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.