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.

The Sad Truth About Microplastics in Sea Salt

It’s more than a sad day. It’s a genuine wake up call, to boot. Today is the day I’m resigned to going without some of my various sea salts. Why? Well, to quote Mr. McGuire from The Graduate, “One word – Plastics.” Yes, you heard me right – Pretty much all the sea salt out there is infested with the shit. 

Analysis of plastic contaminants by location
Analysis of plastic contaminants by location

We started to hear rumblings about this last summer, when a bunch of articles came out in popular media. I decided to look to source material, and I gotta say, I’m not at all thrilled with what I found. It’s rather interesting that the majority of news pieces I looked into quoted one study, ‘The presence of microplastics in commercial salts from different countries,’ from the journal Scientific Reports. That vehicle is owned by the Nature Publishing Group, who “highlights its editorial policy as one that is focused on scientific rigour and validity, rather than perceived impact.” Scientific Reports, in their FAQs, states further, “Scientific Reports publishes original articles on the basis that they are technically sound and scientifically valid, and papers are peer reviewed on these criteria. The importance of an article is determined by its readership after publication.” Of course, how you feel about the validity of that process and philosophy has obvious bearing on the perceived validity of the works published therein. 

Breakdown of microplastics in sea salt.
Breakdown of microplastics in sea salt.

I looked at several studies from various academic sources, to achieve what I felt was a good balance of findings. Across the board, the news was indeed rather dire – sea salts from all over the globe are contaminated with microplastic fragments, fibers, filaments, and films. Studies from the U.S., Europe, Asia, China, and South America all reported the same thing, with remarkably similar findings of the volume, nature, and origin of the contaminants. Dr. Sherri Mason of the University of Minnesota lead one such study – Her synopsis was simple and to the point – “All sea salt—because it’s all coming from the same origins—is going to have a consistent problem. I think that is what we’re seeing.”

Breakdown of microplastics in sea salt.
Breakdown of microplastics in sea salt.

So what, exactly, is this stuff? Naturally it varies somewhat, but not as much as one might think – The ubiquity of it is alarming. Microplastics are micrometer sized pieces, (A micrometer is 3.937 × 10-5 of 1” – meaning it takes 25,400 of those to equal an inch – The symbol for a micrometer is μm.) These are very tiny shards, fragments, and fibers, which speaks volumes about just how much plastic has broken down to pieces this small, all around the world. Sobering, isn’t it? It’s not just the giant trash island in the Pacific, it’s that microscopic shards infest every ocean, coast, and to some degree, lakes, rivers, and even wells. Polymers, pigments, amorphous carbons – Polypropylene was the biggest contaminant, followed by polyethylene and cellophane – No big surprise there, huh?

What’s in your sea salt? Plastics.
What’s in your sea salt? Plastics.

Study samples averaged roughly 500 – 700 particles of microplastics per kilogram of salt. The Scientific Reports piece was bold enough to state that, “According to our results, the low level of anthropogenic particles intake from the salts warrants negligible health impacts,” while adding the caveat, “However, to better understand the health risks associated with salt consumption, further development in extraction protocols are needed to isolate anthropogenic particles smaller than 149 μm.” AKA, we can’t measure stuff smaller than that accurately with our current test methods, and we got no idea how much or how harmful smaller stuff might be. For my mind, their statement sidestepped the well established fact that plastics are excellent absorbers and carriers of all kinds of hazardous substances. I had to switch a daily medication recently, because the stuff I was taking, (which is made in China), had a highly carcinogenic industrial solvent in it – A substance not allowed in the US or EU, and that shouldn’t be anywhere near a pharmaceutical manufacturer. If that happens, how much of a stretch is it that tiny shards of plastic could harbor things that are absolutely not good for us? Not much, far as I’m concerned.

General size of microplastics in sea salt
General size of microplastics in sea salt

We all know how out of hand plastics are on this earth. Plastics infest every facet of the planet at this point – Land, sea, inland waters – Everything – affecting humans and wildlife every bit as much as our environments. Leachate from plastics has been tied to cancers, birth defects, inhibited immune systems, and disrupted endocrine systems, for starters.

And how well do we handle the stuff? A recent study published in the journal Science Advances, lays claim to being, “the first global analysis of all plastics ever made.” And the verdict? How about this, “Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled.” Ouch – And we’re not getting better at that, by the way. As former second and third world countries ‘advance’, they not only aren’t interested in dealing with first world trash any more, they’re generating epic volumes of their own. So 90% of over 8 billion tons of plastic, (and counting!), goes where? Landfills, and all too often, the ocean, lakes, rivers, streams, and so on. Plastic in landfills can take a thousand years to decompose – Hell, those plastic bags we use for veggies from the store last at least a decade, and as long as a century depending on where and how they’re disposed of. And water bottles? How’s five hundred years grab ya? Like I said – It’s sobering, when we’re staring at real world numbers.

So now we come to sea salt, and why it’s so susceptible to microplastic contamination. The answer may seem obvious to some, not so much to others. Most sea salts, including the legendary stuff like Fleur de Sel, San Francisco, Malden, Trapani, or Sal de Anana, to name but a few, are produced in shallow impoundments, where sun and wind gradually evaporate the sea water, leaving behind salt and their signature minerals and elements – And microplastics. It is these long produced, famous named varieties that are most impacted, and at greatest risk. For me, as much as I love the distinct flavor profiles of great sea salt, it’s all just too much – I’m not willing to use it any more, or put it in blends, or recommend it to y’all.

Mined salt is generally free of plastic contaminants
Mined salt is generally free of plastic contaminants

Are there salts relatively free of plastics? Yes, thankfully, there are. The difficulty, in many instances, is knowing exactly where the salt you buy comes from. Take a famous name, like Morton – They’ll divulge that they produce salt from the three primary methods – Natural Evaporation, Mining, and Vacuum Evaporation. Most salt producers do the same, but getting more specific than that can be a bit more difficult. Morton produces sea salt “from the sparkling waters of the Pacific,” and from “the Mediterranean,” (Both of these are sun evaporated salts, so guess what…) Mined salts are relatively plastic free, as the ancient beds they derive from haven’t been exposed to plastic contamination. The same should be true for most vacuum evaporated salts, depending, of course, upon the salt source, but again, that’s not always easy to discern. Many of the latter are well-based processes, and while there is evidence of plastic contamination in wells around the world, it’s at a much lower rate than sea water. The bottom line is that, currently at least, the vast majority of non specific-origin salts divulge exactly where they come from or how they’re produced.

Vacuum evaporated salt can be made with little or no plastic contamination, depending on its source.
Vacuum evaporated salt can be made with little or no plastic contamination, depending on its source.

So, how does one know one is buying mined salts, which would be the most plastic free option? Cargill Corporation, which produces and supplies bulk salt to many brands, mines from Avery Island, Louisiana, among other sources – so product from that source would be quite safe. I think that the bottom line is that us end users will need to do some research, including contacting the consumer affairs departments for a given brand or brands, if we want to be assured as to the source of their salt – And they may or may not tell us what we want to know.

Real Salt is genuinely plastic-free sea salt
Real Salt is genuinely plastic-free sea salt

Must we then be resigned to giving up the unique flavors we’ve come to know and love from great sea salts? The answer is – thankfully – no. There are known source, mined sea salts that are plastic free. Here in the States, Real Salt comes from Utah, where it is mined from an ancient seabed that existed through the Midwest in the Jurassic period. Buried under many layers of rock, soil, and volcanic ash, this is about as pure as you can get, and it tastes great to boot – They produce coarse, kosher, fine, and powdered versions, in everything from a small shaker to 25 pound bags.

Hope springs eternal – May we wake up and start addressing the problem whole cloth – If it’s not already too late.

NOTE: As always, I give reviews or recommendations because I like what I write about. I don’t receive anything free, discounted, or in exchange for a favorable review here.

What makes Lawry’s seasoning salt tick?

What is Lawry’s Seasoning Salt? To tell the truth, I had no idea, and didn’t have any in the house. Then someone told me that this stuff was the seasoning for the dreaded Taco Time Mexi Fries – I happen to like those evil little things, so I bought some Lawry’s to try it out. While it turned out that my source was most definitely mistaken, the blend does have a nice flavor profile, and it’s rather venerable stuff – So I thought, why not dive in and see what makes Lawry’s seasoning salt tick?

Real Deal Lawry’s - Mysterious in several ways
Real Deal Lawry’s – Mysterious in several ways

The blend came to life back in 1938, as seasoning for prime rib beef at Lawry’s namesake restaurant in Beverly Hills, (Which is still around, by the way, and there’s a good few more branches now). Described as a, ‘unique blend of salt, spices and herbs,’ it’s a proprietary blend, (just like the stuff that graces those Mexi Fries). While the company ain’t givin’ it all up, they go so far as to list, ‘SALT, SUGAR, SPICES (INCLUDING PAPRIKA AND TURMERIC), ONION, CORNSTARCH, GARLIC, TRICALCIUM PHOSPHATE (PREVENTS CAKING), NATURAL FLAVOR, PAPRIKA OLEORESIN (FOR COLOR). Contains no MSG.’ It’s an interesting mix, not the least because of the absence of ground pepper.

Now, that paprika oleoresin is nothing more than an oil-soluble extract from chiles – a very common coloring agent, so no big deal there. Of course, if you want to dissect this stuff to recreate it, you need more than just ‘spices, including…’ and ‘natural flavors’ to work from – But that’s not as easy to come by as you’d think – Obviously, companies protect their proprietary recipes carefully, and sometimes they don’t tell you what’s in there because they don’t particularly want you to know – Turns out both are the case with this stuff.

To dissect stuff like this, what I do is open the carton and pour it into a bowl so I can look at it, feel it, smell it, and start getting a better idea of what’s actually in there. With the Lawry’s it wasn’t as easy as some others I’ve dug into – The mix is pretty fine, making it harder to isolate and taste individual components. I’ll do anything from vibrating the blend different ways to encourage separation, to sifting and picking directly from the mix. And on top of all that, I certainly look online to see what others might have found before me.

As far as the latter pursuit goes, it turns out that there are two slightly different wanna be versions of the blend out there – and then a whole lot of people just copied one or the other verbatim. What I got out of it was a pretty good baseline mix, and three very cool little mysteries that absolutely no one had really properly discussed, let alone figured out – So, more about that.

What I dissected, tasted, saw, and smelled tells me that the base mix for this stuff is salt, sugar, celery leaf, paprika, onion, garlic, cayenne, turmeric, and cornstarch – A pretty standard dry rub mix, albeit the turmeric and cornstarch are interesting – More on that shortly. The tricalcium phosphate is there to prevent caking, and it’s the exact same stuff I use it all our blends – It’s basically a purified, powdered rock, and occurs naturally in cow’s milk. That pretty much takes care of the spices, so on to those little mysteries I mentioned.

When you look up ‘what’s in Lawry’s seasoning salt,’ you’ll find all the stuff I mentioned, but when you try to dig deeper, you’ll not find very much. Looking into the ‘natural flavor’ thing was the least fruitful of all, but I did get there, and the answer shows in spades why the search was so difficult. A very persistent blogger, who loved the stuff, became concerned enough to start asking uncomfortable questions. She ended up talking to the Consumer Affairs department at McCormick, the maker of the blend. After significant hemming and hawing, they ponied up that the ‘natural flavors’ were in fact partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil – AKA, undisclosed trans fats. Said blogger then went to the FDA to ask how such things could be left undisclosed, or euphemistically termed ‘natural flavors’ – The FDA rep’s response was that ‘the oils are natural.’ When the blogger pointed out how hydrogenation pretty much trumps their initial state, she was told she was ‘free to not buy the product if she wished’ – Your Federal gummint in action, folks… in any case, yes, I think the trick they pulled is bullshit, but it is what it is. So, mystery #1 is basically a great reason to engineer a better analog at home.

The next What’s That In There For item is cornstarch. Innocuous enough, but not a thing you see in a lot of seasoning blends – So what is the deal? Internet musings focused on cornstarch as a thickener, or as aid to developing a nice crust on a protein. Both are true enough for the stuff, but this is not the case in the trace amounts it’s found within this blend. What I believe cornstarch is doing here is much more subtle and a very neat trick indeed – It’s called velveting. In certain Chinese regional recipes, a small amount of cornstarch is added to the sauce for a protein, most often as part of a marinade. When the protein is subsequently cooked, the cornstarch combines with meat juices to form a thin barrier layer – This layer acts to seal moisture into the meat, and results in a notably juicier final product. It’s especially effective for high heat cooking, like grilling, broiling, or stir frying. Cool mystery #2. 

The third cool thing is turmeric. As mentioned, this isn’t an ingredient you see much in seasoning blends, and it may just be the je ne sais quoi that sets Lawry’s apart. Turmeric, Curcuma longa), is a rhizome, like ginger, and in fact it’s in the same family, Zingiberaceae. These days you can sometimes find it in mainstream grocery stores – I’ve found it Fred Meyer more than once. It looks much like ginger on the outside, but when you slice into it, there’s that gorgeous dark orange colored flesh, and a scent that is to me much deeper and more nuanced than its more popular cousin. While ginger is all about heat and power, turmeric is softer and subtler – bitter, peppery, musty, and mustardy beneath the almost carroty primary notes – It’s stunningly good stuff, and it’s been around in Asian medicine and cooking for a long time. While I noted that it’s not common in spice blends, that meant not common here – For my mind, the most glorious example of turmeric in a mix comes from India and North Africa, where you’ll find it mixed with curry, cumin, coriander, cardamom and cinnamon, or maybe black pepper, clove, and nutmeg – Lots going on in those things.

Any way you shake it, Lawry’s is a pretty cool blend. While I couldn’t find who it was who initially developed this blend, I’ll tell you this – Between the cornstarch and the turmeric, I’d bet that the Chef was either Asian, or at least versed in Asian cuisines, and we’re the richer for their contribution. This stuff is well worth using as a basis for experimentation and development into something personal to you, which is exactly what I did. Below you’ll find my swing on the blend, tweaked to my liking, but true to its roots – It’s got quite a bit less sugar, and less salt overall than the original, with a couple of other twists. You’ll notice that the original stuff is quite red – That’s the paprika oleoresin, which again is nothing more than a colorant. I subbed annatto seed, which adds a bit of color, and an earthy note as well. Give it a try and then go wild.

Mine versus the original - The orange is all about the oleoresin coloring, frankly
Mine versus the original – The orange is all about the oleoresin coloring, frankly

Urban’s Lawry-Like Blend

1⁄3 Cup fine Kosher Salt

1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika

2 teaspoons Bakers Sugar

2 teaspoons dried Celery Leaf

1 1/2 teaspoons Turmeric

1 1⁄2 teaspoons Arrowroot

1 teaspoon Tricalcium Phosphate

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1/4 teaspoon ground Chile (I used Tabasco’s, use whatever you like)

Combine all ingredients and mix well.

My Lawry’s inspired blend
My Lawry’s inspired blend

Pour into a single mesh strainer over a second bowl and run the blend through, discarding anything that won’t pass.

Store in an airtight glass container.

Maque Choux – A Cajun Twist on Succotash

The other day, Diane Whatley Nix, a friend on a social media cooking group called Wok Wednesdays, shared an image of Maque Choux made in a wok. Instantly, I was shown a flash of brilliance for the cooking method, and reminded of a delicious dish I hadn’t made since leaving Texas six years ago. Note: If you’re into wok cooking, then you need to check out the group – It’s dedicated to cooking our way through Grace Young’s The Breath of a Wok, and it’s a serious gas!

Maque Choux (AKA mack shoe, muck shoe, muck show, and so on), is the Cajun version of that venerable side dish, succotash. The name may sound French, but it’s probably a Creole derivation of a native term. This is a great side dish at any time of the year, but especially in summer, when all of the veggie constituents are right outside in the garden. 

Many folks know of succotash and assume it to be southern, but that would be incorrect – Succotash came from some of the original occupants of New England – The name derives from a native term, possibly the Wampanoag word msíckquatash, (boiled corn kernels), or the Narragansett sohquttahhash, (broken corn kernels).

Succotash was, and is, a base of fresh corn, some kind of shell bean, and a little protein – nowadays, most commonly bacon, but back then in New England, fish or game. Any number of additional veggies and herbs might be added, like tomatoes, sweet peppers, chiles, fresh herbs and other seasonings – all of which are New World foods and therefore likely as authentic as anything else. There are a dizzying number of ‘authentic’ succotash and maque choux recipes out there, but the truth is that damn near anything you feel like doing will be authentic enough – These are dishes designed to use what was ready at the time, and later down the line, to clean out a fridge, maybe.

Succotash was popular because it was filling and nutritious. That base mix of corn and beans is rich in protein, carbohydrates, essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals. It’s still a popular side dish at many a New England Thanksgiving dinner, and was likely a main course at that original dinner hosted by the locals, to which a ragtag band of Puritans and Strangers were invited. Those settlers quickly learned that the key base ingredients lent themselves readily to drying, which meant a lifesaving, year round food supply for a struggling population.

As us white usurpers spread across the new land, (including my direct ancestor, who arrived in 1636), succotash came along for the ride, morphed by local crops as it travelled. In the south, dang near any corn and bean combo that’s fried up in lard or butter is called succotash, albeit the vast majority of the time, the bean in question will be a lima, and there will almost always be okra.

Those migrants included the Acadiens, French people exiled to the Canadian Maritimes by the Seven Years war between Britain and France in the middle of the eighteenth century. While many Acadiens remain in the Maritimes, a sizable group made their way south to warmer climes, specifically, Louisiana, which was a French colonial holding since about the time the Puritans hit the beach at Plymouth. And of course, Cajuns are in Louisiana to this day, and from that many good things have come, including maque choux.

Study up some on maque choux, and you’ll see one glaring difference from traditional succotash – It don’t have no beans on board. That’s not to say you couldn’t, or that beans aren’t popular in that neck of the woods, because you could and they are -But, when you see how the dish morphed, you’ll understand right away – It’s because of the only aromatic base that we here in the colonies can lay claim to – The Holy Trinity.

We have the Cajun folk to thank for our only original combo – onion, celery, and green pepper, and really, nothing else, (albeit when used in soups and stews and whatnot, some folk do like to whip a little roux right in with it as it cooks, to kind of get a leg up on things). Now, the key to aromatic bases is the ratio, and in that regard, there are a couple of camps for the Trinity – those who do equal measures of each, and those who portion like mirepoix, 50% onion, 25% each pepper and celery. For my mind, it kinda depends on when you’re making it. If we’re talking the non-growing season, I’d go for the heavy onion version, but if you’re in the sweet spot, where those things are right out there in your garden, I’d absolutely opt for equal shares.

As for the protein, again, you can do what you like with no shame. I like local, smoky pepper bacon myself, but down south, a lot of folks are partial to andouille sausage, and you’d be hard pressed to go wrong there. Honestly, anything you’ve got that needs using would be lovely, from pulled pork to shredded chicken, (or even beans.)

Finally, the wok as a cooking method/vessel is simply brilliant. As Diane noted, making maque choux in one adds a perfect crispy crunch to the dish that you’d be hard pressed to get anywhere else. It’s also fast, and fun, and very pretty, so give that a go. This recipe will make enough for four, and maybe some leftovers

Maque Choux a la Urban

3 ears fresh Sweet Corn

4 strips Pepper Bacon

1/2 small sweet Onion

1-2 stalks fresh Celery, including leaves

2 Anaheim Chiles

1 fresh Tomato

2 cloves fresh Garlic

4-5 fresh Chives

1 sprig fresh Thyme

1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil

A few shakes Go To Seasoned Salt, (I prefer our smoky version)

A few twists fresh ground Pepper

Mise en place for maque choux
Mise en place for maque choux

Cut kernels off the corn in two passes – Take the first to roughly cut the kernels in half,then the second to get what’s left – This gets all the corn milk in play and adds a bit more moisture to the mix – Cut the corn into a plate or shallow bowl. If you’re shy getting to the base of the kernels, flip your knife around and use the spine to scrape out those last, sweet bits – And don’t friggin’ cut yourself.

Stack your bacon slices, cut them down the middle lengthwise, then into roughly 1/2” squares.

Dice the onion, celery, and chiles into roughly equal piles.

Slice the tomato – You can gut it if you like, (M is always offended when I leave the guts in…), or not as you please.

Mince the garlic, thyme, and chives.

Set the wok over a medium high flame and heat through –  A drop of water should vaporize pretty much instantaneously when it hits the wok, then you’re ready to go.

Stir fry bacon first - Your wok will thank you
Stir fry bacon first – Your wok will thank you

Stir fry the bacon, stirring steadily with a wooden spoon.

When the bacon is about 3/4 of the way you like it, turn the heat up to high and add the avocado oil. 

When the oil is shimmering, (not smoking – That’s too hot), add the onion, celery and chiles.

adding the Holy Trinity to maque choux
adding the Holy Trinity to maque choux

Stir fry, steadily working the mix to incorporate. When the onions start to turn translucent, add the garlic and stir fry for a minute or so until the raw garlic smell dissipates. 

Final ingredients
Final ingredients

Add the corn and stir fry steadily to heat through and incorporate – If things are getting a bit hot, turn heat down somewhat – I change heat constantly as I cook on a wok, and so can/should you.

Stir fry the mix until the corn starts to get a little crust and the smells are driving you nuts.

Add the tomato, chive and thyme, a few shakes of seasoned salt and a grew twists of pepper, and stir fry to incorporate all the seasonings.

Maque Choux a la Urban
Maque Choux a la Urban

Transfer to a bowl and serve hot.

A BIG Oops!

So, I swore I’d written a brief post, back a few weeks, to explain that the Blog, in touch with its French roots, was to take its annual vacances d’été, ( I think that should be summer vacation, but my French frankly sucks), and invite y’all to pour through our voluble archives in the meantime

Turns out I didn’t…

1000 apologies, and thanks to a few of you who finally sent WTF messages too!

We’ll be back on track next week.

A Couple of Rancho Gordo Tweaked Recipes

I wrote about RG beans not long ago, and frankly, they’re still on my mind, as is their stunningly good Pineapple Vinegar. That combo had me digging through old favorite summer recipes and tweaking them for these newfound delights. So here, for your reading and eating pleasure, are a revamped teriyaki marinade, and an incredible three bean salad. Enjoy!

Summer is grilling season, and it wouldn’t be right without teriyaki in the mix. That pineapple vinegar inspired me to alter my go to marinade thusly.

Rancho Gordo Pineapple Vinegar powered teriyaki marinade
Rancho Gordo Pineapple Vinegar powered teriyaki marinade

RG Pineapple Vinegar Teriyaki Marinade

1/2 Cup Chicken Stock, (Veggie stock or water are both fine too)

1/4 Cup Tamari

1/4 Cup Pineapple Vinegar

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar

2 Tablespoons Rock Sugar (Dark Brown Sugar is fine too)

1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil

1 Tablespoon Arrowroot

2 Cloves fresh Garlic

1” fresh Ginger Root

Trim, peel, and mince garlic and ginger.

In a sauce pan over medium heat, combine tamari, vinegar, agave, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and ginger.

Whisk to incorporate – When sauce begins to scale, reduce heat to low.

Combine arrowroot and stock, which to incorporate thoroughly.

Add stock mixture to sauce and whisk thoroughly. Allow sauce to heat through, whisking steadily, until it reaches the thickness you like, about 2-4 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and transfer to a non-reactive bowl, allow to cool to room temperature before use – You can set up an ice bath in a second bowl to hasten that process if it’s hot where you are, like it was today where we is…

marinated skewers, full of summer goodness!
marinated skewers, full of summer goodness!

Separate some to use as a dipping sauce if desired.

That same stuff, along with dang near any or all RG beans, inspired this twist on Three Bean Salad.

Classic Three Bean Salad
Classic Three Bean Salad

Three bean salad is a delight in the dog days of summer – Cool, tangy, and hearty to boot. While I truly love the traditional base of pinto, wax, and green beans, you can and should do whatever mix you like – This is the perfect time of year to play with whatever is fresh at hand. The beauty of that freedom is that the dish really does change in very fundamental ways when you vary the bean trio, even with the same dressing. What I show below is my personal fave, but there too, you can and should go with what you’ve got fresh in the garden whenever possible. The mainstays to me are the rhythm section of that dressing – Rancho Gordo’s incredible Pineapple Vinegar, and fresh avocado oil – It creates a beautiful base to go just about anywhere from – I just got this stuff, and am absolutely enamored with it, so I re-did my go recipe, (which used live cider vinegar), to reflect same.

Bean salad should have whatever you love in it, period.
Bean salad should have whatever you love in it, period.

Speaking of Rancho Gordo, it’s there that a raft of stunningly delicious bean options await – Their heirloom stuff is so good, you can easily hop down the rabbit hole trying out different combinations. Their garbanzos, limas, and yellow woman beans make an incredible trio, with a delightful depth and breadth of flavors and textures, and again – That’s just one of many, many options. The quality of these beans is so far above anything else, you truly must try them.

Yet another combo...
Yet another combo…

Three bean salad definitely likes a little time for things to marry, so it’s a great dish to make ahead. And of course, if you have other veggies you love, that are ready to rock, add those too – You sure don’t need my permission!

Urban’s Go To Three Bean Salad

1 Cup Rancho Gordo Rio Zape Beans

1 Cup Fresh Green Beans

1 Cup Fresh Wax Beans

1 Cup Sweet Onion

1 stalk fresh Celery, with leaves

Sea Salt and fresh ground Grains of Paradise, to taste

For the Dressing

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1/3 Cup Pineapple Vinegar

2 Tablespoons fresh Shallot, minced

1-2 cloves fresh Garlic, minced

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar

1 teaspoon fresh Thyme

1 teaspoon fresh Dill

1/4 teaspoon Chile flake

Rio Zape Beans should be cooked to al dente.

Blanch green and wax beans in boiling water until al dente, about 2-3 minutes – Have a bowl of ice water ready beside the stove, and plunge the beans into that as soon as they’re right.

Rinse and stem onion and celery, and then medium chop, (chiffonade celery leaf).

Rinse, stem and mince garlic, thyme, and dill.

In a large, non-reactive bowl, combine all beans, onion, and celery. Season with a three finger pinch of sea salt and a half dozen twists of grains of paradise – Gently toss to thoroughly incorporate.

In a second non-reactive bowl, combine all dressing ingredients and whisk to incorporate thoroughly.

Allow dressing to marry for 15 minutes, then dress salad with a steady drizzle – You may or may not want to use all of it, so stop when you’re happy with the ratio.

Allow salad to marinate, chilled, for at least 2 hours prior to serving.

Will do fine refrigerated for a couple days, if it lasts that long…

Do you need an Instant Pot? In a word – Yes.

Every year on my birthday, I buy myself a gift, often kitchen-centric. This year, after resisting for quite some time, I bought an Instant Pot Ultra. Monica was a bit dismissive at first, thinking it’s just another toy, and said as much. After we’d used it a few times – enough to experience what it’s really capable of – she said, and I quote, ‘Why did it take you so long to buy one of these?’ 

Instant Pot - Do you need one?
Instant Pot – Do you need one?

Do you need an Instant Pot? In a word – Yes.If you cook and you honestly don’t know what an Instant Pot is, then I’d kinda have to believe that you’re living in a cave and singing your fingers over an open fire. Instant Pot is a brand name for a Canadian designed version of an electric, programmable pressure cooker. That said, comparing this to your gramma’s old 500 pound aluminum behemoth is like equating an AMC Pacer to a BMW. Yes, these things claim to do a bunch of things well, and with most consumer goods of that ilk, it really isn’t the case – But with the IP, I’m here to tell you it’s all true. 

Instant Pot was formed in 2009 by a bunch of Canadian tech nerds who cooked – That synthesis lead them to brainstorm a cooking device that would genuinely do things well, but faster than many common alternative methods. They state their ultimate aim as, ‘to enable busy families and professionals to prepare quality food in less time, promoting better eating and reducing the consumption of fast food.’ I’ll  go so far as to say they’ve achieved that, in spades.

The Instant Pot Ultra - Not the top of the heap, but there isn’t much it can’t do.
The Instant Pot Ultra – Not the top of the heap, but there isn’t much it can’t do.

There are several iterations, of course. The Ultra model we have claims a raft of functions, with settings for Soup/Broth, Meat/Stew, Bean/Chili, Cake, Egg, Slow Cook, Sauté/Searing, Rice, Multigrain, Porridge, Steam, Sterilize, Yogurt, Warm, and Pressure Cooker – It’ll even do a pretty damn good job of sous vide. Then there’s what IP refers to as the ‘Ultra’ program, which in essence just gives you a very wide margin of adjustability for most parameters of the various functions mentioned above. In other words, instead of being stuck with the maker’s idea of perfect for cooking beans, you can go in and tweak the settings to your needs, and for the record, this is, for my mind, actually important. Say you cook a lot of beans – You’ll quickly learn that they do not all do well with one cooking time – so being able to adjust that makes the machine very good instead of just OK at that task. For those that really don’t care for the extra bells and whistles, there are simpler models with less of that kind of thing aboard.

At the heart of these things is, of course, a microprocessor, so yeah – in essence, it’s computer controlled. With multiple sensors monitoring temperature, pressure, cooking time, and food volume, the IP takes a lot of the guesswork out of cooking, and has so far performed flawlessly for us – Take those beans again – From precooking, to sautéing ingredients for the final dish, to cooking all that thereafter, everything can be done seamlessly, in one pot.

Loading up an IP for the final run
Loading up an IP for the final run

And as we’ve known for a long time, pressure cooking – the heart of these things – seriously cuts down on cooking time for dishes that traditionally take quite a while. A primary impetus for my purchase was the fact that almost every posting member of the Vietnamese cooking group I belong to has one, uses it regularly, and swears by it. Even for something as sacred as broth for Pho, these folks go almost universally with an IP, and swear that you can’t tell the difference in the finished dish, vis a vis traditional low and slow methods.

sautéing in an IP
sautéing in an IP

Pressure cooking also does great things for flavor, because all that you add is sealed in, and relatively little escapes. Add the ability to slow cook, or do fairly tightly temperature controlled souls vide, let alone all the specialty settings, and you’ve got a seriously powerful kitchen tool.

These things come in a range of sizes and versions, and the Ultra, as lux as it may sound, isn’t the top of the heap. They range from 3 to 8 quarts, and $45 to $200, as of a quick check today. If you cook a bunch, and you appreciate what these things can do, you really can’t go wrong with picking one up – The scary part is how many people own, and use, more than one IP – I’m not there, and frankly, I’m cool with that.

Now, final caveat – No, I didn’t get an IP for free, or less, or any other version of paid BS endorsement. I bought mine, fair and square, for market price, just as you’ll do. We don’t do the endorsement thing here – Never have, never will, OK? OK.

Why Does American Produce Suck?

Got this message the other day, from Mike and Sally Poutiatine,

Hey Food-Dude,

Sally and I have a query – we noticed recently in Ireland that the produce there is SO much better than we get in our restaurants or stores in Spokane. We found eating either in a hole-in-the-wall pub or a 4-star Castle dining room the greens were equally good and way better than we find most of the time in Spokane. The veggies in general in Ireland were much better (though they tended to cook them about 10 times as long as necessary) – We found the same thing before when traveling in Italy, Japan and the UK in term of quality. Is it as simple as faster, more direct farm to table? Or do other countries just take green veggies more seriously than we do? Why is that?

My immediate response was this, ‘Oh, I am SO making this the next blog post – Great question!’

Simple salad with real lettuce - A whole ‘nuther animal
Simple salad with real lettuce – A whole ‘nuther animal

The serendipitous part of the question is this – Earlier, while watering our very bountifully producing little veggie and herb garden, (a daily ritual I not only love, but seem to need), I was contemplating the same thing. Our stuff tastes so much better than 90% of what we find for sale – The only thing that rivals it is found in trips to our local farmers market, and through good CSA operations. And therein lies the short answer – While M and I choose not to accept the produce status quo here, most Americans accept (and have been indoctrinated to expect), relatively shitty produce. That is not good, and it needs to change.

Typical Grocery Store Produce - Bletch!
Typical Grocery Store Produce – Bletch!

The first thing that comes to most folks minds when they experience this is the natural assumption that some combination of basic factors are better over there – Better soil, environmental conditions, and so on – But truth be told, that’s a bunch of hooey – writ large, there’s demonstrably nothing special about european soil, etc, that makes their produce taste better than American produce. This has been pretty well studied, and it comes down almost solely to the fact that most world food cultures other than ours value flavor and taste in their produce more than we do – That’s it. That said, we could be, (and more and more folks are), growing stuff every bit as good – it’s just not often sold in mass market grocery stores.

Mighty ‘Mato’s - Not your typical grocery store fodder
Mighty ‘Mato’s – Not your typical grocery store fodder

Let’s take tomatoes as an example – Many will cite the famous Italian San Marzano as the ne plus ultra of tomatodom, but truth? There are a lot of shitty San Marzanos, gang. Like anything else that gets wildly popular on a worldwide scale, production needs outstrip high quality real quick – And by the way, those things are basically Roma’s, a paste tomato variety – They’re great for sauce when grown right, but for other stuff – Not so much. Here on this side of the big pond, (where tomatoes originally come from, after all), you can bet there are some amazing ones. We make a point of planting Mighty ‘Mato grafted tomatoes each year – They’re a thing developed by Dr. Jim Baggett of Oregon State University. Grafting makes them stronger, more disease resistant, and boy oh boy, do they yield – And they’re stunningly lovely. Yet despite all that, they don’t lend themselves well to being sold en mass, so… Or take the case of horticulture Professor Harry Klee, of the University of Florida, creator of the Garden Gem. That’s an incredibly tasty, hearty, disease resistant variety with a great shelf life – But at roughly half the size of the ‘average’ grocery store tomato, virtually nobody appears interested in bringing those to you and me. And here’s the kicker – The Italians have ordered tens of thousands of Garden Gem seeds – Insult to injury for American consumers.

Lettuce, real lettuce, just doesn’t ship, store, or last all that well...
Lettuce, real lettuce, just doesn’t ship, store, or last all that well…

How about lettuces? Well, M and I grow those, and let me tell ya, those are exactly what I was thinking of when I was watering the other day – A simple salad we’d made had taste and texture, because of the lettuce – Shut up! Ah, but those aren’t nice, uniform, large, tough, resilient heads you can ship and display and sell for days, so, they’re out too.

Real Celery isn’t insipid - It’s flavor packed and seriously crunchy
Real Celery isn’t insipid – It’s flavor packed and seriously crunchy

Celery, maybe? Celery?! Tasteless, boring celery? Well, in the store, yes, that’s exactly what it is. Our plants are anything but. They have bold flavor to match a crisp, crunchy texture – The leaves alone are potent and complex – But they don’t grow in big, tight, uniform bunches either so again, no go.

Herbs should never come in plastic containers...
Herbs should never come in plastic containers…

Whatever you name – Chiles, peas, cucumbers, radishes, and any herb there is – You’ll find them in the store, but what you’ll find in this country is chosen for the unholy trinity of shipability, shelf life, and the appearance of relative bounty – Three things you and I definitely do not need.

Wanna take a guess at how many folks know that this is how artichokes grow?
Wanna take a guess at how many folks know that this is how artichokes grow?

Mike followed up with this thought, ‘I have always assumed that the produce we get from our stores is tasteless because the distance from producer to table is so far – and I am sure that is part of it. But your observation that we have grown used to bad produce is insightful. We eat bad produce because we just don’t care about produce.’

Sad but true, my friends. There’s a local garden here in our area, much beloved, and big enough to regularly supply local grocery stores with produce in season. It’s pretty, and it’s fresh, but frankly – It’s a local version of the same stuff we always see – It’s chosen for those three criterion I mentioned – And as such, there’s really no magic there.

Produce magic begins at home
Produce magic begins at home

The good news is that things do seem to be changing for the better. Folks of many generations here are growing tired of paying for crap, which is forcing Big Agro to change, some anyway. We see far more varieties of apples than days of old – Same goes for lettuce, onions, chiles, and so on – And there is stuff therein that is quite good, if we choose wisely. More and more stores are stating straight out where stuff comes from, which is good, and if you do your due diligence, there’s quite a bit more to be sussed out.

A lot of that process means really, truly checking out what you’re choosing – Do you squeeze, poke, prod, and sniff what you’re buying? Do you find a produce person and ask pointed questions? That might be anything from, where is this from and when did it get here, to what’s the harvest date on this, (there is damn near always a harvest or packing or production date), to ‘I don’t know how to tell a good (your selection here) from not – how do you do that?’ In any store worth your hard earned dough, they’ll be able to answer those questions – And if they can’t, (or you don’t ask), shame on you – You get what you pay for.

Mike’s next query was, ‘So what do we do in the US that shows the care and quality that we found in the seemingly universal high quality of Irish produce?’

The good news is that there are things to be found here, and that trend is slowly but surely growing, all over the country – If you read the Rancho Gordo bean post, there’s a shining example. Try those, and suddenly you’re thinking, ‘why am I buying these plastic bags and cans full of tasteless crap when these are out here?’ I’ve seen it first hand with stuff from our friends CSAs in Minnesota as well – How folks react when they have celery that has taste, what good lettuce is like, and so on.

That’s what fresh produce looks like, gang
That’s what fresh produce looks like, gang

As for a specific answer to Mike’s last question, I’d say this – If they come here planning to cook, and have facility for such and then go to an average grocery store, what will they get? Mostly crap, unfortunately. If they’re smart, which I think many are, they’ll seek out and find farmers markets – those are the gold standard here these days. In our relatively little town, there are dozens of producers offering gorgeous produce, grown with genuine love and care, just as we do here at home – I’ve had everything from rainbow carrots with amazing taste and crunch, to tiny fingerling potatoes that were melt in your mouth delicious, with a slight tang of the earth they came from as a back note.

So if there’s a unified field theory as to how we go about changing the status quo, this would be my three cents worth.

1. Always grow a garden. You can do this, damn near no matter where you live or what you live in. From window sill to big ol’ plot – Do it – You’ll get better produce, and perhaps more importantly, tending a garden and playing in dirt is good for your soul.

2. Find a Farmers Market near you and patronize that. You’re supporting the little, local folk, and nobody deserves that more – And again, you’ll generally get far superior produce to anything in a chain grocery store.

3. Find a CSA operation Netra you and patronize that. That’s Community Supported Agriculture – we’re the community, and the growers can be anything from those same folks who sell at farmers markets, to larger scale folks who do most of their selling through CSA – Again, no one I know is more deserving of your patronage, and frankly, no one I know is more deserving of great produce than you are.