#30DayWritingChallenge: The best meal of my life.

Day Twenty-Three: The best meal of my life.

It is a common joke among former residents of the Chairless Apartment that whenever we start cooking pasta, it means we are running low on money.

Day 03 - Favorite Place

Normally when we buy groceries, we would include two kilos of dry spaghetti noodles and cans of fried sardines. We also always keep lots of garlic and pepper in the kitchen cupboard.

On days when we have enough money among ourselves, we would eat out or order food delivered to the apartment. If we feel like cooking, we would think of comfort food we miss and prepare them: pork sinigang, kare-kare, menudo, ginisang munggo. Nearly everyone in the house can cook, and we help each other in the kitchen.

On lean days, we bring out the pasta.

The Great Tinapa Hunt adventure of Mandaluyong (and a recipe for tinapa and pesto spaghetti).

Tinapa by Johann Espiritu

Since I will be working on New Year’s Day, I promised the co-workers that I will be bringing some pasta for a little post-New Year celebration. I decided I’ll cook some tinapa pesto spaghetti.

Tinapa is a local preparation of smoked fish, typically using galunggong (scad), and is an typical part of the Filipino poor man’s diet. Not that I am looking down on it: tinapang galunggong has a rich smoky flavor and is great when fried and served with rice, chopped fresh tomatoes and sliced salted eggs.

A few months ago, the occupants of the Chairless Apartment ended up in a restaurant called Lime 88 which served humble street food prepared like haute cuisine. One of the dishes we tried was a smoked fish and pesto pasta that used tinapang galunggong. Lime’s tinapa and pesto spaghetti was very good so we decided to imitate the dish a few weeks later. It was surprisingly easy to prepare.

The day before the New Year, I went out to buy ingredients for the dinner with the housemates that I was preparing. I decided to buy the wet ingredients (meat, veggies, etc) in the local wet market instead of the supermarket so I could get them cheaper. Except that I was not able to find a vendor that sold tinapa.

I actually went out twice and went to two wet markets partly to look for tinapa. All the usual tinapa vendors I see on normal days are missing and were replaced by fruit vendors. It seemed that because tinapa is known to be a poor man’s food, it isn’t likely to be included in holiday dinners and no one was selling it.

It wasn’t a big deal for me yet; the pasta could wait until tomorrow and I could always look get them from a supermarket. The following day (i.e., yesterday), I was shocked to find out that the nearby supermarkets were closed for the New Year. The wet markets I passed looked like deserted ghost towns, with very few vendors opening their shops. None of them were selling smoked fish.

In the end, after going visiting three supermarkets and four wet markets, I decided to alter the pesto recipe.

Tinapa and pesto spaghetti

  • Chop some garlic and flake some tinapang galunggong, carefully removing all fish bone. Two medium-sized tinapa is good for 1/3 kilo of dried spaghetti.
  • Saute the garlic and tinapa flakes in oil. Lower the heat and add some pesto, three or four tablespoons for every 1/3 kilo of spaghetti. Ready-made pesto works fine.
  • Add a little water to the pesto to make the sauce creamier. Add the pre-cooked spaghetti and mix it thoroughly to coat it with the sauce. Season to taste.

I promise I will not write about tinapa again for at least a month.

Image: Tinapa by Johann Espiritu on Flickr

Spaghetti with shrimp and coconut milk.

Two things I’ve always wanted to use with pasta are curry and coconut milk. Come to think of it, I’ve already used curry with noodles before. I used egg noodles in a dish I found in my Asian cookbook. I’ve yet to try it with pasta.

There are still some uncooked shrimp left in the freezer yesterday, so I thought of cooking them before Bern arrived. I thought of adding them to misua but at that point Bern already passed the wet market; I can’t ask him to buy some patola anymore.

And then I found some powdered coconut milk in the pantry. Bern and Alex used it a few days ago to make ginataan. There was still plenty of powder left over and I figured I could try it with pasta.

I sauteed the shrimp with garlic and onion until the orange shrimp juice oozed out. I then added the dissolved coconut milk and a little cream. To flavor the sauce, I added black and cayenne pepper. The pasta was added to the sauce and stirred before serving.

For an experimental sauce, it wasn’t bad. It should go well with more cocunut milk. I only used a cup of coconut milk for around 200 grams of shrimp and 250 grams of uncooked pasta; I could add maybe half a cup more and remove the cream entirely. Adding squash to thicken the sauce should also work well, with or without the shrimp.

Food notes: Lemongrass.

Ever since I was a kid, I love the smell of lemongrass. My dad used to have a plant growing in one corner of our yard; I’d pull a leave and crush it to smell the plant’s aromatic juice.

There aren’t a lot of Filipino dishes that I am aware of that uses lemongrass, but stalks of it are usually stuffed inside chicken while it’s roasted. Sometimes, my parents would include it when preparing a ginataan dish and I got the habit from them. Often, I’d use lemongrass when preparing curry.

We often used lemongrass merely as flavoring, tying the leaves and stalk in a bundle to let its juice steep into a dish’s sauce. The bundle is then removed when serving the dish. I thought lemongrass was too fibrous to be eaten itself. It was only recently that I found out that one could actually eat it, if the inner part of the stalk was sliced thinly enough.

NPR featured an article on lemongrass with this salad recipe which I might try one of these days:

Lemongrass salad

To really understand the power of lemongrass, eat a pile of the stuff raw…in the form of a Thai lemongrass salad. It’s a dish you seldom find in restaurants outside Thailand, but it’s not hard to make yourself. Lemongrass is increasingly available at Asian markets and grocers in the U.S.

Tanaporn cuts several lemongrass stalks into little discs. Bits of dried shrimp, squid and peanuts add crunch. Tiny chili peppers provide punch – far above their weight. Finally, Tanaporn pours on a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce and sugar. He tosses the salad and serves it wrapped in jade green-colored betel leaves. The resulting dish is typically Thai in its combination of citrus, seafood, hot, sour, salty and spicy flavors.

Lemongrass Brings Essential Spark To Southeast Asian Cooking

Stir-fried French beans for dinner.

French beans

The girl who sold these called them “French beans”. They look like a thinner version of the common green beans one sees in the markets; they’re also more expensive.

The first time we saw these was in Imus, months ago, but Bern and I didn’t buy it. This time, we saw them in a bazaar in Eton Centris. The sales girls told us the beans could be steamed or stir fried; I was kind of craving for veggies, so Bern and I bought some.

We also bought other veggies, including several stems of bok choy and canned shiitake. When we got home, I found out we ran out of butter for the stir-fry, so I used olive oil instead. Except for the oyster sauce, this is the closest I got to a purely vegetarian dish in a long time.

Stir-fried  veggies with French beans
Stir-fried veggies with French beans

It turned out okay, if a bit bland. The beans have a nice, clear favor but a little stringy. I should remember to steam the beans for a few minutes first before adding them to the stir fry because they take a longer time to cook. And maybe next time, we could use fresh shiitake, too.