This season, there was an episode on Top Chef about a Tribute Dinner. It was a chance for the chefs “to reflect and pay homage to the person who taught them how to cook by making a dish in their honor.” I’ve never really been officially taught how to cook by anyone – I’ve said before that I learned how to cook from watching Rachael Ray and Ina Garten on TV – and my love for food has been heavily influenced my parents, but the person who has inspired me to learn how to cook, to learn how to wield a big chef’s knife, to chop and fry and simmer, is my Tita Ine.
I think Tylor prepared a dish for his Japanese nanny, and that was the most touching for me because when I was a kid, Tita Ine was my nanny. She is the woman who makes THE BEST tsokolate, who so gamely demonstrated her whisking method for my blog. When I was home in the Philippines over the holidays, Tita Ine would ask me everyday if I had any “special requests” and I was not shy in rattling off the many Filipino dishes that I was craving.
Tita Ine took care of me when I was a kid, and she still spoils me every time I come home. In this photo (she’s the one standing on the left), she seems to be encouraging me to blow out candles on the birthday cake… even if it wasn’t my birthday… (You can see Monica and her nanny on the right; my youngest sister Patty wasn’t born yet.)
This was when I was in preschool, and Tita Ine was carrying my red lunch box for me while I posed in my stylin’ printed white tights.
And this was from our hot chocolate session during the holidays. The times where I would willingly post pictures of myself without make-up are very rare and far in between but I love this photo too much! It shows how happy I was, and Tita Ine being her usual self: generous, sincere, and in her element in the kitchen.
Now that I’m back in Boston, and I can only talk to Tita Ine via phone and FaceTime (thank God for technology), I have resorted to cooking my own little takes on Filipino food. This latest one is based on a dish called Ginataang Sitaw at Kalabasa, which translates to Green Beans and Butternut Squash in Coconut Milk, and it is one of her specialties.
Tita Ine often prepares this, and it is wonderful served hot over soft, fluffy rice.
I veered away from the traditional recipes (which usually includes either shrimp or pork) and added tofu for protein…
I also stirred in a packed cup of baby spinach…
… and a pinch more chili for added heat. I brought back a little jar of siling labuyo flakes, which is a Filipino chili similar to bird’s eye chili. The sharp spice from the chili flakes and the chopped serrano chili added a nice layer of flavor to the SouthEast-Asian blend of garlic, shallots, and ginger simmering in coconut milk.
But in spite of my modifications, the taste stayed true to what I remember from home.
Green Beans and Butternut Squash in Coconut Milk
3 cups butternut squash, cubed
2 cups green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 cup, packed, baby spinach
1 package extra firm tofu, cut into 1-2 inch cubes
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped ginger
1 small shallot, finely minced
1 serrano chili, chopped
14 oz (1 can) coconut milk
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of chili pepper flakes (I used bird’s eye chili flakes, which is hotter than regular red pepper flakes. Adjust chili quantities to your heat preference.)
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the scallions and ginger and cook for about 3 minutes, until the scallions turn translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes, then add the squash, chopped serrano chili, and coconut milk (if you’re using regular coconut milk, skim off the cream on top – don’t throw it away, you’ll need it later; if you’re using light coconut milk, add all the contents from the can). Simmer for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining olive oil in a separate pan over medium heat and fry the tofu. Make sure to flip the cubes so you get a nice golden sear on all sides. Set tofu aside.
Add the green beans to the butternut squash stew and simmer for an additional 15 minutes. Add a pinch of chili pepper flakes, and stir in the coconut cream. Gently toss in the tofu, then turn off heat and add spinach. Toss until wilted. Season everything with salt and pepper. Serve hot over rice!
I called home to tell Tita Ine about my own take on one of her signature dishes, and she was very proud of me. I’m trying to cook Filipino food more often and I’ll always look to Tita Ine for inspiration (and her approval). I’m not sure if the judges on Top Chef will ask me to pack my knives and go for this dish (at least it’s not a meatball), but I really like what I came up with so I stand by my dish.
Do you watch Top Chef? I am rooting for Paul!