Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Please feel free to look around, then visit my new home at mariasdinnertable.wordpress.com.


Kicked-up chicken salads

Supermarket rotisserie chicken is one of my favourite money-savers—they cost about the same as a whole raw chicken—and they are a great midweek meal-saver as well. I cut off the appendages and add butter chicken sauce, or coconut milk and curry, or pasta sauce and olives (et voilà, chicken cacciatore).  We are not chicken chest people here at home, so that part is usually the last to go, but I’ve managed to find some ways to jazz up cold white meat so that even my family will eat it. Here are three:


This is my nephew Dominic’s favourite. Click on the link above for the recipe.


Add chunks of cooked chicken, goat cheese, walnuts, and sliced strawberries to a bed of fresh spinach. Drizzle with your favourite vinaigrette.


Mix chunks of cooked chicken, small whole grapes, and slivered almonds with mayonnaise. Add a dash of a dash of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Arrange on a bed of lettuce.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pacific Rim Magazine 2012

I had the great fortune to be involved in a number of exciting projects this year, a big one being the 2012 issue of Pacific Rim Magazine. My colleagues and I worked really hard on it and we are very pleased to be able to share it with the world!

Click on the image to read the online version. We hope you enjoy it!


Sunday, May 06, 2012

Cupcakes vs. Muffins

My friend and I were mulling over the difference between cupcakes and muffins, and the best I could up with was, “Cupcakes are cake, and muffins are—healthy?”

I’ve recently made both, and to further refine my definition, I guess cupcakes are generally more appropriate for special occasions, while muffins are for everyday. Kind of like a party dress vs. your favourite jeans and cotton tee-shirt.

Speaking of connecting food with fashion, check out these fashion mash-ups by blogger Diana Moss. They are both whimsical and delicious.

And finally, a few shots of some of the fruits of my labour these past couple of weeks.

Birthday Cupcakes for my friend Mimi. I was inspired by the spring bloom all around to go with a pink-and-white theme. I used this basic cupcake recipe and added mashed strawberries to the batter. Then I topped them with cream cheese frosting and strawberry halves. To make them into a “birthday cake” I arranged them on a two-tier fruit stand. Note: I didn’t bake the cupcakes in the liners; I just used the liners as an added frill for the cooled, decorated cupcakes.

Individual serving of the Birthday Cupcake.

Muffins may not be as fancy as cupcakes, but they are good anywhere, anytime. For these banana-chocolate chip muffins, I used a recipe from Amy Rosen, but I used walnuts instead of peanuts. It also works well with a mix of whole wheat and white flour, and brown sugar.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

This is a knife-and-fork sandwich

When life gets complicated, I think we all have the tendency to go back to the foods of our childhood: simple, easy, indulgent—in a word, comforting. We all have a favourite dish that takes us back, at least for a few minutes, to a more carefree time.

As a kid, I subsisted for one entire summer on ham and cheese sandwiches. I also loved french toast. Still do. So this is my idea of the ultimate sandwich: sweet ham and cheddar cheese, melting together between two slabs of hot, buttered, golden french toast. To me, it’s the culinary equivalent of a warm, friendly hug. And who can’t use a hug every now and then?

Serves two

4 pieces french toast (you can buy them frozen, or make your own)
2 slices cooked ham
2 slices cheddar, mozzarella, or your choice of melty cheese
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons butter

Preheat your toaster oven to 350.

To assemble one sandwich, spread the inside of one piece of french toast with 1 tablespoon of mustard and the other piece with 1 tablespoon mayo. Add a slice of ham and a slice of cheese and put the two sandwich halves together. Spread each side with half a tablespoon of butter.

Heat a cast-iron pan and fry the sandwich for about 30 seconds on each side, just to melt the butter and get both sides evenly golden-brown.

Transfer to the heated toaster oven and bake for about 10 minutes, or until the cheese has melted.

Serve with a knife and fork.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cheers for chopped cabbage

Making guys eat their veggies calls for pretty much the same tactics you’d employ with children. You need to serve up the dreaded légumes in creative ways, such as slicing them up really small, smothering them with a favourite dressing or melted cheese, or even puréeing them up before slipping them into soups and pasta sauce.

Thank goodness for pre-chopped, pre-washed cabbage mix. Homemade coleslaw is a snap to make with it, and you can also add it to cooked dishes. Here are a couple of things I did with it today.

Serves 4 as a side dish

2 cups chopped cabbage mix
1 small, crisp, sweet apple such as Pink Lady or Gala
~ sliced into matchsticks and tossed with the juice of 1/2 lemon

1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tbsp apple cider or sherry vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp sesame oil

Toss everything together in a medium bowl and refrigerate for a few hours before serving.

Serves 4 as a main dish

1 400-g package sweet potato noodles (dangmyun)
1 tsp vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, minced
1 12-oz beef steak, cut into long thin pieces (you can also use pork or chicken)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
1/2 cup water
2 tbsp sesame oil
2 cups mushrooms, sliced
2 cups chopped cabbage mix
sliced green onions and sesame seeds, for garnish

Prepare the noodles according to package directions.

In a large skillet or wok, heat the vegetable oil and sauté the garlic and onions until soft and fragrant.

Add the sliced beef and mushrooms and stir.

Mix the soy sauce, hoisin sauce, water, sesame oil, and water and pour into the pan.

When the beef and mushrooms are cooked and the sauce has thickened slightly, add the chopped cabbage and prepared noodles. Stir everything together and let the noodles heat through.

Garnish each serving with sliced green onions, sesame seeds, and an extra drizzle of sesame oil.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Fine Dining and a father’s love

This beautiful short by a young, up-and-coming film maker made my day. I’ll let it speak for itself.


Sunday, April 08, 2012

Till we eat again

Filipinos love to laugh so much, we have to put a time limit on sadness. Forty days after a loved one’s death, we observe the babang luksa, the end of mourning. Widows who chose to wear black can wear light colours again, and families gather to honour the dear departed with prayer, shared memories—and, of course, food.

Since my dad died at the beginning of Lent this year, his babang luksa coincided with Good Friday. So my brothers and I decided to wait until Easter Sunday. Now, we have two resurrections to celebrate.

Because it’s Easter, we’re having lamb, and to accompany it, I’m opening a bottle of the Shiraz from Domaine de Chaberton that my dad and I discovered and enjoyed together, years ago. 

And for dessert, I’m making Hot Fudge Pudding Cakes. Luxuriously gooey, chocolatey and rich, this is something I reserve for the very best of celebrations. Also, the cookbook insists that this cake be served warm, with vanilla or coffee ice cream—my dad’s favourite kind of dessert.

So here’s to you, Pops—till we eat again!

Hot Fudge Pudding Cakes 

Adapted from The New Best Recipe

Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-inch square glass or ceramic baking dish.

For individual pudding cakes, lightly butter eight 6-8 oz. ramekins and set them on a baking sheet.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

I find individual ramekins easier to serve.

In a liquid measuring cup, mix:                 

2 tsp instant coffee in 1½ cups water
(or 1 cup of cold coffee mixed with ½ cup water)

In a small bowl, stir together:     

1/3 cup Dutch-processed cacao
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
Break up any large clumps with your fingers.
Set aside.

The difference between Dutch-processed cacao (left) and “premium” cacao. The New Best Recipe recommends Dutch-processed for best results

In a baine-marie, melt:                   
6 tbsp (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup Dutch-processed cacao
2 oz. bittersweet/semisweet chocolate, chopped
Whisk until smooth and set aside to cool slightly.

In a small bowl, whisk together:

¾ cup ubleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together:                       

2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup whole milk
¼ tsp. salt

Whisk in:           
1 large egg yolk

Add the melted chocolate mixture and whisk to combine.

Add the flour mixture and whisk until the batter is evenly moistened.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish/ramekins and level the surface with the back of a spoon.  If using ramekins, use about 1/4 cup of batter per ramekin.

Sprinkle the cacao mixture over the batter. It should cover the entire surface of the batter; if using ramekins, use 2 tbsp. of the cacao mixture for each ramekin.

Pour the coffee mixture gently over the cacao mixture. If using ramekins, pour 3 tbsp. of coffee over the cacao mixture in each ramekin.

Bake until puffed and bubbling. The whole cake takes 45 minutes; the ramekins take 20 minutes.

Do not overbake.

Cool the cake for 25 minutes. Cool the ramekins for 15.


The cakes will collapse slightly as they cool. Relax. These are not soufflés.

The bottom part should turn into moist, velvety crumb, and the stuff on top should melt into a thick, slick sludge. It's also normal for the edges to be a bit hard and crusty. If you get all three of these textures, then you'll know it's a success.

Serve with vanilla or coffee ice cream.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Do-it-yourself fried rice

As a full-time student, I haven’t had the time, energy, or finances to experiment with interesting and exotic dishes that I could turn into eye candy for this blog. As much as I hate to admit it, for the past few months, ready-made tortellini, pour-and-serve pasta sauce, frozen pizzas, and Chinese and Filipino take-out have been my best friends.

I still make the effort, though, to make simple dishes from scratch whenever I can. Maybe because I bought a new rice cooker a few weeks ago, we’ve been consuming a lot of rice-friendly dishes lately. I always cook more steamed white rice than we can finish, so the next day I can turn it into fried rice, which is fast and easy and makes a good packed lunch.

I’ve learned to keep certain condiments handy: sesame oil, sesame seeds (I prefer the black ones—they look so much more dramatic), green onions, frozen green peas, garlic cloves in soy sauce, lop cheung (Chinese sausage), and salmon belly strips (available from my local Filipino grocery store for a few dollars a bag). All of these make tasty additions to fried rice.

I’ve also learned anew that good food doesn’t have to be fussy, elaborate, or expensive. Even on a tight budget, with the simplest of ingredients, you can still eat well. 

I learned this technique of curing garlic cloves in soy sauce from my former roomie.
Peel a few heads’ worth of garlic cloves and place them in a clean jar. Pour in enough soy sauce to cover, fix on the jar lid, and store in the fridge. The cloves are ready to use after 4 weeks; they turn crisp and nutty, while the soy sauce becomes deliciously garlicky. Add a minced clove or two, along with a few spoonfuls of soy sauce, to your fried or steamed rice.

Fried Rice with Salmon Belly
Serves two

2 cups cold cooked jasmine rice
4 salmon belly strips
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
2 eggs
2 cloves garlic (fresh or cured in soy sauce), minced
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 sprigs green onions, cut into thirds and julienned
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil

Sprinkle the salmon bellies with coarse sea salt, spreading it around with your finger and let stand for about half an hour. Fry the strips in a cast-iron skillet or roast them in the toaster oven for 15–20 minutes.

While the salmon is cooking, heat half the vegetable oil in a non-stick skillet or wok. Break the eggs into a small bowl and beat lightly with a fork. When the oil is hot, pour in the eggs and cook, turning repeatedly, until just set. Remove the eggs from the pan and place in the same bowl you scrambled them in. Set aside.

Add the remaining vegetable oil to the pan and sauté the minced garlic and ginger until fragrant and lightly golden. Add the rice (sprinkle with a little water if it’s clumped together) and stir to distribute the garlic and ginger.

When the rice is heated through, add the scrambled eggs and sesame seeds and drizzle on the sesame oil. Make sure everything is mixed together well.

Serve the rice with the salmon bellies on top, garnished with the green onions.


Thursday, March 08, 2012

Stronger than death

I buried my father a week ago.

In the days since, I've been helping my mother and my siblings sort out his affairs and belongings, receive countless telephone calls and emails, and write dozens of thank you notes.

At times, it's as if a bright, shining light has gone out of our lives.

But there are other moments when I feel as if I'm finding parts of my father that I never knew existed. For instance, an old friend of his wrote us the following email:

I was Vic's classmate since first grade all through high school, and was deeply shaken to hear of his passing.

The last time I saw him was in the late 80's. I had resettled in Iloilo and it was tough starting a family and adapting to the new surroundings. Vic had arrived on the same flight as my visiting Dad and shouted out a childhood jeer at the airport's baggage claim area. We had dinner together that night after he took care of business commitments, and I will always remember that night because Vic's infectious confidence and spirit helped refresh my commitment to make a go of my new life in the province.

It's been several decades since that night, and I now live a comfortable, happy life in Iloilo. My resolve would have been shaken a few more times had I not met your Dad back then, and for that I will always be grateful. My deepest sympathies and prayers go out to your family, and I look forward to meeting Vic again.

If I could ask my dad now about that meeting, his face would probably light up with a grin, and I can just hear the affection in his voice, because that's the way he talked about all his old school buddies. He truly thought of them as his own brothers. But I don't think he would ever mention how much his good cheer helped his friend make a success of his new life. I don't think he would even have suspected how much of a difference he had made.

But I'm happy to think that now, he knows how much everyone who knew him really loved him, from us his family, to his friends, to the pharmacists who served him and the doctors and nurses who looked after him, to the clients he continued to assist and advise, even after he officially retired.

My mom and my sister and I chose a headstone for his grave today. Just a simple block of dark granite, etched with a Latin phrase he liked to repeat to us, especially when we were freaking out about one thing or other. Omnia in bonum. Everything for the good.

And I wondered how a man who started life in a tropical country across the ocean could come to end his days in a cold northern city, and be laid to rest on a windy hilltop surrounded by winter trees. Nothing to show for a life but a block of stone on a piece of earth. It all seemed rather bleak, until I thought of a phrase I had just come across in a book I was reading.

"...the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art."*

A beautiful life. This is my dad's legacy, and the best one I could ever have hoped for.

*W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil


Friday, February 24, 2012

Spring clean

Thanks to a few unexpectedly free afternoons this week, I was able to get my spring cleaning done.

I dusted and vacuumed, washed sheets and aired rooms, re-arranged and re-organized. I found things I thought had gone missing forever, and re-discovered things that I’d forgotten I had.

I found an old letter from a friend, confiding how bored and frustrated he was with life in Manila while he waited for his application to a prestigious American university to come through. Today, he’s got his dream job in New York. Which goes to show you that things have a way of working out if you just work hard and wait out the tough times.

I unearthed some stories from my creative writing phase, and decided that if all else fails, I could try becoming a scriptwriter for Filipino telenovellas.

I found a pretty key-chain I’d brought home from a trip and never used. I’m using it now. I found stamps, which meant I didn’t have to run to the post office to mail birthday cards for my nephew and my dad.

Last but not least, I found an old, blank greeting card. I don’t remember if I bought it for someone in particular, or if I bought it simply for the inspirational quote on the cover. I don’t even remember when I bought it. But finding it was like one of those reminders that nothing happens by accident, because the words on it were just what I needed to refresh my perspective. 

The quote is from Emerson, and I typeset it onto a fresh background. Here it is:


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Travel close to home

Some time ago I quoted writer Adam Hochschild, who said that you don’t have to go very far to enter into worlds other than your own.

In this spirit, I took some time this spring break to pretend I was a tourist in my own town. I walked into Chinatown to photograph a building that caught my eye on a previous walk, and discovered that it’s part of the new Woodwards complex.

Not everything down there is new and sleek and modern—there are lots of old brick walls and dingy alleys left that are strangely beautiful in their own way.

Farther along Cambie Street there is a new cooking store/school called The Dirty Apron. This will be the destination for a future trip, as I had just enough time to check out their window display posters. I liked the vintage look of the distressed display type on the textured, sooty paper.

A great way to spend the afternoon, and I didn’t spend a cent!


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Silence, the Miracle Minute, and the Tree of Life

A wonderful lady reminded me this weekend of the difference between being busy and having a full life. Many times “busy” is just a code word for aimless activism that’s just as bad as idleness. 

When things get “busy” there’s a little cure called the Miracle Minute, which simply means taking sixty seconds to take a deep breath and let silence settle your soul.

There’s an old-fashioned saying that silence is golden. As with many other old-fashioned things, the importance of silence seems to be feared and despised these days. What are we so afraid of hearing, I wonder, that we try so hard to drown it out with all kinds of noise.

I’m looking to start a movie club, so last night I watched The Tree of Life with some friends. I think it’s a brilliant film, combining the very best of all art forms: cinematography, music, drama, poetry. The story line, simple yet profound, unfolds between ballet-like sequences portaying the creation of the world, the “eternal music of the spheres.” It was meditative and lovely, like being in the innermost recesses of someone’s mind, watching them dream, hearing them pray. 

It’s the first movie I’ve seen that didn’t try to fill every moment with dialogue or sound effects, which just made me appreciate the value of silence all the more.

From now on, instead of saying “Life is (super crazy) busy,” I will try to say “Life is full”... and, with the help of many Miracle Minutes, really make it that way.


Sunday, February 05, 2012

Does good really win?

I’ve encountered this question a few times this week. Does the good really win?

Looking around at the world today, it might seem naive or just plain foolish to believe that the good ever wins. Evil does seem to prosper, and often it’s truly because good men do nothing.

But wait a minute. Haven’t you noticed that evil very often flaunts itself? “Look at me, notice me,” it seems to say—perhaps to trick us into thinking that it’s more prosperous than it actually is.

In contrast, an essentially good action or person is often quiet, discreet, modest, and humble.

Which is perhaps why it’s so easy to forget that good exists, and why, when good wins—as it very often does—we so easily miss it.

I was just reminded of this principle today when I watched this documentary on Irena Sendler, a Polish nurse who, with the help of friends, rescued thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.

She was a women of tremendous courage but also of amazing humility.

“I have many faults,” Irena says at one point during the film, “but one thing I can say about myself is that I’m very organized.”

The atrocities of the Holocaust were staggering and unspeakable. But all the children Irena rescued survived the war, and many of them are still alive today to tell the tale. Irena herself was imprisoned but miraculously saved from execution and set free to live a long life and marry the man she loved. She died peacefully in bed at the age of 98.

Near the end of the film, William Donat, one of the rescued children, is shown returning to Poland to find Magda Rusinek, one of Irena’s friends who smuggled him out of the ghetto. Reunited, they embrace. They are in tears. But, “It’s all right,” says Magda. “It’s going to be alright.”

“Everything is alright,” says William.

So does good win? I believe it does—every time.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Richmond ramen quest

I have my erstwhile roomie Mimi to thank for this post. We made plans to hang out and have dinner together this rainy Sunday, and she was bound and determined to have some really good ramen. So she did some research and discovered a place in Richmond called G-Men Ramen that’s supposed to be one of the best in the west. It took some driving around — they’ve moved from their original location; luckily they left a sign with the address of their new location stuck on the door!

When we finally found the place (at 1160-8391 Alexandra Road, in front of Lansdowne Mall), we were shown to a table right away, and we were so pleased with ourselves we gave each other high-fives, much to the amusement of our waitress.

Mimi ordered a bowl of tonkotsu miso ramen and I had the tonkotsu eo soba (pictured below), a “soupless” ramen dish with tender slices of pork, sprouts, shredded seaweed, an egg poached in soy sauce, and just enough broth to moisten the noodles and collect in a shallow, rich pool at the bottom of the bowl. Both were delicious and we drained our bowls to the last drop.

The folks at G-Men are very serious about their ramen. The broth is simmered for nine hours for maximum flavour, and each table is provided with a full battery of condiments and detailed instructions for properly consuming ramen.

We also give G-Men top marks for fast and friendly service, reasonable prices, an attractive ambience, and clean washrooms (in the ladies’, there was even a little tray of q-tips, mouthwash, and floss wands - very thoughtful!)

So our ramen quest was a success and we’ll definitely be going back to G-Men again. 


Friday, January 20, 2012

Grocery-shopping, menu-planning firemen

With my classes running every afternoon and evening, Monday to Friday, I’ve discovered the joys of grocery shopping on weekday mornings. There’s no better time to get it done. Produce piled high for the picking, supermarket staff fresh and cheerful, and near-empty aisles — nobody there but me, the seniors...and the firemen.

My favourite grocery store is kitty corner to the neighbourhood fire station, so by now it’s no surprise to find a fleet of firemen there, in full uniform, with crackling radios on their belts and market baskets in hand, doing this most homely and mundane of chores. One time they received a call in the middle of their shopping and had to drop everything and run. I looked at the deli counter lady and we smiled at each other.

“I love firemen,” I said.

I really do love firemen - from the time I was a kid. Just ask my mother. I loved watching any TV show or movie that featured firemen. I still do. Third Watch, Backdraft, Ladder 49 —I've seen ’em all. A few years ago, the World Fire and Police Games were held in Vancouver: it was heaven! The city never felt safer.

Don’t get me wrong — I never wanted to date or marry a fireman and I don’t ogle firemen calendars. I just like the whole idea of firemen, and the knowledge that if you are ever in any kind of trouble, you can call them and they will come and help you. I guess that to me, they are the real-life, every day embodiment of my childhood hero, Superman.

Today there were three of them in the produce section, wondering aloud what to buy “for the salad this weekend.” I hope they were able to get everything they needed without getting a call.

Thank you, guys, for everything you do!

Brisbane Library Firemen’s Storytime is on the third Monday of the month. The children love to hear the Firemen read stories, talk about fighting fires and exploring the firetruck after storytime. Downloaded from Flickr Creative Commons.


Saturday, January 07, 2012

Words of wisdom from Marguerite

Marguerite is a very dear, very great lady I know who lives in Montreal. She’s been an inspiration to me ever since I met her eight years ago. Over ninety now, she has had a long and distinguished career in social work, and an even longer career in serving others outside her profession.

My friend Sonia took a visitor to see Marguerite recently: a young girl who Sonia says wants to change the world. Marguerite had this advice for her.

“If you want to change the world, you need to change one thing at a time, and do the little things very well, with a lot of love.”

 Marguerite also said that complaining wastes what little energy we have. “So, a long time ago, I decided to stop complaining.”

Two excellent ideas, I think, to carry with us into the new year.

Happy 2012, everybody.

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