Category Archives: Food

Bacon Doesn’t Need Anything

Everyone is familiar with that particular scene, co-workers gathered around the coffee machine at work and just chatting it up, talking about the boss, catching up on the latest gossip or sharing advice on life. I like to think that it’s the same in the kitchen, but it’s different. Often times, my colleagues and I find ourselves hovered around a 200 perforated pan full of bacon, where each thinly sliced pork belly smoked with apple-wood is stacked one on top of another. The layer resembles a fanned-out blanket and if this pan was a bed, I want to sleep on here. And if I had a lover, I want to sleep here with my lover… underneath this layer of bacon goodness with drippings and all.

I need BACON!!! Photo©mrg 2017

Our phones have made us ambitious photographers all. We take pictures of just about anything. Selfies, our dogs, french toast with sausages on the side, flowers and sunsets. Everywhere is opportunity. Mine just happens to be the bacon. Bacon from one kitchen into another, whether stripped, chopped or raw. Looking at bacon even swimming in its own liquid goodness seems gratifying, more so after it’s drained. And it sits there, atop a rack, dripping as the sliver of pork belly gets a little more crisp from the residual heat. The perfect piece of bacon for me is when the cook has achieved that crispiness of both meat and fat that it just crumbles in my mouth. With all the limp bacon I’ve witnessed over the years, from bacon being cooked haphazardly to feed hundreds of people, acheiving that crispiness seem fortuitous at times. And so as a cook, I stand back on the sidelines and wait, until the batch of crispy bacon is brought out. Often times, these are the ones left behind because no one else is more discerning than me when it comes to bacon.

I know I shouldn’t fawn over bacon this much, but I do. I wouldn’t call it a super food, but it’s one of those perfect foods. By that, I mean it can stand alone. Its cured, smoked goodness make it a meal on its own. There’s the balance of meat and fat, sweet and salty… tastes which touch upon all sides of the tongue and cajole us in a way that we are drawn to pick up one more and another and then another until the guilt of cholesterol and having too much sets in. Bacon is irresistible; it has a charm of its own. For the most part, it doesn’t need anything, but everything seems to want to pair up with it. If bacon was a character, I think I’d liken it to Kerouac… that lone beat poet who embodied coolness travelling from New York to San Francisco and back just absorbing life, writing it down, not needing a whole lot but to be able to just write. And bacon or pork belly, more or less, is this figure in the culinary world, absorbing all sorts of flavors from brown sugar to maple to every kind of spice, in the end, to be thinly sliced and fried up to a crisp so it can give us either one great sandwich or one great breakfast. Because bacon doesn’t need anything. But our eggs do. Eggs need bacon as much as we do.

A Revival Through Jerusalem, A Cookbook

There’s a desire to begin from the beginning. To start all over again. From scratch. Because everything has become so repetitive… from the salad making to the sandwiches, from assembling amenities to organizing cresscors. It feels like I’m waking up over and over again to the same scene and realizing now how trapped I am in its mundane choreography where I neither learn to dance nor learn how to leap above it. In short, I’ve got the Garde Manger blues. The tedium, except for the occasional bursts of laughter (when the Chef isn’t looking), seems to place me in my own private Groundhog Day, desperately wishing I at least had Bill Murray to suffer through the ennui. And at the end of it, when I’ve learned my true lesson and the universe decides to reel me back to ordinary days, I’ll have mastered Beethoven and Chopin on the piano. I’ll be able to comprehend and recite all of Octavio Paz’s poems… in Spanish. And because Bill Murray did practice the art of ice sculpting, I suppose one may be able to find me by the water somewhere causing a stir with my amazing sand sculptures (since we don’t have snow)….

Tall order, I know. However, all I can really wish for is one brilliant spark to set off a domino effect which will allow me to revive the same passion I had when I began this journey into food. Whatever it takes, so long as it would yank me, pull at me as heavy as gravity. Because I’ve been fleeting and I know I need to be grounded.

So to break this cycle of passionless repetition, I perused through the cook’s library at work and tried to make a connection with a book which may set me off on the right path. Left and right, right and left my eyes looked, but found none. But there, among the pile of un-shelved books, I uncovered Jerusalem, A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Talk about wanting to start from the beginning, this book attempts to briefly explain the history of Jerusalem, the evolution of its food dating back to the time of King David or even further, with different cultures, different groups of people influencing and contributing to its cuisine.

The cookbook provides abundance. One can extract many ideas from this book regarding ingredients that normally don’t take certain stage. The contrast of hummus with fried lamb on top, sweet potatoes with figs drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar… the kind that’s thick and sweet, one can pour over ice cream thick… oh my God, this is precious! The use of a ton of parsley with barley as a salad… so simple, and it stumps me now I didn’t even think of it in the first place. Amazing! The photographs in Jerusalem are so vibrant, it is beginning to stir something in me. Inspire even! If it means to revive just one spark, these recipes, particularly the section on vegetables where it all begins, will definitely do the job of reviving. Who knows… on the third day, I may even be resurrected. Eh, I’ll give it a week!!!

Misspelled Benefits Working In The Kitchen

Suger. Photo©mrg 2016.

Suger. So sweet and, yet, so misspelled. Suger=Sugar. If ever I allow my education to get the best of me, seeing misspelled labels in the kitchen always knocks me down a level. Cheese becomes chess, Swiss is shortened to Swis so when one puts it together, it becomes Swis chess. I am in a world flanked by simple sentences which in turn are saturated with incorrect tenses and spelling, which urge me to rectify, but respectfully refrain. Because it isn’t school I attend and work at, it is the kitchen.

Cooks aren’t measured for their academic prowess, rather, it is their ability to work fast and cook food well. This is what stands out over the years. No one has heard of my writing skills until I wrote a thank you note to the General Manager. Actually, having a college degree doesn’t really cut it in the kitchen environment. I’ve been ridiculed before… what a waste of time! The very reason why I keep my education on the down-low. However, because I’m the only one who happens to have a degree, I often play editor and writer; I serve the needs of those who cannot write a simple paragraph. I take people’s thoughts from their native language and translate them into English. I fill out the occasional vacation paperwork or write in answers on yearly questionnaires and surveys for a colleague who I have sensed cannot read or write in English. When majority of my life had been devoted to learning the English language, why is it I find myself among a majority who don’t exercise the language on a daily basis? How do I communicate?

The irony of my life. I think it started with my first job out of college. So many units devoted to studying Shakespeare, Faulkner and a seminar on Jane Austen only to find employment proofreading junk mail. So finding myself in this predominantly Spanish-speaking environment doesn’t stray far from where my ironic life began. It is a strange and fortuitous circumstance altogether, and I am grateful for it somehow. The lack of English in my peculiar kitchen forces me to learn as much Spanish as I can. I’m a cook who writes and I’ve learned not to judge people based on their spelling abilities. Spelling isn’t everything, nor does it merit a person’s character. But the implication of not being able to spell, not being able to write or speak English sometimes become the basis of criticism and judgement. People judge according to lack… if they don’t have money, they must not be wealthy or if they don’t write or speak the language well, they must lack education. Because of these misjudgments, people miss opportunities altogether.

No matter what we are, educated or not, there is a unique gift we bring to this world. Working in the kitchen, sequestered in a place of honorable colleagues, who have pulled themselves out from the hindrances of their native country to seek opportunity in another, has allowed me to see each one as an example of courage and persistence. Their personal struggles teach me to extend compassion and understanding. Their experience is the education they school me in; how infinitely more I have to learn….

My immediate colleagues in the kitchen may only embrace the basics of the English language, and misspellings more often will continue to be inevitable occurrences on a daily basis. And that’s okay because I can use a bit of suger in my life, an endless amount of flava everyday. Each day gives me opportunity to extend understanding and compassion… to be humble. Because what they might lack in English, I often can decipher from their best English or, better yet, they willingly share and teach me in Spanish.

Dinuguan or Pork Blood Stew

So this day finally comes… Friday the 13th! All those “Jason” movies I’ve never seen comes to mind followed by the horror films I can never stomach watching. I’m thinking about black cats and why is it they bring such misfortune when they strut across your path. I believe it’s just like any other day, but remarkably this day has garnered such a bad reputation that even hotels choose to eliminate this floor altogether. News flash, the 14th floor is the 13th floor. But then again, who wants to pay those rates staying on the 13th floor?

Dinuguan. Photo©mrg 2107.

So what’s a noteworthy topic to talk about today… something bloody, something congealed, something at first look I don’t think I can stomach eating myself… ah, yes… that good old dish we call Dinuguan. Dinuguan, or what some have termed as “chocolate meat” or pork blood stew, is one of those Filipino dishes that has followed me throughout my life. I enjoy most Filipino foods served up to me, even those most discerningly questionable, but Dinuguan is one particular stew I often find myself in the middle of, neither loving or detesting it wholly. It is made with pork blood and offal, at times discovering there is a bit of ear, snout and God-knows what part of the pig has been included. In the end, I don’t want to know and so I eat it, swallowing it without making a savory connection to it. I approach the consumption as though I’m walking through life, blind as a bat, numb as an etherised patient, and ignore the muddled texture of blood accentuated with vinegar as I swallow one spoonful after another.

I may not enjoy Dinuguan, but there are many Filipinos who do enjoy this dish. Pork blood, pork parts with vinegar and long green peppers are the typical ingredients in Dinuguan. Almost everyone in my family loves this dish… except for me… except for the one who loves food so much she went to culinary school to study cooking. I don’t detest it, it’s just not my first choice at the buffet table. I don’t gravitate to it because of the blood, the thought of blood, eating blood. For my own taste bud, I’m just not convinced. And maybe I haven’t tasted the best of it, maybe I’m weak in the stomach. And here’s where I wish I was a bit more like some family members who can look at this dish head on and just eat to their heart’s content. But I don’t and I can’t… I accept that I’m not made that way.

If Filipino cuisine had to be defined, however, I would definitely include this alongside pancit and sinigang. The ingredients themselves speak of an innovation, gathering inferior parts of the pig or parts nobody else wanted and making something good, wholesome and delicious with it. Most cuisines develop in this way, taking the most abundant ingredients available around them, turning what someone labeled as invaluable and creating something wonderfully edible with it. This is what Dinuguan is to the Philippines. It thrives in our menus, it thrives on our tongues because it is, in essence, a part of our Filipino heritage, a commonality in a dish we all have tasted at some point in our lives (whether we enjoy Dinuguan or not) which courses through all our veins… literally!

The Perfect Imperfection; Early Setback to Making Gluten-Free Bread

Cranberry-Walnut GF Bread. Photo©mrg 2017.

So I thought I had this in the bag, the promise of homemade gluten-free bread everyday. The hope partially sparked by an unopened electric bread maker abandoned in the far corners of the garage. When I found this box, it was like finding gold. Eureka! I made gluten-free bread before and with success. But the whole process involved so many tools and bread pans that it eventually got the best of me. It was good and I do still prefer the method of bread pans and proofing myself, but time and the weather’s unpredictability during winter makes me surrender. And I don’t want to… I don’t think I want to be defeated in that way ever, especially when I’ve come up with a good recipe. A recipe which is probably the greatest poem I can conceive, but the Prometheus in me isn’t ready to hand it out to humanity just yet. Why? It isn’t where it needs to be, as you can see from the picture on your left.

I’m not seeking perfection. I think when one looks for this, in any part of their life, they’re really asking for disappointment. No, what I’m looking for is consistency. I’m looking for reliability that this gluten-free bread will rise and not collapse like the way it did with this last batch. Is it the amount of liquid or is it too much yeast? Did the addition of walnuts and cranberry affect the sink in the bread? Questions I must answer and resolve before attempting another batch… where did I go wrong?

Everything will be alright, this is the beauty of bread. No one will ever think this is the prettiest bread ever made, but I do. I’m bias, I know, because I’m the baker. And maybe I’m stretching it a bit, but this bread mimics a place of surrender for me, where it’s okay not to seem perfect most of the time. (Only because I have this thing of trying to get it right on the first try). This bread reminds me it’s okay to be human. Being human, being in the places where we’ve been and where we are right now is after all the seat where all great things and great art can come from… from errors, from mistakes, from fortuitous accidents such as this cranberry-walnut bread. If one looks hard enough, inside that reservoir of walnuts and dried cranberries, one can derive a potentiality no one will ever see. Between God and me, there lies a gift reserved for me. The gift of chance, an opportunity to be better next time.