Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Rain in Spain's Former Colony the Philippines

It started raining like it was the end of the world today, and I thought I could capture it on video. Turns out the intensity of neither the visual nor the audio translate well, but I thought I'd post anyway. I apologize for the DSL line running through the image; such is the price of internet.

I would like to remind the Philippines: it's ting-init now, not ting-uwan. Get it right. Anyway, I think neither ting is the accurate ting. I think it's always ting-uncomfortable. I hear ting-prutas is on its way though, and I approve.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Adventures in Pinoy Cuisine III

The Philippines is a country that takes eating very seriously. This means taking snack, or merienda, between each meal. Often snack is something sweet and full of gluten, sometimes it’s just fruit, and other times it’s a full on meal. Champorado is a popular snack item here, and unlike some recurring snacks, I never got sick of it. When I first had champorado made by my host family’s house helper in Dumaguete, I fell in love.

Champorado is basically chocolate rice pudding. How could anyone resist? However, I soon learned that not all champorado are created equal, and despite the ease of preparation and varied recipe options, it is easy to mess up champorado. For example, burning the chocolate is never advised and will result in an entirely ruined batch. I also prefer a thick champorado, not a runny one, and too little sugar or too much tablea, cocoa tablets, can also ruin your champorado. Some of my batchmates were also familiar with it as a breakfast food, but were not thrilled about it, even saying that it didn't taste like chocolate. I concluded that they had not had good champorado.

In Dumaguete I’d seen tablea for sale all over, but since coming to live in Hilongos, I hadn’t seen any. Today I resolved to find some and buy it so I could try my hand at my own champorado. I bought oversized tablea because I asked the tindera, the saleswoman, which made the best champorado and she indicated a set of them made in Hindang, the next town north.

I chose this recipe because it’s simple, straightforward and looked easy and delicious. This is another recipe that I think looks as clear, possibly easier for those in the states. The following is the recipe I chose and my modifications.

4-5 pieces of tablea (blocks of pure cocoa the circumference of nickels – I think bakers’ chocolate or plain unsweetened cocoa as in the alternate recipe could substitute) melted in ½ cup of water
1 cup of rice (many recipes call for sweet rice but I don’t know which kind is sweet and I have 5 kilos of rice right here, why buy more?)
2 ½ cups of water
½ cup of brown sugar
¼ can of evaporated milk

As I mentioned, I bought oversized tablea, about double the size of regular ones. I broke up two and melted these with the ½ cup of water in my makeshift double boiler because I’ve burned chocolate in the past and have no low heat with this stove. When I make this in the future, I might use a fraction less tablea, maybe 1 ½ or 1 ¾.

Cook the rice with the 2 ½ cups of water in a saucepan, stirring constantly. I didn’t stir constantly, but frequently. When the rice is translucent, add sugar and melted tablea. It looked like it was still swimming in water when I added the sugar and tablea, but this seems to have had no ill effects.

Cook until rice is tender. Add sugar and water to taste. I added two more spoonfuls of sugar and no water. The recipe says to add evaporated milk to individual portions, but I’d been instructed by the house helper in Dumaguete to add either evaporated or condensed milk (I can’t remember) during the cooking. I added about a quarter can of evaporated milk (can was 410ml) and am pleased with the results. Someday, I may forgo the sugar and evaporated milk and add only condensed milk. Anyway, during this stage, stir frequently and be careful about burning the chocolate. I used my lowest un-low heat and it still bubbled, threatened to boil, but it ended up fine and unburnt.

When finished, take it off heat, cover it, and set it aside to cool, to expand and to thicken. Not the prettiest dessert you've ever seen, but well worth it, and should be eaten while still hot. This recipe makes 3 or 4 servings.

EDIT: This is possibly even better in the morning, after a night in the fridge. I added more evaporated milk and water, broke up the gelatinous mass it had become, and reheated. The result was a lighter, fluffier champorado than it had been the night before.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Adventures in Pinoy Cuisine II

Apparently, this was the weekend of cooking. And Monday counted as an extension of the weekend because it was declared a holiday and we got it off. Anyway, earlier Monday, I used this recipe to make kettle corn. I had heard it could be a messy process, but with this recipe there was no sugar or oil left over. I took a few flying popped kernels to the eye before closing the pot with its lid, but I remain whole and generally uninjured. I heartily recommend this method, and if I were to modify the recipe at all, I’d add a little bit more sugar. Of course, lacking things like measuring spoons, who knows how much I actually put in?

In my halo halo chronicle, I mentioned that I would make leche flan fairly soon. I didn’t anticipate it being quite so soon, two days later, but the opportunity presented itself with my day off and failure to write anything other than this blog entry. I’d had leche flan in halo halos and at Sugarland Hotel in Bacolod. It was delicious, naturally gluten-free, and pretty addictive. And, I saw, not too difficult to make, so why not?

After dinner came the moment I would try out my leche flan recipe. I found several recipes, here, here, and here, but all made unreasonably huge portions in the tradition of Filipino fiesta-sized eating habits. I saw from these, however, that I could steam cook leche flan, and I had just discovered that my rice cooker came with a steaming apparatus to add on. Lacking an oven and not really trusting a “water bath,” that I could steam my way into leche flan was very important. I decided on this recipe, due to its simplicity and portion size, but I had no llanera (Filipino leche flan mould), and even if I did, it wouldn’t fit into the modest rice cooker add-on. So, I made some modifications to this last recipe to accommodate my available materials, including steaming rather than bathing it in water. I bought aluminum muffin tins, which I cut into individual cups so they could be arranged to fit into my steamer. The recipe used makes a good amount of carmelized sugar to line the bottom of each tin. However, as for the custard, it made a little too much, but not outrageously so. Also, I used a 300ml can of condensed milk, largely because it was what is available and because the recipe doesn’t specify, even implying that any size is appropriate. In the future, I believe I will use less so as to minimize waste and because the mixture was quite runny, though I don’t know its proper consistency, and it far surpassed its 30 minute steam time, possibly due to its consistency, possibly due to my steamer.

So, here’s the recipe:

Carmelized Sugar:

1/3 cup brown sugar
1/6 cup water
Dash of salt

On a low heat (my low heat is still pretty high), dissolve the sugar and salt in water. The recipe says not to stir, but it wasn’t dissolving, so I swirled the pan a bit to dissolve it. Pour it into your mould or moulds; it should cover the bottom.

4 egg yolks
1 can of condensed milk (I used 300ml)
1/3 water or milk measured by empty can of condensed milk (I used water)

Break and gently mix egg yolks to avoid bubbly custard. Empty the can of condensed milk into yolks, then put water or milk measured by the same can into the liquid. Mix gently. I went ahead and forgot the vanilla because apparently so did the recipe writer, but still came out with a delicious product. Here I noted that the mixture separates slightly; the condensed milk goes to the bottom, the egg and water stay on top. It never quite converges, and the urge to mix or whip it vigorously is fairly intense. Patience, grasshopper.

Strain the mixture as you fill the tins/your mould. This direction seemed odd to me, and I wanted to skip it for expediency’s sake, but I remembered the flourless chocolate cake debacle of 2008 with Ken, where the recipe called for, but didn’t explain, like this one, a technical aspect of the baking process. The results were dire that time, so, holding with faith, I strained the mixture into the tins, using a spoon to pour rather than dumping from my giant bowl into tiny tins. Turns out, the straining is done so that unintegratable egg bits are strained out rather than left to cook in. Another recipe says not to bother to strain, but I feel good about it. So, always follow directions, and if you’re writing recipes, always explain the rather opaque reasonings behind the processes so fools like me don’t skip it.

Cover tins with tin foil so the flan doesn’t get soaked in the steaming process. The recipe says to steam for 30 minutes, but only around the hour mark was it finally thickening up. I don’t know if that was the runniness of the custard mixture or a failure of my steamer to heat up quickly. Anyway, the time it took in comparison to the time it was supposed to take was a tad ridiculous. My final steam time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Even after all that time, it never firmed up, and the results were unattractive in the extreme. Zeus. I refrigerated my tins overnight, and only then did they stay together when inverted onto a plate.

In case you try this in an oven and get positive results, I'll continue. In my opinion, it should be refrigerated for a long time, though the recipe does not call for this. Then, to remove your leche flan, gently run a knife along the edge of your mould and invert it onto a plate. Here is where many leche flans get destroyed. Mostly I don’t care what it looks like, but maybe next time it’ll be marginally more attractive. This recipe made six small muffin tins worth, with some custard mix left over. So, this is my truly hideous and out of focus individual portion of leche flan.

On the whole, I’m satisfied with the ease of preparation, flavor and portion size of this recipe, but not the cooking time or appearance/consistency of the final product. Next time, I will try not to forget the vanilla. Ultimately, the cook time and final product are cause to pause, but since I’m aware of this for next time, I won’t be dashing off every fifteen minutes to see if it’s ready yet, and I'll modify it to be less runny by adjusting the amount of condensed milk and water/milk added. In the future, I may also forgo the carmelized sugar. While delicious, it's a tad cloying and the custard needs no help to be sweet. I’ll also try to find something to do with the four leftover egg whites. In a past life, maybe I would think nothing of pouring them down the drain in the absence of something to do with them, but here that is more difficult.

Please note that I’ve added to the side of my blog a list of links to recipes I’ve been using, including this one, and recipes I intend to use when the opportunities arise. Some are Filipino recipes, others are not, but do check them out and enjoy. The recipes listed were chosen among the many available for ease of preparation, fewest or most reasonable/logical ingredients (one of the leche flan recipes called for the most expensive [eyeroll] organic eggs, carabao milk and something I’ve never heard of – no thanks), and clarity of direction. As I experiment with these recipes, I will post with results and modifications.

Next: Champorado

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Because the Public Demanded...

Certain fathers who shall remain anonymous won't stop pestering me for a complete pictorial guide to my new apartment. So, in an effort to appease the rabble, I present: My Apartment.

The outside of my apartment, before it was finished. Now it has plants in the little plant area underneath that window, and the area that's all dirt out front is concrete. I call it grapefruit chic.

A before shot of my refrigerator and me, courtesy of Connie, before my refrigerator was turned on and made to work for its place in my swank apartment.

The sala set built by students at my school. Exceptional craftsmanship, as Cassie and Sean noted today, truly beautiful work. Donated by the woodworking department.

My kitchen space with donated furniture. The area where my stove and propane live is particularly pleasing on the eye and makes a lot more space available for preparation. My landpeople's carpenter made it in a matter of days. Also, note the pan with handle as showcased on my stove.

Let's head upstairs.

My still unorganized spare room. The bedframe is there, wa'y mattress, but I'm working on it. Anticipating much welcome guest traffic in that room.

My spacious bedroom, complete with king sized bed and exceptionally pleasing mattress.

My pride, my most used space, the office. My bookshelf, another creation whipped up by the carpenter in mere days, gives me a lot of satisfaction. This is an open area that leads, as you can see, to the balcony.

And that's my apartment. I ordered some fine art prints, laminated as fine art is meant to be in its natural state, and when I get them I plan on enspiffening the office, my bedroom and the living room with them. I also want Filipino art, but am finding it difficult to find.

In technical news, I'm dissatisfied with the performance of this camera. It's a point and shoot Nikon CoolpixL18 with 8 megapixels. I had previously been very happy with its predecessor, also Nikon Coolpix but with 5 megapixels bought in 2005, but this one has less depth, poorer color perception and seems fundamentally incapable of focusing. When I get an electricity converter and can charge it, I will start using my digital SLR, provided I'm not somewhere like a beach where it will get destroyed. Lesson: like a 5th wife, newer, thinner and flashier does not equal better.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Adventures in Pinoy Cuisine

Halo halo: my favorite Filipino food item. Most of my comrades have already posted their obligatory halo halo-themed entries, but I have been waiting for today. From the first time I had a halo halo, at the deeply buried hole-in-the-wall Tablespoon fairly late in training, I knew I was destined to make one - the best one, the ultimate halo-halo; I was going to be the one who made it. The perfection of the halo halo would be my secondary project. This single truth occupied my mind, biding its time through training, through my second homestay, through until today when I had the desired ingredients, the time and the space.

First, let’s look at the anatomy of a halo halo: on a bed of shaved ice, halo halogists across the nation pile any combination of the following ingredients and many, many more: pandan, big tapioca balls, gelatin, corn, garbanzo beans, mungo beans, some other kind of big white bean, pieces of leche flan, coconut strips, jackfruit, banana, mango, ube either in cube or jam form, ube or mango ice cream, cornflakes or puffed rice, condensed milk and sugar. Essentially, whatever’s lying around and convenient goes into the halo halo. While many of these ingredients may seem antithetical to dessert (beans?), I assure you, even the pickiest of palates is pleased by the product. Nonetheless, I have my favorite ingredients, and since moving into my own apartment, I have slowly been amassing these items for my future in halo halo production. Today, as I considered my languishing jar of ube jam, my soaked but purposeless tapioca balls and my fresh batch of strawberry Jell-o, courtesy of Marlene, I knew with certainty that my day had come.

I looked up the recipe for leche flan, and, upon discovering that my rice cooker is also a steamer, I desperately wanted to include it. However, I would have had to go out and find a mould or moulds small enough to fit inside the steaming add-on, so some other day will be the reckoning of the leche flan.

First, and perhaps most stupidly, I decided to crush my ice in the blender I had bought for that express purpose. Any halo halo enthusiast will tell you that the consistency of the ice is key; an ice miscalculation can destroy the entire experience. Well, my blender certainly does not crush ice. What I got was water and some humbled cubes, so I put it in a bowl and put it back in the freezer to see if more time would improve it in its current state. Then I set to work on the other ingredients.

I boiled my tapioca balls, small ones, and that was a success except I have no strainer. So I had hundreds of caviar looking tapioca balls in a puddle of their own juices, drained to the best of my ability with my finger against the lip of a tipping bowl.

I opened a can of condensed milk with my can opener. Or, if we’re being honest, I half opened it before the can opener’s parts sprung apart like teenaged lovers caught by Dad. That was fine, since it was condensed milk and would come out even in its half opened state. But. But, I had a can of whole kernal corn to open. And I had to do it Pinoy style: with a knife and my own brawn. So I gathered my nerve and went at the top of the can with a large, sharp chopping knife for about ten minutes before getting a large enough opening to fit a spoon in. I thought I would die or lose some fingers, but I am in tact and proud of it. Note to self: get a quality can-opener held together by more than the will of its maker.

Then I had three jars to open – ube jam, mungo beans and coconut strips. Twenty minutes later, I had none open and was trying desperately not to succumb to the urge to find a kindly Mormon man to open them. When I gave in and peaked outside, I saw only a man mixing concrete to continue the construction of my building and decided I was on my own. Eventually, I got the (essential) ube jam and the coconut strips open, but not the mungo beans, and considered it a success.

I cut a mango, cut some Jell-o into cubes, and brought out my bowl of water ice to begin the creation: sugar, Jell-o cubes, mango cubes, condensed milk, tapioca caviar, coconut, ube jam, ube ice cream, corn, and I was ready.

With great anticpation and exuberance I tucked in, only to find that my base ingredient, that most essential of items, my ice, was a travesty, an insult to halo halos everywhere. I ate it nonetheless, as the water turned a light opaque ube purple and the remaining ice cubes floated on top like little rounded mocking eyes. It was my first try, and marginally successful despite myriad pitfalls, and I now know that a blender will not suffice in the absence of an ice shaver. Until next time, ultimate halo halo.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Room of One's Own

I’m very pleased to announce that I have moved out of my host family’s house and into my own place. I really appreciate my host family here and everything they’ve done for me since I began service, but I felt that I was a burden to cook for and, though I will likely never know, I think my being in their home displaced someone else, whether a family member or their helper. They were the best host family I could have asked for, and last weekend, with their help and Connie’s, I moved all my stuff one street over to a brand new apartment in the funeral home complex.

When it comes to living quarters, Filipino and American cultures diverge rather sharply. Filipinos sometimes never leave the homes they grew up in until they are married, but often they stay beyond even that. Even though many young Filipinos leave home to work abroad or in Manila, wanting to live on your own is still a foreign concept. Often I am asked if I will be afraid to live alone, especially behind the funeral home because the souls don’t leave the earth for forty days. As I told my co-teacher, “If your neighbors are dead, they are not noisy.” She got a laugh out of it, but I do in fact have live neighbors, including two young Filipino Mormon men on their mission. I haven’t met them yet, but I see them pass my door every morning in their clean, pressed shirts, pants and ties, immaculate even in the rain. The funeral home owners, who are also my landlady and landlord, are also Mormons, so I feel a bit like I’ve moved into the Mormon neighborhood, especially when people find out where I live and ask if I’m also a Mormon. I think the Philippines as a whole is a country very used to missionaries, so their first assumption about most foreigners is that they are missionaries. I had actually never met a Mormon until I moved to the Philippines; now I am living among them.

My new apartment is very nice. It’s part of a row of six adjacent, connected apartments, but only mine and one other are finished; the rest are still being built. The outside is grapefruit colored: yellow with orange trim. I have a downstairs with living space and kitchen, outside laundry area and bathroom. Upstairs I have two bedrooms complete with beds (still working on a mattress for the spare room) and an open space I’ve made into my office. And, of course, my apartment coup: a balcony. It overlooks a rice field, some houses and some trees. As for furniture, I got almost all of it donated – a kitchen table from a department head at school; the bedframes, forthcoming bookshelves and a very nice area for my stove and propane tank that includes storage and counter space, all built specifically for my apartment and me by my landpeople’s employees free of charge; but my favorite, another apartment coup, has been the sala set made by students of the woodworking classes from my school. I know the items weren’t specifically made for me, but it’s really beautiful work and it’s gratifying in general that students, albeit not mine, made them. They have a real talent there, something they can use to build a life if that’s what they want. And now all I can think about is how when I had the opportunity to be in woodshop class in middle school, my classmates made bongs and such. Real charmers, going places.

I just got a real internet connection today, so I will finally post some pictures after being unable to for the past three months. For now, just the views from my balcony. Later, when I have everything set up to my liking, pictures of the inside.

This is the view when looking straight out from the balcony.

This is if you look a bit to the left. That house in the corner is where the missionaries live.

And finally, the little things that keep you smiling: that old Philippine sunset.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Precious Gems

Being an American trying to work in the Philippine education system offers many frustrations and difficulties, not necessarily because of the individuals one works with or teaches, but because of the circumstances of the country, which are myriad and complicated. Often, students reach high school having an unbalanced knowledge of English. Sometimes more advanced concepts in grammar pose no difficulties for them, yet they lack some basic skills. I'm still trying to determine where they are, but what they already know and what they don't seem very arbitrary to me. Plus, as a new teacher, I am unsure in general about where 12 year old ESL students who have been learning English their entire lives "should" be. One of my issues with this last one is that I feel in myself a disparity between being 12 and being in high school. In the States, we have 7th and 8th grade, but here those were eradicated in the first half of the 20th century to cut costs. So, I get to thinking, "well in high school, they should know this certain thing." But it's very different when I think, "at 12, they should know this thing." And that's a hard gap to bridge for me, but I'm working on it.

Anyway, this entry is not meant to be my scathing critique of the Philippine education system or a whinging post about how I toil. I want to say here that today I'm so proud of my Ruby students. Here, the students are arranged into sections in which they will stay for the duration of high school, which is a practice I'm not comfortable with. I teach two sections of mixed levels, Emerald and Garnet. In the afternoon, I teach Diamond, the advanced kids, and Ruby, the so-called slow kids (not my words.) My co-teacher has earned my admiration for her devotion to all her students equally, which was something I did not see in Dumaguete. In Dumaguete, I would hear teachers talking about how much they hated their slower students within those students' hearing range. Here, my co-teacher never loses her temper with Ruby, never leaves them though there may be a staff meeting, never insults or disrespects them. My Ruby students can be more careful and conscientious of their work than any of their peers, Diamond included, and yesterday that really showed in the group work they handed in. I have Ruby as my last class of the day, so I had already corrected the three previous classes' work and knew their scores. Out of ten groups in Ruby, nine got perfect scores on work regarding modal auxillaries. And the only group to get anything wrong only appears to have forgotten to finish a single sentence out of twelve. No other section, mixed or advanced, could near the amazing accomplishment of the Ruby students yesterday.

And they call these students slow. I absolutely disagree.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Peace Corps: Home of the Small Victory

Today I stayed home from school in the afternoon owing to a crippling gluten contamination of my person sometime during lunch. It was the worst single incident I've had since arriving in-country, and I'd forgotten what a raging misery a bad gluten contamination could feel like. When I refrain from fulfilling my obligations due to illness, I always feel like I'm being unproductive and useless, even though I know what would really be unproductive and useless is going to work weak, in pain, and in need of the bathroom for embarrassingly long stretches of time. So, as I lay in my bed alternately recovering and relapsing, I felt that if I wasn't teaching, I could at least be shopping for my new apartment, which was of course ludicrous and untrue. I was equally unable to shop, but I thought all day about what I still need: curtains, pots and pans, a mattress. Mostly though, I began to covet the mirrors I'd seen a few days ago in a glass shop. As far as I can tell, many Filipino homes lack mirrors that aren't personal sized. My batchmates have also noticed a lack of mirrors, so it's not just my imagination. I was very surprised to see mirrors in a shop, mirrors of a respectable size, and as the evening drew near and I regained my strength and my gastrointestinal constitution I set out to go buy one.

Well. I didn't come home with a mirror, but I went out into the marketplace to see what else I could procure, if anything. The following uninteresting anecdote is only understandable if you know that most pans here are metal, with metal handles, so when you cook you must always use a potholder. I just can't be trusted to do that. I'm clumsy, accident-prone, and still bear the marks of various hot objects from the flat in Edinburgh. Know thyself, they say, and I knew myself when my host mom took me shopping this past Saturday and tried to get me to buy one of these disastrous pans. And I probably would have resigned myself to it if, a week or so before, I hadn't seen some with rubber handle covers while visiting Maasin with Connie and encouraged her to buy one of these elusive treasures herself. I did not know, at the time, that I too would be moving out quite imminently.

We marveled over the pans, and she eventually bought one much to my biting envy. I thought I wouldn't be moving out for about a month, but last week, some miscommunication led me to believe I had to move immediately, and, despite the miscommunication not being true, I am now nonetheless set to move out this weekend. Since confirming the move, I've thought of those pans, and how hard it would be to get one in Hilongos, but I kept hope alive when I refused to buy a burn hazard and today, in my mirror-induced jaunt, I found a stack of be-handled pans deep in the marketplace. They were 328 pesos. I wanted that pan as much as I wanted a mirror, more than I wanted a mirror. But I also wanted to leave off that cumbersome extra 28 pesos that would make my change a nightmare. So for the first time ever in country, I bargained successfully, without salivating over the merchandise, and got my pan for 300 pesos. I know, not the boldest bargain, but I'm pretty proud of myself.

Now the fact that I got my pan is a source of intense triumph. I am going to cook things and burn myself only occasionally, not constantly. I found it, by Zeus, and bargained for it too. I showed my host mom, texted Cassie, and am writing a blog entry about it. Somehow, this is very sad, but also very Peace Corps. The subject line was Cassie's reply to my inordinate excitement about pan handles, and it's too true.

Stay tuned for a weekend post about my new digs, hopefully with pictures!