Thursday, October 30, 2008

I could eat Nilaga all day long.

And I did.

Nilaga

I grew up on Filipino food and leftovers. My mom would always make enough food to feed everyone, with more to last for the next few days -- whether for baon (pronounced "bah-ohn" and which basically means a packed lunch) or the next night's dinner.

Sometimes dinner would be several different leftover meals that had no business being eaten together: Chicken adobo from Tuesday night in one dish, pancit brought home from a weekend party in another, and the rest of those frozen honey barbecue buffalo wings we had heated up for lunch that day. It's not even uncommon for my family to serve leftover fish reheated in Tupperware alongside the turkey and cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving dinner. I don't think we've ever not had leftovers in the fridge at my house. Ever.

And I'm thankful for that. Because now I hate wasting food, and I'm always willing to bring leftovers for lunch, and sometimes I even look forward to reheated meals. I mean, we all love going back for seconds. But leftovers allow us to go back for thirds and fourths. Sure, maybe it's the next day, but there's just some meals that we can't get enough of.

For me...well, I have many favorites that I could eat over and over again. Nilaga is just one of them. Last time I made nilaga, I added carrots for color. This time, not a lot of color. But still delicious. So tasty, I ate it for dinner last night, then again for breakfast and lunch today.

Nilaga

That's right, I ate this stuff for breakfast. And after I finished off the rest for lunch, I still wanted more. Hey, Murdo rarely eats leftovers, and I can't be wasteful. Right?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Filipino comfort food: Chicken tinola

I spent last weekend at my parents' house. Whenever my sisters or I come home, we always put in requests for dinner. When Jenny was in college and I was still a high schooler living at home, my requests didn't quite matter as much. If I wanted kare-kare, I would have to wait until my sister came home the next weekend because she would likely be wanting that dish. Vegetable lumpia? Nilaga? Palabok? Wait 'til your sister comes home.

It got a bit frustrating. But once I moved out, it was my turn. And I take full advantage. Because let's face it: Favorite foods just aren't the same unless they're cooked in Mom and Dad's kitchen by Mom or Dad. Last Saturday, it was chicken tinola by Dad.

Tinola

Tinola is all about the chayote and the broth. The chicken doesn't even matter to me. I even like the dish cooked with mussels instead of chicken, which is how I usually make it -- just for a change, since I eat chicken so much anyway. But seriously, I would be content with simply a bowl of chayote and tinola broth.

Chayote has a very mild flavor that doesn't really contribute to tinola's overall taste -- I think the loads of fresh ginger takes care of that part. It's the texture, really. Kind of like cooked apples. But not as soft.

In the Philippines, my parents used papaya instead of chayote, and this time my Dad used both. I had a few bites of papaya and confidently declared chayote the better ingredient. Its skin is tough and when peeled, the chayote is a slippery sucker. I always have to be careful to not peel chayote over the garbage, since the damn thing could easily slip from my hands like a bar of wet soap and tumble into the hot mess below. And after lightly gripping the chayote, it leaves a dry, sticky, filmy feel on the hands. Kind of gross. But it's worth it. Tinola just isn't tinola without the chayote. Sometimes my parents use broccoli instead, and it just doesn't compare.

chayote squash

Jenny and I always thought the chayote looks like an old lady with no teeth? Or maybe that's just our weird imaginations...

Dad also added green bell peppers and pepper leaves, fresh from the garden. Served over steaming rice, of course.

Tinola

It was a hot and comforting meal, and just thinking about it on this cold, dreary Friday makes me crave a big bowl of it to warm my hands, my mouth, my insides, my fingertips, my toes...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Perfecting the omelet, Part 3: Success.

omelet 10.19.08

And so, after weeks of scrambling and sliding and flipping and spilling and cursing and eating, I've accomplished the perfect omelet -- at least in my eyes. Go ahead and argue what exactly makes a perfect omelet, but to me, it's a load of cheeses and goodies wrapped snugly in a bright blanket of perfectly cooked egg. Gooey, melty cheese pairs with crisp, slightly cooked vegetables and flavorful meats, with a layer of soft yet firm egg gently folded over them. But really, I suppose what it all comes down to is the perfect fold.

This post actually comes in two parts. The first part reflects on the night of that first perfect fold...

It was a random weeknight, a night of no cooking, a night I wasn't even that hungry, if you can believe that. For dinner I had tuna salad with crackers and a poached egg over field greens. Murdo wanted an omelet so, since I needed the practice, I made one for him. I had no idea this omelet was to be the one.

I used the usual fillings that are always in the fridge: onions, green peppers, pastrami, and cheese. Cooked the fillings beforehand, set aside, cooked the eggs, placed the goodies on one half of the pan and, slowly, slid the egg off the pan and onto a plate. At the last minute -- flip.

The omelet folded over perfectly.

I literally yelped (by "yelp" I mean gasped and squealed at the same time) and Murdo, who was in the kitchen with me, turned to see what on earth would cause me to make such a noise. I had just made the perfect omelet.

omelet

Honestly, I never knew an omelet could make me squeal and jump for joy. Who knew a girl could love eggs so damn much?

The second part of this post is told through pictures. On Sunday morning at Mom and Dad's house, I showed off my new skills and made omelets for my parents:

omelet 10.19.08
omelet 10.19.08
omelet 10.19.08

This last omelet was the third one I made and not-so-perfect at all. Taught me a lesson: When making many omelets, wipe the pan clean after each omelet, then add more butter. I didn't wipe and just added more butter each time, so by the time I got to the third, it started sticking to the cooked remnants on the skillet and the egg tore. I was devastated for about 45 seconds.

And then I ate the omelet, and all was well with the world.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Perfecting the omelet, Part 2: Almost

I'm getting there. The omelets on Sunday were an improvement from last week's. Since Murdo and I like our fillings more cooked than raw, I've decided that slightly cooking the fillings in butter beforehand is the way to go. I'm getting better at lifting the edges of the egg in the skillet and swishing the uncooked egg underneath, so as to avoid undercooked insides. When the egg is set, I add the fillings to half the skillet (the half opposite the handle). Then I attempt the slide-flip-fold method, which involves sliding half of the set omelet and fillings onto a plate and flipping the skillet over, thus folding the second half over the fillings.

Except that when the slide-flip-fold part came along, I panicked. I got scared that the egg would stick to the pan and and start tearing and the insides would spill over the edge like some sort of gory omelet explosion.

So I tried a different method: Fold the omelet while it's still in the skillet. Lesson learned: This method sucks. A heavy, overstuffed omelet is pretty tough to get out of the pan, at least for me. Lifting it with a spatula caused the ends to droop and bleed the goodies back into the pan. Sliding it out of the skillet caused the omelet to unfold upon reaching the plate. So I sort of lifted/slid the suckers out of the pan and ended up with lopsided omelets:

omelet
omelet with tomatoes

Again, tasty and satisfying. But not quite the perfect omelet I'm striving to achieve.

Getting there, though.

Monday, October 13, 2008

I ate this cheeseburger and it was amazing.

Eat. Me. Now.

That's right. I mean, just look at the thing. The colors alone are making me drool -- from the golden, lightly toasted and buttery potato bun to the subtle pink tints of that juicy juicy patty. JUICY. So juicy that the bottom bun is just slightly soggy, but still strong and firm enough to keep this bad boy stable from start to finish. Oh and I finished it, all right.

I heard about this new burger place in the loop when it first opened sometime over the summer. Marc Burger, located in the Seven on State food court at Macy's, and a five-minute walk from my office. While I'm a die-hard burger-lover through and through, I'm also a frugal luncher. Which is why it took me nearly three months to try this burger -- spending $10 on work lunch is just not my style.

But this cheeseburger was quite worth it. Worth braving the labyrinth of department store hell that is Macy's. Worth the $9.48 I forked over for a burger, seasoned fries, coleslaw, and pickles. Worth the ten to fifteen minutes spent waiting in line for my order. Worth all of it.

Let me get back to the juicy. The Marc Burger's "thing" is the all-natural Black Angus ground beef that makes up every patty. Now I'm going to be honest with you: When it comes to burgers, the fixings are just as important to me as the hamburger itself. Maybe even a bit more important; I'm not one to eat a burger with nothing on it. But the Marc Burger is all about the juicy. The tomato, pickle, red onion, cheese, and mustard are just lucky to even be on the same bun as such a juicy, delicious, perfectly-cooked hamburger. The juicy is what really amazed me in the end.

Marc Burger at Seven on State.

Quite possibly the best burger I've had in a very long time. And I eat a lot of burgers.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Perfecting the omelet: Part 1

I think I've got the poached egg down. Time to tackle the omelet.

I've faced omelets in the past, and each encounter ended with ugly results. I always end up with undercooked veggies sitting on a bed of burnt scrambled eggs. I can't even make an omelet in a so-called "omelet maker," which is supposed to do all the work for me but apparently one has to know how to use it before actually cooking omelets with it. I found one in a cabinet at Murdo's parents' house and decided it couldn't be that tough. Oh, I was wrong.

But seriously. It can't be that tough. With a little bit of practice, I think I can learn to make plump, savory, perfectly-cooked omelets for any meal of the day. I started with breakfast on Sunday.

The first was for Murdo. I used some simple instructions from CHOW and threw in onions, cheese, and pastrami as filling. I tried their fold-and-flip technique -- folding a third of the egg over the fillings, sliding the egg onto a plate, and flipping the other edge over the filling at the last minute. It didn't work. I attempted to fold, kind of flipped, and presented a plateful of not-omelet to Murdo. He laughed. I did not take a picture. (He still ate it and said it tasted fine, which I suppose is all that matters.)

The second turned out a little better. I only used two eggs. I slightly cooked the veggies in butter beforehand and set aside as I cooked the eggs. I only folded it in half. It turned out OK.

cheese, onion, and pastrami omelet

There is still hope.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Filipino comfort food: Chicken adobo

"To truly comfort, a food must function like a hug from your mother. It makes you feel all better."
- Bonny Wolf, Talking with My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes, and Other Kitchen Stories

I was talking to someone about writing just recently. He knows about my food blog and he knows I'm a writer, so he asked me what I write about. What I'm passionate about. "You know, besides food."

I got to thinking about that and didn't have an immediate response. Surely I'm passionate about something else, something more significant that just food. I felt a bit foolish for not having an answer. Is writing about food silly? Not as meaningful as some short story drenched with metaphors? Or a poem that bleeds political views? Or an article that reaches out to the oppressed people of the world?

Of course not. We were in a crowded bar, and I was put on the spot, and neither of us gave food the credit it deserves. I wish I had told him that. That a passion for food and writing about food isn't just a restaurant critique, or a recipe, or using descriptions like "bursting with flavor" or "oozy goodness." For me, food has become a type of vessel for addressing all of those other passions wandering around inside of me: the stories and memories and family and people and events and smells and emotions and traditions and comfort that food evokes. Sure, maybe I haven't quite learned how to maneuver this vessel yet, but I'm working on that.

Comfort food helps.

It's tough to write something really meaningful about a new food. It's tasty, and there's always a story behind it, and I love trying new things. But when it comes down to it, the comfort food is what really means something to me. Have you noticed? I often write the most when I make something from home. Chicken adobo is all about home.

chicken adobo

Chicken adobo is not my favorite food by any means. It's not even in my top five favorite Filipino dishes. Often considered a national dish of the Philippines, it's probably the one Filipino food that non-Filipinos have tried and liked, even loved. (That and maybe pancit or lumpia.) Unlike the peanut-butter-and-ox-tail combination of kare-kare or the gelatinous mutant coconut of halo-halo, chicken adobo is pretty simple and void of anything too bizarre. It's just chicken simmered in soy sauce, vinegar, water, and lots of garlic. Toss in a bay leaf and whole black peppercorns, and there you have it. There's not much not to like.

Which is why my mom cooks it every time she has anyone not Filipino over for dinner. And the fact that it's such an easy dish to make, and the vinegar preserves the chicken so that it can be eaten for days, explains why we ate it for dinner a lot. And then the leftovers for three days afterward. Adobo became a dish that I'm not too crazy about because I ate it so damn much.

So the comfort doesn't come just from eating the adobo, but more from cooking it. It can be made with any meat, usually chicken or pork. I only eat and cook chicken adobo, since the pork tends to get dry and just not as good. The chicken should be bone-in, as much of the flavor and texture derives from the bone. Chicken adobo is the one of the first meals I learned to cook.

I started cooking for myself my sophomore year of college, when I had my first kitchen. I cooked chicken adobo for me and my roommates. It's easy to add a few more pieces of chicken for whoever is hungry. It's almost impossible to mess up. It's a dish that can be thrown together and left to cook on its own for an hour. It's always a crowd pleaser. And there's nothing more comforting than studying for an exam and suddenly being enveloped in the strong aroma of garlic, soy sauce, and vinegar, and knowing that a hot, home-cooked meal is waiting for you when you close your textbooks. It's all about that smell. And I didn't realize it until I moved out of the house. Suddenly, 200 miles away from home, I was there, in my mother's kitchen. That smell is a hug from home.

Of course, I can never make it like my mom's. Her sauce is thicker. Her chicken is juicier and is more, oh, "bursting with flavor." But I don't mind. I often make the dish all wrong, anyway -- using only chicken breasts (my sister is cringing right now) and not marinating the meat overnight (adobo is one of those dishes that tastes better the next day). I also make way more sauce, as the roommates that I've cooked for have declared that spooning tons of sauce over the steamed rice is the best part. But however I make it, the smell is always the same: comforting.

chicken adobo

And yes, it tastes good, too.