Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The panna cotta principles

This started out as a column on making a foolproof dessert. However, after my third attempt and the growing realization that foolproof did not necessarily equal Johanna-proof, it turned into something slightly more philosophical.

I therefore present the Panna Cotta Principles, lessons this exercise in humility taught me about life and dessert.

Mind you, I’d never made panna cotta before, but I knew it was pretty easy. Most recipes I’d come across were fairly straightforward, but when I came across one that suggested some unique extra steps, I figured these would certainly add something extra to the dish. My first mistake.

Panna Cotta Principle #1: Simpler is better. Contrary to popular belief (and Facebook status options), life and relationships don’t have to be all that complicated. It’s people who like to complicate things for a variety of reasons, including our penchant for drama and as my experience would indicate, the belief that if it’s complicated, it must be better.

Well, it wasn’t. Even after hours in the fridge, my panna cotta with the extra complication simply refused to gel, insisting instead on remaining in a state of white, creamy puddliness.

Which brings me to Panna Cotta Principle #2: Choose whom you trust. As I muddled (puddled?) through this disastrous recipe, I wondered if the only reason for the extra steps was to guarantee failure.

There was a time when I would have thought this a ridiculous proposition, but when polling friends and acquaintances about what they would do when they didn’t want to share a recipe, I was surprised to find out how many would give one with deliberate errors or omissions in it.

Recipes can fail for many reasons, such as user error, variations in the brands of ingredients, and even the appliances used.  However, some people give out recipes that are doomed to fail from the start.

It turns out this is a fairly common practice, especially for people who are loath to share their trade secrets. To which I wondered, why even give the recipe in the first place? Why not just say no? Or offer up another recipe?

Many people do it for marketing and publicity purposes, but here’s the thing. If I try your recipe and think it sucks, chances are, I won’t have a lot of faith in your taste or talent and will likely give your restaurant or product a pass.

The same thing applies to people who say they will when they won’t, or that they know (or do) when they don’t. And as I cursed inwardly at the dastardly chef who had me needing so much milk and cream I may as well have bought a cow, I decided to commit to Panna Cotta Principle #3: Be someone others can trust.

It’s easy to be seduced by the glitz of sweet-talking recipes and people, but in the end, it’s the true blue that you stick with and who stick with you through the years.

My fourth life lesson I also owe to Kenny Rogers whose old country song kept running through my head—Panna Cotta Principle #4: Know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em.

On my first attempt, I overheated my panna cotta mixture until it was a great, big clotty mess. My first instinct was to go ahead and mix it in with the rest of the ingredients, then hope for the best. But I realized throwing good ingredients in after bad would only result in more waste, so I reluctantly chucked the whole thing.

The next time around, I followed the flawed recipe to a T and put the entire mixture in the fridge.  Eight hours later and the damn thing was no closer to a panna cotta than the cartons of milk and cream beside it. This time, however, I realized the recipe defect was fixable. On my third attempt (at which point I had started to wish I had made something easier like, say, a wedding cake), panna cotta 3.0 finally began to gel.

The next day, I carefully unmolded quivering orbs of silky, creamy goodness onto a platter and drizzled them with strawberries, a balsamic glaze and salty, crunchy, crushed pistachios, the ingredients I happened to have on hand.

Panna Cotta Principle #5: Work with what you’ve got. It’s usually a lot more than you think.

And as I savored the fruit of my efforts, I realized Panna Cotta Principle #6: Variety is indeed the spice of life and dessert. The sweet, the tart, the nutty and the fruity—embrace them all, because they’re just some of the variants that make life and food so interesting.

As for my 7th and final Panna Cotta Principle: Practice makes perfect. Especially when it’s someone else’s. Learn from my mistakes as well as your own, and enjoy this foolproof (and Johanna-proof!) recipe for panna cotta.

Panna Cotta
6-8 servings

1 package unflavored gelatin
1 cup milk
2 cups whipping cream
1 tablespoon real vanilla extract
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon lemon zest (grated lemon rind, yellow part only)
1 pinch salt

Topping options:
Sliced berries, mango or any other fruit of your choice, fresh, macerated (soaked in liqueur) or blended, sweetened and strained into a coulis
Crushed nuts (e.g., pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, pistachios) and honey
Balsamic vinegar glaze

Sprinkle the gelatin on the milk and let stand for 5 minutes. Add the milk-gelatin mixture, cream, vanilla, sugar lemon rind and salt into a pan and stir until the mixture is hot but not boiling.

Make sure the gelatin and sugar are fully dissolved by rubbing some of the mixture between your fingers. It should feel completely smooth, not sandy.

Divide the mixture among 6-8 ramekins (depending on size) and leave to cool. Place into the fridge for at least an hour or preferably, overnight.

When ready to serve, run a thin knife blade around the inside of each ramekin. Mine came out easily, but if you have trouble, dip each ramekin into a bowl of hot water for a few seconds to loosen the bottom.

Garnish with the toppings of your choice.

This article first appeared in The Philippine Star on January 22, 2015.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Wine, cheese and a ‘shroom of one’s own

Can you believe it’s December? The year just seemed to fly by and once again, it’s time for Christmas carols, shopping and parties. Of course, that also means it’s time for even worse than usual traffic, nonexistent parking, and jam-packed restaurants full of impatient customers and harried wait staff.

It’s enough to make you start channeling your inner Ebenezer and decide you’d rather get your humbug on at home.

Of course, you could just throw your own Christmas party. Call the caterers and throw together a simple little bash for a hundred or so of your closest chums. Or if you’re anything like me, cash in that reality check and just invite a few friends over for wine and cheese at the shoebox you lovingly call home.

If you do decide to go with the latter, here are some tips for throwing an easy W&C that’ll have your friends hailing you as your generation’s Martha for months to come.

1) First, there’s the wine. Figure on a bottle for every three people. Unless of course, you and your friends are raging alkies, in which case, reverse that ratio.

2)   Then, there’s the cheese. You want a nice variety of cheeses in terms of texture and taste. I usually stick with three or four cheeses, my favorites being an aged Manchego or Gruyere (hard), a Brie, Camembert or Brillat-Savarin (soft), and because they’re my personal favorites, always a lovely blue cheese like a Stilton or a Cambozola (stinky delicious).

3)   Don’t forget the carbs. I keep it simple, just some crackers and a freshly warmed baguette cut into slices. But you can always play around with other possibilities. Fruit and nut breads are great too, as well as ryes, brown breads, flat breads and bread sticks.

4)   Get fruity. Fruit provides a great counterpoint to cheese, be it fresh, like a bunch of plump grapes, dried (apricots, figs, cranberries) or a compote or relish (mango chutney, fig jam).

5)   There’s more to wine and cheese…than wine and cheese. I like to add small platters of nuts, olives and cold cuts to the mix. That way, no one goes home hungry, not even the lactose-intolerant.

6)   Just say yes. The well-mannered guest will usually ask if they can bring anything. Say yes. People contributing wine and cheese (or pizza, chocolate cake, siopao,) makes it easier on you and your wallet. Besides, your guests are eager to let you know how much they appreciate your hosting the shindig and hopefully, volunteering to do it again soon.

7)   Make something from scratch. Just the one homemade dish really turns your humble little get-together into something special and personal. Choose something you can make ahead and then, either serve at room temperature or pop in the oven when your guests arrive.

I usually go with a spread, dip, or a crowd-pleaser like stuffed mushrooms. I’ve made many different kinds since, but this very first recipe I ever tried for sausage-stuffed mushrooms continues to be an MRS (Most Requested ‘Shroom).

So, eat, drink, be merry and don’t forget to appoint a designated driver (or call Über). And remember—what happens at the W&C…stays at the W&C.  Happy holidays!

Sausage-Stuffed Mushrooms
Serves 6-8 as an appetizer

Breadcrumbs (preferably fresh), ¼ cup
1 shallot, peeled and quartered
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 packages baby portobellos, cleaned
Crumbled Italian sausage (casings removed), 150 grams
Dry mustard, ½ teaspoon
Worcestershire sauce, 1 teaspoon
Butter, 2 tablespoons
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Pulse shallots and garlic in a food processor. Set aside.

Remove stems from mushrooms (leaving the caps intact) and chop, using a food processor or a knife. Set aside.

In large skillet over medium heat, cook sausage until no longer pink.  Drain well.  Add shallot, garlic and mushroom stems.  Cook and stir for 4 to 5 minutes, until vegetables are tender.

Transfer sausage mixture to a large bowl.  Add breadcrumbs, dry mustard, and Worcestershire sauce to sausage.  Mix thoroughly with your hands, a wooden spoon or in a food processor.

Melt butter in skillet over medium-low heat.  Add mushroom caps.  Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes on each side, until slightly soft.  Place on ungreased cookie sheets.  Fill with sausage mixture.  Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.  Set aside. 

When ready to serve, bake at 350°F for 10 minutes or until hot and bubbly.

This article first appeared in the December 11, 2014 issue of The Philippine Star.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Speed bumps and slow-roasted chicken

You ever have one of those days that just sucked so bad you wish you never got out of bed? When you were already running late for an appointment and then found yourself stuck in molasses-slow traffic, while every other driver on the road seemed to have left his or her brain at home? Or despite your dogged efforts to be productive, you just couldn’t get anything done, because for some strange reason, common sense suddenly took a back seat to politics, bureaucracy and passive-aggressive apathy?

Perhaps it wasn’t just the one rage-inducing circumstance, but rather a myriad of annoying little things that made you wonder if some evil voodoo woman wasn’t actually having a grand old time somewhere, jabbing a million little straight pins into a raggedy doll version of you.

Lately, I’ve been working on perspective by remembering what an incredibly wise guru named Jessica Taylor once said: “If you can go to a hospital’s severe burn unit and feel comfortable whinging about your bad day to the patients there, then fine. You’re having a bad day. Otherwise, it’s just a speed bump.”

And speed bumps are around to remind you to slow down, maybe take stock of where you are and what’s going on around you. Because we all know what happens when we ignore speed bumps and insist on barreling through at full speed, both literally and figuratively. Well, at least my car and I do.

These past couple of weeks, a lot of people I care about have been having some seriously bad days. Some experienced the painful loss of a family member or dear friend (of the two-and four-legged variety). Others found out that they or someone they loved were battling a potentially serious illness. Yet another good friend is caring for a sibling who’s struggling with a life-threatening disease and pain.

I think the phrase “comfort food” was coined precisely for speed bumps and bad days. There are no hard and fast rules for what constitutes comfort food.  Spicy, sour, sweet, tender, crunchy—comfort comes in many different textures and flavors.

And while you can most certainly find comfort food in a favorite restaurant or sometimes even in the supermarket (Come here, Cheetos, mama needs a hug!), my favorite comfort foods are almost always slow-cooked at home with lots of love. Because that’s precisely what you want on days like these—something that makes you feel nurtured, loved and taken care of.

And while comfort food or anything else you may have to offer may not seem like much when you or someone you love is having a bad day, know that every expression of love helps.

So for those of us who are experiencing speed bumps or bad days right now or know someone who is, here’s a recipe for a dish made with lots of love and goodness but not too much effort, because, hey, cooks need comfort too.

Take it slow, take it easy. And whether it’s by way of prayer, presence or comfort food, spread the love as generously as you (okay, as I) would spread butter. Because love, like butter, makes speed bumps, bad days and everything else that much better.

Slow-Roasted Tarragon Chicken with Potatoes and Garlic
Serves 4-6


1 chicken (approx. 1.5 kg), cut into 10 pieces
2-3 potatoes (approx. 500 g) peeled and quartered2 heads garlic, separated into unpeeled cloves2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon, divided into 3 portions3 tablespoons olive oil1 tablespoon soy sauceSalt and pepper to taste1/3 cup wine (preferably white, but red will do, too) Procedure:

Pre-heat the oven to 325F/160C.

Wash and dry the chicken pieces and toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 ½ tablespoons salt, and (preferably) freshly cracked pepper to taste.

Put potatoes and garlic in a baking dish and toss with 1/3 of the tarragon, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon salt, and freshly cracked pepper to taste.

Place chicken on top of the potatoes, then sprinkle with another portion of tarragon. Pour the soy sauce and the wine over everything.

Cover dish tightly with foil and cook for 2 hours.

Increase heat to 400F/200C. Remove foil from the dish and spoon the pan juices over the chicken. Return dish to oven and cook for 30 minutes more or until the chicken, potatoes and garlic are golden brown.

Garnish with remaining tarragon and serve.

This piece first appeared in the December 4 2014 issue of The Philippine Star.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Thoughts on Thanksgiving, gratitude, and what to do with all that turkey

Thanksgiving is my all-time favorite holiday. Every year, I celebrate by inviting friends over for a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Not an easy feat in my small apartment, but what can I say? When there’s a will, there’s a turkey.

It was my first Thanksgiving after I moved to New York that sealed the deal. Horrified that I hadn’t bothered to make plans, my American friends promptly invited me to spend Thanksgiving with them. And in the nine years to follow, various friends would either invite me over to their families’ homes, or we would take turns hosting Friendsgiving for our fellow transplants.

I grew to love the entire ritual. Starters, chips and candy to tide us over until dinner, sitting down to a table groaning with the weight of a big, brown turkey, stuffing, gravy, candied yams, mashed potatoes, green beans, pecan pie and countless other goodies.

Changing into sweat pants after the feeding frenzy (Note: I’m always especially thankful for elastic waistbands after Thanksgiving dinner) and cleaning up at a leisurely pace. Gossip and girl talk while the men watched football and just enjoying the food coma-enhanced feelings of camaraderie and gratitude.

It’s a tradition I try to continue here in Manila by hosting a small Thanksgiving dinner at my apartment. Even in the first couple of years when my oven couldn’t fit a turkey, I got around it by either ordering a turkey dinner and making some additional sides, or roasting a giant, organic chicken. Either way, it’s always been a good time with good friends full of love, laughter and tryptophan.

Of course there will always be the haters, making snide comments about Pinoys celebrating Thanksgiving, and to them I say: Have some turkey with gravy and mashed potatoes. You’ll feel better.

Thanksgiving traditionally includes people listing what they’re grateful for. But since this is a cooking column, I thought I’d make a list of some stuff I’m particularly thankful to have in my kitchen. These are the things that help me celebrate a life to be truly grateful for and the people (and cats!) that make it so awesome.

So in no particular order, I’m thankful for:

1)   Green smoothies. Up until this year, I’d really only been grateful for my blender on Tex-Mex night when a wonderful recipe for frozen margaritas was guaranteed to keep us all olé-ing till the wee hours. But green smoothies for breakfast help me ensure that I get a decent amount of fruit, vegetables and fiber in my system even when it’s a food coma kind of day.

2)   Salt and vinegar. No, my friend, they’re not just a flavor of potato chips. Assorted flavors of salt and vinegar help keep things really interesting with a minimum of effort. Truffle and smoked salts, balsamic, rice and raspberry vinegar are just some of my secret weapons for making meals interesting.

3)   Wine, wonderful wine. Red, white, rosé or sparkling, you can never have too much of this in your kitchen. A bottle of wine makes everyone all warm and fuzzy at dinner, and keeps harried cooks from having a meltdown and perhaps throwing a casserole at bewildered guests. A glass for the cook, a glass to throw into whatever you’re making, and the rest to share is always a foolproof formula for a successful dinner.

4)   Freezables. I’m a big fan of slow cooking, stews that you simmer for hours. They may seem like a lot of work, but they’re really not. A lot of those hours are spent just bubbling quietly on your stovetop getting delicious and filling your home with luscious aromas while you go do your groove thang. Soaked and boiled beans, homemade chicken stock (both so much better than canned), and various stews that get better with age are a godsend when you’re jonesing for a really good meal but are too tired to do anything but push microwave buttons.

5)   Leftovers. Especially Thanksgiving leftovers. Even after sending guests home with Thanksgiving doggy bags, there's usually still a lot of food left over. So when you’re tired of those big, open-face turkey sandwiches smothered with gravy and cranberry sauce, tear any remaining meat off and then simmer that turkey carcass, for a rich turkey stock that you can freeze for later.

As for the turkey meat, I’m pretty much done with Thanksgiving flavors after a couple of days, so I like to do something different. Turkey nachos for Tex-Mex night along with the aforementioned frozen margaritas are guaranteed to have you saying Muchas Gracias for at least another night.

Happy gobbling!

Turkey Nachos

1 cup leftover shredded turkey meat (roast chicken leftovers work great, too)
2 tablespoons fresh lime or kalamansi juice
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 cups pinto or kidney beans (pre-soaked and -boiled dried beans or a 16-oz. can)
8-12 oz. tortilla chips (1 big bag)
2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
1-2 tablespoons chopped jalapeños (or finger chilis)
 ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro (wansoy)

Suggested accompaniments: sour cream, salsa, guacamole, hot sauce and lime wedges


Preheat oven to 400°F.

Toss turkey with lime juice and cumin, then season to taste with salt and pepper.

Heat oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat and cook garlic, cumin, and oregano, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in beans and cook, stirring, until heated through, about 1 minute. Add more of the spices as desired, then season with salt and pepper.

Spread the chips on a shallow pan or baking sheet and layer with the beans, turkey, jalapeños and cheese. Bake until cheese is melted, around 10 minutes.

Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve with accompaniments of your choice.

This article was originally published in The Philippine Star on November 27, 2014.

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.