"To have a good-tasting pinakbet," my sister-in-law declared, "you must constantly stir the vegetable."
Her pinakbet has received good comments from many members of the Filipino community in this part of Thailand, and I agree with them. It was the Tagalog version, the one which requires paggisa, a cooking technique similar to sauteing and stir frying, and uses the bagoong alamang (fermented shrimp) for flavoring. Although my parents were from Bicol, I was born and raised in the Tagalog region so I am familiar with this vegetable dish.
Pinakbet is an Ilocano dish, and this Wikipedia article explains that pinakbet originated from an Ilocano word. The Ilocos region is in the northern part of the Philippines. I studied and have worked in a university in the northern part of Nueva Ecija, where many people are of Ilocano descent. It was there where I met most of my Ilocano friends and first tasted and came to like their pinakbet. There are numerous recipes for an Ilocano pinakbet that can be found on the internet but essentially, unlike the Tagalog pinakbet which generally uses fermented shrimp paste, the Ilocano variety is flavored with bagoong isda (fermented fish paste). Some recipes require some sauteing of meat, but unlike the Tagalog version, the vegetables are not cooked in oil. The Ilocanos boil the vegetables in a covered pot instead. A friend from the university told me that the vegetables are arranged in the pot in a particular order, and the vegetables need not be stirred during cooking. In my first attempt, the dish I came out with was too salty for human consumption. It was late 1990s and I never attempted to cook pinakbet again.
The dish is often compared to ratatouille. Since February, I have to endure watching the animated film Ratatouille with my son almost everyday. I have seen the chef rat Remy bake the vegetables to make ratatouille a number of times and in one of those moments, I found myself asking: Why not a baked pinakbet, too? I do not need to stay in the kitchen the whole time tossing the vegetables as my sister-in-law has suggested. I just need to prepare the vegetables, assemble them in the baking dish, and leave in the oven to cook. In the meantime my son and I can continue our homeschooling activities.
Last week, I mustered enough courage to try cooking baked pinakbet, and used what I learned from that experience to come with an improved version this week.
A single layer of sliced tomatoes went in the bottom of the dish.
The string beans in last week's trial was too crunchy. I placed the on top the squash. I thought that it needed to be submerged in the liquid to cook so I put them right after the tomatoes and before the squash layer.
Next, okra and eggplant. . .
. . .before a layer of tomatoes and onions. Last week's pinakbet was too bitter so I decided to move the ampalaya (bitter melon) on top of the vegetable heap to prevent them from being immersed in the cooking liquid for a long time.
The bitter melons were covered with a layer of pork crackling.
I found a bunch of scallions in our neighborhood market. I thought it would be a nice addition to my pinakbet.
The Ilocano method of cooking pinakbet results in the extraction of liquid from the vegetables to yield a tasty stock, or sabaw. Very little or no water is added, so the sabaw is a concentrated mixture of vegetable juices made salty by the fish sauce-- slight sweetness from the squash (or sweet potatoes), mild tartness from the tomatoes, bitterness from the ampalaya.
My baked pinakbet also produced this kind of sabaw, which a Tagalog pinakbet can never ever have.