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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Other Side of Cebu

Cebu, dubbed as the Queen City of the South in the Philippines, is best known as a vacation spot because of its pristine white beaches that are not far away from the city lights. However, unlike 3 or 4 years ago when I just stayed buried in the fine white sand, my trip this time around was met with cloudy skies and occasional rain. And, I was nowhere near any seashore. Nevertheless, my short stay was equally relaxing.

This time around, my husband and I stayed right in the middle of downtown Cebu, billeted at this modest hotel run by the University of San Carlos called The Carolinian Inn, and staffed by students taking up Hotel and Restaurant Management courses at the University. The school hotel or ˝schotel˝ as they refer to it, take up one side of the second floor of the original University building on Pelaez Street. Each room, like the one we stayed in, is handsomely appointed with indigenous Cebuana materials like the bamboo panel as headboard, platform bed made of sturdy molave wood, natural fiber weaved rugs, and rattan furnishings that went well with the original high ceilings and windows that reminded me of those little hotels in Paris, or in the south of France, like Beausoleil.

At PhP1,200/night (breakfast at PhP160/pax), our room was really cozy for rainy weather. While the University cafe was erratic (sometimes its open, sometimes its not in the afternoons), the warm and accommodating schotel staff can facilitate food deliveries, and other little errands for you. And so my afternoons were spent like that of a lazy cat’s, taking advantage of the solitude and pitter patter of rain. There are of course the occasional honking from the jeeps and the hollering of conductors from the street outside, but all these get easily shelved in the recesses of my mind (wow, i think that came from a song somewhere..)

Lounging in my cozy hotel room was nonetheless peppered with visits to restaurants for
satisfying dinners. What’s great about Cebu is that you do get that quality for just a few of your pesos. One such place is Casa Verde and their fabulous Angus steaks at around PhP200 or so per plate. They are also quite popular for their barbequed pork ribs (served with rice and vegetable side), for which my husband can give a testament to. I enjoyed my tenderloin prepared as Steak John Paul, with mashed potatoes that are creamy so it melts in the mouth, and a side of crunchy just cooked vegetables. Surprisingly, all that with fried calamares as appetizer, two rounds of vodka martini and other drinks, only cost us under a thousand. This despite the fact that it’s in an upper crust mall as the Ayala Terraces. No wonder there’s always a line outside.

While malls, big and small, are within spitting distance of each other in this buzzing
provincial city, one must not forget to try out stand alone traditional Cebuano restaurants like AA Barbeque Grill. AA has branches splattered across the metro, but any branch offers the same menu, but some more than the others. AA offers the novelty of allowing you to choose the particular food item to be grilled, that’s brought on display fresh, plus other short order items that you can ask from the waitstaff like their miki noodles. We chose the popular baked scallops that is both succulent and creamy brought to you smeared in butter and garlic. Sizzling squid came to us in a sizzling plate happily doused in this special sauce AA is proud of. From the grill, we just had to have the spicy version of chorizo de Cebu and some chicken gizzard and liver. AA also serves a good concoction of their mixed juices and their iced tea is always shaken, not stirred. They certainly know how to mix the flavors well. My husband and I might have kissed our diets goodbye, but having seafood and grilled items do not come too heavy on the digestion; it was just good food served fresh and simple.

Leaving Cebu cannot be done without having their otap, fresh or dried mangoes, and dried squid in hand for one’s own consumption or as gifts to friends and relatives back home. But the message is clear, you want something of Cebu to take with you. And despite the fact that I’ve been to Cebu several times before, I simply just keep coming back for more.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Get Up and Go

For most Filipinos, Hong Kong is the usual destination if one just wants a few days out of the country, the travel time is short, and the place has something to offer for everyone. So it was for us one weekend. The centerpiece of the trip though, was to return to Disneyland, and have another bite of those black and white mickey waffles which somehow stayed on in my daughter’s memory for six years.

Hong Kong is actually an easy city to navigate. It is one of the tourist and children friendly places I know. But unlike Manila, where the pace is slower, one is required to be quicker on the uptake. And unlike Manila, where things are informal, Hong Kong kind of requires you to dress up starting on the smart casual side.

To maximize my trip, I read up on the place a bit more than when I was there on two occasions. I find the MTR routes easier to understand, and quite faster of course as it can take us in between islands faster than their taxis or buses (what with the city traffic going on). A case in point would be when on the afternoon of our arrival, we headed off to Lantau Island to reach Po Lin Monastery. My companions and I bought the Octopus card with the standard HK$100 value plus the HK$50 deposit, which can be used just about anywhere to pay for your MTR, bus or even taxi rides, and some dining and retail establishments as well. Coming from Kowloon, more specifically the area of Tsim Sha Tsui, it was quite a long way towards Tun Chung, but we were able to cover it in around 20 minutes via the MTR. From there, we treated ourselves to a ride on the cable cars called the Skyrail, and take in the breath taking views of the Lantau Island skyline over the top of the mountains that dotted our way toward Ngong Ping.

The Po Lin Monastery was founded in 1906 as a religious retreat. On top of this structure sits

the Tian Tan Buddha, said to be the world’s tallest seated outdoor Buddha made of bronze. The Buddha itself weighs 250 tonnes and sits high at 34 meters or 110 feet. One can see a glimpse of it from the cable car hundreds of meters away. It’s quite a challenge to climb the steps toward the Buddha, but reaching the top comes highly recommended and enjoy the view at your own leisure.

While we would have loved to be able to sample the vegetarian dishes being offered at the canteen style restaurants at the foot of the temple, we weren’t able to make it as they usually close at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. I take it that this would be another reason to come back and bring other people to share in the experience. Po Lin Monastery is off the usual tourist track, but quite a number have discovered it, and offers a refreshing view of Hong Kong, quite more tranquil than the city center buzz that comes 24/7.

We went back to Kowloon that evening to catch the Symphony of Lights that happen every 8 in the evening at the Victoria Harbour facing Hong Kong Island, with background music supplied by local bands to accompany what should be one exciting light show. We were, however, disappointed. Nothing came off from the skyscrapers except what looked like a random play of multi colored lights that just went on and off here and there. I didn’t get a feel that there was a show at all. So there we were, flat footed from all that walking, hungry, and cold.

We opted to go off towards Temple Street Night Market for some serious bargain hunting and eating. The place, however, proved to be another disappointment as well. Maybe because I’m Filipino, but the merchandise on sale weren’t anything new to me. I can find the same things back home, and at dirt cheap prices to boot. Most vendors didn’t even lower their prices significantly to consider haggling worth while. So except for a few toys, and children’s wallets/purses, the night market for me, was a bust.

Another main attraction in Hong Kong would be to eat dim sum. It is nothing short of a
requirement to eat it where it is made famous, even as there are hundreds of Chinese restaurants in Metro Manila alone. For an affordable and authentic sampling, we went to Jade Garden, located at the 4th floor of Star House, 9 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. It offers dim sum specialties from 10am until 5pm. It pays to come early enough for the lunch hour to get a table with a good view of Victoria Harbour. Service is fast and friendly, and serves exactly what I was expecting of what a dimsum should be. It was just the right thing to cap off our weekend visit.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Just Salt

We had another quiet, simple weekend, just spent with my daughter and husband. While Saturday was efficiently spent doing the weekly groceries, and driving my daughter to and from her violin lessons and ending with Mass in the early evening, our Sunday began with brunch of Filipino tapsi (combination of breakfast sweet meat, fried rice and fried egg) at this place we recently discovered called Deo’s Hideaway Bar, just a 5 minute drive from our house. It is situated at one of the high points of our area quite near the Provincial Hall with a really great panoramic view of Metro Manila, from Muntinlupa on the left to Quezon City and Marikina on the right. Just sitting there and taking everything in was therapeutic by itself.

In the spirit of going back to basics, it was also timely that a week before, I already planned on trying out a different recipe for Hainanese Chicken Rice for dinner. My old recipe called for salting the chicken, and stuffing the cavity with ginger and lemongrass, then boiling the chicken until it was cooked through. With this method, I usually ended up with chicken that was dull, got too flaky, and the skin all torn up.

However, this new discovery of mine required prepping the chicken by rubbing it all over with kosher salt. In my case, since I wasn’t able to make a quick drop at the supermarket for kosher salt, I just used rock salt (I’m not sure if they’re actually the same thing), which worked just as fine. Rubbing the chicken all over and inside the cavities definitely made the chicken and its skin all firm and glossy, and certainly contributed to producing a better broth, both in appearance (one ends up skimming off white colored scum, instead of brown), and taste (clean chicken flavor). It is also desirable to have a rice cooker for preparing the rice dish as it will substantially cut your labor time. I used jasmine rice for this version, but any long grain variety will do. However, jasmine rice is already aromatic by itself and it is ideal for this dish. I further enhanced the flavor and aroma by adding a few leaves of pandan (screw pine) into the rice cooker and the result was all heavenly flavor and aroma.

The first few bites into the chicken, and few sips of broth certainly confirmed why this much loved Singaporean dish is named as its national dish, and getting to be more popular here as can be seen by restaurants sprouting like mushrooms offering this as their special.

Considering that I cooked double the recipe of this dish as I was going to try it out for the first time on 8 people, it took me three hours to cook everything alone — from the chopping to the scrubbing to the boiling and plating. But now that I’ve already gone through the whole thing once, I am now familiar with it and will probably be able to cook the same dish for a shorter period next time. Don’t be daunted by my experience here. Hainanese Chicken just needs a bit more care in preparing and cooking, but the reward of a simple, flavorful and invigorating dish is well worth it.

The Chicken

1 whole chicken (organic if available)
kosher salt (or rock salt)
4˝ section of ginger cut in 1/4˝ slices
spring onion (both green & white parts)
3 cloves garlic, crushed with some skin on
1 tsp or so of sesame oil

The Rice

2 Tbsp. chicken fat or vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1˝ section of ginger, finely minced
2 cups long grain or Jasmine rice soaked in water for 10 mins. or longer
2 cups reserved chicken broth
1/2 tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. kosher salt
pandan leaves

The Chili Sauce

1 Tbsp. lime juice
2 Tbsp. reserved chicken broth
2 tsp. sugar
4 Tbsp. Sriracha chili sauce
4 cloves garlic
1˝ ginger
generous pinch of salt to taste

For the Table

1/4 cup dark soy sauce
few sprigs cilantro
1 cucumber sliced into bite sized chunks

1. To clean chicken, rub with salt to rid of loose skin and dirt. Wash and pat dry inside and out. Season generously with salt inside and out.
2. Stuff chicken cavity with crushed garlic, ginger and spring onions. Place in stockpot and fill with water just covering the chicken. Let boil over high heat, then immediately turn heat to low and keep to a simmer. Cook for about 30 minutes more (depending on the size of the chicken).
3. Check for doneness by sticking a fork or chopstick into the flesh under the leg and see if juices run clear, or insert a thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh without touching the bone. It should read 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. When chicken is done, transfer to a container prepared with ice water and soak to stop the cooking process and allow to cool. Reserve the chicken broth to serve as soup, for cooking rice & preparing the chili sauce.

5. For the rice, drain the water. In a wok or saucepan, heat 2 Tbsp. oil over medium high heat. When hot, add ginger and garlic and fry until fragrant. Make sure not to burn the aromatics.
6. Add drained rice and stir to coat. Cook for 2 minutes, add sesame oil and mix well.
7. If cooking rice on stovetop, in the same saucepan where you are frying the rice, add 2 cups of reserved chicken broth, add salt and pandan leaves if using, and let boil uncovered. Immediately turn heat down to low, cover the pot and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit (with lid still on) for 5 to 10 minutes, to allow residual heat to finish the cooking.
8. If cooking rice in rice cooker, after frying, pour aromatics and rice into rice cooker, add 2 1/2 cups reserved chicken broth and salt. Fold 2 to 3 pandan leaves together, if using, and insert in the rice. Turn on your rice cooker and allow it to cook your rice accordingly.
9. While rice is cooking, remove chicken from ice bath and rub outside of chicken with sesame oil. Carve chicken for serving.
10. For chili sauce, blend all ingredients in the blender until smooth and bright red in color. Prepare soup by adding salt as needed and serve hot.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Deliciously Simple

It’s been months! How time flies when one procrastinates. Which is not a really good habit by the way, but there you have it. However, considering that things are slowing down a bit for the business as the school year is ending, it is also the time that I can also sit still for an hour or so and finally share something here.

From November last year until February this year, everything just came whizzing by me that all I could do was just pick up and run after whatever it is. I keep telling myself, ˝Tomorrow I’ll write˝ or ˝Hey, this is a good dish. Will share this later.˝ But never got around to doing it. But it was a very fulfilling Christmas season, and start of the New Year.

For my friends out there who know more than most people about what’s going on with me, they knew that Heaven’s Country Kitchen was invited to become a full time concessionaire at this school where we are operating. Hence, aside from my usual brunch offerings (pancakes, waffles, french toasts), we are offering lunch, sandwiches and pasta dishes. I’m very thankful that the students welcomed our entry by patronizing us often, and it’s been quite thrilling for me to plan the weekly menu that is not the usual thing you get from your school canteen. So far, the students’ favorites have been my standby as with other clients and friends: the Korean Beef Stew, the Beef Salpicado, the Pasta Carbonara, the Crispy Pork Chops or Chicken Fillets with Cranberry or Cheese Sauce. And, there are a few discoveries too like the Spinach and Cheese Ravioli with Pomodoro made from molo wrappers, the sticky barbeque chicken wings served with baked mushroom rice, and the Pizzas Margherita or 2 Cheese & Garlic made from 10 inch flour tortillas that come out of the oven flavorful and crispy, much like the Roman pizzas we enjoy in the Eternal City.

Not that I am not advocating love and enjoyment of Filipino food, I just noticed that the food offerings there lacked variety. And so what I offered was really just alternatives, and healthier alternatives at that. When budget allows, I would use corn or olive oil, or insert vegetable ingredients here and there without hiding them. And surprisingly, when we offered green salads, students would prefer it for their snacks or as sides to their lunch plates, whether they brought their own or bought it from either concessionaire.

Nothing beats the feeling I get when I make people happy with the food I prepare or cook for them, because I enjoy making or conceptualizing those dishes too.

In the spirit of simplicity, I recently introduced home made cream puffs into the mix of products I offer the students. I had to sell them at P20/piece which is 50% more expensive than what the other concessionaire was selling, but this is justified because my batch is home made and authentic due to the cream patissiere. The P10–cream puffs do not have a filling (which would probably shock the French – cream puffs with no cream?!)

One good thing about this divine pastry is that you dont need any special equipment to be able to make them, just a cookie sheet and an oven. The choux pastry is also versatile as this is the same recipe you use for making Spanish churros and dip in thick, hot chocolate or profiteroles.

Choux Pastry

1 cup water
1/2 cup butter, softened and cut into cubes
1 cup all purpose flour
4 eggs

Creme Patissiere (Cream Filling)

1 can evaporated milk or fresh milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup all purpose flour
2 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1 tsp. vanilla

Sugar Syrup

1 cup boiling water
1 cup sugar

1. Make Choux Pastry: Heat water and sugar in a casserole until you reach a rolling boil. Add flour and mix it in immediately with a wooden spoon until it forms into a ball.
2. Take the pot out of the heat and beat in eggs one at a time until each egg is fully incorporated into the batter.
3. Spoon the batter into balls and place in ungreased cookie sheet. Place the choux pastry in the oven which has been preheated to 350 degrees or gas mark 6. Bake for 40 minutes or until pastry is cooked and golden on top. Remove from oven and let cool. Once cooled, slice into the pastry half way through the middle and set aside.
4. Make the Cream Filling: Boil milk and sugar in a pot over low heat while stirring constantly.
5. Once sugar is mixed well, add the flour and continue to stir allowing the mixture to boil, and thickened slightly into a cream consistency. Remove from heat.
6. Add half the cream mixture into the beaten egg yolks until mixed together, then pour the egg mixture back into the remaining cream mixture in the pot and put back into a low fire, stirring constantly, until it reaches to a boil once more.
7. Remove from heat and add vanilla flavoring. Set aside to cool.
8. Make the sugar syrup: Melt sugar in a separate pot over low fire until it turns brown.
9. Slowly pour the hot water while stirring constantly and continue to cook in low fire until thickened. Set aside.
10. Assembly: Fill the cream filling into the middle part of the choux pastry, as in a sandwich, and repeat with remaining pastry. Line them up on top of wax paper sheets. Pour the sugar syrup over each cream puffs and serve.

This recipe makes 1 dozen cream puffs.