We have always known him simply as “Tito Billy”. The man with the scraggly beard that felt like a “brillo pad” brushing up against your face when you kissed him hello or goodbye. :) Even when he was awarded the “National Artist for Sculpture” and his beat up pick-up truck had some of the earliest of vanity plates (part of the honor accorded) imprinted with — “National Artist” — we mostly fondly remembered the days when he used to offer the cousins rides in this horse drawn roman chariot around the University of the Philippines sunken garden. I kid you not. An honest to goodness chariot a la the movie “300” with Gerard Butler. University students from the 1950’s-60’s might remember this era of the eccentric artist on campus. Any one who took a class in the College of Fine Arts would have probably come across this indulgent professor, notoriously generous grader, and eventual Dean. He was over for dinner last night.
In his 80’s and recovering from a bad stroke he suffered a couple of years ago, it was a pleasure to have him as our guest, along with other relatives and friends. I knew instantly that the food would have to feature favorite Filipino dishes, and no fancy plated and served courses. With 16+ guests, we set up a makeshift buffet table under a colorful oil painting by an artist friend, Fernando Modesto. Modesto was a student of Tito Billy’s from way back when, so it seemed like an appropriate setting. More than the usual attention was paid to the preparation and presentation of the dishes…
Serendipity resulted in the finest and simplest dish of the evening. We found the feistiest and freshest blue and cross crabs at the Seaside market in Baclaran. Untied, they could scurry at breakneck speed across the kitchen counters. Ten medium to large-sized crabs weight nearly 4.5 kilos, and we simply steamed them, cooled them down and stored them in the fridge for several hours. At dinner time, they were served with a tasty cane vinegar and garlic dip. ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS. The crab meat was naturally salty and sweet and incredibly succulent. Superb with vinegar. It doesn’t get easier and better than that. :)
Next, we had a platter of Bistek Tagalog, but a seriously zhugged up version of it… I started with thin sirloin steaks from Australia, flattened them a bit with a pounder, and seared them them in a hot cast iron pan with a touch of oil. Once they had acquired a slightly caramelized tan, they were transferred to a serving platter; essentially medium cooked sirloin steaks. The pinoy overlay came in the form of one katutak (how is that translated into english?) of sauteed onions in the salty tangy sauce. Again, we were lucky in the markets that morning, as I spotted a large basket of “native white onions”. These white onions are DIFFERENT from Spanish or white onions when they are cooked. The native white onions are more opaque, and mushier. They are the CLASSIC onion used for Bistek, I am told. I sauteed tons of onions in vegetable oil, then added beef broth, soy sauce and kalamansi and a touch of cornstarch to thicken the sauce. Season with freshly ground black pepper and pour the whole lot over the steaks and serve HOT. YUM. :)
The next dish was a labor of love… 3 kilos of pork belly, 3 cups of fatback, coconut vinegar, salt, fresh and dried bay leaves, a dozen whole bulbs of young garlic and peppercorns stewed slowly in a palayok over a wood fire for approximately 3 hours! We made this earlier in the day and the aroma during cooking was almost enough for me to break my diet. This was the recipe that I called the “Best Adobo” I have ever cooked… and yup, it still works wonderfully. The old-timers in the group recognized this as the adobo of their childhoods, and the younger guests were all praises for the buttery soft meat and fat, and the smokey flavor. We don’t make this more than once or twice a year, but it’s ALWAYS worth the effort. And fried leftovers are another notch up. :)
Lechon seemed like overkill at this point, but we had frozen sisig in the freezer, so I made a kilo’s worth of lechon sisig. The entire platter was wiped out!
To balance the meat and pork, we had a chilled unripe langka salad, which for some reason, sucked up all of the dressing and actually seemed a bit dry… But it still provided a lighter foil to the pork et al.
We also served a tomato salad (made up of five kinds of tomatoes from the markets), topped with salted duck eggs and nearly an entire tinapang bangus, first fried and flaked. This was salty, sour, sweet, acidic all in one fork full. Some chopped green onions used for garnish.
We also had a roasted talong and tomato salad, a house favorite.
The one dish I forgot to photograph was a guinataang kalabasa at sitaw or kabocha squash and long beans in coconut cream with peeled shrimps. We also started off dinner with a bowl of chicken binakol soup. All of these recipes above have recipes in the archives.
After a dessert of native kakanins, budbud kabog, fresh ripe mangoes, pomelos, conversation and “catching up” began in earnest… Over a cup of tea or coffee and more sweets, my aunt noticed we had a copy of Tito Billy’s newest book, a wonderful catalogue of hundreds of his sculptures over the decades, and she asked if it was autographed… She then asked my uncle to autograph it and he dedicated it to our daughter, who will treasure the book for many decades to come…
It was a lovely evening. The food merely a backdrop to the gathering that just happened to include a sculptor, family and friends.