Local cocoa

We love chocolates. I love chocolates. I wanted to write about chocolates because there’s a fresh stash of these sweet goodies in our fridge. My aunt and uncle is currently visiting from the US and what do they come home with? Chocolates, all the way from New York!

Last year, when news about a possible global shortage of chocolate went viral, many people could not believe it. This can’t be true. Is it? Is it the end of the world? Why?

According to reports, cocoa producing countries, mostly in Africa, allegedly use child laborers in their plantations. That’s a big no no. If proven true, then authorities have no choice but to stop these farms’ operations until they comply with labor standards. This will thus create a gap in production, hence the shortage.

Another reason is some cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast, the largest cocoa producer in the world, are switching to other produce because it is difficult to farm cocoa. Cacao trees are vulnerable to diseases causing it to produce less pods. According to the story by The Guardian, farmers are giving up their plantations and turn to planting rubber trees instead, which is more profitable.

The main reason, however, is the increasing demand for chocolate. The demand goes up every year that producers cannot keep up.

One positive news about comes from our own cocoa industry. The Philippines is betting high on its rising cocoa production. The island of Mindanao produces most of the country’s cacaos. And in 2020, according to this news item, the Philippines will produce 100,000 metric tonnes of cocoa beans.

This had me thinking: If we support our own chocolate makers, then production will increase. Instead of buying imported and incredibly generic chocolates, why not buy local. Yes, we love our Choc Nut and Flat Tops and buying these already means supporting the local industry, but there are high quality local chocolates available in the market today that can compete with premium international brands in terms of quality.

Theo & Philo is an artisan chocolate brand that produces high quality, delicious, and unique chocolate bars. Its founder realized that most of the best makers of quality chocolates come from Europe, which is funny considering that these northern countries can’t grow their own cacao. Cacao can only grow in areas located 20 degrees north and south of the equator that is why the top cocoa producing countries are located in South America, Africa, and Asia.

Some of the brand’s best sellers are its 70% Dark Chocolate bar and Labuyo bar (dark chocolate with chili). Last year at the Global Pinoy Bazaar, I was able to sample Theo & Philo chocolate bars. I bought its other best seller, the Barako, milk chocolate with organic barako coffee. I also bought the Green Mango and Salt chocolate bar, which was sweet, salty, and sour at the same time. Very good. These bars are so much better than commercial brands.

The chocolate bars are carefully made by both machines and hand. It is then beautifully wrapped with the colorful and unique packaging. This careful attention to standards make their chocolate pricier than commercial brands. At P100 each, the bars are all worth it, though.

You can check out their website to find out where to buy their products.

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Recipe: Easy Sautéed Bok Choy

This is a quick side dish recipe that is so easy, you can do it in five minutes. Serve this on the side of any Asian meat dish. Bok choy or pak choi is a type of Chinese cabbage. It’s usually used in noodle soups and stir fry dishes. It’s widely available in the Asian region (duh) including the Philippines while it can be found in most Asian markets/groceries in the Western hemisphere.

Ingredients

250 grams of fresh bok choy
2 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp. ginger (minced or sliced)
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tbsp. sesame oil
water
salt and pepper

Procedure

1. Trim ends of bok choy and rinse with water.
2. In a frying pan or wok, heat vegetable oil and sauté garlic and ginger for one minute over medium heat.
3. Add bok choy and toss for a minute. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Add a small amount of water and immediately cover the pan. Let steam for a couple of minutes.
5. Remove from pan and transfer to a serving plate. Drizzle sesame oil over cooked vegetables.

Serves 3

Recipe: Charcoal Grilled Teriyaki Chicken

This is one of my go-to Japanese recipes. Filipinos are very familiar with Japanese cuisine and teriyaki is a staple in all Japanese restaurants here. This dish uses different kinds of meat but I prefer chicken. The meat can be cooked over a grill or a pan but I like the smoky flavor charcoal grilling gives to a meat. This one’s very easy and requires only a few ingredients.

Ingredients

1 kg/2 lbs. chicken (fried chicken cut)
2 tbsp. grated ginger
1/3 cup/80 ml soy sauce
3 tbsp. dark brown sugar
¼ cup/60 ml rice wine (or sake)
1 tbsp. honey
1 tsp. sesame seeds

Procedure

  1. Combine ginger, soy sauce, brown sugar, rice wine, and honey. Stir ’til sugar dissolves. This will serve as the marinade.
  2. Put chicken in a container or a resealable plastic bag and pour in marinade. Let sit for 30 minutes.
  3. Grill chicken over charcoal. Use marinade to baste chicken. Flip constantly so the meat will cook evenly and remain juicy.
  4. Using the remaining marinade, pour in a small sauce pan and reduce to thicken. Remove scum. Adjust if necessary. I added ¼ cup of water, 1 tbsp. brown sugar and 1 tbsp. of soy sauce to help increase volume of sauce and adjusted to taste. (I like my teriyaki, saucy).
  5. In a pan, toast sesame seeds for two minutes.
  6. Serve chicken in a bowl over white rice. Drizzle sauce over and garnish with toasted sesame seeds.

Serves 6

Dreaming of cooler days

The country’s weathermen promised us cooler days. They said a stronger northeast monsoon is coming down from Siberia, China, and Japan. But today, the sun is out and burning up the concrete jungle that is Metro Manila.

Facebook sent me a notification, reminding me of a memory from last year. It was a photo of me in the garage with some relatives. I was wearing a hoodie. I was cold, apparently. I remember that January day, the breeze was cool especially during the early morning and nighttime. I had to wear another layer of clothing to keep warm.

This year’s January is hot, almost-like-summer hot. I’m guessing many Filipinos are cooling down at malls and cooler rural areas. Tagatay must be packed!

One sure thing that can cool me down is a cone or rather pint, wait, half a gallon of good ‘ol ice cream. At this point, I don’t care about the calories because in this heat, I will burn those anyway.

I am dreaming about ice cream right now—creamy vanilla bean, salted caramel, ooh wait, how about dark chocolate. Hmmmm. Oh, sweet, sweet nectar from the sugar gods.

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The Make Your Own Magnum bar at Magnum Manila, SM Mall of Asia

So, here I am, thinking of biting into a bar of chocolate covered ice cream. Because two weeks ago, I was assigned to attend the launch of Magnum Manila Pleasure Store at SM Mall of Asia. After it closed down its doors July of last year, it reopened as a dessert-only store. The previous restaurant carried other food items and not just ice cream alone. Now, the store is just focusing on its world-famous Make Your Own Magnum bar. This D-I-Y goodness lets you create your own signature Magnum bar.

Don’t look for sprinkles here because the toppings are far from ordinary. There are a total of 18 toppings like sea salt, grape Nerds candy, crushed pistachio nuts, freeze dried raspberries, potato chips, dried mangoes, and even dried chili flakes (for the adventurous). The newest addition is the mini pastillas.

I made two bars (I’m sorry for being a gluton) one I chose vanilla ice cream dipped in Belgian dark chocolate coating then topped with almonds, caramel crushed balls, Parmesan popcorn, and white chocolate drizzle. So good. The other one was chocolate ice cream covered in Belgian milk chocolate and topped with dried mango bits, grated quezo de bola, pastillas bits, and dark chocolate drizzle. Good but I like my first creation better. I wish I have a tub of that Parmesan popcorn. I love popcorn.

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Toppings galore

Tip, mix savory toppings with sweeter coating while the chili goes amazing with dark chocolate.

So before it gets even hotter because summer days are almost here, cool down first. Best cool-me-down snack.

You can read my Manila Bulletin article here.

Magnum Manila is located at the second floor, main wing of SM Mall of Asia (across Uniqlo). www.magnum.com.ph/magnummanilamoa/index.php

Island feast

If you have ever been to the Philippines, then you might have experienced eating on a leaf. Yep, we use banana leaves as plates. Well, not all the time but we like to do it on special occasions and when we are on the beach or any rural province in the country.

For me, the best way to enjoy this rustic feast is on the beach. The sun, sand, and salty air scream boodle fight.

Boodle fight originated from the military. Soldiers would line up along both sides of a long table that has been prepared with food. Several banana leaves cover the entire stretch of the table. The rice is dumped on the middle creating a long sticky, grainy line. Then various viands are randomly dumped on it or along it. The men and women will then only use their hands (yes, no knife, fork, or spoon here) to eat.

This type of feast also showcases one Filipino trait that is known around the world—family values. You see, sharing of food this way shows the bond of the family. Because here in the Philippines, we like to share and love to eat. In a boodle fight you can get food from someone else’s plate or rather leaf.

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Romantic dinner setting on Islang Walang Lang-aw

Last December, I went on a trip along with other journalists to one of my favorite places in the Philippines: Coron, Palawan. The trip to the beautiful Dimakya Island was for work, for Manila Bulletin. Right? I love my job.

Dimakya Island is home to Club Paradise, a family leisure resort. This place is beautiful! Of course, I didn’t expect less of Coron, which has the most beautiful islands in the country. Proof? American travel magazine Condé Nast Traveler named Palawan the “Best Island in the World” for two consecutive years.

Apart from enjoying the beauty of this place, I also got to taste amazing dishes prepared by the resort. It’s kitchen is headed by executive chef Bruce Subia. A favorite item among the guests is the resort’s brick oven pizzas. Yep, pizza on an island! Most of the resort’s international guests are Europeans so pizza is a must.

But for me, the most memorable meals of the trip were the ones prepared on the beaches of uninhabited islands. The first was a dinner buffet of grilled goodies on Islang Walang Lang-aw (Island Without Trees). We helped ourselves to perfectly grilled pork belly, chicken, fish, prawns, and mussels and a choice of local ensaladas (salad), from eggplant to camote tops to green mangoes. Filipino ensaladas are usually made of one major vegetable ingredient (cooked or fresh) then tossed with tomato and onion slices then served with shrimp paste as dressing. Perfect with grilled meat and rice.

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Boodle fight feast on Diatoy Island

Then the best of all, a boodle fight lunch on Diatoy Island. On the island, we were greeted by the resort’s friendly staff and a table full of amazing food. There were whole grilled fish, huge crabs, lechon kawali (deep fried pork belly), prawns, mussels, eggplant torta (similar to frittata), on a bed of fried rice. We picked our seats, washed our hands using a bowl water, and dug in. The meal won’t be complete without the traditional dipping sauce—soy sauce with calamansi (lime-like citrus fruits the size of a big marbles), onions, and chili peppers. For dessert, fresh tropical fruits: bananas, mangoes, and pineapple.

Now, that is a meal.

Club Paradise Palawan: +632 719 6971 to 6974, www.clubparadisepalawan.com

Lime, basil, and a little bit more oomph!

Before the New Year, my friends and I decided to celebrate our annual Holidays dinner in Tagaytay. Upon arriving, we immediately noticed how the city was quickly becoming highly urbanized. I hope it won’t get too urbanized because as it is, it’s losing its charm for me. I want to see greenery not malls. Yes, the mall giants are conquering Tagaytay. Ugh. I’m just happy that none of the high rise buildings are covering the beautiful view of Taal. If I get into the traffic situation, this blog post will turn into a rant article, believe me.

Anyway, the good thing about the booming tourism industry in Tagaytay is the many restaurants opening in the city. So, there are more dining options other than major fast food chains. But my golly, I miss Tom Sawyer’s fried chicken and Mushroom Burger!

We ate at one restaurant that is slowly becoming famous in the city near the clouds, Lime and Basil Thai restaurant. Tucked in barangay Sikat, Alfonso, Cavite (near Residence Inn), the restaurant promises good Thai food. With all the positive reviews, I was expecting something amazing from the resto but it failed to impress.

Let’s start with the superficial. Upon entering the gate, we were greeted by a large front yard with a big mango tree that shades over a rustic set of table and chairs and dangling rainbow colored bottle lamps. The restaurant interiors looks very homey, like a classic Asian home, very generic. It doesn’t spell Thai right out off the bat. The resto also has a small shop where it sells silver pitchers, marble mortar and pestle, napkins, among others.

Food wise, the restaurant delivers good enough Thai food. For starters, we ordered the Fresh Spring Rolls—herbs, carrots, tofu, vermicelli noodles, sweet chili relish, rolled in rice paper. It’s very fresh with all that herbs (including cilantro/coriander, my relationship with cilantro requires a whole post) and vegetables. Props to the owner because the restaurant grows its own vegetables in the backyard. Then we had the Yam Pla Duk Foo salad, a catfish and mango salad served with spicy nuts and Thai dressing. This was a little bit too sour for my taste. Maybe the mango was just sour, although the dressing should have balanced it out.

For the entrée we ordered three dishes the Kor Moo Yang (grilled pork belly with coriander sauce), Paneng Nua (beef red curry), and Sate Chicken (grilled chicken skewer with peanut sauce and served with cucumber relish dipping sauce). Let me start with the grilled pork, this one’s really good, although I didn’t taste the coriander, it’s just a regular delicious grilled pork. Grilled pork is always good to me. The chicken, on the other hand, was perfectly grilled although the peanut sauce didn’t look and taste like peanut sauce. If it already has the peanut sauce, why the cucumber dipping sauce? Confuzzled. The beef was the best for my friends, the meat was tender and it all has the right flavors of a red curry.

Now, a Thai meal is not complete without Pad Thai noodles. Now, this is when Lime and Basil really delivered. It was so good, my favorite dish of that lunch. It all has the flavors a Pad Thai needs, from the fresh herbs, sour lime, salty soy and fish taste, and heat from the chili.

My beef with the restaurant, however, is the meals are served without enough heat. Thai food is known to be spicy but the dishes here are far from spicy. Maybe this is the reason why Pinoys love the resto because it caters more to the Filipino palate than Thai. Another bad thing was the pricing. It’s very pricey for the serving size of the dishes. That grilled pork can only feed one and for P300+, geez, no. I was expecting toned down prices since we were kilometers away from imperial Manila. Overall, it was good but the food and place need a little more oomph! So I’ll consider my options when I go back to Tagaytay.

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Food Quest: The perfect mac and cheese recipe

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My meh mac and cheese

This is the beginning of my quest for the perfect mac and cheese recipe.

I remember the first time I cooked mac and cheese I only used two ingredients—macaroni and cheese slices. After draining the noodles, I immediately mixed in the cheese slices until they melted. I then added salt and pepper to taste and I was done. I was in college then so I didn’t mind the taste and I thought that’s how everybody made mac and cheese. I was wrong.

If you google mac and cheese recipes, you’ll get more than 13 million results. That’s a lot of mac and cheese recipes. Since this dish is not a staple in my part of the world, I always looked for the perfect mac and cheese dishes in restaurants and the recipes, of course.

Most of the recipes online require cooking the French bechamel sauce as the base for the cheese sauce. The differences vary from the type of cheeses added, usually multiple kinds, like sharp cheddar, Parmesan, Gruyère, Mozzarella, among others. Then there’s the spices, most only use salt and pepper while some put cayenne, freshly ground nutmeg, paprika, etc. On the other hand, some require the smoked flavor of bacon or the salty goodness of Italian pancetta. For the topping, a combination of breadcrumbs and cheese is pretty commonplace.

So, last week, I made mac and cheese with the available ingredients from our fridge and the pantry. For the cheese sauce, I cooked bechamel as the base and used two types of cheeses—cream cheese and regular cheese. What exactly is regular cheese? In the Philippines, the market is dominated by processed cheese food, small bars of cheese that are just processed food with cheese flavoring. Yes, like American cheese. These “cheeses” have a light and creamy taste to them and doesn’t have the bold flavors of real cheeses. I then added dijon mustard and ground chili pepper to flavor my sauce and of course, salt and pepper. I used fine bread crumbs and regular grated Parmesan cheese for the topping.

The result: meh.

The flavors are underwhelming, it’s more milk than cheese. I didn’t get the right cheese flavor a proper mac and cheese has. The topping didn’t help either because the Parmesan was not enough. It was okay but it needed a bit more kick.

This was unsuccessful but I will sure cook up another one in the future. I will shop for better cheese this time.

Just keep cooking.

Of coarse, it’s fine

One sign that you have aged is how you get easily excited about simple things like getting a new shirt (I need that!) or getting a new pair of underwear (yassss!). In my case, there’s nothing in the world that could excite more than new kitchen tools. Yes, I’m a simple man.

Last December, which was also my birth month, I got two amazing gifts, one from my nieces and the other from one of my best friends. Two kitchen tools that is changing my life! Okay, well, I haven’t used one of them but I’m sure I will soon.

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Wooden pepper mill

Ever since I saw this tool in cooking shows, I have wanted to buy one. But back then, this was not common in the Filipino kitchen, so finding one was difficult. I am talking about a pepper mill. That wooden tool that looks like a chess piece that grounds whole black peppercorns into varying levels of graininess—from coarse to fine.

I love how chefs hold this thing over pots and meat and twist it rhythmically creating a rain of black spice. It’s so mesmerizing to me, I sometimes weird myself out. Finally, I can do it myself! Thanks to my good friend, Kat, for giving it to me as a birthday present. Yay, for friends!

The second one is something—I’m guessing—every baker has. It’s called a decorating pen. It’s a pen-like silicone device where you can put frosting or chocolate in it (like ink in pens) and use it like a pen to write your decorations on cakes and pastries. It works like a syringe so you could suck the frosting in from the tip but it works like a pen (you hold it like a pen) when it’s time to squeeze out its contents. It looks simple but I haven’t tried it yet. I hope my sometimes shaky hands can handle it. This Christmas gift was given by my nieces Justine and Pia. It came with the sweetest note. I love it that they know me so well.

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Baker’s decorating pen (Masflex)

I consider these two as the best presents I have ever received last year. Simple but useful and both give me more reason to cook.