Tuesday, January 22, 2008

sunday supper: kare-kare

Ah, food. It's so nice to be able to eat it. Last week I was taken down by a neverending stomach flu that robbed from me the most comforting of comforts - eating. Three days of laying around at home and I couldn't eat a damn thing. Once I did start to be able to eat, for some reason I only craved junk food. First food back: Kraft Mac N Cheese. I must have been sick, because I never eat that otherwise.

Anyway, I'm finally returning to the land of the living, and because I'm an idiot I decided that my first real meal should be rich and beefy. The words 'rich' and 'beefy' specifically brings one cuisine to mind: Filipino food. My mom hardly ever made Filipino food when we were young, perhaps the occasional pot of benignet or halo-halo (aka loco-loco), probably because my dad was the cook in the family. Or more likely because most Filipino food is pretty bad for you. The kare-kare that I made on Sunday is no exception, but it is warming and comforting, and pretty easy to make.

Kare-kare is an oxtail stew with a peanut butter sauce. I think it is one of those dishes that might vary a bit from region to region, some recipes calling for tripe in addition to oxtail, some requiring banana heart or cabbage. (I skipped the tripe. I have nothing against tripe - I've eaten my fair share - but I've never cooked it and I don't have much desire to. It's unappetizing enough when cooked, I don't want to deal with it raw.) It seems like the primary ingredients regardless of region are oxtail, eggplant, string beans, achuete, and a peanut butter based sauce. Achuete, more commonly known as "annatto", is some kind of seed from a tropical plant often used as a red dye. I've never used annatto in its whole form before, I've only used it when part of a spice mix, like Goya Sazon. I think its primary function is for coloring, but it has a subtle odor and I do think it imparts a subtle peppery flavor. There was a difference between my kare-kare and my mom's, and she definitely doesn't bother with the achuete.

You can simply soak the achuete in water, then discard the seeds and use the water as part of the stew stock, but I chose to make achuete oil. I simply sauteed the seeds in oil for a couple of minutes. The oil begins to color immediately, and it only took a couple of minutes to get a deep red. This was a slightly problematic method only because I let the oil get a little too hot and there was a big of splattering. This turns everything it touches orange. Including my arm and the stove and the floor. Just keep the heat low.

I sauteed the onions and garlic in the achuete oil and added that to the stew.

The one element I am disappointed didn't work out for me is the toasted ground rice. It is used to thicken the stew, and while I don't think it's an absolute necessity, I was curious to try it. I tried to grind some raw rice with the Cuisinart, but it totally didn't work. I think this would require a spice grinder or coffee grinder, but my coffee grinder is too coffeed-out to use on anything else. I really need to invest in a second grinder reserved for non-coffee items. I ended up using some cornstarch to thicken it, but I think the peanut butter did plenty of thickening on its own. I also did not have any bagoong alamang, which is a fermented shrimp paste. This is really to personal taste, but I don't think I would have wanted it anyway, I'm not huge on fermented fish, and bagoong alamang is strong, salty, and very high in cholesterol. If you're into that stuff, it does help to cut the richness of the peanut butter sauce.

My final lesson in this experiment was the revelation that natural ingredients are not necessarily the best. I used a natural peanut butter that had no added sugar. Bad idea, I just had to add sugar to get the right flavor. This is just a dish that needs the sweetness, any old supermarket peanut butter works best. I also used way too much peanut butter, mistakenly believing that more of it would bring out more flavor. Instead it made it way too rich and overpowered other elements. In this case, a little really did go a long way. Recipe after the jump:


3 lbs beef oxtail
2 cups beef stock
2 tbsp peanut oil (or any neutral oil)
1 tbsp annatto seeds
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 lb string beans
3 small Japanese or Italian eggplants, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1/3 cup peanut butter
3 tbsp toasted ground rice (or 1 tbsp cornstarch)
salt and pepper, to taste
bagoog alamang, to taste (optional)

In a large heavy stockpot over high heat, brown oxtail on all sides. Add beef stock and additional water to just cover meat. Bring to a boil, then lower to a strong simmer for 1 1/2 hours, until beef is very tender but not falling apart. In a skillet over low heat, saute annatto seed in oil until the oil turns red, being careful not to burn the oil or the seeds. It should only take a few minutes. Remove the seeds and discard. Use this oil to saute the onion and garlic until soft, about 5 minutes. Add onions and garlic to the oxtail. Add the green beans, eggplant and peanut butter. In a dry pan, toast the ground rice until it just begins to brown, then add to the stew. Continue to simmer for about 30 minutes more, until the vegetables are cooked through. If desired, add bagoong alamang to taste before adding any additional salt. Serve over steamed white rice, with additional bagoong alamang on the side.

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