It’s The Holiday Season

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Thanksgiving is only a few days away and, yes, the holiday season is upon us. That means loads of laughter, spending time with family and friends, exchanging gifts and hosting parties. Recently, my wife, son and I had dinner at a new friend’s place. She, with her husband and three kids, recently moved to New Jersey from New York City and, with a nice spacious kitchen and putting work on hold to be the homemaker, she’s decided to host both Thanksgiving and Christmas for her family. I think she said the total count is going to be around thirteen. So, in preparation, she had us over for dinner and practised with a chicken (pictured above) and some veggie dishes (a cauliflower one and a Brussels sprouts one) she learnt at cooking classics she’d taken at Williams and Sonoma and King’s Supermaket, both in Short Hills.

Looking back, growing up in Hong Kong, my family’s flat was the largest of the other homes of my parents’ friends and co-workers. For that reason and also, perhaps, from a ‘corporate mindset’ of the boss hosting the annual party (of the jobs my father had while in Hong Kong – journalist and business owner – he was among the higher ups), I recall that most of the holiday gatherings were held at our place. Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in Hong Kong but we did serve turkey at our gatherings – something my mother took with her from her German-American father – and we did celebrate Christmas and New Year’s in grand fashion. As a family, Christmas was an intimate affair with midnight mass on Christmas Eve, home for a feast and opening Christmas presens, staying up late, and sleeping in on Christmas Day. The big party my mother would host usually fell on Boxing Day. For New Year’s, the big event was usually on New Year’s Eve but sometimes on New Year’s Day. During those years, and the times my mother hosted Christmas parties in New Jersey before my parents moved back to The Philippines, I acquired a few handy tips that have helped my own parties run more smoothly than not. And, if I can pat myself on the back a little, I have prepared feasts, largely single-handedly, for parties of twenty or more and, sometimes, in a kitchen the size of a small New York City closet.

So, with the holidays approaching, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learnt, from my mother and others, to help your holiday celebration turn out tasty, run smoothly and be a challenge for your in-laws to top.

1. If you have a frozen turkey, make sure you give it enough time to defrost completely. I’m moving mine from the freezer to the fridge tonight so it’s thawed by Thursday morning.
2. Do any prep work you can days ahead of time. If anything can be cut, diced, puréed, etc do it now. Things like gravy and cranberry sauce can be made ahead of time and reheated, if needed. Pies, too. To this end, if out of town guests arrive early and are staying wih you, heck, put them to work. If not with the preparations and cooking, with kid-watching and errand-running.
3. With large family gatherings, make a little more than you were planning to and, if you’re doing a sit down, make sure you have extra place settings. There’s always that last minute person – your sister-in-law’s single friend, for example – who shows up.
4. Have some kid-friendly food ready. While I’m a big believer in kids eating what they’re given – the home is not a restaurant, after all – some kids (heck, some adults) just don’t like certain things and we don’t want anyone to go hungry.
5. Don’t take every (seeming) criticism from your mother or (cue Darth Vader music) your mot her-in-law to heart. It’s not worth getting into a battle over. Each generation has a way of doing things.
6. Plan your menu ahead of time. This is something you should’ve done already.
7. Tagging on to number 6, get to the store early and buy extra. I’ve noticed over the years that the Sunday before Thanksgiving – yesterday – is the busiest food shopping day of the week leading up to Turkey Day. It’s too late to get there before yesterday but, if you have to go again and not just for a run in, go early in the day and earlier in the week.
8. On the day, make a plate for yourself and stash it in the kitchen. Much like being the bride and groom at their wedding reception, the party host doesn’t often get to have a decent meal; busy with entertaining, serving, etc.
9. Be flexible. If something doesn’t turn out right, turn it into something else. You have the ability to do so. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have had the gumption to even attempt hosting.
10. Allow yourself to have fun, don’t worry if you make a mistake in your cooking and, if you need to, say “F**k it!” Thanksgiving, Christmas, whatever you’re celebrating and hosting is one day out of three hundred and sixty-five. If it turns out great, you’re a star. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t define who you are. Bottom line, you gave it a shot and you probably learnt something about cooking and, more importantly, about yourself. Be better prepared next year or let someone else host. And, in the long run, it’s going to be one of those memorable days you and your kids will look back on with with fondness and/or good humour.

Anyway, so those are my ten quick tips to help with your holiday preparations. Good luck but, more importantly, have fun. Cooking and hosting are meant to be fun endeavours. Remember that.

Oh, and, Happy Thanksgiving! (albeit a little early).

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Raising Money For Relief Efforts In The Philippines

In addition to being a part-time food blogger and home cook, I am a novelist. My book, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, is about a Filipino teenager who moves to America and comes to terms with that change and the challenges it brings. I am also Filipino and am heartbroken how my homeland has suffered in recent years from one natural disaster over another. My homeland needs help and to that end I am donating all royalties from sales of my book to relief efforts in The Philippines.  Please help. Filipinos are resilient and strong people but they’ve also suffered a great deal and need help. 

Click here for more details.

Lakas sa Pilipinas!

Serafina

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Serafina
210 West 55th
New York, New York

For many of you reading, you’re probably out and about more than I am (I’m a self-proclaimed homebody but I do enjoy getting out once in a while) so you may already know about the wonder that is Serafina in New York City. Located on the upper edge of the theatre district, Serafina is a casual Italian restaurant that offers a mellow atmosphere with quick and friendly service, perfect for a pre-show meal.

I was in the city with my wife for a matinee of Matthew Bourne’s original adaptation of Sleeping Beauty at City Center and we wanted to grab lunch before the 1:30pm curtain. On the way there, on the NJ Transit, we looked up nearby restaurants and Serafina grabbed our gastronomic attention. We called to make a reservation but, since it was early on a Sunday and we were only a party for two, we were told that a reservation wasn’t needed. So, upon getting off the train, we transferred onto the 1 and ventured uptown from Penn Station.

Getting there at about noon, we had our choice of regular menu options and their Sunday brunch. We didn’t opt for the brunch, although the Poached Eggs with spinach and prosciutto, Pancakes with strawberries, maple syrup and Nutella, and the Three Salmon Benedict did tempt us. We did, though, enjoy a Mimosa (me) and a Bellini (my wife). For our meal, we passed on starters, not because nothing sounded good, but because we were pressed for time. On a future visit, I promise to try either the il Sashimi Di Tonno (finely sliced sushi-grade tuna and avocado, served with their special dipping sauce) or the Il Tartare Di Serafina (tuna and salmon, served with a touch of peanut oil). Instead, what we had were the Jumbo Shrimp Al Cognac (jumbo shrimp sautéed in cognac, served with saffron rice) (pictured above) and Spaghetti All’aragosta (spaghetti with a half lobster in a spicy tomato sauce). Yes, folks, you did just read “half lobster.”

Both dishes were sublime. With the Jumbo Shrimp Al Cognac, they weren’t lying. The shrimp were large, about 2″ to 2 12″ through the centre of their curved ends and the straight tall was another inch or more. Additionally, the shrimp weren’t skinny by any means, offering generous amounts of meat throughout each bite. The cognac sauce was thick, without being starchy, and blended nicely with the saffron rice which, in turn, had a stickiness to it that gave it a risotto quality. Naturally, the saffron gave a nice kick, without being overwhelming, but there was an additional kind of spicy taste – lemongrass, perhaps – that pulled all the flavours together. I may be wrong in suggesting lemongrass but whatever it is the chefs put in this dish, keep doing it.

With my wife’s dish, the Spaghetti All’aragosta, the tomato sauce was spicy, this time I think with a cilantro dominance, but again, not overwhelming. It neither drowned the taste of the fresh tomatoes nor did it burn our palates in a way that would prevent us from tasting anything else. The spaghetti itself was a little stiff for my taste but not to the point of ruining the dish. And, this could even have been a one off. The generosity of the lobster, however, as much as the balance of the flavours was remarkable. In similar dishes in other restaurants, the lobster is typically finely broken up or chopped. It might even be blended into the sauce. Here, it’s not hidden and it is truly a half lobster with chunks of meat from the claws in the sauce and draped over the pasta. It made me think of a traditional Spaghetti with Meatballs dish but instead of meatballs we got chunks of lobster. And, because the lobster comes the way it does, the dish allows the person eating it the choice of how he or she wants to enjoy the shellfish – eating it as chunks or breaking it up into small pieces him or herself.

For afters, my wife and I shared a Tiramisu. It was good, nothing exceptional or unique from others I’ve had but the important thing is that I wasn’t disappointed by it or longing for another establishment’s version. There are other offerings on their dessert menu but, being a Tiramisu aficionado, searching for the perfect one, we went with this traditional Italian treat. Next time, I’ll give Le Crepes Alla Gelato Nutella (crepes served with grand marnier, a touch of tangerine, vanilla ice cream and raspberry) or the Nutella soufflé, Il Soufflé Di Cioccolato Allo Nutella.

The only thing that was a negative, if I can even call it that, about our experience at Serafina was the close proximity of the tables. Being we were just two, we got seated in one of those two-person tables where one side is against a wall and the seats are like a bench and the facing person is in a chair. Granted, it was relatively early and not crowded and we were seated immediately next to two former college roommates, one of whom was visiting New York for work, but I could hear every word of their conversation and it wasn’t like they were talking loudly. That’s how close we were. As a writer, though, I’ll confess that I eavesdropped a little to see if there was anything in their conversation I could use in a future novel.

Other than this, although table proximity is hardly a detractor if the food is good and it’s something New Yorkers are used to and accept anyway, I highly recommend Serafina. It’s a place you can go for a full meal, and not feel like you were overcharged and under served, for drinks (yes, it has it’s own bar) after a show, or for a happy hour cocktail before your evening’s main event. It’s a place where you can take your spouse of significant other and a place where you can take that special someone on a first or second date without looking like you’re trying too hard and without breaking the bank. More than that, it’s a place where the food is good and the atmosphere easy. If you go, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

My Mother’s Ham Hocks* (Berliner Eisbein)

(Berliner Eisbein)

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Ingredients:

4-6 smoked ham hocks
Cabbage (you decide what kind but I prefer Napa)
4-6 medium potatoes, peeled
1 medium onion, chopped
Peppercorns; about 6-8
Bay leaves; about 5
Salt (Filipino Rock Salt or Kosher Sea Salt work best)

Method:

1. Place the hocks into a deep pot and cover with water. Throw in the peppercorns and bay leaves.
2. Cover the pot and place it over a medium flame to soften the hocks for 45-60 minutes.
3. While the hocks are cooking, cut the onion, peel and cut the potatoes, and wash the cabbage.
4. After about 40 minutes, add the onion and potatoes. Recover the pot and, if needed, add water.
5. At the 60 minute mark, check that the hocks are soft and that the potatoes are cooked but without them getting crumbly. How quickly this may happen to the potatoes will depend on what variety you choose. If you don’t want the potatoes to crumble and make the sauce grainy, monitor your pot frequently.
6. When the hocks are soft and the potatoes close but not quite ready, add the cabbage. Recover and cook for another 15-20 minutes.
7. Serve, as I grew up eating it, with plain white rice. toyo (soy sauce) and oyster sauce. You can also eat it with Duck Sauce, mustard and/or mayonnaise.

* My mother who is half Filipina and half America, of German heritage, taught me how to make Ham Hocks when I was about eleven. When I came to the United States, Ham Hocks, as a dish, was presented to me as something strictly African-American. Thinking about it at the time, however, with German pork chops and all kinds of Wurst, pork is a staple of the German culinary experience so it’s as much a northern Euro dish as it is an African-American one. Additionally, Filipinos are a frequent enjoyer of pork dishes (Pork Adobo, Krispy Pata, to name a couple) and, looking back on my youth, I recall many times when my Filipino-Spanish-Chinese father enjoyed eating my mother’s Hocks and commenting on how this dish was one of his favourites. So, while I’ve presented it the way my Fil-Am mother would make and serve it, the dish may not be what you’re used to. But, then again, isn’t that why we read food blogs; to try new things? Enjoy.