Wednesday, January 27, 2010

It is about Intentions!

“ Respect from outside is a fine thing, but inner respect is crucial. It is difficult to respect ourselves if we do not know what we are doing and why we are doing it. If we do not come from a place of clarity of purpose, and the respect for ourselves that flow from it, none of our actions will be fruitful. “ Gay Hendricks

Yesterday, I was fretting that I had not quite decided on a dinner menu to feed 15 folks, actually 19. I am not beyond ego yet, though I try hard to displace it. I could not decide as my mind was in control of my creative space and eager to “ impress folks “. The more I heeded my thoughts, the more I became misguided. It got to a point where I had butterflies in my stomach. All I had was disarray, cookbooks to look at, notes, and nothing definite 24 hours before the event.

My prior experiences of overfilled tables became overstuffed guests, who got confused with what to eat, end up choosing not to eat and so much left-overs. Yet, when the table is balanced, and the serving portions are enough, the guests go for seconds, the desserts are devoured and there are no left-overs. So, I decided I wanted a balanced table.

I reflected and gave the event some distance. Wisdom says when you are under pressure, the slower you should move. So I did.

I looked back. I remembered that I have been cooking since 4th grade with my father. Yes, my dad taught me the basics of sautéing and how to extract flavors.

I reflected some more on what this invitation means, at least my intentions. I wanted to create a hospitable space, an inviting space where folks can have good home-cooked dinner and make music together.

Who got invited?

I invited musicians and Filipinos with musical talents to share: Bob Shroder with his flute; Lito Molina, with his violin; Sir Ric Ickard with his guitar; Dra. Charito Sison on the piano, and a tenor, Pete Avendano, who sings at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. I also invited the founders of the Filipino American Symphony Orchestra, Roger and Cora Oriel.

If you know me, I get nervous around authority, it is not because Cora and Roger make me nervous, but they are the publishers of the paper I write for, so in a sense, they are my employers. I was also nervous as other good cooks were coming to my house for dinner and that was enough to put me into a tailspin. My competitive spirit was getting the best of me.

I visited Suzan, my former Taliba editor. I brought her and her son leche-flan. I shared with her my anxieties. She was accommodating and suggested two winning dishes: sotanghon to warm up folks from the rain and green salad to go with the salmon.

I relaxed. I decided to trust my instincts. The menu got created 8 hours before the event: baked salmon, chicken sotanghon, green salad, brocollini with shaved parmesan, pasta with marinara sauce and cheese with roasted cauliflower and tri-colored bell peppers, seared and braised ribeye steaks and steamed rice.

I covered all food groups, just in case folks have allergies to one protein group. I had a plate of appetizers: twisted cheese sticks, marconda almonds and garlic adobo peanuts. I served both red and white wine and orangina for non-wine drinkers.

As the day went on, rains poured. Evacuations were ordered in the foothills, particularly in the burned areas. There were hailstorms, ice, tornadoes and even, howling thunder. In the Los Angeles River, a man caught carp using his bare hands. Los Angeles was wet all through out.

The evening’s attraction.

The attraction for the evening was Jamie Lazzara, an American violin-maker who went to Cremona, after she took lessons in woodworking in Los Angeles. She realized she loved working with wood, so she has been crafting violins for 30 years in a shop in Florence. Each year, she makes 4 – 8 violins, one of which was for Itzhak Perlman, who played the Lazzara violin during President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. Jamie was self-effacing, humble and told us that Perlman's Stradivarius violin would have cracked in sub-zero temperature so, he played the Lazzara violin.

All her violins are commissioned, meaning, they are not done, unless someone gives her a deposit. When she finished our violin, a gift to my husband, I did not want to pay for the shipping costs of $1,000. So, my family and I went to pick up the violin in Florence, our first trip to Europe. That was 2002.

Every two years, Jamie visits her family and she services the violin she custom-made, either by fixing the bridge, or adding a new coat of varnish. This year is no different. And this year, Giovanni accompanied her.

Generosity of musicians inspire my cooking.

I had another revelation – artists and musicians are the most generous folks on earth. Invite them and if they are free, they come. The same with photographers.

I wanted to make the best dinner for all of them, a nutritious, home-cooked meal prepared by my own two hands, pouring all my love into the details.

I had one concession, desserts from my favorite bakery, La Maison du Pain where I ordered lavender creme brulee and chocolate chip cookies, which Cora Oriel happily paid for.

Salmon was thawing for two days inside the refrigerator. I examined it, flesh still firm and it is now ready for baking. I prepared the marinade: butter, lemon zest and brown sugar and tasted it. A thumbs up. I only need to make sure I do not overcook it. I refrigerated it after filling the belly with the marinade. I figured with 20 lbs. of salmon, I would need 4 hours at 300 F. And enough time to cool it down before I serve it.

I decided to bake it at 1pm, and serve it at 6pm. I wrapped the salmon in parchment paper and since it was such a humongous salmon, I split it in half. I had a pan of water inside the oven to provide moist heat, not dry heat.

I roasted the cauliflower with olive oil, pepper and butter. I did the same with orange, yellow and red bell peppers. Butter and olive oil are twins, I found out particularly in roasting. By itself, it burns, but together, they don't. I did not time it, but roasted salmon at 375 F. I used my nose as an indicator -- a distinct smell of the vegetables when fully cooked.

I started the marinara sauce: olive oil, butter, garlic, and fresh tomatoes about 8 pounds worth. I boiled it for at least four hours over low heat, added some red pepper flakes and towards the end, added few basil leaves. Smelling it inspired me more.

I cooked the pasta al dente and cooled it in the refrigerator. With my paella pan, I thought of decorating the pan with the pasta, marinara sauce, cauliflower and bell peppers, except I left the pasta in the pan. I also added shaved parmesan cheese on the pasta, careful that I gave it a hint of cheese not kill the flavors with cheese.

This is what I learned from taking classes in Provence, France – the subtlety of cooking, the hinting of flavors, the muting of flavors, hinting at them, and layering them: roasted cauliflowers – the caramelized flavors, with the bell peppers and their the sweet, roasted flavors, and the pasta with marinara sauce and cheese. When I tasted it, I gave it a thumbs up. So far, so good.

Then, I marinated the steaks. I asked my husband to pick some calamansi fruits in our backyard. I told him to be generous. He picked enough and I used them all. I added garlic, olive oil, and reduced sodium soy sauce, but barely two tablespoons, as I also added Goya adobo seasoning liberally. That is the secret to my cooking – goya seasoning whenever I can, paired with calamansi.

Back to the refrigerator, I can sear the steaks, braise them or bake them later. I apportioned half a steak for each person so they can enjoy all dishes: salmon, chicken sotanghon, pasta primavera and green salad mix.

I took out my blue and white salad bowl to prepare the green salad. I laid out the green leaf lettuce, added the red heirloom tomatoes in the middle. I segmented an orange and distributed it in a circle. I did the same with Persian cucumbers. Then, I took some glazed pineapples and diced them. I shredded some cabbage and laid it as a nest around the green salad mix and finally marconda almonds in the inner core of the circle. I found a way of building my salads: a core of vegetables, a circle of colors, a layering of textures, one type of berry, and the key, a good citrus dressing. I included by its side the other half of the roasted chicken. It was a perfect salad for me, as it depicted all the colors I have in my garden.

I started the chicken sotanghon soup. Except I had no leeks, which is my secret ingredient. In the middle of the rain, I went out to get my supplies. Good thing, I am but five minutes away. I decided to roast the chicken breast to intensify the flavors. I sautéed the leeks, garlic, ginger with raw chicken pieces until their flesh turned to cooked. I added fish sauce and added chicken stock. Then, the sliced, roasted chicken, seaweeds and saffron strands and more water. I wanted enough water and only hints of sotanghon. Next time, seaweeds can stay out and so with saffron, for they leave somewhat of an unsual flavors and the Filipino memories of sotanghon is centered on garlic and ginger tastes. So, I made sure I had roasted garlic as a condiment.

In making soups, I add bonito or miso – another source of salty seasonings, something I picked up from another chef, Rick and my homemade marinara sauce.

Except that idea is not applicable for clear chicken sotanghon soup. I added fresh spinach just before folks walked in and served it in heated nambe bowl, a metal bowl that keeps its heat for hours. It works like the Korean clay pot, and holds the temperature of the cooked foods.

At about 6pm, I started to assemble all dishes. I heated up the roasted pasta with marinara sauce, reheated the cauliflower and bell peppers and plated it in my paella pan, decorated with lettuce leaves, rosemary bushes from my garden. I took a large banana leaf from my garden, washed it and laid the tail end of the baked salmon.

Hmm, looking good, I told myself. I was building up the table. I had also steamed brocollini, added the parmesan cheese shavings and plated it. I also took out the heated nambe bowl and served the chicken sotanghon with fresh spinach. Last, I laid out the pan-seared and braised steaks.

I said another prayer that all my guests enjoy the evening.

Folks ate their fill. The musicians took turns: from the guitar, to piano, to viola, to violin and the flute. I thought for awhile I had gone to heaven, as I could not wipe away the smiles in my face. I was filled with joy and I hope that everyone did too.

And Giovanni, who came with Jamie, he composed an Italian song on the spot to say thanks. I knew at that moment he had a good time for his creativity was unleashed by the magical moments we all had, listening to music that night and eating food that I cooked from scratch all by myself.

A blogger, Rene Villaroman, wrote about this evening as Food vs. Music, whether my cooking could hold up to four musicians. I honestly would defer to these musicians and say, they won. For me, I won my internal battle and left behind my self-doubts to recapture my innate source of inspiration to cook these many dishes.