March 28, 2007

Ready to bite into the Big Mango

"Although Thai chefs have become darlings of the international food set, there is still no place like the cuisine's home to experience the full depth and breadth of the Thai culinary palette."
- Joe Cummings on World Food THAILAND

Now I'm sure Joe wasn't lying, I mean, that would hold true for all types of cuisine right? But I've never been one to believe everything I read so I'm off to find that out for myself and I can't wait! After all, it's nice to be one of those "people who live to eat, drink & travel" once in a while! See you all soon, have a delicious weekend! :)

March 26, 2007

Jumbo pastillas

Among our native sweets, pastillas de leche (milk candy) ranks high in my list of favorites. My mom used to always bring home an unlabeled cardboard box filled with these delightful little logs of milk and sugar. It was a habit of mine to come into my parents room at night in the pretense of saying goodnight, but actually snooping for goodies on my mom's nightstand. She was - and still is - a nocturnal muncher, a bad habit I unfortunately inherited which I'm having trouble kicking.

If she had pastillas de leche, I would take a whole bunch back with me to my room and like a little mouse, I'd first nibble on them slowly, trying to prolong the joy I felt each time I bit into these delicious morsels. But eventually unable to resist any longer, I would pop them whole into my mouth. Yum! I can feel my salivary glands going into overdrive right now.

Though I have yet to attempt to make my own, I can imagine it would be quite simple because really you only use two ingredients - milk which is reduced by simmering and sugar, lots of sugar mixed in and to coat. Those of the carabao milk variety are great too!

One Christmas, we received Iya's jumbo pastillas as a present. It came in the cutest box with whimsical cartoon images of cows, and a message that read "mooo-chas gracias!" underneath. Now, how cute is that?! I was stunned when I saw the contents which are easily three times the size of the regular ones. These were definitely not of the popping-into-mouth-whole variety. I would tell you how many are in a box, but I've failed my two attempts at counting because I'd sneak a few and lose count. But I think it's over 20 pcs. And they were good, nope, they were fantastic! And everyone I have given these to agrees. Es mooo-y delicioso! :)

Iya's Jumbo Pastillas
Tel. (02) 843.9066
2320 Morado St./1392 Palm Ave.
Dasmarinas Vill., Makati

March 22, 2007

Flirting with yogurt

Mmm...yogurt. What can I say about yogurt that hasn't already been said? Yogurt rocks and I am a groupie. Now I love all kinds of yogurt whether flavored or fruit-topped, as a drink (like lassi) or thick like labneh. But I will always prefer it natural where it's like a clean slate or a blank canvass awaiting your creative concoctions. It is so versatile, and the different ideas for what to put on it, mix with it or stir in it are literally endless!

But hang on a minute, this isn't a post about yogurt. This is about one of my favorite things to eat it with - fruit preserves. The strawberry jam I made recently was perfect for this! Another type of jam that I love having with yogurt is guava. Until I make my own guava jam (a personal goal of mine), I am very happy with this one using the "authentic old spanish recipe of Dona Maria Luz from Hacienda Conchita". It is so good I've gone through about 3 jars already this year I think.

But wait, what is this? There's a new kid on the block and she's competing for mr. yogurt's attention, you say? She calls herself Jalea de Manga. Hmmm, pretty fancy name there for mango jam. But does she bring it?

Ohhhh she brought it, alright! She's beautiful, golden like the sunset, and sweet. But don't be fooled by her mild sweetness, she packs a mighty fruity punch! She's not bogged down by too much sugar and is free of preservatives just like Ms. Guava Jelly over there. She's luscious and voluptuous whereas guava jelly is smooth and alluring. Pretty stiff competition don't you think?

Who will the smooth and slick Mr. Yogurt pick today?

Guava Jelly (P190) and Jalea de Manga (P215) are available by order.
Just call 842-1374/75
Pick up at 132 Bunga St. Ayala Alabang

March 19, 2007

Bale Dutung - a food trip

What happens when a bunch of folks with an insatiable hunger for the good life filled with good food set off on a food trip together and have a great time?

They immediately plan another one! And that we did. This time our bellies pointed us north to Pampanga, to Bale Dutung (literally wooden house), the home of Claude Tayag - national artist and writer by profession, chef by passion.

There were 22 of us in the Digiprint bus, making the actual trip there doubly fun. The atmosphere was charged with everyone's excitement for the culinary journey that lay ahead, and we all seemed to be yakking at the same time at some point. When you're having fun, time really does fly so that before we knew it, we arrived at Bale Dutung, barely scraping through the narrow streets of the village.

Claude and his wife, Mary Anne, were the most gracious of hosts. They regaled us with stories about the house and how it took almost 10 years to build, slowly but with loving care. As we listened, we milled around a round table replete with butong pakwan (dried watermelon seeds) and boiled peanuts. Just off the dining are was a little bar that had a seemingly endless supply of buko (coconut) juice, iced tea, beer, water, and soft drinks with a bartender helping to scoop up the ice and do the pouring. The table was beautifully set, and here we were ushered to by Mary Anne before they brought out the appetizers.

Top row: paella, kapampangan sushi, pako salad
Bottom row: paradiso, jars of fermented vinegars, the quail

This was the delectable menu: (thanks, wysgal!)
Kapampangan Sushi - taba ng talangka maki with kamias, piniriting hito at balaw-balaw (fried catfish with fermented rice and shrimp), pindang damulag (carabeef meat)
Ensaladaang Pako (fiddlehead fern salad, with slivers of tomato and onion doused with vinaigrette dressing)
Inasal na Pugo (grilled quail with shoestring sweet potatoes and carrots)
Paella Laman Dagat (Spanish paella with seafood)
Paradiso - haleyang ube, makapuno at kamote sa krema ng gatas kalabaw (purple yam, sweet coconut and yellow yam in sweetened carabao's milk)

Nothing like a slow afternoon on a full tummy

After lunch, we strolled around the house marvelling at all the pieces that he salvaged and collected all these years. Many of Claude's feria (fair) pieces were scattered around the house, lending a fun and festive feel to the place. He welcomed us upstairs and into his living room and office where we got to see where his genius is put into canvass and paper. We were surrounded by interesting pieces of furniture designed by Claude such as the rocking daybed inspired by a tennis racket (see pic above). We walked on floors made from wood from bowling lanes and amidst whimsical floor lamps and one-off chairs. This was like his own private gallery of sorts.

The artist in his office, and his other work stations

Snapshots of Bale Dutung

Before we finally headed out at almost 5:00, Claude autographed copies of his book and brought out his bottled specialties such as his XO (for extra-ordinary) sauce, pesto, taba ng talangka (crab fat sauce) and balaw-balaw (fermented rice). (As an aside: we were also in the company of another cookbook author, Catherine Jones, who cowrote the books Eating for Lower Cholesterol and Eating for Pregnancy) .

Because we couldn't make ourselves eat any more that afternoon, we decided to skip the other restaurants such as Zapatas, VFW, Cottage Kitchen , C, etc. for another time, and opted instead to buy some pasalubongs (gifts to take home). So we stopped at Susie's, home of the best tibok-tibok - a delicious and creamy white pudding made with carabao's milk and Rosing's for some yema and pastillas de leche (milk candies).

What we couldn't resist though was a quick stop at Margarita Station , fondly called "the ville" by the locals for some margaritas before heading home. The place was huge, and the Friday night crowd was pouring in. I had a jumbo glass of strawberry margarita which I shared with Joey. That hit the spot. Tired but happy, we toasted to yet another successful food trip, and I could almost hear the wheels in our minds whirring as we planned the next. I can't wait! :)

Tibok-tibok from Susie's

Nightcap at Margarita Station

See more stories and pictures here: Wysgal's ; Anton's; Mila's, Spanky's ; Anne's

Call Bale Dutung for reservations:
+63917 5355163 or (6345) 8885163

March 16, 2007

Asia's In Good Taste

I found a nice surprise waiting for me on my office desk this morning - the 3rd issue of Asia's In Good Taste. Upon unfolding the pretty stationery paper attached to it, I discovered that it was from my friend (the magazine's talented food stylist). We were discussing this new project of hers recently at a party so she knew I was excited to check it out. How very thoughtful of her! ☺

In Good Taste, which was launched Sept. of last year, is so packed with recipes and tips that it reads like a cookbook. This is what makes it unique and deserving of it's claim as the "premiere cookbook magazine". The layout is simple and clean with impressive styling. I was surprised to find out they actually eat the food they shoot. No chemical sprays or fake ingredients for props. They want to make the photos "look as close to the real thing" as possible.

Aside from recipes, there are also the requisite informative articles on this ingredient or that, how to's, kitchen finds, entertaining ideas etc. If you're looking to get your own copy at the magazine stands, it would help to know that you're looking for something that is smaller than your standard issue food mag.

Here's a peak at the table of contents for this 3rd issue:

* Reading tea leaves - delve into the world of tea and learn more than just the mystical nature of scrolling tea leaves with this pot full of tea lore
* Truly pinoy kendi - wax nostalgic about familiar old-time favorite sweets from pulburon, yema and pastillas, bukayo, and masapan de pili
* Hold the sugar - figure out how to add some sweetness to your dishes without piling on the sugar
* Have a dessert party - plan your own theme party revolving around your favorite desserts and drinks.

Randomly selected recipes:
- fried rice patties with chicken terriyaki
- Adobo pita pizza ( I am so trying this!)
- stuffed pork tenderloin with cheese sauce
- chap chae
- dulce de leche sundae
- mango and ricotta wontons
- mocha blondies
- coffee caramel

March 13, 2007

Tall & creamy basic cheesecake

I suppose it follows that if you're a freak for cheese, you're a freak for a good cheesecake. This is definitely true for me. I adore them both.

I think I must have tried almost a dozen different cheesecake recipes in my lifetime searching for the one. Not too long ago I followed a cheesecake recipe from the Philadelphia Cream Cheese Classic Recipes book, thinking this would yield the quintessential homemade cheesecake I was searching for. It was good but not great. The lack of greatness may have been due to my own shortcomings but I'm pretty confident I followed it to the tee. I'm far from being a professional or even seasoned baker though, so don't take my word for it. :)

Those jiggly gelatinous cheesecakes just don't do it for me. And while I prefer my cheesecake plain, you won't find me turning down the occasional fruit-topped one or any of those gourmet flavored cheesecakes either. I'm pretty easy to please as long as it's creamy. Oh and the crust must be good! I'm partial to graham cracker crusts, but am also eager to experiment using the wide variety of options out there like gingersnap cookie crusts- yum!

When I'm craving and too lazy to make my own, I turn to the old reliable cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory. You can pick up a pick up a frozen box at S & R (it's about P1,200 if I'm not mistaken) or buy them by the slice from The Old Spaghetti House. Recently I had the craving, but couldn't sleep so I consulted my new best bud Dorie then ordered 4 boxes of Philadelphia cream cheese from our neighborhood store - they deliver anything from candy bars to blank cds to ice to... you name it (yes, we are spoiled like that☺).

I knew this was serious business, using 4 boxes like that. And it was. I practically had to lift the cake out of the oven with a crane! It was super heavy and very dense. Nope, nothing light and fluffy about this baby. The top took on a golden brown sheen, the crust had a nice crunch to it and the sides were bursting with cheesy creaminess ( I didn't bother smoothing them out, I like how that makes it look 'rustic'). It was in my opinion perfect in every way. It was creamy, it was velvety, it was rich, it was luxurious. This, this right here my friends is the stuff dreams are made of!

Tall and creamy basic cheesecake:
recipe from : Baking, from my home to yours by Dorie Greenspan

for the crust:
1 3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
3 tbsps. sugar
pinch of salt
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) unsalted butter, melted

for the cheesecake:
2 lbs (four 8 oz. boxes) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsps. pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups sour cream (you can also use heavy cream or a combination of the two)

To make the crust:
Butter a 9-inch springform pan (with sides at least 2 inches high), and wrap the bottom of the pain in a double layer of aluminium foil.

Stir the crumbs, sugar and salt together in a medium bowl. Pour over the melted butter and stir until all of the dry ingredients are uniformly moist. Transfer into the springform pan & use your fingers to pat an even layer of crumbs over the bottom of the pan and about halfway up the sides. Put the pan in the freezer while you preheat the oven to 350° F.

Center a rack in the oven and place the springform pan on a baking sheet then bake for 10 minutes. Set the crust aside to cool on a rack while you make the cheesecake.

To make the cheesecake:

Boil some water.

Beat the cream cheese at medium speed until soft and creamy, about 4 minutes. With the mixer running, add the sugar and salt and continue to beat for another 4 minutes or so, until the cream cheese is light. Beat in the vanilla.

Add the eggs one by one, beating for a full minute after each addition, you want a well-aerated batter. Reduce the mixer speed to low and mix in the sour cream.

Put the springform pan in a roasting pan that is large enough to hold the pan with some space around it.

Give the batter a few stirs with a rubber spatula, just to make sure there is nothing left unmixed at the bottom of the bowl, and scrape all of it into the springform pan. The batter may reach the rim of the pan. Put the roasting pan in the oven and pour enough boiling water into it to come halfway up the sides of the springform pan.

Bake the cheesecake for 1 hour & 30 minutes, at which point the top should be browned and may have risen just a little above the rim of the pan. Turn off the oven and crack the oven door open a little, if needed you can prop the door open with a wooden spoon. Allow the cheesecake to luxuriate in its water bath for another hour.

After 1 hour, carefully remove the roasting pan out of the oven, then transfer the springform pan onto a cooling rack and allow it to come to room temperature. When the cake is cool, cover the top lightly and refrigerate overnight.

At serving time, remove the sides of the springform pan and set the cake on a serving platter.

* * *

Variety is the spice of life, so they say. And as much as I adore this basic recipe, I'd like to play around with some variations such as adding lemon for a lemon cheesecake, slipping a layer of berries in the middle - blueberry most likely, and using a gingersnap crust.

In her book, Dorie offers us some very helpful tips on making great cheesecake:

Prebake the crust: the 10-minute baking is what gives the curst it's nice crunch. For best results, slide the pan with the crust into the freezer first while you preheat the oven.

Mix like mad: for that flawlessly smooth texture that is the hallmark of a great cheesecake. Make sure to blend the batter until it is satiny, any lumps in the batter will not disappear during baking.

Cool the cake: cooling and then chilling the cake is as important a step in its preparation as baking.

Unmold it with care: run a blunt knife around the cake and then warm the sides of the pan with a hairdryer.

March 11, 2007

You say kilawin, I say kinilaw...

Summer is just around the corner, there's no denying it. 'Tis the season for pool parties, weekend trips to the beach and afternoons with the outdoor grill. Although in these Philippine islands we can really do all that throughout the year, summer is when it's foremost in our minds. We're always looking for relief from the heat, and it's such a shame to hide in air-conditioned rooms all day.

During past summers in Dumaguete, specifically during Easter, my cousins and I would often rent a balsa (bamboo raft) and let it float away from shore, where the water is cooler and deep enough to dive into. On other days we would take it a step further, rent a banca (outrigger) and head over to Sumilon island and dock at the sandbar there for the day. Food and drink were always overflowing. We brought coolers filled with beer and soda, and tupperwares that contained all sorts of pulutan (finger food or bar chow). So we would laze around on the white powdery beach, or bob along on inner tubes with a drink in our hands or by our side, and food everywhere. On those hot summer nights, we did pretty much the same thing except on land. We hung out, we ate, we drank, we had a great time.

A favorite pulutan then and now is kinilaw (or kilawin). It is light, refreshing and probably the healthiest pulutan you'll find in these shores. For the benefit of those who have not heard of kinilaw, it is basically fish steeped in vinegar in which it naturally "cooks". Similar to ceviche, kinilaw's South American cousin that I first learned about from my Peruvian best friend. Many different types of fish can be used for this such as tuna or tanigue and in this case, bangus (milk fish). What is important is the to clean the fish thoroughly and to eliminate all bones. In the Philippines, it is a staple in many restaurants and bars in the metropolis, though probably best loved by Filipinos eaten by the sea and washed down with a bottle of San Miguel Beer.

I made kinilaw for the first time yesterday to bring to a BBQ/pool party. I used the recipe of my friend whose kinilaw I first tasted in London. It came with a warning about how tedious and time-consuming the process would be, especially to a first-timer. That just challenged me even more. As I cleaned the fish I understood. I'm not sure exactly why he prefers this fish over others but I can't imagine the others being any harder to clean and de-bone. There were no amounts stated for the ingredients, so I had to estimate everything to taste until I was happy with the results.

I was transported back to the beach with the first taste. Surrounded by coconut trees, the taste of salt on my lips, I felt the frothy waves lapping at my feet. With each succeeding bite, I waded in deeper, delirious with delight and perhaps the heat, both from the sun and the chilis.


3 kgs fresh bangus (milk fish)
3 tomatoes, sliced into strips
1 onion, sliced into strips
2 thumbs of ginger, sliced
Milk from a fresh coconut
Sili (chilis) – 2 red, 3 green, finely chopped
white vinegar (nipa sap vinegar)
calamansi (about 12)

1. Scrape scales and remove innards of fish.
2. Wash inside and outside of fish
3. Starting at the back of fish, cut and remove center bone, head, tail and fat in stomach and skin.
4. Cut and separate stomach and meat.
5. Put the fish in a large bowl with ice and cold water while cleaning the rest of it.
6. Cut the flesh into ¼ inch strips discarding ends. Return to bowl with ice and cold water, and about 3 tbsp. rock salt.
7. Wash stomach fillets thoroughly and scrape out fat and bloody parts. Cut into ¼ inch strips discarding ends and fins and combine with the rest.
8. Mix well, discard water and gently squeeze out excess water.
9. Transfer to bowl with ice, cold water and about 2 tbsp rock salt. Toss it around then discard water and gently squeeze out excess water. Repeat 3 times or until water is clear.
10. On last washing squeeze excess water out and transfer to a new bowl.
11. Pour the vinegar over the fish, just enough to completely soak everything. Let fish cook in vinegar (wait till it whitens completely, about 10 minutes or so).
12. When fish is cooked, squeeze out vinegar, rinse the fish then squeeze out excess water.
13. Add ginger, rock salt, onions, tomatoes, calamansi juice and sili then toss around. Taste to see if it needs more salt.
14. Add coconut milk. Refrigerate.

March 9, 2007

Conquering tabbouleh

My first encounter with tabbouleh was at my aunt's cabin in Tagaytay many moons ago. It was Christmas night and as is tradition, we celebrated both the holidays and my aunt's birthday there with the rest of my mom's side of the family. It is a reunion of sorts because many of our relatives from Spain and the US are home this time of year.

I always looked forward to these gatherings, when I get to hang out with my cousins at this beautiful house on the ridge with the sprawling garden and viewing deck overlooking one of the more beautiful vistas in our country, Taal lake and volcano. Scenery so beautiful, Patricia Schultz deemed it worthy of a spot in her book 1000 Places to See Before You Die.

The party was always held in the garden so prettily decorated with Christmas lights. Being up there on those cool December nights meant resurrecting those rarely-used sweaters and coats from the back of our closets. I loved it. Us city-folk don't get to cozy up like that very often.

Dinner was always catered with not a few additional homemade dishes thrown in for good measure. Since my aunt's husband is of Lebanese descent, there was always a big bowl of tabbouleh on the buffet table. I remember being excited to try it that first time because it was 'exotic' to me then. But at the same time I was anxious. I mean, this is made with garnish! Is it really edible? I couldn't wait to find out.

I greedily filled half my plate with the stuff, so sure I would finish it all. That was my first mistake. My second mistake was plowing a big spoonful (not a dainty forkful, mind you) into my mouth. Oof. I couldn't chew. My jaw refused to budge. The taste and aroma of the parsley was overwhelming. The texture was too strange. It took all my will to chew and swallow what I had in my mouth. As I did, I contemplated ways of making the rest of the 'gunk' on my plate disappear. I watched how the others on my table were eating it, some pinched bits of it with pita bread, others mixed it with the viands already on their fork. This was when I realized my third mistake. Sigh, it was too late now. My tastebuds threatened to revolt and I couldn't eat another bite for another, hmmm, 5 years or so.

Fast forward to Portland, Oregon. At the apartment of my brother-in-law's relatives (they're Lebanese too). We had driven down from Vancouver, BC for the weekend. There was a horrible heatwave then, but that's a story for another time. While there, I was treated to ringside priveleges in the art of Lebanese cooking, a cuisine I already had a fondness for thanks to my sister and brother-in-law. It was during one of these busy moments in the kitchen when I saw the pile of parsley on the chopping board. That much parsley could only mean one thing.

I am a strong believer of second chances. Especially when it comes to food. We all have our share of certain foods we despised as a kid but now love. How I love squash and okra now! So there I was at the table already happily chowing on hummus and baba ghanoush with the rest of them, when they passed the bowl of tabbouleh to me. Portion control! I reminded myself, as I carefully transferred some to my plate and grabbed 2 more pita wedges. Perhaps because I learned from my mistakes and also because I'd like to think my tastebuds had matured, I can say I actually liked the stuff. I wasn't doing cartwheels from sheer delight, but it was alright. Feeling triumphant, I rewarded myself with a couple of puffs on the sweet sheesha (hubbly bubbly or hookah, if you prefer).

Today, I'm still not a huge fan. If you had told me I would be voluntarily making tabbouleh for my own consumption at home, I would have asked what you were high on and if you would share some with me. But I had way too much parsley in the crisper and not enough time to consume them all. I figured this was as good a time as any to have my close encounters of the third kind with tabbouleh. Yet another salad I've made with my stash from the Baguio trip, which includes delicious cherry tomatoes.

The recipe called for flat-leaf parsley but I only had the curly variety. After consulting with a few recipe sites online, I was happy to learn that both varieties are acceptable so I went ahead and chopped those babies up. I served it as a side dish with warmed pita bread. How did I like it? It was not bad at all. What I would suggest to do differently though is up the ratio of bulgur to parsley.

adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook

½ cup fine bulgur
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 cups finely chopped parsley
½ cup finely chopped fresh mint
about a dozen cherry tomatoes
1 cucumber, seeded and cut into ¼-inch pieces
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
¼ tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper

Stir together bulgur and 1 tbsp oil in heat-proof bowl. Pour 1 cup boiling water over bulgur, then cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let stand for 30 minutes.

Drain bulgur in a sieve, pressing on it to remove excess liquid. Transfer bulgur to a bowl and toss with remaining 2 tbsp oil and remaining ingredients until well combined.

Best served with pita or other flat-bread.

March 8, 2007

Nothing like homemade strawberry jam

I'm a fruit freak. There aren't many fruits I don't like. There's nothing quite like eating a fresh fruit in its purest form, sinking your teeth into the flesh (into the skin too in many cases) and feeling it's juices trickle down your chin and arms as the flavors burst in your mouth, sending your tastebuds into overdrive. But I love fruits in all it's other forms too - fruit juices, fruit shakes, fruits in pies, cobblers, candies, cakes, preserves, chocolate; fruits in my cereal, with my yogurt, on my salads, even dried fruits, I think you get the picture. :)

Second only to (Philippine) mangoes, strawberries are at the top of my list of favorite fruits. It's funny how the sight of strawberries never fails to cheer me up regardless of what kind of day I'm having. What's not to love? They're pretty to look at, these heart-shaped little red gems, they're incredibly sweet and delicious and pack a flavorful punch with each bite, they're fat free (!) and are high in fiber and Vitamin C (even more than a citrus fruit), rich in anti-oxidants, and they're easy to eat and prepare-no peeling or seeding required, and they're so versatile.

As an aside, did you know there's an entire museum dedicated to this fruit in Belgium?

Now when I'm confronted with a bowl- or basketful of strawberries, my brain begins to reel with a swirl of possibilities. As was the case when I bought home 5 kgs of the fruit from Baguio. Actually now 2 1/2 kgs, because I sent half to my sister.

Do I mash it milk and sugar like I'd always done as a child? Should I dunk it in Nutella, mmm? Or pour melted chocolate all over it then dip in cream? Or maybe fire up the blender and make some strawberry-yogurt smoothies? I could save some to use on my cereal and muesli too. Am I feeling brave enough to attempt the strawberry trifle I've often dreamed of making? Whatever I decided to do with them, I needed to do it fast! I had to make the most of every piece because they weren't going to last much longer.

And what better way to preserve the flavor of these sweet strawberries than to make jam? So make jam I did. I heaved off the shelf the tome that is The Gourmet Cookbook and found two recipes. One for a quick and easy version, and the other which required longer stove top time which is what I eventually went with.

I halved the recipe and followed the instructions, marvelling the entire time at how simple and easy it was. As I stirred and skimmed, the sweet intoxicating fragrance of the strawberries only intensified as the sugar melted into thickening red oblivion. The result was a brilliant red jam with the perfect amount of lumps and a flavor so amazing, I swore I'd never settle for store-bought strawberry jam again. My folks loved it, and so did a couple of friends I each gave a small jar to.
Again I wonder, why have I never made my own jam before?

Strawberry Jam
adopted from The Gourmet Cookbook
Makes 2 medium-sized jars.

1 kg fresh strawberries, rinsed and hulled
1 ¾ cups sugar
3 tbsp lemon juice

Sterilize jars and lids by boiling them in hot water for about 10 minutes.

Chill a plate for testing later. Using a potato masher, crush strawberries lightly. Transfer to a heavy bottomed pot and add the sugar. Bring to a boil over moderate heat, stir and skim off foam frequently for 10 minutes.

Add the lemon juice and cook at a slow boil, skimming and stirring frequently until jam tests done.

Begin testing at 20 minutes; remove pot from heat while testing. Drop a spoonful of jam onto a chilled plate and refrigerate for 1 minute, then tilt plate. Jam should remain in a soft mound and run slightly.

Drain jars upside down on a clean kitchen towel for 1 minute, then invert and ladle jam into jars. Leave about ¼ inch space at the top. Let jam stand for at least 1 day to allow the flavors to develop. (If jam won't be consumed immediately, seal and process the jars properly.) Keep refrigerated.

That's it! :)
Here are some helpful tips I gathered from the same book:

When picking strawberries, choose fresh and fragrant ones with an even color; without a white or green 'shoulder', an indication that they aren't ripe. Discard any moldy berries, but those that are merely soft, wrinkled or bruised can be used.

Store berries in a single layer on a baking sheet, or in a shallow baking dish lined with paper towels in your refrigerator.

Don't wash them until you're ready to use them, and leave their green caps on until you've dried them so the don't get waterlogged. Because of their high water content, strawberries can't be frozen as successfully as cherries or blueberries.

Homemade guava jam, here I come! :)

March 7, 2007

The Salad Bowl of the Philippines

The 'main' greenhouse

The mere mention of Baguio triggers my sensory memory. Somehow during my past trips to Baguio since my childhood, my brain had subconsciously programmed into my memory every thing about this city that toyed with all my senses. The beautiful pine trees and their distinctive fragrance, the gorgeous mountain-top views, the taste of sweet fresh strawberries mashed with cream/milk and sugar (my favorite way to eat strawberries as a child), the sound of horses hooves and my the happy squeals of children astride them, and of course the feel of the crisp cool mountain air that lowlanders like us are deprived of.

what's left of the sweet strawberries after picking

It was nice to come back to all that after so much time away and be able to top-up those memories for later enjoyment. If you can look past the newly-opened SM mall, you'll see that not much has really changed. All the elements that make it the summer capital of the Philippines are still there.

And whenever I come to Baguio, I am a woman on a mission. That is, to bring home the best lettuce, broccoli and strawberries, among other things. Benguet, the province that surrounds Baguio and La Trinidad, is after all the Salad Bowl of the Philippines. It is also called Strawberry Country as this is the only place in the entire country where strawberries thrive.

look at all that lettuce! Can you guess what I'll be taking to the office for lunch everyday this week?

I was quite happy to make my purchases at the well-stocked city market but I was beyond delighted when we were invited to pick our produce from an organic farm in La Trinidad! My friend's lovely aunt arranged it all for us.

So midday on Saturday, we were accompanied by Sister Josephine from St. Louis University to the Benguet State University organic farm, just about 2-3 kms. away in La Trinidad. She regularly takes her students on field trips there so she was our 'ticket' to this private farm. She explained that what makes this farm unique is that spring water is used for irrigation, and not recycled canal water as other farms purportedly use. Now, I don't know about you, but anything a nun tells me I am inclined to believe.

curly leaf parsley

Fifteen minutes later, we turned into an unmarked dirt road and we passed several greenhouses to our left. She explained that inside those greenhouses was where experimental farming was being conducted. We arrived at what looked like the main greenhouse as it appeared to be the biggest of them all. Johnny, the resident farmhand, was expecting us. With knife in hand, ready to hack away, he led us into the greenhouse where row upon row of the most vivid shades of green greeted us.

Top row: broccoli and red beets
Bottom: cherry tomatoes and bell peppers

I ogled the broccoli plants, I had never seen a broccoli plant before. At first I didn't know what they were, these huge blue-green leaves. It was only when I bent and peered into the center did I see the familiar little head hidden among the leaves. Such a big plant that takes up so much precious fertile space, for such a small harvest. I asked if the leaves were edible. Nope, Johnny shook his head, they're used for compost. Interesting. No wonder they command quite a hefty price.

There were cherry tomatoes on the vine, gorgeous beds of parsley, red and green bell peppers hanging from their stems like shiny ornaments on a short and wide christmas tree, various lettuce varieties such as leaf and romaine, and of course the strawberries. Those elusive (to us lowlanders) little red gems that cost an eye once transported to Manila. We each bought 5 kgs of strawberries (P60/kg), 2 kgs of broccoli and about 8 kgs total of the other vegetables (all for P50/$1 per kg each) to be divided among ourselves. Now that's what I call a sweet deal.

5 kgs of strawberries for only P 300 ($6)!

Before we headed back though, we made a quick detour to the La Trinidad strawberry fields (pictures below) to have a look-see. This is obviously a popular tourist attraction because we were barely out of the car when we were hounded by peddlers. It was a beautiful day for picking strawberries, and if we didn't have to go back to meet the guys for lunch I would have loved to go out there and get my hands dirty.

for sale: strawberry wine & strawberry jam
the ubiquitous walis (grass broom)

March 5, 2007

Baguio revisited

I can't remember exactly when I went to Baguio last because it's been so long. But I think it was in '99 when I went for the Panagbenga flower festival, as part of an official tour of Philippine fiestas for work. As much as I love being up in the mountains amidst the cool pine-scented air, I used to dread the long 6-7 hour drive. But my trip to Donsol last year, which had me in a car for 14 hours each way, fixed that.

So our journey last Friday was pretty much a breeze. Being in the big and comfortable company bus with the airplane seats, cozy couch in the back, dvd player and cooler filled with drinks even made it was actually quite enjoyable. Made even more so by the fact that I was with some of my bestest friends.

the backyard bathed in the early morning sun, Camp John Hay
Because Baguio city is located about 1,500 meters above sea level the climate is naturally at least 10 degrees cooler than in Manila. It was lovely "sweater-weather" for us the entire weekend. Those of you who also live in a tropical and humid country know the joy this can induce from time to time. Every morning was a struggle though, I would have to begrudgingly force myself to emerge from under my warm duvet, pondering the possiblity that gravity was indeed stronger under my bed that precise moment. But thoughts of hot chocolate, ensaymada, Baguio longganisa (pictured at left) & fried rice waiting just beyond my bedroom door was all it took to coax me out of bed finally.

While the men played mini-golf, we explored Baguio's public market, a popular one-stop shop for the freshest produce from the Cordillera mountain region, native Ifugao wood-carved souvenirs, fruit preserves and yams, walis tambo (top-quality brooms), flannel blankets, peanut brittle, raw honey, native woven handbags, plants, flowers, handwoven fabrics, and chocolate-covered corn flakes among other things. Aside from how complete the market is, what surprised me the most was how utterly clean it was. No wonder it has become a popular tourist destination in the city.

I had my first taste of binatog at the market.
Binatog is steamed white corn kernels mixed with milk, grated coconut and sugar.
It was a chewier version of mais con hielo without the ice. Yum!

No trip to Baguio is complete without the requisite visit to the legendary Good Shepherd convent , home of the most sought-after fruit preserves such as strawberry jam, ube jam and peanut brittle. If there is one thing (aside from the abundance of fresh strawberries and horses) that I love most about Baguio, it's the Good Shepherd ube jam! I have not found anything remotely as good as this sweet, smooth and creamy version.

They sell them freshly made and still warm, with a reminder to leave it uncapped until noon the next day. I barely made it back into the car, when with my finger I scooped up some of the purple goodness from the jar. Mmmm, still as delicious as ever! I wish I had bought more, but I find comfort in the fact that you can now avail of Good Shepherd products in Manila. In fact, I see a trip to Market! Market! in my future.

Some pictures taken at Mines View Park

What's in a name?

Big & small kulangot (literally translates as, -get this- booger), I know it sounds gross but it's good! Found inside the coconut shells are wads of sweetened coconut , like cocojam, which you scoop out with your finger or a tiny spoon.
The small ones also made good ammo for the new tiradors (slingshots) we bought for the kids at Mines View Park.

Did you really think I could have a post about Baguio without at least one horse picture? ;)