Friday, December 24, 2010


It's because of her I cook, and possibly cook well.

It's her voice I hear when I shop for ingredients, reminding me that I need more of this, less of that. That I don't need to spend so much for this and instead--why don't I try what I've got in the house?

My Ilocano mother was a brilliant cook. That she could make something out of nothing was endemic to her day and time, when resources were scarce and surviving during wartime occupation -- good times hard to find. But when family got together, and guests came over, you put out your best. And mama ALWAYS put out her best, especially here in America, where she built a comfortable life for us. This was a woman who learned to cook on a stove made from firewood and stones, cooking rice in a clay pot, and preparing fish freshly caught from the sea nearby and vegetables grown in the family garden.

Those practices stayed with her in America, and mama's garden was full of hot purple garlic from the Philippines, sweet potatoes, whose greens we'd eat, and calabasa - or what we now refer to as kombucha squash. She kept the ocean perch she caught in the Monterey Bay in her freezer in the garage, and was always, as they say these days -- food secure. Its a value that I take with me. Unconsciously, I still feel the anxiety she felt working hard to make sure there was rice, salt and sugar in the house by New Year's or else, as cultural superstition dictated, you'd go hungry that year.

From my dad, I learned all about volume. He cooked three meals a day for 200 men--mostly migrant laborers "imported" from Mexico to harvest lettuce, apples and strawberries. I was a kid, not old enough to go to school but observant enough to be fascinated by the stores of beans and rice my father kept in the dry goods room of his kitchen, and a walk-in refrigerator where freshly slaughtered pig was quartered for family meals for an entire season. My fondest memory of the summer was taking naps on sacks of pinto beans and breathing in the rice flour talc covering the Calrose rice my dad used to make arroz con tomates. Mexican rice.

All the rest came from instinct--from learning away from home how to make a roast chicken - a basic food lesson that everyone who wants to take care of themselves should learn. How to make a pilaf, which is the basis for most cooking throughout the world. When I was grown I watched mama cook with interest: how and why she'd smash garlic into a paste in hot oil before putting in the meat and vegetables - it softened the garlic sharpness. I watched when she browned the meat before pouring in the braising liquids for a long-slow roasting in the oven. When I was much older and she could no longer recall the difference between salt and sugar, it became my turn to take over in the kitchen, and I was cooking for her.

2010. Christmas Eve morning, my nephew Nikko called from North Carolina to retrieve my recipe for chicken adobo--he was cooking Christmas Eve dinner for his girlfriend's family tonight.  Tonight, my sister Rain, her husband Rick and my niece Felicia came over to my house for Christmas Eve dinner. A first. We had a meal I remembered from Cafe Angeline's in Paris: salmon and haricot verts. Poached salmon with creamy tarragon sauce and green beans, accompanied by champagne and zabayon for dessert. We paused and prepared a meal for the ancestors -- for Mama, whose picture faces my kitchen-dining room in my cozy little cottage in Berkeley. Felicia, my blog co-creator and Number 1 in the kitchen was helping.

Per our tradition, particularly now that Mama has passed, we lit candles in memory and in prayer, and I could only say that this was a dream. My family, here, with me. And like Mama, I put out my best. It was my duty.

Mama, this is for you. You taught me well, and we learn and remember: you are what you eat, and you are what you cook. So glad you were there to teach me and continue to be here, right in the heart. That's where I cook from.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Full Loop

We're near the end of an 18-hour marathon of shopping, prepping, chopping, tasting and cooking for Sunday's birthday party for Ruthie's mom. With a crew call at the client's house set for 7:30am sharp in Santa Monica, every minute is critical, and getting every bite right is your only goal.

Using the kitchen timer on my niece's stove, catching respite with snore-filled catnaps on her couch, we managed to spell each other from midnight to 2:00am cooking and checking batch after batch of roasted red potatoes, letting them brown to golden, smearing them with a luscious mix of olive oil, garlic, chopped parsley and sea salt. Please everyone, remind me when I have had more sleep, to write more about the sensually titillating experience of rubbing warm potatoes with a bath of olive-oiled garlic and herbs. I'm serious.

For those who don't know Ruthie, I introduced her here when I first started this blog. She called me to cater this event because 1) She's tasted my food and she's sold; 2) she's a big fan of Alchemical Bites; 3) her daughters, Maya and Sarah fell in love with me when I introduced them to dark chocolate fondue with fresh pineapple at their father's election victory thank-you party for his volunteers, which I catered.

To say catering, or for that matter, industrial cooking like my father did is hard is an understatement. It can be brutal on your body if you don't take extra care of yourself.

First, to be able to think on your feet--a necessary survival strategy in the kitchen, you have to think of your feet. You only have two of them. They're there to move you through an obstacle course of deliveries, wending your way through a kitchen, kicking the door open when both hands are full, and they're probably the last sentient extremities you have left, doing their job while you're keeping your eyes open with toothpicks and your hands are on auto-pilot. You've got to have good arch support in your shoes. In fact, I will fight to the death with any fashionista to defend Mario Batali's living in his fashion-backward orange crocs. I understand, man. Its a totally forgiveable fashion faux pas and an industrial necessity.

You've got to do some form of strength exercise. I don't care: if you can manage a weekly visit to the gym or your Pilates instructor, or do yoga or get a massage, if you do anything even while in the act of making love that gives you some form of core and back strengthening, you'll last longer. When you're bending over a cutting board prepping your vegetables, heaving loads of crates, or pots full of boiling broth, lifting heavy trays of hot food out from under the broiler and you don't have a second to lose--any physical advantage you have is critical to endurance, which is what this business is.

Music is not optional. It is the atmosphere you breathe in to keep you motivated through your day. It also keeps you inspired when you begin to find yourself thinking all of your food tastes the same, or you just can't figure out what spice configuration you need to make the chutney complete, or you've got to determine whether you should make that eighth trip to Ralph's to get more of the vanilla extract that's just run out, or should you use almond extract instead. Music fills the gaps in self-inspiration. It often and always, as Sly and the Family Stone sing--takes you higher.

Comrades in arms. What can I say about this? That I was lucky enough for my sister to give birth to my best kitchen partner in this incarnation in life? It appears to me now that Fi chose to come to this lifetime gifted with a wisdom beyond her years, and the ability to instantly pick up cooking instructions and subsequently IMPROVE them. She's been this way in the kitchen since she was five, by the way. I love the way she swims in the kitchen under even the most stressful of times, as a fish takes to water.

As I am writing this, I am full of memories of my father coming home every night after an 18 hour day in the camp kitchen where he worked for twenty years. His was a life of hard labor, which undid him in the end, but was also filled with some fun times with mates watching over large-scale production of food, sharing filthy stories and ribald jokes to keep it going. Of my mother who labored in a canning factory in Watsonville, California grading produce for packaging and shipment, buoyed by friendships that stood the test of time, following her into retirement and the last years of her life. Fi and I come from a long, proud line of hard working people who did their best under amazingly hard circumstances, weary and grateful they had the skills to make it work in this rough place called America.

In a way, we have come the full loop. Daughter and granddaughter of new immigrants taking on, with pleasure and satisfaction, the jobs our family took on to survive when they first arrived. This time though, there's the difference of experience, modern health regimes, and the wisdom of good business decisions to make sure we get the recognition and the time we need to take good care of ourselves and keep the flame burning without destroying the torch. We're in this because we love this. There's no other reason better than that to do anything.

My father and mother, upstairs in heaven, must both be laughing with pride.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Getting reacquainted

Has it really been a year since we have last “shared a meal” on this cyber-table? It’s hard to believe that the last piece I wrote was about helping to slaughter and serve a whole pig in Costa Rica. And to think one of my first articles was about being a vegetarian...

...Well I still am vegetarian (barring my carnivorous respite abroad—traveling isn’t traveling with dietary restrictions), and I’m back in good ole Los Angeles, featured city of this month’s Saveur magazine. And who is that on my couch (in the same apartment that I moved into 2 years ago—my have we come far together)? None other than my soul mate in the kitchen, my Auntie Fe! She’s here to visit and to cater a birthday party with me. Yikes! Although she is a seasoned pro at catering, this will be one of my first forays into cooking for people other than my friends and family. I am confident, of course, that we will do brilliantly—we are UNSTOPPABLE as a team in the kitchen (not to brag or anything). But I am a little...uneasy, about cooking for people that I don’t know. How can I mix in the right emotion? How can I pour in love for people I have met only twice? I am at a loss—so much of cooking, for me, is sharing something with people—like a conversation. It’s so easy to share with people I know and love: I know their tastes (food-wise and in general) and moods—I know that eggplant parmesan will taste great with a favorite wine and even better if I play that one song; or that chunky guacamole will remind him of home... I guess I’ll have to trust my intuitions on this one...more to come

But for now, let’s get caught up on what’s been going on in my food-world in our year apart. Back in LA, I have endless (and I mean ENDLESS) sources of to-die-for food. Food to eat, food to cook, food to dream about. Talk about culture shock from the sweet simplicity of Costa Rica. Farmer’s markets are always the top of my food to-do list at any given time. Luckily there is at least one good farmer’s market open EVERY DAY in LA where I can usually find Tara Kolla, an advocate for urban farms and founder of Silverlake farms, who came to speak to my Education for Sustainable Living class. And here’s the thing about farmer’s markets. Not only are they great for local businesses and organic food and helping the environment, but everything TASTES so much BETTER! And not usually more expensive than buying at Ralph’s (the one I live next to is the nation’s most expensive branch—yikes!). And if it is more expensive...what the heck, I’m saving money by not buying meat, right? If all I eat are veggies, then I’m gonna get GOOD veggies. And my cooking has never been better. I have also been trying to go out to different places—I’ve hit up some of the more “trendy” places, like Real Food Daily (a very hip vegan restaurant—I sat next to Jason Schwartzman, and Urth Caffe (great vegan chocolate cake), but I’ve gotta say, the best places are still the holes-in-the wall joints (that don’t have websites or names more clever than “Indian Cuisine”), and meals-on-wheels fruit vendors and gastro-trucks (that now roll onto campus and can be tracked by twitter).

So that’s it, for now....OK, so I’m skipping out on some bigger food adventures—but those deserve their own stories. For now I’ll say that I am still eating (A LOT) and enjoying the flavors of life with my friends and family—the best side dishes anyone could ever ask for.