This time of year always makes me crave Filipino adobo and the company of my best friend, Malia. Specifically, standing in some sort of galley kitchen and stirring, talking, and sipping beer while the humid and floral aroma of jasmine rice permeates the air. And then, about halfway through the beer, a garlicky, vinegary fragrance will hit our eyes, noses and hungry stomachs all at once. That is some good adobo and it's all going to be eaten. All of it.
My birthday is in a week or so, and back at our college in Maryland, Malia started fixing adobo for me for my birthday or any other special occasion ("special" being defined by us and possibly meant having enough money to buy meat at the market and access to an actual stove. Both phenomena were infrequent, but we always had access to the beer and we daydreamed about eating the adobo quite regularly upon consuming the beer). Adobo was Malia's jam. She had it down. She grew up in a Filipino family in Kaua'i, very far away from where I grew up and where my family comes from. But like my own family recipes, hers involved vinegar, hot peppers and meat. She would make me adobo and I would fix her a mess of Eastern NC BBQ. These were our ultimate comfort foods. Both required a beer and a white starch (cheap white buns or white rice). Both were made by our mothers and grandmothers. Both usually repulsed Northern boyfriends and culinary hangers-on. It made for great girl nights! But to add to it all, we were usually watching something like Point Break or Bram Stoker's Dracula while we feasted off our cheap IKEA plates. These are important 20-year old details, but I digress...
Like my great-grandmother's recipes, I learned how to make adobo using "a little bit of this and a little bit of that." She probably learned it that way, too. I imagine both of our grannies in hot, humid kitchens across the world from each other, in their ironed, handsewn aprons with their long hair pinned back, always proper and tidy, but one was barefoot and the other had lace-up shoes and stockings. And granddaughters with unruly curly hair who love to cook their food for friends and comfort, more than half a century later. Now Malia resides in DC and I am in Seattle, but I make this and gobble it up and start thinking of silly memories and jokes almost instantly. She's right here with me.
Disclaimer: The following recipe is an approximation based on something I learned (but still tastes amazing) many years ago. The Philippines are a huge place and adobo recipes vary from region to region, if not house to house. Like Southern BBQ, it all depended on which ethnicity settled where and how they liked their meat and spices. And of course, the ingredients that were available to them.
FILIPINO ADOBO, ADAPTED FROM A FILIPINO-HAWAIIAN FAMILY RECIPE, AS MADE IN A DORM APARTMENT IN MARYLAND 20 YEARS AGO AND IS STILL DELICIOUS (SERVES TWO POOR STUDENTS)
For the adobo:
A few glugs of canola oil, to fry the meat
2 boneless chicken breasts OR a pound or so of pork (Boston butt), cut in one-inch cubes
All of the cloves from one head of garlic, whole, peeled
An oilcan of Foster's lager
1/2 cup black peppercorns
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 good quality bay leaves, broken in half
Heat up the oil in a dutch oven or tall soup pot that is easy to clean (you'll understand why later). Add the meat cubes and brown lightly. Add the garlic cloves, peppercorns, and bay leaf. Cook on med-high heat for about two minutes to release the oils and aromas. Take care not to burn the garlic. Add half a can of beer, to cover the meat cubes, and raise the heat. Cook it until it starts to boil, then add the soy sauce. It will start to caramelize after it cooks down. Add beer as needed and continue to cook down. It should look like stew when you start and glazey when you finish. It usually takes me about 30-40 minutes.
For the dipping sauce (dip your meat cubes in this and chase with steamed spinach and rice):
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 tbsp. brown sugar
Chili pepper flakes, to taste (or a glug or Sriracha, stirred in to blend)
Jasmine rice, cooked on stove top or in rice cooker. Ratio: 1 cup rice to 2 cups water. No salt.
Steam fresh or frozen spinach, top the rice with a handful of steamed spinach. Serve meat on top of the bed of rice and spinach. Dip the meat in dipping sauce.
We wanted to have a potluck dinner at the house as an informal and belated housewarming. During these late winter months, it’s almost impossible to motivate myself to go out once it gets dark, let alone go do something exotic. I was laughing to myself about how diverse my group of friends are, and how I could bring them all together to hang out. They run the gamut from plumbers to fish wholesalers to teachers to tech executives, WA farmers, Persian wine experts, and Singaporean tech guys. We all love our food. We are serious about food and chilling out. Then I actually got my inspiration from their different backgrounds: let’s just do something totally different and diverse, instead of the usual casserole and dip. I decided to have an Indonesian “rijstaffel,” a spread of 10-40 different dishes, foods most of us have never even tried. Different people, different foods, in a house no one had been to yet.
When I lived in DC, I used to love to go to a little Indonesian restaurant for rijstaffel. It was like a private buffet of the most exotic flavors at our table! Everything from curries to coconut soups to fried bananas. It was simple food but to me, such a luxury! I also sought out rijstaffel while traveling in the Dutch West Indies. “Rijstaffel” is a Dutch word after all (means "rice table"), brought to the West from their days of colonial dominion in Sumatra. Wherever the Dutch are, there is a rijstaffel joint somewhere nearby! They used these spreads of “small plates” to show off the diversity and bounty of their outposts in what is now Indonesia.
Rijstaffels feature an array of dishes that revolve around, obviously, rice, as the foundation. The presentation includes not only flavors and colors and degrees of spiciness but also textures, something you don’t usually see emphasized on Western menus. Textures include crispy, chewy, slippery, soft, hard, velvety, gelatinous, and runny. There are also pickles and condiments (sambal, peanut sauce, soy-based dipping sauces). I asked our guests to bring one Indonesian or SE Asian-inspired dish that fit into the aforementioned flavor and texture themes, and to bring a beverage (they brought everything from Thai iced tea to bourbon). We had about 30 guests and at least as many dishes on our dining room table! I made some Malaysian hot wings on the grill, and some grilled mango marinated in brown sugar and cayenne). A day later, the house is still full of the intense and wonderful fragrance of garlic, turmeric, coriander, cumin and ginger! Kids were of course welcome, and were quite proud of the things they learned about and made with their parents. What more could you want?
I could want leftovers. And I learned that I must throw potlucks that feature food I will want to nosh on all week. This morning, I had a dilectible brunch of iced coffee, spicy noodles, sweet and hot stew of boiled eggs, cucumber salad, and fried rice. With a nice spritz of lime on top to cool down the chili heat. Suddenly, I don’t feel like it was the dead of winter anymore.
It was a hit and I’m just going to go ahead and throw a foodway-themed potluck every quarter! Something that brings my diverse and fun gang of friends together to do what we love: eat, drink, talk, and learn. Next up: Persian New Year (“Nowruz”), where we will welcome spring together and try a slew of fantastic new (to us) and symbolic dishes that have inspired our Persian cousins for centuries.
1 lb mangoes, diced into large 1 to 2 inch cubes
½ c dark brown sugar
Cayenne pepper powder, to taste
Heat grill to 375F. Put the mangoes on skewers (I recommend metal ones because the wooden ones tend to disintegrate into flame). Cook each side until lightly charred. Serve alone or diced on top of coconut ice cream (the latter is a great decision).
Anne’s Malaysian-style Hot Wings
A guy from Singapore told me these were the closest to the wings he had on the street back at home, so I can’t complain! I cobbled the recipe together from a few I read online, because I didn’t have all of the ingredients for each one. Then a beautiful food thing happened! I also imagine you could make a great vegetable, fish or tofu marinade out of this. Tell me if you do and let me know how it was!
3 lbs chicken small wings and legs (or grillable protein of choice). Can also use whole bird or breasts, etc.
5 cloves garlic, crushed
2 shallots, chopped
1 tsp ground coriander and 1 tsp coriander seed
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp ground turmeric
2 tbsp coconut oil or canola oil
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 inches chopped fresh ginger or 2 tsp powdered ginger
2-4 hot chilis (I used Sanaam and bird peppers) or 2 tbsp Thai chili paste
2 tsp sea salt
Put chicken in a nonreactive dish and set aside. Put all of the other ingredients in a blender and puree. Pour over the chicken and coat thoroughly. Marinate for a few hours in the fridge.
Heat your grill up to 375F. Place the chicken pieces directly on the grill or in a grill basket. Grill chicken until golden and cooked through, 15 mins or so on each side. (Target internal temp: 170F). These tend to flare up so keep moving the parts but do it carefully. I lost my arm hair cooking these!
Serve with lime wedges and jasmine rice. If you want a little extra heat, have some sambal or chili paste at the ready!
"Basically it was great country cooking. Grandmother (Ruth) learned to cook from her mother-in-law who was a great cook and had a little restaurant in Belhaven years ago called the Dew Drop Inn. They used a lot of what was available to them at the time. There was always good country sausage for breakfast. Links and loose patties, bacon, grits, fried fish were sometimes served for breakfast. Just plain scrambled eggs or fried eggs. Biscuits with jelly.
In season there were always many vegetables on the table at "dinner time" which was the noon meal back then. Later we had supper and that was usually leftovers from dinner. She would start usually before 9:00 a.m. making dinner. Ham or ham hocks were the stock that most green were cooked in which includes collard greens, kale, cabbage, and green beans (Kentucky Wonders) were the green bean of choice for every body down there, also black eyed peas. All cooked with ham, country ham, ham hocks, or salt pork of some kind. They were all cooked until very tender. Greens usually had potatoes added towards the end of the cooking time and white corn meal dumplings.
Fish were caught locally and someone usually brought her 'a mess of fish' to cook. They were rolled in a cornmeal base coating and then fried. Don't ever remember having other than fried. Rockfish was the favorite fish to eat. Delicious! In the fall somebody would always bring her a wild goose that they had shot. She would cook it in the most delicious way with an orange stuffed inside that gave it such a wonderful flavor and took some of the gamey taste out. Okra were always served in season. Some time sliced and sometime fried whole but always fried in the corn meal base coating. The figs were picked from her fig tree when ripe and put into a very large pot with sugar and lemon and simmered for hours on the stove. They smelled so very good."
Linda Lee Shavender Sluck, 2012
We know that distinctive, regional BBQ sauces are serious business in the South. Cultural and social fault lines are drawn, and people get mad and protective of their regional sauces. My brother-in-law is from South Carolina, and the very ﬁrst time he met me, he pinned me down about sauce and whether I was a devotee of that "weird" Eastern NC sauce! I rolled my eyes and asked him if they really do put mustard in the BBQ in his part of the world (next door). Of course they do (this tradition was started by the many German settlers in South Carolina). After we had an uncomfortable and humorous go-round, we ﬁnally achieved peace in the kitchen. Until the cole slaw issue came up. His disdain for this crucial condiment of 'cue (served ON the sandwich, but of course!) drew the line between our Carolinian loyalties!
Anne's ENC Minced Pork BBQ
While our focus is on the sauce, it's important to use the right kind of pork (yes, pork). One can use chicken, but it's just not the same. You want to use a Boston butt pork shoulder (6-7 lbs with fat) and slow-roast it. Coat the pork with salt and pepper, and cook until it's crusty and golden brown, with an internal temperature of 195 degrees. If you have the means, smoke it, and use hickory (water-soaked hickory chips are also handy if you're doing this on a grill). This could take several hours but it's totally worth it. Let the meat rest and cool down, then pull it off with a fork. After that, chop it into a mince.
2 cups white vinegar (you can certainly use cider vinegar but it does bring out an "apply" tinge)
2 tbsp brown sugar (can also add in some dark molasses to taste)
4 tsp coarse salt
4 tsp hot paprika
1 tbsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp ground black pepper
Put all of this in a mason jar and shake it up! No need to refrigerate. Pour it on the minced pork and mix well. Keep warm in a crock pot if you want it to steep or are serving the starving masses who can smell this a mile away. Serve as a chopped meat dish or on white buns with cole slaw.
If you learn one thing from this:
Don't take guff from anyone about your BBQ. Hold your ground! But quietly try to learn something about "their" BBQ and ask them about it before precious pork belly starts flying. You might actually get an interesting history lesson and I just bet they will bring you a Tupperware container full of it the next time they make it.
My family includes a talented and tender group of women who love to talk, eat, and share. To honor the spirit and incredible regional cooking of our great-grandmother Alma Ruth Wilkinson, I have been working on a book project of recipes and remembrances, so that we may all feel closer to Ruth's heart, and kitchen, in Belhaven, NC. My great-grandmother died when I was six, and she had dementia for most of my first years, so my memories of her are bittersweet and complex. Over the years, many older family members came to my aid, sharing letters, recipes, and photos that helped me piece together her life. Some family members got rings when she passed. Others got quilts or cedar chests. The recipes are really the only traces I have of her in my life, and have provided a really unique window to her daily life, the coastal fishing town she lived in, and how her cooking glued everyone around her together (of ever color and class) no matter how good or how awful times were. While recipes are not tangible heirlooms to some people, to me they are priceless family treasure and history lesson.
The title of my project, "Wilkinson Plates," was inspired by Ruth's collection of blue willow dishes, ubiquitous at my mother's table and every special gathering during our childhood. The story goes that the plate collection started small but grew after a turn-of-the century hurricane barraged the Outer Banks and its low country neighbors, flooding stately Victorians and farmhouses alike, and depositing their contents on the banks of the Pamlico Sound and Pungo River. Just as those waters pulled possessions and treasures from their homes, her children and grandchildren were pulled beyond the Tidewater and deposited across the region, country and world. Just a couple of generations later, we have Chinese American, Persian, Italian and Slovak foodways to add to a mix that started with Ruth and a white Victorian house on a swampy river.
Do you have old family recipe books or handwritten recipes stuffed into your parents' cookbooks? If you haven't perused them in a while, take another look. Are there ethnic recipes that reminded them of a faraway home or loved one? Did they make those foods on certain occasions? Or do they include regional foods that were only available in that area (before the Interstates brought shelf-stable foods across the country)? Do they mention long-gone brand names or ingredients people just don't use anymore? Were they cooking things grown in their own backyard? Take a closer look and see what old family recipes can teach you about YOU!