Palengke New York Style

Angel loves Nilaga.  I manage to cook that easily because onions and peppercorns are staples here in the US as well.  I can actually procure patis from the Filipino stores in Woodside, Queens, the Chinese groceries in Flushing or nearby Union Turnpike, and even the neighborhood Keyfood.  (Owing to the huge Asian population, this American grocery chain actually has a few shelves devoted to Asian condiments, including our own Lorin’s Patis, Datu Puti Vinegar among others.)

It’s getting the beef and the bone marrow that’s a litte tricky.  I think I had written here previousy that I regret not having paid attention to our Work Education classes in high school when we were discussing meat cuts — but out of common sense, I discovered the part I liked best for Nilaga was Beef Shin.  Bone marrow is practically given away here at $1 per bag of cut up bones with marrow intact in the Chinese Groceries, or in much smaller cuts at similarly give away prices in Waldbaum’s, my favorite grocery which is comparable to the Unimart I grew up with.

Although access to fresh seafood is very limited (usually confined to the Chinese groceries), you have a choice of frozen or fresh fish or lobster, they will actually clean the fish for you, so I never had to actually gut seafood.  Of course I always inspect them before cooking and I find something they failed to cut out, but whatever it is that’s left is something I can stomach and deal with.  So in that respect, we’re spoiled.  I remember the wet markets back home and I did have occasion to walk through them those few times I went with Mom or when I ventured out on my own when I was preparing a dish I needed specific ingredients for. 

Vegetables are mostly seasonal and you won’t stand a chance of getting sitaw from the regular groceries.  Sayote or Chayote as it is called here is imported and not locally grown.  Squash is readily available, but not always the orange pumpkin variety we use for our favorite sitaw dish.  Staples like onions and potatoes come in different varieties and can be bought in bulk from 3-5 lb. bags.

Pork is also not readily available in the usual cuts except for pork chops and pork loin, and not in the liempo cut we prefer for our various Pinoy dishes.  I have to watch out for ground pork because unlike ground beef which comes in various varieties (from 80-93% lean), it’s not always on the grocery shelves.

So when I want to try and pull off a Filipino dish, I have to be creative.  It’s just one of those things that one must do to adapt when you are far from your country of birth.  Adobo tastes a tad bit different but just as yummy with white wine (even just the cooking kind) instead of using good old vinegar.  Or one can just cook according to what’s available locally.  It can be a challenge. 

How I discovered I could cook

Minutes to noon and I’m finally down to doing my Sunday blogpost.  I just finished whipping up Gene Gonzalez’s marinade recipe for Chicken Barbecue from his Inihaw recipe book, part of a cookbook series he released a couple of years ago. 

I picked up some pineapple juice from the grocery last week and noticed just today that the 6-pack proudly bore the stamp Product of the Philippines.  Call me overly-sentimental but coming across any product that was made or produced from back home really makes me proud — from Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Gap, or this six-pack from Dole.

I somehow found the time to actually prepare something in advance of dinner later — something I have been unable to do the past couple of weeks, much to Alan’s disappointment.  He used to tell me that one of the highlights of his day was coming home to something special on the dining table.  So during the last or penultimate phone conversations we have during the day, it has been his habit to ask me “Anong ulam mamaya?”.  I used to put the effort into researching recipes and I even had a subscription to Food & Wine, the only magazine subcription whose old issues I keep and compile.  (It seems my subscription has ended — time to renew.)

I never really cooked back in Manila.  And there’s that oft-repeated anecdote I have of my mom warning me that my mother-in-law would curse me for not knowing how to.  Fortunately, I discovered I could actually cook once I got here.  It was a matter of survival for Alan and me, and I was spurred on by boredom the first six months I was here.  Unable to work due to my status then, I had no choice but to stay home and wait for Alan to come home each day.

He would sometimes take me to the city to get to know my new home, but we did that once a week only because there was only so much I could do.

I found myself spending afternoons at the Barnes & Noble in the strip mall behind our apartment row.  I would sit down and grab a few magazines, actually copy recipes on a small sheet of paper, then hie off to the Waldbaum’s next door and grab the ingredients.  I had to plan my recipes because I worked off a budget for groceries from Alan’s credit card.  (Something I no longer do because I take care of the groceries now that I work.)  It was also important to plan them because I was only cooking for two.

I shied away from the fancy party recipes but found a lot of simple and small meals for 2-4 people.  I approached my culinary experimentation with the same philosophy I had in law school: anything can be learned if you put your mind to it. 

I acquired the cooking tome The Joy of Cookingsoon after I started working, and besides reading that to find recipes, it proved to be a very good reference as far as herb substitution and basics about the various food groups.  (How best to cook whole fish, fillets, what are the best portions for steak, how to come up with pasta al dente, among others.)  It’s falling apart now and I’m seriously considering getting another copy, but I figured it will always get battered because it’s something I turn to at least once a month for our favorite Steak Diane or Sauteed Chicken in Sherried Mushroom Sauce.  But one of my all-time favorites is Cooking with Nora Dazawhich I even specifically requested my Mom to send me a copy of.

While eating out or taking something out from KFC, the Japanese restaurant in the neighborhood or even from Ihawan, our local Barrio Fiesta type restaurant here in Queens, is always an option — home cooking I know is still the best, not only because you get more bang for the buck so to speak — but more importantly because you know what went into that dish you feed your family.  It’s just that working, taking care of the little tyke and then taking care of dinner can be quite a burden when you only have 2 hours to pull everything together.  So sometimes I end up “recycling” yesterday’s food — steak into fajitas, extra penne or ziti into a garlic pesto pasta side, or shrimp or salmon into omellettes.

I’ve also learned to use cooking helpers like Harry & David’s fancy sauces and concoctions, our favorite of which is their Artichokes Laced with Merlot  which go well like a modified afritada with some sauteed chicken pieces.  (It’s a sauce base which actually comes with real artichokes, olives and tomatoes.)

I usually prepare Angel’s food way ahead so that’s not really a problem.  It’s whipping something up for Alan that can be a challenge.  I’m going to try harder really — it just needs serious planning and like I used to do, a little bit of research to spice things up on the table — literally.