22 July 2011

When I'm Old and Grey

I have a picture in my head and in my heart of how I want to be when I'm old and grey.  It used to be a different picture-- one that had in it a significant other with whom I am holding hands with while walking off into our happily-ever-after-sunset.  Now it is just me strumming my guitar and singing some James Taylor song (Carolina on My Mind) while waiting for dinner that I've prepared to finally be ready. Maybe before I sleep, one of my two children will call me to talk about stuff in their life and that would be the most perfect day.

I wouldn't like to think I've lowered my standards of happiness but rather that I've redefined what it is that makes me truly happy.  And I think that this is true for most of us because at different points in our lives, we have different definitions of what that is.  For example, when I was younger, I was happy to have someone adore me like I was the light that made their darkest days bright.  I loved the attention for quite a long while and that was what made me happy.  Then the admiration stopped and naturally I was unhappy again.  Don't get me wrong, I don't see anything wrong with how you choose to define your happiness (except of course if you define happiness by setting things on fire or hurting innocent children--then you need to be sent to that special place in hell immediately) because that is a very personaI thing.  

People always tell you that you can't let your happiness depend on one person but that is just crap (pardon me), hypocritical talk.  You can't really help it, can you?  Nobody can dictate, not even yourself, that which makes you happy and whom you to choose to love.  If that were the case, you can just choose to fall in love with someone who already loves you, someone who treats you with kindness, rather than some bad boy who behaves like he is God's gift to you. Or you can choose not to love someone like Hugh Jackman (who really is God's gift to ALL women not in the lucid state), where there certainly will be much effort (mostly useless) to be exerted for him to love you back. If that were the case, then the world would have been saved from so much pain and sadness.  I think that that--needing someone-- is a part of the cycle of our lives.  That we are born alone,  live and need people for awhile and then in the end, we will again find ourselves alone.  Maybe, because I got to the alone part earlier than most people I know, I am not as afraid of being by myself in the last summers (I refuse to believe I will have to see winter) of my colorful life.  The trouble is when we don't like this person  we'll be stuck with (ourselves) and I'd like to share something that may help you with this.

Different schools of thought will teach you one of two things: 1.) that life is a straight time line and that you will pass through this moment only once and 2.)  that life is not a straight line but is a cycle of sorts.  I think though that it can be both such that things have a way of repeating themselves until a lesson is learned out of it.  There were times in my life I questioned why such things happen only to find out later on that I am being taught a lesson I wouldn't have otherwise learned had the exact same situation not been presented to me.  You may be angry at your Mother and sooner than not, you find yourself sitting in a room presented with the very same crossroads your Mother encountered in her life and then you begin to understand her and see life as it unfolded through her eyes.  Life is funny like that.  Some like to call this karma, others poetic justice.  I call it Repeater Status.  When we fail to pick up the lesson life tries to teach us, events just repeat themselves.  And when we keep refusing to learn the lesson then life becomes this meaningless cycle of error after error until we are older but sadly none the wiser.  I refuse to be that because that is a sure way of not being able to literally live with yourself when you're old and grey--to spend the remainder of years regretting the life you've lived.

I pray that I be granted with a relatively healthy head to afford recalling the memories of my life--the happy, the sad and everything else in between. To remember meals that I've prepared with the people and their stories told in the warm light of my dining table.  To remember those that I've forgiven and those that have forgiven me.  To remember the lessons I've been fortunate enough to learn and teach.  To still be able to know the recipes to the dishes, the chords to the songs, the lines to the movies of my life (some of which belonged to the horror genre though mostly comedy, really).  

And finally, I'd like to be with the last man in my life, the one who's been there through the thickest of the thick and the thinnest of the thin--James Taylor, finding peace and serenity as we sing ...Going to Carolina on my mind...:-)  

19 June 2011

The Memory of Taste

Jacques Pepin once said something to the effect that a recipe is a guide to the memory of taste.  That when a cook writes down a recipe, he or she writes it with certain reference to the situation of an ingredient.  For example, if you follow a recipe for Osso Buco, the recipe would perhaps say that it needed a kilo of ripe tomatoes that have never seen the insides of a refrigerator (as my recipe would say).  But depending on how much love, care, sunlight and water your tomatoes received, or if the farmer's truck broke down on the way to market and got rained upon, the amount of tomato and likewise effect in taste would vary.  A recipe therefore is a guide to recreate the taste the author experienced while making a certain food depending on the situation and circumstance surrounding him the day he or she was writing it down.  Cooks always return to the same memory in an effort to recreate the exact masterpiece every time.  This I observed is so very similar to what lovers lost do.

Once upon a time you danced with this man under a silver, Neverland moon with diamond stars that dotted the endless black sky.  And everything was magic.  But. Here you are now, trying to recreate the same enchantment chasing the very same moon and begging the very same stars to lend its light to the very same dark night and...nothing.  Not even a spark.  And you sit there tired and befuddled that after having followed the recipe to the dot, the memory of taste cannot be duplicated.  

Jacques Pepin said too that each recipe is a work in progress and that he knows when a recipe is done, when nothing else can be added to make it even better. And in that sense the recipe is a living document not just a formula made of letters and symbols written in stone.  It may be improved, altered and enriched depending on that which you choose to add.  Kinda like in relationships, huh?  As in relationships, chemistry is needed for it to begin, romance to make it blossom and commitment for it to flourish.  But as time goes by, you'd need a healthy dose of laughter and a constant infusion of trust for the dish to always be as delicious as it was or even better than it had ever been.  Some of us are fortunate enough to get to the point when the recipe is done, as Pepin says, when it is perfect as it is and nothing else should be added.  Of course it is only now that I understand that it takes a long, long time to get there.  That it is imperfect for a long, long time, before it finally is.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the patience to get to that place where nothing more is needed, that sublime place of perfect peace.  Not everyone has the wisdom to understand that the recipe changes with time and with whom we are trying to love. We keep trying to chase the memory or stick to a formula without considering that we are applying these to different people and different times.  Or that it could in fact be the same person who is already different inside.   

I realize that I should love the way I cook, for I always cook in the now.  Depending on what kind of produce I have, the kind of flour I'm working on, the amount of humidity in the air. I always adjust. Loving is pretty much the same.  Memory is good when it is a reminder and a guide of a good thing.  It is bad when we continue living there without realizing we could be achieving the same if we lived and loved in the here and now.  We will never have the exact same tools and ingredients nor will we ever be and be with the exact same people.  But as long as we know this, we will always have a chance to improve, alter and enrich that which we have.  

Here's to more days of cooking, living and loving for all of us.  :-)

30 December 2010

38 Years and Counting (The Blessings)

On the eve of my 38th birthday I decided to try writing again.  And I would like to write about the 38 nearly random things I am truly grateful for in my life.  I only mentioned "nearly random" because the very first item on the list was that which inspired me to list down all that I am thankful for.  Here they are:

38.  Halo-halo on a sweltering day
37.  A clear and smooth drive through Katipunan at 3 PM.  On a school day
36.  Killer stilletos I can run in
35.  My little girls belly laugh
34.  Dancing in the rain under a John Mayer sky
33.  Bacon
32.  Diamond Peel
31.  Senor Pedro Lechon Manok and Liempo
30.  Being friends with exes
29.  High School reunions
28.  Spanish sardines after a great, big function
27.  Having a laugh with my staff
26.  Coming up with a really cool outfit
25.  Acting my age
24.  NOT acting my age
23.  Macadamia Brittle Ice Cream
22.  Sweet Corn  Sorbetes 
21. My neighborhood Panaderia Pantoja-- for the softest and prettiest Sesame Seed    Bread  (under 60 bucks) that make for the best Ham and Cucumber Tea Sandwiches and for indulging my whimsical demands such as slicing white loaf lengthwise (to roll into Cheese Pimiento Pinwheels)
20.  Bento Boxes
19.  Saizen, Choto Stop, New Hatchin
18.  J.R.R. Tolkien
17.  Our Yaya of 13 years
16.  Our new "Ate" of 6 mos.  (please don't change)
15.  My food being on someones yearly Christmas Table 
14.  Wagyu
13.  Ebi Tempura
12.  The absence of debt
11.  Being part of someone's happy memory
10.  The gift of always being able to do the thing I love-- and making a living out of it!
  9.  Friends who are the same whether you're with them or not
  8.  Brothers who inspire me to see the world through someone else's eyes
  7.  Sisters who are so different from who I am and teach me there's no one perfect way   of being a Mom/Daughter
  6.  Simply the best Dad in the whole wide universe!
  5.  My strange but wonderful family life
  4.  Holding on to the last rays of my boy's "baby-ness"
  3.  Letting go bit by bit, to watch him one day be the best man he could possibly be 
  2. A daughter who massages my head when it hurts and hands me tissues when I cry watching sad movies
  1.  Eating, praying and loving-- at home.  That I only have to light up my stove to be nourished to the soul,  that I only need to close my eyes and feel so small against the will of God, that I only have to reach out my arms to hold the loves of my life--  I am truly, truly thankful.

12 September 2010

Kitchen Spirits

There is an old woman crooked with age in the rust colored house overlooking the ocean.  She is standing in front of her trusted stove while the sun is bidding the sea goodbye and the wind whispering distant howls across the lush, rolling green of this place she now calls home.  Even when the light begins to fade and surrenders to the darkness of evening, she takes her time to prepare a warm meal to provide for what would be a chilling, starless night. The shadows have grown long and what used to be mere whispers of the howling wind are now bales of manic laughter dissipating against the imposing rocks of these ancient cliffs.  And yet inside this house the world is entirely different, everything is quiet save for the  gentle sizzling of garlic in olive oil now filling the entire house with its intoxicating perfume.  It is in fact considerably warm with the many candles she had lit in the kitchen and on the dining table which she, for some unknown reason, had grown accustomed to setting for two.  If it hadn't been for the shaking of the windows against the fury of the approaching tempest, you would be tempted to walk out into the courtyard to wish on the first of the twinkling stars.  But we already know there are none.  There will be none for a long, long time.

She turns back to the plump chicken pieces which have been bathing for a while now in the sultry, crimson-colored paprika that have been stone-ground and have journeyed from the deepest valleys of La Vera in Spain to her cupboards now as old as she was.  They are quietly humming in unison with the olive oil and the very salt harvested from the oceans below.  She caresses each piece and gently powders them with flour the way a woman gently powders her nose.  Not too little and not too much, just a little dusting to  protect and prevent the direct contact of skin and fire.  She turns the heat up of the pan where the slivers of garlic have been gently coaxed by the oil into giving up its very essence of existence.   She puts in the pieces of the chicken to brown and with the final dousing of the best Sherry she could afford, the spirits of chicken, garlic and paprika-- united in steam, rise from the cast iron pan to ascend and return to the home of the gods.  The pan exalts in glory  announcing that  this concerto of food, this symphony of sight, smell and sound has officially reached its denouement.

But as if by the command of an invisible Maestro, a knock was heard on the door.   The old woman was startled. After all this time, she still gets startled. She looked up from where she was standing  and saw the wind blow across her windows what appeared to be a coat of some kind.  She walked unsteadily to the door and opened it ever so slowly like she always does.  All those times this has happened, nobody was ever there.  But tonight was different. There is a man standing outside her very door. She recognizes him but wonders how and why he was there.  She tries to speak but instead of her voice  only tears spoke of all the things she would never find words for.  The old man trembled as he reached one hand to his mouth and the other to touch the  face of the woman he can't believe he was seeing now.  He was crying too.

02 September 2010

Regrets Only

I am usually the optimist's optimist.  But there are days like this when I can't seem to accomplish anything else as I wallow and do laps in my swimming pool of self-pity.  I dive to the deepest end and watch the world pass by from underneath my silent abyss of what ifs and why nots while waiting for the answers to come.  They don't.  Whoever said they don't regret anything they have done or said in their lives is an absolute hypocrite.  I think that we all have our secret regrets for which we pat ourselves on the back as a form of contrition and confirmation (though more a way of convincing really) that we have done good and right.  But who are we kidding?

Maybe it's because of the combination of getting old and having contracted Inward-Attention-Deficiency- Syndrome (IADS)-- a deficiency I have proclaimed to exist, that makes me have days like this.  Though maybe the latter would be the product of the former.  In contrast to ADD where kids/adults are deficient in paying attention to outside things,  IADS sufferers are deficient in receiving any form of attention from anyone.  Anyone at all. 

Today I almost had a tantrum because our Yaya (nanny) wouldn't make me coffee at the instant I asked for it.  I felt invisible, irrelevant and powerless against her will.  All for a cup of coffee I could've made myself.  Her cup is in fact nowhere near as good as the one I make, but as in all things in the universe 'tis not about the cup but the power for making one yield into making  that cup.  Hmmm.  Maybe it's time to take THAT happy pill.

To my 11 followers, my apologies.  I will be back on a better day.  Now to dive back into my pool... 


23 August 2010

Ode To The Pig

I love the Pig.  I think that no other creature that has walked the face of the earth can  ever be more gastronomically perfect than him.    I really, really do.  And that is saying a lot because as a gastronaut of sorts, I have a very wide and open-minded palate and therefore find joy and contentment in eating a plethora of things.  However, a perfectly cooked pig for me is like the absolution of sin, an experience both captivating and liberating in the same breath. I'm quite sure some of you may argue that some other animal is much worth the kind of admiration and adulation that I am doling out in this entry and I would completely understand my friends who belong to sects that forbid the consumption of pork, but to all others, please bear with me and hear the reasons for my love for the beast known as Pig. 

True that the Toulouse Goose (which gives us foie gras d'oie) or the Tajima breed of Japanese cows  (which give us our prized Wagyu steaks) are prime examples of beasts also worth putting atop a pedestal.  Oh and please don't get me wrong, I love both as much as the next carnivore and would not completely discount trading in my first born for an eat all you can foie gras and wagyu buffet. But may I just point out the fact that the sublime tastes and textures from these animals  are not congenital as they require much manipulation from man.  And don't get me wrong again, I am not against such manipulations (sorry PETA friends, I can only be me) because it is precisely because of these shenanigans that I am able to experience the smoothness, silkiness and creaminess that  I can only describe as the world's best savory milk chocolate (if there was ever such a thing) that is foie gras.  Similarly, Tajima breed of cows were not born with the most perfect marbling one can imagine that it might just as well be marbled by design.  This of course as we all know is the result of the cows staying put forever  in one place coupled with endless sessions of daily massages to the tune of classical ambient music add to that the perfunctory gulping down of at least 40 liters of beer and/or sake a day. And because of these accoutrements, the resulting cost for both foie gras and wagyu is much too steep for your average Joe, Kim, Pierre, Pedro to pay for.  In fact  our very own Juan here may never even see the top of the tin of worst grade canned foie gras there is for as long as he shall live.  These simply cannot be food for every man.  

What about seafood you may ask?  The thing with seafood is this, no matter how much of it I eat, I never get full.  I always find myself saying, "Boy that was a good, light lunch" after a seafood meal and it makes me feel like I was being good and healthy, which more often than not I'm not.  But two hours later I'm at a McDonald's drive through ordering a quarter pounder with cheese and a side of fries.  I don't ever get that feeling of fullness  and ultimately satisfaction from seafood though I love, love, love eating them.  Our Dad used to farm prawns and crabs in our province Bulacan and I'm telling you I can eat those babies by the kilo on my own. Also, if you didn't farm them like we did, the price is a bit prohibitive too.  Not as much as foie gras and wagyu, but prohibitive just the same which is compounded by the fact that you need to eat more of it to feel satisfied.  

And no I did not forget about chicken and other birds.  To borrow the words of Simon Cowell, if I'm being honest with you, I'm not a  huge fan.  If a chicken sang in front of me I would probably say something like "Please go back into your shell and develop some more." In fact, I think that the best thing that ever happened to chicken is KFC.  (Kids may argue and vote for Chicken Joy, but kids don't read this do they?) Yes I do make a pretty good version of curry, but if I had a craving for chicken-- which is not so very often, curry would not be on top of my list.  KFC more often than not does the trick.  In fact, come to think of it.  My cravings were not for chicken but for KFC chicken.  So no, my vote does not go to our feathered friends.  Sorry.

Which brings us back to our lowly yet lovely and affable Pig. You don't have to have Kurobota to enjoy it's meat.  It doesn't cost an arm and a leg to purchase and is readily available in your local butcher or market.  You could fry, roast, stew, braise or grill it.  You could bread it, dry it, grind it, smoke it or make it into sausages.  Every single part of the animal can be used and prepared in ways that would warm your bellies with a happy fullness and satisfaction sans the heaviness that the meat of cows bring.  It takes very simple ingredients and methods to make a memorable meal out of your common pig.  

Case in point is this recipe for my Oven-Crisped Lechon Belly.  It is a humble recipe that needs nothing more than three ingredients, a well chosen pork belly included.  It is an easy, foolproof (even for the hardened kitchen offenders) spatterless method that will consistently give you beautifully blistered, crunchy skin and juicy tender meat  glistening and basking in the glory of it's own rendered fat.  It will earn ooh, aaahs, hugs, kisses and more than that. 

My Oven-Crisped Lechon Belly   

1 Kilo Pork Belly, Skin-on/Bone-in
2 Tablespoons Rock Salt
Enough water to cover
  1. Clean pork belly. 
  2. Boil in water with salt until tender but not falling off the bone (around 40 mins.) 
  3. Drain whole pork belly and cool in a dry place. 
  4. Prick skin all over with a steel brush ( I bought mine in Divisoria.  It looks like a toothbrush with pins for bristles.)
  5. Put in a roasting rack and roast at 300 degrees until skin has perfectly blistered, usually another 40 minutes
If you want to roast a bigger belly, you may do so but as always, do adjust the salt and time of cooking.  This is a very basic recipe so you can experiment by trying to put stuff in the boiling liquid like lemongrass, onions, black pepper, star anise.  The result is somewhat similar to the flavor of Lechon Cebu.  But whatever you choose to add, don't add sugar as this will ultimately affect the crispiness of the skin. 

Like I said, I love the Pig.  I think maybe that after all the evil that escaped from Pandora's box, it was a little Pig and not Hope that was left in it,  speaking in it's wee voice a message from Dionysius himself and thereby bringing back  hope and everything that was good and worth living for in the world.  And even if that isn't accurate Greek mythology, I am sure that one bite from this recipe will have you call out the names of the gods in honest gratitude for letting such a beast escape from the heavens to grace our many tables here on earth.

17 August 2010

Thank You For the Music

There is music in the wind that moves and breathes in the spaces of my soul. It is a song that constantly rocks and cradles the skiff of my heart from one shore to another in the many journeys of my life. I would find myself in the midst of the most perplexing labyrinth, and it has always been music that clears my head and keeps me finding my way back to shore .  Its words are the rivers I follow knowing they always unite with the ocean where my boat  patiently awaits--like a tiny dancer frolicking with the waves as if calling me to set sail once more to another journey scheduled by destiny but written by me.   While children will always be the anchor that keep me from drifting where I should not be, it has always been music that keeps me sailing through the most wicked tempest  of the seas.  No.  Music is not just my refuge.  Music is my redemption.

Even when the house is still, as it is right this very moment, there is a musical score  playing in my head.  It is there whatever it is I am doing, wherever I am in my life.  And in the moments where I have no answers to the questions in my head, the volume of that musical score is multiplied by a factor of at least two.  With it I am able to stare at my  demons, my doubts and fears right in the eye.  And through it, I am able to slay them all.  Music makes me muster the courage I never even knew I had and pushes me to conquer things I never even dreamt I could.   It is the magical potion  more intoxicating than any mind altering substance man can ever invent. It can make you feel bigger than you really are faster than you can say Wonderland.  Chemical concoctions may reach the innermost crevices of ones mind, but only Music has the power to break into the deepest, darkest alleys of your soul.  Other things can make you forget, but Music-- Music will make you remember all the things you are. 

In my kitchen, where there is a constant humdrum of action, the fire in the stoves are further fanned by the fire of Music.  Generally though, during prep time, the soundtracks are either as aseptic and crisp as Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor or something as nerve-calming as Astrud Gilberto's haunting affectations.  The music is always the backdrop that frames all elements in its proper places-- ingredients and staff included.  During the actual cooking though, the music is hot, dirty and full of lust.  (No I don't play dirty raps or that idiotic song Birthday Sex).  Think something along the lines of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis jazz, the kind they play in smoke-filled parlors in some alley in New Orleans.  It's gotta be something with so much feeling and soul because that's what happens food meets fire.  That music and the sizzling, the hissing and the exaltation  from the sacrifice of the spirits of food--these are the only hymns heard throughout the kitchen at cooking time.  Well,  those and my voice telling everyone to shut up and pay attention to the process.  And Music does that to my attention-deficit mind.  It makes me see what I need to see and feel what I need to feel  in order to experience the process more vividly.  It doesn't matter if the experience was happening in the kitchen or in life as it unravels .  It doesn't matter whether the experience was something joyous like the birth of a child or something that makes me feel like jumping of the ledge (my friend).  Music is truly the exclamation point to every emotion I've ever had.  It makes me feel so much more alive.  

When I'm heartbroken, listening to stuff like My Immortal makes the pain so much more painful.  But when I am happy and I'm listening to Come On Eileen, the ride is so much happier and undoubtedly more interesting.  It's as if I am able to enlarge, underline and italicize the font of my life through music.  It makes the highs much higher and the lows so much lower which I realize is what life is,  as it happens-- a series  of beautifully timed ups and downs without which can literally transpose into living a flatlined life.  And if that isn't an oxymoron, then I don't know what is.

Life is not so redundant or scary with Music.  I find that the deeper I am into my story and my personal soundtrack the closer I am to actually finding Me. With its company I find that I am a little bit braver to live, to love.  After all it is in the living , the loving and the music  that I learned and am continuing to learn who I am. So I say Thank you for the Music, (all together now) for giving it to me.