Thursday, February 12, 2009

Blood, Hearts And Flowers

WALKING BY THE FRONT YARD of a former neighbor in Elmhurst a couple of years ago, I came across a flowering vine that struck me as a near clone of the Philippine coral vine, known back home as the romantic cadena de amor (chain of love), a plant that used to thrive on the drab concrete fence of my childhood home on the island of Mindoro. After making sure that no one was looking, I picked some mature pods from the vine straying on the sidewalk and soaked the seeds in water when I got home, thinking my wife would love a potted plant of this specimen beside her sampaguita on the kitchen counter. However, autumn came and went and the seeds never sprouted. (Maybe I soaked them too long or the seeds were not fertile, but I certainly do have a green thumb.) So, instead of going back to the street and being caught vandalizing a garden, I spent time the following weeks browsing pictures in a spring plant catalog, swearing that no matter what, I was going to find out what that vine was. And last year, I did. Its scientific name is Lathyrus latifolius (common name perennial sweet pea), a favorite specimen in English gardens that is believed to have been introduced to the United States during the colonial period. It also comes in shades of red, white, purple and blue. Impatient with seeds, I ordered a couple of potted seedlings online from Gurney's and they arrived via UPS wonderfully packed, just in time for last year's fall planting. (The best time to plant in temperate zones is late fall or early spring.) I planted them in a spot by our doorsteps to give their tendrils the iron rails to grab on when they grow. Lathyrus can also be quite prolific and invasive if unchecked, and the seeds inside the fruit pods are slightly poisonous, so everybody had to be warned. However, the best thing about it is that it doesn't have to be taken indoors and placed next to the thermostat in the winter, as it is a frost-hardy perennial plant that comes back year after year. I can't wait for spring to see this near twin of cadena de amor (I call it cadena de America) come to life and bloom in the summer.

One way to beat the cold this winter season is to eat a lot of spicy food, and speaking of spicy Filipino food, what else can be hotter than our Mindoreno version of kare kare, which is totally different from the popular oxtail-and-peanut sauce stew known to the rest of the country. Ours is actually a variation of pork blood stew (dinuguan), but the meat and internal organs are finely chopped (like bopiz), and it uses banana hearts and tons of red hot peppers, chopped as fine as the cabbage in coleslaw, and coconut milk. Also, the finished product is dry and oily and not soupy like dinuguan. In my childhood, the sound of a cleaver knife rapping on the butcher's block as my mother chopped away the meat, banana hearts and chili peppers into minute pieces was a happy noise that gave our house a festive atmosphere. But because of all the chopping the kare kare required, we usually bought ours instead from an old lady who came by a coconut wine cantina down our street every dusk, balancing an aluminum pot on a turban around her head to sell her spicy viand to local tipplers as pulutan (hors d'oeuvre or pupu).

In New York City, fresh banana hearts can be quite rare and expensive (canned ones are just too soggy), and we get ours from New York Supermarket in Elmhurst which has a great Oriental produce section, with tropical fruits and vegetables that I believe have been imported from Thailand or Mexico. (This is also where we get green papayas for our tinola, and mangoes.) Banana hearts are like artichokes; you must peel away and discard about 2/3 of the product you paid for as weight before you can get to the edible part. So, for this dish, you may spend around $10 on banana hearts alone because you will need at least three of them, considering the portion that will be thrown away. In the supermarket, you can also buy pork blood in a sealed plastic cup, chitterlings and other internal organs for the dish, but the Chinese butchers will give you a funny look if you ask them to grind the innards for you (they only do the flesh), so be prepared to do the job yourself. Unless you have your own meat grinder or food processor, you certainly don't want to do this manually with a cleaver knife and chopping board, especially if someone in your house is nursing a hangover or if your apartment is not sound-proofed for fussy neighbors.

To make kare kare Mindoro style: In a deep pan or pot, saute garlic until brown and onion until wilted in hot oil. Add the ground meat and internal organs, season with salt and pepper, and cover until it boils. Meanwhile, mash with your hands the finely chopped banana hearts with some salt in a colander, and squeeze the sap out. (Not doing so will give the kare kare a mapakla aftertaste from the juice of the tiny immature fruits.) Add the resulting banana heart pulp and a can of coconut milk to the pot and bring to a boil without the lid on. Then cover and simmer until everything is tender. (You may have to add water before you achieve this, because there is a lot of cellulose in the pulp.) Add the pork blood mixed with vinegar, stirring nonstop to prevent the blood from coagulating until the mixture boils again. Add the chopped hot peppers last (the amount depends on your tastebuds' stamina, but I like to put about one fourth of a cup) and reseason. Simmer until all the water evaporates and the deep brown dish glistens from the oil rendered by the meat and coconut milk, exuding a slightly acidic, coconutty aroma. Serve with freshly steamed rice or as an appetizer or pulutan, but always have a glass of water handy. A spoonful of it is guaranteed to wake up the most drunken toper. Cheers!

I wish to thank Big Berto for the image closest to that of Mindoro kare kare that I found in his blog and borrowed. Happy Valentine to all, especially to my better half and Sara.

New York Supermarket, 82-66 Broadway, Elmhurst, Queens, New York 11373, phone (718) 803-1233

1 comment:

  1. I was just talking with Alenia yesterday how we need to put together our Mindoro recipes for our food history. We were remembering the kare-kare, panganan, bibingka,etc...I read your blog and there it is the kare-kare puso ng saging. When are you cooking it? maybe I could eat there when you make it...hahaha.

    Regarding restaurants you can review, just walk around in Manhattan and see if it looks interesting. Have you been in Chelsea Market, 9th Ave. off 15th St. in Manhattan. Every foodie should visit it. That is where the Food Channel studio and Emeril studio are.

    Belated Happy Valentine's day. Regards to all.