Friday, December 21, 2007

Tails of Beauty, Tails of Might

Sucking it right off the bone.

That aptly describes the pleasure I feel when I am enjoying a bowl of my mama's simple oxtail soup. Nilaga. Oxtails. Ginger. Onions. Salt. Water. That's it. Simmer slowly until done. For years, I denied myself the oxtail experience of my roots, going instead for the boutique meat. Glamorous filets, chicken breast, an occasional short rib feast. But oxtails were mean, disgusting looking, and only poor people ate them. Which was exactly the reason they will always be so good.

When my forties came, the fall signalled the need to hang in for provisions that would increase warmth and fortify soul. Muscles and bones ached more. The need for a good read and something warm on the stove cooking for a VERY long time was spiritual. I believe I was reading "Like Water for Chocolate" at that time in our walk-up flat in the Marina, when I came across the recipe for oxtail soup. The soup that brought Tita, the heroine of the book, back to life from a nervous breakdown. The soup whose recipe was taught to her by Nacha, the ancient cook in her tyrannical mother's kitchen. What a way to remember the healing power of the bones.

Luckily, I found them at a butcher's on Mission Street. And with ginger, onions, cabbage, and the tails, Tita, Nacha and I shared in the glorious mystery of sucking down on some good bones and gelatinous cartilage. The healing I felt co-incided with that of the literary characters and I felt myself inside Tita through the warmth that these oxtails gave. We were eating meat that needed time, thought, and patience to coax out the very best of its character, which is humble by roots, and mighty in flavor.

This holiday, I'll be slow-cooking them in a base of carrot, celery, onions, bay leaves and other herbs (bouquet garnis), and either a little vermouth or maybe a decent house red. The bones need to start up early, probably before I head out to dance class on Saturday. I'm setting the crockpot to cook them for ten hours. Plenty of time. By the time friends come, they'll be ready to pour over some rice in bowls and it will be us and our faces in sauce and sucking down on some good tender meat.

Bones Basic

2-3 lbs. oxtails
1 onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
3 large carrots, chopped
1 c. red wine
veal stock
bay leaves (2)
2 TBS. whole peppercorns
1/2 cup flour seasoned with salt and pepper
1/2 c. olive oil

Lightly dust tails with seasoned flour. Sear on high heat in thick-bottom pot or Dutch oven until brown. Remove from Dutch oven and place at the bottom of the crock pot. De-glaze the fond from the Dutch oven with the wine. Add stock and simmer until the brown bits are dissolved. Remove from heat.

Add chopped savory vegetables, bay leaf, peppercorns to the crockpot. Pour the stock over everything to cover. Season to taste then seal crockpot with its lid and leave it alone and read a book. Preferably something that makes you happy curled up with a coverlet on the couch.

I can't imagine a better winter day. Cheers.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Finding Home Anywhere

Living in the dorms is a special challenge for people like me who love to cook--and who love to share the enjoyment of food with friends. It's one thing to share a meal served on a plastic tray, it's another thing to see something cooked from the heart coming out of the oven or off the stove having and serving it to your loved ones. I think this kitchenlove-isolation has made me particularly susceptible to waxing poetic about the simplest cooking encounters.

I am lucky enough to have older friends with apartments nearby who allow me to raid their kitchens on occassion. I recently enjoyed one such occassion and found myself oddly at home--a feeling much missed by this homebody. My girlfriends and I planned way in advance (a miracle in itself) to treat "our boys" to a home cooked meal. We were so excited for a real meal, and what did we make? Pizza! It felt kind of silly, considering we all have access to pizza every day, but we wanted to throw some dough in the air and make a mess... But really, it was a perfect choice because this time dinner was less about filling our stomachs and all about filling our hearts.

Before the guys arrived we had time to chatter in a warm kitchen over rising dough while we prepared toppings. Really, not much is better than best friends in a warm kitchen in the anticipation of something special; we had nothing but love and warmth in our hearts, and I think these feelings were kneaded into the dough. The boys arrived just as we finished rolling out individual pizzas. We then all got around the table and assembled our own perfect pizzas. Heart-warming perfection. Our friends were all so happy to have a hand in creating the meal rather than being served (especially my girl friends, who admittedly have limited cooking talents); and although we hadn't seen each other much during the busy quarter, we were at home with each other in an instant. The atmoshpere was perfect for food magic. We all were cooks, and we all cooked with the feelings of joy and comfort and love. From that point on I was a mushy mess. While the first pizzas were in the oven we had time to catch up and mess around. It didn't matter that we could only bake 2 pizzas at a time, making the dinner abnormally long; in fact, we didn't even notice that the dinner was long. Like music, in which the notes are made special by the silence between them, it wasn't about the food, it was the time in between the bites that made the meal great. We ate and revelled being so at home again until the last pizza came out of the oven some hours later. Even though we were just eating pizza, the love and intentions with which it was made filled more than our stomachs.
Simple Thin-crust Pizza Dough

bread flour (approx. 3 cups) (bread flour makes the dough more sturdy for spinning, if you use bread flour you don't need to knead or punch down the dough as much after rising.)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 packet fast-rising yeast
1 C. hot water (as hot as tap will give you)
2 tsp. olive oil
Blend the yeast with two cups of flour and the salt. Add the water and the oil and mix to form a dough. Add more flour as necessary until you can knead the dough. Knead for about 6 minutes. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl covered with saran wrap, and allow to rise for about 45 minutes. In the mean time, preheat the oven to 400F and prepare your toppings. Split the dough into two pieces and roll into two medium size pizzas on parchment paper. If you can't find parchment paper (some regular grocery stores don't have it), roll out the dough and the place on a cutting board liberally dusted with cornmeal. Grab some guests and have them top their own pizzas!

The pizzas can go directly in the oven on parchment paper (just be careful not to burn the paper onto the crust!). The trick to crust is that it needs to bake directly on a hot surface. I don't have a pizza stone or tiles in my oven, but cooking directly on the floor of the oven works (expecially if you like thin crust crispiness) and even on the rack (more as a last resort to get more in one batch). Bake 12-18 minutes until crust is hard.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Paella Perfecto

Is there really such a thing as a purist? I keep reading in "Catalan Cuisine" by Coleman Andrews about the ultimate authentic paella. As if there were such a thing as an ultimate Any Dish. As if there is the ultimate application of heat, spice, oil, onions, garlic, ingredients to make a paella THE paella. Is it paella when there's no rabbit in it? What happens to vegetable paella? Is that really a paella? And what the hell is paella doing in a book about Catalan cooking when its a Valencia region specialty?

Conventional wisdom about legendary paellas says they have to be cooked over an open fire on the beach. The rabbit must be grilled to perfection before put into a paella, which needs the smokiness of the rabbit to be authentic. No peas. Beans. Green beans for authentic Valenciana. Feh.

I think folks who proffer opinions about what is the right, best, appropriate, perfect version of a dish are as crazy as, well, crazy as me. That's ok with me. With advancements in online publishing, now everyone has a pulpit from which to proclaim the relative merits of a dish and how its made, what ingredients are in it, and even the geneology of the cooks making it.

So in the bright, limitless world of virtual, I stand today, pontificating my heart out about paella and other pressing matters of the state of the senses.

I once heard that an opera house in a big city recently had a $75 million dollar facelift, which included a $1,500,000.00 stage curtain replacement. The fabric and fringe of that curtain was of a certain type and standard produced solely by a convent of blind nuns sequestered somewhere in the Alps. Does that make that curtain authentic, rare and valuable? Yes. Does it make it very expensive? Yes yes. Does it promise to bring more prestige and commerce to the isolated area by promoting its rarity and prestige? Triple yessicas!!

There's no such thing as a purist. I think the purist throughout history is really just someone with a big mouth who opined about things, and in this instance about recipes in particular, and who had the vehicle to do it with. They also had as a willing band of co-conspirators, compatriots ready to agree with their opinion, and be vocal about theirs. And everyone of them had their own vested interest and personal tastes in mind.

So there you go. In the world of paella superlatives, started as early as the 8th century when the Moors first brought rice to Spain, it is this humble author's opinion that the superduper superlative paella was, is, and will always be an experience in relativism based on your available ingredients. And if you could make the rice good. Or you're visiting the Valencia region.

All the rest is marketing.

Serves 4-6 as a main course

15-20 fresh shrimp
1/2 lb New Zealand mussels, fresh
2 Spanish chorizo or good quality linguica sausage, sliced diagonally at 1/4" thick
1 whole chicken (marinated with minced garlic, salt and pepper and Spanish agridulce paprika)
2 onions, chopped
4-15 cloves of garlic, minced (depending on taste/preference)
3 - 4 c. chicken broth
2 c. valenciana rice (calrose or any short grain rice will also do)
1 pkg. frozen peas
olive oil
two pinches whole saffron
2 TBsp. white wine

Roast chicken at 375 until about done. (1 hour, 20 minutes). Turn off heat and let rest in oven. Soak saffron in wine to allow it to bloom.

In a large flat paella pan or wide skillet or saute pan, saute onions in olive oil until golden. Add sausage and cook through. Add rice and garlic. Let rice absorb flavors of the savories and meat, coating in hot oil until rice kernels are opaque. Don't let the garlic burn.

Pour in the broth and saffron wine mixture and stir to incorporate. Let simmer at medium/medium low heat to let rice absorb the liquid. Just before all the liquid is absorbed, and the rice kernels have just a LITTLE bite left, add the fresh shrimp and peas. Cover tightly with foil and continue to cook at low heat for another five more minutes. Turn off heat completely and let rest.

Cook mussels in ungreased cast iron skillet until opened. Turn off heat and reserve any pot liquor. Cut up chicken into serving-sized pieces. Arrange chicken pieces over the paella, then add the mussels and pour in the pot liquor. Serve, enjoy.

And come up with your own damn version of this recipe. This one happened to work for me.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Stop Me If You've Heard This Before

Having never been faced with cooking the Thanksgiving turkey ever before in my life, the prospect of doing so filled me with ambivalence. Turkey to me is a "so what" meal. Thanksgiving meals are rote, bland affairs that I would not in any way WANT to eat on any other day. I thought the challenge of doing a turkey would be an intellectual exercise at best.

I proceeded with my friend Sean's recipe for a paper bag turkey, which was a basting-free style form of cooking that would eliminate me having to open the oven every 40 minutes to juice up the thing.

Peering inside Mama's refrigerator, there it was, taking up two shelf spaces. When I was told it was a 25 lb. bird, the image of the Norman Rockwell painting of the American family sitting down to grace and the grandmother proudly carrying the golden roasted bird to the table completely flooded my consciousness. It was cooked to perfection. In theory.

But the reality when I opened the refrigerator door was 25 pounds of BIRD-BEAST. The only thing I could think about was the T-Rex chase scene in Jurassic Park.

Not to be overcome, I grabbed it with both arms. Backing away from mama's refrigerator, the Bird-Beast threw me off balance. Taking off the plastic shrink-wrap, the creature exploded, freed up from its cumbersome prison. The huge boil-sized goosebump pores of its skin looked like they were breathing. I searched for the salt.

"Take a fistful of salt and stick it up its ass", I remember someone telling me that was his favorite Thanksgiving duty. He never got invited over for subsequent dinners. But I took in the spirit of this questionable pleasure, and with a handful of Morton's approached the bird. I had forgotten that with all poultry, the processor will usually place the baglet of organs into the creature's crevice. This bird was no exception. With a plunge of my fistful of salt my hand was wedged into the mastodon bird. Thinking I could perform two duties with the one, I started seizing the baglet of organ meats. They wouldn't move. And my hand was stuck. Thinking I could let gravity do the work, I thought perhaps suspending my engaged arm over the roasting pan would free me and the baglet. I certainly did not want to roast the bird with a plastic bag of spleen trapped inside. It still would not move.

Next I tried to ease myself out of it, taking to the chair and using the tight wedding ring scenario, practiced mindful breathing to stop stressing and let the blood flow ease a little, thus freeing my hand and hopefully warming the organ bag enough so that it would release. Still nothing.

Then, in a fit of panic, I violently swung the bird, trying to force it from my arm and it flung me across the kitchen, hitting the edge of the oven, and stopping just short of the kitchen floor, a seething cauldron of bacteria.

It's Thanksgiving and yes, Virginia, my fist was stuck up a turkey's ass.

Misguided heroism prevented me from weakening my wrist and allowing the bird to fall or touch the floor. Rolling over, hoping to get on my back and use that as my vantage point to do a momentum-based sit-up with a twenty-five pound avian life-form in both hands, I engaged my core muscles. Yet my my right knee muscle was twitching, screaming something equally important."PAIN!!!!". I looked down and my knee was starting to hurt from the movement. I micro-wrenched it and was paying the price. Getting up without my hands touching the floor would be impossible.

I lay on the floor, working out what my next move would be. Looking down at my chest, there lay the open exposed neck hole of the T-Rex bird that I was about to bag and put in the oven for dinner, which by this point would happen at 10:00pm. Gathering myself up, I managed to slide my back to the cabinet under the oven with the turkey in my lap. Then, with my good leg, pushed myself up to standing, hopping on the one leg to reach for the big brown grocery bag. I was thirty minutes and a frozen hand into this match, and I was going to get this bird into the oven if it killed me. With all my might I pushed the bird into the bag, and rising to its defense the spirit of this dead bird, a Fighting Demon Turkey Spirit I might add, re-inhabited the body and crushed the bag.

I flattened the bag out with my elbow and tried again. This time, calling for the spirits of my ancestors, for my maternal grandfather, a veteran of decades of pig slaughtering, to my uncles long since in heaven but I'm sure taking pity on me after howling with laughter from heaven's pantry for this half hour of culinary magic. Using a twisting motion with my trapped hand, I somehow managed to dislodge the baglet, free up the salt and my hand at the same time. The bird, laying in "breach" position which would require some a minor procedure to remove later but at least it was finally and at last halleluia, in the fricking bag.

The next day, after I had removed a perfectly roasted bird from the oven and carved it up to dole out leftovers, my brother in law asked me "how did you get the turkey to be so tender?".

Please don't ask.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Support Writers, Dammit!!!


Not just because you're entertained. Not just because they provide fodder for titillation, or laughter when you need to ease the pain. Not just because they help you consume time. Its because the collective minds of our culture and our world depend so much on writers to gather and disseminate information. They make us think. They make us feel. They make us hope. And goddammit, they do it WHILE they entertain us.

So please, support the WGA strike.

Stop listening to the anti-strike rhetoric you see and hear on the mainstream news. The vast majority of writers in the entertainment industry DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT, ride around in limos waiting for Scorsese to pony up with the deal on their latest treatment. Most have kids in college, if they can afford kids. Alot have other jobs. And all of us need healthcare. Writers just happen to write for a living, if they're lucky enough to even make a living on a script.

Think about how good writing on TV or in film has given voice to so many of the unspoken feelings and thoughts that have haunted you. Those words that give your feelings freedom, that give your thoughts room to breathe. That's a collective healing experience. And with the miracle of media -- in film, video or online, its available and ready if you're ready to hear it and read it and share it.

Thank a writer for that. And support the strike until writers get what they need. And believe me, what they need probably won't come with a limousine.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dancing Hard at the Edge of the World

When an experience exceeds expectations, the only thing you can do is be in awe that you are bearing witness to it and somehow absorb what is happening to you. Because at that moment, you have never ever dreamed you would be in that place doing what you're doing at that time. A place where the intersection of bizarre and sublime reach something new in grandeur, glamour, darkness and depth.

This is Chuck Palahniuk and Carlos Fuentes meeting at Burning Man and dropping acid in a kind of crossroads that only California, the land of borders, earthquakes and burning, can produce. It's the Gogol Bordello concert in Los Angeles.

Little Fi and I drove into downtown and settled into the normal club scene at a refurbished grand and ornate art deco movie palace turned salsa club called The Mayan. The show being at the Mayan had a particularly disorienting effect - surrounded by symbols of the beginning and end of time - see above photo - according to the ancient Maya, waiting to see this engaging and fabulously energetic world gypsy punk band born in the Ukraine. Not only that, but the band's leader, Eugene Hutz is an immigrant whose family were refugees from the Chernobyl accident, and who struggled to survive in refugee camps across Eastern Europe before finally settling in New York.

All of this in goddammed LA, the land of economic and ethnic crossroads, one of the factory cities of American culture, in an America once again troubling over its own immigrant populace. We were immersed in a multi-culti artistic and social barrage from every corner of the globe.

The wait, by the way, was hard enough. The warm-up band from New York provided an hour's worth of audio which had the musicality of flight in a low-pressure cabin of a twin engine puddle-jumper from Chicago to Traverse City, Michigan. You were glad it was only an hour. But then Hutz came and the room took off like a circus gone berzerk. Bug boys in goatees and t-shirts smashing into one another and everyone else. I was fortunate enough that Little Fi and a group of young couples took me and my weak knees under their wing, as we stood together as a rear battalion determined to not get knocked down by wild young punks on dope.

When Hutz started playing with the audience leading up to "Start Wearing Purple", we were all ready to go vertical. Fi had a hold on me and we bobbed upwards for the length of the song. Some young man continued to be bounced from the audience as he floated above us, the crowd dying to pitch him onstage where the two Chinese drum and cymbal players flanked Hutz on both sides. When he played, GB's Ukrainian violinist caused a swoon-like crush across the multigenerational spectrum of females (and some males) in the audience.

This was more than a punk event, there was enough range of folks from ethnicity to years there to deem it a high cultural event, a site specific retablo of a living cultural collage that is musical, visual and global. All of us immigrants in a grand dance palace that is a mecca for the entrenched immigrant population of Latinos that make up the majority of immigrants in Los Angeles and yet were part of this land long before the concept of California was even born. Hutz and his band members--all representing the major continents, were here before us under the ancient Central American symbol for the Wheel of Time, marking the Creative and the Destructive cycles that are part of the Universe.

Little Fi and I are dancing as hard as we can, looking out for each other in this crush of madness while the music plays and the hills surrounding us continue to burn. We are the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants ourselves. Our hearts lurch on, exhilarated and sad, like the feeling you get when you hear gypsy violins play a bittersweet song that grows faster and faster and faster. Even as your heart hurts and its getting harder to breathe, you must continue to dance.

We are indeed at the very edge of the world.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Family Time in the Land of the Inferno

Starting tomorrow, Alchemical Bites will be making a special pilgrimage from the land of Auntie Fi to the land of Little Fi. I will be visiting LF at her campus home in Southern California, making good on a promise made earlier this summer for us to go to the Concert of the Century at the Mayan Theater in LA.

It is with every last irony in the world that my visit coincides with one of the most devastating wildfires in the history of the state. Is there something Biblical about this calamity? We have yet to see.

All I know is that AF and LF will be doing some live blogging while we're together, and hopefully chronicle history--cultural, natural and everything else that crosses our path. Los Angeles - How could you be on fire and half-asleep?

I've got my face mask ready. Here I come.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ruthie's Dilemma

For the last two years, the two of us have shared an office. I am contracts administration. Ruth is financial analysis. Understand me, from the first moment Ruth realized I knew and understood the word kvell, she and I have grown tight as family in this little home of an office we know as work. For all intents and purposes, she is my work spouse.

Ask Ruth about actuals, analysis, cost centers, and she will provide bottom lines. Ask to compare actual billings to contract and she will tell you exactly where your contract went south. Five minutes, tops. She can prepare a monthly report on hundreds of millions of dollars and she won't break a sweat. The girl's a goddamned genius when it comes to capital accounting and all the bells and monetary whistles it takes to keep the captains of industry swimming in cash flow without fear of overdraft. I am in constant, daily, unmitigated AWE of her.

But when it comes to 12:30 and I ask "where do you want to go for lunch?" we have this.

There's nothing wrong with not knowing what one wants for lunch. For me, its usually what's available within short distance, price-competitive, delicious, and incapable of putting me to sleep at the desk. That decision criteria brings up a cavalcade of options. But I just can't figure why Ruth, a woman who I would trust with billions in public funds to account for EVERY SINGLE PENNY, who can organize, cater and arrange decorations for a mega Harry Potter birthday party for her kid while flipping through payment logs on 563 contracts like thumbing through the yellow pages, a woman, in others words who is in such total command of herself---WOULD GO INTO A PSYCHOLOGICAL TAILSPIN IT WHEN IT COMES TO DECIDING WHAT'S FOR LUNCH?.

"F.--what am I going to do about lunch?" she would ask in a tone that sounds like she's got all her good clothes at the dry cleaners and has nothing to wear for the prom. There's even a slight whimper. Given Ruth's totality of life competence, I am perplexed.

Ruthie, my love, what is the dilemma?

I write to you now with love and deep concern, as an intervention of sorts to re-boot you past your decision insecurity. I reach out to you, knowing that together we can find the root cause of this lunch anxiety and with my support, go back out into the World of lunch and make clear, concise and satisfying decisions without fear of repercussion.

You can do it, Ruth. I KNOW you can.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Meats of the Veggie World

I’d like to wish myself a happy one year anniversary from when I first identified as a vegetarian. It has been an interesting and frustrating journey—especially in a meat-loving family. Although I am thinking about a return to meat (what pleasant symmetry), I will not reject the lessons I have learned as a vegetarian cook.

While struggling to create satisfying dishes that my meat-eating family could share and enjoy with me, I was reminded of important lessons that apply not only to cooking vegetarian foods, but for preparing any satisfying dish.

Through my many flops and successes as a vegetarian cook (and thanks to the critiques of my family), I have come to realize that meat isn’t really the issue. Of course meat is meat, and no one is going to be fooled by tofurkey—but it is possible to satisfy a meat-loving person in different ways, by keeping a few key factors in mind. I realized that what my dishes lacked (besides meat) was a comparable richness, texture and aroma, and that without protein, my dishes weren’t necessarily filling or satisfying enough. I hadn’t mastered bringing out these key components from vegetables—I hadn’t discovered the meats of the veggie world.

The “meats” of the veggie world are veggies or veggie dishes that provide those key things that meat-lovers crave: texture, savory taste and aroma, and filling protein. For texture, taste and aroma, my new favorites are mushrooms, especially shitake or portabella. My favorite (and simplest) mushroom “dish” is the portabella “patty.” They work just like burger patties: after a quick marinade, I throw whole portabellas on the grill and they make amazing, juicy “burgers.”
When replacing meat with veggies it’s also important to add protein. So, when I add mushrooms for texture I also usually add nuts (cashews are my favorite), tofu, or egg, and (when I can) I substitute ingredients for whole grain alternatives. These filling ingredients don’t usually have strong, overpowering flavors, and therefore can be easily incorporated.

Whether I remain a vegetarian cook or not, this year of meatless cooking has been important in reminding me of what we love about food. It’s not about the meat; it’s about being satisfied by the whole meal.

My Quick and Easy Marinade
Great for those portabella patties, or any other grilled veggies

1 Tbsp. honey
1 Tbsp. mustard
¼ c. balsamic vinegar
¼ c. olive oil
Salt and pepper

These proportions can be adjusted by taste. Keep in mind that on the grill the vinegar will become sweeter. When marinating mushrooms, it isn’t necessary to soak them too long—they are like sponges and will take up the flavor in no more than 5-10 minutes.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


I always look forward to the first days of September when the night air turns a little cooler. For many reason, more than any other time of the year, this for me, is when I am regenerated and more alive.

Cooler night air means my orchids start their spiking period and begin the long, luscious and luxuriant journey towards blooming.

Cooler night air means I can cover myself with my warm flokati bedcover at night. (It makes me feel like I'm living in some prehistoric cave). Instinctual. Alert.

Cooler night air gives me the perfect reason to make a pot of soup.

Its universal, our love of something warm simmering over the flame. For me, it usually involves a whole chicken, carrots, celery, onions, bay leaf, peppercorns and a truly great book.

Other times, its mung beans and whole pieces of ginger, browned garlic and a hot steaming bowl of brown rice.

Or, at other times, a smoked ham shank, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, fresh oregano from my herb pots and maybe a sausage and some small bits of macaroni.

Wherever there is soup simmering at home, home becomes more than home. It becomes your safe place where dreams are dreamt, thoughts crystallize, the journals go deeper and the view out your window of autumn leaves winding their way past is your perfect movie. On the CD player, Van Morrison sings "I Hunger for your Love". I am home body and soul.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Eternal Bawang

Among all the memories of my immortal mother, Irene Imperial Sipin Bongolan, the one that sears itself most clearly in my mind is that of her standing over one of her All-Clad pots, smashing whole raw cloves of garlic, (or bawang in Ilocano) sizzling them until their edges got soft and golden brown.

That image pervades almost all my food memories. Its been associated with successful gravies, meat dishes, soups, party foods such as lumpia and pancit. The flavor of the garlic oil itself was enough to send you straight in from whatever you were doing outside to come to her and beg her for supper to come soon. You always knew something good was coming to the table when you smelled THAT smell.

Nothing more clearly placed my mother in the True Garlic House of Fame than when she came to a performance of Euripides "The Trojan Women", at Asian American Theater Company, where I played Hecuba. An emotional roller coaster that part, with all the sturm and drang and angst befitting a Greek tragedy. After all my character, a mother who loses husband son, daughter and grandson in one night-- has alot of murderous rage and overwhelming grief to work out onstage.

Now imagine doing that part with your mother in the audience, kleenex in tow, and safely stowed underneath her seat was a freshly made batch of garlic-laden chicken adobo!

Needless to say, if concentration was hard, the battle between nose and dramatic instinct was epic. By the time the cast did curtain call, everyone, actors included, nudged towards my mother's seat wondering what that smell was. Forget my fabulous performance. An actor's instinct prevails. Its AFTER the show---LET'S CHOW DOWN!

Chicken Adobo*

one dozen whole legs and thighs
Adobo Marinade
1-1/3 - 1/2 c. apple cider vinegar
1-1/3 c. soy sauce
2-3 whole heads of garlic, cloves separated, peeled and chopped fine.
one bay leaf
whole peppercorns

Combine all the ingredients of the marinade together before adding the chicken. Taste to insure balance between the vinegar tang and the soy sauce saltiness. Make sure neither one prevails. Pour over chicken legs (skin side down) in baking dish. Set aside in refrigerator for 1-4 hours to marinate, covered.

Take chicken out of refrigerator. Pour off excess marinade, leaving enough liquid to come a third of the way up the chicken pieces. Bake at 375 degrees for 1.5 hours. Chicken should be tender, and skin should be caramelized and slightly crisp.

Final note: try to keep the chopped pieces of garlic out from the tops of the chicken pieces and into the marinade liquid during cooking. You only have to taste burnt garlic once to not let it happen to you again.

*This recipe is dedicated to Jake and Addison. Chow down, my brothers!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

An Early Lesson

I can’t remember exactly when I first learned how to caramelize an onion—caramelization has been in my cooking arsenal for so long. In fact, many of my earliest memories in the kitchen are blurred together in a warm blanket of sweet smells and the sound of my family’s laughter mingling with the sounds of sizzling oil.

I do know that I was an impatient cook, and caramelizing onions was one of my first lessons in patience. After many trials in fighting back tears as I chopped onions (I had yet to appreciate a good sharp knife), I couldn’t wait for the sweet reward. Sitting in the kitchen with burning eyes, the oil couldn’t heat fast enough.

Once the oil was hot, I’d hope that the moment the onions were added and stirred a bit that the savory results would be had at once. But now I know that heat, low and slow, is needed to draw out the sugars in the onions. I learned to let the onions sit and absorb the oil and the heat, only stirring to keep them from sticking to the pan. I love watching the onions transform through the different stages of “doneness;” from lightly translucent with a little bite, to golden brown and sweet.

Caramelized onions have long been a part of my cooking. They make great garnishes or great bases for rich flavor and savory sweetness. For me, they are also important in setting my cooking mood. They remind me that patience and even tears are rewarded in the kitchen, and that as biting onions transform into something sweet, I have the time to spend with my family in the kitchen, as always.

Caramelized Onions

2 large onions (I like yellow onions), diced
Olive oil or butter to coat skillet plus 1 Tbsp.
Pinch of salt
Pinch of sugar (optional)

Heat oil in pan until you see ripples.Add the onions and reduce heat to medium low. Turn onions to coat them with oil. Add salt and sugar (optional) and allow onions to cook slowly, turning occasionally to keep from sticking and to cook evenly.

Onions may be caramelized to different degrees of “doneness,” but should not be overdone to the point of drying out or frying. For sweet onions with a little bite, cook until very lightly brown and translucent. For very sweet onions, cook until deep golden brown.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

My Blood Family

Since she was one, she was always fascinated with food. She couldn't eat solid food at the time, but I remember how she'd watch us eat, particularly chips and salsa (a personal infanthood favorite), with a reverence one does not usually associate with a baby.

As a toddler, she would watch as her grandmother would prepare foods for her and her brother Nikko--and no surprise here, mama, was no slouch in la cocina. They snacked on chicken and pork adobo, lumpia, and mama's creamy fresh popsicles made with mashed strawberries, evaporated milk and sugar.

But more than anything, she was the first, best student I've ever had in the kitchen. We started when she was seven, making chocolate chip cookies with hand-ground walnuts--a recipe we perfected one summer which she took to the local county fair and won first place.

It was with her that we dared make the Vongreichten molten chocolate cake recipe, and as we pulled it out of the oven and tasted our first mouthfuls, warm--liquid and chocolaty, we simultaneously experienced the strange sensation of having our legs buckle underneath us. We shared death by chocolate.

She's fearless in the kitchen. Been the lead with her dad on the Thanksgiving dinner turkey, surpassing all expectations when we team to make desserts. We undertook the marathon of baking her cousin's wedding cake for 100--an 18 hour slog aided by my friend's KitchenAid and almost no sleep. We've gotten to the point in our cooking dance that I trust her instincts as we saute, roll, sauce and plate recipes. And she's always right.

Introducing my niece Felicia, my ultimate wing girl in la cocina, whose pancit recipe is the best, and who can cook for me anytime.

(Filipino chow mein)

This is a great dish for parties; easy to make in large amounts, and a great left over. This is a traditional dish served at birthdays or anniversaries. The noodles are supposed to be kept as long as possible as a blessing of longevity. Seeing as such, patience and care are needed in creating this dish successfully (or else the noodles will get mushy or broken). I usually make it vegan or vegetarian and never hear complaints from meat-eaters. The traditional dish usually has shrimp or pork, but any leftover meats can be thrown in. I never measure the ingredients. The proportions can be adjusted to taste, and to the amount desired, I’ll approximate for a large batch (upwards of 20 hearty servings).

2-3 large yellow onions, diced
3-5 carrots, grated (or two pre-grated bags)
4 cups Chinese snow peas, whole, with ends removed
5 stalks celery, sliced at an angle
2-4 cups dried or fresh shitake mushrooms, sliced (Reconstitute dried
mushrooms and use the resulting broth to cook the noodles) (These mushrooms are the “meat” of the dish, so if you are adding meat, use less mushrooms)
2 cans baby corn
½ head of cabbage (optional, a good filler for a little more
Vegetable or mushroom stock/ broth (you’ll need more than the water
from the mushrooms)
2-4 cups diced or shredded meat/ shrimp (optional)
garlic to flavor, fresh minced or powdered
soy sauce to flavor
sesame seed oil to flavor
2 ½ packages of canton noodles (in a pinch you could use several packages of Ramen noodles, and even season with one or two of the seasoning packets)

Start by caramelizing the onions, when they are almost golden, add the carrots to caramelize as well. If you are using fresh mushrooms add them with the carrots so they soften and absorb the moisture and flavor of the savory vegetables. Once the carrots and onions are nearly cooked, add cabbage, celery and reconstituted mushrooms. Cook on medium heat until all ingredients are moist and beginning to soften. Add snow peas and baby corn, season with garlic. At this point you could add pre-cooked meat. Thoroughly combine ingredients.

I usually divide the wet ingredients into two parts to cook in two separate pans for easier maneuvering and less mess (I use large roasting pans over two burners).

Put the noodles into the pan and add one or two cups of broth or mushroom stock. The noodles will take a while to start to soften. Don’t be impatient! It is important to add the broth slowly so that the noodles have just enough to soften without becoming mushy. Gently turn the noodles and wet ingredients, allowing the wet ingredients to weigh down and moisten from the top and dry noodles to soak up moisture from the bottom (again, don’t add too much at a time, there shouldn’t be big puddles on the bottom). Once you’re good at turning and lifting this can be done over medium heat, but while you’re still getting the hang of it keep the heat medium low. At this point of cooking it is the most important to remember patience and care, and the idea of keeping the noodles as long as possible. When the noodles and wet ingredients start to soften and combine add the sesame seed oil and soy sauce, a big batch will take a surprisingly large amount. Continue to gently turn the ingredients and gradually add broth (about 1 cup at a time) until the noodles are soft (not al dente), but not mushy.

This dish is good warm and cold, so if you’ve got a busy menu, cook this earlier and keep warm in the oven with a lid (to hold in moisture). Garnish with green onion and lemon slices.

Notice her recipe is for 20. That's my girl.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

My Food Family

I announce my arrival at Bob and Wendy's, computer in tow, ready to blog this new thread. Wendy's shout from the kitchen greets me, as if in warning, saying, "I am in my full glory".

As I walk into their kitchen, Wendy is wiping down the spray of chocolate mousse that had swirled wildly out of control from their broken Cuisinart.

I have a blood family and a food family. Sometimes interchangeable. But mostly, my food family: Bob, Wendy, Karen and Jim, are part of my extended family in the SF Bay area.

Now I rarely cook for myself, stuggling maybe to heat up an animal protein to put between two slices of toasted Ezekiel Bread accomplanied by a glass of red. Call it in for the night. But I also carry the blood gene of a hundred generations that compels me to cook lavish, souful meals for a hundred or so friends and strangers.

Fortunately, these two couples provide a social foundation in my life and an appreciation for the need I've got to cook and cook well. We all have that same need. We met years ago at work, and the stars were right for this confluence of disparate individuals to form a bond based on food, work, books and movies that has grown into a serious family. We've nursed each other through career shifts, near-death experiences, life-changing decisions like retiring, caring for aging parents, and being there to lean on when our parents passed.

We started our friendships in middle age, and were amazingly able to knit together with all our hidebound life luggage with acceptance, and compassion. Not everything is peaches. There's an occasional screaming match over politics that would leave a sullen scar over the evening, and an "I oughta'... gesture, hand raised, nostrils flared, teeth bared gesture coming directly from the gaping cultural maw that is commonly known as the Bronxe. (Sorry Jimbo, my blog).

Everything is followed of course, by coffee and biscotti.

I miss them when they're out of town. There is a need we have for each other, like family, which hurts like a yearning when we don't see each other for awhile. I harken back to the night Karen's wonderful baking produced a fresh, homemade bacon and rosemary pizza when I came back to the Bay Area after a life-draining bout with my mother's dementia. She saved my soul that night. Or Wendy and I engaged in deep conversation over the times I wished my life would be more than what it is, over a glass of wine and a goat cheese salad, all the while Wendy reminding me, over and over again, that I am right where I needed to be.

Or Bob and I, with a few horns under our belts, arguing Democratic politics in a death match with no prisoners, or bugging Jim while he fusses over his pot of "gravy" for the pasta with the threat of fisticuffs for some stupid remark he'd make that would set me off.

And by the way, when are you going to give me your roast turkey recipe, Jimbo?

We give each other cookbooks for Christmas and birthdays. When we get together, our best instincts in nurturing and entertaining each other comes to the fore. We all seem to cook better when we're together for some reason. Like a competition, but mostly because I think we do it because we know we'd all appreciate it. When we get together, I know I'm home.

They worry about me. I know. I get exasperated by them. They know. But I also need them like air and water. They drive me totally batshit. But then, that's what they do.

Just like any other family.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Smelly Lunch

There is rarely a pairing of words so irksome than the combination of "Smelly" and "Lunch" together in a sentence.

Smelly lunch. Dropped into a statement, like a command, edict, rulebook, guideline is so insulting that I would prefer, even now to just use its acronym for today, SL, rather than write it out ever again. Putting that in an e-mail, an office memo, the posted sheet taped neatly to the office refrigerator means you're sure to get a reaction.

And for me, my reaction is that my blood boils.

Food choice is as essential to a person's identity as skin and hair. Its where you're from. "SL" implies you don't even exist as a separate and unique entity, from a place, a culture, a community. When asked to keep your "SL" out of nose-shot from your office mates, you're being told, indirectly, how you should be "acceptable" for everyone else. Its as bad as saying your eyes should be round, not almond-shaped. Your skin more fair. Your nose less flat. The constant, tired, incessant demand for homogeneity of one's thoughts and culture.

In effect its saying, "Why can't you be WHITE?"

So you can imagine my reaction when my sister told me she got one of "those" emails from a collegue referencing the SL in a list of rules defining what is "Office Etiquette" for her workplace.

"How could I say I was insulted in a way that wouldn't hurt his feelings?" she asked.

"Why would you care about his feelings?" I responded.

Let me go over there and show him a smelly lunch.

But my sister is a far more reasonable person than I am. It is her workplace, after all, and I'm not there to experience the consequences of her decision on how to react. This is all her decision. However, in case she may be lurking today, I offer the following thoughts, serious and ridiculous, to use in making her stand:

  1. The nose is not a gated community. It lives in a big wide wonderful world full of smells that alarm, delight, attract. Smells from all over the planet. Trying to contain or control what smells you encounter is trying to stop the ocean from crashing onto the beach.
  2. Unless you plan to stay rooted to one spot and not plan to go anywhere ever again, they should get their noses used to thirty minutes or so of smells that will challenge their habitual senses. They might learn something important about the people they work with. Where they're from, for example.
  3. Food allergies are an exception (peanuts or strawberries or any food creating a lethal toxic reaction).

The smell of a durian, most often described as a cross between ripe honey and a rotting corpse, is common to and policed by most citizens in Southeast Asia. Those from the culture where its grown and eaten set up rules of containment for its consumption. That's self-policing. Would I want to be in the same room as someone eating a durian? Probably not. But I would probably take my lunch and nose elsewhere, and not make a rule about whether or not they bring it to work. Am I getting clearer here?

To my sister, I hope you're getting my drift. I know you'll work your way through this with aplomb. To that person who wrote that ridiculous "Office Etiquette" memo with the offending SL rule in it, I say "Up yours" with an upraised fork, knife, chopstick, spoon, bowl, ladle, tortilla, banana leaf, fufu dollop or whatever utensil chosen by whoever it is whose lunch is deemed too offensive to your delicate sensibilities. Or better yet, I say it with the upraised eating utensil so dear to my own people in the motherland.

We use our fingers.

Monday, September 3, 2007


I’m the daughter of a cook, raised by a family of men and women whose lives were spent in the growing, making, processing and most importantly revering of food. A child of new immigrants from the Philippines, I was born into a mid-fifties America in the heart of one of richest agricultural areas of California, at a time and place where learning English was tantamount to fitting in, being less of a threat. It meant being invisible, and that meant you survived.

Survival always comes at a price, and in my case, it was losing that valuable cultural connection, our parent’s native language, in order to assimilate. Without a similar language between us, we needed common ground, and so my parents and I built bridges between our two cultures – the old Filipino world and the New American one, in order for us to stay connected. Of all the bridges we had to build, nothing was more lovingly instant nor more gratifying than experiencing the pleasures of our family cooking.

Simple and rich, made with humble ingredients that alchemized into something magical, our culture was encapsulated in intense bites, which I would have to experience first and bring words to it later. Food was my mother and her culture expressing itself without hesitation in a country that had yet to get over its fear of us, let alone appreciate us.

Food transmitted care, respect, devotion and love. In a new land where child was divided from parent by the words we used, it became our family’s method of speaking clearly a language that left no question as to how we felt. Its a language that binds us to this day.

If there’s a single recipe I would choose to inaugurate this food blog (the very one I’ve been threatening my friends and family that I’d write before the year was out) its this one. My grandfather was my first cooking teacher, and his lessons taught me the value of rice—cooking it to pearly, separate, soft perfection, keeping it, the sin of wasting it, and its value as restorative when your body and soul is sick and aching.

The Chinese call it jook or congee. We call it rozcaldo.

1 c. white pearl rice
1 lb chicken thighs (skinless, boneless ok)
3-4 thumb sized pieces of fresh ginger – smashed but intact
water to cover to 1.5" above chicken
salt to taste
5 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Tbsp. cooking oil

Wash rice three times in clear warm water, each time draining off excess starch – until water runs clear. Fill rice pot with warm water to the first joint line of the index finger (when fingertip is placed directly atop the surface of the rice). Cook rice on medium high heat until water is almost completely boiled away (12-15 minutes). Turn heat down to low simmer and cover until steaming stops. Turn off heat and set aside.

At medium low heat, boil chicken in water with ginger and salt until chicken is tender. (roughly 1 – 1.5 hours). Add cooked rice and turn up heat to medium high, letting the porridge thicken. Once thick, turn down heat to simmer.

Saute garlic until golden and not one minute more. Add hot oil and garlic and to finish porridge. Stir to incorporate. From the flu to a broken heart, good for what ails ya.

At least that’s what my grandfather said.