Sunday, January 25, 2015

Five great reasons to get cooking

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like — no, love — restaurants. I like trying the new restaurants everyone’s talking about, going to old restaurants where everyone knows my name and what I like to eat. I like the dim lights that give me rosy cheeks and high cheekbones, and the hot, crusty bread served with ice-cold flower-shaped butter.

I also like satisfying specific cravings at fast-food joints or neighborhood haunts with the special dishes they make so well that I just don’t see the point of trying to make them myself.

What I don’t like, however, is settling for fast food, greasy takeout or mediocre and overpriced meals mainly because I’m too tired, lazy or ill-equipped to make something so much better (and better for me) at home.

Sure, it’s easier, and sometimes easy is just what you need. But a constant diet of takeout and restaurant meals eventually takes its toll on your waistline and your wallet.

There’s a lot to be said for eating in, and even if the only things you’ve ever done in your kitchen before were make coffee and microwave leftover pizza, I’m hoping the following reasons can convince you to cross over to the wonderful world of home-cooked meals.

1. Home-cooked is healthier. Seriously, just the fact that you’re making it yourself puts you way ahead of the game, health-wise. Even if you aren’t going out of our way to make “diet” food, you’re generally using a lot less salt, grease, and processed ingredients than commercial establishments to make your food taste good.
Lifestyle Feature ( Article MRec ), pagematch: 1, sectionmatch: You also control the kind of oil you use and how many times you use it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been put off by the flavors of or even made sick by food that was cooked with oil that’s been reused too often or gone rancid.

2. It’s cheaper. Yes, fast food is cheap. But you need to compare apples with apples (versus oranges. Or fried chicken). When you’re buying quality ingredients to come up with something fancy, that’ll always be cheaper than getting it at a fine dining restaurant. And simpler dishes will almost always be more affordable, taste better and be healthier when you make them at home.

3. You’re the boss. You want lasagna at 9 a.m. or pancakes at midnight? Who’s to tell you the kitchen is closed? And you’ll get what you want, how you want it, and exactly how much of it you want with no one to tell you that you can only have your meatballs with spaghetti instead of rice or that there’s only gravy with your chicken instead of Thai sweet chili sauce (don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it).

4. You’ll feel like a rock star. Because everyone loves it when you cook for them. So much so, that even if your concoctions don’t come out perfect, they’ll still love them better than anything they could get outside. Nearly everyone appreciates it when you serve food that’s made with love. And call me crazy, but I’m convinced that lovingly prepared food always tastes better. Always.

5. It’s fun. No, really, it is. Put on some music while you’re working, maybe have a glass of wine and dance around your kitchen like a crazy person while the pasta boils. Listen, if it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong. There’s no need for fear here; it’s not like you’re performing open-heart surgery. 

Worst-case scenario, your dish is a bust, and then you order takeout. More often than not, however, you’ll end up so proud of yourself and your culinary masterpiece. And as your skill and confidence grow, you’ll start making bolder choices and taking on more ambitious projects.

Check out your Gordon Ramsey/Ina Garten-channeling bad self six months down the line, confidently whipping up fancy soufflés and beef bourguignon for your worshipful friends and family.
For now, however, stick with simple stuff so you don’t find yourself scarred for life the first time around and breaking out into a cold sweat every time you see a frying pan.
Here, for example, is a recipe for grilled cheese sandwiches, the kind you pay a small fortune for when you’re dining at Manila’s fancy-schmancy bistros du jour.
Keep in mind that these are fairly loose guidelines, because the variables of bread, cheese and accompaniments are entirely up to you. Let me tell you, though, even the simplest homemade grilled cheese sammy is just a plateful of sumptuous, melty love that you and anyone you make it for will adore.

Happy cooking!


Makes 2 sandwiches

4 slices, bacon
4 slices, country-style bread ( I like sourdough, ciabatta or a baguette, but thickly sliced white or wheat bread is great, too).
1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese, mozzarella, Gruyere or other cheese of your choice. I like a combination of the above.

4 thick tomato slices, drained on paper towels
2 tablespoons room temperature butter 

Cook the bacon in a heavy skillet (I like a cast-iron pan) over medium heat until crisp, about 10 minutes, then drain on paper towels. 

Press 1/4 cup grated cheese onto 2 slices of bread. Top each with 2 tomato slices and sprinkle with some black pepper. 

Place 2 bacon slices on the bread. Press another 1/4 cup of cheese over the bacon. 

Top sandwiches with the remaining bread slices, then spread half a tablespoon of butter over top of each sandwich. 

Wipe out your skillet and reheat on medium heat. Add  the sandwiches, buttered side down, to the skillet. Place a plate (or another smaller pan) on top of both sandwiches to weigh them down. 

Cook the sandwiches until their bottoms are golden brown, about 3-4 minutes. Spread the top of each sandwich with the remaining butter,  and turn sandwiches over.  Top with the plate again and cook until that side is golden brown and your cheese is starting to ooze out of the sides. 

Cut sandwiches crosswise in half and serve immediately.

I like this particular combination for when I don’t have any tomato soup on hand. When I do, however, I like to leave the tomatoes out (and sometimes the bacon, too), and add some mustard and mango chutney.  Other things I’ve added to grilled cheese sammies include caramelized onions, fig spread, mushrooms, cooked apple slices, and cranberry sauce. The possibilities are endless, so don’t be afraid to play around.
* * *
This entry first appeared as a column in the Philippine Star on November 20, 2014. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Private and Confit-dential: Mixed Greens with Crispy Duck Leg Confit, Blue Cheese, Pecans and Cranberries in a Balsamic Vinaigrette

When you decide to follow your dream, expect to be surprised. Because no matter how much thought you put into making your decision and how much you prepare beforehand, there will still be many surprises. The good news, though, is that the vast majority of them will be the good kind.

Not all of them, mind you. You will occasionally be surprised by some not-so-great stuff and some not-so-great people, like say, idiots on motorcycles who come at you out of nowhere and puncture your car tire like it was a piñata. Grrr.

But I promise, you will be surprised by nearly all the people in your universe. Hell, you'll be surprised by your very universe. You will be amazed, touched and humbled by all the support and encouragement you receive from the people you who love you. You may think you expected it but trust me, it'll be Niagara Falls big and just as amazing.

The even bigger surprise, though, will be the people you just kinda like and thought, yeah, okay, I guess they kinda like me back. Because the kindness, generosity and support you will get from these people will knock your socks off. You will sit down (still sockless!) and realize how incredibly lucky you are to have these truly wonderful people in your life.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

It Just Takes a Little Seoul: Spicy Shrimp Salad Sammy with Kimchi Mayo, Avocado, and Radish Sprouts

Hello, everyone! Yes, I'm back in the Toy Kitchen. And no, I didn't get eaten by a lion in Africa but thanks so much for asking, especially those of you who e-mailed me to make sure. It has just been such a crazy busy couple of months what with launching the RGTK product line, making the RGTK product line, selling the RGTK product line, delivering the RGTK product line...well, you get the picture.

Me, shilling RGTK on ANC Shop Talk (my segment starts at 30:15)

My former life in the corporate world feels like two centuries instead of just two months ago. Now, instead of business casual and heels (no sleeveless tops or open-toed sandals, please) my new dress code consists mostly of yoga pants, colorful jammies and flip-flops. So, no, I don't actually get this dressed up to cook when I'm alone. 

My actual work duds. And it's not even Casual Friday.
I'm cooking nearly every day, and my place is packed with boxes, bottles and sacks of onions and garlic. Not only does this make entertaining a near impossibility, but these days, I jump at any chance to put on shoes, go to a restaurant and taste food that I haven't had to cook, bottle and slap an RGTK label on. I'm also desperately eager for any kind of conversation that doesn't include bottles, ingredients, delivery details and meowing.

Despite all the adjustments, though (Dear steady paycheck, I miss you most of all. xoxo J), I am having the time of my life. Yes, I've been known to occasionally succumb to moments of panic, maybe grab a cat or two, and tearfully tell them not to get eaten by squirrels when I have to throw them out on the streets (They're sissies). But when I'm not obsessing too much about the future, when I remember to live in the moment, then the moments are actually pretty damned awesome.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Getting Jiggy with Mark Bittman: West Indian Crispy Pork Bits

Ever have those days (weeks, months) where everything and everyone just seems particularly difficult? It's times like those when you really appreciate the beauty of a ridiculously easy recipe like this one that just so happens to produce some genuinely delicious comfort food. The catch, however, is that it does require some advance preparation. But they say good things come to those who wait, and this dish is indeed, in the words of Martha Stewart, a very good thing.

This recipe is from Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything, which is guaranteed to coax even the most fearful novice cooks into the kitchen. The recipes are easy enough to make you go, "Hey, even I can do that!" and before you know it, you are.

Then, bolstered by your success, you become increasingly confident, start experimenting with your own flavor profiles and before you know it, you've got your own cooking show. In your head. Or, you give up your day job and hawk your own product line.  Yo, Mark Bittman, thank you! You'll either get royalties or me showing up on your doorstep, suitcase and hungry cats in tow.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Keep It Real: Spaghetti Squash in Pesto Cream with Pan-Fried Scallops

As a rule, fakes suck. Fake labels? Tacky. Faking a love for sports, opera or books to impress? Even tackier. And sucking up to further a secret agenda? Well, that's just sad. It's also exhausting. Seems to me that it would be easier to just be who we are. Besides, we'd be so much more fabulous at being ourselves than trying to be a pale imitation of someone else.

The same applies to food. My unfortunate addiction to diet soda notwithstanding, I think fake and wannabe foods generally suck and should be avoided. I' like yoghurt but not when it tries to pass itself off as ice cream.  Fat-free cheese is an abomination. And don't even get me started on vegetarian restaurants that feature entrees in quotes, e.g.,"beef" stroganoff or "chicken" a la king.

Spaghetti squash, however, is a notable exception. This poor misunderstood squash never claimed to be pasta. It's not its fault that its insides just happen to scrape up into luscious, spaghetti-like strands that clock in at roughly a fifth of the calories of regular pasta.

Spaghetti squash is what it is and is perfectly happy to be what it is. And having never seen one in Manila before, I was perfectly happy to take one home when I spotted it at Metro Supermarket.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Announcements and Pronouncements

Chili, pumpkin soup, pesto and eggplant dip: "Please take us home. We promise to be very, very good!"

The day I announced my very first giveaway on this blog, I had also drafted my resignation letter and made a phone appointment with my boss in Hong Kong.

Starting a prepared food business had always been a long-time dream, and after a (mostly) wonderful 6-year ride at my current corporate gig, I was finally committing to doing it.

Imagine, therefore, my sheer terror when hours after I had posted my exciting giveaway, there were no takers. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Itlog (the Filipino word for egg, local slang for zero, in case you hadn't figured it out).

I began hyperventilating. What was I, nuts? How could I possibly think I could make a living selling food, giving up the security of a corporate job and a regular paycheck when I couldn't even GIVE my chili away?

"You're gonna starve," I said tearfully to the Destructo-Cats, who just looked at me, seemingly unmoved. "You're no match for those feral street cats. Hell, you're no match for those street rats. You wouldn't last five minutes out there."