SOIL quality speaks of itself through the plants that suckled at and took in that quality. The usual nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium ménage a trois plus over two dozen elements and motley nutrients go into soil composition—and that may sound plaintive as a famished beggar asking for alms, or even sing like a suave nabob doling in abandon flamboyance, florins and flowers.
Eggplants are next of kin to the magical yet deadly mandrake, the plant that dreams it is man and maybe is. Eggplants are a poor man’s meat. Freshly picked eggplants fetch P20 a kilo at the public market in Alaminos, Pangasinan. Those eggplants must have been grown in lush soil, the sort that sings symphonies.
Eggplants like that needn’t be done as moussaka-- arrayed in minced lamb meat, virgin olive oil and a king’s ransom in spices and herbs. The subtly suave sweetish notes that sing of the soil the fruit grew from would be likely lost in moussaka’s babble of flavors.
Halved and made to sit not too long in a thin coat of oil on a frying pan, the eggplants came out as good as steak a la pobre, as opulent in flavor as beggar’s chicken. Those eggplants spoke of the good earth and the industry of the hands that nurtured them. Grace is said: “God bless this food and those who grew and prepared this food. May it nourish our bodies and strengthen our spirits. Amen.”
Chunks of freshly caught devilfish (the sort that skewered Steve Irwin's neck) bought at the public market in Bolinao, those had to stay in the fridge for a few days. I wanted top quality vinegar—not diluted acetic acid readily available in supermarket shelves—to go into its cooking.
Fermented sugar palm sap, I had that in mind and was even contemplating to hie off to Tagaytay to get a gallon—plus a few kilos of beef, a kilo of roasted Liberica coffee, some radish and some more veggies. The devilfish chunks had to settle for coconut toddy-turned-sour bought in a vegetable stall in the Manila Seedling Bank Foundation spread in Quezon City.
Sure, I’d like to pamper the main ingredients in a recipe, assemble an excellent cast—never settle for anything less than better—and mount a good show.
Umm, five tablespoons of that sour coconut sap went into the devilfish chunks that was dumped in a confetti shower of malunggay leaves, julienned ginger, pepper, turmeric, Ilocos garlic and coconut cream—plain old-fashioned kinunot. In less than five minutes, that over a kilo of devilfish chunks went somewhere after it was served at my mother-in-law’s birthday gathering. All I got to chew on for leftovers are compliments and good reviews.
Ah, the leftover ingredients in a three-day sojourn in Bolinao was a small bundle of succulent dampalit or Sessuvium portulacastrum culled off a patch growing beneath a bantigue shrub—lovely sight that was part of the beachfront portion of Treasures of Bolinao resort.
Alex M. Fernando the late Dawn editor-in-chief turned take-charge guy at the Philippine Star news desk would often call me over at his desk to hand in a glass jar or two of pickled dampalit. He buys them from Bustos, Bulacan, where it's done by wringing the juices out of dampalit stalks and leaves before covering ‘em wrung out members in a sweet-sour pickling solution.
I couldn’t tell Alex that I had my own version of pickled dampalit. Leaves and stalks are sun-dried for around three days, then arranged in alternating layers of dampalit and sliced Ilocos garlic cloves and julienned hot peppers. The pickling solution for covering such assemblage in a glass jar: two cups of nipa palm vinegar; two tablespoons of pakaskas or raw sugar from kaong (sugar palm) whose sweetness isn’t cloying; pinches of salt, black pepper, and grated nutmeg. The solution is heated over a slow fire in an earthen pot. The fire’s turned off pronto after the solution hits boiling point, made to cool for around 30 minutes, then poured into the dampalit-pepper/garlic-dampalit assemblage.
The pickle is ripened in the fridge for a month, allowing the motley flavors to mingle in suavely sweetish-sour harmony that’s a tad incendiary.