Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Poached Largemouth Bass (Apahap)

I love saltwater fish, and I love bass even more, poached or steamed. Rummaging in my freezer last week, I hauled out a two-pound largemouth bass (apahap) that I had planned to steam, but discovered that I did not have a steamer large enough to accommodate the fish. If that was not bad enough, I also did not have a fish poacher either, so I utilized a non-stick grill plan; filled it with water and dunked the fish when the water began boiling. I would have preferred steaming the bass, but I was pleasantly surprised that poaching was pretty good. I gave the fish a total of twenty minutes of poaching, ten minutes on each side, poking it with a fork to make sure that that it had reached the desired flakiness and still hold its flesh together.
I then hauled it out of the grill pan with two turners and placed it on a large dinner plate. A poached, unsalted bass would taste bland to a Filipino tongue, so I prepared a spread, or topping, consisting of a cup of mayonnaise, finely chopped white onion, and one chopped hard-boiled egg. Ordinarily, I would have added finely chopped celery or Chinese celery into the mix, but the fridge did not yield any of these, so I made do with what was on hand.
I mixed the ingredients together and added a pinch of salt and spread it on the poached bass, which was large enough for a single serving for me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cuisinero Los Angeles: Flank Steak Roll (Morcon), a Perennial Favorite

Cuisinero Los Angeles: Flank Steak Roll (Morcon), a Perennial Favorite

Flank Steak Roll (Morcon), a Perennial Favorite

Every once in a while, I get the inspiration to cook morcon (meat roll). Morcon is a classic Filipino dinner fare whose origins, I suspect, is Spanish, although I have not verified that. My mother, when she was alive, used to prepare morcon for special occasions like Christmas Day and town fiestas. It belongs to her wide repertoire of culinary specialties, and it is right up there with caldereta (spicy stewed beef) and milkfish relleno (stuffed bangus). I've just recently found the confidence to cook morcon, even though I have considered it one of my favorite recipes for a very long time.

On Saturday, while weekend shopping at our Ralphs supermarket in Glendale, we picked up a package of flank steak in the meat section, and handling it, I knew how it would end up. Morcon it is. Although, on this occasion, I am using flank steak -- it is convenient and quite inexpensive -- I have used other cuts of beef, including chuck. In my book, any cut of beef that lends itself to stewing qualifies as starting point for a delicious meat roll. I marinate the flank steaks in soy sauce, rice vinegar, minced garlic, a bit of salt, a laurel leaf, and dash of pepper. I leave the marinated fillets in the fridge for 30 minutes.

If, for any reason, flank steak is not available, I look for a large whole, thick cut of stewing beef, and I do the rest in my kitchen, slicing the beef into approximately 1/3-inch thick fillets, making sure while filleting that the meat remains in one piece. If I end up with 12-inch by 6-inch fillets, I am happy with that.

Morcon's culinary attraction also lies in what goes in the roll, and in my version, I have adapted what my mom used: sweet pickles, carrots, wieners, and hard-boiled eggs. These ingredients are cut into 1/4-inch strips, and gently and meticulously arrayed inside the fillets of beef. After which, I slowly roll the fillets around them until I decide that they are filled just enough to keep them from bursting. To keep them from bursting and spilling their fillings, I tie up the rolls in twine, rolled all around. My mom used to wrap them in a piece of white cloth, in the absence of twine.

Searing the rolls in very hot cooking oil in a skillet -- I use a wok -- until they are slightly browned to give them the right appetizing patina and readies them for a two-hour braising in a 350-degree oven. I use a covered metal roasting pan with a non-stick platform that's about 1-inch tall. I pour in two cups of beef stock, plus the marinade, to keep the meat from drying up. depending on your needs and taste, you can add diced potatoes, carrots, and mushroom into the braise as sidings. I also add onions, tomatoes (canned stewed) or fresh, and a teaspoon of corn starch to thicken the broth a little.

My morcon is just right after a 1.5- to 2-hour braising. You need to cut up the twine before slicing your meat roll. Slice your morcon with a very sharp knife, after giving it at least 10 minutes to cool down. That way the slices will be perfect and will not crumble. I think mom would be proud of my morcon.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Family's Culinary Tour of San Francisco

Returning from a well-deserved vacation in the country during the height of Great Britain's battle with Germany in World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was queried by journalists how his vacation had turned out. In his inimitable witty style, Sir Winston replied: "If only the wine were as old as the chicken and the lady of the house were as willing as the maids, I would have enjoyed my vacation more." Or something close to that. My family's recent three-day trip in San Francisco could be summarized in the same vein as Sir Winston's lament. If only San Francisco were a bit less commercialized and driving downtown were a little less stressful, we would have enjoyed our vacation more.

San Francisco is not Las Vegas. In terms of available commercial land area alone, Sin City beats it hands down. That is why every time we take a vacation in Las Vegas, parking our car is the least of our worries. The other thing that makes a San Francisco tour more taxing (to a self-guided tourist like me) is the complicated, and to my humble opinion, the tourist-unfriendly system of one-way traffic grids downtown. This is not to say that all of San Francisco is crisscrossed by one-way and left- and right-turn only streets. But it is close. It's very close to a driving experience in the big Apple. If you are not a San Franciscan taking a self-guided automobile tour in this city, it becomes downright stressful. Having said that, the other things that a tourist must also watch for are the fine prints. Yes, the fine prints: on the hotel reservation, the tricky rate signs in the parking structures, etc. You could save a lot of money if you examined the fine prints on your reservation contracts and the other commercial enticements that you are going to encounter during your visit.

When my wife made an online reservation at the Best Western Plus Americania Hotel in downtown SF, the web site did not say upfront that parking was valet only and costs 20 bucks a day. It meant that the discounts that we saw on paper had evaporated when we forked over payment for two days of valet parking, plus tips to the valets. The web site also said free "Wi-Fi," but theirs was intermittent and complicated to tap into. Imagine less savvy, non-techies (like some senior citizens) trying to connect to the Internet, and you'll see what I mean. Like I said at the outset, San Francisco is not Las Vegas, and Best Western's defense is that downtown San Francisco is prime real estate district, ergo, parking areas are limited and expensive. Great. If only they told us ahead of time.

After processing these setbacks in a collective, if subjective, analysis, we still have a bit of goodwill left in our hearts to not totally slam the "City by Bay". We've visited here many times since the mid-80s, but in those visits we had the good economic sense to patronize the small, unpretentious, mostly Indian-owned motels along Lombard St. My philosophy being that if we could find our way to Lombard Street, from there, I could navigate my way to all the must-see attractions in this city. From Lombard, the Palace of the Fine Arts and the Praesidio are just five minutes away. You can even walk if you are not pressed for time. The Golden Gate Bridge is about a three- mile straight-up northwesterly drive away. The Golden State Park is just 15 minutes away to the East; The Crooked Road is at the terminus of Lombard to the East, about a mile-and-a-half distant. Chinatown is a short two-mile drive. But on getting there, you have to contend with an acute parking space shortage.

So this week, navigating from the epicenter of traffic gridlock, I spent an inordinate amount of fuel driving from Point A to Point B due to the city's system of one-way streets. Not only that, when you are driving in San Francisco, you gingerly share the lanes with the streetcars, the electric Municipal buses, and hundreds of intrepid bicyclists. In retrospect, it would have made better sense to leave the car at the hotel and just walk or take the streetcars and buses to our destinations. I'm sure that native San Franciscans have an easier way navigating through these one-way grids, but self-guided tourists like ourselves have a tougher time.

After a couple of upsets, we regroup and tackle the next agenda on hand. Where to eat and what. On our way from Los Angeles, some 400 miles away, we limited our food intake to store-bought sandwiches for breakfast. We stop at a travel center south of Coalinga and have hamburgers, and fish and chips for lunch. We are reserving our stomachs for a nostalgic dinner at Fisherman's Wharf or at Pier 39. We choose Pier 39. After briefly shopping for a restaurant, we decide on Chowders. The marquee says Chowders. But that's just the beginning. They serve lots of (red or white varieties) chowders, alright -- thick, steaming hot soup with fewer diced potato but with more clams, celery and herbs -- on a large sourdough bread whose core is scooped out. Almost every diner who comes in, I note, orders this staple. We order one, in addition to a seafood plate consisting of crispy breaded deep-friend shrimps, squid rings, and a large half fillet of fish. My daughter Justine orders a chicken strips plate. But calling them strips would be an understatement. They are more like thick slabs of chicken breast. Quite huge. The sides are thick, crispy potato wedges, and soda. The prices aren't cheap, but affordable. And the chowder and seafood plate are winners.

On Monday, we drive to Chinatown for lunch. It takes us 15 minutes to secure a metered parking slot, and the meter only accepts change enough to last one hour. That means finishing our lunch within an hour to avoid being ticketed. Lucky for us, we find our Chinese restaurant a block away. It is Yuet Lee Seafood Restaurant at the corner of Broadway and Stockton. (Just like in L.A.'s Chinatown, there is a Broadway St. here too).

I request our server, a nice Chinese lady, if she could tell the cook to hurry it up as we are under the gun, and thankfully, our orders -- a plate of roast duck, seafood chow mien, steamed rice, and beef with Chinese broccoli -- are served inside of ten minutes. Not only that. They are all appetizingly good, cooked in the same style as entrees we are accustomed to at our favorite Hong Kong-style restaurants in Los Angeles. As we are praising the restaurant and ourselves for picking it, I look at a showcase near the cashier's station -- and there it is, a picture of Travel Channel's Samantha Brown and the restaurant's owner. We also note at the door that Yuet Lee is Zagat-rated. No surprise there.

The crown jewel in our three-day gustatory journey is a dinner at an Italian restaurant on Howard Street, located four long blocks southeast of our hotel. The receptionist had suggested Buca di Beppo, a family-oriented Italian restaurant that is one of a few that's open on Mondays. We leave the Honda Element and walk the four blocks to a four-storey building in front of the San Francisco Intercontinental Hotel. Going inside Buca is akin to witnessing a slice of Italian history. The restaurant is multi-level, and when it comes our turn to be seated, a hostess leads us to the basement level via a staircase. Framed photos of famous celebrities hang on brown-colored walls, including those of Sylvester Stallone, Richard Simmons of Kiss, Carrot Top, Dom de Luise, Sophia Loren, Stephen Curry of Golden State Warriors, Arnold Schwarzenneger, Charlie Sheen, Danny de Vito, and many others. I am quite sure that all those celebrities have dined here. Framed vintage black-and-white pictures of Italian life also crowd the brown-colored walls. There is a half-dozen busts of the headless David, an iconic Marilyn Monroe statue with the blown white dress, and hundreds of memorabilia from the old country.

The restaurant is family-oriented and the food portions are designed to be shared. For instance, we order a small spaghetti with meatballs, good for three persons. The meatballs are so large, my daughter exclaimed, "These are not meatballs; this is a meatloaf." This entree comes in a large bowl, and it is so humble, it is unmistakeably traditional Italian, unlike the overly tomato sauce-based and slightly sweetish and tangy variety that one gets at fast-food places. The small thin-crust pizza comes sliced into finger-holdable squares on a wood tray placed on top of a large unopened vintage tomato sauce can. You can taste the freshness of the green and red bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and the pepperoni and sausage toppings. It is called Supremo Italiano Pizza, and is aptly named. The entrees, it turn out, are still a bit too much for the three of us, and we leave the restaurant sated and with leftovers to boot.

While we feel bad about a few issues, mainly with our hotel's trickery and the craziness of the driving situation in the city, we are unanimous in declaring that when it comes to our restaurant choices, we are right on the money. Prices here are comparatively more expensive than Los Angeles. The lowest grade of gasoline is at least 20 to 30 cents higher; restaurant food is bordering on the expensive end compared to L.A. prices; and the most onerous of all: parking rates.

Notwithstanding these negatives, we are coming for more of San Francisco's charm. Only next time, we will get a room on Lombard Street.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Culinary and Other Adventures in Kalamazoo, Michigan

It's been a while since I wrote my last blog in this site, and I am excited to be back, writing about food, cooking and other adventures once again. My daughter and I have arrived in this small, sylvan mid-Western city on Thursday morning after a 24-hour dash from Denver, Colorado in which we covered more than 1200 miles passing through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and part of Indiana.

We arrived at my friend's house in Kalamazoo at around 7:15 in the morning. Dr. Gus Guerrero and his wife, Ann, and their three girls have lived in this beautiful city 160 miles west of Detroit for about 20 years, in a beautiful house that they had built in a leafy, small-scale development just off the I-94, a major West-to-East corridor in Michigan. There are no Asian and Filipino supermarkets close by. Being Angelenos for most of 25 years, and having all those Asian supermarkets within 3 miles of our home in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, it would be difficult for me to prepare my classic Filipino cuisine here as I have done in the past years in California. I tell Gus and Ann that I would love visiting and exploring a city like Kalamazoo, but not live in it.

Last night, after we returned from Lake Michigan, in the small town of South Haven, Ann was braising two large venison steaks that she had marinated with soy sauce, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and left in the fridge overnight. I did not know that Gus, who knew that I love venison, had acquired the meat from a source and asked Ann to make sure that I have an opportunity to savor them. Venison is a luxury in California because deer is harder to bag there than in a heartland state like Michigan, where there is a vibrant hunting tradition and where deer and other wild game are plentiful.

Gus pops open two bottles of Bell's Oberon beer, rated one of the ten best beers in America, and brewed right here in Michigan, and together we saluted life with thin slices of venison and bowls of sotanghon soup with the rest of his family. My daughter, Justine, whose food choices are limited to non-exotic meats, opted instead to finish off a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. The way that the venison was marinated was perfection -- and very familiar because the ingredients are the exact, same ingredients Filipinos use when cooking bistek, minus the caramelized onion rings. There's no gaminess at all in the venison.

I used to get my venison from South Carolina, usually shipped to Glendale, already cured and ready to cook. My older brother, Leo, who had lived in Yemassee, South Carolina for many years, hunted and/or procured venison from his hunting buddies there, and whenever he would have a cache, he sent me more than enough salted venison for me to consume. I gave some away to my venison-eating freinds in Los Angeles. Venison is healthier than beef; it is very lean, like bison meat, and you can cook and eat it in ways that you cook beef. Ann tells me that a friend of theirs never have to buy beef and other meats because they have a constant supply of venison in the freezer. Her friend is a hunter and one of Gus's partners at Physicians Center of Physical Medicine in Portage, MI.

I met Gus, a native of Cagayan de Oro, in the Southern Philippines, in the early 1970s. He was then taking up Medicine at the University of Santo Tomas, the oldest Catholic university in Asia. We had the same passion for the outdoors, and we scaled some of the major peaks in the Philippines, sharing our adventures in words and pictures with magazines of the day. He is a trailblazer in Philippine mountaineering, having been the first Filipino on record to scale the rock face of Mt. Maculot in the province of Batangas. The way he tells it, after running out of drinking water, while dangling some 1000 feet above a lake, he was forced to drink his own urine to alleviate thirst. He wanted to be a forest ranger as a career. His father, helped him make up his mind, and he acquiesed to his dad's admonition that he would be better off with a medical degree.

Gus, with four doctor partners, practices orthopaedic medicine in Kalamazoo. He had finished his residency in a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, and like all foreign doctors, had to move up the ranks through the years. His beautiful home here, a successful practice, three beautiful girls who are leaving Michigan to pursue higher education in other states -- San Diego, California for Amber, Cleveland, Ohio for Lhotse, and Chicago, Illinois for Leslie -- are clear manifestations that my friend has truly made it in America. "Now it's payback time," he tells me while we are touring Kalamazoo College, where Amber had finished her 4-year undergraduate degree.

On Monday, my daughter and I will drive northeast to Toronto, and then view Niagara Falls from the Canadian side. More advertures are in the horizon. Till next time.

Friday, January 29, 2010

An Evening of Food and Music at the De la Cruz Home

This is a self-imposed assignment: rate the food and the music served up at the mid-city home of my friend and colleague Prosy de la Cruz and her husband, Professor Ike de la Cruz. I would be more at ease rating the entrees that home chef Prosy spent the whole day preparing, but I do not feel that I have the expertise to comment on the music, which was offered up by an impressive group of Fil-Am musicians. (But I will throw in my five cent's worth, anyway). The musicans are top-shelf caliber. Four are members of the newly-constituted Filipino-American Symphony Orchestra (FASO), an operatic singer, and a pianist who is also a physician.

Prosy had worked up a sweat preparing the entrees for last Thurday evening's soiree. They consist of a sotanghon-chicken soup, a lettuce-cabbage-chicken salad, braised filet mignon steaks, steamed brocolli tips with shaved Italian mozarella cheese, and a gigantic wild salmon (around 20 lbs.) baked to perfection; and for dessert, iressistible cream brulee. Prosy's take on the sotanghon-chicken soup is quite unique, not so much for the taste, but for the preparation. The chicken pieces are chunky (not pulled), a la chicken arroz caldo, and it is topped with spinach, and made richer with an ample amount of ginger strips. Prosy tells us that she used less sotanghon (cellophane noodles) to reduce the carbohydrate content of the soup; that way we could make room for the steamed rice. When she e-mailed me the invitation, she modestly told me that she would only cook a salmon. So my wife and I came in not expecting a huge feast.

The filet mignon, already baked to doneness, benefitted from a brief braising in a soy sauce mix, making them more tender and really acceptable to Pinoy palates that do not favor meat baked rare. I forego the salad in favor of the brocolli tips, and I dabble a few spoonfuls of the filet mignon's sligthly fatty gravy on my steamed rice. Then I cut a little rectangle of salmon meat from the salmon's belly, and I am good to go.

At the dining table that Ike and Prosy set up in the study I find myself face-to-face with Jamie Lazzara, the evening's special guest. Jamie is a master violin-maker who is vacationing from her violin-making shop in Tuscany, Italy. Jamie is a born-and-raised Southern Californian from Pomona. When she was 19 years old, she had wanted to be a violin-maker, and she had made that known to the owner of a violin store in Long Beach. But to her disappointment, she was told that girls do not belong in the violin-making craft. Jamie hied off to Cremona, Italy, where she attended a violin-making school. She completed the four-year course and arrived at her dream.

Jamie is a very tall girl. If she were to play women's basketball, she would be a center. But, fortunately for the music world, she decided to be a violinist and violin-maker instead. When she told us that it took four years to learn how to be a violin-maker, I was astonished. Did they have a subject on wood selection, or how to wield a carving knife and a wood saw? How to age European spruce and maple woods? Surely, her four-year investment in time and money is now paying off. She makes four violins a year, at around $11,000 each. Not that many. But if you consider how much each Lazzara violin costs, it's a huge deal, indeed. Professor Ike de la Cruz, who teaches Asian-American Studies at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), can attest to this. He bought a violin from Jamie, and from what I hear, it occupies a revered station in the De la Cruz household, probably next to Prosy's home-cooking.

Ike tells us that his Lazzara violin had been with him on vacations in various places in North America, and last year, when he and Prosy vacationed in Manila, the Lazzara went with them.

Ike is so privileged to own a Lazzara as he is in great company, like world-reknowned American violinist Itzhak Perlman, who played a Lazzara violin at President Barack Obama's inauguration last year. As Jamie tells us, it was ten degrees below zero, and Perlman did not risk using his Stradivarius because the extreme cold could have cracked it. Besides, no violinist in his right mind would treat a centuries-old Stradivarius like a cheap, commercial grade one. Jamie claims that Italian violins are solely made of European spruce and maple for their stability.

Tenor Christopher "Pete" Avendano arrives and I introduce him to pianist Dr. Charito Sison, a friend of the De la Cruzes. I tell her that Pete was lead in the original cast of opera "Karim at Jasmin", written by librettist and composer Dr. Ramon Sison-Geluz (no relations to Dr. Sison). There is instant connection between the two musicians, and I can tell they would sing and play soon.

I conclude my satisfying dinner with a serving of cream brulee, then I get ready for the musical treat that is coming in a few minutes. Prosy calls it jamming. Musicians can be likened to photographers and artists. Gather them together and they would talk shop at the drop of a hat. This coterie of musicians is no different: they are eager to jam. Musicians do not have to know each other; they only need their instruments to communicate with each other. The product is spontaneous music that touches one's soul. FASO director Bob Shroder whips out a flute; guitarist and Charmaine Clamor accompanist Rick Ickard hauls out a unique 7-string acoustic guitar; and violinists Lito Molina and Andy Tecson share the use of Ike's Lazzara violin. Tenor Pete Avendano unleashes his major pipes; and Dr. Charito Sison tickles the piano keys. Ike and Prosy's Yamaha piano and their house's excellent acoustics complemented the slowly building crescendo.

The stage is set for an evening of enchanting music: kundiman, opera, classical, folk, jazz and bossa nova. This is a major entertainment and culinary occasion. I would have kicked myself if I missed the opportunity to be here.

Pete is a sensatiion with his soaring tenor which he calmly utilized to negotiate the peaks and valleys of a whole gamut of musical genre, from kundimans to opera. Bob Shroder, Ric Ickard and Lito Molina collaborated on a bossa nova composition of Antonio Carlos Jobim; each musician exhibiting his virtousity. Giovanni, Jamie's Italian companion, indulged us with an a capella rendition of a bawdy Italian folk song that Jamie interpreted in English. Jamie played two Italian folk songs on Ike's violin, and Ike performed a kundiman, accompanied by Dr. Sison and Pete. There are numerous unforgettable musical numbers, and many more that my wife and I missed because we had to leave before the soiree ended.

The evening was an absolute success, from what I have seen and heard. Everything from the delicious dinner to the hospitality of the De la Cruzes, to the music performed by excellent musicians, are winners. As for Prosy's home-cooking? They made me a believer in her passion and dedication to the culinary arts. Here's a toast to foodies everywhere!