It’s Christmas Day!

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By the time you read this, you’re probably just reeling from a deluge of holiday cheer. The Christmas season brings out all the fun and insanity that spills on all over whatever it is you’re preparing for the ones close to your heart. The days leading up to Christmas have been zany, to say the least. Sometimes I just wish I could take a backseat and just let other people do the work for me, because sleep is something I’d love to do right now.
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But no, this Christmas is pretty special for me. There’s a force that brings me to the kitchen to make sure I make the most of the moment. It’s Christmas and I’m home for the holidays and on vacation, because my life is different now. It’s more chaotic, vastly different and really fast-paced. Deciding to shift careers has exponentially changed me. Home is more special and meaningful, simply because I don’t get to see my family that often. I love being home.

While I was in the kitchen, slaving away for two days straight just to get a dinner with my friends just right, I’ve been listening to Christmas songs mom loves to play. That’s one of the things I miss so much, because as early as November her holiday collection fills the house with songs both familiar and obscure. I’ve heard a lot of voices (better than mine of course) sing about the good old days, childhood Christmases and simpler times. I find so much joy in that because it makes me warm and fuzzy, a refuge of sorts. Thinking of that makes me feel safe like a little kid.

Right now there’s a stew in the oven, iced tea brewing on the stove and another ham curing in the fridge. Yeah, “another” ham, because the first one didn’t make it to Christmas day because it was so good. So there’s going to be ham on January 1st.
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But days before the festivities have already begun, when I invited a few friends over for Christmas dinner. We had roast chicken, gratin, pureed squash, salad with homemade mayonnaise, seafood with garlic butter, and of course…ham. I blame them for finishing the ham. Oh, and Julia Child’s chocolate mousse.
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The bulk of them are either working as nurses or studying to become doctors. I can’t believe I could have gone either way if I stayed. It’s all good, at least it could still be a useful friendship. I kid.

It was a great night of food and shallow conversations. It’s comforting to know that despite paths diverging, nothing has changed.

So here’s my Christmas gift to you, because it’s not too late to make that ham for the dinner you’re planning for the New Year. You need five days to cure this, but the patience is worth it. Trust me. I will probably never buy commercial ham ever again.
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From my kitchen to yours, may your feasts be delicious and conversations hearty. As Amy Besa would put it, “cook with much love and passion, and serve with generosity”.
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Homemade Ham (serves around 10)

1.5 kg pigue/leg, deboned and skinless

Brine:

  • 1.5 liters water
  • 250 ml pineapple juice
  • 1 tablespoon + 1.5 teaspoon curing salt/prague powder
  • 1 cup iodised salt
  • 1 1/2 cup brown sugar (or use a combination of brown and muscovado)
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • a few cloves

Braising liquid

  • 3/4 cups brown/muscovado sugar
  • 4 cups pineapple juice
  • 1 cup water
  • a few cloves
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic

In a really large bowl/container, mix all the components of the brine together. Add the pork and cover with cling wrap. Let it cure in the fridge for 5 days. When done, drain the brine and run the pork through running water to wash away the excess saltiness. In a pot, combine ingredients for the braising liquid, heat it to a boil and reduce to let it simmer. Add the ham and braise on low heat for four hours or more on the stove or in the oven. When ham is tender, remove from the pot and allow the liquid to reduce until thick. That will be your glaze. Adjust the taste with pineapple juice and sugar, because it may get a little salty because of the ham.

When ready to serve the ham, pre-heat the oven broiler to around 180 C. Sprinkle a little brown sugar and glaze on the fat of the ham. Place it in the oven and allow the sugar to caramelize, around three to five minutes. When done, remove from oven and slice the ham to serve.

And if I’m being totally transparent, I went the extra mile and finally, FINALLY, lived a childhood fantasy. Commercial hams are actually pretty good, but that thin layer of fat on top doesn’t seem like a lot for a very hungry child who loves pork fat. I bought a kilo of pork belly and cured and cooked it the same way. This was the finished product. A glorious slab of pork belly ham.
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I think I hear the choir of angels breaking out in song.

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What I Ate @ Sambo Kojin

“Because I’d like to believe it’s important to tell the world what you ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner”
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Just because I told you that my Manila trip was more business than pleasure doesn’t mean that I didn’t have fun one way or the other. Because I had a few high school classmates living/working/studying in Manila, we just had to meet up a few hours before my flight home. Going to the carnival was at the top of my friend R’s list of things to do before leaving.
But since it was too much of a stretch to carry our bags to Star City then to the airport, we decided to join the rest of the people at Eastwood’s Sambo Kojin – a grill-all-you-can Yakiniku resto.
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My stomach wasn’t cooperating with me when we got there. I didn’t even know it was a Japanese resto. When we sat down and I took in the spacious surroundings filled with families, friends and everyone in between, I had the feeling this place was a crowd favorite. But they didn’t have hot tea on the menu to quell my stomach, so that was hopefully my only disappointment.

Normally my love for Japanese food is limited to California Maki and Ebi Tempura. When I saw the spread – there was a lot of raw meat and seafood.
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“Are we supposed to eat all of this raw?!” “Why is there so much raw BACON?!” “Do the Japanese actually eat RAW BACON?!” I mentally cursed.

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But then I was relieved to find out that the tables all had a smokeless grill. Sambo Kojin was a smokeless grill resto afterall. I put two and two together and inwardly gave myself a facepalm. Yes Virginia, you use the smokeless grill to cook the raw food.

I didn’t know/recognize 97% of what I got from the spread. But let me just put it out there: Sambo Kojin made me feel like a kid again. I had the time of my life with the smokeless grill. You can actually ask my friends; they felt my joy.
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I had so much fun using the smokeless grill that I didn’t even bother to eat the raw fare. Looking back on the experience I should have appreciated their sushi and sashimi more but the grill takes the cake.
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After getting over my initial ‘eat it raw’ scare, I happily filled my plate with the different kinds of raw marinated meat. It was too bad there was so much of it spread out and they didn’t even have labels to distinguish one from the other. That would have been so helpful for a newbie. This was probably my second disappointment.
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But grill the meat I did and that was a great way to start our course. The meats were perfectly seasoned that I didn’t even see the need to dip it in their sauces. I was practically smiling on the inside.
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But another revelation that I had was their ebi tempura. Now it can be said, that the bar for an absolutely amazing ebi tempura has been raised, and Sambo Kojin takes the top spot (!). Theirs was all about the shrimp. It was perfectly cooked and so tender; light years away from ATOA’s version, which I can now describe as eating leather (I’m sorry, ATOA). Sambo Kojin’s tempura was like cotton. The shrimp sizes were reasonably smaller than ATOA’s, but the taste made up for it.
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Another equally satisfying dish was the skewered fish belly. I didn’t know what kind  of fish it was and I just assumed that I was fish belly because it was so fatty. I only had two skewers before I surrendered. Like the meat, there was no need to dip it in sauce because it tasted great on its own. Fatty, but extremely satisfying.
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The last surprise that we had at the end of the meal was that we got more food than we can finish! There was still a plate full of meat rolls that was left untouched. I regret not getting a little of everything and just go back to the buffet if we need refills.
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You pay 595php (exclusive of drinks, their bottomless iced tea was pretty pricey at 92php) not just for the food but for the experience as well. Dining there made me think of more possibilities that can ‘nurture’ an appreciation for Japanese food. If only I can master using chopsticks to pick up food instead of using it to skewer meat.

But thinking about the experience, it can wipe any form of regret off your plate. Sambo Kojin had a lot of options to share, and if resisting the natural impulse to get what looks safe and familiar can be helped, then I believe it can make a fan out of you.

And strangely enough we weren’t charged for the leftovers. Lucky us. But instead of taking the risk, take only what you think you can consume. The buffet isn’t going anywhere. We went home extremely full and satisfied. We were happy campers that night. Never mind that they didn’t serve hot tea.

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Class picture

I didn’t just fall in love with Sambo Kojin – I married it that night. And so the long distance affair has begun.

Tuna Loaf, Mushroom and Tomato Crepes with Bechamel Sauce

Today, I was an evening person (If that made any sense).

I’ve always known crepes to be reserved for dessert. Add in fruits, a scoop of ice cream and chocolate syrup and that’s basically it. Only when I bought The Cooks’ Bible published by Le Cordon Bleu did I learn that crepes can be savory as well. Ok, so I thought to myself, since it’s a friday afterall, why don’t I make crepes for the heck of it? I’m a bad teacher. I should check my students’ midterm papers right now, but no, their grades would have to wait. Crepes come first. (before you react and repost this, I’m semi-kidding)

So I made two batches of crepes today. The first one was for snack time, and the other was for dinner. You can make a good guess that the snack one was sweet and the dinner one was savory. The first one, I didn’t take a picture of because once I put in the nutella and ube jam, well, it was gone pretty fast.

Now I was hitting two birds with one stone when I was making the dinner batch. My pantry’s pretty full (annoying) and I used it as an excuse to use whatever canned meat was good for crepes. In the spirit of well, health and wellness, I used canned tuna loaf. But basically making the dinner crepes would defeat the purpose of eating light.

So anyway, taking a cue from yummy.ph, which had a fine selection of savory crepe fillings, I decided to go with a simple filling made of cubed canned tuna loaf, mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and topped with a bechamel sauce. Before you label me a snoot, the sauce is basically a thickened milk and butter sauce, so nothing really fancy. But it tasted pretty good though!

I’ll list the recipes in the sequence that I made the dish, which is by some small miracle, systematic because it’s me, and I’m never systematic.

Tuna Loaf, Mushroom and Tomato Crepe with Bechamel Sauce (serves 4-6)

For the Bechamel Sauce (adapted from yummy.ph)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 cup all purpose flour 
1 1/2 cups whole milk
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
 

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and stir constantly until paste cooks and bubbles, about 1 1/2 minutes. Gradually whisk in milk. Cook and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until sauce thickens. Add salt and pepper then reduce to a simmer. Transfer bechamel to a bowl and set aside until ready to use.

For the tuna loaf filling

1 150 g can tuna loaf
2 small onions, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 198 g can mushrooms
1 small tomato
salt and pepper 
 

Slice the tuna loaf into 1/4 – 1/2 inch slices. Dice the slices by slicing it in three horizontal and vertical slices. Heat oil in a medium sized pan and toast the garlic. Add the onions and saute until slightly translucent.

Add the tomatoes and the mushrooms and allow to fry for 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper. When done, remove from pan.

For the crepes (adapted from yummy.ph)

1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup cold milk 
2 large eggs
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1 cup all purpose flour 
4 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for brushing the pan 
 

Combine the liquid ingredients in a blender. Add the dry ingredients and melted butter. Mix on high. Strain the batter and let rest for 30 minutes

Heat a nonstick (preferrably 10 inch) skillet over medium heat. Brush the bottom and side of the pan with melted butter. Ladle 1/4 cup batter into skillet and swirl to coat the bottom evenly. Cook until bottom is slightly browned, about 1-2 minutes. Using a spatula, flip the crepe and cook until the other side is slightly browned about 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Transfer crepe to a platter. Layer crepes over each other with parchment paper in between.

To assemble: There’s no definite way to assemble it. What I did was to just fold the crepes into triangles and add a spoonful of the tuna loaf and generously top it with the bechamel sauce. I also added a spoonful of the filling on the center of the circular crepe and I folded it until it formed a triangle and I generously added the sauce on top. Garnish with roughly chopped fresh celery leaves.


These were mistaken for pizzas or tortillas, which I have to admit, does make sense in a way. You really have to eat a crepe to know it’s a crepe.

The verdict? The bechamel sauce was good and milky. I wasn’t sure about adding a lot of salt since I had no idea what I should taste like, but still, it was nice and subtle. The crepes were just as I imagined it to be: light, soft, chewy. And the tuna loaf filling….well, next time, I believe Spam would work miracles. And yes, I’ll hit the gym tomorrow to atone.