, APRIL 19, 2007 (STAR) By Ching M. Alano - Itís a marriage made in food heaven when hearty Filipino homecooking takes on zesty New World/Western twists. Ever heard of mushroom sinigang served with calamansi? Or trout stuffed with kangkong? Or salmon kilaw with five-spice vinegar and coconut cream? Or adobo pecans (or almonds or walnuts) served as bar (pulutan) fare and washed down with the coolest, most heartwarming San Miguel beer?

Itís what Jennifer M. Aranas, chef/restaurateur/teacher/food writer/author of, yes, The Filipino-American Kitchen (175 pages, with photos by Brian Briggs and Michael Land; available at National Book Store), fondly recalls growing up with. Born and raised in Chicago, Jennifer traces her roots to Cebu, where her parents ran a store that sold rice and refreshing glasses of halo-halo to Nursing students at a nearby university. They sold the store and moved to the US in the late 1960s, bringing with them more than their earthly possessions. They brought their language, religion, and Filipino food to nurture them in their new home and surroundings in Chicago. According to Jennifer, it was a household where English and Visaya were spoken, Sunday mornings were reserved for church, and the kitchen was the heart of the hearth.

Thus, Jennifer and her siblings grew up amid the aroma of good Filipino food cooking in their momís kitchen. She remembers coming home from school on a cold winter day and warming up to the sight of steaming bowls of arroz caldo waiting for her and her siblings on the dining table.

Yes, Jennifer comes from a family of excellent cooks, who make everyday meals as delicious as fiesta food served at family celebrations, which are quite a lot for this family who shares a burning passion for good food. Fact is, for this family, kitchen shortcuts are a no-no. Thereís nothing like cooking from scratch. That means that coconut doesnít come powdered or pre-sweetened in a bag and coconut milk doesnít come in a can. About the time Jennifer learned how to ride a bike, her grandfather taught her how to properly shred a coconut "home style" on a wooden bench fitted with a round, serrated metal blade. After that, her mom soaked the sredded meat in water and squeezed it to extract coconut milk for guinataan (savory coconut soup) or she reduced the milk on a stovetop into latik (a thick cream spread) for the cassava cake. The shredded coconut meat was dried and toasted and made into sweetened rice cakes that can drive you nuts!

Jennifer learned the principles of quality, flavor, texture , and balance on her motherís lap. This came in very handy when she and her husband opened a restaurant they called Rambutan in Chicago in 1998, to bring the flavors of Southeast Asia and the techniques of Europe in one kitchen to Chicagoans who had no clue as to what Pinoy cooking was about. It was not the first Filipino restaurant in Chicago; what Jennifer wanted was to put up a place that "reflected my roots while embracing my American upbringing." This opened Jenniferís kitchen to endless sizzling possibilities. For instance, the well-loved adobo was not limited to just pork or chicken. There was also fresh duck from the Maple Farms across the border in Indiana that could be "adobo-ed." And thus were the freshest ingredients turned into Filipino specialties in Jenniferís bustling kitchen.

In addition, Jennifer and her husband honed their cooking skills and taste buds with French, Italian, American, contemporary, and Pan-Asian restaurant cooking without ever leaving the US.

And now, Jennifer has cooked up a cookbook, taking readers on a gastronomic tour ó from sweet and spicy to smoky and tangy ó while transforming delicious native recipes to easy-to-make meals (yes, a great meal is never more than 30 minutes away). But yes, there are also more elaborate fiesta dishes that take more time (and more people) to prepare. She lovingly shares over 100 recipes ó from appetizers to desserts ó that combine Filipino classics with New World variations to reflect her Fil-Am roots.

Jennifer transforms everyday fare into overnight sensations as in her oven-baked dilis and dilis mix (with roasted peanuts, cashew, dried banana chips, sunflower seeds, toasted coconut flakes).

She gives strawberry shortcake a tropical face-lift with grated cassava. Berry nice!

Iíd say this is the perfect cookbook for Pinoys who donít know the first thing about cooking rice (do count me in). Yes, Jennifer includes a recipe on plain steamed rice, an all-important Filipino staple. There are rice recipes galore as well as oodles of noodle recipes, including pancit luglog (which we never really learned how to do because, well, thereís always Jollibeeís best-selling palabok or Via Mareís time-cherished palabok, so why bother?).

She also teaches readers how to make good-quality stock, which is all important, too, in any kitchen. Discover souper-duper ways to cook soup in her very absorbing book.

She also takes readers step-by-delicious step through authentic Filipino flavors and guides them through the flavorful Asian market, where youíll most probably meet up close and personal those condiments that give Asian food its piquant melange of flavors.

Indeed more than satisfying the stomach, Filipino food feeds the soul.

Kain na tayo!

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved