Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Basic Chocolate Cake

Very few kids can turn down chocolate. And even fewer can turn down rich chocolate cake. The bakeries will attest that it is the best selling cake flavor for birthday cakes and in some bakeries, even for wedding cakes.

My lola, mother, aunts, cousins and sisters all made chocolate cakes with slight variations on taste, usually on the frosting that is used. Cooking school teaches us that it is one of the basic cakes that aspiring bakers must cut their teeth on. 

Basic Chocolate Cake
1 c butter
2 c sugar
4 eggs
1 c sour milk
2 c all purpose flour
1/2 c cocoa powder
1/4 t salt
1 t baking powder
2 t baking soda
1 t vanilla

Sift all dry ingredients together.

Cream butter and sugar (this works better and easier if butter is softened by taking it out of the fridge early) until fluffy but grainy. Add eggs one by one.

Mix in one part of dry ingredients. Alternate with milk, ending with dry ingredients.

Add vanilla.

Bake in 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes or until knife inserted into center comes out clean. 

Glossy Chocolate Frosting
1c sugar
5T cocoa
3/4 c boiling water
1/2 t vanilla
3T cornstarch
1/4 t salt
3T butter

Boil water, then pour into a pan containing the sugar and cocoa powder. Keep heat on so water is just under boiling point. Keep stirring constantly. Add cornstarch and salt. When fully combined, take off heat and add butter. Spread over cake while hot.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

To be or not to be

"Whats wrong? Sometimes I also miss meals!"
Gloria Arroyo alleged President
when informed about the statistics of hunger in the Philippines

On my Facebook, there is a link to a site that shows the by now famous and award winning short film, Chicken a la Carte, by Ferdinand Dimadura. It traces food served in a fast food restaurant, turned into left overs, collected as pig slop and finding its way into the homes of an impoverished family in the slums, to be served as dinner. To say the least, it is painful to watch and difficult to forget, particularly the part where the family gives thanks to God for their supper. Despite the sometimes trivial and facetious nature of Facebook, I keep that short film on my wall because it keeps me grounded.

In a country where the statistics vary only on just how high the poverty rate is at the moment (it ranges from 60 percent to 80 percent, depending on whether or not the President is legitimate), it is sometimes ironic that I find myself writing a food blog. But here it is and here we are.

I know that this kind of writing is guaranteed to make people want to click off and go to some site where consciences aren't troubled by the starving. And I wouldn't blame you. I will eventually get back to writing about food and related matters, but I find it essential, at this time and just before Holy Week, to consider and ask readers to think just how much or how little trouble would it be, to give out biscuits to the old man or little girl tapping on your car window?

I know that we have bought into the canard that we should not give beggars anything because they may be pawns of criminal syndicates. But personally, I just can't. When someone begs me for something because they are hungry I will take it in good faith. The rule of evidence states that a positive assertion is generally acceptable as the truth, unless proven otherwise. And if an adolescent boy, stunted in height who sleeps in the streets tells me he is hungry, hell, I will assume that he is, and I will give what little I can.

Over one year ago, I took in a street child and allowed him to sleep in my house. There was a typhoon, and my son, who had befriended him asked me if this boy could stay even if it was just for the duration of the storm. The boy had been sleeping in jeepneys and making a living selling rags. My son and his friends had befriended him and sort of adopted him, but were terrified that their parents would find out.

That boy is still with me and has gotten great grades in school. I wonder what my life would be without him if others had not taken pity on him and given him just enough food so that he was alive when we came along.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Talbos ng Kamote

Pinoys love to use food expressions. The more archaic of my law professors would reminisce about their own professors telling them to go home and plant camote in a successful attempt to further mystify their approach to jurisprudence. They also would still describe some of our more befuddled classmates as "nangangamote." Cliche though it may have been, considering how indispensable (and delicious) the sweet potato is, I wouldn't mind calling a spade a camote.

Dr. Lee is in again.

Sweet potatoes are easy to grow in the tropics all year round. In the rural areas of the Philippines, one can often find patches of sweet potato plants in the yards of almost every house or hut. The food values of sweet potato leaves are often under-estimated. Sweet potato leaves contains vitamins and iron as well as anti-oxidants. Fifteen compounds have been founds that could prevent heart disease, diabetes, some infection and some type of cancer, according to researchers.
Sweet potato leaves are not available in your average American grocery stores. In Houston, this particular vegetable can be found in Chinatown where there is a demand for it. It fetches a price four times higher than cabbage and napa, three times higher than oriental eggplant, bitter melon, bok choy, celery, and green beans. If you take the stems (which has to be discarded before cooking), that comes with it when you purchase it, the price is even higher. Yet, camote leaves, as it is called in the Philippines is considered a "poor man's food." Poor man's food or not, I love the camote leaves with gata and crabs. The spicier the dish, the better. I grew up with it as a kid in Bicol. Bicolanos are noted for their hot dishes such as the Bicol express.
These are the recipes for sweet potato leaves:

Salad: boil the sweet potato leaves for 10 seconds, remove and drain. Add a few slices of tomatoes and unions and use oil and vinegar for dressing.
Sinigang: just like any sinigang dish, try using sweet potato leaves instead of spinach or kang kong. Add slices of tomatoes, onions, green and red bell peppers, garlic, chilies, and slivers of gingers. For 4 servings, use 4 cans of 99% fat-free chicken broth. For sour taste, you have the choice of using lemon, or calamansi juice, apple cider vinegar, powdered tamarind or tamarind concentrate. The only problem with tamarind is that it will make the soup looked murky and brownish. Not an appetizing sight. Place your milk fish or bangus on top of the vegetables, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. By doing so, you are part boiling and steam cooking the fish, thus retaining the sweetness flavor of the bangus.
Blue crabs or alimasag with sweet potato leaves and coconut milk: Clean about a dozen of blue crabs, discarding all the shells and legs and gills. Cut the crabs into two, saute' the crabs in lots of garlic, add a can of coconut milk and cook thoroughly. Add chili for a more spicy dish.
Sweet potato leaves can also be stir-fried with shrimp. Make you blanch the leaves first before cooking.
In the Philippines, we call a dim-wit disparagingly as a "camote" or worse, "camote na, may uud pa."

Next time you hear the word camote, run home and fix yourself a camote leaves dish.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Northern Eating

Abra, in the North is home to the Itnegs and Tingguian cultural community known for their cotton weaving with frog embroidered designs. It is a rapidly vanishing cultural community largely to the vast denudation of its ancestral domains.
It is also home to part of the Ilocano nation, famed for its parsimonious though no less delicious cooking. Prof. Vic Torres writes about his culinary adventures in this part of the great Philippine North.

(A Small Adventure in Ilocano Food Culture)

Bitter is said to be the taste of the Ilocano palate. Probably because their lives were forged from the hardships of the mountain life. The patience of the Ilocano, however, has created a unique food culture from ingredients produced by the harsh highland climate and its rich soil.

My first taste of Ilocano cuisine started with what seemed to be the most common dish of that region to grace the Philippine table – pinakbet.

So far I had tasted pinakbet (or pakbet) cooked three ways. The only difference was that the ingredients used ranged the flavors from a plain meaty sauté to a fish-flavored salty.
The Tagalog pinakbet is oily because of the bits of fatty pork used for the sauté. Bagoong alamang is then added along with the usual ingredients of tomato, eggplant, ampalaya, okra and squash. This is the way my mother (a full-blooded Manileña) prepared it.

One of our maids before, a true-blue native from Abra, cooked two kinds of pinakbet : one made with bagoong isda and the other with patis. The latter was an alternative ingredient for diners who preferred a light, salty taste to the dish. It is also a safe substitute for those who are allergic to bagoong.

For a while, pinakbet seemed to be the only genuine Ilocano dish I was fated to taste in my lifetime as there are few (of which I have not visited) restaurants in Manila that served genuine Ilocano dishes. I hated traveling so that temporarily reduces my chances of visiting the Ilocos.

Until in 1995 when my wife Nikki, and I went on a trip to the North. Destination: Bangued, Abra.
This was a trip that had been planned for quite some time. I had been a father for a year now. Nikki was jobless but needed a break from the hassles of child-caring. And the baby had to be seen by her aunts and great-grandmother,

So, after much persuasion, I agreed to go to Abra. I must admit for an infrequent traveler, I was excited.
It took eight hours by car to reach Abra. Luckily, the traffic was still light. We left at four in the morning, Palm Sunday. Though it was the start of Holy Week, vacation from office work was still four days away. It was twilight when we arrived in Bangued.

Dinner at the house of Nikki’s grandmother was hurriedly-prepared dishes of nilagang baka, fried bangus and rice.

“How good is Ilocano fare in Abra?” I asked off-handedly. Manang Maribel (Nikki’s aunt) and Lola Esther (Nikki’s grandmother) were only glad to oblige in preparing Ilocano food for a “city boy.” I later discovered that Ilocano dishes were exotic enough that they had to wait for nature to “create” the ingredients. It was, as some food writers would describe it, frontier food.

There was hipon (pronounced “i-pon”) which was not the crustacean we are familiar with but a fish fry. They were no bigger than a pencil eraser. This species of fresh-water fish swims in large schools to the mouth of the Calaba River (one of the main waterways of the province) to the South China Sea in the first months of the year. The fishes change color from dark gray to white back again to gray during its migration to the sea and back to the river. It was during this transformation that fishermen anchored at the mouth of the river would lower fine-meshed nets and scoop up the yellowish-white fingerlings. These were then hauled to shore and spread out to dry. It is displayed in the market in small mounds and sold by the glass or evaporated milk can. Hipon turns a light brown when fried or a bright, orangey color when sautéed with onions and tomatoes. They have a buttery taste with just a tinge of fresh saltiness from the sea.

Another kind of fish was the palileng - a river fish sold skewered on a bamboo sticks. The number of fishes per stick depends on their sizes. There are usually four to eight pieces on a stick. Palilengs are roasted on an open fire until charred black and hard. It was a way of preserving the fish. Eaten plain, the flesh is tough and rubbery. Ilocanos prefer it cooked in a paksiw as the fish softens, bones and all, when prepared this way.
Bagnet is defined in the old Spanish-Iloko dictionaries as “something that is half-dried.” It also refers to the Ilocano dish of deep-fried hunks of pork similar to the Tagalog lechon kawali. Bagnet is so popular as an Ilocano dish that it is sold by the kilo side by side with the fresh meat stalls in the public market.

Preparing bagnet involves hanging and air-drying the meat thoroughly before it is deep-fried in oil. Water is splashed on the skin at the right moment to make it blister. Cooked to a crisp, the bagnet is then hung again to let the oil drip out. Storing is done with little fuss as it lasts a long time.

Chopped, the bagnet separates into succulent, flaky crisp pieces of skin and meat. Sometimes the tender, pinkish-white meat peeks deliciously below the browned skin. The Ilocano way of eating this dish is with a dip of sliced tomatoes, chopped onions and vinegar or fish bagoong.

Sinanglaw is a dish made of cow innards cooked with ginger, pepper and papait (bile). The result is a stew richly-yellowed by the bile and fat. One sip of the broth lets loose a mixed bitter, meaty sweet, spicy flavor very much like the papaitan cooked with goat meat.

But the most unforgettable dish I had was the one served to us by Lola Esther. Nikki and I found her one day sitting at the dining table before a small plastic basin full of water. Settled at the bottom of the basin is what seemed to be a mound of soil and tree bark flecked with white specks of what looked like insect eggs. Floating on the water were dead ants. Hundreds of them.

“What is that?” Nikki asked.

“Abu-os.” Lola Esther replied. “Ant eggs.” She deftly scooped out a handful of dead ants and debris. “We will have it for dinner.”

After cleaning, the ant eggs are then sautéed with tomatoes, onions and soy sauce. The resulting exotic dish resembles caviar only white in appearance. If one could get over the squeamishness of the dead ants still clinging to it, abu-os has a salty, slightly creamy taste to the uninitiated palate. It is a dish you have to acquire a taste for.

Other Ilocano dishes I had during my stay in Abra was imbaligtad. This was sliced lean pork and liver mixed with ginger, onions, pepper and a little vinegar (the Ilocano kind). A hot pan with very little oil is heated then the ingredients are dropped in. Cooking time is very short. Just enough to sizzle the meat brown.

Then, of course, there was dinengdeng. This is second only to being the common Ilocano dish to the pinakbet. Like the latter, dinengdeng shows the Ilocano genius in making do with the ingredients available to them. It is cooked with practically any green leafy vegetable that can be placed in the pot. Flavoring, such as bagoong isda, is added. The ingredients are then simmered together until cooked. My father-in-law likes this dish with bits of roasted fish like dalag for added flavor and aroma. The more roasted the fish, the better.

Novelist and National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose taught me a brief lesson in Ilocano food culture during a trip up north in 2001

Going back to Manila after an overnight stay in Ilocos Norte, we stopped at the town market in Sinait. Like almost all the small-town markets, the one in this part of Ilocos Norte was a low-roofed concreted space some distance away from the town plaza.

Jose pointed out the vegetable stalls. “You can identify the dishes in a place just by looking at the ingredients you can buy in the market. For Ilocanos, you can see the ingredients of pakbet almost everywhere.”
The produce were spaced out on mats and sheets of plastic sacks. There were piles of ampalaya and eggplants – the small kinds favored for stewing. Stalks of yellow squash flowers lay tied up in bundles. There were piles of red tomatoes; hunks of ginger root and bundles of red onions. There was a pungent smell of garlic – the strong-smelling kind that is grown in the Ilocos. Wreaths of this favored household spice hung from stalls where it is sold by the kilo.

A product sold on one side of the market was very conspicuous because of the stink it made in the place: bagoong. There were small barrels and pails of it sold side by side with bottles of golden-brown patis. Flies also buzzed heavily around the containers. One could not miss that side of the market – it stank to high heavens.

“Have you ever seen how bagoong is made?” Frankie asked me, “If you haven’t, don’t. You wouldn’t eat it once you saw how it’s done.”

There is one thing I noticed in the market: there were no meat stalls inside. All the fresh food were sold in an open space outside. Fish and meat were displayed on open boards. And like all Ilocano markets there was at least one stall selling bagnet. The meat hunks were literally stacked on top of each other.

What was unsettling for me about the place was the language barrier. Frankie was comfortable talking in Ilocano with his provincemates. It took only two words from me (magkano ito?) for the vendors to realize that they were dealing with an out-of-towner. One of them even mistook me for a Japanese. I decided to just shut up and let my companion do the talking.

He was soon shaking his head and laughing as we walked back to his car, carrying our bag of vegetables. “You stand out like a foreigner in an Ilocano market,” he said.

A fitting reminder on how one can still be an alien to his own country’s culture.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Adventures in Dining Out

I'm not a superhero. But I do have one secret "power." I'm invisible to waiters. I could stand on my head, juggle with the plates, do the cancan and I would still be ignored. If anyone could die of starvation in a restaurant, that would be me. I can see myself now, all skin and bones carrying a sign, "died waiting."

Waiters, they say, are trained to be discreet and look towards the male of a couple. In my case, they do take it to ridiculous lengths, even if I dine alone. When I'm with a group, I usually raise my hand to call the attention of a waiter, any waiter, busboy, maitre d', anybody and I wouldn't get so much as a response. But if my companion even twitches his arm upward, you have a solicitous server whispering sweet delectables in his ear. Thus, I have learned to ask whoever I'm with for whatever I need to order. You do what you have to, to survive.

Which brings me to another problem. When I used to date -- back in the Upper Cretaceous-- I found that I tended to date guys who are irresistible to waitresses. They would banter with my dates, bring them water, unasked. We would get extra cream, sugar, freebies, and they would get some boyish smile in return. Usually I didn't mind, until one time, the waitress asked if he wanted take-out. She meant herself, of course. But she doesn't want him now that he's missing all his front teeth.

Which is why I love fast food places. They actually see me there. I love how when I walk in they call me "M'am/Sir" or that they ask me three times what name they would call me -- I usually respond with something strange like, "Marian Rivera" or "Demi Moore."  When I'm in a particularly loving mood, I give my name as "Loch Ness" and then they go out of their way to deliver the food to my table, instead of calling me over to pick it up. Sometimes they add a funny toy to keep me quiet. Maybe they're hoping I won't break out of my lucid interval.

So there really is a lot of fun to be had in dining out. And its not always about the food, either.