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.