On Typhoons and Thermidor

In 2006, my piece On Typhoons and Thermidor won a runner-up prize at the Doreen Fernandez Food Writing Awards. As a former student of Ma’am Doreen’s, it was particularly touching to me that I wrote a creative food essay that perhaps she would consider good, especially since she had to sit through a godawful three-act play I wrote under her tutelage in 1998.

Reading this New York Times piece on her brought back so many memories. So I’m putting this up in honour of her.

ON TYPHOONS AND THERMIDOR

It is always with much anticipation that I await the arrival of August, traditionally time for typhoons, when monsoon rains pound the city into submission and paint the metropolis a gloomy gray. Not too many allow themselves to see silver linings in the storm clouds; I, however, have always looked forward to cold gusts of wind and sheets of rain, as typhoons inevitably inspire my mother – soul food cook extraordinaire and possessor of warm arms that wrap oh-so-comfortably around shivering shoulders grown numb with cold – to prepare her family specialty, shrimp thermidor.

My father would joke about how it was raining cats and dogs, and how Mom should run outside and collect a couple of felines for homemade siopao, prompting my brother and me to protest his otherwise cruel trains of thought.

While the wind outside rattled our windows and rain hammered angrily against the windowpanes, Mom would gather her boys – John and me – around the kitchen table, wrap a blanket each around us, and prepare the ingredients for this heart- and body-warming dish. Dad lingered in the next room while he finished his crossword puzzle, and in the background played Sinatra, Astrud Gilberto, or Robert Goulet, the family’s having lost interest in the AM radio after the announcement that classes were suspended. Those days were most precious of all; if our family had to have soul food, this was it: hot and flavorful, with a helpful heap of memories to add that extra zing.

Shrimp thermidor is not a traditional Filipino culinary creation, but Mom always made international cuisine an adventure for our family, as most great cooks are wont to do. One can adapt thermidor to suit a variety of tastes, but the heart of the thermidor beats around seafood, usually lobster, shrimp, or prawn, cooked in a béchamel sauce, and flavored with herbs and spices, the usual selections being tarragon, white wine, shallots, and a hint of mustard. Often, the shells of the seafood are left intact – lobster and prawn shells are best – so that, upon cooking, the thermidor can be scooped back into the shells, and make for a delightfully elegant presentation. To do this, however, the thermidor must be temptingly thick, and the thicker and hotter the thermidor, the more hearty and appealing. Legend has it that the French conqueror Napoleon gave it its unusual name, after he first tasted it sometime between July 19 to August 17, during the French Revolutionary calendar‘s eleventh month, Thermidor, which was incidentally, considered the month of heat. During those cold and rainy nights, truly, my mother’s shrimp thermidor lived up to its heritage.

My mother’s version of shrimp thermidor always began with a stack of unshelled large shrimps, about half a kilo’s worth. Mom would remove them from their shells, slice off their tails, then run a knife gently along their backs so they would open – flower, really – upon cooking. Once the shrimps were ready, she would julienne an onion, then melt three-fourths of a cube of butter in a medium saucepan to gently cook the onion slivers to a very light brown. The distinct aroma of buttered onion – annoying to many, heaven to my brother and I – would fill the kitchen, and many fond memories have I of buttered carrots, corn, peas, and onions prepared on many a cold night while
studying, Mom peering over my shoulder to ensure the correctness of my answers.

As soon as the onions were soft and cooked, my mother would put the shrimps into the saucepan, and cook them until they opened, like soft pink flowers, and smelled wonderful. At that point, she would put in a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, and a canful of water, and bring all of that to a boil. By this time, the kitchen would be filled with laughter, as Dad would come into the room, having finished his puzzle, and run us around the table. Mom would scream, “Tama na, baka mabuhos ang thermidor!” and my father would tickle her incessantly. “Nicholas!” she’d scream.

The piéce de resistance was a whole block of cheese – Eden or Ques-O, my mother didn’t care for Quickmelt – diced and gently added to the mixture. Flavors consisted of light sprinklings of salt, pepper, or tarragon; on certain days, Mom would transform the thermidor into thick and flavorful chowder with the addition of potato cubes. When the shrimp thermidor was ready, my mother would serve it in a large soup bowl, for scooping over hot white rice or steaming pasta, usually colored twists, macaroni, or linguini. The four of us would sit at the dinner table, help ourselves to the piping hot thermidor, and crack jokes about how cats and dogs never really seemed to fall on rainy August days.

Australian Veef is a win!

Last night, Nicola and I tried Fenn Foods‘ Australian Veef.

This is a vegan burger patty that promises great texture and heaps of umami.

Well, guess what? We were BLOWN AWAY. My twelve-year-old is a little picky with her food but she liked the idea of trying a vegan burger. I airfried the patties to reduce fat content, but the burger stayed relatively moist. The texture of the burger was pretty close to beef, but what won both of us over was the flavour of the patty. It was spot on. As I try to introduce my little girl to more vegetarian options, this one was a clear winner. Yay!

Giving a Valentine’s gift? Here, take notes!

In just a week, the world will be celebrating Valentine’s Day. Whether you’re giving gifts–my top love language–or celebrating with a date–quality time, my second-least love language, LOL–there are many opportunities to honour the one you love.

Donut let this opportunity pass you by!

It’s a berry good idea!

I like puns, obviously, and if you’re at a loss for words, Shari’s Berries has produced these printable love notes that you can attach to a gift, or leave as a sweet pick-me-up in the middle of your day.

Check out all the printables here; I’m sure you’ll get a cake out of ’em!

Disclaimer: I have received no remuneration of any kind from Shari’s Berries for posting this. I just thought it’s a lovely and funny thing to share. Cheers!

Banana Cream Mini-Pies

The other night, my brilliant wife put together these banana cream mini-pies that rocked my family’s world.

Luscious? Check. Delicious? Check.

I brought a couple of these with me to the Canberra graphic design studio where I work, and I didn’t share. Sorry, boys. 

Can’t wait to try this Canberra wine!

Today, I got hold of a magnificent bottle of Australian wine from Canberra winemakers Kerralee Wines.

Darryl’s Drop is a 2013 Merlot Rosé created by Kerralee for their friend, Daryl Lawrence, “a good family friend who passed away on Canberra’s Centenary whilst our Merlot harvest was underway.”

This Merlot Rosé has a beautiful colour, with shades of orange, pink, and gold, depending on your light. Grown in their Canberra vineyard from cool climate grapes, Darryl’s Drop also features  lovely artwork done in pastels and watercolours by Dana Stewart-Thompson.

My mouth is literally watering.

[Darryl’s Drop and other fine Australian wines may be ordered on their website. I received no remuneration from Kerralee for this blog post.]

Asian Chicken Stir-fry with Snow Peas

Last night, I wanted to put together a dish that had vegetables in it since I had a lot of veggies–including snow peas that I got at Coles for less than two dollars–and didn’t want them to go to waste.

So I decided to put together an Asian-inspired stir-fry with chicken as the star and colorful ingredients in phenomenal supporting roles. The end result was quite delicious.

Ingredients

  • Half a kilo of cubed chicken breast
  • Three tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • One cup of organic chicken stock
  • Four tablespoons soy sauce
  • Two tablespoons cornflour
  • Four tablespoons of minced garlic
  • One cup chopped fresh mushrooms
  • Two cups snow peas
  • Half a cup of broccoli florets
  • One red capsicum, chopped julien
  • One tablespoon sesame oil
  1. In a measuring cup, combine the chicken stock, soy sauce, and cornflour.
  2. In a large saucepan, sauté the chicken and garlic until the chicken is cooked. Add mushrooms, broccoli, capsicum, and chicken stock mixture. Cook until chicken is cooked through.
  3. Add snow peas, cover the saucepan, and cook about five minutes. Add the sesame oil and stir about a minute, transfer to a large serving bowl, and serve.

Sizzling Tofu

My wife and I were able to secure a nice block of extra firm tofu last week, and we were excited to come up with something different that didn’t involve pasta or rice.

Then, boom! It hit us! Let’s do sizzling tofu!

In Manila, restaurants like Max’s Fried Chicken serve up in a sizzling hot plate some fried tofu that they mix with a flavored mayonnaise. It’s flavorful and delicious–not the healthiest way of preparing tofu, thanks to that mayo–and our kids enjoyed it. So here’s what we did!

Ingredients

  • A big block of extra firm tofu, cut into cubes
  • Chopped red and green bell capsicums
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Cooking oil
Sauce
  • ¼ cup mayonnaise (pure egg, none of that soy mayo, ayt?)
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons water
Instructions
  1. Combine the sauce ingredients and set aside.
  2. In a large saucepan, heat the oil. Deep fry the cubed tofu until lightly browned. Remove from the saucepan and place on paper towels.
  3. In a separate, equally large saucepan, over medium heat, sauté the capsicums and onion in two tablespoons of butter. Add the fried tofu and fry about two to three minutes.
  4. Pour the sauce into the saucepan. Stir and continue to cook, about two minutes. .
  5. Transfer onto large serving plate and serve immediately.

Garlic butter pork steak with potatoes

A few days ago, I realized that I had some potatoes that weren’t moving. They’d been there a few days, and I hadn’t done anything with it.

So I looked in the freezer, found some pork steak, and put together a quick and easy fry that made this dish a home run with my kiddos! Check out this fast recipe for garlic pork steak with potatoes.

Ingredients

  • Half a kilo of pork steak, cut into strips
  • Around a quarter kilo of potatoes, quartered
  • One tablespoon olive oil
  • Three tablespoons butter, divided
  • Five garlic cloves, minced
  • Fresh or dried thyme
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • A third cup soy sauce, one tablespoon olive oil, and a few dashes of Frank’s Red Hot for the pork marinade.

1. In a large bowl, combine the pork steak strips with a marinade of soy sauce, olive oil, and hot sauce. Leave for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, boil your potato quarters for about ten minutes.

3. Set a large pan to medium-high heat. Combine one tablespoon olive oil with a tablespoon of butter. Drop the potatoes in and cook until golden. Remove from pan.

4. Put two tablespoons of butter back in the same pan, and add the pork. Cook on both sides until lightly brown, then add the potatoes and remaining marinade. Cook until done, remove from heat, and serve immediately.