The Dutch Oven – It’s Must Have Kitchenware.

There are tens of thousands of threads, posts, and pages out there describing exactly what you absolutely, positively must have in your kitchen – And no two agree completely. That might be a good or a bad thing, depending on ones desires, budget, and available space. Arguably, the lions share of such information deals with cookware, and I’m ready to boldly wade in. What you absolutely need is cast iron, and if you had to pick one piece over all others, it should be the Dutch oven – It’s must have kitchenware.

The roots of the modern Dutch oven
The roots of the modern Dutch oven

First off, what exactly is a ‘genuine’ Dutch oven? The answer is, there are several, and most of them aren’t Dutch any more. In essence, it’s a flat bottomed, fairly deep, (typically 3″ to 5″), thick walled, (read, heavy), pot with a nice, snug lid. Past that, it’s called many things – Whether it’s a Dutch Braadpan, Aussie Bedourie, South African Potjie, an Eastern European Chugun, or a North American Dutch Oven, they’re pretty much the same thing and used similarly – that means that everything from stewing and roasting to baking and boiling gets done in this one marvelous pot.

There are dozens of folks tales about how the Dutch oven got its name, but here’s the straight skinny – Back in the 1600s, the Dutch refined the process of casting metal cooking pots by employing a dry sand mold, which yielded a notably smoother finished surface than what they’re neighbor’s were producing – That made using and cleaning them much easier, and once the rest of Europe got a taste, serious importation of the pot began and grew. In the dawn of the 18th century, Englishman Abraham Darby refined the casting process further by fueling a blast furnace with coke rather than charcoal, opening the way for cast iron cooking vessels. In a nod to the folks he learned the sand mold trick from, he called the pot he cast, (similar to a braadpan), a Dutch oven, and the rest is history. At his Cheese Lane Foundry, an apprentice named John Thomas further refined the molding process, employing a casting box and core that allowed relatively thinner and lighter pots to be produced. They were so successful that Darby enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the trade well into the 1700s – It was his wares that first made their way to North American shores.

So, what are they made of? While plain cast iron rules in North America, those Dutch braadpans are much more likely to be enameled steel. There are cast aluminum versions, and the legendary Le Creuset enameled cast iron French Oven has legions of fans – And for the record, technically, an enameled Dutch oven is a French Oven – It’s a formal nod to that famous company that first produced the combination.

Once the Dutch oven hit our shores, changes were inevitable. Shallower, wider pots prevailed over their English forebearers. Stubby legs appeared, to allow coals to be placed beneath the oven, and a flat, flanged lid followed, so that coals placed on top of the oven stayed there, and out of the food. Both those innovations are widely attributed to Paul Revere, who did indeed own a foundry, and who’s name graces a line of cookware to this very day, but beyond everybody saying he did it, I couldn’t find one solid confirmation of the legend. Bailed handles, lids with handles, and various other iterations followed, and remain available to this day. Check out the website for the ubiquitous Lodge foundry, and you get the picture. Dutch ovens were almost exclusively made of cast iron here, and were considered so valuable a commodity that they were religiously passed on from generation to generation, often to a specific recipient. As the country grew, Dutch ovens traveled, starting with the Lewis and Clark expedition, and they’re very much still with us.

So, with all that history and all those options, you don’t have one in your kitchen? Or worse yet, you do, it it’s gathering dust, unused? Time to remedy that. If you don’t have one, I’m gonna say again, you need to invest in one, and in investment is literally what you’re making – Just as it was back when, a good quality Dutch oven, properly maintained, will serve you for a lifetime, and then be ready to be handed on to future generations. If you’ve got one and aren’t using it, time to get it down, inspect it, clean it, and put that puppy to use.

Now, if you’re buying, what should you get? That depends on what your predominant use will be, and how many people you typically feed. The first decision is new or used – Either is fine, but don’t expect to readily find a killer cheap deal on first class vintage cast iron – Those days are largely gone, although if you’re not in a hurry, and diligent about searching garage and estate sales, eBay, and Craig’s List, you can still find a decent bargain now and again.

Lodge L8DD3 - Our go to Dutch oven here at UrbanMonique
Lodge L8DD3 – Our go to Dutch oven here at UrbanMonique

If you’re going to buy, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than Lodge – There’s a reason they sell more cast iron than anybody else – They’ve been doing it since 1896, and their products, service, and designs are tried, tested, and top notch, (There are other fine makers, so poke around before you land.) If you’re cooking for 2 to 4 folks, a 10″ oven will do just fine. More than that, and you’re going to be better off with a 12″ pot. If your primary use will be your home kitchen, with an occasional foray to the camping world, you’ll be well served by a Lodge L8DD3, a 10″ 5 quart, double Dutch oven with a domed, handled cover that doubles as a skillet at the campsite. Between the 4.5″ depth and the domed lid, you can get a lot of stuff into this oven – I know, ’cause this is the one we own and use here, and the one I got for my Sis, so yeah, I think that highly of ’em – And if you’re a regular visitor here, you know that’s no bullshit, because you’ve seen this very model working here many, many times. One caveat – The L8DD3 doesn’t have legs or a baled handle, so you need to be a bit more careful around a campfire, but I assure you there’s not much you can’t do with it out in the wild – and speaking thereof…

Lodge L10DCO3 - A perfect camping oven
Lodge L10DCO3 – A perfect camping oven

If you’re looking for an oven specifically to camp with, then you’ll do better with a Lodge L10DCO3, what they call a camp oven – This guy features everything you want in an oven that’ll get used predominantly with coals – Legs, bale handle, and that possibly Revere designed flat, flanged lid. Those attributes are important because, when cooking over coals or wood, you need to be able to effectively distribute heat in different ways, depending on what you need the oven to do. A few years back, I wrote a piece about camp cooking with a Dutch oven, and you’ll find that right here – It’ll provide plenty of specific info on how to vary the number and placement of coals or briquettes to achieve effective baking, roasting, or simmering when you’re out at the campsite.

And as for that versatility I mentioned a while back, suffice it to say that there’s truly not much you can’t do with this oven. From soups and stews, to braising and roasting, sautéing or baking, a cast iron Dutch oven will provide dependable, even heat and consistent performance. And then there’s the certain je ne sais quoi imparted by cooking in cast iron – Everything tastes a little better, at least to me it does, and frankly, I can’t think of a better reason to use one, (and not a single reason you wouldn’t.)

As with all good cookware, cast iron requires care and maintenance. Rather than repeat the mantras, I’ll just point you to Lodge’s page for seasoning, and for care and maintenance – Do what they tell ya, don’t do the stuff you shouldn’t, and that oven will serve you and yours for decades to come.

NOTE: Because, without fail, somebody always gets in touch and asks how much, in this case, Lodge gave or paid me, rest assured – We don’t take freebies, and we don’t get paid by purveyors – We bought our stuff, just like you do, every time, no exceptions.

Arroz de Carreteiro – Coachmen’s Rice

My friend Ken Bonfield posted about making humble black beans and rice on a Monday – This Monday – and that prompted this re-do of a big time fave of mine –

Ever since humans have been a thing, we’ve taken steps to make our sustenance portable. Being natural omnivore, it’s a safe bet that we’ve always been grabbing a handful of berries here, a hunk of grain there, maybe a little hunk of meat, and stuffing it all into a leaf so that we could take it with us.

Some of the most iconic snacks and meals that remain to this very day are perfect examples of this – Pemmican comes to mind – a high calorie mix of meat, fat and fruit designed to be portable and supply a serious dose of power on the road. Go farther back and you get the Mongols, who depended on meat and dairy from their animals to power their travels – And from there came yoghurt, and meat for soups and stews.

Virtually anywhere you look, our ancestors were drying, (or salting), and then combining the stuff they liked to eat so that it would be easier to take it out on the road – Doing so significantly reduced the consequences of not being lucky on a forage or hunt far from home, a situation that could be quite dire, indeed. From that legacy comes a world of one pot meals designed to efficiently use what’s available, and make it good. From jambalaya and gumbo, to paella and bouillabaisse, the manifestations are as broad as our appetites.

In the southwestern United States of the 19th Century, that history manifested in chili, a one pot meal of dried meat and chiles reconstituted with water and heated through. It packed calories, spiritual heat, and kept many a cowboy content during cold nights on the range.

Farther south, all the way down to southern Brazil, there’s an analogous food history. There, men driving ox carts across what is now known as the State of Rio Grande do Sul, were known as Carreteiros, or coachmen. They too had a signature, portable staple – Arroz de Carreteiro – Coachmen’s Rice.

Where Tex-Mex chili in its pure form simply blends meat with heat, arroz de carreteiro was initially just jerked beef, rice, and water, heated in an iron pot over an open fire. It was fast, easy, and filling, everything a gaúcho needed. The dried meat was known as Charque, a local specialty from the coastal part of the region.

Today, a Gaúcho is what folks from Rio Grande do Sul are known as, and their signature dish has, like chili, grown to something more than its humble origins. Arroz de Carreteiro is made with other cuts of beef, even leftovers, for which the dish is ideal. It’s still a hearty, savory, delicious meal, even way up here in Los Estados Unidos. This is, in fact, a fabulous dish to make camping, over coals from a real fire – that combination of cast iron and wood-fired heat is pretty unbeatable. If you go that road, you’ll want 75% of your coals under the ditch oven, and 25% on top. Finally, this can also be made with wild rice, and that makes things a whole ‘nuther level of amazing – The complex, smoky nature of really good wild rice makes an unforgettable meal.

Arroz de Carreteiro – Coachmen’s Rice
Serves 4 to 6

8 ounces Beef, (trimmed Chuck is my choice)
8 Ounces Long Grain Rice (or wild rice)
2 Roma Tomatoes
1 each Green, Red, and Yellow Bell Peppers
1 small, sweet Onion
2 Spring Onions
2 cloves Garlic
2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil, (Peanut oil works well, too)
2 Tablespoons fresh chopped Parsley
1 Tablespoon Black Pepper Corns, (fresh ground is fine)
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
1 teaspoon Sweet Smoked Paprika
Optional:
1 teaspoon dried, hot chile flakes or powder

Smash the garlic cloves under the flat side of a chef’s knife. Remove the peels and nibs.
In a molcajete, (or mortar and pestle), grind together the garlic, salt, and pepper, then set aside for flavors to marry.

Garlic, salt, and pepper

Garlic, salt, and pepper

Trim excess fat from the beef, and dice it into larger bite sized pieces, about 1/2″ square.

Rinse all produce. Stem and seed the peppers, peel the onion.
Dice the peppers, onion, and tomatoes, (about 1/3″ pieces).
Peel and trim the spring onions, then cut them into thin wheels.
Chiffonade the parsley.

Veggies

Garnish

In a cast iron Dutch oven, (or sauté pan with a tight fitting lid), over medium high heat, heat the oil until very hot.

Add the onions and sauté for about one to two minutes, until they begin to brown.
Add the seasoned garlic paste and stir to incorporate.

Gorgeous local beef

Add the beef and paprika; continue to sauté over high heat for two to three minutes more, stirring steadily, until the meat is evenly browned.

Add the peppers and tomatoes and stir to incorporate.

Arroz de Carreteiro

Now add the dry rice to the mix, and stir well to incorporate.

Arroz de Carreteiro

Add water until all ingredients are coved by about 1″ of water.

Arroz de Carreteiro

Allow to mixture to come to a boil, stirring sparingly.

Cover the oven or pan and and reduce heat to low, just enough to maintain a simmer.

Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until almost all the water has been absorbed. If the dish seems dry, or the rice a bit too chewy, add more water.

Arroz de Carreteiro

Once the rice is nice and tender, serve piping hot, garnished with parsley and spring onions.

image

Puerco Pibil – Yucatán Magic.

My friend Shane is a fine cook in her own right, especially so since she lives on a moored boat in the Skagit river and has a teeny, tiny little kitchen. The other day, she posted about ‘A splash of tequila for the puerco pibil and one for the chef,’ and a lightbulb went off. It’s been a long, long time since I’d prepared this delightful Yucatecan specialty.

The heartbeat of this recipe is the marinade and the low and slow cooking method – Things as old as the land it springs from – the word Pibil may well stem from the Mayan noun for roast, but it’s come to mean the specific marinade used for this dish. The pinnacle of the art is Cochinita Pibil, a suckling pig wrapped in banana leaves and cooked low and slow in a pit dug in the ground, with hot rocks as the heat source – Very similar to traditions from the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands, among other hot spots.

The rocket fuel here is a highly acidic marinade, Pibil, focused on bitter orange, (AKA Seville orange) – That’s pretty legendary stuff, and for good reason – It originated in Southeast Asia, but has taken root all around the world as cooks have discovered its legendary qualities and transplanted variants across the globe. Bitter orange is the go to source for British marmalade, as it has very high pectin content and sets quite firmly. Bitter orange came to the Yucatán via the Spanish, stayed and spread somewhat – It’s found throughout the Caribbean, Florida, and other parts of the American Deep South. Up here in Washington State, not so much, as with a lot of the temperate north. You can get marinades and such that call themselves bitter orange, but frankly, that stuff is kinda like blended scotch – Two cups of Glenlivet in a barrel of grain alcohol. Finding pure bitter orange juice is harder and rarer, so we’re forced to approximate, which thankfully isn’t too hard to do.

Annatto de Achiote
Annatto de Achiote

The other vital leg to pibil is Annatto, the seed of the Achiote tree, also known as the Lipstick tree. Annatto is widely used as a food coloring – It’s what makes cheddar yellow in many iterations, but that’s selling it short. Annatto is subtle, but necessary in a whole bunch of Mexican recipes, and for good reason – I’ve heard it described as smelling like cinnamon or nutmeg, but I’ve never found those notes – What it imparts to me is a base earthiness, with hints of nuts and pepper – It’s hard to describe, but the fact is, if it’s missing from a recipe to which it’s seminal, like pibil, then you know right away, and the recipe just ain’t right.

The other musts for this recipe are a proper marinating phase, and a relatively low and slow cook, both of which are easy to do, either inside or out. Here’s our take on this classic dish. Note that we leave you wide latitude in the heat constituent – As with many things, there are plenty of recipes out there touting hefty amounts of seriously hot chiles for pibil, and frankly, that’s not how it’s typically done down south. If you want to make it nuclear, go for it, but know that the true beauty of pibil is the marriage of all the ingredients, without one swamping the rest – And for the record, I used fresh Fresno chiles and they were lovely.

One final note – Annatto is, as described, a colorant, and a pretty potent one at that – It will color your skin, your sink, your counter tops, and anything else it gets in contact with, so be cognizant and careful.

Puerco Pibil de UrbanMonique

2 Pounds Pork Roast, (Butt, Shoulder, Loin are all fine.)
1 Small Lemon
1/2 Cup Orange Juice
2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
2 cloves Garlic
2+ whole Chiles (anything from Anaheim to Habañero)
2 Tablespoons Anatto seed
1 teaspoon whole Black Pepper Corns
1/2 teaspoon Cumin seed
2 Whole Cloves
3 Allspice Berries
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Tequila

As we always note, it’s best to use whole spices, and I trust that you are – If not, just roll with it.

Zest the lemon and add that and the juice to a non-reactive mixing bowl.

Add the orange juice, vinegar, and tequila.

Combine all dry ingredients in a spice grinder, or mortise, and process/grind to a fine, consistent powder.

Add all dry ingredients to the wet and blend thoroughly.

Pibil - Yucatán rocket fuel
Pibil – Yucatán rocket fuel

Cut pork into roughly 1/2″ chunks, and transfer those to a one gallon ziplock bag.

Cut your pork to roughly 1/2" chunks
Cut your pork to roughly 1/2″ chunks

Pour the marinade into the bag and seal, then shake to thoroughly coat the meat.

Marinate for a minimum of four hours and as long as six – Don’t exceed that, as the degree of acidity in the pibil can and will make mush of your meat if you let if work too long.

Preheat oven to 300° F

Preferably, you want cast iron, or enameled cast iron for the cooking vessel. Choose something that will not let the meat spread out too much. Pour the meat and marinade into the dish/pan and tamp it down lightly. Cover with foil.

Choose a cooking vessel that's not too big.
Choose a cooking vessel that’s not too big.

Bake for 90 minutes and then check temperature and texture. When your meat is 160° F and fork tender, remove from heat and allow to rest for 10 minutes, covered.

Low and slow Puerco Pibil
Low and slow Puerco Pibil

Serve as tacos, or loose with rice, beans, quick pickled onions, fresh cotija cheese, or whatever else floats your boat.

Gotta have the accoutrement
Gotta have the accoutrement
Tacos de Puerco Pibil
Tacos de Puerco Pibil

Spring Cleaning Your Freezer

For 25 points, identify the following protein:

Didn’t think so…

Spring is the perfect time for deep cleaning. Shaking off the dust and cold and mold of winter, letting fresh air in – We do it to our homes, (hopefully), and we need to do it to our freezers as well. Whether you’ve got just a small one adjacent to your fridge, or a stand alone separate unit, it’s time to thoroughly clean that beast, inventory what’s there with a critical eye, toss what needs to be tossed and cook what must be cooked before it too goes to the great beyond.

This line of reasoning naturally brooks the question, “Can food go bad in the freezer?” The answer to which is a definite ‘Yup!’

Keep in mind that freezing does not kill bacteria, yeast, mold, etc –  it just pretty much keeps them from multiplying. In other words, if there was something funky prior to freezing, it could indeed reappear when thawed. Additionally, freezing does not do any favors for food quality, taste, etc; over time, great stuff will become good and good stuff becomes that image up yonder.

Before we abandon the ‘how long’ question for the stuff in the freezer, let’s review – When does quality starts to degrade? Depends on what it is, and how well it was packaged fro freezing, frankly. For answers to this and other burning freezer questions, (Sorry), hop on over to the USDA’s Food Safety site and read for yourself; there’s a handy chart at the bottom of this freezer article that details recommended freezer storage guidelines. You’ll also find the National Center For Home Food Preservation a wealth of good info, so scope that out too.

In general terms, when cleaning out your freezer, look for things like the pic above, the obvious victims of freezer burn, poor packaging, etc, and single them out for further inspection. If flesh looks substantially different than it usually does when thawed, (Darker, off color, dried out, etc), then you should give it the heave ho; trust me when I say if it looks funky, it’ll taste funky, and could be dangerous.

When you package for freezing, head back to the NCHFP site and read up on best practices.

The time to clear out your freezer is also the time to clean the bugger; this should be done at least annually,
and naturally, the best time do the deed is when stocks are low, AKA, the end of winter.

Pull everything out and put it into a fridge or cooler(s) while you clean.

Turn off, unplug, and thoroughly defrost your unit.

Once it’s to room temp, clean the insides thoroughly; I like Clorox cleanup for the job, but dish soap and water works fine too. Remove and clean all the shelves, racks, drawers, etc as well.

Do a rinse wipe with a solution of 2 Tablespoons of baking soda to a quart of warm water, then wipe that down with a clean, dry cloth.

Don’t forget the unseen parts! Pull the freezer from it’s normal locale and clean underneath. Inspect the back and clean that as well, (And the top), and dust the coils if your unit has exposed ones.

If you don’t already have one, buy a decent but cheap inside-the-unit thermometer and place in an easy to see spot. Our commercial units have thermometers on them, usually digital, but we don’t trust those; every unit, reach in or walk in, has a stand alone thermometer inside it. Optimal freezer temp for food storage is -15ºF to -5ºF; it should never go above 15ºF for any extended length of time.

Fire ‘er back up, let it get fully cold and then put your bounty back in. mark the calendar for the same time next year.

OK, that about covers it; now go have a celebratory beer or two, ya done good!

Oh, and stay tuned – Next post will cover building the perfect stew with all that lovely meat ya done kilt and gathered!

E & M

Brines, Marinades, Rubs, and Glazes

Here in the Great Pacific Northwet, it’s beginning to look like maybe, just maybe, it’ll stop raining one day. As such, it’s time to think about grilling again. When we do that, there’s a veritable cornucopia of cool things to do with the stuff we grill, like brines, marinades, rubs, and glazes.

First things first, though – Time to clean and inspect your grill, before you light the fires – Here’s a pretty good primer for that.

Next question, how are you grilling? In a big way, the answer to that question will determine what to do before your food hits the fire. Grilling is, for most of us, far less controlled than cooking in an oven or on a stove top. As such, knowing how to properly set up a charcoal grill, or use a gas one, makes a big difference to your end results. The back end of this Char Siu post has clear directions for setting up a two zone charcoal grill.

Brines, marinades, rubs and glazes will all contribute to the food we grill, especially proteins and veggies. Some of those contributions will alter proteins by tenderizing, or add moisture to help foods that tend to dry out in high heat stay juicy, and all these potions can add big flavor punch when you want or need it. What’s best depends on what’s cooking.

Brining is, in simplest term, utilizing a salt solution to add internal moisture to foods that have a tendency to dry out when grilled – It’s also a great way to add some subtle flavor notes from herbs and spices. Poultry, pork, and firm fish like cod, salmon, and swordfish do especially well with a brine. This little primer will give you some great base knowledge and ideas.

Marinades combine an acid and a base, just as we do for vinaigrettes. Marinating can take anything from a few minutes to days, depending on what you’re working with. Marinades generally carry bolder flavor profiles than a brine does, although those flavors may or may not get as deep into a protein, veggie, etc, depending on how long they work. Beef works great marinated, as do some of the gamier meats like lamb, game, and field poultry. A general search on the site here will provide a bunch of options from which you can springboard to your own thing.

A rub can be either dry or wet, and is what it sounds like – Where marinades are meant to get deeper into the meat somewhat as a brine does, rubs sit on top and do their work right there. Salt and pepper are most common, and fact is, if you’ve got a really lovely fresh protein or veggie, may be all you need or want. More stuff can certainly be added, and doing so can help a bunch in forming a nice crust on your food, and sealing in moisture on that relatively hot grill. Here’s a bunch of ideas to get you started.

Finally, we’ve got glazes. Generally speaking, glazes employ some sugar or an analog, and maybe some fat, like butter, which are integral to making things stick to your food. They also are quite prone to burning, however, so glazes are generally done last, and watched closely to make sure they do their thing properly. M came home with some incredibly pretty local pork chops, which prompted this whole post. I decided to wing a sweet and sour glaze for those bad boys – Here’s what I came up with.

Sweet and Sour Pork Glaze

1/4 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1/4 Cup Ketchup
1 Tablespoon Honey
1 teaspoon Yellow Mustard
1 teaspoon Dark Molasses
1 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
1 teaspoon granulated Onion
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic
Pinch Lemon Thyme
Pinch Sea Salt

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate thoroughly. Allow to sit for 15-20 minutes at room temp for flavors to marry.

Bast pork with glaze liberally in the last 3-5 minutes that it’s grilling, and keep a close eye on things so the sugars don’t burn.

Feel free to leave some at table as well.

House Made Sriracha

My friend Ken Bonfield, Guitarist extraordinaire, recently posted an online paean to the iconic hot sauce, Sriracha, and got me thinking that I’d never posted about house made sriracha. Time to correct that omission. The countries that make up the core of the long peninsula that lies south of China and east of India – Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – represent an incredibly vibrant palette of stunning cuisines. In Fort Worth, Texas, there’s a little hole in the wall Vietnamese place in a strip mall off of Belknap Street named My Lan. Very often when we went there, we were the only white folks in the joint – the sure sign of authentic stuff. They’re still there, so go if you’re nearby, and if you want an adult beverage with dinner, stop at the liquor store across the road first – It’s a BYOB joint. What you’ll find is amazingly good food, not only in what they bring you, but in what’s already on the table when you sit down – Condiments, lots of condiments, many of them rocket powered, just the way it should be. Yet there’s one über popular Asian condiment you won’t find here – Sriracha hot sauce. This surprises many folks, but it really shouldn’t, because even though many assume that this iconic sauce is Vietnamese, in fact, it’s Thai, and the version you probably love isn’t quite how it’s made over there, either. Onward.

Huy Fong Sriracha, from humble roots
Huy Fong Sriracha, from humble roots

Sriracha, A.K.A. Rooster Sauce, isn’t American in origin, but thanks to David Tran, the arguably most popular version of this spicy condiment is. Tran, a former A.R.V.N. Officer, emigrated to California back in 1980, and shortly afterwards, began making a hot chile sauce from a little cubbyhole spot in L.A.’s Chinatown. Only 7 years later, Huy Fong Foods, (Named after the ship that took Tran away from Vietnam), moved into a 68,000 square foot production facility, and the rest is history. The company, still run by the Tran family, churns out their Tuong Ot Sriracha sauce, despite some recent legal battles with neighbors and the city of Irwindale over fumes from their plant. Huy Fong has sold tens of millions of bottles of the stuff, and recently things have come almost full circle – They’re now distributing the sauce in Vietnam. That’s full circle for Tran, but not quite for the sauce – For that, we need to go to Thailand.

A lot of Sriracha
A lot of Sriracha

Huy Fong’s ubiquitous red sauce, offered in a clear plastic bottle with white lettering and a bright green top, is far from the only player to carry that name, (or that look, for that matter.) Tran, for his part, has never trademarked his version, so literally anyone and everyone can and does produce hot chile sauces that carry the same Sriracha moniker. As such, some of those competitor’s wares are in fact exact copies of the Huy Fong recipe. This isn’t exactly a rip off, by the way, (so neither is your house made sriracha). The nature of Sriracha is such that there are only so many things you can put into it and remain authentic. Variation on the chiles theme is far and away the biggest variable in play – Tran’s original version used Serrano chiles, which were eventually replaced with red jalapeños, the chile Huy Fong uses to this day.

So, where does this stuff really hail from? A couple hours south east of Bangkok, down on the Bight, lies the district and village that bears the Sri Racha name. Who exactly first made the sauce that is somewhat in dispute to this very day. Sriraja Paniche, arguably the most famous commercially sold Thai version of the Sauce, was invented by a woman called Thanom Chakkapak, in the early 20th century. Encouraged by friends and family, she began to produce her sauce commercially, and it did very well indeed. However, according to the official Thai Sri Racha Lovers Association, it was Burmese woodworkers from that seaside town that first produced the red gold.

Regardless of who first formulated the stuff, sriracha, (pronounced, by the way, See Rah Jah), is immensely popular throughout Asia, and increasingly, the rest of the world. Yet there are marked differences between the Thai versions and the Huy Fong style we here in the States are used to. In a nutshell, the various Thai versions I’ve tried are thinner, more pourable, and generally milder and sweeter than our version, although rest assured that there, just like here, there are nuclear options. While Thai food can be crazy hot, most Thai’s, like most of us, prefer a balance of heat and flavor over intense heat. Sriraja Paniche is made with Goat Chiles, over a period of three months, with specific measures of vinegar added weekly, while Huy Fong makes no more than a one month supply of jalapeños can produce, in order to safeguard the quality and ripeness of their chiles. For heat comparison, we consult the Scoville Scale – The fairly universal measure of chile power. The goats measure around 2,000 SHUs, while a Jalapeño is more in the 2,500 to 5,000 range, although some claim red jalapeños top out around 8,000 SHUs. For the record, the current leaders in that scale of fire score well over a million SHUs, so the heat level we’re talking about is well down in the heat weenie range, as far as true chile heads are concerned.

The Scoville Scale
The Scoville Scale

The bigger picture view is that ‘Sriracha’ or any derivative thereof, isn’t really a brand name, it’s the sauce name, like ketchup or mustard – The branding comes with who makes it and what they use for fuel. And speaking of use, what do the Thais do with the stuff? The home turf where this stuff originated is coastal, so seafood obviously came in to play – Initially, sriracha got used predominantly for seafood, then eventually branched out to other stuff, like Thai omelettes, rice dishes, and the like. Nowadays, its use is fairly ubiquitous, as it is here.

So, sure you can buy it, but why not make your own house made version? Home recipes and methods run the gamut from super simple, which is what we’ll do, to stuff that takes a good bit longer – fermented versions, like McIlhenny’s Tabasco sauce. The base ingredients are the same for any authentic version – Chiles, garlic, vinegar, sugar, and salt. In the real stuff, the vinegar is almost always distilled white, the sugar almost always granulated white. That said, there are versions that use rice or cane vinegar, brown or palm sugar, and of course, the chiles run the gamut in variety and heat – Therein lies the beauty in home exploration – You don’t have to be authentic, you just have to be curious and build something you dig. Like things a bit fruitier? Use cider vinegar instead of white. Want sweetness with more substance? Sub agave nectar or good local honey for the granulated sugar. And chiles? Well, just go wild is my advice. In shopping for this piece, I went with Fresno chiles that made a fantastic sriracha, fruity, flavorful, and with a delightful ack of mouth heat finish. They sport a Scoville rating of 2,500 to 10,000, meaning the bottom end is about like a jalapeño and the top figure about double that of their green cousin. Obviously, you don’t have to use red chiles if you don’t care about your sauce being a different color, so go with what looks fresh and good to you for heat and flavor. There’s also absolutely nothing wrong with mixing varieties, either.

American Style Sriracha

1 Pound fresh red Jalapeño Chiles (Anaheim will work great too if you like less heat)
1/4 Cup Distilled White Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Granulated Garlic
2 Tablespoons granulated Sugar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

 

UrbanMonique Sriracha

1 Pound fresh Chiles, (Serrano, Fresno, New Mexican)
2-4 cloves fresh Garlic
1/4 Cup Live Apple Cider Vinegar*
1-2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

* Vinegar with the Mother acetobacter starter.

Thai Style Sriracha

1 Pound fresh Goat Chiles, (Red New Mexican, Hatch, or Anaheims will do nicely too)
3-5 cloves fresh Garlic
1/4 Cup Rice Vinegar
2 Tablespoons light brown Sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons Sea Salt

For all versions, production is the same.

PRODUCTION NOTES: You may chose to roast or blacken your chiles and garlic prior to cooking if you wish. This imparts a deeper, more nuanced flavor profile to virtually any combination you chose. If you prefer a brighter, fresher flavor, leave off the roasting step. Try all three versions and go from there.

Chiles do not contain pectin, so thickening largely depends on the reduction step detailed below. Your results will vary depending on the variety and freshness of the chiles you choose. Almost all commercial Srirachas remove most if not all of the seeds and skins from the finished sauce, but you certainly don’t have to – We don’t, because we prefer a thicker, chunkier sauce. It’s further my belief that retaining everything you cooked provides better and deeper flavor all around. Do what you like – You can’t go wrong either way.

Speaking of pectin, you can substitute fruit for the sweetener for a less traditional, but every bit as tasty on option for any sauce variant. A quarter cup of fresh berries, plums, peach, what have you will do the trick.
Remove stems from chiles, smash garlic lightly with the side of a chef’s knife – remove the skins and trim the ends.

Rough chop the chiles.

Rough chopped chiles ready for the blender
Rough chopped chiles ready for the blender

Place everything into a blender and pulse until you have a nice, thick paste.

First sauce blend - Get a nice thick paste
First sauce blend – Get a nice thick paste

Transfer the sauce to a heavy sauce over medium heat.
Don’t clean the blender vessel just yet, you’re going to use it again soon.

Cook the sauce, stirring steadily, until the raw garlic and Chiles smells dissipate, about 5 – 7 minutes.

Cook sauce until raw smells dissipate
Cook sauce until raw smells dissipate

Check your consistency at this point – You can stop there if you wish, or continue cooking the sauce down to allow more thickening – Again, keep in mind that the sauce will thicken appreciably upon refrigeration.

Remove sauce from heat and pour it back into the blender vessel and process again until you have a nice, smooth consistency. Leave it as is if you’re happy with the consistency, or thin with water as needed, adding a tablespoon at a time.

Second blend gets your post cooked consistency
Second blend gets your post cooked consistency

When you’ve got the consistency you like, you’re done if you like things more rustic. As noted above, if you prefer a thinner sauce basically equivalent to Tabasco or Cholula, transfer the sauce to a single mesh strainer over a glass or stainless mixing bowl, and use a wooden spoon or the side of a spatula to gently work the sauce through the strainer, leaving the skin, pulp and rough stuff behind. NOTE: Many strainers have a quite fine mesh, and if your sauce isn’t particularly wet, you may capture more than you want to. A chinoise is a great alternative that will let more sauce through.

Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning as desired.

House Made UrbanMonique Sriracha
House Made UrbanMonique Sriracha

Allow the sauce to cool completely to room temperature before transferring it to a clean, glass jar with an airtight lid.

Allow the sauce to marry, refrigerated, for a couple of days before use. This is a critical step to the final flavor you’ll achieve – As an example, ours went from quite sweet and hot to much more subtly so, with the Garlic slightly more notable, within 48 hours.

It’ll last up to 30 days in the fridge.

Berbere and Berber Stew

Say the words, ‘Berber food,’ here in the States, and you’ll get many a blank stare. That unfamiliarity isn’t entirely unwarranted. The Amazigh, AKA Berber, people are an ethnic group from North Africa, who today live predominantly in the countries that encompass the top of that continent, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. There are robust Berber expat communities in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands,and Canada, which means their influence and food has spread, but here in the U.S.A., not so much. It’s time, therefore, for Berbere and Berber Stew.

Berber cuisine is ancient, in the truest sense of the word. Layered, complex, spicy, and delightfully sophisticated, it has changed very little over thousands of years. That said, it’s difficult to pin down, because it is so closely tied to the terroir of each Berber population. To the Zayanes, who live around the Atlas Mountains of central Morocco, it’s game, sheep’s milk, goat cheese, butter, corn, barley, honey, and butter. To a Tunisian or Algerian Berber, its more likely tajine, couscous, mergeuz, Harrisa, or labladi. In any iteration, it’s amazing food, rich, cultured, and redolent of its past. While we might not be familiar with the Berbers, history is – They’ve inhabited the Maghreb since 10,000 BC, and they’ve been cooking stunningly good food ever since.

Certainly there are Berber dishes we know – Those Tunisian and Algerian goodies I mentioned above are fairly ubiquitous – Couscous, Mergeuz, and Tajines can be found much more often than they would have even a decade ago. There’s far more that is common to us, we’ve just not associated the root cuisine until recently. For instance, it’s arguable that specialized ovens designed for roasting whole critters originated with the Berbers – Mechoui, whole lamb barbecue, has branched out here in techniques from the Cuban cana china, to pit barbecue. Even the meat pie or pastie has ancient Berber roots in the sublime pastilla. Our only foray here at UrbanMonique into Berber cuisine came with the post on Moghrabia, which was sublimely delicious, and a ball to discover. Yet that dish didn’t quite hit the mark for what I feel should have been done for a first Berber post – It didn’t include the amazing namesake spice blend, Berbere. I aim to rectify that herein.

Berbere - North African rocket fuel
Berbere – North African rocket fuel

Berbere is a word shared by Amharic and Tigrinya speakers, both of which are Semitic languages common to Ethiopia, Eritrea, and parts of the African Horn. Like so many signature blends, it’s hard to pin a definitive version – Everybody makes one, and theirs is best. Generally, the blend will include heat from chiles, with some combination of ginger, cardamom, fenugreek, and nutmeg/clove/cinnamon. Keep in mind that, back in the days of the silk and spice roads, this is where many of these rare delights came from, and they are still grown and used heavily, along with some very localized specialties. My favorite local spice is Long Pepper, which you can get quite easily these days – It has notable more depth and heat than Black Pepper, with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. Perhaps the most elusive of those local spices is Korarima, AKA Ethiopian, or false cardamom. That ethereal stuff is ubiquitous in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines, and locals will tell you that if you really want to cook authentic Berber food, no other cardamom will do.

Ethiopian Cardamom pods
Ethiopian Cardamom pods

The cardamoms hail from the ginger family, most from either the elettaria or amomum genera. The elettaria branch are the green, or true cardamoms, and the amomum the black, brown, white and red varieties. Korarima, Aframomum corrorima, is neither, hence the slight as ‘false’ cardamom. Korarima is a ginger family member as well, used not only in food, but as herbal remedy and tonic, and even blended with coffee. That’s as it should be, for the plants large brown pods grow well in coffee country. They’re harvested and then dried over open fires, which imparts a hint of sweet smoke to the grains. Locals say that any other cardamom just doesn’t quite cut it for Berbere. While I’ll say that, if you’re a spice nut like I am, you should try this stuff, be prepared – An ounce and a half will set you back about $15 plus postage for the good stuff. I’ll not disagree with the experts, although it’s hard to say exactly what makes Korarima different from other cardamoms – to me, it’s much more subtle and complex a flavor profile than any other version I’ve tried, less medicinal and warmer – Much like Long Pepper is a whole ‘nuther beast from Tellicherry. All that said, you certainly can make Berbere with any cardamom you have or like, and it’ll come out fine – Just don’t serve it to your Berber pals…

So, here’s our take on Berbere. It’s a heady mix of heat, warm, smoky, and herbal notes that goes great with dang near anything – Seriously, from scrambled eggs, to chicken, fish, beef, pork, tofu, and dang near any veggie you can name, it’s amazing stuff. And of course it’ll power the stew we’ll do next as well. This recipe will make about 1/3 Cup of spice blend, which will go quite a long way. You should know that true Berber spice blends are often pretty fiery, and this is no exception, (If you’ve ever tried or made genuine Harissa, you know I ain’t kiddin’). As such, you can reduce the chile volume accordingly, or use milder chiles if you prefer things a bit tamer. There are a myriad of versions of this blend, wet and dry, and they’re all fabulous – Take some time to poke around online and find some more to try, or even better, use this as a springboard to forge your own.

It takes a village - The guts for our Berbere
It takes a village – The guts for our Berbere

Berbere a la UrbanMonique

2-3 Tablespoons ground hot Chile Powder, (note – Not chili powder, just straight hot chiles!)
1 1/2 Tablespoons Smoked Sweet Paprika
1 Tablespoon Long Pepper
1 Tablespoon fine ground Sea Salt
1 teaspoon whole Coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon ground Ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground Garlic
1/2 teaspoon whole Ethiopian Cardamom, (Sub Black Cardamom if you wish)
1/2 teaspoon whole Fenugreek seed
1/4 teaspoon True Cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Allspice
1/4 teaspoon Nutmeg
This recipe really wants you using whole spices, (which you aughta be doing whenever possible, anyway,) If you don’t have whole, forego the roasting step.

Dry roast whole spices until they're fragrant
Dry roast whole spices until they’re fragrant

In a sauté pan over medium heat, add cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, and long pepper. Dry roast, stirring gently, until fragrant, about 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a spice grinder and process to a uniform powder.

Combine all ingredients in a small mixing bowl and combine thorough. Run the blend through a single mesh strainer if you like it uniform, thee wise, you can leave it rustic.

All herbs and spices get a clean, airtight glass jar with a dated label.
All herbs and spices get a clean, airtight glass jar with a dated label.

Store in an airtight glass jar, away from heat and sunlight. Will last for a couple of months if so stored.
Berber stew is a perfect intro to the joy that is North African cuisine. Simple on the surface, but with a finished taste that displays amazing depth and complexity, it’s a joy to make and eat. While you wouldn’t necessarily require the long cooking time with a protein switch, this would go equally well with chicken, pork, or even firm tofu. That said, the low and slow cooking of this dish will drive you nuts – Incredible smells for hours on end – Guaranteed you’ll be hungry when it’s done!

The truest form of this dish requires ghee, clarified butter, which I didn’t have when I decided to make it. Use ghee if you’ve got it, but if not, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than the rich, buttery notes avocado oil imparts. This recipe will feed four quite well.

Berber Beef Stew

1 Pound Stew Beef
2 Cups Stock, (Chicken, Beef, or Veggie)
1 small Sweet Onion
1 14 oz can crushed Tomatoes
2 cloves fresh Garlic
1-2 Tablespoons Berbere Spice Blend
2-3 Tablespoons Ghee or Avocado Oil
1-2 Tablespoons Wondra Flour
Trim stew meat to 1/2″ cubes.

Peel and trim onion, cut in half, then slice into very thin half rounds.

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

Always, always have your mise together
Always, always have your mise together

If you use crushed tomatoes, you’re good to go. If you got whole, process them to a rough Sauce with a stick blender.

Add beef and flour to a mixing bowl and evenly coat the beef.

Beef lightly but evenly coated with Wondra
Beef lightly but evenly coated with Wondra

In a Dutch oven or stock pot over medium heat, add a tablespoon of ghee or oil and allow to heat through.

Add beef and brown thoroughly, about 2-3 minutes a side. Allow caramelization to occur, look for that nice dark crust before you turn it. Remove beef to the mixing bowl when it’s nicely browned.

Nice, even caramelization on the beef
Nice, even caramelization on the beef

Add 2 tablespoons of oil or ghee to pan and allow to heat through.

Add the onions and sauté until golden brown, about 7-9 minutes.

Onions properly cooked down
Onions properly cooked down

Add garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about 2 minutes.

Add Berbere to the veggies and stir to incorporate.

Adding Berbere to the aromatics
Adding Berbere to the aromatics

Add the stock and tomatoes, stir to incorporate, and allow to come to a simmer.

Add the beef and stir to incorporate.

Stew ready to go low and slow
Stew ready to go low and slow

Cover the pan and turn the heat as low as you can go – Go below the ‘Low’ mark, and keep going until your oven on light turns off, then backtrack just enough to light the light – That’s where you want to be for this dish. Cook low and slow, stirring occasionally, until beef is notably tender, about 3 hours.

Remove the lid and turn heat up to the low mark. Continue cooking until beef is fork tender, about 45 – 60 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes.

Berber Stew
Berber Stew

Serve with more Berbere spice, or Harissa, and freshly made flat bread. Although it’s not exactly authentic, this stuff is delicious over wild rice.
Ethiopian flatbread, Injera, is a delicious traditional staple, and a very cool take on sourdough. It takes a few days to prepare correctly, just as traditional sourdough needs an active starter to be ready to use. Again, I didn’t know I was gonna make this, so I didn’t do Injera. I therefore included the recipe for a nice Lebanese Man’ooshe flatbread you can make in about a hour. Injera is made with Teff, a very, very old species of annual Lovegrass that is an amazing source of nourishment, high in protein, carbohydrates, and fiber. It’s so prized in North Africa that most countries that grow it ban the export of the grain – It’s needed at home more than it is over here. That said, teff is now grown here in the states, and you can get excellent teff flour readily in most stores, or online. Locals say the lighter colored varieties are better than the dark, FYI.

Ethiopian Injera

1 1/2 Cups Teff Flour
2 Cups Water
Pinch of Sea Salt
2-3 Tablespoons Ghee or Avocado Oil for frying

In a clean, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine teff flour and water thoroughly to a smooth consistency, about like a thin pancake or crepe batter.

Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and allow to stand for 1 to as long as three days, until the mixture shows frothy bubbles on top and smells notably sour. If you keep a warm house, or have a proofing box, you can easily achieve overnight fermentation, but don’t be surprised if it takes a while.

With a whisk, add a pinch of salt and stir to incorporate. Repeat this until you can just barely taste the salt, then stop. Sourdough needs salt to properly control bacterial protein eating enzymes, and protect fragile gluten.

To a cast iron skillet over medium heat, add a tablespoon of ghee or oil and allow to heat through.

Pour in a ladle of batter to just cover the bottom of the skillet. You’ll employ the same technique as you would for crepes, but injera should be a bit thicker when you’re portioning.

When holes start to form on the bread and the edges lift free of the skillet, remove the bread from the pan and let it cool – They only get cooked on one side. Parchment between each will help them keep from sticking.

Serve right away.

Lebanese Flatbread – Man’ooshe

3 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 Cup Water at about 75° F
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
1 teaspoon Honey
1 packet Dry Yeast
Extra Virgin Olive Oil for cooking
Combine water, yeast, and sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate. Allow them to sit in a warm place until the yeast begins to work.

Add flour and salt and mix to incorporate – If the dough is too dry, add a little more water a Tablespoon at a time until you get to a moist but not sticky consistency.

Cover the bowl and allow the dough to rise, about 30 – 45 minutes.

Remove the dough to a floured surface and cut it into 8 equal pieces with a pastry blade.

Use a floured rolling pin to roll each piece out to about 6″ or 7″ – About the size of a medium tortilla.

Lightly brush one side of each piece with olive oil

Set a flatbread into a cast iron skillet over medium high heat. Brush the exposed side with a little oil while the other cooks.

When the bread browns and gets puffy, it’s time to flip. When both sides are nicely browned, remove to cool and repeat the cooking process.

Eat right away, (as if you wouldn’t…)