Kain Na - A Filipino tasting menu

Last night, we hosted dinner for a few friends. We had been talking about doing this for a while - but we had always hesitated at the menu. We tend to go for more family style, buffet or pot-luck gatherings, where we all stand around and chat.  But winter is long, and we wanted to inject a little sociability into the snow-laden months. So we set a large table, and started coming up with ideas. 

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We had been inspired by watching a couple of older episodes of the Bravo competition cooking show Top Chef - a couple of seasons ago, a Hawaiian chef named Sheldon Simeon had shown off his Filipino heritage and cooking skills. 

I keep waiting for Filipino food to be 'discovered'. Outside of a couple of enclaves in California (or a friendly Filipino home), it can be really hard to find.  Filipino food isn't like Chinese food, or Thai, or Vietnamese. Except it has elements of commonality with all of them. As well as a heavy Spanish and even American influence from the colonial periods. 

It's heavy on thin, tart & vinegary sauces, on seafood and pork - proteins readily available across the islands, and on combinations that show off the fusion that have defined the Philippines for hundreds of years. 

We put together a few of our favorites into a menu, and sent it out to some of our adventurous friends. 

'Kain na' is the first Tagalog phrase I learned when I started dating my Bride. Her mom said it every time I visited. 

It means "Eat now".  

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In a moment of inspiration, I cut the pages out of old paper grocery bags to print the menu - we had to get a little balikbayan brown in there. Along with embroidered, woven placemats we brought back from Manila and an authentic Barrel Boy, we had our place setting. The only things missing were the ubiquitous giant wooden fork & spoon and a carved, 3-d wooden Last Supper. But we made do.  

Preparing some of the dishes took a bit of effort.  One of the desserts required fresh grated coconut. My Bride found a kudkuran online - it's a little oblong stool with a viciously serrated metal end for scraping out the inside of a fresh coconut. After a few example strokes, she assigned me the rest of the task. I managed to scrape a few fingertips into the bowl as well on my first coconut before I figured out how to operate the simple set up in safety. 

But hey, at least I wasn't wearing dark socks & crocks... 

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Our guests were a mix of local folks and foodies. We knew they all were up for just about anything, but we still started easy for the appetizer. Lumpia - a little fried spring roll, stuffed with ground pork, shrimp and water chestnuts and a pork BBQ skewer.

The pork is marinated in soy sauce, garlic, and that Ancient Filipino Secret: 7-Up.  I don't know what the hell they were marinating their pigs in before the GIs showed up with 7-up, but the sugar and carbonation do something wonderful to the pork, tenderizing and caramelizing the meat.

We served them with banana ketchup (made from real bananas) and sukaang maasim - a spicy, palm vinegar marinated with chilies. I could eat this stuff forever.

This vinegar alone is a reason to seek out your nearest Filipino and force them to hand over their stash. It is the superhero of vinegars. It kicks the ass of every other vinegar you have in your cabinet and then is called to City Hall by the Mayor, to be awarded the key to the city, putting all the other normal vinegars to shame.

You will thank me for this information later, when you have tried it. 

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I was disappointed that I couldn't offer some Filipino beer to go along with dinner. For something like lumpia, it's the perfect accompaniment. But there's only one beer made or served in the Philippines - San Miguel. And I mean, unless you're in a fancy hotel someplace where a lot of tourists hit, that's the only beer that's available. If you're lucky, the restaurant might have both the standard San Miguel pilsen and their slightly darker San Miguel 'Red Horse' label. But the nearest six pack of San Miguel to our town is more than 150 miles away, someplace near New York. So we settled with some pretty good Mexican lager or white wine as substitute offerings.

For the soup, we started pushing the boundaries a little. This is sinagang na isda - a tamarind based soup with salmon, mustard greens, daikon radish, onion and tomatoes.  The broth is light, clear and fragrant. 

Tamarind is a sweet/sour pod - you can pull out the stringy, sticky innards to make a paste found from Thailand to Mexico. But this dish elevates it somehow - it's at once homey (it's the kind of soup your mother-in-law makes for you when you're not feeling well) and elegant. There are only 5 or 6 ingredients in the soup, but it is complex and to be savored. 

I knew we were doing well when every bowl came back empty. 

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For our main, we plated three separate tastes. Two classics - pork adobo and pancit bihon (the noodles), and a third crab-and-squash dish stewed in coconut milk that is mind blowingly good. 

Adobo (in the middle) is probably the most famous of all the dishes that have made it out of the Philippines. If you've tried one thing, it's probably this. Often made with chicken (though I prefer pork), the meat is braised in a soy sauce & vinegar combination. Sometimes flavored with a little achiote, garlic or other seasoning, it's straight forward and delicious. 

The guinitaang kalabasa stew has a base of squash and coconut milk, with lump crab meat stirred in to heat through. Both of these are served with steamed rice. They're alive with hearty, smoothly tangy flavors. 

The noodle dish is your standard Filipino family party fare. I've never seen pancit bihon cooked and served in quantities that wouldn't serve a small army. It's rice stick noodles, stir fried vegetables, chicken, soy sauce and patis (fish sauce).  Topped with scallions, slices of boiled egg and a tiny fresh squeezed citrus called calamansi. It's kind of the pad thai of the Philippines - it's street food, with a hundred variations, but all the same basic core.  

 The Critter learned to make this dish from her Lola (grandmother) on the last visit, and the pancit was her contribution to the party. 

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That, and we had her help plate. It was an adults-only dinner. It sounds awful unless you're a parent. But if you are a parent, you may remember that there was a time before children when you sat with other adults and enjoyed a meal without constant interruptions for more juice/the bathroom/I dropped my napkin/the bathroom/why isn't our food here yet/can you cut my food for me/the bathroom. 

So we set the Boy up with a movie to watch, and paid the Critter a few extra bucks to be helping hands in the kitchen and help plate each course. She loved it, and was proud of the art of each setting she was able to have fun with. 

And we got a dinner with other adults and fewer bathroom breaks. Everybody wins. 

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Finally, dessert was a trio of my Bride's favorites:  Leche flan - a Filipino spin on a Spanish classic.  Pitsi-Pitsi - a flattened patty of steamed, grated cassava & sugar dredged in coconut. And her absolute favorite, Halo-Halo, which translates literally as 'Mix-Mix'. 

The pitsi-pitsi recipe she used was her aunt's, who replaces the cassava with glutinous rice. The coconut came from the grating efforts we had done earlier in the day on the kudkuran. I'm glad to say that none of the pitsi-pitsi was stained pink despite my poor, damaged hands. 

Halo-Halo is a mix of shaved ice (you can see the Critter scooping it up in the picture above), with slices of jackfruit, cubes of grass-jelly, sweet red beans, toasted rice, ube - a sweet purple yam - and some kind of syrup, condensed milk and maybe some avocado or coconut ice cream. Or that Barney-purple ube ice cream if you can get it.  (We settled for coconut.)

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Each course was a hit - by the time we cleared the last plate, every one was full and smiling, and slow to push their chairs back from the table. A good sign. We were pretty sure that everyone found some new things that they liked during dinner. 

I don't know when Filipino food will catch on mainstream here in the US. But until it does, I'm glad that I, at least, have a good source to keep satisfying my cravings! 

The Smith County fair

While I was down in Tennessee visiting, I convinced my parents that we really needed to go see the opening events happening at the Smith County fair. 

It's not every day you get to see a live mule judging, after all. 

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I also spent some time looking at the entries into the chicken competition.  

Some of these birds were truly beautiful. But some of them were pretty average. My buff orpington is a little older now, but in her prime laying years, she looked as good or better than any of the entries I saw in that category. And her flock mates could have certainly been viable entries as well.

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I tried to get the judge to talk to me about what he was looking for. What makes a good Barred Rock? Does he have the breed standards memorized for all the categories? He'd kind of pick the chickens up and give them a feel. He'd tuck them under his arm. He'd stand back and contemplate.  

He was far too occupied to give me any time, however.   He had a very serious job to do.

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The category that got me most excited, though, was the Ham, Bacon & Jowl judging. It was drop-off day for the entries, and they were lining up as we went through in the morning. Mostly, these were country hams, salted and smoked. Different from the prosciuttos I make. But definitely gave me something to think about. 

The judging wouldn't be til later in the week. But look at that pair of huge jowls on the end of the table. 

Wow. 

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There were other categories for homemade wine. For quilts. For jams, preserves, vegetables, flowers, photography, and more. There was a talent show, an antique tractor show, a turkey calling contest, and even a coon hunt the last evening. (I am so not making that up).  

But it wasn't all serious stuff. There'd be rides and carnival games through the week, not to mention some great looking food. 

And they don't forget about the kids in Smith County. 

I present to you: a giant roll of hay turned into a pig. 

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I love you, Smith County, Tennessee.  

Rendering lard

Lard is good. 

There. I said it.

There has been something of a resurgence of interest in lard. At least amongst the serious food writers and research. For so long, we were fascinated by all of the 'lard alternatives' made from vegetables of one sort or another: corn, peanut, palm, etc. - made liquid or solid by hydrogenation. And then suddenly, we figured out that - while scientifically interesting, vegetable shortening isn't really any better for you. Except for olive oil. Olive oil is better for you than vaccines, fish heads, or gamma rays. Or something. 

But what about poor old lard? All those pigs and cows we kill off for our bacon burgers, and what happens to the white stuff that tidily wraps up all that lean meat we like to buy from the grocery store cooler cases? 

Turns out, it's pretty good for you too, and back on the good list

Anyway, I end up with lots of it from my pigs, and it is far too good a resource to chuck out or let go to waste. 

 

 

There are three basic kinds of lard in your pig you should be familiar with: 

1. Leaf lard (above). Also known as 'flare fat', it is the purest white fat that accumulates in long, lovely form around the kidneys and organs of a pig. This lard is not always available without speaking to your butcher, but is to be treasured. It's ideal for making pastry because of the crystalline structure of the fat molecules, and because of its clean and mild - almost non-existent taste. 

Whether for a piecrust or a biscuit, this lard is the stuff you're after. 

2. Caul fat - There's a netting of fat around the intestines that looks kind of like a basketball net or thick spiderweb. It's absolutely impossible to get ahold of in the US without calling in a few favors.  It's extremely useful for wrapping up a lean roast (like venison). It turns a golden lovely when cooked, and imparts the needed moisture to the roast.  Apparently. I've never actually scored one with my pigs, as it's a little fussy to separate from the organs, and most slaughterhouses don't bother.  I've put it on my list for next year.

 

Several pounds of fatback

3. Everything else.  Back fat. Belly fat. There's plenty of good fat on a pig, mostly in the layer between skin and meat. Many breeds build up 1-2 inches (or more), especially on their back above their shoulders and spine. This fat is gorgeous and pure, but has a slight pork taste (as opposed to the leaf lard), and a slightly more elastic structure. It's used for frying, making fatback and salt pork, and of course lardo - a kind of salami like cure made of the best of the fatback, sliced thin and served as an appetizer.

The render

Rendering pork fat is both a necessary and simple process. The fat is generally attached to little bits of meat, skin or membrane that needs to be separated to leave you with the pure, clean white stuff you're looking for. Fortunately, it couldn't be easier. 

Good lard has a relatively high smoke point - one of the reasons it is so much more useful than vegetable oil. So all you're really looking to do is to melt the lard off of the rest of the bits, and put it away neatly for future use. 

I started with my leaf lard - although you can mix them all together, it's useful to keep them separate as leaf lard is more useful if pure for pastry making later. Leaf lard, when chilled, is so firm it feels crumbly. But it does come with a thin, papery membrane wrapped around it. And it's useful if you can pull that off first, as best you can. 

 

 

It is not strictly necessary to get all this membrane off. Just do your best in whatever time you have available. You are going to have lots of unrenderable bits left over - the best of which are called crackling, which you can eat. This membrane is pretty useless, though. (At least, to me. I fried it up lightly and threw it to the dog, who enjoyed it and seemed happy to deal with my useless butchery bits, as usual). 

I chop all of my fat - leaf or otherwise - roughly into manageable pieces. 1-2 inches or so. It's going into a large dutch oven, and I can both fit more in, and it will melt more evenly that way.  The smaller the pieces, the faster it will render. 

 

While you can render lard over a flame or on a burner, you have to watch it a lot more closely, stirring often and making sure you don't let it scald. And who has time for that? 

The simplest way to render lard is to add about a quarter cup of water to the pot, and put it in an oven between 225-250 degrees fahrenheit. Check on it in a couple of hours, but expect it to take 4-6 hours (or longer) to render completely. You can even use a crock pot and leave it to go over night. However, I do find it useful to pour off the liquid lard into your catch container at least once, depending on the volume. 

 

 

This is my other dutch oven - an old fashioned cast iron one that's as useful cooking a pot of beans over a fire as it is in the oven. Bonus: my pot is well-seasoned again after this process. 

I line a colander with cheesecloth just to ensure I catch any little bits from collecting in the lard. Not that it would do much harm, but I want that pure, white end product. 

Eventually, the bits in the pot will turn a golden brown. You're pretty much done then - having gotten about as much rendered lard as you're going to get.

Foods fried in lard fry very crisp and actually absorb less grease than from most vegetable oils. Because you can get the temperature nice and high (the smoke point is 400F, vs. peanut oils' 325F), the water flash-boils out of the food and prevents the absorption of fat back in, which is why it's important to have your oil nice and hot before you begin cooking with it.

 

 

Good lard will last for a couple of months in your refrigerator, or a year or more in the freezer. I pour it into small loaf pans and these 'Texas-sized' muffin tins to set up. A half hour or so in the freezer, and they pop right out into a ziploc bag for easy storage and grab-and-cook convenience. 

The remnants and crackling gets split between the dog, the chickens and a few choice bits saved back for us. 

A note on the freezer storage - I always label everything clearly so I know when it went in, and where it came from. You've got to label your fat, as it's hard to tell them apart after a couple of months in the back of the freezer. 

Is it as good for you as extra virgin olive oil, or fish oil, or the light sweet crude oil from the infertile offspring of a unicorn and a manatee? Ok, probably not. But it's better for you than your mother told you, simpler to work with, and will give you better and tastier results in your recipes.  Which means you'll end up using and eating less than you would if you were using the bad stuff anyway. 

So enjoy a bit of lard, guilt free. I give you permission.