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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Gooooood Morning, Vietnam! (part 1)

Well, it was more like, good morning, Hanoi. 

In a word?  It would take more than one word to describe the charming, culture-rich, vibrant and proud city, and anyone who has ever been there will surely agree. 

My family and I did not go the way of the tourist path and scheduled a trip to Halong Bay.  Instead, we concentrated on the food and culture of the city limits of the Hoan Kiem (old quarter) and the Ba Dinh districts.  But dont get us wrong, Hanoi is such a wonder that its worth a return trip, and we promised ourselves that we will go on a Halong Bay cruise the second time around.

The only thing that marred this vacation was the airline we took to get there and back home - Cebu Pacific Air.  On both occasions there was a 30-minute to an hour delay on our flight, the administration jostled us from one gate to another regarding our point of embarkation, and the unfortunate situation of being seated next to one of the exits in the plane so that you are not allowed to recline your seats during this dead-of-night flight.  As with all other airlines, they get rid of seats that are in the way of the exits so why can't they just do the same with Cebu Pacific planes?  And we did notice that like in their domestic flights, they seem to always apologize for the delay and offer that they "will make it up to you in other future flights", but they never do as they are always veritably guilty of some form of inconvenience anyway.  As this was our first time to use this airline for a trip abroad, we now know better, and will just have to book our flight on another airline instead.  It may cost more with the competitor, but as the saying goes, you will get what you pay for.

But all that aside, our stay in Hanoi was rewarded with many valuable things such as the very helpful hotel staff at the 3-star Nam Hai Hotel on Duong Than Street, almost right next to the Vietnam Theatre that showcases traditional Vietnamese productions.  We discovered Nam Hai through the Agoda website and booked our stay through this facility.  Since our early morning arrival in the city, we had to book a day earlier to ensure that we had cozy beds waiting for us.  Nevertheless, our entire stay of 4 days and 3 nights in a family room including breakfast only cost us around Php7,000.00 (USD166), I consider this a steal. 

Nam Hai is a family-run hotel, with two other branches within the old quarter.  The staff was led by Mr. Luc who can help you with your sightseeing needs and advice on how much should your taxi fare be to reach your destination. They can coordinate with different tours for what you are looking for, including Halong Bay cruises.  The front desk also gives you a good deal for exchanging foreign currency (preferrably in US dollars).  Take a copy of the hand-made map they have at the lobby and ask to be directed to go-to places for beef pho or bun cha and the staff will gladly mark these for you.  While the hotel interior looks dated (heavy wooden panelling and tiles suggests 1970s mod), their breakfast buffet is more than sufficient and the coffee absolutely worth taking three helpings full.

Our first day was taken languidly at the Hoan Kiem Lake and surrounding area.  It was best seen from a view up above at the City View Cafe on the fourth floor of Sieu Thi Building, Bo Ho Street.  There I had my first taste of the classic Caphe Sua Da (iced coffee with  condensed milk), while my husband had two bottles of Ha Noi Beer and my daughter, a tall glass of mango milkshake.  The wind that blew right at our faces out on the terrace was a welcome respite from the humid weather and the walk that took us there.

If you came to Hanoi ill-prepared (i.e., you didn't buy your own Lonely Planet guidebook or you weren't able to download maps from google), you need not worry since there's a big tourist information office on the ground floor of the City View Cafe and you can just grab a map and other booklets/brochures for free and can plan your itinerary from there.

As we were nearer the northern part of the lake, we trooped over to the Ngoc San (translated to Jade Mountain) Temple accessed via a red wooden bridge called "The Huc" or the "Flood of the Morning Sunlight" visible anywhere within the lake's vicinity.  The temple itself dates back to the 14th century although the current buildings were probably built in the 18th century.  It was dedicated to their hero Tran Hung Dao who led his men to defeat a force of 300,000 sent to invade Vietnam by Mongol  Emperor Kublai Khan.  There are also altars set up in the area dedicated to scholars Van Xuong and La To, patron saints of physicians.

After that, we walked the perimeter of the lake and crossed the street to Nha Chung on the lake's west side to look for St. Joseph's Cathedral.  It was quite easy to find as its neo-gothic structure loomed over the other buildings in the commercial area.  The church's architecture is patterned after the Notre Dame of Paris and is the seat of the archdiocese of Hanoi.  Inside, the walls were surrounded with stained glass windows that provided natural light and air, while showcasing the well-preserved altar of the Catholic church.  The diocese holds two masses during weekdays and seven during Sundays and can be quite busy and super crowded during this time and on holidays.  It's another place worth the effort of going just to catch your breath if not to refresh your soul with a little prayer or two. 

We then proceeded to buy tickets to see the ancient art of water puppeteering at the Thang Long Theatre.  It costs VND100,000 (USD50/Php200) for adults and VND70,000 for children.  It can get pretty crowded and the airconditioning on a hot, humid day may just not be enough, but it's well worth to go and see to get a taste of Vietnamese folk art and music.

Dinner had us looking for beef pho and got it at Gia Thian on 49 Bat Danh Street.  We had to go back and forth though because it was quite easy to miss it.  Despite the dinghy interior and fruit flies swimming in the open pitcher of vinegar sauce, we had to admit that it was one of the best tasting beef rice noodle soup we ever tasted.  It was presented slightly different from what we were used to back in Manila as there were no side dishes of herbs, lemon and bean sprouts.  We were to learn later that what we are accustomed to back home is the Saigon style with the broth slightly sweet, while Hanoi cooking is more subtle and beefy with all the herbs already right there in your bowl of soupy goodness.  Take note that according to the locals you should not pay more than VND40,000 (US$20/Php80) for any kind of good pho.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

More of Rizal and the Miracle of the Multiplying Pancit

It was one of those weekends when my family had nothing to do; nothing planned but was looking for something to do other than trooping to the nearest mall.  And so driving out of our subdivision one Sunday afternoon, there was a decision that had to be made:  turn left to go to the mall, or turn right to look for this Daranak Falls that we learned about from someone?

We turned right going towards Tanay, Rizal.

Road trips on east of Manila have always been a respite since the highway can be seen stretching for miles (or kilometers, but only to attempt at lyricism), without your sight being adulterated with traffic jams.  Instead, you are escorted by acacia trees on your left and right with branches overhanging in an arch as you get a glimpse of perfectly delineated rice fields in between their trunks.  There are the occasional two or three-story buildings but they don’t interrupt your thoughts.

At this cross road, we turned left and eventually saw the big sign of Daranak Falls.  We soon find that our destination is farther down a mixture of concrete and dirt roads, but mostly of the latter, as the place has not recovered from the devastation of typhoon Ondoy two years back. 

As we neared the entrance, we soon learned that we are not the only ones who thought of coming here. There were already quite a number of families and groups of young people, and more arriving after us carrying their picnic baskets.  This is also a usual venue for rock balancing competitions and crossing the bridge over a brook towards the falls, we could see quite a number of balanced rocks exhibitions and a few more being constructed at the moment.  I preferred the ones that were successfully standing in the middle of the water.  It had a Zen-like quality to it.

While the walk to our destination was quite precarious – one needs to balance oneself carefully in view of the rocky pathways and the necessity to weave through groups of people that haphazardly settled themselves wherever – we were rewarded by a majestic view of the waterfalls pouring down heavily in the pool below, with a depth of 22 feet.  We were told that there is also an underwater cave, so if you're thinking of cooling yourself here, and are not adept at swimming, better attach yourself to a floater.  There were already a number of people who were bathing there, but who could blame them?  The weather was hot and the water was clear and cool.  Despite the crowd, the continuous blast of water crashing down to the river below resounded in my ears and had a calming effect.  I think one can even perch on the edge of one rock and spend hours being transfixed by the moving water.  I felt privileged that a sight to behold such as this is within reasonable distance from where we live.  Just one of the perks of not living in a very metropolitan city I suppose.

The view and sound of the waterfalls, the smell of food being barbequed, and the little walk up and down rocky paths made us quite hungry.  While Daranak has a small canteen, and offered sandwiches, chips and drinks, it was still inadequate for our taste.  Thus, we thought of ending our visit and drive back towards Morong where we saw a sign for a restaurant called Paseo Rizal.

Going to Morong proved faster than we thought.  The road to the restaurant was just off the highway, and the place itself was very near.  The restaurant was sitting on elevated land in the middle of a rice field and had an unfinished block of building as a neighbor.  A sandy driveway led up to the main entrance, cut in the middle by a pathway made of greenery and stone.  The restaurant building itself was more like a Tagalog bahay-na-bato (stone house) with a touch of modern. 

The waiter greeted us at the entrance, but instead of seating us in one of the tables inside, he suggested that we settle ourselves at the back where there was a terrace and the air fresher and cooler.  We took it up and we were not disappointed.  There was a big dining table surrounded by smaller coffee tables with carriage or kalesa wheels converted into seats for two to three, and a rocking chair.  It was an ideal place to have a small party with you there.

Paseo Rizal is actually more of a weekender venue.  Busy times are usually on Friday and Saturday afternoons for the happy hour which starts at 5 o’clock, and live band performances in the evenings.  However, they are open as early as the lunch hour on other days serving Filipino fare and sizzling plates.  For our part, we decided to have the calamares fritos and French fries as appetizers, a hamburger for me, fried chicken for my husband, and a sizzling tenderloin steak for my daughter.  We also had the pancit canton (noodles) just because.  While the service was a bit slow (we suspect that the waiter had to call the cook from way over yonder since we were the only ones at the restaurant at that hour), but we didn’t mind as we enjoyed the fresh air and the bright sunny sky.  We weren’t disappointed with the food though, as it was generously served and competently prepared.  The pancit, however, made quite an impression.  Not only was it tasty, but between my husband and I who each had probably a cup of serving, we were amazed at how much was still left over for a dish that was supposed to feed only three people.  Hence, we dubbed it “The Miracle of the Multiplying Pancit.”

Clearly, it was the kind of place you bring your group of friends and stuff yourselves with bottles of beer, and perhaps, if indeed you were there on a weekend, you will have a live band performing OPM (original Pilipino music) songs in the background. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Dukan Diet: the real food diet

What with all the many diet programs out there, a person who would really like to enroll himself/herself into one will surely get confused, especially if one is earnest in his/her resolve to already engage in a healthier lifestyle.  I remember in the late '80s and well into the '90s, there was the 3-day diet, then there was the Cabbage Soup Diet, and even the Mayo Clinic Diet, which later on, the Mayo Clinic itself had to advertise a disclaimer that such a diet was not even prescribed by them apparently, as it called for eating eggs and bacon everyday for breakfast and all other basically fatty foods for the rest of the day, of which half a grapefruit will save you.  Then as the new millenium kicked in, there was the Atkins Diet, the Zone Diet and finally, the South Beach Diet, the latter of which came out to be the longer-standing and widest following,  and therefore, the most successful so far.  If one studies the principles behind the South Beach Diet (SBD),  one would find that the program is really based on the proper allocation of nutrition, the ratio of protein to carbo, and this whole business once more of accounting for calories for each of the meal you take.  Oh, but you do get to have snacks in between meals which is a life-saver.

Oh, I've tried all of these - even the Mayo Clinic Diet.  Except for the Atkins, however.  I came to know of it quite late in the day actually, and after I've seen its effects on the actor Ethan Hawke (who by the way, shares the same exact birthday as mine), and the studies that were conducted on it, I was glad that I didn't know about Atkins sooner. 

Of all these diets I've tried, I must say that the most effective for me in terms of obtaining the results, was the 3-day Diet.  I did lose 7 pounds in 3 days, and my waste got smaller - 3 inches was not so bad.  But I could not sustain it.  I got so hungry after the third day that I got back what I lost.  And more, including sugar spikes whenever I get hungry.  So the lesson learned there was that the 3-day diet was only good if you need to go into that LBD (little black dress) for a party real quick.

But as the years crept on, the pounds came with it as well.  I also had high blood sugar and was already experiencing sensations on both my arms, and creaky joints whenever I eat eggplant, peanuts and fruits with seeds like strawberries, including tomatoes.  My husband also complained that I was a notoriously polyphonic snorer, which was already unusual. This was also aggravated by a lifestyle of eating out a lot.  Hello, food and travel blogger?

Shortly in the heels of the popularity of "French Women Don't Get Fat", I got wind of the Dukan Diet developed by Dr. Pierre Dukan, a French medical practicioner in general medicine and specializing in neurology for paraplegic children.  While you might think that this is but another new craze in the jungle of many diet crazes, I was surprised to find out that he developed this diet program as early as  I heard somewhere that Kate Middleton, before her marriage to Prince William, got herself ready for the big day and into the tight bodice of her wedding dress by going through Dr. Dukan's program.

Unlike the Cohen Diet, where, if you're in Manila, you will have to shell out an initial amount of around Php55,000 for your medical consult (plus more for that now indispensable weighing scale), the Dukan Diet is a self-help program which you can start with just a few pesos first and whatever is in your pantry right now.

First of course, you have to understand the principle behind the Dukan Diet.  It is an alternative protein diet which at first glance you might find similar to the Zone and SBD, and like the SBD, it has four phases.  However, the period for the first phase is shorter than the SBD since it will only take the dieter five days to complete it at the most.  The rest of the phase would depend on the amount of weight you want to lose.

Second, the Dukan Diet requires you to make a life-long commitment to it.  Don't get me wrong though, it is not as stringent as it sounds.  But if you will be patient, this will be explained later on.

The first phase is what Dr. Dukan calls the Attack Phase.  Depending on the amount of weight you want to lose, you can go through this phase from 3 to 5 days of eating an all protein meal plan.  There is a list of foods you can eat exclusively during this period, but the good thing about it is that there's no calorie counting, ingredient weighing, or any limit as to the amount of food that you like. 

In my case, for my build and height, my ideal weight is 135 lbs.  Before I started the Dukan Diet, I was 180 lbs already!  I followed the diet plan to the letter, and after 5 days, I lost 7 lbs, my skin got smoother (my adult acne was gone) and developed a healthy glow, my body got tighter, my snoring was gone, my bloodsugar reached normal levels, no more creaking joints, and I just felt generally better and happier.  People at the office noticed the difference right away and were very encouraged by my example.  Thus, my diet group was born.

I then started to prepare meals for my group of 10 (including me) according to the principles and some recipes of Dr. Dukan and deliver these to them everyday.  What made the diet program bearable was that we have our support group that encouraged and motivated each other to keep the lifestyle change up.  There were of course different results from each of us - some lost significant weight (3 to 5 lbs.), others lost inches (2-4 inches), but all lost their water weight and all had healthy glowing skin.  One of them, who had already high LDL bad cholesterol levels, was very determined to change this

We are all already in the second phase which is the Cruising Phase or Alternating Protein Diet.  Here, we alternate the days between an all protein meal plan and protein and vegetable meal plan starting on the 6th day.  So far, I have lost a total of 12 lbs. and my dress size was reduced from 18 (euro) to 12 (euro).  One of my friends who joined me in this lifestyle change had high LDL and bad cholesterol levels and weighed 140 lbs.  After two weeks, she lost 12 lbs. and her cholesterol and LDL levels were already within the normal range.  She now looks fantastic, and even more so that she is staying on the diet and complementing it with daily 20-minute walks with her husband.

My friends and I still have a long way to go but we are definitely sticking to this program.  We have regained a little of the weight we have lost due to the Christmas season, and of course, female hormones still have a play in the scheme of things, but one of the good things about the Dukan Diet is it is effective in influencing you to assimilate its principles into your eating habits that you now tend to make the right choices in your food intake.  The diet now becomes a part of who you are.  Another good thing about this program is that, if you ever fall off the wagon, you can get right back up on it and there's no immediate damage.  The reason behind this is because you are eating real food which equals nourishment.

Whether you need more convincing or are already sold to the idea, stay tuned in my next post as I write about the Dukan Diet in more detail, with recipes. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Weekend Roast

It was during one of those days that I was browsing through a back issue of Bon App├ętit (September 2011) that I came to this major article on the Italian Porchetta.  The photos made the dish look very appetizing, and it so much reminded me of the Filipino Crispy Pata (pork leg) that usually accompanies our Kare Kare (oxtail stew with peanut sauce).  However, instead of deep frying the pork leg, the porchetta uses pork tenderloin wrapped around by a big spread of pork belly and roasted in a very hot oven for 2 hours. 

The photo was the only impetus for me to try cooking this dish.  I had qualms regarding how it would actually taste since my experience of eating porchetta was only limited to a generous slice served as a sandwich at the Christmas Fair in Piazza Navona in Rome.  A memory of eating this dish was only remembered because it left me wondering what the fuss was all about. But then, I was willing to give it another try and so I went forward and studied the recipe to prepare my grocery list for the ingredients and get an idea how much time I would need to prepare and cook it.

Instead of copying the recipe here, I encourage you to try the link on this page to Bon Appetit Magazine as highlighted since that's where I got mine.   There are two things you have to assure yourself in preparing this dish: first, the procedure is not as difficult or complicated as it sounds; and second, seeing your porchetta perfectly roasted with the skin crunchy to the bite is the reward here.  Maybe I should add a third:  your family or your guests will certainly enjoy the uniquely clean and sweet-spicy flavor of the tender meat that will keep them going for their second and probably third helpings.  It's definitely a dish to be shared with a table full of people who will equally enjoy each morsel as you would.  Guaranteed!

For my table, I served the porchetta with a Filipino-style Onion Soup (Filipino style because instead of using wine, I used San Miguel Pale Pilsen) and a Salad of lettuce, tomatoes and alfalfa sprouts with mango vinaigrette.  This flavor spread was accompanied by a refreshing bottle of Joseph Drouhin Chassagne-Montrachet 2003, which is perfect for the Philippines' tropical weather.  For dessert, a slice each of store-bought Chocolate Mousse.  The meal was a perfect weekender.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Cocktail Hour

A favorite time for my husband and I during a work week would be that time we arrive home and just before dinner.  No specific hour actually, because it all depends on the traffic going home.  Ideally however, it'll be that "witching" hour of just before 6 in the evening, when the sun is blood orange and the air is cooler and just maybe, a promise of a drizzle, but not quite forthcoming.

Well, that's the beauty of living in the mountains - with a scenic route going home, we got to realize that we've graduated from having to slosh with strangers in bars for our quick fix of favorite poison and some munchies.  We have the mountains at our feet and the sky up above, and in between, well.., our table of appetizers and maybe a kir royale, if we have the ingredients in stock.

Cheese Sticks with a twist

This was a staple in the '80s among the college crowd having a party.  But this time we added jalapenos to add some kick.

1 pack lumpia (spring roll) wrapper, small size
cheddar cheese sliced into 20 or so thick matchsticks
   alternatively, you can use cream cheese
preserved jalapeno peppers, sliced
a small bowl with water
For the Dip:
1/4 cup tomato ketchup
1/4-1/3 cup light mayonnaise
ground pepper, paprika (optional)

1.  Separate spring roll wrapper from each other, and put one wrapper flat on a plate.  Place one cheese matchstick near the bottom end of the wrapper, leaving a space around 1/4 in. from the rim.
2.  Place jalapeno slices on top of the cheese matchsticks. The number would depend on taste.  Fold the flap over the cheese and dip finger in the bowl of water to moisten the left and right folds of the wrapper. 
3.  Roll the wrapper til just before reaching the top end rim.  Moisten this portion once again with water to secure.  Repeat with remaining wrapper and cheese matchsticks.
4.  Heat 1/4 cup oil in a small saucepan and fry the cheese sticks in batches until wrapper is golden brown in color.  Place on a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb excess oil.  Transfer to a separate dish.
5.  To make dip:  Mix together ketchup, mayonnaise and ground pepper (if using) until well blended.  Place in a deep saucer to serve.  Sprinkle paprika (if using) on top and serve with the cheese sticks.

Ideas for other appetizers:  Sliced prosciutto with or without melon, sliced salami, french fries, assorted cheeses like brie, tilsit, manchego, or just buy mini BabyBel Cheese rounds available in dairy sections of most supermarkets, and let your companions unwrap these themselves.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Secret Garden

It's been months - and I felt it very much so - since I wrote anything here.  This even though there were indeed a lot of exciting things that needed to be shared.  While we are already much into the new year, let me take you back to November of the year before when my husband and I were invited by the Baillage de Manille (or the Manila Chapter) of the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, an international gastronomic society established in Paris in 1950, but whose foundations started with the guild of "goose roasters" further back in 1248.

It was on the occasion of the Chaine's outreach activity, their 4th Supplemental Feeding Program, that we were invited to witness.  Thus, aside from the Confrerie's "day job" of honing the members' respective craft or skill in roasting, table art, hospitality, and all things related to gastronomy, and establishing standards thereto, they also engage in charitable activities.

But the highlight of that day was the luncheon that was held at Kalamunda Restaurant located on the border of Tagaytay and Silang in Cavite, a good 2-hour's drive from Manila.  For Philippine locals, Tagaytay is quite a familiar destination for those who just want to get away from the hustle and noise of Metro Manila even for just a few hours, and still be able to get back to it in a day.  Normally, a visit to Tagaytay would mean eating along chain restaurants along the highway, but Kalamunda is not one of those.  It is tucked away among Tagaytay's inner streets which one could get lost in as one goes through the many corners and turns to get to this gem of a place.

Kalamunda is the Australian Aboriginal name for "home in a bush or country" and is actually the residence of Carlos and Sylvia Miguel who opened up their home for private lunches and dinners by appointment.  The choice of the name is also a salute to the couple's former country of residence before deciding to come back and re-establish their roots in the Philippines.


Passing through the gates of Kalamunda on that bright sunny day, one is greeted by an airy terraced home, extensive greenery peppered by sheep and goats at a distance, and a warm welcoming handshake from Carlos Miguel.  Even with boisterous laughter from children and adults alike, a peaceful spell is still cast upon the place.
 The residence’s cook is the equally charming and engaging Sylvia Miguel, who took charge of preparing the sumptuous buffet starting with a sampling of her Duck and Chicken Liver Parfait accompanied by Melba Toasts on which to spread the richness on. It was just perfect to whet everyone’s appetite for the lunch to come.  This, in turn, was composed of a Salad of Mixed Greens, Blue Cheese and Pear with Mustard Seed Dressing, Chicken with Herb de Provence and Mushrooms, Mixed Seafood Pudding, and the centerpiece of that occasion, the organic milk-and-corn-fed Lechon (roasted pig), for which Kalamunda is steadily being known for.  For one who has had enough of lechon and promised to strike it off voluntarily from one's list of "food to eat" as I have, I was pleasantly surprised at how crispy the skin off the roast was, and the clean but sumptuously milky taste of the meat, very much redolent with the aroma of lemongrass. 

But you would think that was all there was to the menu.  You would be wrong of course.  I just have to make special mention two of my favorite dishes from that lunch: the Slow-Braised U.S. Beef Belly that was just melt-in-your-mouth goodness, and Sylvia’s pride that is the Roasted Vegetable Paella, one of the few authentically prepared ones that I have tasted.  The other favorites would be the desserts that were meticulously prepared by enchanting Sylvia herself - the delectable Chocolate Natilla with Almond Praline and the creamy and light Pavlova, a traditional Australian dessert which was heavily laden with fresh kiwi, mango and banana slices.
The meal did not end without the group’s thanks given to Carlos and Sylvia for the unforgettable spread, and to confreres Charlie and Chinit Rufino who organized it.  However, our special thanks should go to Mr. & Mrs. Freddie Borromeo who have been our most gracious hosts throughout the trip.
It was indeed a perfect lunch for a perfectly sunny day.

P.S. I recommend that you try Sylvia's Chicken and Duck Liver Parfait that comes in a ceramic jar, and packed in box.  A very generous serving for PhP450/jar.  If I posted this last November as I ought to have done, it would have been a wonderful gift to give for the holidays, but anytime is a good time to enjoy this - trust me, it's worth the delayed word-of-mouth thing.  You can place your orders by texting or calling +63 917 8810032 or call directly at +63 2 6683678.  Things can be arranged so you dont have to go all the way to Tagaytay to get your purchases, and instead pick it up in Makati.
Maybe if you're looking for somewhere unique but homey to host your events, you can also try getting in touch with Sylvia and Carlos so you can gather your family and friends at Kalamunda and organize an unforgettable event.