I didn't know it until I started writing this particular post, but 5 years ago, I wrote about how I first learned to make the Filipino vegetable stew known as Pinakbet. In that old post, I boldly proclaimed that Pinakbet "is my most favorite food in the whole entire world times infinity!" (man, I was a wordsmith back in the day).
Fast forward 5 years and you know what? Pinakbet is STILL my most favorite food in the whole entire world times infinity! (man, I've still got it!!)
My fondness for the Filipino vegetable medley probably just stems from the stew being a part of my childhood and upbringing—it's a comfort food for me. And besides, with sweet and tangy tomatoes, bitter melon, a touch of fish sauce and a smattering of pork belly, I love the interplay of all of the 5 tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, Umami) in this dish.
Since learning how to make Pinakbet all those years ago, I estimate that I've probably made it well over 100 times (at least once a month for 5 years, plus a gajillion more times for my cookbook, you do the math).
But I've found that if you do something enough times, you start looking for different ways to make things interesting, not because you're bored or tired of the original, but just because you can. Probably kinda like how Kobe can throw up that occassional left-handed runner when there's absolutely no need to (I am by no means calling myself the "Kobe Bryant of Pinakbet Preparers." But maybe Nick Van Exel is more appropriate—my pinakbet is good and dependable, yet open to occassional fits of craziness [humblebrag]).
So that's what I did with my latest Pinakbet--I just did something a bit different for the heck of it, but with great results. This is a simple variation on the "classic" Filipino vegetable stew. And by "classic", I mean within the context of my own family. Your classic Pinakbet might contain cubes of kabocha squash, tender okra, lima beans, and a healthy smattering of Bagoong (fermented shrimp paste). And that's fine. But in my family, my Great Auntie Puyong (The Michael Jordan of Pinakbet Preparers) uses just tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggplant, bittermelon, longbeans, Lechon Kawali, and fish sauce. Simple. Straighforward. Streamlined. Just the way I like it.
OK. So now to that variation I was talking about. Actually, there's a couple. First, instead of Lechon Kawali, I use bacon in this version. Specifically, I roast a few slices of bacon in a roasting pan in the oven. After the bacon is nice and crisp, I remove it from the pan, but leave in the tasty drippings. Then I take my vegetables and throw them into the roasting pan and toss them about until they are all nice and slicked with bacon fat. And into the oven the vegetables go.
So, if you're keeping score at home, instead of layering the vegetables in a pot on the stovetop and steaming them in their own juices (the traditional way), they are roasted into submission in the oven. And like any other vegetables roasted in the oven, the Pinakbet veg obtain a certain sweetness that they could not have gotten by steaming (even the bitter melon, to a certain extent). The onions, garlic, and cherry tomatoes get especially sweet after a roast in the oven, and the eggplant acts like a sponge and soaks up much of the bacon fat and flavor.
Towards the end of roasting, I stir in a couple tablespoons of fish sauce. Admittedly, the finished Pinakbet is nowhere near as soupy as I usually like it (it's not soupy at all, in fact), but this drier version is a good change of pace.
Oh, and that bacon? It's crumbled atop everything just before serving.
Oven-Roasted Pinakbet with Bacon
4-6 slices bacon
1 pint cherry tomatoes, left whole
1 medium onion, sliced
6 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 Asian eggplant, cut in half lengthwise, and then cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 large bittermelon, cut in half lengthwise, seeds removed, and then cut into 1/2-inch chunks
15-20 longbeans, cut into 2-inch lengths
2 tablespoons fish sauce
Water, as needed
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Arrange the slices of bacon in a single layer in a large roasting pan. Place the bacon in the oven and roast until crispy, about 15 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a plate lined with paper towels and set aside. Drain all but 2 tablespoons of bacon fat from the pan.
Add all of the vegetables to the roasting pan and toss until everything is coated in the remaining bacon grease. Place the roasting pan into the oven and roast the vegetables for 30 minutes, gently tossing and stirring the vegetables every 10 minutes.
During the last 10 minutes of roasting, stir in the fish sauce. If you find that any of the vegetables begin to burn or stick to the pan, add a few tablespoons of water to deglaze. The vegetables are done when they are wilted, caramelized, and tender. Some cherry tomatoes will burst, some won't; it's all good.
Crumble the bacon over the vegetables just before serving. Serve with steamed white rice.