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By Sol Vanzi

A PLEASANT FAMILY MEAL Clockwise from left: Paella, Bagnet kare kare; Grace del Castillo Valerio; Chocolate caramel cake; and salmon head sinigang sa miso

Lush ferns surrounded the lanai, shading us from the noonday sun. The long table was set with large mismatched dinner plates. Food started to come in from the kitchen. We were to share the main courses, family-style. It turned out to be one of the most pleasant meals in a long time.

PICTURE PERFECT

Mateo’s is a restaurant in a postcard-pretty 50-year-old house on N. Domingo in New Manila, across the street from the old Magnolia plant. The day we went, it had been spruced up with old-fashioned red, green, and gold Christmas décor, the kind one sees in Norman Rockwell magazine covers.

The menu features familiar special occasion dishes, many of which require long hours of simmering and skimming: Morcon, callos, lengua, and kare kare. We also ordered salmon head sinigang sa miso, and paella, which had been recommended by a friend.

PINOY FOOD RULES

The sinigang’s broth was thick with miso and colored by the juices of fresh tomatoes sautéed in onions. Only mustard leaves and stalks—no okra, labanos, or eggplant. Yes, the old folks had strict sinigang rules.

The salmon head was very fresh, with nary a hint of freezer burn, which could give the skin and flesh a strong fishy smell (malansa) and taste. An order was enough for five of us. Every spoonful was bliss.

The genuine paellera pan was filled with saffron-flavored, reddish short grain Japanese rice buried under Spanish chorizo, chicken, prawns, fresh clams, and mussels. Very clearly, in violation of some ancient rule forbidding chorizo in a seafood paella. But like majority of Filipinos, I like chorizo in paella. I expect chorizo in paella.

KUSINERA AND PROPRIETOR

Mateo’s moving spirit is Grace del Castillo Valerio, an energetic foodie who was convinced by her daughter-in-law Margaux to enter the highly competitive restaurant business. Margaux never doubted that with Grace’s cooking, their venture would succeed. They named the restaurant after Mateo Poblete del Castillo, Grace’s great grandfather who spent his life organizing and empowering farmers.

The day we met, Grace’s day began before sunrise at Divisoria for fresh vegetables and fruits, followed by Farmer’s Market for seafood and Nepa-Q Mart for meats and poultry. A perfectionist, she notices everything from new flowers in the hedges to the size and shape of lighting fixtures.

NO PRESSURE COOKER

The kare kare of tripe and beef was excellent, with atsuete-colored gravy, thickened with ground roasted rice and peanuts. The generous serving, good for three to four, had homemade bagoong on the side.

Callos was a symphony of chickpeas, tender beef, and melt-in-the-mouth tripe cubes, with flavor reaching every fiber.

Lengua is so labor intensive that hardly anyone cooks it at home. The ox tongue needs to be parboiled, skinned, and then simmered until tender. The process could take many hours or overnight. Grace enriches lengua by adding mushrooms (shiitake, button, and oyster) and cream for deeper flavor nuances.

Morcon, another fiesta dish, is even more demanding. It calls for the butcher to open up and flatten a large cut of beef, season it, stuff it (with chorizo, cheese, hardboiled eggs, carrot sticks), roll, and tie it into a log. The rolled meat is browned on all sides and simmered in broth, herbs, and tomato sauce. After an hour or so, the morcon is left to cool for easier slicing. The meat slices are returned to the pot and cooked gently until the gravy thickens.

Dessert was a choice between olive oil and lemon cake or chocolate caramel cake. Both were not too sweet yet bursting with flavor. Black brewed coffee from the Cordilleras ended our perfect meal.

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