Monday, March 28, 2011

An impromptu home-cooked dinner tonight

Tonight, far from home, I decided to cook dinner for some friends. We were supposed to go out but a conversation I had about cooking with someone in Manila earlier prompted me offer to cook dinner for my friends instead. This friend in Manila had been teasing me about how I'd recently served him a dinner which -- according to him -- was heavy on the wow factor but very short on actual cooking. "You get an A for effort and presentation, though," he said. I suspect he just wants to be invited over for dinner again.

Actually, I'd specifically planned it this way so that I spent less time in the kitchen and more time conversing with him without rushing in and out of the kitchen and without having a burning pan or an overcooked piece of meat at the back of my mind. It had been delicious. And, if I remember right, he'd eaten everything I'd put on his plate. But now his memory seemed to have become very selective, and he'd challenged my actual cooking skills.

I'd just finished looking at our magazine layouts via email tonight and was in the mood to get down and dirty in the kitchen, so I decided to put my skills to a test right then and there.


It was a little too late to go shopping so I just opened the fridge to see what we had to work with. We had very good De Cecco spaghettini, 2 packages of beautiful Italian tomatoes, a rack of herbs and some olive oil infused with basil, half a package of Parma ham, and a bottle of very good tuyo from Manila. Yes, tuyo in olive oil with capers from Manila, which I'd brought with me from the Philippines and which I'd intended for a breakfast of fried rice, tuyo and eggs tomorrow morning before heading for the airport for our ride back to the Philippines.

Well, we could always stop by a coffee shop on the way to the airport, I reasoned. Or we could eat breakfast in the airline lounge.

So without hesitation I opened my bottle of tuyo and proceeded to whip up dinner in under ten minutes. I chopped and sauteed the tomatoes in olive oil, added the herbs and some garlic, and threw in the Parma ham. Then I shredded the tuyo with a fork and put 3/4 of the bottle's contents in. When it was all nice and hot, I added the slightly undercooked noodles and whipped them all together in the heat just to the point that the noodles became al dente.

"This isn't your usual seafood pasta," said one of my friends, as I brought the large pan of pasta to the table.

"Surprise," I said. It was truly a surprise because even I wasn't sure exactly how it would taste -- but I had a feeling it would turn out good.

Well, my friends loved it. And at the end of the evening, there wasn't a noodle left in the pot. In fact it was so good that even I forgot to take out my Blackberry for a photo of my pasta -- for this blog and for my doubting friend in Manila.


"This doesn't have a recipe?" They asked me.

I shook my head. I'd never used a recipe book in my life, preferring to cook based on seasonal materials or on the ingredients at hand, and basically to just wing it. To cook based on intuition. When I have dinner parties which I actually plan to cook myself, I usually just walk around the market or supermarket on the day of the dinner and make up a menu and a working plan from there depending on what's available. Like two weekends ago, I'd decided to make a ceasar's salad to start, and at Mercato Centrale (another favorite food haunt in Manila, by the way) I'd chanced upon very crispy bagnet which tasted delicious. If I re-toasted this the right way, I thought there and then, this would make a very interesting substitute for bacon. And indeed, it worked very well.

My favorite places for shopping are Legazpi Village Market on Sundays in Manila, and abroad the weekend food markets of Paris and Whole Foods in Kensington, London. Someone just told me that Whole Foods in London isn't doing well. I hope not, as it made cooking in London seriously fun. Visiting Whole Foods in London always put me in the mood to cook; I once hosted a dinner party at an apartment I was staying at in St. James for about 30 people, and almost everything had come from Whole Foods.


"You really just cook based on feeling?" My other friend asked. He couldn't believe that pasta this good had come from the top of my head in a few minutes. I can't say I wasn't pleased with that comment and I answered: "It's all a matter of inspiration and just thinking about what will work with what. I can't follow a recipe to save my life."

And so far, it's worked rather well. I've hosted dinner parties in Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Umbria, Tuscany and Hong Kong, and invited a fair number of people who know their food. A couple of times, I've even had the audacity to invite a Michelin-starred chef, the head of a prestigious gourmet society and the entire senior management team of Tokyo's best hotel to my homes in Japan for dinner.

Someone else once asked me how it felt to be cooking for a famous Michelin chef, and whether this gave me nightmares in the run-up. Of course I was probably anxious, although I don't remember being so now. I'd served him soup, salad, an excellent fillet of Dover sole, and just about the best steak I could find, served with my standard wasabi and soy sauce. (Yes, I serve Japanese beef with wasabi and soy sauce -- and I love it.) But I remember answering my friend: "I just keep the food simple but I buy really good ingredients. The good quality is already half the work done. Then I just make sure there's lots of wine and lots of laughter."

Catch our Feb-March India special issue in the bookstore today.
It'll soon be off the stands to give way to our summer special
with Angel Aquino on the cover.

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