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Kulinarya Cooking Club: Philippine History Edition

In honor of of August and September being Philippine National Heroes Day and Ninoy Aquino Day, the lovely folks at the Kulinarya Cooking Club dreamed up a patriotically-themed challenge: to create a dish using the colors of the Philippine national flag of red, white, blue and yellow!

I think I pretty much stuck true to theme, though played it the easy way out this month, with my not-so-original take on halo-halo! Halo-halo, which means “mix mix” in Tagalog, is basically shave ice with extra tasty goodness in it. And despite the relative ease it takes to make this, I thought it an especially apt dessert dish to fit the challenge, and not just for the colors of the ingredients I chose to make my halo-halo with.

Like the Philippines itself, there are plenty of different colonial influences in halo-halo: the ice and condensed milk (thanks, Amerikkka, for those innovations); flavored jellies, in this case lychee and almond (Chinese); and the most decadent addition, leche flan (a recipe borrowed from our Spanish colonizers and made even better). Despite all these foreign additions, you’ve still got some wonderful indigenous Filipino fruits and legumes which are my favorite part of the halo-halo– the langka (jackfruit), ube jam (pretend it’s blue, for the challenge’s sake!), sweet red mungo (mung beans), and macapuno (young coconut strings). This mix of flavors is probably the most harmonious collaboration you’ll see between these different forces; sadly, the Philippines today hasn’t benefited economically, socially, or politically from their various “benefactors”, despite the propaganda written to the contrary.

After making the flan, which is the longest part of the process and done the night before, assembling the halo-halo is a snap.

1: Shave the ice. Surprisingly fun when you’ve got a home ice shaver like this one. Way better than the tiny Snoopy sno-cone shaver from my childhood.

2. Choose your toppings. (If I had more time and money, I would’ve prepped fresh ingredients but alas… it will have to wait another day.)

3. Drizzle condensed milk on top and voila! Serve and eat quickly before it all melts!

Enjoyed my little educational cooking demo? Well, if you want more Filipino food history from someone far more educated on this topic than I am, do I have a treat for you! Next Sunday, October 2nd, the food historian Felice Santa Maria and noted chef Claude Tayag will be traveling all the way from the Philippines to San Francisco for a free food demo and lecture at the Filipino American International Book Fair. I will definitely be in attendance, and hope to see y’all there!

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My ugly duckling: the 2011 Brazo de Mercedes Experiment

Happy Easter, folks! I’m still stuffed from a huge Easter brunch / dinner party, and I hope you ate just as well today. Contrary to my most recent posts, I *do* still love writing about and cooking food, and have joined up with the Kulinarya Cooking Club as an extra motivation to push myself to try new-to-me Filipino food experiments.

This month’s theme, courtesy of Lala, was “decadence” and I immediately knew what I had to try my hand at making: Brazo de Mercedes (translated from Spanish as “Mercedes’s arm”). Don’t worry, there were no body parts involved in the preparation of this decadent dessert, though trying to cook and bake all day on a sprained ankle really was a painful bodily experience.

I didn’t have Brazo de Mercedes very often as a kid– this rich cake, basically a meringue sheet wrapped around yema or an egg custard, was pretty hard to find in the very puti neighborhoods of my youth. When I did come across it, though, I would always have to order it– the fluffy, sticky sweet meringue and the filling which was like a leche flan on steroids was simply too good to resist.

When a friend threw her annual birthday dinner party, and asked us all to bring a food item featuring some kind of citrus, I knew what I had to do: make a Brazo de Mercedes with a twist, adding Meyer lemons to make a filling akin to lemon curd.

Unfortunately, finding Meyer lemons proved to be impossible, but lemons from our home lemon tree and some extra sugar came to the rescue. Everything at first went really well. Our meringue sheet, which dear hubs mixed up in our Kitchenaid, came out beautifully:

And baked up perfectly brown and lovely. Basic meringue recipe (8 egg whites, 1 tsp. cream of tartar, 3/4 cup Caster sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla) on a slightly too-big 12×17 jelly roll plan:

When it came to filling, though, I began to run into some trouble. The “Filipino-American” cookbook I used diverged from the typical Brazo filling, asking for gelatin and whipping cream to be folded into the egg yolk/condensed milk mixture. That, plus the juice from the lemons I added, made this filling soooo runny. Even after cooling down in fridge and waiting for gelatin to set more, it wasn’t doing the trick. My poor Brazo had to be subjected to some plastic surgery to make it to the birthday party intact:

Even if it was a little whole lot uglier than the beautiful Brazos I remember, people still loved it, and I must admit the filling was delish, with the lemon lightening up the yema nicely.

I was going to just brush this sad experiment under the bridge, but then remembered we would have a second chance to make it again– for the Easter brunch we were invited to today. This time around, I turned to the queen of Filipino home cooking: Nora Daza. I followed her instructions to a T, and was feeling much better about this experiment. Sadly, this time too I was destined to have an ugly Brazo de Mercedes. The hubs got a little too over-zealous with the Kitchenaid mixer, and the meringue sheet didn’t rise, and my filling was still too runny, though not as much as before. My poor Brazo was the ugliest desert in the house, but at least she was delicious!

I’m not sure I’ll be trying this recipe again soon– it is a decadent recipe, after all– but if any of you are Brazo de Mercedes pros, please send along your tips! Now that I have these jelly roll plans, I think I want to bring back the old-school Filipino roll cakes of my youth– the mocha roll, buko pandan roll, and DEFINITELY the ube roll. Anyone want to be a taste tester for these upcoming experiments?

Sunrises, sunsets

Two weeks ago I went to Hawai’i. I celebrated a wedding, my birthday, but ended the week with a funeral. Let me rewind.

I went to Hawai’i for the first time ever as my friend D’s date to a family wedding. It was a rainy week in Honolulu, so we spent more time eating than sunbathing, but I did manage to get in a few scenic runs and enjoy the beach nonetheless. This being a food blog and all, I’ll show you a few highlights of the week’s eats:

Haupia (coconut cream) malasadas from...

We OD’ed on the malasadas from the famed Leonard’s Bakery. While the haupia was a bit too cream-filled for my liking, the plain sugared malasadas were pure dough-y heaven. D’s family loves these malasadas so much that we brought a  whole box to the wedding as an extra snack! I love a family that loves food as much as I do.

Of course we sampled classic Hawaiian fast food fare: moco loco and pork chops with gravy from Rainbow Drive-in, hot and spicy shrimp from Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck on the North Shore…

and lots of shave ice. While we made sure to make our pilgrimage to Matsumoto’s on the North Shore, I actually preferred the extra smooth and creamy shave ice with custard (aka leche flan!) at Waiola Shave Ice back in Honolulu. The folks at Waiola make their syrups in-house, and were sweet enough to serve me and D. even though we arrived a wee bit after closing time:

coconut and mango flavored shave ice

Two experiences stand out from my brief stint in Honolulu. Both very, very different from each other but amazing just the same.

While D. and I stuck to cheap eats most nights, we made an exception to visit Town, a buzzed-about  eatery that’s supposedly “bringing the locavore movement” single-handedly to Oahu. While I’m not sure I buy all that, and was initially skeptical about a place outside the mainland trying to do “American comfort food” with local ingredients, this meal was truly delicious. So good, in fact, that I’ll share with you photos of nearly the entire meal that D. and I shared.

Simple olives, bread, and a huge pat of butter in olive oil. If you can make this exciting, then I know I’m in for a good meal! We were then served an extremely fresh tuna tartare on tiny grit cakes, and a big bowl of mussels in what tasted like a pure butter sauce:

D. and I split our main course too, but the portion size of my half was plenty. This was the most interesting dish of the night- a beef shank in mole sauce, with hominy and greens. A little bit Southern, with a classic Mexican sauce done fancy, but amazingly it didn’t taste out of place in Hawaii.

We closed out with a yummy chocolate pie, featuring pretzels and sea salt as a contrasting twist! Like my favorite compost cookies from Momofuku, but with more chocolate-y goodness.

Can I just say that the lighting at Town is just made for food bloggers? The pinlights over each table highlighted the food perfectly without creating a glare off the white dishes in photos. Why can’t more restaurants design their lighting schemes with us in mind? 😉

After dinner at Town, I wasn’t sure my birthday dinner two nights later could top it. I wasn’t looking for anything fancy- just a good, solid Malaysian meal, something near impossible to find in the mainland US. A quick Yelp search on my phone pointed the way to the Green Door Cafe, and I knew as soon as I called for a reservation that we were in for something unique. The phone call went something like this (I’m speaking in italics):

Hello?
Is this Green Door Cafe?
Yes, hello.
What time are you open until tonight? We’d like to make a reservation for two if possible.
Um…What time did you want to come?
7:30-8?
Ok, I’ll stay open for you then. 7:30. See you! (Click).

I wasn’t sure what we’d walk into after that conversation, but it definitely piqued our interest. A little more internet sleuthing revealed Green Door Cafe to be a one-woman operation, with a tiny capacity of 8 patrons, but it didn’t fully prepare us for actually meeting Betty and dining here.

When we walked in, the place was totally empty, except for Betty who was sitting behind the counter, texting or otherwise playing with her phone. Behind the counter was a tiny space, a make-shift kitchen like I’d only seen in Hong Kong or Manila back alleys- with a fridge, a propane burner, and a huge rice maker making up the bulk of the space. Betty cooks everything to order, with a tiny menu written on a white board, kept small so she can focus on doing those few things well with local ingredients. At her recommendation, we ordered the Singaporean noodles and the day’s special- chicken with oyster mushrooms, since the mushrooms were fresh from the farmer’s market that day. What were you saying about introducing the locavore movement to Honolulu, propietors of Town?

I wish I had better photos of the food (served in plastic take-out containers with the lids ripped off), but it was just so dim in here. But, in this failed photo of me, you can actually get a good look at the kitchen set up at Green Door, which is the most interesting part:

Betty's kitchen

Totally unpretentious, excellent and fresh Nyonya Malaysian food, for a quarter of what we paid for the meal at Town. I couldn’t ask for anything more… only that I wish we had a place like this in SoCal, so I could get my fix without having to try (and fail!) at cooking it myself.

The day after my birthday, our last full day in Honolulu, D. and I went to tea at the Moana Surfrider, where we had stayed the night before in an unexpectedly-upgraded suite with crazy views of Waikiki and Diamond Head:

We got as far as sniffing and choosing our teas and taking gratuitous photos of ourselves when I got a call.

 

 

I picked it up, wondering why my cousin, whose call I had missed once already that morning, was trying me again. I mean, we’re close enough, but not that close, y’know? I picked up, and before she spoke I already knew something was really wrong. As she told me that my lolo had passed away just a few hours before, I remember thinking that I wish I hadn’t picked up the call and could just enjoy this tea. Shock set in, I actually sat through the tea service and ate the food, then immediately went to rearrange my flights to leave early from HI and to fly home to be with my family.

I definitely wasn’t expecting to spend the end of my birthday week at a funeral home, and I’m still grieving over my grandfather’s passing, so this post is a bit bittersweet. I’ll always remember this Hawai’i trip, for some wonderful times with friends, but also as the last time I spoke with my lolo on the phone (he called me on my birthday) and as just before the worst week of my life thus far.

2011 is certainly proving to be a mixed bag so far.

I heart LA

… Just kidding! I can’t really stand it, or rather, I can’t stand how frustrated I am every single time I drive into the city. The traffic, the smog, and the sprawl really kill me, and I hate how it’s impossible to get around on public transportation. Clearly I like my cities compact and accessible by subway (I miss you, New York), so LA isn’t really for me.

In mid-September, however, I sucked up my anti-LA bias and drove up with my buddy D. for a much-needed one-day food trip. The goal: to stuff as many yummy things in our mouths without breaking the bank, or our Weight Watchers point limit for the week (uh, yeah, more on that later!). I think we succeeded, but I’ll let the photos do most of the talking.

First stop, immediately after getting into the city around noon: Porto’s Bakery, Burbank location. My aunt, who’s lived in the area for 20+ years, turned me onto this place last year, when she presented me with an eye-popping assortment of Cuban pastries as if they were no thing. Clearly, she had no idea my incredible nostalgia for the guava-and-cream cheese pastries, mango cake, and tres leche of my childhood– the one upside of having a Cuban stepfather and living in Miami for a few years as a kid.

I’d never been into the storefront before, so was surprised at how huge and bustling the place was– D. summed it up best when she said that she “was expecting a tiny mom-and-pop shop, and then saw the assembly line.” So the ambiance is a little more commercial than we were hoping for, but no matter. The food was banging!

Porto's Cuban Sandwich
We each ordered a classic Cuban sandwich, but given how huge they are, we would’ve been better off splitting one. Good thing I brought a cooler for leftovers and take-aways (I come prepared!), so the hubs had a good dinner that night 😉

Tres leches, porto's
We ended the meal with a perfect, single serving of tres leches each. Just the right amount of sweetness, the cake held up under all that condensed milk, and the crema on top was the right whip, burnt just a touch like I grew up with. Wish I could’ve bought a whole loaf to bring home, but alas, the cooler wasn’t *that* big.

Porto's Guava pastries
With all of the pastries on offer, but a huge line packed full of people yelling out their order deli-style, I kept it simple and ordered half a dozen guava and cream cheese pastries to go. They were gifts, y’all! I only had 1!

After lunch at Porto’s, D. and I went to burn some calories and satisfy our cultural tourist (aka bougie) urges by visiting The Getty Center. They had a fascinating, small but well-curated documentary photography exhibit up, and the architectural porn alone was worth the visit.

getty stairs

Getty
(This view almost makes LA look pretty. Almost.)

vagina topiary
Something about the shape of this topiary made me feel… womanly.

After the Getty, it was snack time! I drove us over to try the Persian ice cream at Saffron & Rose by UCLA. Our server was super helpful and let us taste a ton of flavors. They have the traditional Persian flavors– rosewater, saffron and pistachio– along with fresh fruit flavors (mango, coconut, guava) and the usual ice cream choices.

saffron and rose

I decided to be frugal and do two 1/2 scoops of the guava and the rosewater, while D. got two entire scoops of the saffron/pistachio and rosewater. As we’re both lactose intolerant, I think my stomache was the happier for the smaller portion 😉

As we had a few hours to kill before dinner time, I drove D. to the Santa Monica Pier, since she’d never been before and hey, it’s free! As we were driving down Wilshire, however, the sky, which had been bright and gorgeous up to that point, suddenly darkened. Mist rolled in so quickly it felt like a bad horror movie . We spent our time at the pier shivering and walking quickly through to get back into the car… so much for that.

crazy mist
(me trying to smile despite freezing my butt off).

Finally, it was time for our last LA meal. We had debated beforehand about what would cap our night, and still hadn’t decided by the time dinnertime rolled around. What would it be? A stop at a trendy LA food truck? Salvadorian pupusa joint? Japanese izakaya? Since I had made the choices for the other two stops, D.’s pick won out: Chung Dam Garden BBQ in K-town.

In my past trips to LA, I’d hit up random places in Koreatown, always to be disappointed. My lack of local’s knowledge about the good spots resulted in bland kimchi, cold tea, and dirty tables. Thankfully, D. had done her research and we struck gold. On the second floor of a clean little Korean strip mall, Chung Dam was quiet, clean, and just the laid-back atmosphere we needed at the end of a long day of eating. The service was excellent- they knew it was our first time, and aimed to please.

The two of us ended up splitting a Kimchi Chigae (kimchi stew with pork and vegetables, cooked in a stone pot) and for the barbeque, the Chadolbagi (brisket). It was plenty for the two of us, especially with the the kimchi and other banchan being refilled on a constant basis. I had been worried about ruining my diet with this meal, but it actually turned out to be healthier than our first stop at Porto’s.

chang dam

 

 

ban chan
(Gorgeous right?)

By the time dinner ended around 8:30, D. and I were pretty wiped and ready to head back to San Diego, but it wasn’t the end of the night yet! My friend M., who’s originally from LA but is in school up in Seattle, was in town for the week; It had been a year since we last hung out (we spent all last summer together in Madison), so of course I had to spend some catching-up time with my girl! We ended up at some random bar in Los Feliz, had a beer, and chitted our chat. By 11:30, I was back on the road back to SD, and at 2:30am (crazy traffic on the 5! don’t even ask) I was back in my bed.

Was it worth it, driving for hours in LA traffic and smog, just for a few good eats? Hell yes! Will I be doing it again any time soon? Not planning on it! But we’ll see… those Cuban pastries may call me back yet.

really?

How it it possibly the tail end of May already?  I must be dreaming that I blog, because I swear I’ve posted on here since then… yikes. What a shame I’m such a terrible blogger too, because it’s been an amazing few months, food-wise, that I really should have been telling you all about.

The most amazing was the ten-hour jambalaya I made back in April, recipe courtesy of Donald Link’s Real Cajun cookbook (It just recently won the James Beard Award– I called it!).

Look at this gorgeousness:

I’m not kidding when I say 10 hour process! We started by roasting a whole organic chicken in the slow cooker for five hours until done; then made chicken stock from the bones and veggies for another hour; followed by another 3-4 hours of prepping, simmering, etc. the rest of the meal. My god, it was the best jambalaya I’ve ever made (and some of the best I’ve ever had, even compared to my favorite Nola spots) but, damn. Next time I make this I’m splitting the work over a few days!

So good, here’s another picture of it, plated next to my signature maque choux corn recipe.

(On a more serious note, just a few days after I made this meal, that terrible BP oil spill started in the Gulf of Mexico. I still can’t believe how little BP has done to clean up this mess– I don’t believe for a second that they’ve “done all they can” to stem the damage. Having grown up half my life in the Gulf Coast, I am enraged and saddened by the damage this spill is doing not only to the ecosystem, but to the health and livelihood of fisherfolk and residents throughout Louisiana and its neighbors. Please please please continue to pressure BP and the US government to not only clean up this mess, but to stop offshore drilling! )

As for my other half, he’s been getting into making ice cream, frozen yogurt, and sorbets, with the help of our awesome KitchenAid mixer attachment and recipes courtesy of David Lebovitz’s Perfect Scoop cookbook and his blog. My favorite creation so far was this amazingly fresh strawberry frozen yogurt, made with the BEST STRAWBERRIES EVAH, from our CSA (J.R. Organics).

Now that it’s berry season, I can’t wait to see what the Mister whips up next. There’s some blackberries in the fridge as we speak… hmmm.

Since I’ve been blabbering about our latest food adventures with cookbooks, I guess I’ll end this post by sharing with you my latest deal. On a recent trip to New York’s famous book emporium, the Strand, I got a copy of La Cucina for a really great price (ok, which I now see is close to the Amazon 1/2 off price, but whatever, it was exciting at the time!). Have you seen this cookbook, folks? It’s huge- Bible-sized!- and covers everything you wanted to know and more about regional Italian cooking. No Giada Laurentis Italian-Americanish stuff here. I’m talking the offal, the eels, the vegetables you have never heard of in the States. Moreover, the recipes by and large and totally accessible (except for the ones calling for chamois, etc. but substitute!). They’re not overdone, pretentious,  but can be replicated by the home chef.

As someone who loves Italian food but 1. Lives somewhere where Italian food is sadly (and often, badly) underrepresented, and 2. can’t do more than make spaghetti, risotto, and lasagna, this book is a revelation. Whenever I get a random new veggie in my CSA box I don’t know what to do with, this cookbook is one of my first resources, and it hasn’t done me wrong yet.

No pictures of the things I’ve made, sadly, but trust me– this book’s a keeper. Just make sure you have enough shelf space for it- I’m not kidding when I said it was huge!

Now that the school year is almost over (thank jeebus!), I may actually start posting. Hell, I  NEED to since… uh… my dissertation is all about food (or the lack thereof). I’m going to start using this space to begin working out a few ideas/thoughts on organic agriculture, the food justice movement, women and agriculture, and so on. It might mean a few less food porn pictures (I hope not, though!) but I’ll see where this goes.

How goes it with you, foodies?

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