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…)

Cook with All Your Senses

Surely, you’ve heard the adage, ‘We eat with our eyes,’ yes? Truer words were never spoken. And there’s more to it than that, of course – We also eat with our noses, skin, imagination, and memory, and you certainly should cook with all your senses. All that stuff is every bit as important as taste, frankly, and a savvy home cook never forgets it. It’s kinda like Obi-Wan’s epic line – You gotta use the force and let go of rigid, recipe thinking.

Put fresh food out where it will inspire you!
Put fresh food out where it will inspire you!

First, sight, naturellement. Many assume that the feast with your eyes concept speaks to plating and presentation. Certainly those aspects have a bearing on things, but frankly, there’s much more to it then that. Often enough, we come home from a long day at work, only to realize we gotta make dinner. Here’s where sight should first be employed – What you see around you should be your inspiration. As such, whenever and wherever possible in your kitchen, leave the good stuff out where you can see it and be inspired. Bowls of fruit and veggies, glass jars of pasta, beans, and rice, home canned goodies in mason jars – If all this bounty is packed away neatly in pantry or shelf, it’s not revealing itself to you – Put the goods out center stage, and be inspired. Make part of this scheme a rotating canvas of sorts. Go through your pantry and spice cabinet and pick out half a dozen things you’ve not used since you can’t remember when, then pull those out and display them where they’ll make you think. Take a look at the stuff you’ve got on display and do some paring – Chances are good that when you come home tired and hungry, these little vignettes will not only spark inspiration, but lift your spirits a bit as well – There’s a reason art makes us feel good.

pair things you've not used in a while, (or ever), for inspiration.
pair things you’ve not used in a while, (or ever), for inspiration.

In our piece on Banh Mi, I wrote, “Vietnamese cooks strive to include fiver  essential nutrients in each meal – Powder (spice), water, minerals, protein, and fat. The visual element of cooking is also carefully considered; white, green, yellow, red, and black are presented in a well balanced Vietnamese dish.” Therein lies another clue to visual cooking – Use it when you compose a dish on the fly. If you’re here at all, you know we revere soups and stews, so here’s another tip – consider the over all pallet when you compose one. A great part of the joy of fresh veggies is the vibrant colors they add to what we eat – Balance those in a way that appeals to your eye and it’s guaranteed to make your belly happy as well.

Naturally, plating and presentation matters. Yeah, I know I’ve told y’all numerous times to not sweat it, and you shouldn’t – It should be a labor of love, not a chore. A little thing like a nice bottle of red opened, cork set on the foil round from the bottle, with a sparkling clean glass and maybe a flower in a bud vase. Set that out for your mate’s arrival home, and it can and will mean the world to a loved one. Presentation can be as simple as choosing the perfect bowl for that soup or stew – or offer some topping options in small ramekins – sour cream, freshly grated cheese. You’re offering not only dinner, but a delight for the eye, and of course, for the nose.

M's Heavenly Split Pea Soup
M’s Heavenly Split Pea Soup

Everyone has had a head cold, and when we do, what do you notice? For most of us, it’s the fact that almost nothing tastes that good, even our favorite comfort foods. That’s very likely the root of the old wive’s tale, ‘starve a cold and feed a flu,’ with the latter, you feel like shit, but at least you can taste. Smell is a huge part of taste – Without it, us human are limited to the most basic flavors – salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami, and those not all that well. Doubt it? Pinch your nose shut and eat something you know well, say, a strawberry – With your olfactory blocked, you’ll get some flavor, maybe hints of sweet and sour – unblock your nose half way through and suddenly, there it is, all the subtleties that make a strawberry what it is. Those nuances are critical in fact; lose your sense of smell, and the world of food turns black and white – A horrible affliction, to say the least. As a home cook, I live to hear M say from the other room, “That smells amazing!” That means I’m on the right track with whatever I’m doing, and it guides me more than anything else while composing a dish. Let your heart and your nose be your guides, and never forget that the real subtlety of a dish comes from scent, far more than any other sense.

Finger food needn't be fancy to be pretty
Finger food needn’t be fancy to be pretty

So, we eat with our skin? Sure we do – If you’re like me, having tactile interaction with my food is important. We spent millennia eating before cutlery came around. Literally in every part of the globe, there are myriad dishes meant to be eaten by hand, and that’s a critical consideration for a cook. There are tacos, sandwiches, sausages, tajines, samosas, and many, many more. Such dishes exist on every continent, and may the food gods bless ’em all. The ubiquity of vehicles such as unleavened flat breads, tortillas, and the like exist largely to act as a shovel for wonderful things. Great fried chicken is a delight, at least in part, because we can feel the crunch, salty, hot outside layer as we bite into it – If that’s not proof of concept, I don’t know what is. Consider a finger food for your next menu – That could be as simple as fresh bread to mop everything else up with, or maybe small dishes of olives, cornichons, or pearl onions. One of our favorite low pressure meals is a picnic of whatever is at hand – meat, cheese, veggies, fruit, nuts, and bread, cut up to bite sized pieces, with Dijon mustard and house made giardiniera, and a nice glass of wine.

Don’t forget imagination and memory. Any of all of your senses can and will trigger things – The smell of the Asian take out at the grocery, potatoes frying on a flat top, the scent of freshly baked bread – These might spawn fried rice, pommes Anna, or banh mi for dinner. If it’s a fleeting glimpses e of something, grab pen and paper, write it down and stuff it in your pocket as a reminder – If not tonight, then down the line, but don’t lose the inspiration. By the same token, food memories are some of the most vivid internal imagery we conjure for ourselves. When we were kids, making mac and cheese or pizza may have involved a box, (Kraft, and Apian Way, I freely admit), but the memories are of cooking comfort food in a warm, steamy kitchen, and that’s all you need to be inspired. When one of those memories hits, use the power of 21st century technology to unlock something new – Google whatever it is, find a take on it that’s outside your usual mold, and go from there – As every chef from Jacque Pepin to me tells y’all, a recipe is just a guide – Use it to springboard something of your own.

When you feed your senses, imagination, and memory that way, it’s a solid guarantee you’ll never leave the table unsatisfied.

Sourdough

Sourdough. Yes, that. It’s funny that sourdough gets called things like ‘rustic’ or ‘rough’ as often as it does. Rustic is fine – if it’s not used in the pejorative sense – Rustic, as in, of the countryside, and of simple roots. The latter term, rough – Not so much. Great sourdough is anything but rough. And making great sourdough is far, far harder than many other breads. At work, we bake it every day, and it’s good sourdough, but it is, after all, production bread. Production is only half the reason that it’s good and not great sourdough – The other half of the equation is magic – The starter, because the real beauty of sourdough is fact that there’s arguably no food more tied to terroir – What you get is, eventually, exactly where you’re from – And that’s what makes great sourdough as much science as it is art. Interested? If you’ve ever wanted to do sourdough, but never dove in, now’s your time.

There are a lot of myths about sourdough, concerning everything from where and how we get it from, to how to properly make it. What we’ll endeavor to do here is to spell out some truths, deflate some of those myths, and offer a launching pad for future discovery, should you be so inclined. Even if you don’t decide to take the plunge, hopefully, you’ll have a better feel for what sourdough is, and the truly amazing amount of work that goes into making it. Believe that last statement, by the way – While making some form of sourdough is as easy as any other bread, doing it right is quite labor intensive. The parable that comes to mind is making farmhouse cheddar versus making real cheddar – The former is easy and fast – The latter takes literally all day, and requires such to be worth the effort. Sourdough done the traditional way is the cheddar of bread making.

Back in 1989, a pathologist named Ed Wood wrote a book, titled World Sourdoughs From Antiquity. Prior to that, Wood was working in Saudi Arabia. He did some traveling throughout the Middle East, and as a long time fan of sourdough, came upon myriad evidence of the long run sourdough has enjoyed in that part of the world. Wood noted that evidence of sourdough cultures that existed as far back as 10,000 B.C., and he’s right. He began collecting cultures, a thing a pathologist would naturally be quite good at. Eventually, he expanded his discovery and collection into the wider world, and ended up writing the book. He also maintained and cultivated all those various cultures, and to this very day, is more than happy to sell them to you. The book is, more than anything, a vehicle to do just that. This illustrates one of the most popular myths and challenges about sourdough – More on that in a bit.

Symbiosis at work...
Symbiosis at work…

First off, what exactly is it that powers sourdough – How does it really work? The root is indeed wild yeast, and that differs distinctly from the pure cultured yeasts used by the vast majority of bread makers. Back before Louis Pasteur figured out the fermentation process in 1857, bread yeast was largely sourced from yeast leftover from beer and wine making. The big problem with that lies in the fact that these yeasts were really chosen for their ability to make alcohol, not to generate the CO2 that bread makers needed.

Enter Charles Fleischmann eleven years later, in 1868. The Hungarian son of a distiller and yeast maker, when he emigrated to the U.S. and moved to Cincinnati, he was sorely disappointed in the quality of the bread he found there. He and his brothers developed a stable, reliable cake yeast for bakers, and the rest is history – And yes, those little bright yellow and red packages in your fridge are his work. That innovation was a major factor that lead to the mighty monolith that is industrial baking today, (over 75% of the bread sold worldwide is industrially produced). Sourdough plays some role in that, from big makers to small, it’s never died out. Yet real sourdough is very different from that tame, pet yeast the big guys are using.

What makes sourdough work is a critical symbiotic relationship between yeast and a couple of bacteria, namely Lactobacillus and Acetobacillus. Those little dudes work with the wild yeasts, breaking down and fermenting the sugars they find in dough. What’s unique about this arrangement is that, unlike most bread doughs, sourdough is acidic, and it’s that acidity that is largely responsible for the unique taste profile. Often enough, these bacteria are some of the same strains that turn milk into yoghurt and buttermilk. That’s not all – Sourdough bacteria have the distinct ability to resist other microbes that cause bread to go bad, and that’s why sourdough keeps better than most other breads.

Let it breath - Wild yeasts at work
Let it breath – Wild yeasts at work

So, here’s that first myth – That when in the comfort of your own home, you make a fresh sourdough starter, the wild yeast that becomes active is derived from the air around you. For the most part, at least starting out, it turns out that’s not true. The yeasts that’ll fuel your home starter comes predominantly from the flour you use – And if ever there was a fact warranting a wise flour buying choice, I’d say that’d be it. If and when you decide to make a starter of your own, (and you absolutely should), the flour you use should be the freshest, best quality, most local stuff you can find – When I made a batch for the writing of this piece, I spent over eight bucks for five pounds of local, organic, fresh flour from the town just south of ours, and believe me, were you able to stick your nose in my starter jar, you’d instantly know that it was worth every penny.

The other reason for local is this – Since the yeast that’ll power your starter comes off the flour, (and assuming you like the results), there’s a much greater chance that what you start out with is what you’ll get in the long haul, and therein lies the second myth we need to bust.

The Leaven - Sourdough Rocket Fuel.
The Leaven – Sourdough Rocket Fuel.

So, back to our buddy Ed Wood. He’s not a bad guy, and he obviously digs sourdough – He’s turned it into a successful business with a decades long track record. If you buy from a reputable place like Ed’s, you’ll get workable starters from where he says they came from. Yet, there’s one big problem with this whole concept of having your own San Francisco sourdough starter, if you don’t actually live there – and it’s not something that folks who sell this stuff necessarily want to talk about a whole bunch. Here’s the deal – Let’s say you make a starter with one of these legendary cultures, or even flour from some place well away from where you live – While any starter you make will rely on the culture you bought, (or again, from yeast in the flour you use), over time, the native wild yeasts in the air around you will indeed make their presence known. Eventually, your naive yeasts will prevail, and in the end run, that’s what will power your sourdough.

I did a pretty extensive review of foodie sites that had a lot of input and exchange from folks who have bought or been gifted starters from other places, and there’s a glaringly common thread therein – In essence, folks say that over time, all their various starters either started to taste a like, and/or less Iike they did when they first got it – A sure sign of native wild yeasts are stepping in and taking control. You can’t escape your local terroir, no matter how hard you try. I stopped making starters when we lived in Fort Worth, Texas, because to me, they just didn’t taste good. They worked fine, but tasted funky. Here, living right on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in the northwest corner of Washington State, I love what I get in my starter – It has a wonderful, briny nose to it that seems perfectly apropos. You get what you get.

So, you want to dive in – What to do? Well, rather than do my own step by step, I’m simply going to refer you to the best version I’ve seen in the subject anywhere, from the incredibly creative gang over at The Kitchn. You’ll find extensive text and pics for making and maintaining a starter, as well as several varieties of sourdough bread. While there are many ways to make sourdough, I find their primer the best out there – It’s as right as rain. That said, a few more thoughts on the process.

Weighing is always best, for everything you bake.
Weighing is always best, for everything you bake.

1. Pay heed to the caveats about how long sourdough takes to make. You really cannot successfully speed up the process. Wild yeasts are slower than their domesticated cousins, and you just have to be patient working with them. With sourdough, those friendly bacteria grow at a much faster rate than their symbiotic yeast partners – That ratio of growth eventually inhibits the yeasts ability to generate CO2, which is what gives us the lift for the rise. Additionally, those protein guzzling bacteria weaken the gluten in the flour, which mean your dough is less elastic – This also impacts the rise, but coincidentally contributes to the denser crumb sourdough is known for.

2. If you bake a lot, keep your starter at room temperature, and refresh them regularly with flour and water. When your starter is well established, you’ll want to toss half of it daily, and then refresh with 4 ounces each of flour and water. You can keep doing that, as long as you’re using it regularly. Whisking your starter a couple of times a day adds the oxygen your yeast needs to grow and multiply. Keep them relatively cool – under 74° F is ideal.

3. If you’re not going to use the starter for longer than 5 days or so, refrigerate it in an airtight glass jar. Once a week, pull your starter out before you go to bed, let it get up to room temperature overnight, and then feed it before refrigerating again.

4. If you’re taking a long break from baking, thicken your starter by adding 6 ounces of flour instead of 4 – Thick, doughy starters retard bacterial growth, which means less fussing with it for you. If you’re really gonna not be baking for a month or more, consider drying your starter out by spreading it thinly on parchment, waxed paper, or silicone baking sheets. When it’s fully dry, break up the starter into flakes and seal it in a clean, airtight glass jar. Dried, your cultures will last for months, just like Ed’s. 1/4 Cup of the flaked starter with 4 ounces each of water and flour will kick things back into gear for you.

Real deal sourdough
Real deal sourdough

So dive into those Kitchn posts and give them a spin – Your bread loving self and loved ones will thank you for it.

Restaurant Style Rice & Beans

M and I don’t eat out much, predominantly because we cook better than most restaurants. That said, there are times when you just get a serious hankering for the real thing, and when that happens to us, more times than not, it’s for good Mexican or Tex Mex. The bug hit us Saturday night, and we went to our small town, truly fabulous joint – Chihuahua’s in Ferndale, Washington. Chihuahua’s is a gas for several reasons – First off, they have an eclectic menu of genuine regional Mexican gems, interspersed with more typical Tex Mex offerings, (Which I unabashedly dig, by the way.) Secondly, they own the whole block, and the sprawling interior seats 300 folks – A quirky, kitschy, great place to eat, people watch, and enjoy a seriously good house made margarita, (Order the Denver). Third, the Hernandez family and staff are seriously dialed in for making a great dining experience happen – they’re connected with radios and discrete ear pieces, so within seconds of sitting down, warm chips and fabulous house made salsa appears like magic, somebody comes for your drink order, and food is always delivered hot and fresh. Hit up your server for mas serviettas y salsa, and they appear almost before you’re done asking. If you’re ever in the area, go there, and order the slow cooked pork shanks with the green sauce – To die for!

All that said, what I truly love are the retried beans and rice. You can get charro beans, as M always does, but I love the refrieds – Silky, perfectly seasoned, and the rice – Slighly dry, with great flavor and bite. Salsa may be the first judge of a good joint, but truly great restaurant style beans and rice seal the deal. Here’s how to make your own at home that’ll rival your fave spots, even Chihuahua’s.

For real deal restaurant style refrieds, there are some critical caveats. First off, you’ve got to use fresh, dried beans. Pintos are far and away the go-to restaurant bean, but you certainly can use black, red, or even white if you like – and of course, what you have on hand certainly has bearing on what you use when the spirit moves you. Secondly, texture is as important as seasoning – You need that silky, smooth consistency. To get it, you need an immersion blender, period. Yes, you can use a blender, but the mess, additional time required, and over all hassle factor. Thirdly, you need a little bit of lard, the pièce de résistance of a great refried recipe. Finally, we don’t always have time, energy, or materials to make beans from scratch, so I’ll include cheat recipes for canned refrieds as well, and trust me, they’ll come out great.

Speaking of lard, leaf lard is king in the world of pork fat; if you’ve not tried it, you need to. Leaf lard comes from the super soft fat around the kidneys and loins of the pig, and it maintains that softness when rendered – It spreads readily at room temp, and has a subtle hint of porkiness that adds that certain je nais se quois to your refrieds, (and anything else your heart desires). It’s not overtly piggy tasting at all, which is why bakers also dig it for making super flaky pie crusts. Leaf lard used to be hard to find, but is now readily available – Ask a local butcher, or find it online through many sources, (And plain old lard will certainly do, as that’s what’s usually used, anyway.)

For rice, any decent long grain white will do – The Magic is in the cooking method, although having good quality, fresh stuff is a must.

Cooking is all about options, and you need them with something as apparently simple as retried beans. Ideally, we’d soak beans overnight, and then slow cook them for hours before transformation to refried. Barring that, a good slow cooker allows you to combine those steps, and let it work for 8 or 9 hours while you’re at work. The low and slow is what most good restaurants do, and you’ll want to give that a whirl. What we’ll do here is explore some cheats that’ll get you stellar results with less of a time commitment. Just as we’ve shown you for soups and stews, proper ingredients, seasoning, and layering of flavors can make almost anything taste like you’ve slaved for hours, and refried beans are no exception. If you go the low and slow stove top, oven, or slow cooker route, everything goes in the pot and then let ‘er rip. The primary cheat version will reduce everything down to three or four hours, tops.

This recipe will make way more than enough beans for a single meal, and that’s a good thing – When you make great stuff, make extra. You can and should freeze some, either in a vacuum sealed bag or ziplock with the air sucked out – They’ll be good for 90 days, easy.

Mise en place for the beans
Mise en place for the beans

Restaurant Style Refried Beans

3 Cups dried Beans, Pintos preferred (others just fine)
4 Cups Chicken Broth
2 Cups water
1 Cup diced Yellow Onion
1/2 Cup diced Red Bell Pepper
1/2 Cup Crema (Sour cream is fine)
2 cloves minced fresh Garlic
1 Tablespoon Lard
2 teaspoons ground Cumin
1 teaspoon Franks Hot Sauce
1 teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Rinse beans and remove any floaters. Check them for little rocks too – Not uncommon in dried beans.

Cover beans with at least 3″ of water, in a large sauce pan over high heat, and bring to a boil.

Boil beans for one minute, then cover and remove from heat. Allow beans to steep in hot water for one hour.

After a one minute boil and an hour soak - Just look at that liquor!
After a one minute boil and an hour soak – Just look at that liquor!

Add beans and liquor to a stock pot over medium high heat.

Add all other ingredients, except crema, and stir to incorporate. Bring beans to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer beans for 1-2 hours, until they’re fork tender. Be prepared, the aroma will make your stomach growl…

They take less than half the time of low and slow, but nobody will know
They take less than half the time of low and slow, but nobody will know

You’ll have enough beans for several meals. See above for freezing.

Transfer two cups of cooked beans to a large mixing bowl. Process the beans with a stick blender until they’re smooth and creamy.

In a large cast iron skillet over medium heat, add a tablespoon of lard and allow to melt and heat through.

Add the processed beans and stir to incorporate. When the beans start to bubble, turn off the heat, add crema or sour cream and whisk to incorporate and heat through.

Real deal refrieds, rich and creamy
Real deal refrieds, rich and creamy

Serve piping hot, garnished with shredded cheddar or jack cheese.
No time for all that? No problem – Here’s the super fast cheat that’ll yield surprisingly good results.

Big Time Cheat Refried Beans

1 16 ounce can Refried Beans
1/4 Cup Crema or Sour Cream
1/2 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1/2 teaspoon granulated Onion
1-3 teaspoons of Franks Hot Sauce
Pinch of Sea Salt
Couple twists of ground Black Pepper

In a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, melt 2 teaspoons of lard. Add beans, garlic, onion. Hot sauce, salt and pepper. Whisk with a fork to incorporate,and allow to heat through until bubbling.

Turn off the heat, add crema or sour cream, whisk to incorporate

Serve piping hot, garnished with shredded cheddar or jack cheese.
Great Mexican restaurant rice is never heavy or soggy – It’s light, fluffy, and nicely seasoned, and that’s what you’ve got here. Slightly on the dry side, and with a notable, nutty taste, the secret lies in the cooking method as much as it does the ingredients. Here’s the drill.

Real Deal Mexican Restaurant Rice

1 Cup long grained White Rice
1 1/2 Cups Chicken Broth
1/2 Cup Tomato Sauce
1 small cloves fresh Garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground Coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
4-5 twists fresh ground Black Pepper
2 Tablespoons Lard

In a large sauce pan over medium heat, add the lard and allow to melt and heat through.

Add the rice to the hot pan and sauté the rice, stirring gently and steadily, until the rice turns light brown.

Add ground coriander, garlic, salt and pepper – continue sautéing until the rice is golden brown.

When the rice is golden brown, it's time to add stock and tomato sauce
When the rice is golden brown, it’s time to add stock and tomato sauce

Add chicken broth and tomato sauce and stir to incorporate.

Bring the heat up to medium high and allow the mixture to boil.

Reduce heat to low, cover the pan and cook for 20 to 25 minutes.

Restaurant style rice, savory and nutty
Restaurant style rice, savory and nutty

Remove from heat and fluff with a fork.

Serve piping hot.

T Bone Tacos with rice and beans
T Bone Tacos with rice and beans

Sugar, and Spice, and Everything Essential

Sugar, and spice, and everything essential. That’s no nursery rhyme – That’s what needs to be in every home pantry, if spontaneity and discovery are to happen in your kitchen. Fact is, without a decent assortment of staples – Sweeteners, flours, herbs, spices, oils, vinegars, and the like, it can be awfully hard to successfully create on the fly. At the same time, its easy, (and pricy!), to go overboard on this stuff. What’s the happy medium, and what are the must haves? Let’s dive in and see.

Here at our kitchen, we have, well, pretty much everything. We have to, in order to do what we do for y’all – researching, creating, and testing recipes requires a ridiculous amount and variety of resources. Thankfully, your kitchen needn’t be quite so whacky to be well equipped. That said, you may want more than you’ve got currently, so how to decide what’s necessary? Let’s use our place as a guide, and pare things down to manageable for the average home kitchen. That should allow a cook to do as much as reasonably possible from scratch, and also encourage spontaneity.

Spice & Herb Overflow - It happens...
Spice & Herb Overflow – It happens…

Before we dive in to specifics, a note on organization. Some manner thereof is, of course, absolutely necessary. How that takes shape is up to you. The most common sense approach is to consider what you use most, and have those closest at hand. As far as I’m concerned, the Season As You Go rule is non-negotiable, so the core stuff needs to be close at hand. We keep our go-to salts and peppers front and center, right on top of the stove. Oils, vinegars, and other common sauces shouldn’t be much farther away, ditto for herbs and spices. Flours, sugars, canned, boxed, and bagged stuff is pantry fodder, if you’re fortunate enough to have one.

The fundamentals, salt and pepper, center stage.
The fundamentals, salt and pepper, center stage.

In any case, make arrangements that make sense to you. Once you establish an order that works for you, keep it – In a professional kitchen, having things in the same place every time is a necessity, given the time constraints under which we cook. That rule really isn’t any different for us at home – Sometimes cooking is leisurely, but more often than not, it’s home at five and dinner needed around six, or some version thereof – So having everything where you expect to find it is imperative for efficiency and peace of mind. All that said, be open minded about change, if down the road your best laid plans don’t thrill you any more. Quarterly reviews of your resources and where you have them is a very good plan to follow. That gets you looking at expiration dates, freshness, amounts on hand, and what you haven’t used in forever on a regular basis – Include your fridge and freezer in that survey as well.

Why not start with those essentials, your go-to seasonings. As savvy cooks everywhere know, the core secret to great cooking is seasoning as you go. That means that the stuff you rely on for that process should be, as noted, closest at hand. This needn’t be complex. Salt and pepper really are all you need. Were one to pick a single version of each, what should they be? I’ll advocate for a sea salt, one with a moderate grain size – For this, you don’t want either really chunky stuff or super fine – Real sea salt contains a wealth of trace minerals that taste good and are good for you. There’s a bunch out there – I like the Bob’s Red Mill a lot, as well as the Celtic brand. For Pepper, you’re hard pressed to do better than a genuine Tellicherry berry, and that requires a little explanation.

Tellicherry Pepper - Size matters.
Tellicherry Pepper – Size matters.

Contrary to popular culinary myth, Tellicherry Pepper does not come from its namesake city in India. Tellicherry berries are defined by size, not location or heritage, per se. Pepper berries, Piper Nigrum, are harvested in February and March, then dried to become what we recognize as a pepper corn. In order to be called Tellicherry, pepper corns need to be 4.25 mm or larger, (and there’s actually a jumbo version, at 4.75mm and up). In any given crop, maybe 10% to 15% of the berries reach Tellicherry size, so it’s a bit rarer and a bit pricier, but well worth it – You’re getting the literal cream of the crop. As for other pepper, a look through our spice cabinet finds long, Tasmanian, grains of paradise, smoked, Szechuan, Lampung, Aleppo, white, green, and red, so yeah – You can go pretty ballistic on those. As far as I’m concerned, Tellicherry is all you really need.

Culinary Salts now run the gamut from A to Z
Culinary Salts now run the gamut from A to Z

There are many more options for salts these days, as well – and you may or may not want or need them. Some of the legendary ones, like Malden, Sal de Mer, Himalayan pink, Bolivian Sunrise, and the like are truly spectacular, but they’re expensive – Really better suited as finishing salts for a special touch. I counted fourteen salt varieties in our spice cabinet, including kosher, flaked, smoked, and a raft of those fancy varietals – Again, you really don’t need most of those. If I had to pick a must have selection, it’d be sea, kosher, and flaked – That’ll cover the vast majority of uses you’re likely to want to mess with – And if the others catch your fancy, I say try those too, but sparingly. Salt and pepper don’t have an endless shelf life, so buy in small quantities, and use them up before adding more.

Essential oils, vinegars, and sauces get the same storage treatment as herbs and spices.
Essential oils, vinegars, and sauces get the same storage treatment as herbs and spices.

Next up, oils, and here too one can be complex or simple. For eons, what you could get was corn oil and olive oil, and little else. With the rising popularity of home gastronomy, the variety of oils available to cooks has blossomed considerably. For basic cooking, you can now find a number of relatively heart healthy oils in almost any store – canola, peanut, safflower, and sunflower, for instance. As with fancy salts, there are a bunch more fairly exotic oils – walnut, grape seed, coconut, hazelnut, avocado, and infused olive oils. While the latter bunch are delicious indeed, they’re really more for finishing or making vinaigrette than for cooking – And they’re fabulously expensive to boot. What you need is genuine Extra Virgin Olive Oil, for sure, and then a go to veg oil – Those will do the trick for 90% of your daily cooking chores. I’ll add one caveat, and that’s avocado oil. It’s become our go to, for several reasons – It’s got a light, buttery taste, it handles heat well, and is high in monounsaturated fatty acids.

For all thing flour, I’ll refer you to our Flour Power post from a while back – It’ll probably tell you more than you need to know.

Pantry is for bulk storage of staples.
Pantry is for bulk storage of staples.

Sweeteners are a bit more complex than refined white sugar, and should be – There are tastier, more potent options worth your shopping dollar. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have white sugar on hand – You should, and maybe even a couple variants – Regular white is a go to for many things, and the finer cut Baker’s sugar dissolves much faster, for baking or other cooking. Honey, real honey, local whenever possible, not only has greater sweetening power than sugar, it has the added benefit of subtle flavor notes that reflect the terroir your local bees worked to bring you their joy. Regulars here will know we’re also big on agave nectar. In addition to a lovely, light taste, like honey, agave has a lower glycemic index than white sugar, so here again, you can use less to obtain a commensurate level of sweetening power. Other sugars, brown, raw, and the like, carry a molasses flavor note white refined doesn’t, and some folks like that. If you bake, you’ll likely want some of those on hand. Molasses and corn syrup might also find favor with bakers. Alternative molasses, like Pomegranate, sorghum, carob and date, are popular for cooking Middle Eastern cuisine, and can add an exotic touch to many dishes and sauces.

Vinegar is a must as well, for everything from house made vinaigrettes to sauces and shrubs. Depending on what you like to do, you may need one or more variations on the theme. A few years back, I wrote a little primer on the basics – You can find that here. The one caveat I’ll underline is this – Infused vinegars are expensive, and they needn’t be. You can make great versions at home for next to nothing, and you should. Here are some ideas for that project.

There are a bunch of ready made sauces out there, so what do you really need? For my mind, a hot sauce or three is a necessity – A few drops of Tabasco, for instance, wakes flavor much as salt does, and adds a nice backbone note to soups and stews. Jalapeño based sauce has a milder, fruitier profile that goes great with everything from veggies to eggs. What else? Soy sauce is a must, (though beware, there are a slew of gourmet and ‘premium’ varieties that can get really pricy and aren’t really all that spectacular. There are now an abundance of dark and light varieties. Preference comes down to taste, so try a few until you find something you like, and then stick with it – The lighter version, by the way, differs mostly in color, the idea being not to turn things muddy when that’s not appealing. Fish sauce is another must have, and here you do need to be careful – There’s a lot of crap, even among the pricy stuff. Red Boat is the real deal – You can’t go wrong with a small bottle of that, and since this is added literally by the drop, a small bottle goes a long way. Obviously there are a bunch more sauces, and you may accumulate a few over time. Hopefully, you don’t get as crazy as we are, but then you never know…

Oils, vinegars, and sauces will break down in the presence of direct sunlight and heat, so store them in a cool, dark spot, in glass containers, and always read the label to see if something belongs in the fridge after opening.

Herbs and spices need dark, cool temps, and airtight glass jars.
Herbs and spices need dark, cool temps, and airtight glass jars.

And lastly, we come to herbs and spices. Here’s a place where, as you can see from our cabinet, a cook can go seriously off the deep end – That’s a blessing and a curse. Almost everything in a spice cabinet is sensitive to conditions and age – The volatile compounds that make herbs and spices do what they do mean that they can and will break down and degrade if stored improperly or kept too long. For dried herbs and spices, there are important caveats. First, sourcing – All herbs are not created equally – Provenance and proven quality matter. Although things are improving in terms of variety and quality, getting herbs and spices from the average grocery store isn’t what you want to do. A simple test illustrates why – A generic, store bought jar of oregano versus real stuff from a quality source like World Spice, or Penzeys, will prove the point. Open both and take a nice, long sniff. The sheer power and complexity of the good stuff quickly overwhelms the relatively insipid generic version. What you’re experiencing is ‘oregano’ against Mexican or Turkish oregano, with known sources of high quality – Game over. Everything you get from a good purveyor will perform like that. If you needed further motivation, what you get in the grocery is often more expensive than what the good providers charge. You’ll also have a choice as to how much of what you want to buy, and you can opt for whole or ground/mixed as well. Overall, it’s a no brainer if you’re serious about your cooking, (and if you’re here, you are.)

Onwards to storage – If your spices are in little jars in a spinny thingy on your counter top, and you got that stuff as a wedding gift and are still using it, you seriously need to repent, and soon. Sunlight, oxygen, and warmth are our friends, but for dried herbs and spices, not so much. Your stuff needs to be in a cabinet, out of direct light, away from extremes of temperature, and stored in small, airtight glass jars. That will safeguard your hard won goodies. Even so, age creeps up on us all, and spices are as susceptible as anything. This means that limiting how much and what you store is the best plan. We buy our staple, go to stuff, by the pound, but again, that’s because we do a lot of cooking to make this joint run – There are few, if any things in the spice world that the average home kitchen needs by the pound – An ounce of lemon thyme goes quite a long way, and you can have another in your mailbox in a matter of days. Buy quality, buy enough for maybe three months of use, and you’re good to go.

Of course, some herbs just beg to be used fresh, and if ever there’s an indoor gardening task you should undertake, a fresh herb window box is it. Check out our page on what we call the essentials, here. Between that and an annual herb and veggie garden, you can grow and then dry of freeze home grown stuff – There’s nothing finer, frankly.

This isn’t meant as a comprehensive kitchen analysis, but as a good starting point from which to learn and grow. Always be open to change, embrace what works and tastes good, and you’ll be hard pressed to go wrong. What we’ve outlined here should be sufficient to allow decent spur of the moment creativity on your part.