NEVER BELIEVE a thin chef, Clinton Palanca once wrote in his regular column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer (if my memory serves me right). While I admire his humor and biting sarcasm – apart from the fact that I don’t see anything wrong with that line – I still took his advice with much skepticism. Especially because of Chef Margarita “Gaita” Fores. (I actually consider her more along the lines of “fit”.)
Woman on top – Chef Margarita "Gaita" Fores
When Secrets of the Masters first aired their trailer for what they called as a “first in Philippine TV,” I sort of frowned upon the fact that among the many “prominent” culinary figures whose names were interspersing in the text, not one said “Gaita Fores”. Not only does she dispel the gospel of the “not thin” chefs, she happens to be one of the real culinary masters we have today. Her successful ventures as chef-restaurateur- entrepreneur – Café Bola, Cibo, Pepato – stand as testaments to her genius in the best of world cuisine – authentic, or fusion with a local twist – that she has been offering to the discriminating Filipino palate.
So it didn’t come as a surprise to me anymore when they eventually featured Ms. Fores on the second Sunday of May. I meant to blog about the show then but I just got swamped at work. But thankully enough, when I turned on the TV on Saturday morning (I woke up before lunch time – now that’s a feat!), there was her episode being replayed. Now, I have to really get down to it and blog!
Of all the many chefs featured on this show so far, I have to say that Ms. Fores happens to be the most articulate. She came across as really self-assured, speaking with authority while being very generous and forthcoming with sharing her culinary secrets. Even on its second airing, her episode managed to hold me captive with every word as it escaped her mouth. She has a personality that transcends the barrier and the limitation imposed by the TV screen. I had seen her a number of times in Café Bola and Cibo before – either sharing a meal with her family or taking the lead in the busy kitchen – and one thing that really struck me was how much a commanding presence she was. She is not your conventional, cookie-cutter beauty. But she would enter a room and she would command everybody’s attention.
For her Secrets of the Masters stint, she made two sauces that served as a foundation for the night’s dishes – “Pomodoro Crudo” (Marinated Raw Tomatoes) and “Pesto Genovese” (the classic Basil Pesto). She showed how the marinated raw tomatoes could be used three ways – as pasta sauce (“Spaghettini Al Pomodoro Crudo”); as topping for bruschetta; and as sauce for grilled chicken breasts (“Chicken Breasts with Arugula and Palm Heart with Marinated Raw Tomatoes and Balsamico Dressing”).
As for the pesto, she combined it with a mushroom cream sauce and tossed it together with al dente farfalle (bow tie pasta) to come up with what she called as “Farfalle Genovese,” hands-down one of the bestsellers in Cibo. As a nice, sweet, healthy ending to the sumptuous feast, she offered grilled fresh fruits with mascarpone cheese and dark brown sugar (“Frutti Grigliati Con Mascarpone & Zucchero Di Canna”).
The show’s host, Ms. Issa Litton, pointed out Ms. Fores’s simplicity of methods and techniques, as well as her going back to basics. In her response, Ms. Fores declared that the nice thing about working with Italian food a lot is that the cuisine is really based on simplicity and just the produce itself that one works with. Having Italian food as her first experience in working with food has really kept her really gounded and true to the first principles that she learned when she started (to work with food).
The presence of “kesong puti” (Filipino fresh cottage cheese) and “ubod” (heart of palm) in some of the night’s dishes further underscored Ms. Fores’s role as champion of the best Filipino ingredients and how she has been using them in her delectable creations. Through her love affair with Italian food, she actually discovered – or re-discovered – so much about our cuisine and what makes it unique.
In my book, this episode is a keeper. Not only did I see a true master at work but also, and more importantly, I felt her palpable passion – what she called as “a maternal instinct to feed and nurture”. She hopes to continue on this path as she strives to make life and living a little bit more beautiful for others. Not only for her clientele but for all the people she works with and all the people she meets along her way. It was heartwarming for her to say that the whole experience on the show afforded her the chance to also learn from the audience and the crew. Said Ms, Fores, “No matter how long you’ve been doing something, keep the point of view that everyday there is always something new to learn.”
Spoken like the true master that she is.
This is the first time that I really paid close attention to the recipes featured. Here they are, the best way I was able to recall them. I didn’t capture the measurements (though none was explicitly stated) but anybody who’s ever cooked knows that most everything is “to taste”.
Segment One: Marinated Raw Tomato Sauce (“Pomodoro Crudo”) used three ways
Mix together chopped tomatoes (“roma” or “plum”), torn fresh basil leaves, minced fresh garlic, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Ms. Fores made a huge batch because she intended to use this sauce three ways.
Spaghettini Al Pomodoro Crudo. Cook the spaghetti or spaghettini according to package directions. Use a lot of water in a huge pasta pot. Season the water generously with salt. Pasta water should taste like the ocean. Toss freshly cooked al dente spaghetti or spaghettini with the marinated raw tomatoes, and top with crumbled “kesong puti” (Filipino fresh cottage cheese).
Bruschetta with Marinated Raw Tomatoes and Parmesan Cheese. Ms. Fores showed how to make bruschetta the real way, with subtle garlic flavor. Rub the cut side of a large clove of garlic on to sliced Tuscan round. Then soak the cut sides of the bread in really good extra virgin olive oil. Slap on the grill. After grilling, season the bread with a little rock salt. Top each slice with the marinated raw tomatoes. The juices of the marinated raw tomatoes will soak up the bread a bit. Grate fresh parmesan cheese on top. Crack some fresh pepper on top. Dress with a little bit more of good extra virgin olive oil.
Chicken Breasts with Arugula and Palm Heart with Marinated Raw Tomatoes and (just a tad of) Balsamico Dressing. Marinate boneless, skinless chicken breasts in extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and minced garlic. Slap on the grill. Once done – with grill marks to boot! – arrange the chicken breasts on a platter. Dress generously with the marinated raw tomatoes. Tear lots of fresh arugula leaves on top. Toss in slivered fresh “ubod” (heart of palm). Drizzle with a little “balsamico” (balsamic vinegar) and extra virgin olive oil.
Segment Two: “Pesto Genovese” (classic Basil Pesto), the old-fashioned way
The term “pesto genovese” means a sauce that originally came from the city of Genova (hence the “genovese”) and was originally made with a mortar & pestle (hence the “pesto”).
Pesto Genovese. In the mortar & pestle, pound the fresh basil leaves into a pulp, then add some chopped garlic, salt and pine nuts. Douse everything with good extra virgin olive oil and add freshly grated parmesan cheese too. What’s good with pesto is that you should add it only in the end. When everything’s already cooked, that’s when you add it, especially when the pasta is already off the flame.
Mushroom Cream Sauce. Use a medley of fresh wild mushrooms. She used oyster, white button, and fresh shiitake. Secret – Do not wash fresh mushrooms! We always are sort of mindless when we get to the kitchen and wash everything! Do not wash fresh mushrooms unless you want a disaster. Just wipe it with a damp cloth to remove whatever brown stuff you see.
In a heavy bottom skillet, saute lots of minced garlic in extra virgin olive oil. Add in all the sliced wild mushrooms, except the oyster mushrooms. When these are about half-cooked and the nice broth is starting to come out, that’s when you add the oyster mushrooms. Season with rock salt. Add some heavy cream. Allow to reduce and thicken a bit. Add a little butter (just a little!). And for a nice cream sauce, grate fresh nutmeg into it! Ms. Fores said it smelled like Christmas! She recommended nutmeg for cream dishes that have vegetables (eNTeNG – like spinach!) and those wherein cream is the more prominent component of the dish.
Farfalle Genovese. While working on the sauce, cook farfalle (bowtie pasta) according to package directions. Since this was “the second batch” of pasta (after the spaghettini above), she used the same water that remained in the pasta pot. Invest in a nice enough pasta pot! The pasta pot and pasta water could be your new best friends! By the way, this pasta shape is perfect for cream sauces because it has little ridges that sort of scoop the sauce.
Toss the cooked farfalle into the mushroom cream sauce. Drain the farfalle from the pasta pot but don’t be afraid to let a little (dripping) pasta water get added in to the sauce! Freshly grate parmesan cheese on top. Freshly crack black pepper on top. Transfer everything on to a large serving platter. Add the pesto sauce and mix well. Scoop a spoonful of the pesto on to the center of the dish and put a sprig of fresh basil for a nice garnish.
Segment Three: Grilled fresh fruit with mascarpone cheese and dark brown sugar
Frutti Grigliati Con Mascarpone & Zucchero Di Canna. This is a nice, sweet, healthy ending. Slice pineapple into wedges, navel oranges into discs, and bananas into halves lengthwise. Coat the fruits with a good drizzling of fresh lemon juice. Slap on the grill. Once done, transfer them on to a serving platter. Top with a glaze of melted butter with dark brown sugar and lemon juice. On the side, serve a tub of mascarpone cheese (carefully removed from the tub, with the shape of the mold preserved) topped with lots of the dark brown sugar.
Café Bola, Cibo, Pepato… and now… Lusso!
“It’s my new baby actually. It’s called Lusso. And “lusso” means luxe in Italian. It’s a little champagne bar in Greenbelt 5. And the concept is more like a hotel lobby not in a hotel! It’s a restaurant that serves slightly substantial dishes… It is luxury with a conscience. You can experience all the wonderful things that a luxury concept can give you. (But) it’s not priced out of the market. It’s priced by taking everything into consideration – especially the economic times, the way our country’s situation is. It is a nice place to feel spoiled and enjoy yourself.”
– Chef Margarita “Gaita” Fores, talking about her newest venture on “Secrets of the Masters”