Real Deal Bisque – It’s all about shellfish and great stock

I love serendipity. Yesterday, Jerry Lobdill, an old friend from Texas, got in touch looking for a shrimp bisque recipe. When I got home, Monica had bought fresh shrimp – That’s just gotta be a sign, right? I knew I had a recipe, and I do, but it turns out it hadn’t been published yet. Time to correct that glaring omission.

When you think ‘Bisque,’ what does that conjure in your minds eye? These days, it might be anything in a thick, rich creamy soup, and that’s sort of correct, but if we’re talking the genuine article, bisque is made with shellfish – lobster, crab, shrimp or crawfish. The key is starting with a great stock – If you don’t have that as the base of the dish, you ain’t got real bisque – It’s that simple.

Fresh, homemade stock is key to great bisque
Fresh, homemade stock is key to great bisque

That said, many things are called bisque these days, but really, that’s just done to sell stuff – Bisque sounds infinitely sexier than Cream of Whatever, doesn’t it? Fact is, the only thing I found on this site was Butternut Squash Bisque, so I’m guilty as charged. It’s high time we posted up the real deal.

Before we build, a bit of where bisque comes from. This thick, rustic soup goes back at least 500 years in France. Back when, it contained crushed seafood shells, even when the proteins involved were game, rather than shellfish. Bisque languished for a while before returning to the spotlight as a somewhat more refined dish in the late seventeenth century, (shells were still used to make the stock, but not crushed and left in, as they had been). There are many old saws about the name deriving from the Bay of Biscay, but that’s likely romanticizing – ‘Bis cuties’, roughly ‘twice cooked’, which reflects the creation of stock followed by a second cooking of the bisque itself, is the more likely root.

In any event, bisque may seem fussy and difficult, but it’s really not. If you’ve poked around here at all, you know we always start a soup or stew with homemade stock, and so should you. From absolute scratch, this stuff can be made in a couple of hours, and faster yet if you do stock one day and bisque the next.  The other must-have aspects of a genuine bisque are, a solid foundation made with fresh, aromatic bases, the freshest herbs you can get, and thickening done with a buerre manié, (more on the latter technique in a bit.) What we’ll detail here could be used with any of the shellfish I mentioned above, although you might want to tweak things a bit – like crab with mire poix and Irish whiskey subbed for the brandy, lobster with soffritto and rum,  or crawfish with a Cajun Holy Trinity and bourbon, or something else you come up with on your own – You get the idea.

Buerre manié - kneaded butter- The key to thickening soups, stews, and sauces.
Buerre manié – kneaded butter- The key to thickening soups, stews, and sauces.

A note on buerre manié, since that may be a new trick some of y’all. If you’ve ever wondered how professionals make such lovely, thick, shiny soups, stews, and sauces, this is how it’s done. Buerre manié is a classic French technique for thickening – it couldn’t be easier, and there’s no better way to get the job done. Buerre manié means kneaded butter, and that’s exactly what you do. Equal portions of butter and flour are combined by hand to form a smooth, uniform paste. What this does is evenly coat the flour with butter, allowing us to introduce prodigious thickening power without clumping – A most important thing, oui? Once mixed, you roll up roughly teaspoon sized balls of the stuff and add one at a time to whatever you need thickened, thoroughly whisking that into the mix, et viola – la perfection!

Finally, and as always, you want the freshest ingredients you can get, and that doesn’t just refer to the shellfish – Your aromatics, herbs, and dairy should be top notch as well. So here ya go, Jerry, and the rest of y’all as well.

 

Shrimp Bisque a la Urban

Medium Shrimp come 41-50 to the pound
Medium Shrimp come 41-50 to the pound

For the Stock

2 Quarts Water

Shells from 1 1/2 pounds of medium sized shrimp.

1/2 Cup yellow Onion, chopped

1/2 Cup Celery (Leaves are preferred), chopped

1/2 Cup Carrot, chopped

1/2 fresh Lemon

3 cloves fresh Garlic, crushed, skinned, and minced

5-6 whole peppercorns

2 Bay Leaves, (I like Turkish)

Two 3” sprigs fresh Thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried

1 Tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Fresh ground pepper

Pinch fine grind Salt

 

Shell, devein, and chop shrimp. Return shrimp to fridge and retain shells.

In a stock pot over medium high heat, add the olive oil and heat through. 

Add carrot and sauté for a couple of minutes. 

Add onion and celery, season lightly with salt and pepper, and sauté until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 2-3 minutes. 

Add garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates. 

Squeeze lemon juice into the pot, then toss the half lemon in as well. 

Add the shrimp shells, water, peppercorns, thyme, and bay leaves – Stir to incorporate.

Bring stock to a boil, then reduce heat to just maintain a simmer – Cook for one hour, uncovered.

Remove pot from heat and carefully pour stock through a single mesh strainer. Set stock aside, and discard the solids.

 

For the Bisque

1/4 Cup Heavy Cream

4 Tablespoons unsalted Butter 

2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste

2 teaspoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/2 teaspoon Turkish Oregano 

1/2 Teaspoon Lemon Thyme 

1/2 teaspoon Tarragon

2 Turkish Bay Leaves

2-4 shakes Tabasco

A few sprigs fresh Parsley, chopped fine

Salt

Fresh ground White Pepper

 

Reserve and set aside 8-10 whole shrimp. The rest should be shelled, deveined, and chopped.

Pull butter from fridge and set aside.

If you have fresh herbs, you can combine and mince them ahead of cooking.

In a Dutch oven over medium high heat, add olive oil and heat through.

Add carrot and sauté for a couple of minutes. 

Add onion and celery, season lightly with salt and pepper, and sauté until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 2-3 minutes. 

Add brandy and stir until raw booze smell dissipates.

Add tomato paste, and all herbs – Stir to incorporate and sauté for 2 minutes.

Add stock, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a bare simmer and cook for 60 minutes.

Carefully process bisque with an immersion blender, until you have a smooth, even consistency.

Add a couple shakes of Tabasco, taste, and adjust salt and pepper as desired.

In a small mixing bowl or cup, combine flour and butter and knead by hand until you’ve got a nice, uniform paste – This is a Beurre Manié – The classic French thickener for soups and stews.

Add beurre manié a teaspoon at a time, whisking it into the bisque – Once that’s all introduced, simmer for another 5 minutes.

Whisking constantly, slowly add cream in a thin stream.

Increase temperature to medium, (you want a rolling boil).

Add the shrimp and cook for another 15 minutes.

Ladle into bowls, garnish with a couple whole shrimp and a pinch of parsley.

Serve hot, with crusty bread and a nice dry white wine or cider.

Shrimp Bisque
Shrimp Bisque

Weighing In on Great Cookies

T’is the season for cookies, right? If you’ve got favorites or old family recipes that you love, I say cherish them, and certainly don’t mess with them – share them, and pass them on to your kids. If, on the other hand, you’ve tried other recipes and been sorely vexed and/or disappointed by the results, there’s a good chance you’re not to blame. Why is that? Most likely, it’s then that ratio thing – The thing that’s so vital to cooking, and especially to baking. Done right, cookies are easy as 1, 2, 3 – But not everyone follows the rules – It’s time to weigh in on that.

Which means we’re talking about that ratio thing – it’s 1, 2, 3, as in one part sugar, to two parts fat, to three parts flour. Subscribe to that, and the cookies world’s your oyster. Violation of this ratio, on the other hand, will likely not yield good results, and therein lies the problem with a lot of the recipes you find online, or in poorly researched cookbooks.

It would be fair to ask, how do I know this to be true? Well, let me say this about that. I got an idea for a dried cherry/chocolate/almond cookie, but was short on time and not thinking very clearly. I grabbed something off the net that was kinda close, and subbed my stuff for theirs – equal amounts of dried fruit and nuts, (albeit theirs used cranberries and walnuts). What I got was a very tasty cookie out of the oven, although they were a bit wetter and flatter than I wanted. The next day, they fell apart. Just sitting in a storage box, they fell apart – a box of somewhat gooey cookie crumbs. I grabbed that original recipe and took a closer look. Their ratio was somewhere around 3-3-2, flour to fat to sugar, and that would explain my less than stellar results. My bad, and lesson reinforced. If you know the ratio, it’s easier to start from scratch than it is to trust a recipe from somewhere else.

The first bake - The absolutely wrong ratio The first bake – The absolutely wrong ratio

The other major contributor to epic baking fails is the use of volume measurements in recipes, instead of weight. Most professional bakers around the globe weigh rather than measure, for very sound reasons. Weighing ingredients is far, far more reliable, because you get much more accurate ratios. Fundamentally, a gram is a gram the world around, but a cup most definitely is not. ‘1 Cup’ can mean anything from .85 to 1.20 of a US Cup, and that’s a wide enough margin to cause issues. It all adds up to the fact that, if you want to learn to bake really well, you’re going to need to start weighing ingredients. 

That’ll require a decent digital kitchen scale, which are cheap and readily available. Get one that has a generous bowl for doing the deed, and portioning out ingredients for most home recipes is a breeze. Is it worth twenty bucks and a very simple learning curve to become a better home baker? Yeah, it is.

The very cool thing about all this is that it opens up the world of design-your-own recipes, rather than relying on someone else’s. The next thing you know, you’ll be using cookbooks for inspiration or reference, or for the love of what the author did, not because you need them to follow recipes.

Alright, so, if we’re committed, then let us examine ingredients a bit more, then a few thoughts on technique.

Flour. What type we use matters – unbleached white pastry or all purpose are the preferred options for cookies. Pastry flour has less protein than AP, (but more than cake flour), so it strikes a great balance of flaky and tender. Bleached is a no no, as the bleaching process messes with proteins, leading to reduced gluten production, (AKA cookies that don’t hold together well). Combining flours may be a thing you’ll want to do, depending on what you’re after. The classic Scottish shortbread recipe calls for unbleached all purpose white and rice flour, for instance. Whole grain flours add a denser, nuttier end result. A good rule of thumb is to use no more than 30% of those in your mix, (which doesn’t discount those who do a bunch more – to each their own.) Varied flour ratios lead to different results, of course. A higher proportion of flour versus the liquid contained in your chosen fat and eggs leads to a more tender crumb, (and a more delicate cookie.) A lower proportion generally produces a chewier texture. Note – if you do use a recipe that simply calls for flour, they mean unbleached white all purpose.

Sweeteners. Sugar isn’t the only thing you can or should use in a cookie recipe, but it’s far and away the most popular. In addition to its sweetening power, sugar helps cookies brown, (caramelization), and contributes to crispiness by sucking up some moisture from the dough. Sugar also helps cookies spread out as they bake, (and if the ratio’s off, as it was in my first go round, then oh boy, do they.) There are a bunch of sugars out there. Some folks think that pure cane tastes better than stuff made from sugar beets. There’s bakers sugar, which is a pure cane sugar that’s ground finer than the regular stuff – it does everything a bit more efficiently. Brown sugar adds a bit of moisture to the mix by virtue of added or retained molasses – That contributes to a softer, chewier texture.

Speaking of molasses, that and a bunch of other things, like corn syrup (uggh!), maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave nectar and good old honey can also be used. I recommend keeping maple syrup to the adjunct column, (it’s strongly flavored and expensive). Honey and agave nectar are popular substitutions these days, and for good reason – They add flavor notes plain old sugar can’t, and have far greater sweetening power. Due to the latter consideration, there are adjustments that must be made when using them – Honey is roughly twice as potent as sugar, and agave nectar around 3/4 more, so sweetener volume, and overall moisture, must be tweaked accordingly. Both are also somewhat acidic, so you’ll want baking soda in your recipe to balance that out. Both should be added and blended with fat prior to adding flour, just as you would with sugar. Finally, it’s a good rule of thumb to reduce your baking temperature by 25° F, because both agave and honey brown faster than sugar.

Fats. Butter is far and away the most common version used, although there are far more options out there – shortening, lard, ghee, cream cheese, heavy cream, various cooking oils, or combinations thereof can and are used in baking. Using any of those will give you differing results, of course – While most of what’s listed above won’t make a huge difference in color or texture, they will in terms of flavor, so be prepared to experiment. That said, fats don’t just add calories, they impact every aspect of a recipe, from overall consistency, to how they bake. For instance, butter has a notably lower melting point than many of the others noted herein, so if you see a recipe calling for half butter and half shortening or lard, what the maker was likely after was a cookie that wouldn’t end up as thin and crispy as a pure butter version would. When and if you use butter, use unsalted, because salted varies widely in how much salt is onboard.

Not all cookie recipes contain eggs, but most do, and for darn good reasons – they contribute significantly to the whole shebang. Eggs act as the largely unsung framework upon which everything else in a dough depends. They add moisture, lecithin (an emulsifier that helps disparate constituents get together), fat, and of course, protein. They help gluten do its thing, and contribute appreciably to flavor, texture, and mouth feel.

Leavening of some kind is present in the vast majority of cookie recipes. Baking soda helps cookies rise, and as mentioned, can neutralize acids like sugar and honey which, left unchecked, can mess with browning. Baking powder will also give a lift, and contribute to a lighter texture as well. Both add lift by generating CO2. Baking soda is pure bicarbonate of soda, while baking powder is that plus cream of tartar (an acidifier) and starch, used as a drying agent. If you’ve never noticed, there are single and double acting baking powders – Single means it needs moisture to activate and must be baked right away – Double means some gas gets generated right away, but most does not until baking begins, so it can hang for a time without negative effects.

Salt may be a minor ingredient, but it’s a critical one. Its unique ability to enhance flavor, separating molecules and making them available to our noses, is unmatched. It also helps strengthen the proteins within a dough, contributing to a nice chewy cookie. There’s a bunch of salts out there, and we’ve covered a lot about them here, (including our recent post on plastics in sea salts). In addition to a whole raft of varieties, these days you can also readily find different grinds. Used to be you’d need to find pickling or canning salt for a fine grind – now that’s widely available, and that’s what you want for baking – it disperses and blends much better than the coarser stuff.

Alright, let’s discuss technique. This may seem fussy, but in the end run, if you’re after making more than just a good cookie, it matters.

It is a best practice to have all your ingredients at room temperature when you’re ready to make a dough. One of the key things we need to accomplish when we do that, is to allow combined ingredients to form an emulsion that will trap and hold a fair amount of air – that’s what expands when we bake, yielding a light, fluffy cookie. Having your fat and eggs at room temperature lets a creamed mixture do exactly that – cold ingredients will impede that process.

Next, sift your dry ingredients. If you don’t have a sifter, run them through a ingle mesh strainer into a mixing bowl. Sifted flour, leavening, chocolate, what have you, is lighter, and incorporates better than non.

Creaming is what it’s called when we perform the most critical step in great cookie making – combing the fat and sugars and whisking them into a smooth, fluffy emulsion. This uniform, air injected blend is critical – Leavening agents produce CO2, yes, but they won’t do it well if they don’t have the trapped air, combined with a well mixed emulsion to hold it all in.

Once you’ve added the dry ingredients to the wet and have them uniformly mixed, stop messing with the dough – Excessive handling leads to tough cookies. 

Bake in the lower middle section of your oven, bake one sheet of cookies at a time, and spin the sheet 180° half way through the bake – All those little things add up to greater consistency and better goodies. If you really want to get after it, calibrate your oven with an external thermometer, so you know what yours really bakes at, (At work, we get right down to zone temps in our deck and rack ovens, so we know precisely where the hot and cold spots are.)

Here then is my correct recipe for chocolate, almond and cherry cookies. This will make 2-3 dozen cookies, depending on how big you portion. And yeah, it’s in grams – That’s how the rest of the world works, so we might as well get with the program. And yeah, I did give you volume cheats, too, just in case you chicken out – using those will still make a pretty good cookie.

The second bake - The right ratio - Yes, please! The second bake – The right ratio – Yes, please!

Chocolate, Almond & Cherry Cookies (2-3 dozen)

380 grams All Purpose Flour (3 Cups)

230 grams Unsalted Butter (2 sticks)

100 grams Bakers Sugar (1/2 Cup)

80 grams Dark Brown Sugar (1/2 Cup)

115 grams dried Bing Cherries (1/2 Cup)

115 grams slivered Almonds (1/2 Cup)

340 grams semi-sweet Chocolate chunks (12 ounce bag)

2 large Eggs

10 grams Vanilla Bean paste, (extract is fine too – 2 teaspoons)

4 grams Baking Soda (1 teaspoon)

4 grams fine Salt (1/2 teaspoon)

Have your eggs and butter at room temperature before proceeding.

In a cast iron skillet over medium heat, toast the almonds, stirring regularly and keeping a close eye that they don’t scorch. Remove from heat when they’re golden brown and fragrant.

When the almonds have cooled sufficiently, chop them into roughly 1/4” pieces, and set aside.

Chop cherries into roughly pea sized pieces, and set aside.

Run flour and baking soda through a sifter or single mesh strainer, into a large mixing bowl.

For the lions share of the process, a stand mixer is preferred, but if you don’t have one, you can hand whisk – Just be forewarned, it’s going to be a bit of a workout.

In a stand mixer bowl set up with a paddle, add the butter and mix on low until it’s smooth and even – about 2 minutes. 

Stop the mixer, and use a spatula to scrape the butter down from the bowl sides and paddle.

Add the sugars and salt and mix on low until the blend is smooth, about 1-2 minutes.

Again, stop the mixer, and use a spatula to scrape the creamed mixture down from the bowl sides and paddle.

Add an egg and the vanilla paste to the creamed mixture and mix on low until fully incorporated – No more than 30 seconds. Repeat the process with the second egg, and again, 15 to 30 seconds tops – You don’t want to over-beat the eggs.

With the mixer on low, gradually add the flour mixture, and mix until fully incorporated – Stop as soon as that’s achieved.

Remove the bowl from the mixer, and add chocolate, cherries, and almonds, and incorporate with a spatula, until evenly mixed.

Now that it’s mixed, you can chill your dough – for at least an hour, if you want a taller, lighter cookie. If you prefer things a bit flatter and crunchier, go ahead and bake. That said, if you’ve got a really warm kitchen, it’s a good idea to chill the dough for at least a half hour before baking, just to make sure things don’t get too loose.

If you don’t plan to bake right away, just transfer the dough onto parchment paper, and roll it into a log about 1 1/2” thick, then add a layer of aluminum foil. That’ll hold in the fridge for a week, no problem. It’ll also freeze well for up to a month – Just let the dough thaw for 15-30 minutes before cutting off 1/3” to 1/2” thick slices, and then bake away.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat oven to 350° F, and position a rack in the lower middle section.

Line a baking sheet with parchment, or use a silicone baking mat.

Scoop heaping tablespoons of dough onto the sheet, about 2” to 3” apart.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, spinning the sheet 180° at about 6 minutes in.

Remove the sheet from oven, and slide the parchment or silicone onto a cutting board, cooling rack, etc.

Let them cool for 10 minutes or so before you dig in, and for at least a half hour before you store them – an airtight glass container is best.

Ch, Ch, Changes, (and more coming)

It’s way past time for some remodeling hereabouts – Lots of cool things underway.

First off, I’ve cleaned up the general appearance of the site – Much less cluttered, and a pretty cool, retro kinda theme thing going too. You’ll find that posts stand out much better. Sidebar images have been removed, which makes things easier to read – I think the colors make for a much better look, (and they match our business cards too!)

I’ve also completely revised the Pages for Chiles, Herbs & Spices, and Sources & Suppliers, fleshing them out and making sure they’re up to date. There’s also a new, dedicated contact page, instead of a hard to find widget.

Poke around when you need some inspiration, new stuff, or just have a question.

if you don’t see something there you need, let us know, and we’ll find it for you.

I’ll be adding a few new pages as well – We’ll start with revising and expanding former posts on Essential Knives, and Knife Use and Care. Going forward, those will be much easier to find and use.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Roasted Pumpkin seeds, AKA Pepitas, are a great treat, and as is the case with many seeds, pretty good for you, too.

My Cousin Sally writes,
OK, Eben – Halloween is upon us, which means it’s time to nom on delicious toasted pumpkin seeds! Yay! But here’s the dilemma… Recipes on the Internet vary from 250 degrees to 400 degrees and 7 minutes to 50 minutes. And some recipes boil the little suckers before toasting! What the heck. Thoughts??
P.S. I used to go with the soy sauce and seasoned salt route, but now I’m a fan of the olive oil and sea salt mix. But I’m perplexed by the temp and time…

Sugar Pumpkins - Many good things inside!
Sugar Pumpkins – Many good things inside!

Great question! Here’s the drill for making great roasted pumpkin seeds every time.

Remove seeds from sugar pumpkins, and by golly, save or use that flesh for wonderful things, like Pumpkin Flan. Roasted seeds make a great garnish for squash bisque, and make a fabulous garnish on Oaxacan style chiles rellenos.

Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.
Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.

Simmering the seeds in salted water is a must-do – It helps make the seed covers less chewy, more crunchy, and also gets seasoning deeper into the seeds. It also helps remove any residual stringy stuff.

Use 4 Cups of water with 2 teaspoons salt for every Cup of seeds.

Bring salted water to a boil, then add seeds, stir, and reduce temp to maintain a steady simmer.
Cook for 10 minutes, then drain through a single mesh strainer.
Pat dry with paper toweling.

Preheat oven to 400° F – High temp roasting will give the crunchiest, most consistent results.
Note that Avocado oil is especially good for this – it’s got the highest smoke point.

Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.
Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.

Season each cup of seeds with,
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil, (Olive or vegetable oil is OK)
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
Optional –
1/2 teaspoon chile flake or powder

Savory seasonings work better than sweet, as the sugars tend to make seeds prone to burning in a high temp roast. Any combo you like is worth trying – Soy-Lime-Garlic, Lemon Thyme & Sea Salt, Smoked Salt and cracked Pepper, etc. Our Go To Seasoned Salt is fantastic here.

If you really want a sweet version, roast seeds with just the oil, then add sweet seasoning after the roast – The oil will help it stick, and you won’t burn your goodies.

Roast, evenly spread on a baking sheet, for 18 to 20 minutes, until nicely toasted.

Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake
Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake

Remove from oven and baking sheet, allow to cool before decimating.

And as my Sis, Ann Lovejoy notes over in her wonderful blog, “Store pepitos in a tightly sealed jar out of direct light for up to 2 months or freeze them for longer storage.”

And Happy Halloween!

Time to explore some salt-free seasonings

For most of us, Salt is a must in the kitchen. When the term ‘season lightly’ is bandied about, it almost always means add salt and ground pepper to taste. As I’ve noted here in many, many times, one of the major differences between home cooks and Pros is the judicious use of salt and pepper throughout the cooking process – Seasoning lightly in layers. If you often read electronically as I do, take any of your cookbooks and do a word search for salt – Guaranteed it’ll come up more than any other term in most, if not all of them you own and use. In other words, the influence of salt in cooking is felt damn near everywhere – So what to do when you simply can’t have that mineral any more? Time to explore some salt-free seasonings. 

Salt’s ubiquity in cooking isn’t a mistake. In addition to being used as a preservative for thousands of years, salt does yeoman’s duty in waking up or suppressing certain flavors. Ever wonder why something like a cake recipe often calls for a pinch of salt? Its presence rounds out how we taste, smell, and feel food in our mouths – Even sweet stuff. Taste a fresh batch of soup or stew without salt in it, and the vast majority of us will note something to the effect of, it tastes bland, off, flat, no backbone, and so on. A dish that we expect to note the presence of salt within, and doesn’t have it, will seem incomplete or out of balance. As oft noted in the food world, we eat through our sense of smell as much as we do taste, and here again, salt plays a pivotal role – It enhances the volatility of many aromatic components, making their presence much more notable to our schnozes – It does this by freeing aromatic scents from the foods in question, thereby making them more intense to our perception. It wouldn’t be out of line to state that our brains have salt receptors – When it senses salt where we think it should be, it’s a happy brain, and vice verse when it’s not there – That’s powerful stuff.

Sodium chloride is a mineral, which is fairly unique, food-wise. Given its broad power in the kitchen, salt becomes an imposing thing to do without, or to adequately compensate for the absence thereof. An old friend contacted me yesterday, asking for salt free seasoning blends. Her Hubby recently suffered a serious medical setback, and as such, his Docs say no mas with salt. Medical and dietary restrictions are the primary reasons folks are forced to give the stuff up. When it’s medical, it’s serious – a guy really can’t cheat and expect to recover fully or quickly. The current trend in medical thinks says too much salt isn’t good for your blood pressure, heart, liver, or kidneys, and can lead to increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. But absolutely no salt isn’t that great for you either – The indication being that moderate salt intake affords some protection from those ills, while an absolutely zero salt diet probably does not. It has some critical functions, acting as an electrolyte to balance fluid, as well as aiding nerve and muscle function. But again, that’s moderate use. 

The WHO calls moderate less than 5 grams daily intake, but that’s for sodium as a whole, not just salt. If one’s diet includes regular doses of fast food, and/or highly processed foods in general, chances are good you’re taking in far, far more than that – Often two or more times that RDA, in fact – The FDA claims that roughly 11% of our sodium intake in this country comes from an actual salt shaker, while over 75% of it is derived from packaged, processed food. Let that sink in for a sec…

In other words, it’s not at all out of line to say that most American’s problems with sodium doesn’t come from seasoning, but from eating shitty food. That’s easily remedied, in a way – Get rid of the junk, and you’re mostly good – Or as I used to teach in first aid classes, just go around the outer ring of the grocery store. That way, you’ll get produce, protein, dairy, and beer – And most of what’s in the inside probably ain’t all that great for you, anyway… Of course, just stopping eating a high sodium diet, and still enjoying what you eat, isn’t as easily said as done – Doing that takes some help – and that’s where low or no salt spice blends come in.

If you’ve poked around here, then you know most of the blends I’ve offered do contain a fair amount of salt. Many commercial seasoning blends contain salt first and foremost, for the reasons detailed herein, so how should we compensate? Salt free or damn near is an obvious step, but not a fulfilling one necessarily – Perhaps we should rephrase the question as, how do we compensate with something that will adequately fill the taste and flavor enhancing qualities of salt? The quick answer is acid and umami.

When reviewing the ingredients in commercial no salt seasoning blends, (and how many of us actually do that, by the way?), it becomes readily apparent that the most popular contain at least an acidic constituent, usually powdered citrus or vinegar. Yet quite a few have no viable salt substitute at all. To me, this is a no brainer – If we’re out to successfully replace salt, there must be something effective in its place. Flavor balance among the primary tastes, (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, and possibly kokumi, described as mouthfulness or heartiness), is a key to great overall taste, and a key to many cuisines, especially Asian. Simply removing salt without compensating for and considering the other primary taste factors is unlikely to yield a satisfying result. Again, acidity and umami are the primary candidates to fix that.

Umami is often regarded as being closely associated with MSG, monosodium glutamate, the sodium salt of glutamate. Contrary to a lot of common myth, MSG is not unnatural – It occurs in many foods, (It’s why we dig Parmigiano-Reggiano and tomatoes, among others), and it’s found in our bodies as an amino acid. Granted, there are some folks who don’t tolerate it well, but there are also, to my knowledge, no viable studies that tie MSG to nerve damage, as has been broadly claimed in the past, and many of the studies that found it deleterious to health involved people ingesting quantities far above anything us relatively sane folk would do. MSG contains appreciably less sodium per weight than regular salt, and as such certainly can be considered as a viable constituent of a low salt seasoning blend. Pure MSG is available readily, as are MSG powered seasonings like Maggi. The latter is a good candidate for a spice blend, (it comes in cube form as well as liquid), as a very little bit added to an herb blend packs a big umami/salt punch. Maggi has a bunch of other things in it, herbs, aromatic bases, and the like, depending on where it’s made – Swiss in origin, there are variants made all over the world, and they’re all unique. All that said, if MSG just isn’t on your list, then consider acids.

When it comes to salt free home made spice blends, citrus or vinegar are excellent salt substitutes. Both can be bought powdered, as can lime, lemon, and orange, and all of those in very pure form – These are spray dried, and contain nothing but dried citrus juice. You can also buy, or dry at home, citrus and citrus peel, albeit they won’t have nearly the punch, weight per weight, that dried juice will. As stand alones, or perhaps with the tiniest touch of MSG or regular salt, acids can be effective and satisfying salt replacements.

Next, let us consider the best herbs and spices to employ. This is where things get fun, because replacing or reducing salt calls for the use of what may be considered somewhat exotic ingredients. While there really aren’t any spices, herbs, or aromatic bases that taste salty, there are quite a few that can add their own unique punch to a blend – Something that can contribute to that sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami balance and fill in the missing pieces. Alliums, like garlic, onion, and fennel can do a lot in this regard. So can chiles, throughout their range of heat and smokiness – everything from cayenne to Piment d’Espelette, urfa biber to pepperoncino, or Szechuan to Thai, and any of a hundred other regional gems in this vein. Then consider some of the warmer spices that may not usually make it into your thinking for every day spice blends – Cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander, and nutmeg come to mind. No, these won’t replace salt, but they can provide a balanced flavor profile that intrigues a tongue dismayed by the lack of a favorite thing – This stuff is all about receptors – in our tongues, eyes, noses, and brains – Whatever we need to do to adequately fill the void is the ticket. Add to this the heady, heavier notes of traditional constituents like basil, bay, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, and sage, and you’re in the wheelhouse.

The final consideration is proportion. This really will depend on what you’re building. Let’s say we go for something you’d like to use as an every day blend, something that could go on a wide variety of dishes as a salt based blend might. If it’s me, I’m going allium heavy, with onion and garlic leading the way. How about a Mexican based blend? Chiles are the obvious lead, with pepper as a close second. Speaking of pepper, how about that as a lead? I’d follow it with alliums and sweet pepper notes. Something for poultry? How about paprika, onion, chiles, lemon and some floral herbs? 

I think, and trust, that y’all get the idea. I’ll put a few of my ideas up, but here as always – and especially here, where it may be really important to y’all – I need you to take this and run with it. There are no truly bad choices. If you’re unsure of where you’re going, make a tiny batch and see what you think. Tweak that and get where you want to be, and then, guaranteed, one day you’ll use it and think, ‘this is good, but I should…’ and the answer to that is damn near always, ‘yes, do!’

With all of these blends, combine and mix thoroughly. If you’re starting with whole spices, grind them fine. I transfer blends to a shaker topped glass jar, stored away from direct sunlight. Depending on the gauge of your shaker top, you may need to run the finished blend through a single mesh strainer to make sure it’ll flow well. Caking can be an issue, especially in humid environments. Calcium Phosphate is yet another edible rock that does yeoman’s duty as an anti-caking agent. It’s readily available online, and yes, it’s perfectly fine to use and consume – A teaspoon or two in any of these blends should do the trick.

 

Urban’s Every Day Lo Salt Blend

2 Tablespoons granulated Onion

1 Tablespoon granulated Garlic

1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika

1 teaspoon dried Mustard

1 teaspoon ground Pepper

1 teaspoon powdered Lemon

1/2 teaspoon Sage

1/4 teaspoon Maggi seasoning

 

Urb’s Low Salt Pepper Blend

2 Tablespoons ground Black Pepper.

1 Tablespoon ground Red Pepper

1 teaspoon ground Green Pepper

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground Celery Seed

1/4 teaspoon Maggi seasoning

 

Garlicky No Salt Blend

2 Tablespoons granulated Garlic

2 teaspoon powdered Lemon

2 teaspoon ground Tellicherry Pepper

1 teaspoon Urfa Biber

1 teaspoon Vinegar powder

 

Urb’s No Salt Mex Blend

1 Tablespoon ground Ancho chile 

1 Tablespoon ground Pasilla chile 

1 teaspoon ground Chipotle chile

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground Coriander

1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

1/2 teaspoon ground Cumin

 

Urb’s No Salt Poultry Blend

1 Tablespoon sweet Paprika

1 Tablespoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon powdered Lemon

1 teaspoon ground Pepper

1/2 teaspoon Chile flake

1/2 teaspoon granulated Honey

1/2 teaspoon Sage

1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

 

Urb’s No Salt Italian Blend

1 Tablespoon Basil

1 Tablespoon Oregano

1 teaspoon Rosemary

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar

1/2 teaspoon powdered Lemon

1/2 teaspoon Marjoram

 

Urban Chinese Five Spice Blend

1 Tablespoon whole Szechuan Peppercorns

3 whole Star Anise

1 stick Cassia Bark (AKA Chinese Cinnamon)

2 teaspoons whole Cloves

2 teaspoons whole Fennel Seed

Allow a dry, cast iron skillet to heat through over medium heat.

Add Szechuan pepper, star anise, cloves, and fennel seed to the pan. Toast the spices until they’re notably fragrant, about 3 to 5 minutes. Keep the spices moving constantly to avoid scorching.

Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Add the toasted spices and cassia to a spice grinder, blender, mortar and pestle, or whatever you use to grind spices. Pulse the blend to a uniform rough powder.

Makin’ Bacon

Love bacon? Love good bacon? Seen the prices lately? Us too! That little revelation led us to home made, courtesy of Michael Ruhlman.

I started our odyssey with a search for pork belly locally, which wasn’t as easy to find as I thought it’d be. Eventually, we found roughly 15 pound packs at Cash and Carry for $3.15 a pound. We took that home, divided it into 2 1/2 pound batches, and went to town.

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Our first batch was made straight from Ruhlman’s recipe. It turned out great, but it wasn’t exactly what I want in my perfect bacon. Having no doubt that experimentation is almost always a good thing, we analyzed the results and decided that Ruhlman’s would be, for us, perfect lunch and dinner bacon, but not breakfast. We found Michael’s recipe a touch salty, even when we’d carefully weighed the pork belly and salt; further, we felt that while the bay leaf, nutmeg, garlic and thyme in that recipe added glorious floral notes perfect for lardons, and stellar for carbonara, it was a bit much for our breakfast palate, so we set out to build our perfect breakfast bacon.

While one needs to stick pretty closely to the 1.5:1 salt to curing salt ratio for proper bacon, you have relative freedom with the other ingredients, so we revamped with our chosen notes, less salt, more sugar, Grains of Paradise for that unique pepper note we love, brown mustard seed for the tang, and a little smoke.

The results were spot on, and we’re happy campers!

2.5 pounds Pork Belly
1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar or real Maple Syrup
1 Ounces Flaked Salt
1.5 teaspoons Pink Curing Salt, (Sodium Nitrite)
2 Tablespoons Grains of Paradise, coarsely ground
2 teaspoons Brown Mustard seed, coarsely
1 teaspoon Smoke Powder

Mix all dry rub ingredients except the smoke powder together in a bowl.

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Set your belly on a baking dish or sheet tray.

Rub the cure onto and well into all surfaces of the belly. Take your time and work it right in there evenly and completely.

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Place your belly into 1 a gallon Ziplock bag, press the excess air out, and set it in the back of your fridge for 3 days.

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On day 4, pull out your belly and rub everything back into the flesh again. Set ‘er back into the fridge for another 3 days.

And on the 7th day, there be bacon…

Pull your belly outta the bag, rinse your sink well and then stick the belly under nice, cold running water and rinse all the cure off, giving it a good rub as you do.

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Preheat oven to 200 F.

Pat your belly dry with paper towels and set into a glass baking dish or a sheet pan.

Rub the smoke powder evenly and thoroughly into your belly.

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Roast for 90 minutes, or until your internal temp reaches 150 F.

Remove from oven, allow to cool, and then repackage in a ziplock in the fridge. It’ll last as long as store bought, or maybe a bit less, since it has less bullshit stuff in it; anyway, I’d bet that after you try it, lasting long won’t be an issue…

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You can freeze bacon, but not for more than about a month. If you do freeze it, you’ll want all the air you can out of the bag so, again, vacuum sealing is best.

You can also sub Honey or Agave Nectar for the sugar and get some pretty nice flavor variations. Our family also likes peppered bacon, and for that we’ll layer on a bit of olive oil and ground, black pepper for the roast.

Big thanks to Michael Ruhlman for a wonderful charcuterie book, and for encouraging experimentation. Now it’s your turn, and make sure you try his recipe, because it rocks and it just might be your all-around fave!

Enjoy!

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It’s Fall – Time for Roasted Tomato Sauce.

It’s Fall, which means that here, anyway, the tomatoes rule the garden when many other crops have moved on. If you plant any reasonable amount of them, you run into ‘what to do’ quite quickly – It’s absolutely not OK to let them rot, of course – preservation is a must, but so is fresh use – When you can go outside and hand pick your tomatoes for any meal, its a thing to be cherished, far as I’m concerned.

Virginia Sweets on the vine, ready for dinner prep
Virginia Sweets on the vine, ready for dinner prep

Then you’re into a decision – whether to make something that uses fresh or cooked, but hey – Why not do both? there’s arguably no finer use of fresh from the garden tomatoes than great sauce for pasta and a nice, crisp salad on the side.

There’s a big camp behind the championing of canned tomatoes for sauces, and I get that – There are plenty of times when that’s what I’ll go for too – But not when a fresh alternative is right out the door. Besides, whether it’s a San Marzano, or any other designer breed, a canned tomato is still a canned tomato. It’s processed, and you simply must cook with them, if for no other reason than to disperse the taste of can. Frankly, I don’t care how good the original fruit was – It’s been living in a can, OK? All that aside, the canned camp will further exclaim that most tomatoes we can afford in the store suck for taste, and they would not be wrong – Excluding farmers markets and CSAs, and damn near anything you grow in your own garden, of course.

Finally, Canites claim their stuff has it all over fresh for juice, something you certainly desire in a good sauce. Depending on what you grow, it can take quite a lot of tomatoes to reach the equivalent of a couple of cans – Be that as it may, it’s my experience, and that of most gardeners I know, that home grown crop volumes are not a problem. Frankly, if you use more fresh tomatoes than you would canned in order to achieve a commensurate volume of sauce, one could logically argue that you’ll produce a richer, more complex product, (and the fresh pectin makes for nice thickening, too). Finally, roasting fresh tomatoes will produce all the lovely juice you could possibly want, and deepens the flavor profile as well – That’s game over, far as I’m concerned.

30 minutes at 400° F yields perfect roasted tomatoes
30 minutes at 400° F yields perfect roasted tomatoes

This year, we grew Mighty Matos, grafted plants that produce astounding yields and quality. Ours come from Log House Plants out of Cottage Grove, Oregon. If your local nursery doesn’t carry Mighty Matos, bug them until they do – The yield, quality, disease resistance, and heartiness of these plants is truly stunning. One of their varieties is the Virginia Sweet, a large, fluted, truly lovely little beast. What initially starts out as pale green ripens through orange to orange-red monsters of a pound or more – They’re an heirloom, beefsteak variety with a rich, tangy-sweet flavor that shines in sauces, salsa, and anything else you can think of. I highly recommend you try them next year.

Really, with ingredients this fresh, the trick is to go minimalist, and not add or do too much to what nature has already perfected. The recipe below makes plenty for 4 to 6 folks, or avanzi per due, (leftovers for two, I think…) A classic soffritto provides all the backbone you’ll need. You can scale this up or back quiet easily, too.

Fresh Tomato Pasta Sauce

12 – 16 fresh Tomatoes (pick enough to fill a baking sheet, and you’re good to go)

(Optional) 1 Pound fresh ground Pork

1/2 Cup Onion

1/2 Cup Carrot

1/2 Cup Celery

4-6 cloves fresh Garlic

1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/4 Cup hearty Red Wine

4-6 leaves fresh Basil

1 sprig fresh Parsley, (or 1 Tablespoon dry)

Shake or two of ground Chile

Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste.

Dice onion, carrot, and celery, smash and mince garlic.

Roll and chiffonade basil leaves, mince the parsley.

Preheat oven to 400° F and set a rack in the middle position.

Cut all of your tomatoes in half, (if you like some fresh in your sauce, leave two or three out and just dice them)

Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet, and add tomatoes, cut sides down. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and drizzle with a little more olive oil.

Roast for 30 minutes, then remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle.

Measure and assemble remaining ingredients, then set your mise en place beside your stove for easy access.

When you cook, get your mise en place right, every time
When you cook, get your mise en place right, every time

In a stew pot, Dutch oven, or big, heavy skillet over medium heat, add the pork if you’re using that. Sauté until evenly browned, then transfer the meat to a large bowl, leaving the juices and fat in the cooking vessel.

Fresh ground pork isn’t absolutely necessary, but...
Fresh ground pork isn’t absolutely necessary, but…

Add the remaining olive oil to the pan and allow to heat through. 

Add carrots and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add onion and continue cooking for 2-3 minutes more, then add celery and sauté for a couple minutes longer. Add the garlic and parsley and sauté for another minute, until the raw garlic smell dissipates. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Classic soffritto gives your sauce proper backbone
Classic soffritto gives your sauce proper backbone

Let the pan heat for a minute, then add the red wine, and scrape all the naughty bits loose from the bottom of the pan. Allow the raw alcohol smell to dissipate before proceeding.

Add one cup of water and allow to heat through.

Add the tomatoes by hand, removing the skins as you go – They’ll be super soft and easy to squish right into the pot – stir to incorporate.

get your hands in there and squish those roasted ‘matoes!
get your hands in there and squish those roasted ‘matoes!

Add the pork and stir to incorporate. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning as needed.

Allow the sauce to heat to simmering, then turn heat down to low. Continue a slow simmer for an hour or so, stirring occasionally. The sauce will be thin at first, but will thicken nicely as it simmers – Stop cooking when you’re sauce is a bit thinner than you like it, remove from heat, add the basil, stir to incorporate.

Simmer gently until you arrive at your desired thickness
Simmer gently until you arrive at your desired thickness

If the sauce thickens or reduces too much for your liking, add enough water to get things where you like it.

Taste and adjust seasoning if needed prior to serving.

From garden to table in under 3 hours
From garden to table in under 3 hours

The sauce will last for  a few days, refrigerated in an airtight, non reactive container, but I’ll bet it won’t last that long.