Adobong Kangkong ni Emma

I don’t often cook Filipino food. There are various reasons. One is that it’s, you know, pretty easy to get Filipino food if you’re living in the Philippines. Another is that the most iconic dishes don’t convert very well into a vegetarian meal. We’re not vegetarians, but we don’t cook meat at home. It’s expensive and frequently suspect.

Filipino food, unlike other cuisines in the region, isn’t highly spiced. It depends for flavor largely upon vinegar and fat, especially pork fat. It’s true, there’s nothing preventing you from making a big pan of pancit (Filipino noodles) without any meat, but I know from experience that most Filipinos would dismiss the result as “walang lasa” (without flavor) or “hindi masarap” (not delicious). And the thing is, they wouldn’t really be wrong.

So, I’ve been trying for months to nail down a good vegetarian version of adobo. Adobo is a meat or vegetable braised in a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar and seasoned with garlic, black pepper and bay leaf. Chicken or pork adobo is delicious, and there are quite a few vegetable adobos that are common here. And there’s certainly nothing stopping you from using tofu in place of meat. Except …

But every time I’ve tried to make meatless adobo, it’s just been lacking. The vinegar is so sour, and the soy sauce is so salty, but there’s no richness in the vegetable to balance those flavors. You’re left with something edible, but … well, hindi masarap.

In searching for adobo recipes online, I found a lot of people put coconut milk in theirs. I dismissed this at first. Adobo doesn’t have coconut milk! Where were they even getting this? For someone who rarely cooks Filipino food and has only lived in two relatively close regions of a diverse country, I pass rather a lot of judgment on FilAm (Filipino-American) food blogs that don’t reflect my experience. (Ground meat in tortang talong? What?!)

But … well, I had a little leftover coconut milk from Sunday’s dinner, and I knew I wanted to make adobong kangkong (water spinach) with quail eggs. And maybe what my vegetarian adobos were missing was saturated fat!

What I’ve learned in my meager three-or-so years of cooking vegetarian food is you have to replace that animal fat flavor with something. You can’t just throw some veggies at a pot and have it taste good. My usual strategy is to brown everything very well. Brown the onions. Brown the garlic. Let the oil absorb all those flavors. Hell, when I cook beans, I actually fry up the soaked, uncooked beans in garlic and onion until they start getting a little brown too. (Then I often fry them again after cooking! Have I mentioned I’ve lost twenty pounds in the Philippines? I have absolutely no fear of fat anymore.)

But I was browning like crazy in my adobos, and it still wasn’t enough to compete with the acidity of the vinegar and the saltiness of the soy sauce. Caramelized onions can fix most ills, not this one.

All this to say: adobong kangkong with quail eggs and coconut milk was easily the most delicious Filipino food I’ve ever made. The coconut milk, soy sauce, and vinegar reduced into a rich, thick gravy that I could have eaten with a spoon. That, with the meaty, substantial kangkong stems, and the little creamy burst of yolk when you bite into a boiled quail egg … I’m hungry just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, I cooked the whole thing in the dark during a power outage, so no pictures, except this one of the leftovers. (We ate all the quail eggs the previous night. I don’t think they’d reheat well.)

Adobong Kangkong with red rice

Adobong Kangkong ni Emma
(Emma’s Water Spinach Adobo)

You will need:
One big bunch of kangkong, cut into 2-3″ lengths
4-5 cloves garlic, partially crushed and sliced
3-4 shallots, sliced
1 long red chile, Thai-style, with most of the seeds removed, chopped
1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 cup soy sauce
~1 cup coconut milk (less if using canned)
Black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
Vegetable oil (we tend to use palm oil)
20 quail eggs, hard-boiled and peeled (or 6 chicken eggs)

Yields 3 servings as a main dish, probably twice that many as a side.

In a wok, saute the shallots on a medium-low heat, allowing them to brown slowly. Before they get crispy, remove them from the pan. Add garlic and chile, saute until garlic is browned. (You COULD add the garlic to the shallots, but I’m not good enough at telling when the shallots are nearly done, and if they saute too long, they get bitter. Your call.)

Return shallots to wok. Add vinegar, soy sauce, coconut milk, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Simmer for a few minutes to let the flavors come together. Chicken adobo can simmer for hours–since the veggies cook much faster, the sauce needs a little time on its own to become delicious.

Add the kangkong to the wok. It will seem like too much. It isn’t. Let the heat wilt the greens, turning them gently with your spoon so that everything gets exposed to the sauce.

When the kangkong is soft and swimming in the sauce, turn off the heat and add the eggs. Mix gently so that the eggs sit in the sauce, and leave the dish for a while so the eggs can soak.

Serve with rice.

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A Peace Corps Day

Today was a pretty typical Sunday for me. It’s not what someone would think of if they thought “typical day in the Peace Corps”, so I thought I’d share with you.

6 am: Woke up to the damn loud sparrows outside my window. Put in ear-plugs because it’s a weekend and I can sleep in if I want to, damn it.

6:30 am: Got up anyway because I realized it was my brother’s birthday and I needed to call him.
Made coffee in french press, with dark brown sugar and powdered milk.
Skype didn’t work. E-mailed brother instead. Drank more coffee.
We got a new internet service yesterday! It’s so fast! In the morning, I can watch Youtube videos without waiting for them to buffer! So I did that for a while.
Started soaking black eyed peas for dinner.

8 am: Heated water in the electric kettle, took a bucket bath. (It’s hot enough now that I don’t usually bother, but I also don’t usually shower in the morning before the sun is hot.)
Walked to the market! A man on a bicycle shouted, “Hello American!”
Bought luffah squash (for eating, not washing), sweet potatoes (Filipino style, with white flesh and red skin), bananas, and freshly grated coconut (on which more later).
Also bought one tortang talong, which is a crazy delicious kind of roasted eggplant omelet. That was breakfast.

9 am: I needed coconut milk for dinner, and I had plans for my morning, so I started on that. You pour boiling water over the shredded coconut and let it sit, then wring it out in a cloth.
Watched even more Youtube while that was going on.
Soaked and squeezed two presses from the coconut. (Second press is weak and used during cooking, first press is rich and used for finishing.)

10 am: Dungeons & Dragons on the internet!
Bet you weren’t expecting that one! But seriously, it’s the highlight of my week. So that went on (with a break to make a shallot omelet for lunch, and a million technical difficulties, mostly related to power outages) until…

2 pm: Finished D&D. Peeled and chopped a big hunk of squash (it’s something like butternut) and start roasting it in the toaster oven for dinner.
Also chopped sweet potato and put it in water for later.
Set out a tub of laundry to soak.
Started cooking black eyed peas with shallot and garlic.

3 pm: Washed laundry. This involves squatting beside the tub with a plastic wash board. It was a small load, though. Didn’t take long.
Peeled and chopped the luffah squash. (And man, that stuff has a peel like you wouldn’t believe. Rough

4 pm: Read about a hundred Wikipedia articles while the black eyed peas were cooking. Wikipedia didn’t work on our old internet service. I have a lot of lost time to make up for.

5 pm: Finished dinner. Black eyed peas with roasted squash, coconut milk, and preserved kalamansi (Filipino lime, which I preserved North African style, like Moroccan salted lemons). On the side, mashed sweet potato with coconut milk.

6:30 pm: Sat down to eat with the Roommate. Talked about cooking and how it’s different here than in the States, and about her dog, and whether she should take him back with her, and about our students and their brazenness, and so forth.

And beyond that, it’s all surfing and chatting on the internet until bedtime around ten.