's market, pancit made with king trumpet mushrooms and camaron rebosado shrimps, and the most glorious dinengdeng with all the hard to find greens: leaves and tendrils of sitaw, ampalaya, squash and saluyot. This downhome Ilocano vegetable stew is what I miss the most living away from my family.

My mother is equal parts traditionalist and post-modernist in the kitchen. She is meticulous about ingredients and is a force to watch as she makes her way through the stalls at the Torrance Farmer's market, scrutinizing each vegetable, fruit or protein item before adding it to her loot. We follow behind her and take the white bags to the car so as not to impede her progress as she moves, trancelike, from the stall with the Ilokano vegetables to the fish mongers for oysters and wild caught black cod, the white bags bursting with goodness
multiplying at a dizzying rate.

In a few hours I will be at my in-laws who will be hosting an informal belated birthday lunch. The cooking style in Pleasant Hill is different but just as amazing. Ma does not make a whole production out of her shopping and cooking. She works alone and produces the stick to your ribs classics: pancit, dinuguan with only ground beef, meatloaf, chicken falling off the bone in a tomato and bell pepper sauce, perfect lumpia, and always something sweet made with malagkit and slivers of macapuno.

Two families, a marriage of varying yet complimentary foodways. And the challenge of restraint from over-partaking. There are worse things to worry about.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Clement Street

What is the best hangover cure? A little hair of the dog, which would be vodka in this case. Food soaks ups the toxins well and overindulgence will surely result in a welcomed comatose state on the couch, watching Mad Men reruns and swearing to yourself never to drink again. Last night's happy hour with office mates and my husband at Aventine extended to a few more hours of happily dashing around Embarcadero looking for a suitable place for dinner, deciding to go to Polk Street instead and merging with another group at Nick's Crispy Tacos. I paid for that overindulgence and am ready to cook my way to better health. Off to Clement Street I go, in search of souring agents, fish and vegetables for my sinigang. There is nothing like plain rice and pure broth with ginger and tamarind to put the world right. With sinigang I will serve bistek, seared skirt steak in soy sauce and lemon with lots of caramelized onions.

But first the sinigang: I do not buy farmed bangus unless it's from Dagupan. All others taste muddy. I stay away from farmed fish altogether. I hope there is wild caught black cod or salmon, especially salmon collars, or golden pompano. Vegetables will be the usual: long green beans, Filipino or Japanese eggplant, mustard greens or pechay, daikon radish, spring onions. I am tempted to go with the usual sinigang packet, but I will attempt to find frozen tamarind or kamias. I am sure not to find batuan, the round sour fruit preferred by the Visayans for souring their sinigang. I will have to wait until my trip back to the Philippines in July to have my grandmother's sinigang with batuan in La Paz. For now I will make do with what I find in the markets on Clement, and dream about fresh ingredients I can cook with when I go back to the Philippines. Kamias plucked straight from the tree, tamarind with the young leaves and flowers that can also be used in the broth, batuan with its hard seed in the center. Nothing frozen or pre-packaged. All of the land, sky and sea for the taking.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Coffee and cigarettes in Quezon City

I have woken up about an hour too early, and instead of writing with eye-lids in half mast I am tempted to crawl back into bed. I have a busy day at the office and need that reserve of energy. But maybe instead of snuggling with my husband who still sleeps after working until 2am, I will wash the dishes and make breakfast. In the mornings I do not like sweet things, at least not at first. Memories of traditional Filipino breakfasts from my childhood: waking up to the smell of garlic fried rice, tuyo, fried eggs and corned beef. Waking up knowing my parents would already be up, relishing the few times in the day when they can sit quietly together with no interruption from the children. Sometimes I would wake up earlier and spy on them. My mother in her floor length champagne colored nightgown, hair already perfect with no effort, sitting with her beautiful face perched on her knees, one hand outstretched towards my father. He lights her cigarette and plainly admires her. They take their coffee served by the maids and talk in hushed tones. Inevitably my mother would ask, "Shall we ask them to wake up the children for breakfast?" My Dad, reaching over to stroke Mom's bare arms would say, "Not just yet" and light another cigarette for her. I would smile and sneak back into bed, and wait for the maids to wake me up.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Embracing Multiplicity of Selves

This is where I thrive: somewhere in the grey area, in airport lounges when flights get delayed and time itself is suspended, when international datelines are crossed and the sun rises just as you fall asleep, where margins become centers and you find yourself subverting the dominant paradigm even as you partake in its pleasures. In a bistro in Saint Germain de Pres where the well-heeled prototypical French women delighted by andouillette on the menu reminds you of your Ilocana aunties reminiscing about pinapaitan (both made of the same ingredients, tripe as haute cusine in one culture and as evidence of poverty in another), but as the Berkeley educated Ethnic Studies savvy neo-indigena intellectual I can sit in that cafe and know: these are foodways that have more in common than meets the eye, nasty bits become sublime when made with love, both come from humble beginnings and must be equally elevated, and one day I will open my French Ilokana cafe on Clement Street and have Anthony Bourdain and Hubert Keller salivate over my pinapaitan, which literally means, that which is bitter.

Bitter. A taste profile that offends the Western palate. How to subvert the dominant paradigm of taste and memory? How about something bittersweet? I love the word. Also how water tastes after eating bitter greens like ampalaya. Water in contrast becomes something other than bland. It become sweet. Or sweetish. Another word I love, one my father uses to describe close to indescribable tastes: forbidden foods like taclobo, an endangered clam. Or fresh sea urchin before the acid of kalamansi makes it quiver and turn sour. Or red rice steaming, brought to the table by a servant who has been in the family since I was a child, whose real name has been forgotten and who still calls me by my baby nickname, and I sit at my grandmother's table in La Paz, Iloilo and swallow something else: the pang of guilt, a bitter taste replacing sweetishness in my mouth.