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

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