Archives for the month of: January, 2015

MC's Pork Belly Adobo 3.06.31 PMI posted this Instagram a couple of days ago and regretted it. Am I an adobo nazi?

There it is, on page 224 of Nathan Myrhvald’s Modernist Cuisine At Home, the recipe for Pork Belly Adobo, “considered a national dish of the Philippines.” If there’s clear indication that Philippine cuisine – represented by our adobo – has hit the mainstream, this must be it. Unfortunately, the recipe was for pork asado, not adobo.

Pork asado – while resembling the Filipino adobo in its use of vinegar – is actually a sweet pork dish introduced by the Chinese, distinct for its use of star anise, (or five-spice powder) and sugar. Sure, the adobo has seen various transformations and at times taken on Chinese ingredients like soy sauce, but pork asado and adobo are of separate provenance – just as our sour soup, the sinigang, is different from the Malaysian singgang.

I feel it’s a distinction that’s important to make, if we are to present a national dish to the world.

MC's recipe Pork Asado. Note nice crust of caramelized sugar.

MC’s Pork Belly Adobo is actually an asado. Note distinctive crust of caramelized sugar. But, hey, it’s good!

Not an easy job. To start with, a foreigner would often confuse it with the Spanish adobo – which is basically a condiment or seasoning – and the adobos of Mexico, Puerto Rico and Peru where adobo refers to a type of marinade or pickling sauce. And then there’s the asado, a Hispanic term for the Chinese dish that found its way to our tables, perhaps via the Parian, Manila’s “Chinatown” during the colonial times.

In the Philippine context, adobo is not a particular dish with a specific set of ingredients; it is a method of cooking, one that is indigenous to us: braising meat in vinegar and salt. It predates trade with the Chinese, which according to records, did not begin until the 900’s. It certainly predates our colonization by the Spanish who, mildly reminded of their own adobo, gave it the same name, “adobo de los naturales”. Sadly, there is no record of how our ancestors called this “dish”, this method of cooking, our adobo.

But for sure, it was very simple and austere – just vinegar and salt and maybe garlic, another preservative. We didn’t have royalty the way the Chinese and the Europeans did, for whom we had to cook, to please and impress. While we shared DNA as well as some maritime routes with the kingdoms in Java and Brunei, we were practically a cultural isolate –  Filipinos were a people divided by water and more than a hundred languages. If there were variations on this adobo, they were mainly geographical: the addition of coconut milk in Southern Luzon where coconut was abundant; turmeric in Mindanao because of its proximity to Indonesia.

The adobo has since transformed – or to be precise, become more embellished – in a way that reflects our history as a people like no other Asian dish I know. The addition of onions, tomatoes, bell pepper was an influence of Spain; potato, most likely from Americans. Similarly, no single dish has become a means to show off one’s status in society or level of sophistication: balsamic or sherry in lieu of vinegar; foie gras, because pork isn’t rich enough.

There are 7100 Philippine islands and perhaps as many ways to cook adobo. At least 100 ways, as recorded and compiled by Reynaldo Gamboa Alejandro and Nancy Reyes Lumen in The Adobo Book. My mom made about three kinds of adobo: kapampangan-style (braised then fried), Tagalog-style (with coconut milk), and with eggs or potatoes (well, to feed a household of 10). So when my mom – sensing my lack of aptitude for cooking and disinterest in anything to do with the kitchen – told me that I should at least learn how to cook adobo, the question in my mind was “which one?”

Traditionalists assert that what makes “authentic” adobo is the triumvirate of vinegar, garlic and salt – no soy sauce, perhaps some peppercorn, and no more! The austerity of it has always intrigued me. Slow-braise, pressure cook,  sous vide, deconstruct? How else do you make this adobo shine enough for the world stage?

The answer is just cook it! On low fire for 1-2 hours, or until the pork fat melts. You’ll be amazed, just as I was, at how deep-flavored, dark and decadently rich it can be. And so simple, anyone can cook it. Our national dish it is!

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Photo by Catherine Mangosing

My version of salmon sinigang involves brining the salmon for 45 minutes, cooking it sous vide at 104ºF for 60 minutes, then chilling the cooked, vacuum-packed salmon for a few hours in the refrigerator before serving. It’s a series of prep based on the recipe for Salmon Mi-Cuit at Chefsteps.com.

Sure, it’s a more lengthy, seemingly complicated process, but I find that cooking the salmon this way results in incredible taste, texture and color – impossible to achieve when simply steaming, blanching or grilling the fish for sinigang.

Thanks to the brining, the salmon retains its bright pink-orange hue, with none of the whitish proteins that usually leach out when the fish is cooked. Because it is slow-cooked, sous vide, at a temperature just a tad warmer than breath, at 104ºF, the salmon comes out “mi-cuit”, a luxurious taste and texture akin to sushi – except it is anything but raw! Finally, chilling the package in the fridge for a few hours (6 recommended) after cooking, allows the salt from the brine to continue “curing” the fish so it yields a dense but fork-tender texture. After that, all it needs to shine is the very hot, very tart sinigang broth.

The traditional Filipino sinigang is a one-pot dish. Ingredients – meat (or seafood) plus vegetables such as taro, radish, long beans and spinach – are added to the sour broth in timed progression, depending on how fast each ingredient cooks. Somehow I never get this right – the vegetables invariably turn out limp and overcooked.

Hence, my deconstructed version.

The broth – tomatoes, onions, souring agent, long chilli or banana pepper, fish sauce, taro (for thickening) – is cooked separately, then – with the chilli discarded – processed in the Vitamix or blender into a smooth, tart and slightly spicy broth. The vegetables (scallions, grape tomatoes, eggplant) are grilled, the char adding a depth of flavour and a touch of sweetness. I could blanch the rest of the vegetables (long beans, radish, spinach), but now I prefer to cook each vegetable in the microwave at 15/30-sec bursts. No mess! And precise. Best of all, the vegetables keep their color, especially the long beans which also stay crunchy.

What I love about deconstructing the sinigang is it can be presented at the table with some flourish. Imagine all the vegetables arranged in a circle, the contrast between charred and “blanched” making for visual appeal. A wedge of space is, of course, reserved for the salmon. The broth makes the final and dramatic entrance, poured hot and steaming into the bowl. It releases such an aroma that you know this sinigang is going to be rich and tart. The mouth can’t help but pucker up.

Ingredients:

Salmon fillet/s, skin and pin bones removed, good for 4
neutral oil like canola

5 cups water
Extract of unripe tamarind (in a pinch, packaged Sinigang Mix from the Filipino or Asian store will do)
5 TBSP lemon or lime juice – or kalamansi, if available
1 tomato, quartered
1 onion, quartered
5-8 taro, depending on the size

fish sauce

12-16 grape tomatoes

4-8 shallots, depending on size, halved
1 Japanese eggplant, sliced crosswise on a bias
1 daikon, peeled, sliced crosswise and half-mooned
12-15 long beans, cut into 2.5″ pieces
12-15 stalks of spinach, tough stems discarded

Directions:

A. The Salmon Mi-Cuit

1. Prepare cold or icy water with 2:1 salt to sugar solution. Make sure the salt and sugar are completely dissolved before adding the salmon. Keep in the refrigerator to brine for 45 minutes.
2. Remove  salmon from the brine, pat dry and vacuum-pack with oil and cook sous vide at 104ºF for 60 minutes. The oil helps the salmon keep its shape while cooking.
3. Immediately place the sous vide salmon in an ice bath to stop the cooking. Refrigerate 6 hours. For me, this 6-hr refrigeration is optional. I once skipped this step and the salmon still turned out okay. It really depends on how much time I’ve got.
4. Gently remove from the packaging and blot out excess oil. Slice into 4 equal serving sizes, cover and refrigerate until ready to plate.

B. Cook the Sinigang Broth

1. Bring water to boil. Add tomato and onions. Stir in the souring agent (tamarind extract or Sinigang Mix). Add taro. Season generously with fish sauce (you should be able to smell the fish sauce).

2. Add lemon/lime juice. Taste for tartness. Ideally, the broth should register “High” or “Very High” on the sour-meter. Add more lemon/lime juice if needed.

3. Take a piece of taro and test for doneness. When it’s  soft but doesn’t break apart when pierced with a knife or fork, ladle out half of the taro and set aside for plating.

3. Turn off heat. Place broth in a blender or use a handheld to blend the broth, making sure the taro is broken down and there are no lumps in the broth. If the broth is still watery, add more cooked taro and blend to thicken. The consistency of a light creamy soup is what we’re going for. It may happen that there will be no cooked taro left for plating, but that’s ok.

C. Prepare the vegetables

1. Heat cast-iron grill until almost smoking. Grill tomatoes and shallots (cut side down) until slightly charred.
2. Place long beans in a small bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Microwave at full heat for 30 secs or until cooked but still crunchy. Repeat with the radish and spinach. I prefer the radish al dente and the spinach just wilted, so maybe microwaved at 40-45 secs and 15-20 secs, respectively.

Divide and arrange vegetables and salmon in 4 soup bowls. Bring to the table and add broth, to serve.

Notes:

• My most recent sinigang experiment (above photo) includes nori. Since the salmon was skinned, I figured nori sheets would approximate the taste and texture of salmon skin. Interesting, but it didn’t add much. Next time I’d take the skin peeled from the salmon and bake/toast it to a crisp – much like chicharron or pork rinds. A topping like this should add another, much needed, texture to the dish.

• Mi-cuit means half-cooked, in French.

• Chefsteps.com is a website on contemporary cooking founded and led by Chris Young, the co-author of the acclaimed six-volume cooking opus, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Check it out!

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Our daughter, Rama, was born in the Philippines. It’s a country known for its hot and humid weather but, more notoriously, for its fierce storms and typhoons. On days when rains seemed incessant, the family usually found comfort and security in happy banter at the table, while the aroma of rice steaming wafted from the kitchen. We knew what Rama loved most on days like these: rice cooked as porridge, with toppings of chicken and – yes, like most Filipino food – with some fish sauce stirred in. To this day, say Arroz Caldo and her eyes light up. Somehow this dish evokes a deep sense of comfort and nostalgia in her. Now that we all huddle in cold Canadian winter, nothing can be more perfect!

This recipe serves 4.

Ingredients:

1 cup leftover roast chicken (white meat, pulled or shredded), divided;

2 tbsp neutral oil, like canola

¼ cup diced onion

1 tbsp minced garlic

1 tbsp ginger, peeled and chopped

2 cups white rice (medium grain or Arborio)

4-5 cups chicken broth

Water, as needed

White pepper, to taste

Fish sauce or salt to taste

Sliced green onion or scallion to garnish

Lemon juice to finish

Directions:

1.Saute onions, garlic and ginger in oil until onion is softened and the garlic and ginger are aromatic but not burned;

2.Add rice and stir to coat with oil;

3.Season with fish sauce or salt;

4.Add broth and bring to a boil; lower heat to simmer until rice is soft;

5.Add more broth or water for desired consistency or if porridge is too dry;

6.Before removing from heat, stir in half of the chicken and season with salt and pepper as needed.

7.Ladle equal amounts into 4 bowls; top each with chicken and green onions.

8.Finish with a drizzle of lemon juice.

Variation:

  1. Use salt instead of fish sauce; garnish with a pinch or two of saffron. Serve with a wedge of lemon.