"There's a certain vibe I wanna go for -- like the way I grew up: sharing, eating around the table, talking to everyone. And that's what I want to happen," said Chef Chrissy Camba of the popup dinner series Maddy's Dumpling House, an hour before dinner service.
"So, yeah, I can plate a whatever-course dinner but I don't really want to 'cause I want you to have to talk to people around you and enjoy."
"Because Christmas?" I verified.
"Exactly... But, I don't have any parol," Chef laughed about her lack of the star-shaped brightly colored lanterns, which are probably more common decorations than Christmas trees in the Philippines.
Team Maddy's Dumpling House
Joining Chef Chrissy in the kitchen to assist in finishing off the dumplings was Chef Ashlee Aubin, who holds several titles: executive chef of Salero (newly named one of Time Out Chicago's ten best new restaurants of 2014) and Michelin Bib Gourmand awarded Wood, and, importantly, Chef Chrissy's boyfriend.
Also assisting was Chef Carrie Schloss of White Oak Gourmet, a personal chef service in the suburbs. She met Chef Chrissy when they were at Spence Farm Chef Camp last year in Fairbury, Illinois, and wanted to learn more about Filipino food.
Nadim Audi of Candid Wines tended bar, pairing our fare with a Riesling, a Cabernet and a Sherry. (No joke, I was triple fisting.)
Pasko, Pasko, Pasko na naman. A note about Filipino Christmas.
Christmas is the Death Star of holidays in the Pinoy calendar, its four -BER month tractor beam pulling in lesser holidays for merienda. (Yes, in the Philippines, Christmas decorations go up in September, and the Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas Is You and WHAM!'s Last Christmas stay on the SM mall muzak through December.)
Owing to Spain ruling by the cross and the sword for four hundred odd years, the Philippines is largely Roman Catholic or Christian. SIDEBAR: Pope Francis AKA the Batpope is making an aposotolic visit from January 15-19, 2015. Philippines-based social news network Rappler has a #PopeFrancisPH minisite; the official Philippines government Papal visit website has crashed.
Filipinos around the world celebrate celebrate with the tradition of Misa de Gallo (Rooster's Mass in Spanish) or Simbang Gabi (Night Mass in Tagalog). It's nine consecutive days of 4 AM masses culminating with baby Jesus's birthday.
Christmas is a big tradition for Filipinos at home and around the world.
So if you're a Pinoy in Chicago, and you read on Facebook that Chef Chrissy Camba is holding popup dinner themed "Filipino Christmas Pork Edition," you would go, wouldn't you? Why, yes, you would. YOU WOULD TOTALLY GO TO THERE.
Besides we all know that Filipino parties are the best, anyway. Back to the food.
True to her eponymous dinner series name, Chef Chrissy, over the course of three days, stuffed and rolled and steamed and fried little parcels of thin skin wonton wrappers and spongey rice flour dough full of tasty Christmas goodness. If that isn't the Christmas spirit, then I don't know what is.
Fix me a plate!
At a Filipino party, the hosts will lay out the spread of culinary goodies overflowing from aluminum trays, perhaps heated from beneath with Stearnos. Guests are expected to avail themselves of plastic forks and paper plates and eat-at-will. Make yourself a plate, and make yourself at home!
Now, if you were *cough, cough* too sick to go to a Filipino party, you might have an awesome ninang (godmother) take pity on you and fix up a plate for you and run it by your house, with a little of each incredible nibblet, sandwiched between two paper plates with some foil over the top to keep that great Filipino party food from spilling out the sides.
You would really be lucky to get a plate like this.
Chef Chrissy plated the dumplings course, I think, so we wouldn't gorge ourselves on these magic pouches of comfort and joy.
Deceivingly simple. A quad of lumpia standing cutside up in a pool of sweet and sour sauce, like Jordan, Pip, Coach Jackson and whatever big man they had on the blocks in a pool of '90s championship rings.
With a coconut garlic pumpkin seed crumble. Basically it was a Spanish (chestnuts) - Mexican (pepitas or pumpkin seed) - Filipino (everything else) hot pocket.
Hamonado at Queso de Bola
It's ham and cheese, loves, with a smattering of mayonnaise. Shaped like a ball, Queso de bola is "That cheese in the red wax -- EDAM!" said Chef Chrissy.
Pork and shrimp shumai
Growing up, on special occasions, my parents and my ninang would take me to Chinatown for dim sum. We always got PSS. Chef Chrissy's mom took her to Argyle.
Is there enough restraint in the world to cook the national dish, a braise of soy, vinegar, bay leaves and peppercorn; let it cool, and then stuff it into these pockets and steam? The answer is yes, and Chef Chrissy has it. I'm just thinking about that process.
Pig's head siopao
Braised and mixed with ginger, it's got all the farmy umami of sisig without the messy cleanup of cast-iron skillets. Even had the little baby paper square at the bottom. Squee!
PORK, GLORIOUS PORK.
While whole-roasted suckling pig lechon is fantastic piyesta fare, if you can get it, it's more common to find a household celebrating with a variety of dishes and flavors.
Chef Camba's dinner was a veritable Best Hits Album of Filipino Party Food.
BBQ Pork Meat sticks
"We'd always get these barbecue sticks for special occasions," said Chef Chrissy. "My mom always gets 250. Me and Ashlee can eat AT LEAST a dozen each."
Pork belly lechon aka 'bellychon'
Back home this is becoming a thing, roasted pork belly with a crispy crunchy skin. And I'm like 1000% sure this will become a thing in 'Murica too, because BACON.
Shaved Hickory smoked pork loin
With a generous adobo au jus, fat kid me dreams of eating this with my hands in front of the open refrigerator door.
A lot of care went into each of these dishes.
"I deboned the legs [chuckles]. supposed to fry from frozen..typically they don't debone it so you have to kind of work at it. this one has a little more meat, which makes it a lot easier cuz I did all the work, but deboning SUCKS. [Chef's emphasis.] SO. I deboned it, we wrapped it up in cheesecloth because the trotter is so delicate that it'll fall apart. And then you do a braise in the typical filipino vinegar, water, garlic, black peppercorn, bay leaf... And then you freeze it and then fry it from frozen.
"But because i found that if you keep frying it from frozen then everything gets too crispy & hard so I do a double fry. we did an inital fry, and now i'm holding it at a LOW temperature so that the middle heats up, and then i'll do the last fry right before it goes out."
Twice fried. Uh huh.
A dry aged pork shoulder in a tomato stew with black olives and sweet carrots that was so tender it disintegrated when fork tines approached.
The supporting cast...
Pancit palabok is Chef's personal favorite dish -- Smoked mackerel, those thick rice noodles, and that annato orange tinge and chicharron (fried pork rinds). Arroz Caldo is a breakfast dish, like Chinese congee, but who cares what time of day you eat it? Served in parfait glasses, I let the gingery chicken slurry slide right down my gullet. This whole affair would not be possible without Jasmine Rice, because ulam is not ulam without rice.
where two or more filipinos are gathered, it's a party.
What else is going on at a Filipino party? You have your requisite table of uncles and aunties playing mahjong or cards or other games like karaoke/Minus One... If the Pacquiao fight is that night, someone splurged for Pay-per-view (or attendance would greatly suffer). You might have the men gathered in the garage, maybe grilling; little kids running afoot, older kids in their devices, and the women holding it all down.
Chef Chrissy's dinner at Ampersand, that's a 30-40 seater space with bar and dedicated side kitchen, designed specifically for popup dinners and test kitchen-ry. It's tucked into the far side of seafood restaurant, Kinmont, in a quiet side of River North, west of Orleans.
As it's a popup dinner with communal tables, we lucked out with our table mates, a pair of friends and a couple who were all Filipino by birth or Filipino by association. We passed around the 'not dumplings' course, checking if each other had had bites of this or that. Just as Chef Chrissy wanted. We talked about our Filipino moms, our holiday plans this year. We made dinner reservations for January. It was really remarkable.
It's a "wrap"... get it?
"I saw baggies in your thing..." teased Chef.
I replied, "Well, you told me! And I didn't think you were playing, so I didn't play either!"
Finish with postres
Before the Ziplocs were locked and loaded, though -- a trifecta of desserts appeared. A dainty cylinder of rich Leche flan egg custard. Bibingka rice flour and coconut cake that had this cheddar cheese crumble on top that I am still thinking about.
Last, though not least, Lola's Fruit Salad, a melange of chopped fresh and canned fruits robed in cream and served cool. The version served is Chef Chrissy's actual grandmother's recipe. While we were chit-chatting, Chef Chrissy shared a few stories about her lola: how she hid under the floorboards when the Japanese invaded, how her ancestors include famed warrior Lapu Lapu (said Chef, "Isn't that true of everyone, though?"), how her lola's father bought land by bartering a house cat, and most recently, how she saved her uncle from having a heart attack with a routine skin operation. She sounds like an amazing woman.
I have this theory that lolas are Filipino superheroes. They instill pride; they show you that you came from greatness and greatness is your past, your present and your future. Lolas pass down a legacy of recipes and stories of strength. Thanks for sharing this with us, Chef Chrissy!
Yes, I brought Ziploc to a Filipino party at a fine restaurant and made instant friends. I didn't feel in the least gauche and neither was I alone. I swear the ladies had zero qualms about dropping half-full quart size baggies of Filipino goodness into a very fine purse.