Red-Braised Pork Belly

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I confess, I am always attracted to a good-looking slab of pork belly. At the supermarket I will ask the guy behind the counter to hold up the slab for me so that I can scrutinize it from every angle. I look for a nice layering of meat and fat, as well as a fresh pinkness. The most attractive slab comes home with me.

For this recipe, choose a solid, thick slab of pork belly with meat and fat evenly matched. Use a belly cut that has been trimmed of ribs, the one that’s usually turned into bacon. The cloves and star anise will give it a savory, oriental flavor. The aroma of braising pork will fill your kitchen with a fantastic smell.

Ingredients:

1 kilo pork belly slab
Rock salt (for cleaning the belly)
4 large cloves of garlic
Thumb sized piece of ginger, thinly sliced into medallions
6 pcs. cloves
1 inch piece of cassia or cinnamon bark
2 pcs. star anise
Fresh cracked black pepper
Pinch of chilli flakes, to taste
2 Tbsps. Shiaoxing wine
1/2 cup light soy sauce
1/4 cup Kikkoman soy sauce
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 cup water
Cooking oil

Wash the pork belly well under running water. Take a handful of rock salt and rub it on the skin to slough off any impurities. Wash the pork belly again and then dry with paper towels, set aside.

In a large bowl, mix remaining ingredients except the water and cooking oil. Place the pork belly into the bowl and coat all sides with the marinade. Let the pork belly marinate for at least 30 minutes.

In a deep pot, heat up some cooking oil, just enough to sear the pork belly. Brown the pork belly on each side, turning over to make sure all sides are seared. Put the pork belly skin side up and then pour over the marinade and 1 cup of water. Turn up the heat to high until the liquid is briskly boiling, then turn to lowest setting. Cover the pot and let simmer for 2.5 hours.

Half way through the cooking, turn the pork over, skin side down. Make sure there is enough liquid remaining so that the pork is not scorched. In the last 5 minutes, turnover pork so that it is skin side up, braise with the remaining liquid. At this point, the pork will have turned red from the braising liquid, and the resulting sauce will be thick and syrupy.

Remove the braised pork belly and transfer to a serving plate, slice into half inch squares. Spoon over the remaining sauce.

Pork Steak, Re-imagined

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One of the things I like about living in a small city is that there’s always a wet market or a grocery nearby. So, say one weekday your ten year old foodie son suddenly wants pork steak or the oink equivalent of his favorite carne frita, you can step out in your shorts and tank top to purchase some pork. Our local meat shop sells thinly sliced pork steaks that they roll in neat bundles about the size of a fist. Three bundles come up to 500 grams or so, perfect portions for this dish. Hoisin sauce lends it a sweetish, anise-like flavor, and the soy sauce cuts thru the sweetness, keeping this dish savory.

 

Pork Steak in Soy-Hoisin Sauce

Ingredients:
500 grams pork steak or loin, sliced thinly
2-3 Tbsps. cooking oil
Fresh cracked black pepper
One large onion, sliced into rings
sesame oil

Marinade:
3 pcs. calamansi, cut in half crosswise
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, cut into coins
1/2 tsp. coriander seeds, crushed
1 Tbsp. Hoisin sauce
1/2 cup light soy sauce
chili pepper flakes

In a large bowl, combine the juice of 3 calamansi with the chopped garlic, ginger, coriander seeds, Hoisin sauce, and light soy sauce. Add in the sliced pork and make sure to coat evenly with the mixture. Sprinkle with the chili flakes, let stand for at least 30 minutes.

Heat the cooking oil in a wok or deep frying pan. Put in the pork pieces, shaking off excess marinade into the bowl. Brown pork on both sides, swirling the pieces around the pan. Once pork is browned, add fresh cracked black pepper, then pour in the remaining marinade. Let the mixture come to a boil then turn the heat to low. Simmer for about 10 minutes or until the liquid has reduced to a sauce-like consistency.

Turn off heat, add in the onion rings, and toss to combine. Drizzle a little sesame oil over the dish just before serving.

Breakfast Egg Drop Soup with Mushroom

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Egg drop soup

For those lazy mornings when I want something savory for breakfast but don’t want to eat rice with fried meats, this soup is a good alternative. The soup warms the tummy quickly, and since there’s no meat in this version of the dish, it’s a light breakfast. The egg is enough protein to jump start the day.

Egg Drop Soup with Shiitakes

3 small dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in cold water until rehydrated
1/2 tsp. grated ginger
1 clove garlic, diced
Cooking oil
scallions, white stalks sliced thinly, green part chopped for garnish
2 cups chicken stock
1 tsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. light soy sauce
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 tsp. sesame oil
black pepper to taste

Remove mushrooms from soaking water, slice thinly. Put 1/2 cup of the mushroom water in a small bowl. Dissolve the cornstarch and light soy sauce in the water, set aside.

In a saucepan over high heat, sauté garlic, white part of the scallions, and ginger in oil until fragrant. Add the mushrooms, cook for a minute or so. Pour in chicken stock and bring to a boil. Add in the cornstarch mixture and stir until the soup thickens. Turn down heat to low. Pour in the beaten egg, stirring continuously to allow the egg to form ribbons in the soup. Add fresh cracked black pepper to taste.

Turn off heat. Ladle soup into bowls, drizzle sesame oil on top, and garnish with the chopped scallions.

Queso Español: Iberico

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Iberico cheese wedge

 

I was lucky to have made a short trip to the States this year, for a two week break to visit family and friends. One of the things I planned way before I stepped on the plane out of this dusty desert is to assemble a box to send to myself while I was there in the U.S. I was envisioning a box of goodies and supplies that I usually can’t get here. High up on the list is cheese. In Kabul I didn’t mind having to put on a 20-lb. bullet-proof vest just so I can go to the next camp to raid the Euro deli for cheese, ham, and salami. What, I am a girl that has specific foodie priorities.

My sister took me to a Trader Joe’s near her place in Baltimore, and they had a very good selection of cheeses. We went a little crazy and brought several kinds (Manchego, Parmegiano, some soft cheeses) to munch with pita crackers, Parma ham slices, grapes, and a nice red Lambrusco. The civilized world indeed has a lot of enticements!

In one of the refrigerated cases was an Iberico wedge, recognizable by the hatched rind and well, the label. Manchego cheese is more common in the Philippines, and I usually go for this cheese alongside a deli meats platter. But the Iberico had a really nice creamy color, with a dreamy milky smell, and so I wanted to try it. My taste buds were happy that I did. Que rico! The Iberico was a revelation to me — with its rich, very buttery taste that goes well with strong flavored sausages. There is also a mild tartness to it, a counterpoint to the richness. I could munch on this cheese all day.

cheese-sausage-plate

I’ve since learned that Iberico cheese is made up of percentages of pasteurized milk from cows (50%), goats (30%), and sheep (10%). The remaining 10% could be water or other cheese components. Iberico is produced only in the province of Valladolid, in central Spain. It’s the sheep’s milk that delivers the buttery punch to this cheese. The Español typically serve it as a table cheese, so in deference I initially had my Iberico with pita crackers and slices of sopressata salami. As an experiment, I have since tried the Iberico nuked in the microwave as a melting cheese over bread, and it is delicious this way as well.

My drooling wish is to pair the Iberico’s creaminess with a glass (or two) of good red wine and paper-thin slices of jamon Serrano. That sounds like another trip, doesn’t it?

Kimchi Rice

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Kimchi rice

I liked kimchi at once, the first time I tasted it. Sure, the funky smell is a bit off-putting at first whiff, and the spice hit can be devastating to the tongue, but after a while you get used to all this. After a while you start craving it.

Kimchi is a palate cleanser, it provides counterpoint to savory dishes. I imagine in Korea they must use it in a lot of dishes. I always have a bottle or foil pouch of kimchi in the fridge. Even our house help have developed a liking for it, because we have kimchi on the table fairly often.

This kimchi rice recipe first came about after one particularly hung over early morning raid on the kitchen. It will surely wipe out the alcohol in your system.

Kimchi Rice

Ingredients:
2 cups pre-cooked rice (cold rice works well)
1 Tbsp. cooking oil
1/2 tsp. sesame oil
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 cup kimchi, roughly chopped
chili garlic sauce (optional)
fresh ground black pepper
dash or two of fish sauce (nam pla)
salt to taste

If working with newly-cooked rice, place it in the fridge for a few minutes. Cold rice works better in this recipe as it is not too mushy.

In a wok over medium high heat put in about 1 Tbsp of cooking oil. Swirl in the sesame oil. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, but do not brown. Put in the chopped kimchi and stir-fry to combine. Add the chili garlic sauce and let boil briefly.

Put in the cooked rice and stir to mix with the kimchi. Add a dash or two of fish sauce, then salt and pepper to taste. You may omit the salt if desired.

Transfer to a serving dish. You can garnish this dish with a poached egg or some shredded nori.

Butter That Chicken!

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butter chicken

We know chicken as that old reliable, often the go-to main ingredient for many cooks. It is easy to prepare, doesn’t take long to cook, and popular with the kids. Too often the default method for this bird is to smother it in batter and turn it into fried chicken. While a good crispy fried chicken is hard to resist, sometimes my palate seeks out other tastes.

Cooking chicken in butter lends it a creamy consistency, the butter imparting a delicate, nutty flavor. Lemongrass makes for a surprisingly nice contrast to the richness of this buttered dish.

I remember my mom cooking this chicken at home when we were kids. She would saute it in butter and then simmer it with potatoes and lemongrass. It filled the house with such an appetizing smell. Native chicken is really good prepared this way. I modified the recipe using only chicken thighs and included chorizo bilbao, to add a little festive touch.

Butter Chicken With Chorizo Bilbao

Ingredients:
6 medium size chicken thighs
1/4 tsp. Maggie Magic Sarap granules
fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp. fish sauce (nam pla)
1/4 of a stick of butter
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
sprigs of lemongrass, tied in a bundle
two medium potatoes, peeled and sliced into wedges
salt to taste
1 medium onion, cut into quarters
chorizo Bilbao, sliced diagonally

Wash the chicken thighs thoroughly, then pat dry with paper towels. Place the chicken in a large mixing bowl and rub evenly with the Maggie granules and black pepper. Place some of the seasonings under the skin. Sprinkle with the fish sauce, making sure to coat chicken evenly. Set aside.

Place a large saucepan over medium heat, put in the butter to melt. Once butter is almost melted (take care not to brown it), add in the garlic and sauté until fragrant. Put in the chicken, skin side down. Let the skin side brown slightly and then turn over to brown the flesh side. Keep heat on medium so as not to burn the butter. Once the chicken is browned, add in the lemon grass and let simmer in the chicken juices for 2-3 minutes.

Add in 1/2 cup water and cover the pan. If the chicken is too dry, add more water, a little at a time. Let the chicken simmer for about 5 minutes.

Check that the chicken thighs are thoroughly cooked (when pierced with a fork, the juices should run clear). Add in the potato wedges. Cover and let simmer on low heat for another 5 minutes.

Once potatoes are cooked, put in the chorizo Bilbao and stir to mix. Add in the onions. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding salt to taste.

Turn off heat and transfer to a serving platter, remove lemongrass. Drizzle the butter sauce over the chicken.

Carne Frita, By Request

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Carne FritI am one of those overseas foreign worker (OFW) moms, and my life away from home is vastly different from my mommy life. In Afghanistan, we rarely have the chance to cook, all our meals are taken at any of the DIFACs (dining facilities) on camp. Occasionally, we go out to the boardwalk to eat, and most of the food there is American, or westernized versions that leave you longing for the authentic tastes our Pinoy palates are used to.

That’s why when I get home, one of my vacation pleasures is to cook up a storm of dishes, mainly those that I have been craving for. I cook for my boys, for family, and for friends that are brave enough to be my guinea pigs, a.k.a. food tasters. I am happy to report that all of them have survived my cooking.

My eldest son, Jeremy, has a growing boy’s appetite. When I am on break and spending time at home, he asks me to cook his favorite dishes. One of them is Carne Frita, stir-fried beef with soy sauce. This is a long-time favorite at our little household, and I make it with no salt, just light soy sauce to bring out the taste of good-quality beef. I add plenty of onions and sauce since my boys like it that way. And now I have finally sat down and written out the recipe for carne frita, for my friend Racquel, new mom to a cute little boy. Miga, here is the recipe. Enjoy.

Carne Frita

Ingredients:
500 grams beef sirloin, sliced sukiyaki-style
5 large cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 tsp. black peppercorns, crushed
2 calamansi
1/2 cup light soy sauce (we use Lee Kum Kee)
cooking oil
2 small onions, cut into rings
sesame oil (optional)

Wash the beef and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the beef into smaller pieces if the pieces are too big. Trim some of the ligaments away.

In a big bowl, combine the beef, light soy sauce, garlic, and peppercorns. Squeeze the calamansi over the beef and mix well. Leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes.

In a non-stick skillet or wok over high heat, put in 2 Tbsps. cooking oil. Drop in the pieces of beef one by one and let brown on both sides. Set aside any remaining marinade. The beef will release their liquid after a few minutes. Once the liquid is boiling briskly, reduce the heat to low and leave to simmer for about 5 minutes. Drain the liquid into the bowl of marinade and save for later.

Bring the heat up to medium and continue to fry the beef, adding cooking oil as needed. When the beef has turned crisp at the edges and is done to your preference (we like ours browned but still chewy), add the beef liquid and marinade back in.

Let the carne frita simmer for 2 minutes or so and then turn off the heat. Add in the onion rings and mix with the beef to cook the onions in residual heat. Transfer to a serving plate and drizzle with a little sesame oil (optional) at the table.

Uga — The New Foe Gras

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.Deprivation does strange things to people. Case in point: all the Pinoys here on camp who, plied with DIFAC (dining facility) food day in and day out, crave collectively for uga or dried fish. Yes, dilis and danggit, those humble little bits of dried fish that stink when fried, but are salty-crunchy good. Dried fish hits the spot for us Pinoys after months of greasy, under-seasoned American-style food.

I don’t eat dried fish that often at home, but when I do, I usually have dilis, those small anchovies. I stir-fry them briefly with a little brown sugar and chilli powder, then serve the dilis as a side dish to compliment beef nilaga (beef in a clear soup). Yum.

But here in Kabul, where the taste buds are much deprived, uga saves the day. Chow hall food tends to lean aggressively towards the bland. Most days it’s either a medley of meat drowned in unrecognizable sauces or fried everything. Fried potatoes with breaded fried fish, fried pork, fried chicken. For variety there’s extra dry turkey breasts with equally wilted broccoli and carrots. The salad bar has all the same stuff I remember seeing there from two years ago. The exact same kind of lettuce, cut exactly the same way. All the same ingredients laid out in exactly the same spot, the handiwork of an obsessive-compulsive chef, probably.

On some days the food offerings are just depressing, so what do we Pinoys do? We turn to uga. One of the guys goes out to that hidden spot behind the water treatment plant to fry up the smuggled dried stuff, fresh from the checked-in luggage of whoever recently came back from break in the PI. We pilfer those little pats of butter from the chow hall and use that to fry the dried fish in. Butter-fried uga, the humble ingredient elevated to lofty invented cuisine. Depending on the variety of our stash, we also usually have dried squid, and sometimes salted red egg to go with it all. You could say we overkill it a little with the salt. But we gobble up the salty, stinky stuff like it’s foe gras.

Deprivation, it does strange things to you.

India, All Too Briefly

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India in two days. It was not so much a trip as it was a feverish dream. I was the one that insisted on including India in our four-country Asian trek, I only wanted to see the Taj Mahal. And so to India we went, from Nepal we did an Amazing Race style dash through the airport to catch the flight to New Delhi. Outside the airport, I talked to a voice on the phone to arrange for a car to take us to Agra, about 4 hours away.

Agra is where the Taj Mahal is, and when your rental car breaks down at past two in the morning and your driver attempts to con you into paying more, the appetite for adventure diminishes considerably. I dismissed the greedy driver after a few choice words, got a local guide, and the next day’s schedule was devoted entirely to the Taj viewing. On the way to that beautiful monument we passed by food carts and stalls that held the highly saturated colors of India’s street food.

I regret that we did not have the time to sample them. We did not have time for much Indian food, as our stay was too short — we just ogled the Taj Mahal and then sped on to the next destination.

We had pomegranate iced tea though, that was very refreshing, at — of all places — a Pizza Hut.

Driving back to the airport, we paused for a snack at a refreshment stop where I had the best lamb samosa ever. No photo of that one, unfortunately,  just the vivid memory of fragrant spices and tender bits of lamb in a savory mix of potatoes, peas, carrots, and herbs in a crispy crust. No other samosa has topped that one yet.

Despite the aggravation and the hassle that beset us in India, I think I am going to give the place another chance, perhaps visit Bangalore or Jaipur next time. And that next time, I’ll make sure I sample the food and not just take pictures. I have a samosa in mind that needs further exploring.

Eating On The Road – Chitwan

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We wanted to go to Chitwan National Park to explore this jungle reserve, in the hopes of seeing that rare tiger or the one-horned rhinoceros.  We were told it was going to be a four-hour drive from Kathmandu, the road winding all the way around the mountains. We were game, and quickly packed for a two-day stay at a mountain lodge.

Soon enough our little caravan was underway. It was a long drive, alright, but I hardly felt the hours, mesmerized as I was by the busy sights on the streets going out of Kathmandu and then by the open vistas of jagged mountains and sloping valleys on the road to Chitwan. As the van careened dangerously along the narrow roads, we whiled away the time rocking out to Indian music, snapping our necks and twisting joints in our hilarious attempts at the Punjabi head roll.

I clicked away at scenes of terraced hills planted with broccoli, cabbages, or sometimes yellow and purple flowers. There were hanging bridges that seemed to stretch out, impossibly long, over raging green rivers. We saw farmhouses built of bricks, held together by a mortar of mud. Women laden with huge baskets on their heads stepped nimbly over the rocky ground, never losing their balance. Children skipped along the roads, bundled up snugly, their cheeks pink from the cold.

Halfway through the road trip, we pulled into the driveway of what was apparently a customary stop–a roadside eatery carved into the side of a hill. Tables and chairs perched onto the steps, a buffet was along one wall, a little store was tucked away in the corner. Hungry from the drive, we trooped to the buffet but had to contend with a busload of Korean tourists. Wisely, I let them go ahead, as I know the tourist horde will devour me before I can even reach the counter.

Our turn came at last, and the guy at the counter told us to choose from the line of chafing dishes set out on the table. I liked the puris, warm fried rounds of bread that I dipped instinctively into the curried potato soup. It was filling and crispy-chewy, perfect with the spicy potato curry.

We also had the fried vegetable fritters, a little bit bland, but we learned that you dip it in this green chili sauce that was to die for. I wanted to steal that green bottle, but remembered my manners just in time.

The three of us girls shared a plate of delicate stir-fried noodles, with lots of shredded vegetables but not much meat.

I notice that the Nepali diet was light on the meat, mostly starches and vegetables. The curries we have had so far were also very mild, not the searing hot curries I associate with Indian food. The food was very fresh though, not at all oily or over-salted, even the fried dishes.

The cool air whetted our appetites, and we made short work of the spread that was on our table. Full and revived by the short break, we made our way back into the van to drive two hours more. Chitwan wasn’t even visible yet on the horizon.

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