Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Secret Ingredient

That Grandma Fausta.

So I finally blocked off a chunk of time last weekend to make my Grandma Fausta's empanadas. I donned a matronly apron, rolled up my sleeves, surrounded myself with all the ingredients in her recipe and followed her measurements to a T. One problem: She lied. Yes, like so many other so-called recipe "sharers" she altered her recipe to ensure that hers would remain the best for all time.

"Surely," I thought, "my own grandmother wouldn't lie to me. Of course she'd want to pass on her recipe so that I can continue to pass on my childhood empanada memories to my own children." But when it came time to flatten the dough and cut out circles, I was faced with a sticky, gooey mess. So I added another cup of flour. Then another. Finally, when I had mastered the dough I took on the filling.

But she had left out the onion and garlic that I remembered tasting, not to mention the dash of soy sauce. Only then was I able to replicate her original recipe. So for those of you who tried the original recipe I posted, please add another 2 cups of flour to the dough mixture, as well as 1/2 onion (chopped), 2 cloves of garlic (minced), and 1 tablespoon of soy sauce to the filling. Oh, and if you're not too fond of raisins, you can substitute it for corn, which will still add the sweetness to the mix.

And beware: If you ask someone for that famous recipe of theirs, it's quite likely they'll leave a little something out. Even if they're your grandmother.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What's up with the leaves?

Take a trip to any farmer's market and you'll notice stand after stand filled with bundles of leaves. What are they and how do people cook them? For the most part, the answer to that has been a secret among many Asian American market-goers. In my home, these leaves were a staple -- from bittermelon to sweet potato to kangkong (water spinach) to saluyot (jute leaves), and the list goes on and on. They are especially used in soups and other provincial dishes containing fish. In a related, but inedible note, some are used for varying medicinal purposes. When I was a kid I had a bad case of eczema on my arms. My Grandma Patricia would grind up bittermelon leaves and spread the pulpy juice all over my rashes. Not very appetizing, I know, so back to food.

In my home, a typical dinner would include a common Ilokano salad using any one of these leaves, tomatoes, onions and and a heavy portion of bagoong (a very earthy, salty sauce made of fermented fish) as its dressing.

On a recent trip to my local farmer's market, I decided to try and replicate this salad, substituting the heavy, high-sodium bagoong with just a teaspoon of patis, the more popularly known fish sauce that is the clear, refined by-product of bagoong. You wouldn't know the difference just by smelling the two. If blindfolded, you would think they were equally pungent (it's kind of difficult to make fermented fish smell anything other than fermented fish). Appearances, however, are a different story. Bagoong is thick, dense and mud-like, with pieces of the fish remaining. Patis is a clear, amber-colored sauce, with no visible signs of whence it came.

I was surprised to find that the substitution didn't sacrifice any of the tastes that I remembered. The only difference was a much lighter flavor, allowing the leaves to play a much more prominent role. I also substituted the cherry tomatoes my grandmother usually used with the beautiful heirloom tomatoes I found at the market, and instead of her favorite yellow onion I used a fresh red onion. On your next trip to the market, I suggest you buy a bundle of these leaves for a different type of salad. You'll find it quite easy to prepare:

1 bundle of leaves (Any of the aforementioned will do, but beware: The bittermelon leaves are in fact very bitter, and the saluyot has a slimy, okra-like texture when cooked)
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 heirloom tomato, diced
1/2 red onion, chopped

Separate the leaves from the stems and wash thoroughly. Bring one cup of water to a boil, adding a pinch of sea salt. Add the leaves in the boiling water until slightly wilted, drain in colander and rinse with cold water. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and lightly toss.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Filipino American Food for Thought: The Book

I was rummaging through a bunch of old bags in my closet when I came across a tattered sheet of paper. It turned out to be a recipe for empanada that my Grandma Fausta had written for me before she went back to the Philippines. I always loved coming home from school to find her covered in flour, using an empty glass bottle as a rolling pin and a tin can to cut out circles from the flattened dough (for reasons unknown to me she had decided that these made for more "authentic" cooking tools than a rolling pin and cut-outs). That meant the house would soon be filled with the comforting smell of empanadas, with their crisp, flaky crusts and savory fillings. Granted, empanadas are not originally from the Philippines, but they are just one example of the heavy Spanish and Chinese influences over Filipino recipes. Finding the recipe inspired me not only to make a batch, but to dig deeper into the traditions of Filipino food, its evolution as more Filipinos became Filipino Americans, and its possibilities as a healthier -- and maybe even more cosmopolitan -- type of fare.

Of course, there are other motivating factors in this project: In three months I will be turning 40. I picture myself in a fabulous form-fitting dress surrounded by friends and family who can't get over how great I look. But then reality sets in a I realize I'm a good 200-plus pounds beyond what that form-fitting dress can handle (a bit of an exaggeration, but nevertheless..). The reason? Not enough exercise, and my love for Filipino food, made the traditional way.

So why not come up with recipes that are rooted in the same tastes and traditions, but substitute the "comfort" ingredients (those high in fat and even higher in sodium) with more healthy alternatives? And why not experiment with these old recipes, incorporating more flavors and textures that can be found and grown locally?

So, after receiving a string of so-called coincidences from the Universe, my mission is finally clear: For the next year, I will set out to pick up where Anthony Bourdain left off, writing all about Filipino food -- its traditions, and its evolution. I will visit Filipino chefs -- from the common cafeteria-style eateries around the Bay Area, to the more upscale restaurants in San Francisco, to the many grandmothers who cook for their families every day. Then I will document my own experiences as I take old recipes and create new ones for those of us who love the food but can't afford the extra pounds, introducing new techniques and flavors. In the end, I hope to create a book that will contain the answers that eluded Anthony Bourdain as he hopped from one lechon joint to the next -- and unlock the flavors of our culture that Americans have yet to enjoy.

In the meantime, here is my Grandma Fausta's old empanada recipe. It is a bit incomplete, as it only lists the ingredients without any instructions on what to do afterward. From what I recall (as stated above), she would cut out circles the size of a large tin can from the dough, place a tablespoon of the filling into the center, fold the dough over and seal the edges with a fork, as with a pie. She would then brush the top with beaten egg whites and fry the empanadas until golden brown.

Grandma Fausta's Empanada:

4 cups flour
2 eggs
1stick butter
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup water
1/3 cup shortening

1 pound ground pork
1 carrot, diced
1 can sweet peas
2 small boxes of raisins
1 potato, diced
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 teaspoon fish sauce
salt and pepper to taste

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Clue No. 2: Can you make Filipino food?

A few weeks ago, Melissa, a co-worker-turned-Skype-buddy of mine requested that I make her Filipino food for her last day of work. Usually, I wouldn't hesitate. In college when I shared a townhouse with six other girls, I became somewhat of the den mother, cooking vats of Filipino food every night. But this would be much more complicated. Our little office with 20 or so staff members has a lunch program where we each sign up and take turns being chef. Our kitchen, complete with two burners, an array of pots and pans, utensils, spices, produce and variety of starches, is replenished by the $3 we each pay to eat every day. When lunch is ready, the chef rings a bell and we all gather at a long table in the middle of the office. Yes, it all sounds very nice -- except for one thing. About one-third of our staff is vegetarian so to keep it simple, we all prepare healthy, vegetarian dishes.

Filipino food -- the popular dishes, anyway -- is seldom healthy and almost never vegetarian: lumpia (fried eggrolls stuffed with either a ground pork mixture or ground beef with vegetables), adobo (a vinegar and soy sauce based stew usually with chicken, pork or both) and pancit (noodles mixed with an array of chopped meats and vegetables sauteed in vegetable oil). "Well, what do you want me to make?" I asked Melissa. "Ooooh, I love adobo...and lumpia .. and what are those noodles? Pancit?" she responded.

My hesitation prompted her to say: "Oh, but only if you want to." "It's not that I don't want to," I said. "I just don't know how to make vegetarian Filipino food." And it's true. Other than side dishes, the Filipino dishes I was raised on consisted of meat and fish. Party food -- which is what she wanted -- was always greasy. Tasty, but greasy. In fact, in most of the Filipino eateries in the Bay Area, many of the dishes you'll find should come with warning labels for those with high cholesterol, namely: diniguan, kare-kare, lechon kawali (more on these later).

I decided to cook the food anyway. I made a big pot of chicken adobo the night before, the grease rising to the top the next day. I brought in a tray of lumpia, the paper towel I had placed below them was saturated with oil. The pancit noodles were less artery-clogging, though there were little fatty pieces of pork that my grandmothers always said gave it that extra umph.

I was reminded of Anthony Bourdain's quest to unearth the meaning of Filipino food.

Why is it that among all the Asian cuisines that have become mainstream in America -- Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. -- Filipino food remains, for the most part, a mystery? And why has this lumpia-adobo-pancit trio emerged the token dishes for Filipino fare? Like the Bourdain episode, I had stored the question away in the back of my mind -- until the next incident occurred.

Oh, and my colleagues did enjoy the meal -- two-thirds of them, anyway.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The first clue

I was going through this little self-help phase that every woman approaching 40 seems to go through – reading everything from the Dalai Lama to Deepak Chopra to “The Secret”. I never learned what The Secret was, but one point I kept coming across was that coincidences aren’t merely coincidences. That if you pay attention, you’ll see that the Universe is really just trying to send you a message. That said, I’d like to thank the Universe for not giving up on me. Even after several attempts on the Big U’s part, I failed to connect the dots. But now that I get it, I must congratulate the Universe for its clever devices.

The first message came by way of Anthony Bourdain, host of “No Reservations”, a Travel Channel show in which Bourdain goes from country to country trying different dishes, imbibing freely amongst locals, and reciting his prose in his signature dead-pan way. He also resembles my mom’s ex-boyfriend, which is what compelled me to end my channel surfing on his show.
On this particular episode, he was in the Philippines trying to find the answer to his one burning question: What is Filipino food? I don’t think he ever got the answer – even as he filled his international belly with lechon (roasted whole pig), papaet (goat innards stewed in bile, yes, bile), sisig (chopped pig cheeks with onions, peppers and spices), sinigang (meat and vegetable soup with a sour tamarind base) and of course numerous bottles of San Miguel beer.

Every time he asked someone how they defined Filipino food, the answer only created more questions. Mainly: “Huh?” So while the show left me a little more enlightened about the many cultures that have influenced our cuisine, I didn’t have a sense of closure.

But that’s because the Universe wasn’t done with me yet.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Don't call me a flack

Three years ago, my first book was released. I was basking in the afterglow of an editorial series I had worked on for the San Francisco Chronicle. I created an account on blogspot.com and began writing about my experiences as I embarked upon my book tour.

And then ... nothing. Silence. Squat. The proverbial writer's block.

I can probably hide behind the fact that the newspaper industry, which I was proudly a part of for 15 years, had begun imploding -- and along with it, the careers of many far more talented writers than me. Like many other journalists, I became what many of us in the newsroom had turned up our pristine noses to -- a flack. "That's Communications Director," I now say. Not that I'm a complete sell-out. My first transitional job out of the newsroom was Media Advocacy Director for the American Cancer Society, where I found myself in familiar territory: writing opinion pieces calling for legislative change, calling out the bad guys (Big Tobacco) and demanding that lawmakers create laws to save lives. The only difference now was that when I wrote something, I never knew if it would be published. That totally sucked.

I was reminded of all the commentaries I had to read through as an editor, one by one, scoffing at some of the submissions, pointing out the absurdities to my colleagues, reading them aloud in animated voices -- absolutely drunk with power. And then I'd picture some editor printing out my submission doing the exact thing.

Yeah, payback is a bitch.

But it was too soon. I was still getting over my bad break-up with journalism. And sadly, this was my rebound job, my "in-between". So I moved on to yet another worthy cause -- saving humanity and our dying planet. I'm now the Communications Director -- yes, Communications Director -- for an international think-tank that calculates the Ecological Footprint of nations, cities, corporations. What does that mean? Well, I'm working on that, but trust me, it's good.

I can't say that I've completely gotten over my on-again-off-again relationship journalism. I miss the immediacy and the impact of it all. I miss feeling that what I'm writing about is gong to mean something to somebody, and maybe even bring about some change. But then again, journalism isn't what it used to be, neither are readers. And that's the real heartbreak.

I do have a plan, however. Not so much for the newspaper industry, but for my next project. I've been waiting for something to inspire me and oddly, the inspiration has come from several sources. Here are some hints: Anthony Bourdain, a former colleague's going-away party, my brother's upcoming wedding, "Julie and Julia" and weight gain.

Give up? Stay tuned...

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

The first leg

Up until my book reading in Carmichael, Ca., most of my audiences were made up of Filipino Americans, with a sprinking of Anglos here and there -- those who had followed my columns in the San Francisco Chronicle. So when I walked into the newly remodeled library and saw the chairs filled with all caucasians, a surge of panic came over me. What if they didn't understand the humor in my book? What if they saw my readings as the cliche rantings of a minroity who didn't appreciate what they had in America? It was too late -- I had already marked the excerpts off with orange Post-Its, and I didn't have time to switch things around. Besides, did I really have anything in the book that was geared toward an all-white group? I started by thanking everyone for coming and telling them why I wrote the book. "The California my kids grew up in was different from the California I grew up in," I started. "They were raised in a diverse community with a strong Filipino community. I was raised in a city where I was the only minority in the whole school."
I looked at the friendly looking gray-haried woman seated in the front row. She gave me a look, as if to say, "I'm sorry." I proceeded with the three excerpts that I had stuck to at all my readings during the first leg of this book tour. A laugh here, and gasp there. Surprisingly, the reaction was the same with them as it was at all the other events.
Maybe we're not so different after all.

Next up on my book tour:

Wednesday, Nov. 1, 7 p.m. City Lights Books, San fFancisco, Ca.
261 Columbus Avenue
Contact: Peter (415) 362-8193, ext. 24

Thursday, Nov. 2, 6:30 p.m. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 200 Larkin Street, contact Ana Hortillosa, 415-581-3667

Saturday, Nov. 10, 6-9 p.m. Remy's, 2126 W Temple Street, Los Angeles, contact: Linda Nietes (310) 514-9139

Sunday, Nov. 11, Russo's Books, Bakersfield, contact Nick at nickbelardes@yahoo.com

Sunday, Nov. 13 4:45-5:30 p.m., Sacramento Convention Center, 1400 J Street, Sacramento, contact Lolly Pineda, 650-746-8303