Right off the bat, let me say that this was incredibly fun. It’s been a long time since I’ve actually cooked something outside of my comfort zone. Most of my time in the kitchen is spent preparing food for my son, and he has a fairly narrow range of likes, although I still find it exciting and challenging to cook for them perfectly.
I tend to do what I call "consensus cooking," where I’ll read a few different versions of a recipe, and then piece together a composite. Granted, it’s usually about finding the best pancake recipe, or figuring out how to pat out the perfect burger. This experience challenged me to attempt dishes beyond my usual repertoire, and asked me to pay exact attention to the mechanics of these new-to-me recipes.
Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Journey in 150 Recipes by Todd Richards
From the minute I opened this book, flavors were wafting up out of the pages as I turned them. I don’t know if it was because of Todd's personal stories or the comforting-sounding recipes, but his writing made me slow down and really experience each one as I read them. And as I cooked, I felt myself working through the process, the ingredients, and the smells at each step of the prep. The feel, the colors, the textures all went into the creation of these recipes, and were incredibly apparent.
The chapters in Soul are organized by ingredient—starting with Collards and moving through Onions, Berries, Tomatoes, and so on—so you can pick a fave and cook many variations on a theme. I love onions, so I put a sticky on the Sausage-Stuffed Onions. Definitely going to be making that one, I thought. The Pork and Beef section also caught my eye. Candied Bacon with Turnip Hash? OK, you had me at “Candied Bacon.” I was going to be making that one, too. Finally, beans. I enjoy all bean dishes. So do my brothers. (We don't, however, have an all-bean dinner party when we get together.) And the Chicken Thighs and BBQ Beans recipe was so irresistible that I decided it would round out my Soul journey.
Todd has included short playlists to accompany his recipes, interspersed through the cookbook. I love to cook to music, and appreciated that he included songs that inspired, or set the mood, or reminded him of these dishes.
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it.
Back to the Chicken Thighs and BBQ Beans. The beans were a revelation! I thought the large amount of green bell pepper in the dish would add a slight bitterness, but when combined with the brown sugar, gave the beans a grassy sweetness that was fantastic. And that BBQ flavor! The Worcestershire, ketchup, and brown sugar, along with apple cider vinegar and mustard, was a winning combination. Simple and so tasty, the dish was even better the second day. (I think that most of the food from Soul would probably taste even better the second day, as the flavors really marry.)
The Candied Bacon with Turnip Hash surprised me. I happen to like turnips, and I still like to eat them the way my dad used to prepare them—sliced raw with salt on one side, sweet and crunchy. This recipe combines turnips with potato, onion, sour cream, and candied bacon. These flavors sounded like they might be too much, but when combined, all worked together so beautifully: not too heavy, though a touch starchy; and grounded by the bacon. This is a solid option for a side dish, and much more interesting than regular mashed or roasted potatoes.
The Sausage Stuffed Onions is an inspired idea, and the finished dish visually stunning. I used a sweet sausage, although the recipe had called for spicy—my mistake. A spicier sausage would have given it the punch it needed, as the onions, once cooked, were very mild in flavor. I could have just eaten the filling by itself—it was nutty and crunchy and so good. I’d like to try this dish again with the huge sweet onions from Walla Walla, Washington. That would be an awesome combination.
Admittedly, the recipes I chose from Soul were not overly complex. But I really loved the flavors, and the fact that I didn't need to spend a lot of time on the prep. And I keep thinking about those beans...
I Am a Filipino: And This Is How We Cook by Nicole Ponseca and Miguel Trinidad
This cookbook was an immersive, enjoyable journey into a world of flavors, colors, and so many ingredients that I’m not familiar with. There are a lot of influences in Filipino cooking: Chinese, Muslim, Spanish, Mexican. And the authors, Nicole Ponseca and Miguel Trinidad, take great care to explain how these influences impact their food, guiding us through key ingredients, different vinegar preparations, and distinct culinary techniques. There is so much to learn in this book that my head was almost spinning as I read through it!
I’d spent time filming in Thailand years ago, and the descriptions and photos in I Am a Filipino reminded me slightly of the street food culture there: Intense, unexpected flavors; lots of fish, and the various spices and sauces that make it sing. There are ingredients in this book that, while not difficult to find if you live in a major city, might be tricky to locate in a smaller community. That said, the book is also very helpful with substitutions, should you find yourself without, say, sugarcane vinegar in your pantry. (I used champagne vinegar in its place, and I thought it worked out pretty well.)
Like I said, there is so much to learn in this cookbook, you could spend a lot of time in it. And I did. But knowing my own limitations in the kitchen, I decided to keep my cooking approach fairly simple.
I wanted to make Siopao, a raised yeast bun with Adobong Manok at Baboy (chicken and pork adobo) as the filling. These are several separate recipes that I combined as one, although I also enjoyed the adobo chicken on its own. Nicole and Miguel go into great detail about adobo, calling it the national dish of the Philippines, and suggesting that its nuance makes it "not just a dish, but also a technique." There are tons of regional variations and special family recipes, some of which are known only to the family's resident chef and kept secret even from the other relatives!
Starting the night before, I put together the marinade of soy and vinegar, cloves, black peppercorns, fig jam, and bay leaves. Wow, this was powerful and pungent! I submerged my chicken parts and the cubed pork belly in the marinade, bid them a sweet goodnight, and told them to please play nice as they spent time together in my refrigerator.
The next morning, I started on the siopao dough. It was going to take a bit of time, as the dough needs to rise, get punched, and rise again. Years ago, while going through my acting training in Seattle, I would bake bread on weekends. It’s been a long time since I enjoyed the simple satisfaction of combining flour, water, and yeast, and as I worked the dough, I took a short trip down memory lane. While the yeasties were doing their thing, I went out to purchase a large bun steamer that I was going to need later that day.
Back from my steamer-purchasing expedition, I got busy with the adobo marinade. I put the marinated chicken and pork belly, along with the marinade, into a large pot, brought it all to a boil, reduced the heat, and let it simmer for about 30 minutes. The kitchen smelled marvelous! I pulled out the chicken and the pork belly from the simmering sauce, browned the little cubes of heavenly pork in a large skillet, and then added back the chicken, plus some of the marinade to the skillet, letting it cook down and reduce. I had a lot of marinade left over, so I let it simmer and reduce on its own. This was liquid gold.
By then, the dough was ready. So I separated it into balls, let the balls rise one more time, and rolled them out on squares of parchment, in preparation for the filling. Next, I shredded the chicken, combining it with a little bit of the minced pork belly and a touch of the reduced marinade. Then, I spooned this mixture onto the rolled-out dough…and got excited.
I pinched up the sweet little siopao pouches (managing to do it just like it was demonstrated in the book!), steamed them in batches for 20 minutes, and was rewarded with spectacular little buns of goodness. The adobo had all the flavor sensations described in the recipe: silky, fatty, sour, and a touch sweet from the fig jam in the marinade. The extra chicken that didn't get shredded was excellent next to the Buns of Deliciousness. This dish is definitely labor-intensive, but also such a rare treat that my guests kept coming back for more!
These are two cookbooks that pull you in deep—maybe a better word is "immerse." Both books' authors are incredibly proud of their culture and heritage. Both took me on a trip, describing regions and rationale, techniques and specialties. It felt like the authors were standing next to me in my kitchen, answering my questions and encouraging me along. I only scratched the surface, but for a few hours in the kitchen, I Was a Filipino, and also felt that I might have a little bit of Soul.
I am drawn to Soul for comfort and day-to-day meals, and to I Am a Filipino for my special-occasion efforts. Both cookbooks will be enjoyed, but in the end, I will choose Soul to advance. There are so many recipes that I want to explore in Todd’s book, starting with the Tomato Jam and the Pineapple-Glazed Spareribs. As I read through I Am a Filipino, I was amazed by some of the preparations and ingredients. But I was also, admittedly, a bit intimidated. I applaud cooks who are learning and embracing the flavors and processes of this beautiful Filipino food world, and I hope to one day feel confident enough to do the same. So the difficult choice ultimately came down to the dishes I connected with most—and those were the recipes from Todd Richards and his wonderful cookbook, Soul.