On Misunderstanding and Molokhia

(*Thanks to Amir El-Abbady and Doha Salem for the inspiration behind this week’s meal).

My passport used to elicit the same effect on TSA agents that a benign cookie tin would to an immigrant child expecting something to munch on between meals.  As routine motion gave way to shock and confusion when confronted with a tin full of sewing supplies, agents opening my Filipino passport with slight boredom quickly raised their eyebrows when they saw all the Arabic writing in there due to my being raised in Saudi Arabia.  And despite my obviously Asian features (never mind whether I looked more Filipino or Chinese), I somehow was always selected for “random screening”.  These days I just flash my New York City ID to avoid any delays, but the questions and awkward confusion still ensue.

Bruh.

“Oh you grew up in Saudi Arabia?  Was it dangerous?” – No the biggest threat I faced was of utterly debilitating boredom.

“Wow!  You must speak Arabic really well!” – Actually seeing as there was a large, diverse population of Filipinos, Indians, and other Westerners who outnumbered the local population, I barely understand Arabic.

“Was it like…very oppressive coz you couldn’t like…drink like…alcohol and stuff?” – No homegirl but listening to you is oppressive enough an experience (not to mention having fewer vices also meant fewer distractions).

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Canh Chua Ca: On Cross-Cultural Consumption

Canh Chua

There’s this odd thing we – especially those from immigrant families – do when it comes to tasting new, usually “ethnic” (for lack of a better word) dishes.  After the first cursory sips/chews/swallows, the proverbial light bulb goes off and we say: “Oh that’s nice…but you should taste the [insert own culture here] version of this!”.  It’s annoying and heart-warming at the same time.  On one hand, the fact that someone claims that they make a better “version” of a dish I grew up with is a bit unappetizing.  “Bro…the Vietnamese one is far better”…”I mean…it’s not as flavorful as the Somali version my mom makes”…”Are you high?  Everyone knows the Arab way is the real one”.  On the other, it’s a quick and solid way to connect to one another; gaps bridged by soups, entrees, and confections.

Filipinos embrace the fierce loyalty we have to the Sinigang as the quintessential Filipino soup.  Just about every college student knows how to make one from even the barest of budgets: meat (pork ribs or fish) + variety of veggies (usually radish, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and green beans) all boiled in a sour tamarind broth.  No one fucks with Sinigang.  So when a good friend uttered the words: “I know what this is!  This is just a Filipino version of a really good Vietnamese Sour Soup called Canh Chua Ca!”, best believe I wasn’t going to take it lying down.  The debate ended with me downloading the recipe for this…”Sour Soup” and trying it out with a few of my own twists.

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Kale/Beef Ragout + Sweet Potato Gnocchi

(Found this lost in the archives of my drafts from a few months ago…seeing as the weather’s getting colder anyway, this is the perfect time to make this warm, comforting dish!)

It was Sunday morning and I was in a bit of a dilemma: cook a cost-efficient meal of pasta but risk overloading on carbs…or make yet another stew.  Ever since I’ve restricted my carb intake to a quarter of my total daily values, everything from ramen to *gasp* white rice looks like a gigantic carb bomb.  If you’re curious as to just how carb-loaded a half cup of rice is…actually…forget I mentioned it.  After all, ignorance is bliss as they say (you totally Googl-ed it didn’t you?)!

But I digress…faced with the impossible decision between comfort or breaking my diet…I said “Screw it!  I’ll have both!”.  Rather than the usual boxed fettucine, I opted to hand-make gnocchi with sweet potato (the de facto – and what seems like the solo – carb option to the health conscious) and pair with with a kale and beef ragout.

Making gnocchi is far easier than I thought it would be (though you most certainly can use the store-bought variety if you’re not as carb-conscious as I am this week).  The trick is getting just the right amount of flour so that the dough is moldable without the end result having an overly mealy taste and texture.  Pair that with a hearty ragout and you’ve got comfort…without overdosing on those carbs.  Get cookin’!

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Being Too Busy is a Lame Excuse for Skipping Breakfast

(All references to people are made in jest.  They don’t pertain to any specific person so don’t even try playing the guessing game on this one.)

So it’s a new week and there’s plenty to celebrate: it’s Tuesday (yeah my coworkers hate me for actually enjoying Mondays and Tuesdays), it’s almost August (fewer sweaty days on the subway), and it’s Eid (Eid Mubarak to everyone who’s celebrating…esp my roommate who can finally eat out again)!  I haven’t had a good rant in a while so since I’m feeling particularly energetic, do indulge me as I get something off my chest real quick.

It really irks me when someone tells me they’re “too busy to eat breakfast”.  Really dude?  So you don’t have 10 minutes to get some much needed nutrition for the day but somehow have enough time to dick around Facebook for 20 mins. when you wake up?  Oh that’s precious.  I’m not even talking about a full continental breakfast complete with artisanal jams and breads baked in some hipster outpost in Greenpoint, a simple piece of toast perhaps?  Boiled eggs?  A goddamn protein shake?!  But noooooo….you’re such a busy person whom the world so depends on that global catastrophes would befall us should you choose a bagel over saving the world.

spidey cooks

Coz if Spidey can cook…

I call bullshit.  There’s absolutely no way you’re too busy. In fact, you’re probably lying in bed right now hating Monday and it’s twisted sibling Tuesday.  But I believe in you…you’ve got some semblance of humanity in that coffee-addled brain of yours so I’m going to be nice and teach you a quick and easy way to bang out a couple of breakfasts so quick you’d put the local deli guy to shame.  The real trick here, oh Busy One, is to cook in advance, in large batches, and in hearty styles….but you knew that already since I saw you stuffing your face with that 2nd donut you claim is the only quick thing you can buy around here.  So lemme drop some breakfast wisdom on how you can pull off a bomb meal in record time and still have time to pine for the dream job you always said you’d find one day.

Sure you do!

Sure you do!

Enter the Frittata.  Now most of us have seen the frittata on brunch menus or the generic Italian lunch spots and it looks like a cross between an omelette and a quiche (it does stand for “egg cake” after all).  Sometimes warm or cold, it’s filling and can be made with anything from ham, vegetables, or some payday-worthy stuff like quinoa and kale.  I kid you not this whole thing will only take 10 minutes of active work on a normal night to produce and the only limit is how fast your mouth can devour it.  Hell…it’s so easy I won’t even bother numbering the steps!

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Spanish-style Pinamalhan: Bluefish in Sour Salsa Verde

A while back I wrote about an exhibit in SoHo showcasing the great Ferran Adria’s notes and sketches.  Instead of the usual food porn we see from other chefs, Adria’s notes are scientific, cultural, methodical, and utterly cerebral.  Which was why his book entitled “The Family Meal” was surprisingly simple and home-y.  I decided to try (and modify) one of the seafood recipes, having turned a casual pescetarian during the weekdays.  I got a great deal on Bluefish at Whole Foods and after I snagged some ultra-rare organic rice from Ayesha’s farm in the Philippines, I wanted to see if I could make a Spanish, amped-up version of my childhood Pinamalhan, a Filipino dish consisting of fish slowly braised in vinegar until the sauce reduces and thickens.

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My summertime slump continues and so I’ve begun to tone down the rich, hearty meals of winter in favor of something lighter and not as food coma-inducing.  And with very few ingredients, this dish will really showcase that nice fish (no…you may NOT filet it!) you’re going to pick up this weekend.  Here we go…..

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Love…as Told With a Plate of Biryani

Going through my backlog of blogging inspiration and I stumbled across an older news piece from the India Times about a wedding that was called off due to a conflict over…get this…..an argument over biryani.  Biryani is a South Asian rice-based dish cooked with spices and hearty meats.  It has its roots in Persian cuisine and was something my family and I grew up eating in Saudi Arabia from the numerous Indian and Pakistani food stalls. So the story (full details here) goes that the groom’s family demanded mutton biryani despite the bride’s already having prepared a chicken version.  Arguments broke out and it escalated all the way to the village elders until finally, the wedding was called off.  Apparently the bride saw the argument as a bad sign of times to come.  For a couple that was on the cusp of declaring their undying love, it was weirdly amusing seeing it all break down over some rice and cooked chicken.  I mean…isn’t love supposed to conquer all?  If it can move mountains surely it can move a plate of food no?  The bride could have chosen to remake the dish or the groom give in and all this could have been prevented. Many a time I’ve argued with my roommates on the meaning of love (we’re gentlemen and scholars).  I contend that love is simply a choice one makes and not an emotion.  But who am I to judge them without knowing the full circumstances of their fowl (ha!) engagement.  So I thought….if neither side would concede to the other, why not make a third option available?  One that both can either agree to love or hate together.  Instead of chicken or mutton….why not shrimp? After all, shrimp biryani doesn’t require long marination time, is probably healthier and lighter, and cooks faster!  Yep…leave it to me to somehow tie food and some abstract idea together.  So as I contemplated the esoteric qualities of “love”, I pulled out my cast iron skillet and got to work…..   Continue reading

Mom’s Lazy Dinners: Fish En Papillote (kinda)

My Mom, like every other mother out there, is a hardworking woman.  Growing up in Saudi Arabia, I’d remember how she’d get up every morning to sweep the entire house, she’d cook all 3 meals 6 day’s a week, do everyone’s laundry, and scrub the stove like it was going out of style.  As a child, I would look in fear and awe at how this diminutive woman could possess this unnatural energy to do the same thing day in and day out for more than a decade with only the occasional pocket book or cooking show to amuse her.  Of course that unnatural energy I later found out (yeah…I’m not exactly the brightest light bulb in the bunch), was pure unadulterated Love.

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But she had her moments.  Looking back, I knew which days she wasn’t in the zone; when the energy just wasn’t quite there.  Looking back at her dinners, I could tell which days she wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest her tired bones.  Those days were the ones where her dinners had less than 6 ingredients and minimal prep.  Those days were not the ones where she pressure cooked ox tail for 2 hours to make her rib-sticking soup, or the ones where she baked multi-layer Shepherd’s Pie against the protests of my Filipino-to-the-core father’s taste buds that craved rice and soup.  Those were the days when she stuck a fish in foil, threw it in the oven, and simply called it “Baked Fish”.

The more bougie of us know this as “Poisson En Papillote” or “Fish in Parchment”.  Of course our version utilized a Filipino sentiment, swapping the parchment for foil and favoring the cheaper milkfish.  A truly bare bones recipe, this one is perfect for the end of a tiresome week when all you want is some peace and quiet.  Less than 30 minutes to cook and because of the perfect balance of acidity and fat, you get comfort without all the effort.  It was a dish that said: “I’m dead tired, and yet I will feed you the very best”.

Let’s keep this short and simple…

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Busy Season/Lent Dinners: Indian-style Vegetable Curry

OK…so don’t burn me at the stake for saying this…but sometimes, I dread coming home from work.  And no it’s not because I hate downtime as much as Bieber hates sentences that contain more than 5 words (Google: “Justin Bieber deposition”…proceed to lose hope for humanity).  But there’s a point when you’re walking home, and you’re super pumped to get all this stuff done, but the moment you get into your room, you just collapse in a heaping pile of numbness and the only cure is to watch an hour’s worth of YouTube videos (currently watching: Wong Fu Productions and house dance battles).  I mean…what happened to all that motivation I had from lunch onwards?!

This Is How I Eat When I'm Tired.

Busy season auditors be like…

And so here I was realizing it was now 11 PM and even though I had gotten out of work 3 hours ago, I have yet to cook dinner or do anything productive.  And so I crawled back out of bed, pulled out the trusty wok, and stared at the pile of vegetables in front of me thinking: “why in God’s name did I give up meat?”.  With 30 mins. remaining before my brain would shut off from sleep deprivation, I had to pick a recipe that would not only be quick, but also pack more flavor than that limp, over-dressed salad at the corner deli store.  Enter the Indian-style vegetable curry.  Of all the world’s cuisines, it is of my opinion that Indian is the only one that can pull off vegetarian dishes that make me want to reconsider my relationship with steak.

So you’re reading this thinking: “Damn…I gave up meat for Lent too!” or if you’re an Accountant: “Food.  Mouth.  Now”.  Well read onwards O Weary One.

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D’Avoir Une Fete pt. 2: Poisson Meuniere

(Photo cred: William Panlilio)

Last weekend, I had posted up a quick and easy salad recipe I made during one of my friend William’s many dinner parties (though party would probably be an understatement for these feasts).  Seeing as Lent has begun and I’m giving up red meat for a while, I thought it’d be a good time to introduce my second dish from that night: a simple yet elegant French dish of pan-fried bluefish drizzled with a rich lemon-butter sauce.  The tartness of the lemon cuts through the fatty butter (it’ll also cut through any guilt you have of using butter soooo…we’re all good yes?).

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A quick note on fish.  The appropriate type to use in the recette authentique would be sole or a similar whitefish, but seeing as Whole Foods charges an arm-and-a-leg for these wild-caught, “luxury” cuts, I went with Bluefish, which is akin to Mackerel.  Bluefish is fattier and is great grilled, another reason using lemon is key in this recipe.

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It’s lunch time on a Monday so I’ll be less verbose than usual…straight to the recipe!

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Upgrade Your Ramen: Red Snapper Ramen (Busy Season Dinners)

So I finally rolled off a client last week so inside I’m all like…

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But in reality I look like…

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And then I realize we’re about to work late nights yet again so I’m all like…

oFaWmTa

But if Busy Season has taught me anything, it’s to live every last free unscheduled second like it’s Mardi Gras, Christmas, and the World Cup all rolled into one (ie. lots of running around yelling at the top of my lungs and emptying my wallet of its contents).  But since we’re all still broke out here….how bout I just make a nice dinner?

As a little celebration, we’re gonna do something a little bit more upscale.  Ramen is still trending out here in NYC with the likes of Ippudo and Yuji Ramen still being popular spots and newcomers Bassanova continuing to expand diners’ options past the usual Tonkatsu, or worse…*dun dun dun* the instant Maruchan variety of our college days.  Alas, the wait at Ippudo averages 2 hours (unless you’re funemployed in which case you can hit the odd hours when it’s dead in there) and there’s no way you have energy to ride the L Train into Brooklyn to find that mythical hole-in-the-wall.  No matter.  Our versions gonna be better using the last pieces of the Red Snapper we’ve had for 2 prior dishes (the Tea-Steamed version here and the Filipino Sour Broth here) as well as a minimal number of ingredients and of course, some homemade broth.  Again, simplicity is key.

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