Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dirty kitchen

Our temporary helper Baroy built a “dirty kitchen” for us over the past few weeks. The term simply refers to an outdoor food preparation and cooking area. At first we were going to have Roy build it attached to the bodega which is about 50 feet behind the house, and he already had a good start on the frame when we decided to move it next to the back door of the house. One reason is that the bodega has no electricity, so we would have to run a line there, since most evening meals here are cooked after dark. Secondly, cooking that far away from the house is impractical during rainy season without a covered walkway. We also realized that this location will give us a larger area that is sheltered from sun and rain, since it extends from the four foot roof over-hang.

The first step is to locate and prepare the wood for the frame. The best wood on the island is called bilogan [bee-low-GAHN] in Tagalog. It is hard, and the trees naturally grow straight. After it is cut, the bark is stripped. Post holes are dug by hand, with Roy using a tool that was basically a handle with a rectangular piece of metal attached. After several times hitting the hole, the loosened soil is removed with a half coconut shell, then more loosening and removing until a two-foot deep hole is dug. Then the pole is inserted, and dirt is tamped in with the bottom of another pole until the upright pole is secure.

Before the frame was fully constructed, Roy built the cooking surface. He set four poles, one of them a tall corner pole, the other three cut to table height. Next he put down a piece of marine plywood, a material that is treated to handle moisture well. He then attached sides all around to hold about four inches of soil, upon which the fire will be lit. He also built a two-level free-standing table which we can use for storage underneath and food prep on top. Prior to building the table, Roy’s “ladder” consisted of seven stacked plastic chairs. Afterward, the table became a scaffold, which tells you how sturdy it is.

To collect enough bilogan, and bamboo which would also be needed, we temporarily hired Benny, and two of his crew, Ricky and Rene who are brothers. Benny’s group had been temporarily laid off. Benny is unusual in that he dresses like it is below zero, complete with face and hands covered, when it is hot and all the other guys are shirtless. In fact the temperatures recently are reaching about 90 during the day. When we asked why, several people guessed that Benny is trying to avoid getting darker skin, a common Filipino practice. In any case, it certainly looks uncomfortable to us.

After the guys were done gathering wood, we kept Benny on for a few more days to help Roy finish framing and roofing. One day Roy went by banca to Cabcaben to buy the 3X8 galvanized roofing sheets while Benny completed placing the roof beams. The guys took precautions to ensure that the roof would be tall enough for Steve to pass under without hitting his head, something he has done numerous times already at Ron’s when we’ve been there for dinner. When they finally nailed on the roof, the noise made it hard to keep writing this, since it is right outside our office window.

One day we went with Ron to Balanga to buy some needed cooking items, including a big pot with lid, a large kawali (wok), and an even larger kawali. We also bought round metal cooking tripods to be placed over the open fire, upon which the pots and kawalis will sit while cooking. Since we have eaten often at Ron’s, we had a good idea of what we wanted and were very successful in the Balanga Market.

We realized that there was a perfect place for a bench, so Roy and Benny built one out of bilogan and bamboo. It is very comfortable, since the bamboo strips, each about an inch wide, are slightly flexible. Since we have less concrete on the backside of the house, and because the dirty kitchen means more roof and therefore more shade, we also now have a hammock hanging from the rafters. For those of you who have never used one, it takes some getting used to. Getting on and off requires a certain technique to ensure that you don’t dump yourself right out. Also, they have a tendency to sway, so if you are subject to motion sickness you might want to think twice about one. For this reason the hammock will probably be Steve’s alone. Marcia is content to read while sitting on the bench, having already had enough years of equilibrium issues.

The soil was put into the frame, after having been sifted for stones and live ammunition. After all, we wouldn’t want a .45 caliber shell to go off and ruin our dinner. Ron told us to buy about a kilo of salt. He came over and sprinkled the salt on top of the soil, watered the surface, then tamped it down. The solid surface keeps the cooking tripods from sinking in, while the salt attracts moisture, making the surface safer for fire. The fire-pit area has solid walls on the house and back sides, while the side away from the house has a bamboo strip wall to help vent smoke away from the window and the chef. It is pretty effective aside from the occasional wind gust from the backyard.

The last steps were making an eating table, and chopping and splitting wood. Roy made the table similarly to the utility table, using marine plywood for the top and bilogan for the legs and supports. Firewood is in abundant supply, both dead wood lying around, and the wood from the trees that had to come down to expose our solar panels.

Finally it was time test our new “dirty kitchen.” On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, we invited some of our friends for dinner. Quite by accident one of the main dishes was corned beef and cabbage. We were pleasantly surprised the first time it was served to us, and it is now one of our favorite dishes here. By the way, Filipinos for the most part have never heard of St. Patrick’s Day, but they do like the idea that he chased the snakes out of Ireland.

Philippine-style corned beef and cabbage:

1. Lightly brown some chopped garlic
2. Add chopped or sliced onion and sauté til soft
3. Add 2-3 small chopped tomatoes
4. Stir in a can or package of corned beef
5. Add one small head thinly sliced cabbage, stir and toss til it begins to soften, what is called “half-cook” here

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