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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Turning Japanese

For people looking for a low key, yet authentic, Japanese food in a venue with equally quiet interiors, head for Marufuku Japanese Restaurant in the Ortigas area near an equally low key university.  The food here is that good that I am a bit reluctant to tell its exact whereabouts for fear of sharing this with other people.  But if you are one who fits the above description, then you will appreciate why this place is a well-kept secret.

The restaurant is located on the ground floor of one of the many condominium buildings in the area and the sign is big enough that you'll notice - if you happen to drive by on their street.  You can't see much from outside since all you see is the big wooden sliding door as its entrance.  Once inside, you are greeted calmly by the waitstaff (none of those yelling " 'Shai Mase!!' ") and then immediately whisked to your preferred seat, but still have time to take in the simple lines, big tall windows and high ceiling.  You will also notice that a good number of Japanese expats are in their favorite corners, so this is a good sign of things to come. 

If I were you, I'd sit at the bar where you get to see the action in the open kitchen.  Nothing hidden from sight as they served us our choice of Robata, the centerpiece of their menu, or skewered meats cooked over charcoal fire.  My husband and I had the pork belly, beef tongue, and chicken liver, which were all good, all natural; just enough seasonings to enhance the savory meats.

Oh, but being Filipino, I will have to have the tempura and got the Tempura Moriawase.  All I can say is Marufuku is the only place that cooks tempura in a way why I like tempura so much.  Many restaurants and even hotels offer this on their menu, but here, the prawns are that big and that fresh, the fish chunky, the okra and eggplant was just picked at the right time, and the batter wrapped well around the morsels with just the right crunch.  Rhapsodizing am I?  Yes, indeed.  Now, this particular secret is out.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Pasta Fresca

I remembered the time that my family and I lived in Mandaluyong, and there was this neighborhood bar/café along Boni Avenue called Henry's.  The name referred to the owner/chef Henry Canoy who operates it with his wife Virgie.  If I recall well, Chef Henry set up that small place shortly after leaving Hyatt Hotel in Manila to start out on his own.  Anyway, his bar/café is no longer existing, but his personal attention to his customers lingers.  One instance was when I had this craving for Pasta Carbonara for my dinner, and despite his insistence that I try out some other dish he has prepared for that day, I gently stood my ground and told him I have been looking forward to having his carbonara sauce all day.
And so he obliged.  Normally, it would only take him a few minutes to serve me this pasta dish, but I noticed that it has already been around 20 minutes and I still don't have my dinner.  I snuck a peak into his small kitchen and caught him making fettuccini from scratch, and was just finishing his final roll from the pasta maker he had.  A few more minutes later, a forkful of the freshest and creamiest of ingredients assailed my taste buds. 
Fresh pasta gives a different texture than dried ones.  Some may think that fresh pasta is superior to dried but really, I think it's all a matter of what kind of dish you want to prepare. Plus, in restaurants that serve this, fresh pasta tend to be more expensive because of the amount of labor put in by the cook or kitchen staff.
So having had a few hours free time in the afternoon, I thought of trying out my hand in making my own ravioli pasta.  I gathered all my references on pasta making and decided to mix and match recipes.  While there are some who recommend the use of '00' flour or pasta flour (can be bought at Rustan's supermarkets), I found that all-purpose flour is also a good ingredient to work with.  I preferred mixing the flour with the eggs in a big glass bowl since I found it easier to work it into a dough with a silicon knife and without getting my hands messy early on in the process.  However, using your own hands from the start is also good. 
The filling recipe I used was one using butternut squash that I found in a magazine clipping I collected several years ago.  I never had ravioli with squash before so this was a good occasion to try it out.  It turned out sweet, which is inherent in the squash, and savory from the nutmeg and pepper, with the saltiness coming from the grated parmesan cheese incorporated in the blend. 
At the end of it all, I was quite happy with the result.  There's something in knowing that you made everything you ate in that one dish.

The Recipe

For the pasta:

200 grams '00' flour (alternatively, all-purpose flour), plus additional for dusting
2 medium sized eggs
water, when needed

1.  Pour flour into a flat surface or into a bowl and a make a well in the center of the mound.  Crack eggs into the well.

2.  Using a knife, gradually mix the egg with the flour.  Keep mixing until you have a thick paste.  At this point, use one hand to incorporate the rest of the flour.  The dough should form a soft but firm and flexible ball.  If the dough sticks to your hand, add a little flour.  If the dough is too dry and/or has cracks in it, add water only a little until you get just the right consistency.

3.  Knead the past for 5-10 minutes, or until dough is elastic (dough springs back when pressed by fingertip).  Leave the dough to rest on a floured surface covered by a bowl.  Alternatively, you can lightly dust the dough with flour all over and wrap with cling wrap.  Rest should be for 20 minutes. 

4.  When ready, halve the dough ball into 2, continue to wrap the portion not yet to be used.  The other half may now be placed onto a clean, floured work surface and rolled out with a floured rolling pin into a rectangle shape until the dough is 1 mm thick.  Your dough should measure around 4 inches crosswise.

5.  Spoon squash filling (1 teaspoon) onto the bottom portion of the flat dough with a margin of around 1 inch on the left and bottom.  Repeat with the remaining space.  Lift the upper portion of the dough and cover the filling, making sure that the upper rim reaches the lower rim.  Press dough in between the filling to secure.

6.  Using a pizza cutter or knife, cut pasta sheet into squares, in between the filling and set aside.  Repeat the process of rolling out and putting the filling with the remaining half of the dough.  At this point you can refrigerate the ravioli if cooking this is planned for later.  Overnight refrigeration still makes the pasta good, as long as certain layers of the pasta are kept in between sheets of wax paper and inside a food container, not out in the open on a tray.

7.  When ready to cook the pasta, cook the sauce to be used first, while setting the water for the pasta to boil with rock salt.  Immerse ravioli squares into boiling water until al dente, or as soon as the pasta squares are floating on top of the water.  Collect with a slotted spoon and apply the sauce.  (In my case, I prepared brown butter sauce with sage.)  Serve immediately.

Butternut Squash Filling:

3 1/2 cups butternut squash, cubed
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
4 Tbsp. butter
Salt to taste
pinch of nutmeg
1 cup parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp. black pepper

1.  Place squash in a microwavable bowl , sprinkle a little water and nuke for 15 minutes or until soft enough when pressed with a fork.

2.  In a food processor, pulse the softened squash with the rest of the ingredients, except parmesan cheese and pepper, until creamy.  Transfer contents into  a bowl and fold in the cheese and pepper until well blended.  Cover the bowl with cling film and keep in the refrigerator.  Use as directed when no longer warm.

Browned Butter Sauce

1 bar (225 grams) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 Tbsp. fresh sage, or 1/4 tsp. dried
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. salt

1.  Heat butter in a saucepan until melted. 

2.  Add the rest of the ingredients and continue to stir until butter is turning brown.  Take away from heat source and set aside until ready to serve the pasta.

Buon apetito!

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Celebration of Life

A few weeks ago, my family and I were in for a dinner treat in Manila.  It has been eons ago since we stepped foot in the capital so that the invitation from my sister-in-law on the occasion of her birthday was welcomed.
Thus, on a rainy evening, we trooped over to the Paco Park area and stepped into the charming enclave of Oasis Hotel, and crossed the open air patio and swimming pool area towards My Kitchen by Chef Chris with Chef Chris Locher at the helm, of course (of C'Italia fame in Angeles, Pampanga).  The restaurant staff were all gracious and attentive as they opened the doors to a casual dining scene that evoked stepping into a lanai of someone's house (in this case, let's pretend its the Chef's house), and led us to our long table, all set for feasting.
Crusty wheat bread slices with olive oil and pesto dip opened our palates, along with a reasonable selection of wines.  The Spizza Original, or the panizza, said to be Chef Chris's own creation, came next.  We had two kinds - the cheese and the one with ham and mushrooms. We had fun assembling our spizzas with the alfalfa sprouts and rucola or arugula that came with it.  The spizza dough was warm, thin and crispy at first bite, but gets chewy onwards, and the bitter nutty blend from the greens with the salty flavors of the toppings came together for that satisfyingly fresh mix.  There is indeed reason to believe this as the house specialty.
More greens came with the Caesar Salad, served large for our group.  There was no scrimping on the quality of ingredients there.  Then our first plates came which composed of the Chicken and Mushroom Risotto, Pasta Calabrese (tomato-based oxtail), and the Pasta Carbonara.  This is where dining as a big group comes in handy since we all get to try  varying  dishes all in one sitting.  My husband and I were ecstatic with the risotto, since we rarely get to find someone who gets to cook the dish correctly in the local scene.  Despite the creamy texture, there was no heavy feeling.  We knew then that the Arborio rice was devotedly coddled with the broth, one ladle at a time. 
The Calabrese, on the other hand, was rich and heavy.  I'm not much for chunks of oxtail in a pasta sauce, but it certainly satisfied the men in the group.  Then there was the Carbonara which was fit for a Filipino palate, not too eggy, and probably had more cream in the mix.
And as if that were not enough, our second plates arrived:  the Whole Slow Roasted Chicken presented over a chorizo pilaf and roasted vegetables, and the 1000-gram Bistecca, also served with roasted vegetables such as carrots, pumpkin and Italian broccoli and which we asked to be cooked medium rare.  Both items can be found in the Chef Chris's Family Style Special section of the menu. 
Normally, one has to reserve the chicken in advance before coming over for your meal, but we were lucky - there were two left in the kitchen and so the logical thing for us to do was to find out for ourselves why it's famous.  We certainly found out why - the skin was perfectly browned and crispy, and the simplicity of the lemon-olive oil marinade shone through the meat that kept its juiciness.  Having eaten our risotto beforehand though, we didn't see the need to have the chorizo pilaf accompany the chicken.  Nevertheless, this special was designed so that it's the only thing you eat if you want to enjoy this dish.  It is said that this is good for 3-4 persons, but considering our other dishes, it satisfied a table of 12.
In the meantime, the Bistecca certainly stood on equal footing with the roast chicken.  We asked for medium rare and we got medium rare; no overstaying in the fires here.  The beef was tender and excellent to be eaten with just its own juice.  The roasted pumpkin particularly enhanced the beefy taste.
At this point, Chef Chris himself took a turn in the dining area so that we had an opportunity to thank him for a great meal.  He did not need much evidence considering we also killed 2 bottles of the house shiraz and 1 bottle of the house sauvignon blanc to accompany our meals.
Of course, the evening will not be complete without greeting our hostess a happy birthday, to which she received a complimentary slice of Chef Chris's creamy and light tiramisu.  On our end of the table though, we enjoyed our own dessert of the Lemon Lime Cheesecake and the Decadent Cake, where the latter was, as you guessed it, a rich chocolate cake served with a side of caramel sauce.
As an "ethical disclosure", we did not pay for this meal.  This particular visit was fully paid for by my sister in law, and so we thank her for introducing us to Chef Chris.  We will certainly come back for more, whether there is a special occasion or just to enjoy really good food.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Travel to Eat - Singapore

After declining so many opportunities before to enjoy Singapore, I finally packed my bags  last weekend to see what everybody else who has been there is raving about, including Anthony Bourdain in his show ("No Reservations").
Being 30 minutes late on Cebu Pacific was an improvement compared to other horrifying experiences I had with them.  But upon getting off the plane in Chianggi Airport, my family and I breezed through immigration, the bag carousel and into a taxi for our hotel in less than 10 minutes.  Just a sampling of the efficiency the Singaporeans are known for.
Other things Singapore is known for?  How about the fact that there isn't much traffic even though we arrived on a workday, and how it is clean, sleek, and refined everywhere else?  Even your humble taxi driver is dressed properly up to his shoes (no slippers in sight) and knows his city well that he doesn't need to ask you to assist him in giving directions to where you want to be.
As soon as we got ourselves settled in, we trooped over to Great World Center for our first Hainanese Chicken Rice served by one of the outlets in the mall's food center.  We didn't know if its because we were just hungry, or that the Chicken Rice tasted really great.  It was perfect in that the chicken meat was cooked for long hours under slow heat.  You could tell by the way the skin retained its jellied countenance, the broth both fragrant and refreshing, and the rice had that clean but rich taste.  The meal was so good, we had seconds!
We walked off our delicious lunch with trips to the bookstore and CD store to stock up our personal literary and music libraries at home.  But come dinner time, we searched for Boat Quay and settled in one of the many riverside restaurants there and enjoyed the view of the Singapore River with our free Heineken and Tiger beers as we waited for our food.  This is one of several quays (also Clark Quay and Robertson Quay) in the city where people go to enjoy a variety of what Singapore has to offer diners, or if you just want to enjoy the happy hour.  It gets crowded as early as 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and the party is relentless as the evening wears on.
The Tom Yum Soup had fresh prawns and a well-sustained spicy kick.  I think I finished up a whole bowl that can ideally serve two diners.  The soup certainly did not come out of a pre-mix packet.  The Barramudi was next, and it was cooked two-ways:  one side was steamed with ginger and soy dressing, and the other side was crispy fried and smothered in sweet and sour sauce.  You could tell that the fish was fresh out of the water and alive right before it was prepared for cooking.  The same went with the Singapore Crab with Black Bean Sauce - the crabmeat was succulent, and retained its sweet-salty taste.  We balanced it off with Kailan with garlic and perfectly steamed rice bowls.   Plus, there were more of those bottles of beer and cola. The whole meal was expensive though at SG$284.00 (Php9,372.00), but a visit to Boat Quay is a must, and one visit is all it takes for a tourist.
The following evening, we went to Maxwell Food Center to follow in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain and eat at Tian Tian's, the place he made famous by ordaining it as the hawker serving the best Chicken Rice.  The entire center is usually a favorite of corporate bodies since it is located in the midst of the city's skycrapers, and where you will get good food at cheap prices.  On a Sunday, we saw some stalls were closed for the weekend, but quite a number were still open.  Tian Tian's had a long line, but service was fast enough.
Our verdict?  The one we had at the Great World Center was better.  Our chicken pieces weren't cooked well since it still had blood oozing out of the middle.  Generally, it was still a good dish, its just that we had better. 
From there, we exited our way towards the Chinatown district and went through the night
market that was just opening.  Vendors were selling different kinds of souvenirs from T-shirts that say "I Heart Singapore", to key chains, chopsticks, mahjong and chess sets.  But the stalls were part of the festive look that the whole district gave, and it helped that they are surrounded by architectural heritage buildings.  Thus, it was here that we had our dessert of almond milk with tapioca and mango pudding with tapioca from Dudu Dessert Bar.  It was a light and fresh ending to our dinner, perfect for warm nights such as what we had.
In addition, I couldn't resist to try out the sticky cakes which were being sold by one street vendor.  It looked like colored pitchi-pitchi (Filipino jelly-like cassava cakes) but for SG$2, I got a taste of the pandan cake, indon cake, and by far my favorite, the sago cake for its caramel flavor.  Neither one tasted like pitchi-pitchi though.  Each piece as individual as an Asian country.
Of course, aside from binging, there are so many things to do here too.  As matter-of-fact as the city is, there are attractions like the Universal Studios, the zoos and safaris (a winner if you have small children), or just plain sight-seeing from either the Marina Bay Sands roof top, or the Singapore Flyer - take your pick.  Singapore is definitely a repeat destination in my list.