Wednesday, May 23, 2012


"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.

I added four tablespoons of fish sauce instead of bagoong isda, a substitution I learned from Burnt Lumpia blog post.  Last week, I added two tablespoons of fish sauce and bagoong isda.  I decided to use only fish sauce for this week's trial because the bagoong isda that I have is already cooked with vinegar and chiles added to it.  (More fish sauce may be needed depending on how much liquid is released from the vegetables.) The dish was covered with aluminum foil, and baked until the vegetables are tender.

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.

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Misadventure: Smothered Chicken

I knew Maya Angelou as a poet (Hallmark cards used to sell a line of products based on her poems) and an actress (I saw her on the film "How to Make and American Quilt") but I didn't know that she has already written two cookbooks.  I found her recipe for smothered chicken here and here.  I have limes which can substitute for the lemons so I gave her recipe a try.  I originally planned of cooking tinola, chicken stewed in ginger flavored broth, but I discovered that the limes, which I bought a couple of weeks before, needed to be used immediately.

I also got intrigued with the word "smothered" in the name of the dish.  I am interested in knowing how dishes got their name.  The story behind the food often motivates me to try to cook it.  I was expecting something exciting in the history of smothered chicken.  Smother, after all, is a word that makes me think of gruesome images.  I would learn later from an online dictionary that smother also means to "cook in a covered pan or pot with little liquid over low heat."  

As the chicken was simmering, I left the kitchen to see what my son was doing.  I forgot to take note of the time (simmer for 25 minutes, the recipe says) and when I returned to check on the dish the gravy was already gone.  One side of the chicken had crunchy crust.  I realized, after turning off the burner, that I did not season the chicken with salt and pepper before dredging them in flour.  My smothered chicken was greasy and dry and it lacked flavor.  If Maya Angelou's dish is a poet, mine is definitely a poetaster.

Amid the disaster, I found comfort in these words by Maya Angelou:
"I would confess -- to myself, at any rate -- that I have blown a dish now and then," she says. "But I would forgive myself and try it again. 
"The one thing I'd say to the aspiring cook would be, shop carefully. That, and have patience with yourself. Forgive yourself. It's so important. Otherwise, you won't go back and try again." (You can read the complete article here.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Cherry and Walnut Brownies

It was my wife who introduced me to the brownie called "cherry walnut fudge."  Only one bakeshop makes it in the Philippines, as far as we know -- Becky's Kitchen.  We have been living out of the country since 2006 so we never had this brownies in a long, long time.

I could not find a recipe for a cherry walnut fudge brownies on the internet, so I used my favorite brownie mix and I added maraschino cherries and walnuts.  Simple?  Not quite.  

What we loved about the Becky's Kitchen brownies was its fudge-like texture and its moistness.  The problem was my brownie mix was the basic type, not the kind that says on the label it's fudge-like, chewy, or moist.  I've been using the brownie mix for quite some time now and I already tried varying the amounts of the other ingredients -- eggs, butter, vegetable oil, dark chocolate, cocoa powder -- to obtain the consistency and taste that I wanted.  This piece written by Shirley Corriher for the American Chemical Society about the science behind brownies guided me in my experiments.  Corriher is a biochemist and she wrote some cookbooks.  

"For fudgy brownie use less flour," advises Corriher.  My biggest challenge was how to properly adjust the amount of fats relative to the flour.  The brownie mix I'm using does not specify how much flour it actually has on its label.  I had to make brownies with different fat contents.  It was all worth the effort and nothing was ever wasted.  It didn't matter what proportion I used.  My son would still eat the finished product, whether it turned out to be fudge-like or cake-like.

After getting the right proportion of ingredients, I decided it was time to finally make a version of Becky's Kitchen's brownies.  My wife and I thought that what I came up with was close enough to the original, both in terms of taste and texture.  But I know I must remind myself that we have not eaten the Becky's Kitchen version for several years now so the comparison we made might not be valid.  

We enjoyed eating the brownies nonetheless.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


"Bringhe would also be an example of a cultural change made through the use of ingredients from the Philippine landscape. Paella is generally made in Spain with chicken or rabbit, with rice and seasoning, especially saffron. Bringhe does use chicken, but the rice is malagkit and the sauce is coconut milk, to which is added a bark called ange, which turns the rice green instead of saffron yellow. Paella was created from the Spanish country landscape—the rabbit scampering by, the chicken bought from a farmer, the saffron which is the most expensive spice in the world and grows in Spain. Eating paella, therefore, is ingesting the Spanish landscape. Eating bringhe, however, is ingesting the Philippine landscape—the chicken running around on the farm, the coconut from a nearby tree, and the malagkit for fiesta cakes. This is a clear example of indigenization through a change of substance, spirit and name."
Doreen Fernandez, Culture Ingested: Notes on the Indigenization of Philippine Food, Gastronomica 3(1), p. 63. (The article is available here).

The paella came on a sizzling plate. Looking at the thin layer of yellow rice beneath pieces of shrimps, slices of squid, mussels on shell, and olives, I was immediately convinced that it was a brilliant idea to serve paella on a sizzling plate because it would surely produce a crust.  I decided to order paella because I saw it on the cooking show I watched the other night and it reminded me of a dish I tasted when I was growing up. I had very vague recollection of eating a savory yellow rice dish, and all the while I thought it was paella. The flavors of this paella, I found out from the very first bite, did not resemble what I had in mind.

I tried cooking paella several times, using various recipes found on the internet. Each time, I tweaked the recipe to exclude saffron, which was too expensive, and to add raisins. Unfortunately, incorporating raisins in the tomato-based paella did not produce the effect that I was trying to recreate. The raisins did give sweetness to the paella, but the experience was not as remarkable as I hoped it would be.

The dish that I was trying to cook had yellow rice, red bell pepper, chicken, and raisins. I do not remember how the entire dish tasted like as a whole, but I distinctly recall the pleasant surprise I got every time a raisin or two burst in my mouth. I searched for recipes of the Filipino version of paella and I stumbled upon bringhe, which is similar to paella. My wife reminded me that it is often served during fiesta in places near her and my hometowns (we both grew up in Nueva Ecija) and that I must have eaten it before. Some of the bringhe recipes available in the internet do include raisins.

Bringhe is basically glutinous rice (malagkit) and chicken cooked in coconut milk. Turmeric makes the rice yellow. (The late Doreen Fernandez mentioned in her paper that the bark ange turns the rice green. I do not know what ange bark is and I have never seen a savory green rice dish before.) It may also contain slices of chorizo, Vienna sausage or ham, strips of bell pepper, carrots, potatoes, raisins, and boiled eggs. Some recipes also require the use of banana leaves as cover during the final cooking stage.

I recently cooked bringhe, based on the recipe by Norma Chikiamco which was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (you can read the article here; I first saw a modified version of the recipe in this blog), to find out, once and for all, if it was the yellow rice dish I ate years ago. I made some changes in the recipe. I cooked the raisins, rather than use them for garnish.  In lieu of Vienna sausage, I added meat loaf, and instead of margarine I used butter. I also adjusted the amount of water as needed to cook the rice. I did not use carrots, boiled eggs, and chicken liver and gizzard.  (The recipe found in this blog does require raisins to be cooked with the rest of the ingredients.)

My wife was right, what I was craving for was indeed bringhe. Although it had a crust, like the socarrat in paella, it did taste and smell different from its Spanish equivalent. Overall the dish was rich, and what I liked best about it was the intermittent contrast between the sweetness of the raisins and the richness of the coconut. It occurred to me that bringhe actually has an inangit component. Inangit is a dessert made of malagkit cooked in coconut milk and flavored with salt. Its flavor goes well with ripe mangoes. Eating the raisins embedded in lumps of savory rice, therefore, is analogous to indulging in inangit and mangoes.

Interestingly, raisins are not among the ingredients in many of the recipes of bringhe that I found on the internet. My wife also liked the raisins in the bringhe that I cooked for lunch.  She confessed she never liked bringhe when she was a kid. She hated it, she said, whenever a grown-up placed a portion of bringhe on her plate, convincing her that it was delicious.  Perhaps only an adult palate can truly appreciate bringhe.

Perhaps the bringhe she had before did not have raisins.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Food and memories

Before switching on the TV, my son makes sure he is holding the remote control for the DVD player.  He sits down, puts his favorite pillows on his lap, and waits impatiently for the player to load the disc.  He then presses either the past forward or the rewind button to go to the part of the film he wants to watch.  For about half an hour or so, he will watch the same series of scenes repeatedly.  This is how he usually spends the break from our homeschooling sessions.

It was during one of these breaks that I had to endure watching, over and over again, that scene in the animated film Ratatouille where the food critic, Ego, is served Remy's version of the classic French vegetable dish, tastes it, and recalls how his mother comforted him with a bowl of ratatouille when he was a child.  I first saw the film several years ago but I didn't have much interest in food at that time, so the scene, while poignant, was not something I could relate to.

Now that I am cooking for my son almost daily, I have learned about the power of food to open floodgates of memories.  When I was growing up, while my older sister was in school and my little sister was in her crib, I would often stay with Nanay in the kitchen as she prepared food.  That was the only way I could deal with boredom from not having any playmate and from being barred from watching TV.  Nanay was my father's unmarried sister who took care of me and my sisters while our parents were working.  Nanay was also my real first teacher, and it was from her that I learned to read, write, and count.  Her tales, the pleasant mix of aroma from the ingredients that she was keeping in the pantry, and the honor of being the first member of the household to taste the dish she was preparing, kept me coming back to her kitchen.  Tasting the food I prepare often evoke memories of the time I spent in Nanay's kitchen and I feel the urge to compare the dish I prepare with what she served me decades ago.  I am also reminded of myself as a child whenever my son goes in the kitchen to check on what I am doing -- grabbing my arms to force me to show him what's inside the bowl, holding my hands as I whisk eggs, placing his hands a few inches on top of the cake left on the counter to cool, trying to stick a finger in the batter, sitting on my lap as I cut brownies to make sure he gets his slice.

Perhaps food has the ability to make us remember because it has, in the very first place, the capacity to create memories.  Perhaps what drives me to cook, aside from making sure that my son is getting the right nutrition and gets used to eating different types of food, is the hope that through the food that I create I am also building delightful memories for him that, decades later, familiar flavors and aroma can easily evoke.