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The Adobo Wars

January 10, 2011

A good friend of mine in NYC recently emailed me with the subject line “Adobo Dreaming”.  In the body of the email, he included Sam Sifton’s recent article in the New York Times about adobo.  This spawned a small adobo craze among food intelligentsia including a nod from Michael Ruhlman, the current “it” author bridging the gap between chef and congregation.  I’m all too excited and curious about this, since filipino adobo is something I grew up with on Saturday afternoons, its bold and tangy flavors served next to a pile of hot steamed white rice – and, if was lucky, a couple steamed blue crabs.

Here’s a quick 101 in adobo for those of you who are new to this dish:  Everybody’s mom cooks adobo differently, and everybody’s mom’s adobo is the best.  This is a title worth defending and ending friendships over.  “Your mom fries it in hoisin?  Wtf?” or, dangerously “So, what you’re saying is your mom’s too goddamn lazy to fry it?”  While adobo recipes are worth holding grudges over, the taste alone will bring grown men to tears thinking of mom.  Undoubtedly the great filipino boxer turned world champion, Manny Pacquiao, could be brought to tears over his mothers adobo.  But if he compared it to my mother’s adobo, damn right I’m taking a swing at Manny.

Despite these disagreements about how adobo should be made, all recipes start with these limiting reagents: chicken or pork or a combination of the two, vinegar, garlic, black peppercorns, and bay leaf.  All of these ingredients are marinated overnight, and what happens from there is open for debate.  Some will simmer the meat in the marinade and call it done.  Some will simmer it and fry it like a reverse braise.  My mom would use a combination of chicken, pork, and livers, and marinade them in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, black pepper, and bay.  She’d simmer everything together until the meat was cooked through, then separate the meat from the marinade.  The marinade would be reduced into a thick sauce while the meat was seared off in a screamingly hot wok.

Now, I’m an exception to the rules of engagement in the adobo wars.  I have a second loyalty when it comes to adobo recipes, and that loyalty is to the recipe we’ve created for family meal at Heartland.  We’re somewhat limited on ingredients for our marinade, since soy sauce and other asian pantry items aren’t locally produced.  We’ll usually start by searing off the toughest sinew laden pieces of “trim” that we have on hand (this IS the good stuff if you know how to handle it) and braise it in white vinegar, garlic, ginger, chiles, brown sugar, and molasses (to approximate soy sauce).  For those of us working the day prep shift, we’ll usually start it around 11am and it’ll be ready by 4pm family meal.  The flavor is much more bold, spicy, sweet and more complex than traditional adobo, which can sometimes be a little flat and two dimensional.  For those of us who are used to sampling big flavors at work all day, this over-the-top version of adobo is as tasty as it gets.  It’s what we like to cook for ourselves when we’re not cooking for the restaurant.

As it seems that the point of adobo is to create your own version, I thought I’d make a hybrid “best-of” adobo that combines the sublime flavors of staff meal adobo without limiting myself to provenance specific ingredients.  Here’s what I came up with…

2lb chicken wings, split and marinated in…

4 large cloves garlic, minced

2T fresh ginger, minced

2T total (when ground) black pepper, coriander, allspice

3 bay leaves

2 whole Thai chiles, chopped

1/2c coconut milk

1T dark shrimp paste

2T palm sugar

2:1 cane vinegar to soy sauce, enough to cover the meat.

Marinade overnight, covered in the refrigerator.  Transfer everything to a deep saute pan and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, but not falling off the bone.  Separate the chicken from the marinade and spread the chicken out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Bake in a 450 degree oven until the wings are sizzling and crisp on the edges.  Meanwhile, reduce your marinade over high heat until it’s thick and syrupy.  Check it for seasoning and adjust it as needed.  Transfer the wings to a large bowl and pour some of the sauce on top.  Toss and flip the wings with the sauce to coat them evenly.  Serve on a large plate and garnish the adobo wings with some thinly sliced spring onions.

You might notice that I replaced the usual frying step with baking the wings in a hot oven.  I have a couple reasons for this.  First, I like the way the dry heat crisps up the skin of the chicken.  Second, Type II Diabetes runs rampant in filipinos born in PI and living in the US for the simple reason that filipino food is simply not healthy.  So, this is a wake up call to all of my aging Titos and Titas to find ways to cook a little healthier without sacrificing flavor.

Give this recipe a try.  If something in my ingredient list sounds unappealing to you, go ahead and leave it out.  Add something that sounds good to you.  It’s adobo, after all.  Just don’t tell me that yours is better than mine.

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