Filipino Rock Salt

29 January, 2012

For the most part, and I’m a home-cook foodie, dishes never really taste the same as the first time you eat them – nor should they – and more often than not, they never taste as good as that first time either. This, however, could be due to a psycho-emotional reason and not due to palate or taste. That’s not to say I’ve never had anything that was better some place else or made by someone else from the first time I tasted it but when it comes to a traditional Filipino breakfast it’s never quite right unless Filipino rock salt is used in cooking the eggs.

Before we go on, for those of you who aren’t familiar with what a traditional Filipino breakfast is, here’s the scoop. Very simply, it’s fried egg (itlog) over rice (kanin), which can be everyday steamed white rice or fried with garlic (sinangag). All of that is usually eaten with some kind of meat. In some cases bacon or Spam™ will make a Filipino very happy but what will make us really giddy is if the egg and rice are served with longanisa (Filipino sausage), tocino (sweet, cured pork), or tapa (Filipino beef jerky). Tapa is also referred to as beef tapa, which is sliced sirloin that has been cured with kalamansi, toyo (soy sauce), sugar and garlic. Each variation of a traditional Filipino breakfast has its own name depending on the combination; its name derived from its parts. For example, the version with sausage is referred to as longsilog.

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Longsilog with plain white rice

The one with tocino is called tosilog and, you’ve probably guessed it, the beef jerky version is called tapsilog. In the 1980s, at The Intercontinental Hotel in Makati, at their lobby restaurant called The Jeepney, there was even a version that served breakfast with fried pieces of pork adobo. Fried bangus (Milkfish) is also an option. If you’re ever ordering a Filipino breakfast, just make sure you specify what kind of rice you want – garlic or plain – but, going by their names and I concur, sinangag is the preferred choice. Finally, you eat all of it with any or all of the following sides/condiments: vinegar; vinegar with hot peppers; Jufran™ (banana catsup), and atchara (pickled papaya).

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A weekend family breakfast. Three orders of ‘egg rice.’ Notice the bottle of Jufran™ in the middle. 

Okay, so back to the salt. Living on the United States’ east coast, the term ‘rock salt’ makes one think of ten or twenty-five pound bags piled high outside the local ShopRite or Home Depot with the words printed in bold across their front. It conjures up images of clanging trucks driving by and spraying salt pellets onto the blacktop roads. In The Philippines, however, the term ‘rock salt’ refers to salt used in cooking that’s big and even crunchy. In appearance and feel, rock salt looks like Pop Rocks. The morsels don’t always dissolve –which is the best part – and the taste is strong and earthy. It’s a taste all its own and one you don’t get with the fine iodized salt we all have in our pantries.

Over the years, I’ve tried to find it here in the United States. Even venturing to the various Filipino and other Asian supermarkets I know of doesn’t always yield positive results. Moreover, the rock salt is often on the dearer side of things and that’s if they have it. On two recent occasions when friends went home to The Philippines for holiday, I asked if they could bring some back for me. One of them managed to, procuring a small bag (about 1kg) that I used sparingly. A couple of years later, when my 1kg bag was close to finished, another friend tried but her bag of rock salt, which I think was significantly larger than 1kg, was confiscated at the airport. I wonder if they thought my friend was smuggling, very openly, some strange-looking kind of cocaine. Joke lang.* Talking with friends about this – Filipino and Fil-Am friends and non-Asian friends – they suggested I try sea salt. So I did but I wasn’t totally satisfied. It wasn’t big or crunchy enough. As a seasoning and flavour enhancer, it was sufficient. As a substitute for Filipino rock salt, it was less than.

More recently, however, I discovered a new product in the salt aisle at my supermarket. Something compelled me to pick it up and shake it. When the salt rattled inside the canister, I smiled. I took a chance and bought it and the next opportunity I had to make a Filipino breakfast, I used it. I wasn’t disappointed. It looked, felt and tasted like Filipino rock salt. After I broke the egg and watched the yolk ooze into the rice and mixed the two together, I took a spoonful into my mouth and I was sent back forty years to our home in Pasay. I was eight or nine, maybe ten, and having longsilog with a glass of very sweet black Sanka™. (My coffee, of course, was in the empty and washed narrow glass container that was the previous jar of Sanka™ my grandparents had.) Thanks to this new salt product, I was in food heaven! I can’t say that this new product tastes exactly like Filipino rock salt but it’s as close as you’re going to get. Filipino rock salt crystals are also larger but, again, so far, this is the closest I’ve found.

And what is this new product? It’s Morton™ Coarse Mediterranean Sea Salt.

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The great discovery! Morton™ Coarse Mediterranean Sea Salt. 

Yes, sea salt but coarse and from The Mediterranean. I haven’t made sinangag with it yet but I will for sure and I can’t wait to taste and feel the crunch when I have a bite. So, fellow transplanted Filipinos and Fil-Ams, when you’re in a pinch (pun intended, siempre naman!**) and in need of a quick fix that only Filipino rock salt will give you but don’t have any, give this product a try. You’ll be glad you did. Oh, and just for the record, I don’t work for or have any connection with the Morton™ company. I’m just a Fil-Am writer and teacher who’s excited that he’s found the taste of his youth in something that’s new and, more importantly, easily accessible.

Now, if I could only buy Baguio cooking oil in America, I’d really be in home-cook foodie heaven. Thanks for stopping by.

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* Lang is a Tagalog word that can be translated to ‘just’ or ‘only.’ It implies a lessening of severity or seriousness from what was actually said. “Joke lang” is a common Filipino phrase that equates to “just kidding.”

** Siempre is Tagalog for ‘naturally’ or ‘of course.’ Naman is a word used for emphasis.

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Singapore Chicken Rice (Just The Rice)

Ingredients

4 cups of uncooked Jasmine Rice
Chicken stock; enough to cover the rice
1 Tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1 Tablespoon sesame oil

Method

1. Put the rice into your pot or rice cooker. Wash and rinse it as you usually would.

 
2. Add the ginger and sesame oil into the wet rice and mix well. You can use whatever technique and/or utensil yo like but I like to massage the ginger and oil into the rice. Make sure the rice is spread out evenly and flat on the top so it cooks evenly.

3. Add the chicken stock. Make sure it covers the rice entirely so that there is about an 1 – 1 1/4 inches from the surface of the chicken stock to the top of rice. You can use your middle finger to measure the distance, which should be just a little deeper than the first knuckle.

4. Cook the rice as you normally would (boiled cover until the liquid is almost gone then cook with the lid slightly off the pot or until your rice cooker pops or dings).

5. Serve with your favourite meat, fish or vegetable.

A Simple Delight

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This probably isn’t anything that special or worth writing about but I am going to write about it because this is my blog, after all. Ha ha!

Seriously, though, I just whipped up something that both my wife and I really liked but I’m not sure what I want to call it. Below is a list of names that popped into my head and I’m leaning towards Banagbanag but I am open to suggestions. So. If you have any ideas, leave a comment.

– John’s Pasta
– Fathers’ Pasta
– The Rader
– SpaghettiWurst
– Banagbanag
– Banny’s Treat

To give you a little idea of how this dish came about and how I came up with the name ideas, here’s what happened: My wife cooked some thin spaghetti and made dinner for herself and our son. I was busy doing something else so I didn’t join them. When I did go to eat, I saw the left over pasta (about a cup or cup and a half’s worth) and pursed my lips to the side of my face. My wife then challenged me to do something with it. So, my culinary mind kicked in and something new and something my wife wants me to make again was created. I doubt that I’m the very first person to throw these ingredients together – thin spaghetti, crushed garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and liverwurst – but, either way, we liked it and, if I had my own restaurant, it’d be making its way onto the menu.

John Rader was my grandfather. He’s been dead for many years and, sadly, I never met him but it’s from his side of the family that I get my German blood. With the liverwurst in my dish, that’s why I’m toying with the names John’s Pasta, The Rader, and SpaghettiWurst. However, and if I can put modesty aside, I got my talent for whipping up tasty eats from random ingredients in my cupboards and fridge from my dad. As a result of that and the German connection courtesy of my grandfather, I’ve come up with the name Fathers’ Pasta; inspiration from my father and my mother’s father. Lastly, there’s Banangbanag and Banny’s Treat. Banagbanag is my dad’s name; his middle name, I think and Banny is the nickname for that and what his cousins call him. In addition to being the spirit behind my ability to cook off the top of my head, my dad also loves liver and liverwurst. Because of health reasons, he enjoys it less than he used to but it was through him that I grew to love liverwurst and pâ·té de foie gras.

So, if you have any name suggestions, let me know. And, moreover if you try it (click here for the recipe), do let me know what you think.

Thanks for stopping by. Mabuting gana!

Ceramic Knife

I don’t know much about kitchen tools than these four bits of advice: 1. A chef friend told me, when buying knives, to buy the kind with the three metal dots on the handles. Those are the rivets so you know they’re made well and will endure; unlike the knives without the three dots that (often) see their blades slipping out of their handles. This has actually happened to me. 2. Don’t wash a wok. Just rinse it out with hot water so it gets seaoned. 3. Although I prefer them, don’t use wooden cutting boards because bacteria can imbed themselves in the wood. 4. Copper pots and pans – or at least the copper bottomed ones – are the best to cook with. It’s something to do with the way they get hot and/or retain heat. Plus, they’re aesthetically appealing.

Like I said, number 1 is advice given to me by a friend, my best man, who’s a chef. Number 2 is known tradition and technique. Number 3 makes sense but, honestly, I don’t know how valid a piece of advice it is. I mean, wouldn’t the bacteria die after washing the board? Number 4, I think, is something my brother-in-law (also a bit of a foodie but a lawyer by trade) said to me.

Anyway, I bring all this up because I’ve come up with my own piece of advice for starting cooks and those who’ve never used one. Here it is: get a ceramic knife.

Perhaps my culinary life was living under a rock but I’m, really, a very simple kind of cook. I know there are all sorts of knives for all sorts of purposes but, if I need to make an incision, I’ll get whatever knife does the job and get it done. Last November, however, we (my wife, son and I) were at a friend’s house and she was preparing a trial run of her Thanksgiving meal, albeit with a chicken. My wife helped her prep and got to use our friend’s ceramic knife. I held it but didn’t use it. The first thing that caught my attention was how sleek it is while also feeling very sturdy. I imagined fishermen having one on long hauls and carving their catch with a ceramic knife and eating the fresh, instant sushi off its edge. I could picture those same fishermen using the same knife against pirates and less than honest fishmongers who might consider cheating them out of a kilo or two of their catch’s weight.

I finally got to use one on New Year’s Eve when my wife returned home from a shopping trip to Williams and Sonoma. From some holiday shopping at what I call my Mother Ship, my wife earned a cash equivalent coupon for W&S and got me some cooking utensils, including an all black ceramic knife. Being all black, naturally, as an Asian male and martial artist to boot, I felt like I were a ninja and she’d just given me my own tanto. Anyway, I’d also just bought a huge slab of tenderloin and for the New Year’s celebration I was making a Korean feast that included Haemool Pajeon and Kalbi Chim. I didn’t have any short ribs so I used the tenderloin instead but, before putting it into the pot, I had to cut it up. And out came the ceramic knife, which, for some reason, I’ve started calling Black Mamba. Well, the knife went through the meat like a lightsaber through ghee. It’s the best knife I’ve ever used and it gets the job done.

Since New Year’s, I’ve used the knife for other things less glamorous than a glorious slab of meat, and it’s done the job every time. It’s some effective that, to be honest, I’ve been more focused on my cutting technique. I’d hate to slip with this thing because it’d surely take part of my finger off. I still have and sue my grown up set of knives but my Black Mamba is one that will go with me wherever my kitchen might be. My wife and son say I should audition for ABC’s The Taste. If I ever do, you know I’ll be packing Black Mamba in my kit bag.

So, while you may hear all sorts of other advice, all of which will be valid and given by more competent kitchen generals than myself, I do encourage you to have a ceramic knife. Using it, I couldn’t help from recalling the scene in Goodfellas when Paul Sorvino is slicing garlic cloves while in prison as he’s preparing to make pasta sauce. He says to slice it thin for the flavor. And, he’s slicing it with a blade; a good, old fashioned inch by inch and a half blade. Well, Black Mamba can cut as fine as that blade and it can also take on and handle huge slabs of beef. The precision and ease and fit (my fingers wrapped around the hilt like they were made for each other) are like no other knife I’ve ever used and, likely, like no other knife you have. I love to cook and create in the kitchen but I only like to prep. With Black Mamba by my side, I’ve started to love the prepping part too.

If you get one, though, treat it well. It’s ceramic so there is a certain element of delicateness to it. And, while I’ve been told they’re dishwasher safe (mine didn’t say on the tag), I believe you’ll maintain its integrity by washing it by hand.

Happy cooking!

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).

Home Cook

A few weeks ago, in another blog, I talked about some words that we no longer use; words that were, in their heyday, known and used by just about anyone who paid any modicum of attention to world events. In that post (click here to read that blog), I discuss words like ‘glasnost’ and ‘politburo.’

In this post, the first of hopefully many about food and food-related topics, I want to discuss another term: home cook. I’m sure it’s been in vogue for a few years now but I first came across it when I was watching The Taste, a reality food contest show in which the judges taste what the contestants prepare without knowing who made it. The judges vote on whether the food is good or not. If it’s good, the chef stays. If it’s not, the chef goes and, because it’s a blind taste test, a judge could vote off one of his or her own team members.

Among the contestants were various members of the professional culinary community. There were, also, many who were not and those individuals were the ones called ‘home cooks.’ I suppose with pros competing – who work and are called sous chefs, chefs, fulltime caterers, sommeliers – the non-professionals had to be called something more catchy than ‘someone who cooks from home and isn’t a professional or formally trained chef.’ That – pun intended – is simply a mouthful. When I was a teenager, the popular term (in food circles) was ‘foodie.’ That term is still used today but I remember, sometime in the mid 1980s, when visiting family and friends in Singapore used the term and had to explain what it meant to my mother. And, she didn’t have to explain it like it was a generational thing. It was just a new term, at the time, used to describe someone who was into food – eating it, creating it, eager to explore new restaurants and expand one’s palate.

I really enjoyed watching The Taste and I’m looking forward to the next season. I, just like the other non-professionals on the show, enjoy cooking (not that the pros don’t) and I even considered applying to The Culinary Institute of America when I was eighteen; when I was going through the whole college application process. If I ever have the guts to audition for The Taste, I already know what I’m going to make as my entry dish. Anyway, so on some level, I guess I can call myself a ‘home cook.’

It’s interesting, though, how the term has become part of our cultural lexicon. At least when I was a kid, and perhaps more recently than that, the idea of cooking at home wasn’t really an idea, at all. Perhaps, because people are eating out more than in decades before, staying home, cooking and eating in is becoming more of an event than the (formerly) commonplace family dinner. People did cook at home but it was just another part of one’s daily life. The closest thing to the idea of a ‘home cook’ was probably the individual who did the occasional catering gig or, at a town picnic, where residents might enter a pie baking or barbecue grilling contest. And, they did so not to win a load of cash but, rather, to win a ribbon or a tin cup and, more importantly the admiration and even envy of their neighbors.

Today, we’d call them  ‘home cooks’ but it isn’t just a quick and easy phrase for someone who cooks at home. To me, it’s a term that’s better suited for someone who cooks at home (at least, not as a profession), who doesn’t have any (or much) formal culinary training, who cooks with some aspiration to doing something with their food outside of their own kitchens. As for me, I like to make certain things and I’ll experiment with different tastes but any aspirations I have with my cooking talents would be to open a small lunch place that serves simple dishes that I’ve grown to love, served over a bowl of rice; things like Filipino adobo and my mother’s Ginger Chicken.

Anyway, whether you’re a pro or a home cook – or, even, a plain and simple foodie – welcome to Panlasa. Thanks for stopping by and hope you read again soon.