Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Little Turkey Dinner That Could

Thanksgiving is another one of those holidays that I love to celebrate. It obviously holds no real significance for me, since I am not American, nor did I grow up in that culture. The only reason I get excited about this event is because I know there will be someone out there (somebody, ANYBODY!) who would be celebrating with some sort of Thanksgiving dinner. Roasted Turkey (maybe fried, if you’re from the South), Pumpkin Pie, Corn Pudding… every family has their own traditional spread. Any party with some kind of meat carving and complementary high-carb sidings, and I am so there.

Lucky little “food fiend” that I am, my baby sister Foxychef has a catering job coming up which required them to provide Roasted turkey as one of the buffet’s offerings. Her partner, Beersponge, has only prepared a turkey once a while back when he was visiting with an aunt in the States. Not completely confident that they have got this covered, Foxychef decided that they should try to make one for Sunday dinner. Being the loving and supportive older sister, I offered to take part in their little experiment, and even proposed to make a side dish for the turkey.

I racked my brain for a dish that would be easy to prepare and at the same time stay true to the all-American theme. I deduced that nothing could be more “American”- and also well-loved- in our home, than Macaroni and Cheese.

When we were kids, we would stock up on boxes of the stuff and have them for merienda after school. Even on Saturday afternoons at our cousin’s house, if we are not ordering Fettucine with Mushroom Sauce or Beef Stroganoff from Sugarhouse at Annapolis St., we would have their cook open several boxes of Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese and we would hungrily feast on the bright orange goo.

Recently, I saw an episode of “Barefoot Contessa” in Lifestyle Network wherein Ina Garten (I love her! Her husband, Jeffrey, is one lucky fool.) has prepared a more grown-up version of Macaroni and Cheese. Good thing that my selective memory picks-up food recipes, so I decide to prepare my own version of the Ina Garten recipe for our turkey dinner.

It is actually quite simple: First, I cook the macaroni (250 grams) in salted boiling water for 7 minutes and then drain. Then, I chop up a good piece of slab bacon (approximately 150 grams)into small chunks and fry it in its own fat until brown and crisp. Set aside.

For the cheese sauce, I make a b├ęchamel by melting half a stick of butter in a sauce pan, then dumping a cup of flour in it. Slowly, I pour in two tetra packs of fresh milk into the mixture, making sure that I stir continuously until smooth.

When the b├ęchamel is ready, dump the grated cheese into the sauce. I used sharp cheddar and gruyere, but I suppose you can use any cheese you like. Preferably something that would melt nicely for that nice, creamy texture.

After the cheese has been nicely integrated into the sauce, mix the cooked macaroni and bacon into the blend.

Place the Macaroni and Cheese into a baking dish and top with thinly-sliced tomatoes.

Finally, sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs on top for that nicely-browned and crispy crust. I baked it in 200 degrees Celcius for 20 minutes until the top was nicely browned and the sauce was bubbling. I think this pan could serve around 6 people.

With our fingers crossed, we waited to see how our dinner was going to turn out. The turkey came out darker than expected, but it was still very tender and flavorful. The stuffing of Onions, bread and apples was delicious and was wiped out early on. I advised Foxychef to make more stuffing in a baking dish next time because for sure the one inside the turkey’s cavity would not be enough.

The Baked Macaroni and Cheese was also spot-on. The gruyere has melted nicely and was nice and stringy, while the sharp cheddar gave the dish just the right kick it needed.

For the wine, I thought it would be fitting to pick out a nice American Pinot Noir. I have been searching for a reasonably priced Pinot Noir, since I noticed that a lot of the good ones from California and Oregon are quite pricey. I took a gamble and tried the 2005 Estancia Pinot Noir from their Monterey vineyard, having tried (and loved) their Pinot Grigio a few months back. At P850, it’s much cheaper than the other Pinot Noirs they have in Wine Depot. After letting it breathe for 30 minutes in the glass, the Estancia has nicely opened up, Marachino cherries and red berries right up front, very light tannins, nice and smooth finish. I loved it with the turkey and I could imagine how nicely it would have gone with cranberry sauce, if we only had any.

It was a nice family dinner, enjoyed even by the “turkey-haters” in the bunch. Although it was not an official celebration of Thanksgiving, it made me contemplate on life’s blessings that I should be thankful for: A wacky family that is for sure far from perfect, but continues to be loving and supportive in every way; good friends who make my life crazier but at the same time, much more bearable; and the unconditional love of a man who puts up with my eccentricities and anger management issues.

Life is good. Thank God for that.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Making A Bad Night Right

Last Friday night was officially dubbed as Booze Night. I have been (relatively) good the entire week, so I wanted to reward myself with a little bit of partying. Earlier in the week we were already informed of a friend’s event at Tabu, so Matt and I decided that we will drop by, at least for a few drinks. After having trouble deciding on where to have dinner, we eventually made up our mind that we would also just have dinner at Tabu.

Upon our arrival, though, we noticed that the place was set-up for a major- and I mean MAJOR- event. I initially thought that it would just be like any Friday night, with maybe the occasional TV camera and sporadic drinking game. As it turned out, tables were pushed to the side to make way for banners, a giant spinning wheel and a portable bar, klieg lights and promo girls were everywhere. Not the nice cozy dinner I was thinking of.

Slightly disappointed and hungry, we decided to move to La Regalade, which was just a couple of minutes drive from Tabu. The place is somewhat significant to me and Matt since, right after he proposed, this was where I took him to dinner (He got me a ring, after all. The least I could do is to buy him some food.). I admit that I was not at all impressed the first time, which I attributed to “opening night” jitters. They have only been around for two weeks at the time, so I was thinking they were still adjusting. Quite normal for any establishment, that was why I held out until after a few months to make a return visit and see how they have improved.

Arriving a few minutes before nine in the evening, Matt and I were immediately shown to our table by their receptionist. I love how this restaurant is decorated- casual by nature but spiffy enough for a date, with gorgeous lighting and smart accessorizing.

The menu is written on black boards spread out all over the room, but for those with bad eyesight and strained necks, the server would be happy to bring two moveable blackboards where they have jotted down all their menu items. They also have several specials to choose from, which this time was written on the blackboard on top of the kitchen counter.

To start, Matt opted for the Onion Soup while I chose the Foie Gras Salad. We have nothing but good things to say about the soup… Full onion flavor, perfectly seasoned… delicious! Very hearty and satisfying, this is the kind of soup you would want on a cold, rainy day.

As for the salad, what can I say? It’s tangy. Maybe I was expecting too much, but it just lacked that special “something” that most people would expect of a foie gras dish.

To share with TG-Boy and The Body, we ordered the Lamb Stew and one-half Roasted Duck, accompanied by Potato Gratin and Ratatouille.

The lamb stew was a huge disappointment. When we ordered it the first time, I remember it being not half as bad. This time around, the meat was not even close to fork-tender and the sauce was lacking in complexity. Matt angrily described this dish as “inedible”.

The roast duck was, at least, not bad. I liked how the sweetness of the pears complimented the succulent duck meat, which was cooked just right in a flavorful sauce. “It tastes like Pata Tim (a braised pork dish from China),” The Body observed.

TG-Boy and I shared a medium-bodied Bordeaux- a 2005 Madiran Domaine Berthoumieu. Although a bit too light in the middle for me, this was very easy to drink, and went quite well with the duck.

The service was slightly better this time around, although our server seemed slightly confused at times. Also, when we were trying to get a server’s (ANY SERVER would do, for Pete’s sake!) attention, some would subtly avert their eyes or look busy to avoid being called.

We left feeling a bit cranky after that dinner. The food and service just did not live up to all that hype. So, to lighten the mood, we had only one plan: GET TOTALLY WASTED.

We returned to Tabu with the urgency of three (The Body was recovering from the flu and decided to rest) recovering alcoholics who have fallen off the wagon. There we met Cosmopolicious and her D, followed shortly by Papa Tims and TG-Boy’s old friend, P. Papa Tims (Yes, he is somebody’s daddy. But that’s not why we call him that.) casually mentioned that he was going to the Armin Van Buren event at The World Trade Convention Center, and so I- having had more than enough alcohol to disinfect an entire hospital ward- along with the other equally-inebriated members of that group, decided that we should move the party there.

As we approached the reception desk at the event to pay the entrance fee, Papa Tims “magically” got all of us in for free. He claims that his cousins still had extra tickets “just lying there” at the reception. We thanked him profusely for hooking us up, as we contentedly giggled like drunken gerbils while our pink bracelets were being slapped around our wrists.

We arrived right on time for Armin's set. The music was phenomenal, and the crowd was a good mix of young and- ehem- "slightly older" party animals. Needless to say, we had tons of fun, and no pictures to prove it, unfortunately. Luckily, the raucous time we had with our friends more than made up for the dissatisfying dinner that preceded it.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Pizza I Cannot Refuse

Having grown tired of the rude, unwarranted remarks about my weight-gain (Geez, it’s not like I’m as big as a friggin’ house!), I decided to be more careful with my food intake and spend more time at the gym in the hopes of “getting my body back”. Despite my initial defiance at conforming to what others think I SHOULD look like, I must admit that I miss wearing tank tops to the mall and not looking like I’m busting out, or wearing tight shirts and not having to adjust the top of my pants when I sit.

So with renewed determination, I tried to hit the gym at least thrice a week, doubling my cardio each time and trying not to count in multiples of two when the trainer says “hold for ten counts”. I also took advantage of the regular supply of organic lettuce from Matt’s mom which she gets from the AUP campus in Silang, Cavite. To distract myself from Chicken Joys and Spaghetti meals, I bring a packed lunch of green salad with tomatoes, hard-boiled egg and canned tuna, hoping that Catholic Guilt (“You will have to eat all your wasted food in purgatory!”) will force me to eat it.

I was doing pretty well, eventually learning to say no to my beloved pasta dishes and cutting down on cocktails when I go out at night. I was surprised at my tenacity to stick to my new shape-up plan.

That was until Matt had one of his “Caruso Cravings”. Hypnotized by visions of melted mozzarella, generous slices of salami and prosciutto, all on a thin, bubbling crust, my plans of dieting and eating healthy were zapped into oblivion. A few thousand calories can’t be that bad, right? Well, that’s what I keep telling myself, at least.

Caruso Ristorante Italiano is, without a doubt, my top-choice when it comes to authentic Italian pizza in Manila. Despite all the places blossoming all over the country claiming the mastery of this dish, Caruso remains the uncompromising pantheon when it comes to quality and flavor. I admit that the antipasti and main courses are nothing to rave about, but that’s not really the reason I go to an Italian restaurant. For me, like most people, it’s really all about the pizzas and pasta dishes.

Caruso’s interior has been modified in bits and pieces ever since it opened. After removing the “Caffe” from its name, the restaurant has taken on a more sleek and somber persona, ultimately transforming itself from neighborhood trattoria to upscale fine-dining restaurant. The large brick oven still holds court behind the kitchen counter, where hundreds, maybe thousands, of delicious pizzas have been baked to perfection. Aside from the main dining room, they also have a small smoking area near the foyer, which I have noticed to be an indispensible element in a lot of European (and Japanese)-owned establishments.

Matt and I tucked ourselves in our favorite nook in said smoking area (which, I have to say, is quite well-ventilated and never smells like a dingy ashtray)and ordered our favorite drinks with Caruso pizza- an ice-cold beer for him, and a glass (or two) of Prosecco for me.

Having completely forgotten about my supposed diet, I ordered a pasta dish- the Garganelli in a Porcini Mushroom Sauce. The oddly-shaped pasta was cooked perfectly al dente , coated in a flavorful cream with Porcini mushrooms. I love how this dish is both comforting with the pasta and cream, and at the same time made refined and “grown-up” by the earthy and aromatic Porcinis. This is a must-try for every pasta lover, in my opinion.

For the pizza, we always order the Quattro Stagioni, where we can choose four different flavors from their selection and put them all in one pizza. As a sign of diplomacy, Matt and I allow each other two picks each. I always select the Caruso, which contains all of my favorite things- prosciutto, anchovies, olives and capers. Looks like a kidney-buster, but that- at least to me- is a combination made in pizza heaven. The other flavor I chose this time was the Picantina, which had generous slices of spicy salami and olives. Matt’s picks were the Quattro Formaggi and, surprisingly, the Salsiccia- which was covered, of course, in garlicky, fennel-y Italian sausage. Since Matt does not eat pork, he picks out the sausages from the pizza and gives them to me. Sigh… The sacrifices I have to make for love.

The pizza, as usual was- for lack of a better word- perfect. The toppings were scattered generously on top of good-quality, stringy mozzarella, and the crust was just the way I like it- thin and pliable, with just a bit of crispiness at the bottom.

As we polished off our food, the restaurant started filling up at around 9 PM. Several nationalities were represented, most of which are quite well-dressed, and some are obviously regulars of the restaurant. A good-looking, middle-aged Italian man- whom we assume is the owner- walks around to greet his friends and patrons, sometimes chatting animatedly in his native tongue with his countrymen. It’s almost like watching an episode of The Sopranos, but a more dignified version and definitely without the profanity.

The service here is always very professional and efficient. They seem to follow a standard procedure for every table and this system seems to be working quite well for them- surely one of the restaurants where the service charge is well-deserved.

The prices here are higher than your average Italian restaurant. I have yet to return to Mi Piace and Paparazzi, but I would guess that Caruso’s price point is similar to those restaurants. During this particular visit, Matt and I noticed that the prices have yet again gone up. But then, as if hypnotized once more, we shrug off the exorbitant bill and plan what to order on our next visit.

We both agree: You just can’t put a price on the perfect pizza.

Caruso Ristorante Italiano
N. Garcia St (formerly Reposo)
Brgy. Bel-Air, Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 895 2451

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Weekend Discovery in QC

Recently, Matt and I had to undergo a three-day marriage seminar called Discovery Weekend. It reminded me of my childhood and teenage years at an all-girls Catholic school, where we- in between sucking at Math, talking funny and eating fishballs- had a few days of spiritual retreat once a year. This usually entails a lot of praying, listening to talks and battling each other over who could cry harder about our family problems. This time around, the main agenda is preparing couples not only for their upcoming wedding, but also for the lifetime of “good times and bad”.

I think Matt and I did pretty well throughout the weekend. We did manage not to strangle each other or break up, and we were also able to have good, constructive talks regarding sensitive topics we used to avoid. Actually, I did realize a lot of things about our relationship, most of them positive. Aside from our small victories as a couple, we also met a bunch of smart, funny people that I think we could have strong friendships with. And those who know us well are aware of our propensity for making new friends.

If there was a downside to that entire weekend, though, it would have to be the food. I know, it IS a retreat and I have been to enough to know that retreat house food is probably as close as I will ever get to prison food. We do appreciate their efforts of keeping us well-fed (they even provided Adventist Matt his own chicken or fish dish when they are serving the rest of us pork), but, having been away from a school cafeteria for quite some time now, I have gotten used to much tastier fare.

That is why, the minute we left the retreat house that rainy Sunday afternoon, we had nothing else on our mind but food. Nothing with rice in it, please, and- for Matt- definitely no tilapia, probably for the next two years.

We were already in the Quezon City area so we decided to grab a bite at a restaurant unique to that vicinity. Matt was famished, which made him totally agreeable when I suggested we try something new. I had several options lined-up in my head, but decided on Katre- a Mediterranean fusion restaurant- at Tomas Morato.

We arrived early so we were the first ones there. The waiter showed us to our table on the second floor, which was modern and simply decorated. There was a separate bar area and another room for special functions.

To start- after much deliberation- we had the Hearts of Romaine and the Mediterranean-spiced Beef Quesadilla. The former was actually a deconstructed Caesar salad, wherein you dip crisp lettuce leaves in a creamy, garlicky dressing- a good, light and refreshing starter.

The beef quesadilla was also a winner in our book. Both of us being Mexican food lovers, we thoroughly enjoyed the tasty cheese and beef filling, as well as the accoutrements that came with the dish. Aside from the traditional Mexican condiments like salsa, sour cream and Jalapeno slices, there were also some Mediterranean touches, such as the hummus and drops of pesto. Simply genius, if you ask me.

For the main course, Matt followed the waiter’s recommendation and ordered the Roast Chicken with Pasta. We were a bit skeptical about this dish since- just by reading it on the menu- it had zero “sex appeal”. Luckily, the server knew what he was talking about and Matt ended up enjoying this dish, despite the fact that he almost never orders pasta for dinner. It was simple, but rich and comforting in its familiarity.

I was craving for something beefy and got the Top-Blade with Mushrooms, Broccoli and accompanied by Mashed Potatoes and Horseradish. I was amazed at the tenderness of the meat, and the sauce was nicely-aromatic and robust. I also love horseradish with my steak, so I enjoyed that feature. I also noticed that they delicately placed the horseradish just above the mashed potato, careful not to integrate it for those who have an aversion to the spicy condiment.

If only I could have had a good glass of wine with that meal, it would have been a truly above-average dining experience. They only offered this supermarket variety Californian wine as their house wine, which- although not disgusting- was just not complimentary to the dishes. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against affordable, easily-accessible wine. Love them, actually. In fact, there are quite a few South African, Australian, even Spanish, wines that are "cheap" and are pretty good. Hopefully they could give a little bit more attention to their wine list, and I’m pretty sure their more discerning diners would be happy.

It was a nice way to end the long, emotionally draining and, at the same time, spiritually uplifting weekend. Matt- quite the finicky eater- was happy with our new find in Quezon City and has vowed to return. Which brings me to the conclusion that: “A well-fed Matt is a happy Matt”. Apparently, I did not have to attend a seminar to learn that.

Katre Mediterranean Restaurant
Dr. Lazcano St. (near Tomas Morato Ave.)
Brgy. Laging Handa, Quezon City
Tel. no. (632) 3734705

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Duck is My Friend

I was reading my old e-mails and saw one from an ex-boyfriend. I sent him one of those chain mails that test you how well you know the other person. On the question “What is my favourite food?”, he replied, “I don’t know if it’s still the same, but before it was Peking Duck.”

That got me thinking. The thing is: If you would ask me now, I would easily say that my most favourite dish in the world would be pasta. I could eat the stuff morning, noon and night, in any shape or configuration. Soggy or al dente, hot or cold, I WILL EAT IT.

Peking Duck, though, is what I would call, my “Dish for All Reasons”. When I am happy and celebratory, nothing beats the ceremonial pageantry that comes with eating Peking Duck. When meeting Matt’s mother for the first time, I knew that nothing could be more thoughtful (and impressive) than the glistening and crispy skin of roast duck prepared by the able chefs of Shang Palace. When I got my heart broken by said ex? Peking Duck.

This succulent and universally-loved dish is a specialty of Beijing (The City Formerly Known as Peking) and was being prepared by their cooks since the Yuan Dynasty. Authentic Peking Ducks are first grown free-range for 45 days and then confined to be force-fed until they reach the acceptable size of 6-7 kilos. There are different ways of preparing the dish, but all would involve blowing air in between the skin and the flesh to separate them, boiling for a few hours before hanging it in a closet to dry, until eventually being oven-roasted until golden brown.

My go-to place for really good Peking Duck in Makati was Peking Garden in Glorietta 2. After the unfortunate event that destroyed the area, we were left with nowhere to go for reasonably-priced yet delicious Peking Duck. (Note: Peking Garden has since moved to Trinoma Mall.)Recently, though, my sister and brother-in-law ate at Hai Shin Lou in Arnaiz Ave. where they had really good and reasonably-priced food, including half a Peking Duck which, at P800, is a steal.

One Thursday evening, Matt and I gave in to our duck cravings and met our friends- siblings Mrs. Nadal and The Manchild; Mr. And Mrs. G-RO; and gorgeous blogger Cosmopolicious- for Peking Duck at Hai Shin Lou. Parking was full, but luckily the place had valet parking. The interiors of the place looked relatively modern by Chinese restaurant standards, with the mandatory aquariums and Lazy Susans.

We were given a table in front of the aquariums, which proved to be a problem for me and Mrs. G-RO: The synchronized rising of the bubbles were giving the illusion that the room was going up or down, which oddly made us dizzy. I had to move to the other side of the table so my back was turned from the aquariums. Although slightly queasy, I was still raring to dive into our Chinese spread.

We started the meal with an order of the Seafood Roll with Mayonaise, a dish that I saw in another food blog and looked mighty tasty. Hai Shin Lou’s version, though, was a colossal disappointment. True, the crust was nicely crispy, but there was practically nothing inside. The Manchild grudgingly said, “I TOLD you we should have ordered the eggplant.”

We were not unhappy for too long because next to come out was the Peking Duck. The skin was perfectly-browned and shimmering in the light. The bird, to my surprise, was quite large by Manila standards. It was prepared, not table-side, but at a table a good five meters away. I suppose the dining room was not big enough to accommodate table-side food preparations, but we really did not mind.

Before we knew it, plate after heaping plate of duck skin wrapped in thin pancakes with hoisin sauce and scallions were being served. The sauce was a rich combination of savory and sweet, perfect with the crispy and delightfully oily duck skin. I was also impressed with their pancakes, which were nice and thin and silky, but just the right density to hold in the scrumptiously moist and sticky filling.

“Second way” was prepared deep fried with loads of garlic and peppercorn. This was very nicely done- not at all greasy, with its enticing aromas prodding you to eat more, the flesh still moist and the leftover skin crispy and nicely salty.

For our beef dish, we ordered the Fried Beef with Tausi sauce and Green Pepper. The thinly-sliced beef was tender and juicy, the sauce nicely flavoured with the tausi. This dish was what made me eat more fried rice than I was supposed to. Very, very tasty, indeed.

To balance out the high-cholesterol dishes, we also ordered a Hotpot of Beancurd and Baby Pechay. My expectations from this dish were naturally low: What would you expect from a dish with the words “beancurd” and “pechay” in it? Nevertheless, it was not bad at all.

The starch of choice was Fried Rice with Salted Fish and Chicken. This was also quite good and had a curiously sticky texture to it. The Manchild helpfully informed me that they steam the rice twice to give it that consistency. With a renewed appreciation for the attention given this dish, I actually learned to enjoy it more.

After that enormous meal, we lingered a bit longer to chat and catch up on each other’s lives. It really is nice to have a group of people who share similar passions with you. In this case, there’s that love for good food and living well. Matt and I are already planning a return visit to Hai Shin Lou for more Peking duck- maybe next time with my family or his mom- and we’re not even bothering to think of a good reason.

Hai Shin Lou
Arnaiz Ave.
(between Paseo de Roxas Ave.
and Amorsolo St.)
Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 8925148