Pork Belly Lechon

When I was back home, I constantly reminded myself of my schedule. I may or may not leave so soon, I realized. There was really no fixed date, no pressing matter to attend to.

Then came the invitation for dinner, around a week after Jad’s funeral. We (my friends/classmates) haven’t really had a chance to talk about things out in the open. The situation was a delicate one. But the dinner had to happen. Naturally, I hosted it, and played the part of the cook. It’s a part I like to play because I think cooking for people who matter is on the list of things that feed my soul.

I didn’t want it to be complicated. My dinners have never tried to be uptight and I want it to stay that way. I love my people, and maybe that helps.

And I love pork. Strokes of brilliance on this blog have always involved pork, one way or the other. When I was thinking about what to prepare for dinner, a glorious way to feast on pork was on my mind.

And this, my friends, is glorious (if I do say so myself).
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Porchetta was on my mind when I was preparing my list. I’ve always wanted to make it, and I did get a chance to witness how it’s done when I was in school. But I also found myself craving for lechon while I was home. Mom would relent and come home with a small package of chopped up pig for me. That may have happened more than once.

I thought about taking a nice slab of pork belly and drowning it in the typical lechon aromatics (minus the calamansi because I don’t like it). Roasting it on low for a few hours makes it dastardly fork-tender, and during the last hour of baking, cranking the heat up will yield a crackling so divine.

The result blew me away. There is no breakthrough, no secret technique, no new flavor. I just made damn good lechon, and that for me, was a new notch in my belt. And if I’m being corny here, I’d like to call it “pinoychetta”. I’m also clever like that.
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All in all, I had two more attempts just to prove the first one wasn’t a fluke. The first one was a trial-run (my mom and her office mates were the lucky ones). The second was for the dinner, and the last was the big bang before I left.

The dinner itself was great. They loved the pork. Because they’re my friends, naturally they had to sing praises.
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They were fed well, we talked until we had no more stories to tell, and one of my friends, Jam, received a birthday cake a week early. It was a heavy chocolate cake with coffee buttercream, studded with shards of almond praline. I didn’t bring my piping tips so I was rubbish with the rosettes, but they liked it.

It was also passed around for posterity and the July babies went nuts. Somehow bearing the brunt of loss seemed lighter, even just for a night. I haven’t laughed so hard in a while.

So this pork is a thing of beauty. It’s not something you would whip up on a weeknight (but I’m not stopping you!). Reserve a weekend. Prepare this on Saturday, wake up early on Sunday to start roasting it. By lunchtime, you feast and the next day, you fast.
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Roasted Pork Belly “Lechon”

  • 1.5 kg pork belly slab, skin on
  • 3 whole garlic bulbs, peeled and roughly chopped
  • ½ cup oregano leaves, washed then chopped
  • 3 red onions, peeled and chopped
  • around 4 – 5 lemongrass stalks, sliced
  • the zest from 1 lemon
  • juice from 1 lemon
  • a little over 1/8 cup salt, plus more for an even rub around the pork
  • 4 tablespoons crushed black pepper

Combine all the aromatics in a bowl and mix well. Lightly mash everything together with the back of a spoon. Alternatively, use a food processor to bring everything together with only around 2-3 pulses.

With the skin side down, rub the mixture all over the meat. Roll the slab, carefully invert the meat and secure it with butcher’s twine (and lemongrass leaves, like what I did). It’s okay if there are a few pieces of herbs that fall off, you can place it back later. Rub coarse salt all over the meat, including the skin. With a paring knife or fork, poke the skin of the meat. This will ensure a nice crackling. Transfer it to a roasting fitted with a rack and the bottom lined with foil. Place it in the refrigerator to chill overnight. This will dry the skin, which helps the crackling form.
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variation: this will easily feed two – three

Preheat the oven to 160 C. Just to be sure, pat the skin of the pork dry with a paper towel. Roast the pork for 5 hours. Afterwards, increase the temperature to 220 C, and allow the pork’s crackling to form. This will take another 30 minutes to an hour. When done, remove from the oven and allow to cool a bit before slicing. Enjoy!
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Oh, Zamboanga

Hi. If you’ll pardon me, I’d like to take a break from the usual decadence on my blog. It’s just that this is probably the only outlet I have right now, and I need to process feelings. I need to articulate it because I might never have the chance, since right now I’m in the moment.

A few days ago I woke up to some really bad news. My hometown, Zamboanga, is under attack. The Moro National Liberation Front, well a faction of the whole entity led by Nur Misuari, entered the city through coastal communities and began a standoff with the security force. The group began taking hostages – men, women, children, even a priest, and declared their demands. Why they did all of this is something I still have trouble explaining, because historically it has been a dispute about identity and sovereignty. This is not even an issue about religion. It’s about basic human rights being taken away from us.

There are no nitty-gritty details here. It’s currently day 4 of the standoff and I’m scared. I’m sick to my stomach knowing that my family is in danger. I’ve been talking to my mom every day and her tone suggests that the family is pretty safe but still. The fact that there are lawless elements with the capacity to kill, peppered around the city makes me so angry and frightened.

People have been downplaying the situation – that the government has “contained” the situation and there are only a few areas that are really high-risk.

But the thing is…everyone is afraid. If they’re not out volunteering (because hundreds of families have been displaced), they’ve locked themselves inside their homes. Banks and businesses are closed. People have liberties taken away from them. As far as I can tell, the whole city has been taken hostage.

Syria is a big deal. 9/11 was a big deal. The pork barrel scandal our government is facing is a big deal. In my heart I know that Zamboanga is a big deal.

Now I understand. Because of what happened to Jad, I’ve been holding a grudge against my hometown. He loved Zamboanga but Zamboanga couldn’t protect him. But here I am gutted, knowing that evil is trying to take my hometown away from us. Looking at photos friends posted, of people out on the streets lighting candles, saying prayers for the place I still call home, and reading all the status updates, I’m trying to process this feeling.

People still love Zamboanga, and are trying their best to protect her by protecting each other. What a comforting thought. What a sight to behold.

And I know more than half of what I’m talking about might not make sense to you – but hear me out. If you’ve ever felt that your family is in danger, that the odds of them falling in harm’s way are great, that it suddenly feels unsafe even in your own home…then that’s all you need to know.

What’s the point of me writing this? I just need to articulate my muddled feelings. And also to ask you to say a prayer for my hometown. I’d like to believe that good will always trump evil.

Life is short

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His name was Jad. We’ve been friends since high school, which means that I’ve known him for roughly 11 years. It was a friendship born from convenience – we found out that we live not too far from each other, so we made the usual daily commute to and from school together. We were a funny looking pair – I was the tall, fat and bespectacled kid while he was short, thin. Both of us had bad posture, so that’s one thing we had in common.

He was far from perfect. In fact, those who knew him all too well will say that he was rough around the edges. He had a short-temper, which is pretty funny considering his frame. He was a little fire cracker. He spoke his mind, and got into a lot of petty fights with friends and classmates. I also think he holds the class record for the most number of arguments with teachers. And apparently that string started in elementary school! But he was also gracious enough to accept defeat and apologize, even if it took weeks. A study of contrasts, he was.

We went to the same university after high school, and we found ourselves classmates once again taking up a course neither one of us felt was our calling. We belonged to the same high-strung group of friends, so that made early university life pretty good.

Both of us were far from perfect. Jad and I went through a rough patch in our third year. Looking back it was more of me being stubborn, holding onto the idea that people can be changed. Eventually we had a falling out. Honestly we’ve never been the same people since. But when all that was left was dust, we were still friends. It was a long process, and the bridge we thought was burned was still there, holding on for the both of us.

Time changes people, though. Eventually we found our respective niches. Mine was in the kitchen and his was in sales. He became a good (and persistent) pharmaceuticals salesman and a motivational coach. For someone who lacked self-esteem and was rough around the edges, he found himself in a great place. The past year we haven’t been communicating frequently, just the usual pleasantries but I thought that was fine – both of us were preoccupied with our own lives.

I thought that was fine because we had our whole lives ahead of us to keep in touch.

I was with my friends Yedy and Eugene when I got the call. Jad had been shot, and after a grueling hour of waiting for news, my mom told me what I already felt and knew: he was gone. I booked the earliest morning flight home.

Leading up to the funeral, it was a painful week.

Until now there are so many questions, so many speculations. It leaves me baffled that the odds were against him. He was a nice guy. He was loved, if the tributes people made during the days of the wake were any indication. I loved him like a brother.

It’s been two weeks since we laid him to rest. The pain has ebbed, but it’s still there. I know he’s gone, I could tell you right now to your face that he’s gone. But in the moments of silence, when the gravity of it all sinks in, and I mean really sinks in, the proverbial wave of ice-cold water still leaves me gutted.

Rational thought escapes me, and I still have to ask myself if he’s really gone because it’s a hard pill to swallow. It’s a bitter, painful pill.

Time was good to us. His job was great for him. Every now and then he would randomly send me a text message (he does this to all his friends), asking me how I’m doing. It hurts to know that’ll never happen anymore.

Right now I’m home. I never thought I’d be going home for a funeral. I thought I would leave as abruptly as I arrived, but here I am almost three weeks later enjoying its comforts. I’m home, in same city that he loved until his death

I’ve never known grief like this. I think it’s a more painful weight to carry because it’s laced with anger. And I’ve never known anger like this.

Jad read my blog every now and then, and he always supported whatever decision I made. He was a cheerleader like that, not just to me but for a lot of people. That’s why people loved and respected him. But apparently that’s not enough to warrant the reprieve of a bullet.

My friends and I will, in our own capacities, find justice for Jad. We don’t want his death to be trivialized. He’s not part of a statistic.

Life is beautifully and painfully short. Although it’s painful to know that his life was abruptly and unjustly halted, I can find comfort in the idea that he was in a good place in his life when he died. He realized what fulfilled his days, and until the last minute, he was chasing his happiness.

I’ve been quiet for more than a month now and a few days ago, The Hungry Giant celebrated its second year. I couldn’t really fabricate excitement to make a big deal of the event, so pardon me.

I’ve actually been cooking and baking while I’ve been home and that’s always given me comfort, for what it’s worth. I’ll be okay. It’s a process, but I’ll be okay. I’ll still write, and I’ll keep on writing, if it means keeping certain things alive.

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.

A Big Breakfast

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By the looks of it, it’ll be a rainy morning today. The weather has always been erratic. Manila weather is even worse. When it rains, especially early in the morning, you know you’re kind of screwed. Commuting and traffic become ten times worse. I’ve learned to brave (and welcome!) the blistering heat because at least I know getting from point A to B is easier, although still uncomfortable.

However, nothing can really be said about what happens when it rains here in Zamboanga. When you’ve faced the mother of all monsters, the tiny ugly imps are manageable. In a strange, reverse-meteoric way, I feel happier when I wake up to the sound of rain. *and on cue, it starts to rain*

Maybe it’s because I know breakfast is mandatory to warm me up. Maybe it’s also because the light in my photos is pretty nice. And when there’s a marriage of the two, I know it’s a good morning indeed.
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My default breakfast meal would have to be egg rings. The inside of a ramekin is lined with bacon then an egg fills the center. It’s then zapped in the microwave or baked for 15 minutes. I’m partial to the gentle cooking that happens when it’s being baked. Today I had the bacon and the eggs, but I wanted more. I had some potatoes, a few spices and a pack of bratwurst just sitting in the freezer. The wheels started to churn and I went into overdrive. It was go time!

I don’t really know if a fancy name fits because this is by no means fancy. But it’s still pretty good. I’m going to be subtle about the title then:
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Baked Eggs over Bratwurst and Potatoes (serves 2 – 3)

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 pieces bratwurst/hungarian sausage, sliced thinly, around 125 grams each
  • 4 strips of bacon, sliced into 1-inch pieces
  • half a bulb of garlic, minced
  • 1 red onion, sliced
  • 1 small potato, around 150 grams, peeled and diced small
  • 50 grams green peas
  • 4 – 5 eggs
  • cayenne pepper, to taste
  • Spanish paprika, to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • Chili flakes, for garnish
  1. Preheat the oven to 180 C/ 350 F. In a pan, heat the oil. Add the garlic and the onion. Saute until fragrant.
  2. Add the potatoes and cook until it starts to brown at the sides.
  3. Toss in the bacon and saute until it starts to render. Add the sausage slices and mix together.
  4. Add the peas. Season with salt, pepper, cayenne, paprika.
  5. Remove the pan from heat and crack the eggs over the mixture. Season the yolks with a little bit of salt, pepper and paprika.
  6. Place the pan in the oven and allow to cook for about 15 minutes or until the yolks are set but still slightly runny. When done, remove from the oven, garnish with chili flakes and serve warm with rice. Enjoy!

And we’re off!

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That’s me pouring myself a glass of ice-cold coconut water after a nice early morning run. Idyllic, I know, but it comes with the perks of being home – everything can be so peachy. Finals ended a few days ago and I have one week to exhaust. That probably means I get to eat more, visit friends I haven’t seen in a while, eat some more, use the oven (!!!) and blog. This has been a long time coming.

True to form, the herbs have to be part of the updates.
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There’s basil.
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Basil.
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And more basil.

Who put basil with the rosemary? That seriously wasn’t there two months ago.
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The mint has been doing well, I guess. I broke off a rhizome last time for the good of propagation, and although it looks pretty fragile, I think this little one will survive.
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The tarragon has never failed me. The dill – that which became a tree, is still pretty much the same. I can’t say the same for the celery though. Apparently that’s the only herb my mom uses, and after a few snips, it finally keeled over.
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A few days before coming home I had a conversation with my mom and she asked me what I’d like for dinner (I took the late afternoon flight). Without any hesitation I told her “bihon!” (pancit/rice vermicelli), the way I know it’s supposed to taste. Then I followed it up by requesting estofado, something that I miss as well. These two are our party staples. When they are laid out on the table, it’s a special day. The pictures are for posterity; it was less elegant when I arrived the night before, but it was still a great meal. I ate like a boss.

The pancit has to be generous with the pork and chicken, with a savory quality  that compels you to have seconds, thirds and fourths. The estofado (pork and chicken stewed in tomato sauce), needs to be fork tender. The sauce must be thick. Both are heavy, hearty dishes, but I just love to eat them together until my belly can’t take no more. Mama Eng (my aunt) never ever fails to impress.
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And we’re off!

Clam Curry

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I’ve taken it upon me to download whatever torrent file I could get my grubby hands on when I was home a few days ago. Having lived for two months with a plug-it that’s mediocre at best made me more appreciative of the blazing fast internet I have at home. It’s good for the soul, coming home to country comfort.

My mom and I went to the wet market on Saturday to buy some ingredients we need for a little picnic the following day. Before I left, I wanted to have a picnic with my family but things got in the way and it didn’t happen. This time, we made sure that our schedules were wide open. Anyway, there were mounds and mounds of clams in different sizes, (around 5 – 8 per mound) for sale that morning. I didn’t pass up the chance to buy around two mounds because I was inspired by Kumar (of MasterChef AU fame) to cook clams with curry. I’m a big fan of MasterChef Australia, so much in fact, that this blog has thrived after feeding off the show’s happy juju. Thanks to incredible download speeds, I was up-to-date with this season’s offering. The latest season is an All-Stars edition, pitting 4 fan favorites each from season 1 – 3 against each other for charity. In one of the challenges, where it was season 1 vs 2 vs 3 in an all-Indian challenge, Kumar from season 3 cooked mussels (tahong) in coconut milk flavored with a homemade spice mix. We don’t get a lot of really good mussels but clams were in abundance.

Clams and mussels taste like the sea so much that the flavor is unmistakable. It does wonders to soups, rice and now, I can curry to the list. Like most of my kitchen experiments, it was the first time I cooked clams with curry so I just went with gut feel on taste and seasoning.

The garam masala was still in the pantry, albeit a little milder in flavor, and mom always keeps a supply of coconut cream in tetra packs for convenience. I was home…and it was game time. Another home run for the clams.

Clam Curry (serves 2 – 3)

  • around 15 clams
  • 400 ml coconut cream
  • 3 tablespoons curry powder (what I used: 1 1/2 tablespoon garam masala + 1 1/2 tablespoon turmeric powder), or more to taste
  • one 1-inch knob of ginger, minced
  • 1 lemongrass stalk, chopped into 1 inch pieces
  • half a bulb of garlic, minced
  • 1 large white onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 bell peppers (preferably 1 red and 1 green), sliced into thin strips
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 bunch pechay or bok choy, roughly chopped
  • 1 finger chili, sliced, or red pepper flakes (optional)
  1. In a medium-sized pan or sauce pan, preferably with a lid, add a splash or two of oil over medium heat.
  2. Add the garlic and ginger. Allow to toast until fragrant then add the onions. Cook until onions start to go limp. Add the lemongrass and bell peppers and stir everything together.
  3. Add the coconut cream and the spices (and if you’re using it, the chili). Mix everything together until well incorporated. Season with salt and pepper and allow to simmer.
  4. Add the clams and cover the pan.  Allow to cook, making sure to discard the clams that do not open.
  5. Add the pechay at the last minute, stir everything together , let it cook for a bit then remove from heat. Serve warm and enjoy!