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.

Nepalese Dinner In The Dark

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I found myself  in Nepal in February of this year, excited beyond belief to have this particular travel dream come true. Giddy and short of breath from the cold, we were met at the airport by Sagar, former gurkha in Afghanistan and now our guardian angel throughout the whole trip. He and his friend packed three of us girls snugly into a rather small white taxi and accompanied us to our hotel in the middle of Kathmandu, assuring us that “No one will harm you here.”  He then most graciously treated us to a Nepali dinner.

Sagar says the locals go to this little place about 10 minutes motorcycle ride from our hotel, a one-storey diner lit up by glowing metal braziers, tables pushed against the wall, a modest bar in one corner.

I saw mostly locals there, and a few Westerners with the inevitable soda can propped up on their tables.

We let Sagar order for us, I just said that I liked lamb. Platters arrived with the meal arranged on it in a circle. I learn that this is a typical Nepali dinner–not much meat but with a variety of vegetables and condiments. Small bowls of dhal (somewhat thinner than the Indian version), lamb curry (cut up pieces of lamb in a mild curry sauce), and a yoghurt-based soup were part of the platter. There was pickled ginger and some kind of asparagus-like veggie that was a nice cold contrast to the hot soup. I liked the salted mustard greens so much I asked for a second helping. The lamb curry was very good, succulent and meaty, but not overpowering.

We had a side dish of papadom-like puffed crisps, they had a spicy, smoky flavor similar to that of toasted paprika.

It was a good and filling meal, and we ate it by candle light, since Kathmandu (and later on we learned, most of Nepal) is plagued by regular power outages in winter. Most hotels give out candles to their guests.

Outside, it was cold and dark, the winter chill bites one’s cheeks and makes each intake of breath a little gasp.

Sagar tells me to hop on his motorcycle when I say we need Nepali money for the duration of our stay. I hop on, of course, and away we go to find an ATM. Hanging on for dear life, I clasp metal with numb fingers as we speed through the night time streets of Kathmandu, the shop lights going out one by one it seems, as we pass by.  Belly warm from the dinner and head dizzy with the onslaught of so much newness, I savor the rush of being in a whole other place, one that surely, holds all the promise I have long been dreaming about.

Strawberries in the desert? Dessert!

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Having been thrown willy-nilly into this remote, mostly dry place, my food options have drastically changed.  For instance, the only restaurant I have been to since I got here is a little Thai place that I had to put on a bullet proof vest to go to. Then several months later, a loopy plane ride deposited me into an even hotter, dustier, more arid place where the color brown is de rigeur.

It was a surprise to find some red. These little plump strawberries came in one day for lunch. Apparently, you have to know a nice guy around these parts so he can drop by and bring you strawberries on a paper plate.

I’ve been munching on these red sweeties for most of the afternoon. Then suddenly, it hit me! Chocolate-covered strawberries! Duh. Good thing I didn’t polish off all the strawberries. I have some chocolate in the fridge, so a quick zap in the microwave and I’ll have me some choco-covered strawberries after dinner as dessert. In the desert.

Ah, life is still good.

Spicy-Sweet Anchovies (Dilis)

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I’ve never met a Japanese dish that I didn’t like, and I remember my first encounter with this appetizer at Inaka, a little Japanese restaurant in Bacolod, long time ago. Small bowls of this tiny fish came to the table while we were waiting for our order. I popped some in my mouth and the spicy-sweet, crunchy morsels exploded on my tongue, opening the palate for the meal to come.

Anchovies (our local dilis) come in various sizes. I like the smaller ones when I can get them. At home, we buy the dried, salted kind and we usually just fry them briefly in oil. They’re a nice accompaniment to sauteed mung beans (monggo ginisa) or beef nilaga.

Only when I had my own kitchen did I remember the spicy-sweet anchovy version and decided to try making it myself. It was a nice bit of serendipity, since I had just recently bought a pack of powdered red chilies and thought this is just the thing to go with the dilis.

We had a bowlful of the little fishes to start off tonight’s dinner, and the heat of the dish caused a liter of Coke to virtually evaporate. This appetizer would also be a great pairing with ice-cold beer. The brown sugar caramelised with the chili powder and salt, coating the dilis with a sweet-spicy, salty crust. The toasted sesame seeds added a nutty crunch. They’re addicting! Aaaahhhnnnchovies, alright.

Spicy-Sweet Anchovies

1 tsp. sesame seeds

2 Tbsps. cooking oil

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1/4 kilo dried salted anchovies (dilis)

1/2 tsp. rock salt

pinch of fresh ground black pepper

1 tsp. powdered red chillies to start (adjust to taste)

3 Tbsps. brown sugar to start (adjust to taste)

Start by toasting the sesame seeds in a hot pan over low heat. Shake the pan to toast the seeds evenly. When they turn golden brown and aromatic (about 2 minutes), remove from heat and transfer to a bowl to cool.

In the same pan over medium heat, add in the cooking oil. Put in the garlic and fry until just brown. Add in the anchovies. Stir-fry for a minute, making sure to cook them evenly. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then add in the powdered red chilies, distributing evenly throughout. Add in the brown sugar. Mix well to coat the anchovies. Once the brown sugar has caramelised, turn off the heat.

Toss the anchovies with the sesame seeds while still in the pan. Transfer the anchovies into a serving bowl and let stand for a few minutes before serving. This will be hot!

Shiitake Mushrooms

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Shiitake mushrooms are my most favorite of all the edible fungi out there. They are available all year round, most of the time dried and packed in small batches. Dried shiitakes intensify in flavor and woodsy undertones, but it’s the fresh ones that I like best. When prepared right, fresh shiitakes have the taste and texture of tender pork—succulent, delectable.

Plus Points. Research tells me shiitakes are rich in anti-oxidants, iron, fiber, and a variety of vitamins and minerals. Shiitakes are thought to help with warding off diseases, boosting your immune system, helping the liver. They have been used in Chinese medicine for over 6,000 years. But me, I just love them for their taste.

Shop Well. Pick shiitakes that are whole and unblemished. They should be plump, firm, and dry to the touch. Slimy caps mean the shiitakes may no longer be at their freshest. The underside of the caps should be white, avoid buying those that have dark spots.

Store Right. Place fresh shiitakes inside a brown paper bag and store in the vegetable compartment of your fridge. Mushrooms need to breathe, so do not put them inside a plastic bag or else they will turn slimy and sour. Properly stored shiitakes can last up to two weeks in the fridge, that is, if you don’t eat them all up before that.

Prep Tips. I like to clean my shiitakes with a 1-inch paintbrush that I keep in the kitchen for this purpose. Just gently brush away the dirt, you don’t need to scrub vigorously. I clean the mushrooms right before cooking; the less handling, the better. You can trim the stems off if you like, I sometimes leave them if they’re not too tough.

Get Cooking! I’ve cooked shiitakes in omelettes, soups, stews, stuffed with various meats, braised, grilled, stuffed inside chickens, baked, stir-fried, creamed—the possibilities abound. They’re also great in vegetarian dishes as a meat substitute. But I like them best prepared simply: sauteed quickly with garlic and onions, then finished with a dollop of oyster sauce.

Here are a few of my recipes featuring shiitake mushrooms:

Chawanmushi

Sauteed Fresh Shiitakes

Chicken Stuffed with Sticky Rice

Noodles Korean Style

Sauteed Fresh Shiitakes

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When I am lucky enough to get a hold of fresh shiitake mushrooms, my first impulse is to do a simple shiitake saute with just garlic and onions. You can really taste the freshness of the mushrooms and enjoy that succulent shiitake texture with such simple ingredients. This is a side dish that goes well with any meat or seafood main course.

See my shiitake ingredient post for prep tips. The key to this simple dish is a hot wok, paired with a fast stir-fry technique so that the mushrooms are not overcooked. Be sure to use good quality oyster sauce and go lightly on the salt.

Assemble all the ingredients ahead so that you have everything on hand. This is a quick-cook dish.

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Sauteed Shiitake Mushrooms

2 cups fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced

1 Tbsp. cooking oil

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 small red onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup water (as needed)

2 Tbsps. oyster sauce

salt and fresh cracked pepper, to taste

Heat up the wok and put in the cooking oil. Toss in the garlic, and when they are fragrant, add the onions. When the onions are translucent, put in the shiitakes. Stir-fry to get the mushrooms coated with the oil. Stir-fry for about 2 minutes, make sure the shiitakes do not burn. If the dish seems to dry up quickly, add some of the water. Finish off with the oyster sauce, stir a few times, then turn off the heat.

Pour into a ready bowl and serve hot.

Chawanmushi (Japanese Egg Custard)

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chawanmushi

I first encountered chawanmushi in a Japanese restaurant a few years back. Breaking into its soft surface and discovering the choice morsels hidden beneath is at once a surprising and delightful experience. I’ve since learned that chawanmushi is considered an appetizer. The only one, I think, that is eaten with a spoon. This is a dish that stimulates the palate, one that gets you ready for the main course. In Japan, it is customarily served chilled in the summer, hot in winter.

Traditional chawanmushi includes seasonal ingredients: gingko nuts and shiitake mushrooms that become plentiful towards fall, maybe some chicken or even grilled unagi (eel). A variation could also be made using squid, prawns, fish, or scallops. The most important ingredient of course, is the star of this dish—farm fresh eggs.

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Chawanmushi

3 large eggs
3 Tbsps. light soy sauce
1 tsp. sake (may be skipped if you don’t have sake)
2 cups fish stock or dashi stock
1/2 tsp. rock salt
3 fresh shiitake mushrooms, chopped (stems removed)
4 pieces large shrimp, (shelled & de-veined)
1 fillet of cream dory fish or other white deboned fish, cut into 4 pieces
1 small piece carrot, cut into flower shapes
spring onion leaves, sliced diagonally, for garnish

* Prepare ahead: 4 small custard cups or ramekins. Chawanmushi cups are available in some Asian supply stores. Here, I made do with some earthernware cups my Aunt sent me. They’re made in Japan, so I figured they must be close enough. They did the job well.
 

Break the eggs into a large bowl. Stir with chopsticks to mix egg yolk and white, but do not beat. Good chawanmushi, as with any custard, must be silky, with no froth. In another bowl, combine soy sauce, sake, fish stock, and salt. Slowly stir in the eggs into this mixture, so as to avoid forming bubbles.

You can also strain the egg mixture into another bowl to make sure the liquid is smooth.

Distribute the pieces of fish, shrimps, carrots, and shiitakes among the 4 cups. Pour in the egg mixture, filling each cup up to 1/2 inch from the rim.

chawan1 chawan2

Place slices of spring onion leaves on top for garnish.

Put the lids on or cover the cups tightly with cling wrap.

Boil water in a saucepan large enough to contain the cups, with the water reaching a little over halfway of the sides of the cups. When the water reaches a brisk boil, turn the heat to low and place the cups into the water. Cover the pan and let simmer for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, check the chawanmushi by inserting a toothpick into the middle of the custard. When the toothpick comes out clean, the chawanmushi is done. I’ve made this dish several times, and I no longer need the toothpick, I can tell it’s done just be the look of the surface of the custard.

Remove cups from the pan, uncover, and serve.