Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Kinilaw: A Philippine Cuisine of Freshness by Edilberto Alegre and Doreen Fernandez

Oh no, somebody stop me. I have gone insane. Two days after a big-ticket book purchase, I bought another one. In my defense though, P140 is hardly a big-ticket amount.

Anyway, it's Doreen, dean of Filipino food writers. On Amazon, it says that it's out of print. And it's another lucky find, the prize of another unplanned saunter into a bookstore. So let's not call our friendly neighborhood mental health professional just yet.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Alinea by Grant Achatz

I went to the Manila International Bookfair, and adopted a new baby that is keeping me up most nights:

It wagged its tail and picked me. It was the only one of its kind - I didn't see it at the other booths and it seemed to be the only copy left in the National Bookstore stall. So. This is the best P1,684 ($35.59) I've ever spent! I feel it's quite underpriced (but shhh, don't tell Nanay) - even at the original price of P2,105 ($44.49) sans the 20% discount, that's still cheap for a 400+-page, deluxe edition cookbook.

I don''t plan on replicating the recipes at home any time soon. Some of the recipes actually look doable, while others look too complex in terms of the complexity of methods or exoticness of ingredients used. Where does one source microchives in the Philippines, for example? And good luck, LL, cobbling together a sous vide cooker in your bare-essentials dwelling.

I bought it more for inspiration, to channel the spirit of Grant Achatz's innovativeness and food philosophy in my cooking, and to use his food presentation styles - "plating" would be a misnomer, since he often does not serve his food on plates - to inspire mine.

Who is Achatz? I first came across him while looking up molecular gastronomy, stumbling upon this excellent article on his battle with tongue cancer. A promising young chef is threatened with being struck down by a terminal illness, which, if he survived it, also included the very real possibility of the permanent impairment or loss of his sense of taste - that had to be one of the most richly ironic jokes the universe could ever play, and I've been fascinated ever since.

More than the drama of his illness however, it was his philosophy towards food that drew me in. Far more eloquent commentary has been written about this, so I'll just say that what struck me the most was his affinity for the avant garde, and his attempts to challenge old notions of dining out as a relaxing, laid-back activity. From Alinea's disorienting hallway to his custom of serving food that makes guests squirm, Achatz actually wants to make diners feel uncomfortable about what they're eating, to provoke thought and elicit emotion.

For more about the Alinea cookbook, visit Alinea Mosaic, the companion site.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Day 48: In which an extra set of (undamaged) fingers proves most desirable

I want a skin graft for my birthday. I cut myself in class thrice - all due to idiocy - on three different fingers. My injuries included lopping off part of my nailbed, ugh! "Excellent decision to take your hand off the chopping board!" chef Vic said as I was about to hack off the bone and, possibly, my fingers, with a gigantic cleaver.

But there's a happy ending to the story: I scored a personal best in labwork for this level. I'm not sure how that happened. Our dish last night was Pan Seared Frenched Pork Loin with Polenta and Chasseur Sauce. The chef liked everything, amazing!

Frenched, by the way, refers to a cut of meat in which the chine bone is left protruding. It reminds me of English ladies' patrician pinkies sticking out during high tea. Only the French can turn the adjective referring to their peoplehood into another signifier for a professional cooking term - like the tourné, it is more evidence of their deliberate efforts to keep their kitchen hauteur esoteric (rolls eyes. But no, that's not racism, mes amis Français. Please think of it as good-natured ribbing).

My polenta and sauce were well-seasoned and of the correct consistency, and the blanched green beans were fortunately done just right. The last time I had a blanched vegetable - asparagus for grilled tenderloin labwork - for garnish, it got overcooked. It turns out that one is supposed to let it stay in tap water for some time after cooking. I'd just dipped my asparagus in the cold water and took it out immediately (apparently you can only do that if you have ice water). The poor things were as limp as my self-esteem that night!

I didn't think my pork was something to write home about - I found it a little dry inside, in fact. But the chef liked my cooking last night (and that, really, is something to write home about!). He only took off points for the way I arranged the beans on the plate - I should have just arranged them in one row parallel to each other instead of stacking them diagonally like fallen lumber converging on a point atop the pork.

So, it was a lucky night for me in the kitchen, though it left me wondering: are my standards for "good" food really that off? Am I from another planet?

In other news, my favorite "new" food is polenta. I love its mouthfeel - the way the finely-ground grains of corn tease and tickle the tongue before dissolving. It's an elusive-feeling food - before you can put your finger on what exactly that new texture in your mouth is, the polenta has already disappeared and slipped down your gullet. Hey Bill [Buford, the journalist who apprenticed to Mario Batali. He complained in his memoir of the experience that it was such a pain to cook in mass quantities], polenta ain't that bad. You should've just thinned it out with some milk or water.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pass the hummus

Dear French people,

I had wanted to specialize in classical and contemporary French cuisine because one of my Big Dreams was to live in Paris and cook there for a living. You were, after all, the people who invented professional cooking, and what better way to become a master than to be in the heart of all the action?

As my education in the culinary arts progresses, however, I am discovering that you use horrifying amounts of cream, butter and eggs, in spite of claims to the contrary that your womenfolk are not fat.

You might admonish me by flashing your moderation cop's badge. But tell me, how can one be moderate in the face of all that luxurious creaminess? Knowing myself, I will probably have scarfed it all down before you can say pâte à choux. Besides, if I taste food for a living, all those little buttery morsels will eventually creep into my arteries.

Perhaps you might want to send over one of the disciples of your kitchens to disabuse me of this notion. 'Til then I have decided, until further notice, that my personal cooking and eating philosophies would be better served by Mediterranean cuisine.

Xoxo (with many libations of extra-virgin olive oil),

Friday, September 11, 2009

Power dressing: Alain Ducasse

For the acclaimed chef's acolytes. I haven't "discovered" him yet - I'm still in my Julia Child and Susur Lee worship stage.

Alain Ducasse, 53, is a French chef and holds three Michelin stars in three countries. He operates restaurants in Monaco, New York, Paris and at the Dorchester Hotel in London. In 2003 the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences named him the ‘Finest Chef in the World’.

Suit by Georges Feghaly
At work I wear chef’s whites in Egyptian cotton. I once designed a range of chef’s uniforms – though I don’t think I’d have the talent to design normal clothes. I wear classic suits a lot, always with a white handkerchief in the breast pocket. I also have some red stitching on the lapel of my jackets – that’s for the Légion d’Honneur. Once you've accepted the honour you're meant to put the red stitching on every suit. I keep it pretty small. But I still get asked a lot about it, outside of France at least.

The suits are all made in Monaco by Georges Feghaly, a Lebanese designer friend of mine, but I wear them because I like them, not out of loyalty. He uses Loro Piana fabrics – and sober ones. He usually has good ideas but once persuaded me to buy red trousers. I wore them once while on holiday on an island. They made me look as though I’d fallen into a pot of paint.

Shirt by Georges Feghaly
Georges usually makes my shirts and ties. I have my shirts tailor-made because I love the cotton Georges uses and it makes for a better fit. He makes a special shirt with a collar tab for the tie. He also likes to monogram my shirts. It’s like being back at school, you always know that it’s your shirt if you lose it.

Shoes by Alden
I buy all my shoes in the US, usually at Barneys New York, and all from the same company – Alden. They’re made of horse leather and I only buy them in black or brown. I have a suitcase full of new pairs in case they stop making them. Being a chef I’m used to being on my feet a lot, so comfortable shoes are very important, and these are very comfortable. They have some metal in them somewhere though, so I always set off alarms in airports.

Watch by Audemars Piguet
I like this watch because it’s so slender. Like a lot of men now, I collect a few watches – enough to make sure I always get the time right.

Glasses by Oliver Peoples
Like my shoes, I only wear the one style, which I’ve been wearing for 20 years now. Keeping it simple is a bit of a life philosophy for me.

Source: Financial Times