Spanish-inspired Filipino dishes, by their nature and historical origins, are labor-intensive operations— concocted in an era when elites had several cooks and dozens of household help.
You can cook them by yourself, certainly, but they will be a challenge. Help would be very useful, especially if you plan on serving these kinds of dishes—callos, paella, morcon, relleno, menudo, to name just a few—to a large crowd. These dishes require numerous, intricate steps, along with a variety of ingredients and cooking methods.
No wonder then that these kinds of food thrived in areas such as Pampanga, one bastion of the landed elite in Spanish-era Philippines. The Kapampangan ruling class had the means to buy the top ingredients, including imported jamon, quezo and chorizo from Spain, and could certainly afford to hire muy excelente cooks and a horde of kitchen helpers to produce the best dishes of that time.
Another province that didn’t have any problems then when it came to hiring many kitchen hands was Negros, home of the Filipino sugar barons. Their old wealth can still be seen in the majestic houses they left behind as well as in the area’s fine culinary tradition.
If you’re not of the landed class, but still want to cook these Spanish-inspired dishes, it absolutely can be done.
What you don’t have in terms of extra hands, you substitute for in organization: prep and cook in advance, a day or even two. Be sure though that these initial steps won’t affect the quality and taste of the final dish.
Of these dishes, I find that relleno is the easiest one for me to cook alone. Philippine cuisine boasts of numerous rellenos (chicken, bangus, squid, eggplant) but my favorite is crab relleno.
The Spaniards and Mexicans handed over to us the idea of a relleno, which comes from the Spanish word rellenar, which means to fill or stuff any meat, fish, or vegetable with complementary ingredients.
Mexico is famous for its chile relleno a mild pepper filled with either meat or cheese, dipped in a corn flour batter and then fried to perfection. The Basques of Spain have stuffed cangrejos from which our present day Rellenong Alimasag probably originated.
Unlike the other rellenos, however, I find that the simplest version works best for a crab relleno. The taste of alimasag (blue crabs) is subtly sweet and this can be drowned out by the addition of too many ingredients. Some people like adding raisins, potatoes, and other vegetables to the stuffing, but I like mine to be just a slightly upgraded version of the crabmeat.
The real joy in eating crab relleno is that you don’t have to wrestle it open, or deal with the shelling and pounding and the ensuing mess. Just raise your fork and dig into all that stuffed goodness.
1.5 kilos fresh blue crabs (alimasag), steamed
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 native tomatoes, chopped
red pepper flakes (optional)
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1. Wash the crabs very well under running water. Place them in a deep pot and add 1/2 cup of water, cover, and place over medium-high heat.
2. Cook the crabs for about 12 to15 minutes and when done leave it covered in the pot for about an hour, or until cool to the touch. (You can do this in advance, if you want to do the dish in stages. After the crabs have cooled store them in a well-sealed container in the refrigerator, up to three days.)
3. Flaking the crabs: This is the only difficult part, the rest is easy. Open a cooked crab by first lifting out its apron (if the apron is pointy the crab is a male, round if it’s female). Then position your fingers on the edges of the carapace and pry open. Remove the gills and other soft parts you don’t want to eat. Please keep the roe, and add with all the meat you can collect. The body will yield white meat, while those from the claws and legs are brown meat (use a mallet or pounder for this). You should be able to get 2 cups of meat from 1.5 kilos of cooked crabs.
4. In a large saute pan, heat up about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and then add the onions. Cook for about 2 minutes and then add the garlic, stir around for a few seconds, and then add the tomatoes. Mix around and let your aromatic base cook for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Add the flaked crabmeat, stir, and cook for another 2 minutes. Add some salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Taste the mixture, and then turn off the heat and set aside.
6. Crack into a bowl two eggs, a pinch of salt, and whisk lightly with a fork.
7. Next get your crab shells, a spoon, and your cooked crabmeat. Stuff the meat inside the shells, including the nooks, and try to end up with a round dish mound.
8. Clean the same sauté pan with paper towels and put on medium heat. Add some olive oil, not too much, just enough to cover lightly the entire pan. Spoon the egg mixture into the crab-filled shells, and tip into the hot oil, shell-side up. This will cook fast, about a minute or two, and take them out of the heat as soon as the eggs are cooked to your liking (a bit fried up for me).
9. Place the rellenos in a nice plate and garnish with some parsley or coriander leaves. Serve with freshly steamed white rice and—this is very Filipino—ketchup on the side.