Tajine – A dish and pot from North Africa

I admit it, I’m obsessed with clay cookers. That’s not a bad thing, by the way. It’s not a stretch in any way to say that cooking in clay has been going on since deep into prehistory. By 400 B. C., earthenware was being mass produced in several places around the world. The advantages were obvious, and in this age of renewed interest in slow food, they are again. Clay cooking adds a certain je ne sais quoi to a dish, a subtle, earthy note and a distinct juicy, tenderness. Today, we’ll take a look at the tajine, a dish and pot from North Africa.

You’ve seen a tajine, even if you didn’t know what it was called. It’s that elegant, conical pot you see on food porn shows and sites – and they’re truly magical. As noted above, tajine refers both to the cooking vessel and the dishes that are cooked and served therein. Now, first question answered – No, you don’t have to buy the pot to make the dish, but yes – it will taste that much better if you do.

Real deal tajine - unglazed and hefty
Real deal tajine – unglazed and hefty

A tajine, (or Tagine, Maraq, or Qidra, depending on where you are), consists of two parts – A shallow, round pan, and a tall conical top that fits snuggly inside the rim of the pan. The pan and top are rather thick on a tajine made for cooking, around 1/2” to 3/4”. This implies that there are tajines not made to cook in, and indeed, there are – Many of the shiny glazed, highly decorated versions you’ll find as you delve in are in fact not cookware, but meant just to present and serve a dish. From a reputable seller, they’ll be clearly marked as a serving tajine, (And woe betide the cook who doesn’t do their due diligence). Serving tajines are thinner, and will fail in a spectacularly catastrophic manner if an attempt to cook in them is made – Don’t be that cook. If you’re interested in buying, get an unglazed, hefty, genuine article, something made in Morocco, specifically called a cooking tajine. For the record, tajines can be found made of numerous things other than clay – aluminum, cast iron, steel, and enameled metal among them. That said, if you want the real genuine article, it’s gotta be unglazed clay – More on that shortly.

The magic that a tajine imparts derives from that conical top. It’s hollow and sports a small hole placed very near the apex. On the outside, there’s what looks like an egg cup set atop the cone. Every aspect of this device is intentional and adds to the voodoo the tajine do do. That cover is designed to collect and condense moisture from the cooking food and return it to the pan. The little hole in the top regulates steam pressure within the vessel. As such, when working with a clay cooker, very little water or stock is generally added to the dish, because it’ll generate its own. The little egg cup at the very top of the pot is filled with cold water, and serves to improve condensation while cooking. Magic, I tells ya.

The pot is truly ancient, dating all the way back to the 800’s in Arabic literature, which certainly implies it was around well before then. This was during the reign of the Abbasid Empire, which sprawled from southern Spain to Northern Africa and most of the Middle East. These days, the pot and the dish see heaviest use in North Africa, with the Middle East a close second, and France a surprising third – They’re popular enough there that legendary French cookware maker Le Creuset makes an enameled, cast iron version.

Naturally, my magic claims beg the question – Is there reputable science behind that? Well, as oft is the case, some say yes, and some say no. The most common claim is that unglazed clay adds flavor to a dish – I’ve got quite a few clay cookers, and I swear that’s true, as do a whole bunch of cooks and chefs around the world. As a clay cooker gets broken in and acquires a history, the more pronounced that ‘certain something’ it imparts becomes. It’s subtle, but it’s there, just as cast iron imparts. Scientists, including Harold McGee, poo poo this claim, but nonetheless, I swear it’s there – Oh, and yes, curve balls do curve.

Taste claims aside, there are thermodynamic reasons clay cookers do what they do. Clay is a good insulator, the exact polar opposite of the claim most cookware makers like to tout – that is, how well their stuff conducts heat. Naturally, this begs the question, why would we want an insulator to cook in? The answer is relatively simple – Because if you truly want to cook something low and slow, an insulator will do a far better job than a conductor. Conductive materials absorb and pass heat to a dish relatively quickly, while insulators do both on a much slower time line – Low and slow. This is especially important when cooking proteins like meat and poultry – Fast and hot makes meat tough, especially the cheaper, tougher cuts, while low and slow makes them fork tender and delicious – Every bowl of beef stew or plate of pot roast attests to this.

Furthermore, thermodynamic laws dictate that the property of a good insulator holds true regardless of temperature. Doubt that fact? Take our Romertopf cooker as an example then. These folks tell you to crank the heat up 100° F above your normal roasting temperature – 450° F for a whole chicken. The Romertopf will cook that bird perfectly. With nothing more than a little salt and pepper onboard, it’ll be one of the best chicken you’ve ever tasted. Think about it – Clay cooker are ancient and yet they’re still around, all over the world – Thousands of years of culinary experience cannot to be denied. The fact is, all the modern cookware versions of low and slow cooking are okay, but they pale before the real thing.

Traditional tajine is cooked over coals, the African answer to a Dutch oven. Here in the West, you can get it done that way, on a stove top, or in the oven. They key here is to avoid thermal shock, a thing that can and will lead to a cracked tajine. A gas cook top works great, while electric or flat top is a bit trickier – Their tendency to cycle the heat can play havoc with the cooker, so a diffuser is needed to even things out – That’s just a chunk of steel or aluminum that sits between burner and tajine, (they cost about ten bucks). You can cook with a tajine on your gas or charcoal grill, so long as you don’t ramp things up too high. Medium low heat is the rule, regardless of the method. That means that dishes cooked this way aren’t gonna go fast, so one must plan accordingly. And by the way, those metal bottomed tajines are specifically designed for stove top cooking.

As with virtually every clay cooker, there are seasoning steps that must be done to properly prep your cooker for a long, useful working life. Unglazed tajines must be immersed in water for a minimum of 2 hours, (and overnight isn’t a bad idea at all). Once they’re soaked, they’re patted dry and left to air for an hour, then lightly rubbed with olive oil. Seasoning is done by placing the tajine in a cold oven, then cranking the heat to 300° F for two hours. Turn the oven off, leave the tajine in there to cool completely. Once cooled, give it another light coating of olive oil, and you’re good to go.

So, what about the dish that shares the pot’s name? They’re predominantly Moroccan, but they’re popular throughout the Maghreb, (that includes Tunisia and Algeria). The roots stem from the collision between hometown Berbers and invading Muslim Arabs, back in the 900s – That’s when middle eastern spices met Berber stews, and a beautiful thing was born. The result is the spice blend known as Ras el Hanout, the Head of the Shop.

Ras el Hanout, as the name implies, is the best a spice shop has to offer. Like certain molés, it’s a very complex mix indeed, and like so many regional favorites, everybody has a different version, and their’s is best, no doubt about it. It’s used for everything from tajines, to a rub for meat or fish, to an adjunct for rice and couscous dishes. It’s hefty, complex, and heady, and it’s what really gives tajines their kick. Purists will claim a proper Ras el Hanout must have exactly so many ingredients, and again, whatever theirs are would be the only proper mix. The list for potential contributors is long – allspice, aniseed, ash berry, cardamom, chiles, chufa, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cubeb, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, galangal, ginger, grains of paradise, mace, nutmeg, long pepper, and dried rosebuds are just a start.

Those ingredients and blends will change radically in countries other than Morocco. Truth be told, a day to day tajine won’t have the full monty ras el hanout on board – They’ll use a few favorite spices, just as we would with a casserole or stew – The full Ras is for special occasions. Tunisian tajine is very different from this – A stew base is seasoned with the Berber mix Baharat, (a close but distinct cousin to ras el hanout.) that is thickened with bread or flour, and then has egg and cheese added – The end result is more like a frittata than what we’d think of as a North African stew. A quick internet search will yield you a bunch of options for any or all of these.

Here’s a fine chicken tajine to get you started. If you don’t have a tajine, don’t sweat it – a braiser or Dutch oven will do OK in a pinch. Same goes for the spice blend – Use what you’ve got and don’t sweat the rest, it’ll still be very tasty. If you catch the bug, you can branch out and go wild. The one thing worth chasing down here is nigella seed – You can find those at a speciality grocer or online. They have a unique, nutty, shallot-like flavor that’s a signature note to this dish. You’ll note that the tajine shown herein has more veggies than what’s noted in the recipe – That’s intentional – Folks will put in what they’ve got, and what they like when they make one – I did, and you should too, yeah?

Moroccan Chicken Tajine

1 whole Chicken
2 medium Onions
1/2 Cup pitted Olives (red or purple)
1/3 Cup Water
1/4 cup Avocado Oil
3-4 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2 Preserved Lemon (1/2 Fresh is fine)
6-8 sprigs Cilantro
2 Tablespoons Nigella Seed
1 Tablespoon Butter
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon ground Turmeric
3/4 teaspoon ground Ginger
3/4 teaspoon Grains of Paradise (Pepper is just fine)
1/2 teaspoon ground Cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Saffron threads, crushed

Mis en place for tajine
Mis en place for tajine

Cut chicken into pieces, (you can butterfly it and then cut pieces if you wish)

Tie cilantro sprigs into a bouquet.

Cut lemon into quarters.

Peel, trim and chop garlic.

Peel, trim and chop one onion, and cut the other into roughly 1/4”thick rings.

In a heavy sauté pan, toast nigella seeds until fragrant. Grind half and leave half whole.

Spice blend for tajine - Smells as good as it looks
Spice blend for tajine – Smells as good as it looks

Pour olive oil into the bottom of your cooking pot. Cut the butter into small cubes and distribute evenly. Evenly arrange the onion rounds over the oil.

Layering a tajine
Layering a tajine

In a large mixing bowl, combine chicken, chopped onion, garlic, all nigella seeds, and all spices. When the ingredients are well mixed, arrange the chicken pieces evenly around the cooking pot, bone side down.

Pour the water into the mixing bowl, and swish things around to get all the left over spice and veggie bits. Pour that into the cooking pot as well.

A big part of the fun with tajine is arranging things
A big part of the fun with tajine is arranging things

Distribute olives around the pot. Squeeze the lemon quarters over the chicken and toss them in too. Add the cilantro bouquet.

If you’re cooking in a tajine, put the cover on and put the pot on a diffuser over a burner on medium low heat. Cook for 11/2 to 2 hours, checking at the one hour mark to make sure there is sufficient liquid in the mix. If it seems a bit dry, add a quarter cup of water and re-cover. When done, the chicken should be fork tender, and the sauce thick enough to coat a spoon. If you prefer to use the oven, put the loaded tajine into a cold oven on a lower center rack. Bake at 350° F for 45 minutes, then check liquid level and adjust as needed. Cook for another 30 to 45 minutes until chicken is fork tender.

If you’re cooking in a Dutch oven or casserole, cover and heat over medium high until the stew begins to simmer. Reduce heat to just maintain a simmer. Check at thirty minutes for liquid level and adjust as per above. When the chicken is tender, pour off the sauce and thicken in a sauté pan if it needs it.

Chicken tajine - A thing of beauty
Chicken tajine – A thing of beauty

Serve with flatbread, and maybe a cool cucumber salad, or a cold rice or couscous dish.

Perfect accompaniment to a lovely tajine
Perfect accompaniment to a lovely tajine

Morning Glory Muffins

I grew up on Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1960s. Yeah, that Concord – Old North Bridge, Shot heard ‘round the world – you know the place. What I’ll bet you don’t know about, unless you too lived there, was the Concord Bowlarena, one of my favorite local haunts. I spent many a happy Saturday morning there, enjoying a true New England pastime. I live out west now, and unless you hail from my birthplace, you’re probably not familiar with the kind of bowling I’m referencing – It’s called Candlepin, and it was invented in 1880 in Worcester, Mass, (that’s pronounced Woostah, by the way). And yeah, I know the title of this is Morning Glory Muffins – Trust me, I’ll get there.

The Bowlarena, gone but not forgotten
The Bowlarena, gone but not forgotten

Candlepin is notably different beast from the Tenpin bowling most of us are accustomed to. The Pins are skinnier, taller, and well, look kinda like candles. And the balls, well, that’s where things really get interesting – Where a tenpin ball is around 8 1/2”, weigh up to 16 pounds, and requires holes in them to be able to even grasp, a candlepin ball weighs no more than 2 pounds 7 ounces, and has a diameter no larger than 4 1/2” inches. This means that, even when relatively young, you can hold a candlepin ball in your palm and throw it, in the local parlance, wicked hahd, (very fast).

Candlepin bowling - A New England thing
Candlepin bowling – A New England thing

Sadly. the Concord Bowlarena is long gone, but it certainly isn’t forgotten. There was also food at the Bowlarena – a genuine ‘Luncheon Counter’ – and pretty dang good food at that, much of it scratch made. Run by the Smethurst family, and headed by Chet Smethurst, the alley was a fun, safe, and tasty place to go.

There’s a page on Facebook dedicated to those of us who grew up there, and somebody recently started a thread about the bowling alley. And with that, someone mentioned Morning Glory muffins – Now, those folks are younger than I am, and I’d moved away before these showed up on the Bowlarena menu. But the effusive praise for the muffin got me poking around, and is it turns out, the Morning Glory muffin is a New England original.

Nantucket’s Old South Wharf
Nantucket’s Old South Wharf

The muffin in question was first whipped up by Pam McKinstry, the Chef/Owner of the namesake Morning Glory Cafe, in business from 1978 to 1994, the old south wharf of Nantucket. This was the late 70s, when granola and healthy stuff like bran muffins was in its heyday. Legend has it that Gourmet magazine published the recipe in 1991, and 10 years later, listed it as one of their all time top 25 favorites, but I wasn’t able to find attribution to verify that last fact – Nonetheless, it’s a great muffin and worth a bake in your kitchen.

Morning Glory Muffins, a New England original
Morning Glory Muffins, a New England original

Just as the original recipe made it to the Concord Bowlarena, it made it to a bunch of kitchens, so count on the fact that there are plenty of alternative version out there – Try a batch, and then turn it into your own – Here’s our swing at it.

Morning Glory Muffins

2 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Cups grated fresh Carrot
1 Cup Avocado Oil
3/4 Cup Bakers Sugar
1/2 Cup Honey
3 large Eggs
1 Cup crushed Pineapple
1 Honey Crisp Apple
1/2 Cup Raisins
1/2 Cup shredded Coconut
1/2 Cup chopped Pecans
1 Tablespoon ground Cinnamon
2 teaspoons Baking Soda
1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Position a rack in the middle slot of your oven and preheat to 350° F.

Line 16 muffin cups with liners, (or grease lightly with butter).

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda and salt – whisk to incorporate thoroughly.

Peel and grate apple.

Add carrots, apple, raisins, and pecans to the dry mix and stir to combine thoroughly.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine eggs, oil, honey, and vanilla extract – Whisk to incorporate thoroughly.

Add the wet mix to the dry and stir with a spoon until just combined.

Spoon equal measures of batter into the muffin cups.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of a muffin pulls out cleanly.

Remove from oven and transfer muffin pan to a wire rack to cool for at least 15-20 minutes.

Try not to eat them all right away, (with, as Julia Child would say, lots and lots of butter!)

Ginger Ale II

If you missed our original home ginger recipe, I can tell you it was a huge hit. That said, there’s always room for improvement. Hence we hereby give y’all Ginger Ale II – The Sequel.

Specifically, while the ginger taste was front and center, we found that honey not only added a fairly dominant taste note, but was rather expensive. Replaced with cane sugar, we found the recipe still good, but the sugar tended to bring the heat of the ginger out even more. We thought back to that Reed’s we liked so much and decided to try pineapple. The results were spectacular; you get a delightful pineapple note on the front end, with a well-tempered ginger finish, a more natural sweetener, and with pineapples at 2 for $5, a genuine bargain. We also increased the citrus, and added lemongrass and vanilla for some really lovely background notes.

We have a fabulous juicer that we used to extract the pineapple, but you could effectively employ a blender or processor as well.

 

1 Pound fresh Ginger Root

6 Cups Water

2 Fresh Pineapples

2 small Limes

1 small Lemon

Roughly 12″ Lemongrass

8-10 Kaffir Lime Leaves

1 teaspoon Vanilla extract

Pinch Sea Salt

OPTION: If this isn’t sweet enough for you, you can adjust each glass as you see fit, but try this first!

 

Rinse and dice ginger root – No need to peel it – Saves time, no difference in flavor or extraction.

Wash, rinse, zest and juice lemon and one lime. Cut second lime into quarters. Rough chop lemongrass into 1/2″ chunks.

In a large sauce pan over medium high heat, bring water to a simmer. Add ginger, quartered lime, citrus zest, lemongrass, and kaffir leaves.

When water begins to bubble, reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 45 minutes.

 

Remove pan from heat and let the mixture steep, covered, for 30 minutes.

Rinse and trim pineapple. Blend, process, or press flesh to extract all the juice.

 

Run the steeped mixture through a single mesh strainer, then discard the root.

Return strained liquid to the pan over medium-low heat. Add pineapple juice, citrus juice, vanilla, and pinch of salt.

Stir gently and allow to fully incorporate and heat through. Taste and adjust sweet balance with a little honey or sugar if needed, (you probably won’t, but you do want to taste hefty ginger and distinct sweet – This is your concentrate, so it should taste fairly over the top).

Remove from heat and allow syrup to cool. Transfer to a glass bottle or jar and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

Mix drinks in a tall glass with plenty of ice. Start with 1/4 cup syrup to 1 cup club soda; stir, taste and adjust blend to your liking. A fresh squeezed wedge of lime goes very nicely.

 

Refrigerated and sealed air tight, the syrup will last for a good two weeks, though it’s not likely to survive that long.

 

NOTE: Some folks prefer to mix fresh citrus in to the final blend, rather than incorporating it into the syrup.

 

 

 

Home cooks, it’s time to stop sawing on that second fiddle

OK, so yeah, I’m a food professional by trade – I manage a very busy bakery café. A lot of folks assume that us commercial types lord it over home cooks in materials, techniques, processes, and everything else good – Hell, a decent chunk of what I do here involves trying to translate some of those things to y’all. Yet there’s a simple truth that doesn’t get written about often enough, and it needs to be, so here it is – There are a lot of dishes that are better prepared at home than in any restaurant – No, really, there are. So, in other words home cooks, it’s time to stop sawing on that second fiddle.

In the best place I cooked and learned to cook, the presiding Chef never really told me exactly what to do. He didn’t recite, hand over, or otherwise precisely impart a recipe, ever. Instead, he told me to pay attention, and to use all my senses to grasp what it was he was trying to teach me. I’m quite certain that he didn’t actually have any recipes written down anywhere, (and I think that’s true in a lot of great places to eat, both home and restaurant). He wanted me to see, smell, feel, and taste my way to cooking well. That lesson has served me well my whole culinary life.

Cooking in many a restaurant is kinda like seeing a rock band live that sings every song and plays every solo exactly like you heard it on the album – It may be good, hell it might even be great, but is that really why your go to see them play live? As a musician, I don’t ever play the same song the same way. How it comes out is determined by the place, time, and my mood, and cooking should be done the same way. I make legendary Mac and cheese, but it’s never, ever the same. The basics of the recipe and process, the ratios of the béchamel, and the handling of the roux? Yes, those are consistent – But the cheeses and pasta I use, and the seasoning, well, that depends on what I’ve got – what I see, smell, taste, and feel when I scope out pantry and fridge. What I end up with is consistently excellent stuff, but it never is, and more importantly, doesn’t want to be the same every time. Even great restaurants are constrained by their menus, (albeit the truly inspired ones change that up, even daily). Good or even mediocre ones do the exact same thing every time, because that’s what a lot of diners want – To each their own, and to the rest of us, the spoils – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Our herb and spice selection is, shall we say, robust.
Our herb and spice selection is, shall we say, robust.

So, did I mean that line? We can do better at home than most restaurants? Oh yes, yes indeed I did. I don’t know about y’all, but there’s a reason that we don’t eat out very often. What we can and do create at home on a regular basis far surpasses all but really good restaurants. Your kitchen can and should be absolutely no different. So why is that?

Even in really good restaurants, there are things working against spontaneous creativity. Anyone who’s ever worked in a serious restaurant knows firsthand about the division between prep and cooking for service. Prep in restaurant cooking is huge, paramount in fact – The folks who cook for service might be the rock stars, but they’d never even get on stage without some seriously kickass prep cooks making it possible. It might not occur to you when you sit down in a restaurant, but let me put it this way – You don’t really think that every piece of beef, chicken, fish, every vegetable and salad, every dessert is made from scratch, just for you, and that nothing had been started before you got there and ordered it, do you? Don’t get me wrong, to a decent degree it is true that what you order is made just for you, and in great restaurants, it is all made from scratch. That said, I will guarantee that proteins have been portioned, prepared ahead, and/or par cooked, as have all those vegetables, salads, and desserts.

In a restaurant that does a hundred or more covers for a dinner service, there’s no way on God’s green earth that they could make all that to order and be even close to keeping up with the time constraints required for great service. This is just the fact of cooking at that kind of volume. My bakery café is pretty simple – We bake bread and various sweets, and we sling sandwiches, soup, and salad. Even so, it takes a lot of time to get ready to serve lunch to a couple hundred people. We start at five in the morning, so that’s about 6 to 7 hours of work by a half dozen people, all dedicated to getting ready for lunch. All that happens long before you ever sit down to eat. And again, that’s for a relatively simple operation. Now, you get into fine dining, especially cutting edge stuff, and you’re talking a hell of a lot more work than that to make sure that your dinner is spectacular.

And then there is the food, the raw commodities, what we use to make lunch or dinner for you. We use really good ingredients, and I mean really good. The best restaurants use stuff that makes mine look pretty pedestrian. But in a lot of good or merely okay restaurants, you’d actually be surprised about how meh the quality of the ingredients are. That’s not an attempt to rip you off, mind you – it’s simple economics. When you have a big menu, you’re making educated guesses about some potentially very expensive things, so more often than not, you buy good enough, not great. Then there’s the prognostication required for economic success – How much of dish A, B, or C will people order? How many people are really going to come in to eat on this day? Even if you’re really good at forecasting, you have to be prudent and conservative about what and how much you buy.

In the old days, there was a built in safety valve for this, called Garde Manger – That took care of a lot of leftovers in most restaurants, and it still does in some – That’s where stuff that didn’t sell becomes family meals for the crew, or get transformed into something delightfully new to offer guests the next day. This is not an easy job – It’s as much art as it is technique and ability. Because of that, you don’t see it in as many places as you used to, which is a shame. I will however take a moment to boast – that garde manger concept is exactly what we impart here on a very regular basis – Cook something on day one, and make a week’s worth of great meals out of it – It’s economical, it’s tasty, and it teaches you to cook on the fly, all of which are very good things.

So, in many ways, restaurants are constrained by menus, time, and economy. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions – The very good Mexican place in my little town in Washington state makes pork shanks that they cook low and slow all day, every day, that are absolutely sublime – But as many diners in many Mexican joints know, that’s an exception to the general rule. I’ll say it again, I can and do cook better than 90% of the places I might think about going to, and frankly, the other 10% are probably too damn expensive for me to justify. Even places I like, with a proven track record more or less screw up on an all too regular basis. A dish I I’ve ordered many times might be overcooked, proportioned wrong, or just made without obvious love and care on any given day. We tried a breakfast place the other week that is new in town and has been getting rave reviews. What I ordered, while initially visually appealing, was frankly lousy. There was little or no seasoning, and virtually 50% of the potatoes (in a hash dish) were burned and heavily soaked in oil – And it wasn’t cheap – And these were folks who claim three generations of restaurant ownership and management. Get the picture? Fact is, in our own kitchens we can do better, with great ingredients, for far less than those meals cost out there. And we do it in the place we love most, for the people we love most. What could possibly be better than that?

A slow cooked pork roast is a thing of beauty
A slow cooked pork roast is a thing of beauty

Take that pork I mentioned back a spell – it’s a relative bargain in the stores these days. So a big ol’ pork roast, set on top of mire poix in a slow cooker and left to do its thing for 8 hours? Try and find that around town. Pair it the first night with roasted potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, a hunk of crusty bread and a nice glass of red wine, and you’ve got a million dollar meal. The next night, shred that stuff, cook some rice, chop up some onion, some chiles, some cilantro, and some nice fresh cheese, and make the best street tacos you’ll find anywhere. Night three? How about taking leftover rice, combined it with some chopped up pork, a little ginger, some scallions, a scrambled egg or two, and a nice Chinese inspired sauce, and make fried rice to die for. And if there’s any left over on night number four, dice up that pork, make a nice red sauce, (crushed tomatoes, chicken stock, olive oil, garlic, lemon, oregano, and fresh pepper. Serve it over angel hair pasta with a dusting of grated parmigiana, and go wild.

And let’s not forget those ingredients. How often do you go shopping every week? Do you really love to cook? Then answer me this; what’s keeping you from stopping by the store every couple of days, and doing just a little shopping? If you do that, and let your eyes and your nose, and your imagination rule the roost, you’re going to end up with beautiful food. Yes, the best restaurants get food deliveries every day, but I’ll guarantee you this – you will be much better at picking beautiful tomatoes then I can when I look over the 80 pounds that comes into my café every day. The same goes for virtually all other vegetables and fruit, cheese and proteins, bread and pasta – and the list goes on and on. When that beautiful stuff comes home with you, and you’ve had a fortifying sip or two of that great red wine you bought, and you focus your attention on those gorgeous, fresh green beans you just bought, sautéing them in butter, with slivered almonds, fresh lemon juice and zest, and a sprinkle of sea salt and ground pepper? They’re going to be better than anything you could be served out and about, guaranteed.

Boston Brown Bread

If you’re from New England, and specifically Boston, you know all about Boston Brown Bread – Pared with Boston baked beans and fresh cole slaw, it’s graced many a Saturday night supper throughout New England.

The B&M company, not to be confused with the huge British food conglomerate, has been making baked beans and brown bread for over 150 years, and there’s a reason they’re still around doing just that .

A lot of folks, even locals, think that B&M is a Massachusetts based enterprise, but it ain’t so. Way back in 1867, George Burnham, started a canning business, was then joined by Charles Morrill, and Burnham & Morrill was born. B&M has been a fixture in Portland, Maine at One Bean Pot Circle, ever since.

Their rightfully famous beans are still slow cooked in brick ovens, and their brown bread is the one, as far as I’m concerned. Their cans are filled with batter and the bread is baked in the cans, and that’s just how you do it.

In the 19th Century, Brown Bread was poverty food throughout the British Empire, although it eventually gained cache for the health benefits of the mixed flour used to make it. Brown Bread crossed the big pond, and became a staple for the colonists, then a sentimental favorite – Keep in kind, once upon a time, lobster was considered ‘poverty food,’ so there’s no stigma attached to liking brown bread.

Boston Brown Bread is a great recipe for folks who are nervous about bread baking – It’s easy, fast, and almost foolproof – Brown Bread is steamed, rather than baked, and requires very little prep time.

If you’ve never tried it, do. Served hot with fresh butter, ham, baked beans, and cole slaw, you got that legendary Saturday Night Suppah – And it’s great the next morning, too.

 

Boston Brown Bread

1 Cup Whole Milk

1/2 Cup Whole Wheat Flour

1/2 Cup Rye Flour

1/2 Cup Corn Meal

1/3 Cup Dark Molasses

1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda

1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder

1 teaspoon Vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon Allspice

1/2 teaspoon Orange Zest

1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

1 Tablespoon Butter for greasing cans

NOTE: there are folks, (even B&M), who make this with raisins or currants within – I’m not one of them, but if you are, you can add a quarter cup to this recipe.

there are also purists who pull eschew the addition of flavorings such as vanilla, allspice, and orange zest – I’m not one of those, either.

 

Rinse and dry two 28 Ounce metal cans with one end of each cut off.

Move a rack to the bottom third of the oven and heat the oven to 325° F.

Choose an oven safe pot or dish deep enough so that you can fill it with water to about halfway up the sides of the cans. Boil enough water on the stove top to fill that pot or dish.

Lightly coat the insides of the cans with vegetable oil.

In a mixing bowl, combine wheat flour, rye flour, cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder, allspice, and salt.

Add the molasses, milk, vanilla and zest to the dry ingredients and thoroughly combine.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cans. Cover the top of each can with a double thickness of aluminum foil and tie securely with kitchen string. Place the cans in your deep pan and slide that into the preheated oven.

Carefully fill the pan with boiling water to about halfway up the sides of the cans.

Bake for 70 to 75 minutes. At seventy minutes, remove the foil tops. When the edges of the bread begin to pull away from the sides of the cans, you’re there.

Remove the cans from the oven, place on a wire rack to cool for 1 hour before sliding the bread out of the cans. If the bread is a bit sticky, a thin bladed knife run around the can will free it up.

Don’t forget to have plenty of fresh, local butter on hand…

Real Deal Queso

Saw a social media post by a friend regarding queso, that incredibly delicious, ephemeral joy from points south. Now, this gal is a Fort Worth, (AKA Fo’t Wuth, Cowtown), born and bred Texan, a budding food professional, and she knows what she likes. She’s an unabashed advocate of the ‘there’s only two ingredients that go into real queso,’ school. Frankly, I’m not, although I’ll admit, I’ll eat the hell out of a fresh batch of that stuff when it’s offered, ‘cause we are gathered here today to talk about queso – Real deal queso.

Cheese sauces are ubiquitous in every country that makes and eats cheese. It’s a natural progression to think about changing the texture of something you love, and heat is one of the great ways to do just that – It also pretty much requires one to eat the results right away, which doesn’t suck as a concept, either.

Queso has Mexican roots, and the common saw about this dish is that it comes strictly from northern Mexico, just under the border with Los Estados Unidos – the true roots are deeper and broader than that. That fact also belies the mistaken belief that ‘real’ queso is made with Velveeta or an analog thereof – It stems from far more honorable cheeses – real cheeses – so, sorry Tejas – It just ain’t so.

In fact, many joints in Texas, either Tex-Mex or regional authentic, have long gotten away from using that pasteurized processed cheese food, (AKA, substances engaged in cheese-like activity), or never used it for their queso in the first place, thank the gods. My fave authentic place in Fort Worth, Benito’s, in the hospital district, has always used real Mexican cheese in their stunningly delicious queso flameado, (more about that version in a bit.)

Now, that version made with Velveeta? There are actually a couple derivations of that, too. One school likes the cheese-like stuff with salsa mixed in, while the purists insist it’s Velveeta with Rotel canned tomato and green chile blend. The problem with this is, once again, that the cheese isn’t really cheese at all – It’s made from, and I quote – Milk, Water, Whey, Milk Protein Concentrate, Milkfat, Whey Protein Concentrate, Sodium Phosphate, Contains 2% or less of: Salt, Calcium Phosphate, Lactic Acid, Sorbic Acid, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Alginate, Enzymes, Apocarotenal, Annatto, Cheese Culture. There’s a reason it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, has a seven week shelf life, and doesn’t even need to be refrigerated after it’s been opened – Get the picture? The other issue is the Rotel stuff – Now, I like their products, but with anything canned, you need a long, slow cooking process to get that metallic taste out of the picture, and queso is not that kind of vehicle. So, that said, on to the real deal.

Think of Queso as a vehicle for good things
Think of Queso as a vehicle for good things

Queso, (sometimes chile con queso – literally chiles with cheese), speaks to what rightfully should be in the mix. Of course there are variants, as there should be, from queso flameado, to fundido, and choriqueso, to a myriad of one offs – Those will depend on where they’re made and who the chef is, of course. As with all signature dishes, everyone makes one, and theirs is the best, (usually, they’re right). Queso is simply a vehicle for whatever combination tastes good to you.

It is true that the most popular version found in El Norté hailed originally from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, home to its namesake cheese. Queso Chihuahua is a fairly firm, pale yellow, cows milk cheese, with a rich, buttery flavor. It’s also known as queso menonita, after the Mennonite communities established there in the 19th century – They’re the folks that introduced the stuff. It’s also known as queso campresino, which speaks to the production method – very much like that used to make cheddar, and in fact, queso chihuahua is considered a member of cheddar family. Like that famous cousin, this stuff starts out mild, then develops notable sharpness and depth of character with age – It also melts really well, which makes it a great cheese for queso sauce, si? This also explains why good, fresh cheddar makes great queso and is not, as some purists would claim, a blasphemous choice for the dish.

No, your Queso needn’t be white to be good, so long as you use great cheese.
No, your Queso needn’t be white to be good, so long as you use great cheese.

That said, great Mexican cheeses are far more available than they used to be, and if you’ve never tried them, you should – There are several that are go to’s for queso. These are one of the very few pleasant products of the Spanish presence in Mexico, as the locals didn’t have anything to do with dairy prior to the invasion. Great cheese is now a long standing tradition down there, with many stellar examples of the art – They’re ranked in the top ten of world production and consumption. Mexican Manchego, unlike its sheeps milk Spanish cousin, is made from cows milk. It has a distinct, nutty taste and melts well. Queso Oaxaca is a soft, mild white string cheese – It’s also a good melter. There’s also Asadero, a semi-soft, creamy cheese that comes from Chihuahua that’s similar to Monterrey Jack. Some folks mistakenly call this queso quesadilla, which will generally get you laughed at down in Mexico. There are many, many more small batch, one off and regional cheeses in Mexico, some of which have laws protecting the use of their names, like Cotija and queso de bola from Chiapas. Sadly, you’re unlikely to find most of them up here.

Any and all of those will make a fine queso, which speaks to the fact that your version need not be made from a single cheese. Like great mac and cheese, a blend will provide a deeper and more complex taste profile, which is rarely a bad thing. For that matter, you needn’t go to and buy cheese specifically to make queso – It’s often made to use up what’s in the pantry and ready to go. Cheddar, Jack, Swiss, Colby, whatever you’ve got will do just fine. Next time you’re shopping, check out the Mexican varieties for something special.

One thing you’ll see on a lot of menus is the claim that they use only ‘white cheese’ for their queso, without much elaboration past that, unless you ask. The primary reason for this, frankly, is to differentiate themselves from the velveeta versions – Good to know when you’re out for a nosh. In any case, it’s not necessary to only use white cheese when you make it at home – yellow cheddar will not get you in trouble with the queso policia. Hell, I’ve used leftover Brie in the mix and been very pleased with the results.

Now, those famous derivations, queso fundido, choriqueso, and queso flameado? The differences between the them are this – The first two are melted cheese, chiles, and chorizo, and the last one is melted cheese, chiles, and chorizo set on fire – Yep, that’s pretty much it. All are fundamentally the same, though again, every place has a mix of their own, adding onion, garlic, tomato, sweet peppers, and various spices, and yeah, in a good place like Benito’s, the flameado is done table side, flambéed right there as you watch and cheer.

When done correctly, the cheese is prepared separately from the chiles, chorizo, and any additional spices, and then combined right before the dish is served, just like Benito’s does it. Flameado is, of course, flambéed with tequila that has been briefly warmed on a stove top to make it that much more flammable. When it’s prepared at table, a long careful pour of the flaming, melted cheese into the other ingredients makes for quite a show, but please – As the saying goes, don’t try this at home if you’ve already put a dent in the tequila bottle.

Great Queso deserves fresh tortillas
Great Queso deserves fresh tortillas

Here’s our go to version. As with all things recipe, do what you like. You do not need chorizo if you don’t want the full Monty, but done up like this, it’s not an appetizer, it’s a meal. Again, if you don’t have the Mexican cheeses, just use a blend of what you do have in the way of melting cheeses – It’ll be just fine.

Queso de UrbanMonique

1/2 Cup Chihuahua, Asadero, or Oaxaca Cheese
1/2 Cup Extra Sharp Cheddar
1/4 Cup Monterrey Jack
1/4 Pound fresh Chorizo
4-6 Hatch Chiles (Anaheim’s will do)
2-4 Jalapeño or Serrano Chiles
1/2 Sweet Onion
1 Tomato
2 Cloves fresh Garlic
6-8 stems fresh Cilantro
2 Ounces Tequila (No rotgut)
1 Ounce Avocado Oil
1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground Pepper

Consider frying up fresh tortilla chips with a great batch of Queso
Consider frying up fresh tortilla chips with a great batch of Queso

Fresh tortillas and tortilla chips
Fresh Pico de Gallo or Salsa

If you like your tortillas or chips warm, preheat oven to 200° F, wrap them in foil, and place on a middle rack.

Grate all cheeses and blend thoroughly.

Rinse, stem, seed, devein, and dice all chiles.

Peel, trim and dice the onion.

Peel, trim and mince the garlic.

Rinse, trim and dice the tomato.

Rinse and mince the cilantro.

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, cook the chorizo, about 3-5 minutes. Remove to a plate lined with clean paper towel and set aside.

Deglaze the hot pan with the tequila, scraping up all the dark bits from the bottom of the pan.

Add the oil to the hot pan, and when heated through, add onion and chiles – Sauté until chiles soften and onion starts to turn translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, 1-2 minutes.

Add the tomato, cilantro, oregano, salt and pepper and stir to incorporate. Cook until those ingredients are heated through, about another 2-3 minutes.

Remove the sautéed veggie blend to the plate with the chorizo. Remove the pan from heat, wipe any excess oil from it, then return drained chorizo and veggies to the pan to stay warm.

Remove tortillas and/or chips from oven and set aside.

Preheat oven to broil and set a rack in a slot that leaves about 6” from the broiler element.

Place cheese in an 8” x 8” oven proof casserole or baking pan. Broil until the cheese is completely melted, bubbling, and starting to brown, about 4-6 minutes.

Bring cheese pan to the table and set on a trivet or hot pad. Carefully add veggie and chorizo blend to the cheese and stir to incorporate.

Scarf it all down with icy cold Mexican beer.

Check us out in the Boomer!

Especially if you’re of a certain age…

I love, LOVE what these wonderful folks do with our work – The editing is top notch, and yeah, I’ll admit it – I still get a thrill seeing us formatted for magazine!

Check out what Today’s Boomer did with our food safety post.

Why We Do What We Do

I get asked on a regular basis why we do what we do here. Here’s my answer.

When I research a recipe or a subject, I look at a lot of food blogs, especially if I want to do something that I think is relatively original. I was doing that today, and I waded through a bunch of ‘very successful’ blogs. You know how I could tell that they were very successful? Because of the amount and general level of obnoxiousness derived from advertising on their sites – I left without reading through whatever it was I’d gone there to check out. And talk about non-sequitur? Ads for cosmetics, clothes, and a dozen other items having not one damn thing to do with food or cooking. In case you hadn’t noticed, I find stuff like that incredibly irritating. The Pioneer Woman, Rachel Ray, Tyler Florence claiming the cookbook is dead – all that? That’s not serious cooking, that’s hype, at best – The food equivalent of country music out of Nashville these days, (which I refer to as pop with fiddles). Frankly, if that’s success, well then, y’all can have it.

It’s the latest trend in monetizing what is ostensibly a food site. Monetize, if you’re unfamiliar, is an economic term. I know, ‘cause my Pop taught Econ at Harvard and MIT, (and who knows, maybe some of his smarts trickled down to me). What it means, literally, is to turn something into money – to utilize it as a source of profit. Now, if that’s why you have a food blog, good for you, but I’m out.

grow it, preserve it, whenever possible.
grow it, preserve it, whenever possible.

I was cooking for Monica and a good friend the other night, and it was his first visit to our kitchen, (though he’s had plenty of my cooking at the café). When he put his nose to the shaker of our signature seasoning salt, he couldn’t believe we’ve never monitized it. He’s a business man, and he greatly admires my cooking, so that was a compliment, no doubt, but it’s not why I labor away in relative obscurity here. That, I do because I have to – I gotta read, research, mull over, tweak, test, refine, create and write about food, and then share what I discover. Frankly, if no one read it but me, I’d still do it, (but don’t get me wrong, I greatly appreciate y’all being regulars here).

That’s the stuff - Our Signature Seasoning Salt Blend
That’s the stuff – Our Signature Seasoning Salt Blend

Now, for the record, down the line, I do intend to write a book or three based on what I do here, and frankly, I’m already working on that. Furthermore, if and when I ever come up with an original, really cool food item that I genuinely want to share with the world, I’ll do that too, (and frankly, that seasoning salt blend is getting mighty close). I do this because I love to, and because I’m driven to it – I could no longer stop writing about food than I could stop breathing.

Granted, there are a lot of great food blogs out there, but as The Corporate Machine figures out that they can profit grandly from our labors, all the ultra-commercialized stuff spirals out of control. It comes in waves, like boy bands. First, there was the need for nutritional info if you were going to be a ‘serious’ food blogger. Then came ridiculously professional-level photography, without which you couldn’t get a recipe accepted in any of the über-hip sites at the time. That morphed into full blown food styling, (right – like when we cook at home, every aspect of the meal is placed, staged, and choreographed – uh huh…) Now, if you’re cool, your site is festooned with multiple ads for a bunch of consumerist bullshit that has zero to do with food or cooking – This is how the next Food Channel Super Food Dipstick gets anointed.

I write about food for some pretty simple reasons. I’m interested in sharing recipes, methods, processes and such. I’m interested in sourcing, using wisely, and preserving food that is good for you in a world where much of what we are offered to eat is crap – Owned and foisted upon us by some pretty crappy mega-corporations. I’m interested in the science behind cooking, because I’ve never liked simply being told to ‘do it this way.’ I want to discover those cool secrets that professional Chefs and kitchens employ, and whenever possible, let the kitty out of the sack. That’s just how I’m wired. I trust that if you’re reading this, you’re interested in these things as well.

Today, some 8 years downstream from very humble beginnings, this blog has followers from all over the world. It’s won accolades from specific regions and countries for faithful renditions of beloved dishes. Stuff that I truly came up with first has been copied, and a couple of them are now fairly mainstream. It has a lot more followers and regular visitors than I ever thought it would – There are tens of thousands of genuine visits and visitors here every month. Is that a lot in the Big Picture Cool Food Blog scale? Well, no, when you consider that those tragically hip sites get millions of visitors – Frankly, I don’t really care about that, in the competing with others sense of the phrase – If you’re here, reading these posts, and you like them, and you come back when I post a new one, then I’m a seriously happy camper. While it still holds true that I cook to make M happy and write to make me happy, I love sharing stuff that helps y’all expand your horizons and eat well.

Now, all that said, I still get asked the following questions a lot, so let me just address them again – they are,
Why don’t you list nutritional information for your recipes,
Why don’t you post exact prep and cooking times, and
Why do you post exotic ingredients that I’m not likely to have?

In a nutshell, here’s why;

Frankly, listing nutritionals means, more than anything, that I am determining what kind of portion size you and yours eat, and frankly, I don’t have a clue about that. On the sites that do this, portions are most oft listed in ounces, so let me just ask – Do you weigh what you cook and what you plate before you eat it? Didn’t think so… If I post a casserole recipe and you make it, how much do you eat? How about your partner? Do you have seconds, are there leftovers, and so on. This ain’t a restaurant and neither is your house. None of us need to eat the same portion for reasons of consistency or economic viability, unless maybe we’re on a specific diet, in which case you’re not getting your recipes here, (ideas though, maybe).

For the record, I predominantly scale recipes for two, with room for leftovers, the idea being that most of the folks visiting here, like M and I, cook that way. Factor in the consideration that we heavily champion the concept of cooking one thing that will generate several meals – A whole chicken, roast, or whatnot that can easily become three or four great meals- That’s the smart way to cook if you want to eat well, be efficient, and economically savvy. And I’m still not gonna list nutritional data, sorry – For that, you’re on your own. As mentioned liberally herein, a recipe is nothing more than an idea, a guideline at best – Most people can and will tweak it, often to quite a degree – You should read some of the responses I get along the line of, ‘I made it, but I didn’t use any chocolate’…

Don’t get me wrong, nutrition is important and should be monitored in some way, shape, or form. The best way to do that is to buy, cook, and eat good things. Buy locally whenever you can. Buy fresh food, and avoid highly processed stuff like the plague. Read the labels and avoid things that are there only to help some corporation keep things on the shelf longer, or to keep it looking pretty beyond the time it should. Grow anything and everything you can. Preserve what you buy or grow so that you can notably extend the time it is available to you. Make everything you can from scratch. That may sound more intensive than what you do now, but if you really care about nutrition, you’ll do it. And as far as our recipes go, whenever you need or want detailed nutritionals on our recipes, just use a calorie counting app, and you’re off to the races.

Next up is prep and cooking time.

Weeeeeellllll, how do I say this? Listing prep time is, in my not even remotely humble opinion, one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. The problem is actually pretty obvious. Listing prep time says we all prep at the same speed, and nothing could be further from the truth. Heck, I have three preppers in my cafe and they all perform differently… So really, the question is who’s prep time are we talking about? Mine? Yours? Emeril’s? I’ve been cutting things for decades and have pretty damn good knife skills; do you? I don’t even think about process and procedure any more, it just comes naturally – does it for you? And if your answers are ‘No’, does that make you slow? The answer to that isn’t rhetorical – it’s a resounding no. Listing prep time is often a disservice, for my mind. What it can and all too often does is to set up arbitrary determinations of success or failure in a home cook’s mind – It probably leads to mistakes, as folks look at the clock and start to rush or miss something things trying to keep up with an arbitrary determination of ‘normal’ prep time – Think that’s crazy? I assure you it’s not and that it does happen that way – It ends up souring a lot of folks on cooking, let alone websites and cookbooks.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How about what ingredients you have right on hand when you start your prep, how well equipped your kitchen is, how your day went, how many rug rats are flying around your feet, or how many critters need to go out right now? Get the picture? My bottom line is simple – No one should give a rats ass how long it takes, if you have the time and want to make it. If you’re cooking regularly, you either already have a decent sense of what you can and will accomplish in a given time, or you will develop one in time. If you really do like cooking and want to do it, you’ll do it.

Our herb and spice selection is, shall we say, robust.
Our herb and spice selection is, shall we say, robust.

Finally, there’s the exotic ingredient thing. Yes, I have a ridiculous pantry and spice cabinet, (ask M what she thinks of the Asian section alone.) You may or may not have a pantry like ours, but I really don’t think that matters. We have all this stuff because we dedicate a hell of a lot of time and energy into developing and perfecting recipes to share with y’all. Whether or not you need that much is up to you. Does a couple avocado leaves and a little annatto really make or break good chili? I think the question is rhetorical. Anyway, I don’t buy the ‘why do you use ingredients I’m not likely to have’ complaint for a second – in this day and age, almost anyone in this country and many others can get anything they want. And if you can’t, well, I’ve sent grits to Sweden, cornmeal to Australia, and mustard seed to Israel – if you don’t find something you wanna try, hit me up, and I’ll get it to you.

When I say pantry, I mean pantry...
When I say pantry, I mean pantry…

I’ve also gotta point out that a lot of what we do gets designed because we had stuff in house that needed to get used, so that’s what we put in there. Again, like a broken record, a recipe is a guideline – Don’t like hot chiles, but have sweet peppers? Use those, and don’t think twice, it’s alright. If you’re here with any frequency, you know we strongly encourage and desire experimentation on your part – If you’re making it, put what you like in it. In any case, did you know that you can’t copyright or claim recipes? True story, that – All you can call your own is the verbiage and order in which you explain how to make the dish – As such, I’ve got no more right to my recipes than you do, so go wild. Anyway, maybe you should check out Tasmanian Pepperberry, or Urfa Bebir. Only the Food Goods know what you’ll do with them.

We do this because, many years ago, dear friends who love to grow, cook, preserve and explore as much as we do asked us to. We do this because we have a love for good food and cooking shared. We do this because we hope to inspire such in y’all. That’s more than good enough for me.

Brie du Monde

I’m not at all sure why more folks aren’t madly in love with Brie. After all, it once was quite literally declared the cheese of Kings. In late 1814 through mid 1815, the Austrians hosted the Congress of Vienna, a meeting of representatives from virtually all the European powers of the time, intended to forge a long term peace plan, subsequent to the Napoleonic wars. During the event, the French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, suggested a break in the negotiations, by way of a friendly cheese competition, with each country and state putting forth their finest, to be judged by all. Legend has it that Talleyrand-Périgord slyly waited until the end of the competition to bring forth Brie, after sixty some odd other cheeses had been sampled. A vote was held, and Brie de Meaux was declared, ‘Le Roi des Fromages’ the King of Cheeses.

Brie - Creamy, ethereal cheese with a delightfully bitter rind.
Brie – Creamy, ethereal cheese with a delightfully bitter rind.

Brie, like its popular cousin Camembert, is a soft-ripened cheese, (as opposed to soft, fresh cheeses, like cream, cottage, Neufchâtel, mozzarella,and ricotta). While the fresh, soft varieties are eaten right away, soft ripened spend some time gaining depth and complexity, as well as a thin rind that some find delicious and others quite literally cannot stomach – The rind is a bitter counterpoint to the creamy, buttery cheese itself – probably why there’s such a love/hate relationship with it – More on that in a bit.

Real deal AOC Brie - Look for the label
Real deal AOC Brie – Look for the label

Brie de Meaux, and Brie de Melun, which both hail from the Seine et Marne region, a Department due east of Paris, are the real McCoys, protected by the vaunted French AOC label, the Appellation d’origine Contrôlée, which means only Brie from that place may be called Brie de Meaux or Melun. That said, just plain old Brie is not a protected name, and can be made anywhere – Think of it as the difference between sparkling wine and Champagne – Both can be good, (and frankly, occasionally quite meh), but in either case, it behooves the consumer to know what it is they’re buying, and from whence it came, d’accord?

Bries are made with whole or partly skimmed cows milk, cured for a couple of days, and then placed in a cave at roughly 54° F. it’s during this aging period that the characteristic white rind forms. That rind consists of a hardened layer of cheese and some form of mold, one of the Penicillium varieties for both Brie and Camembert, plus some yeast, or a fungus such as Geotrichum Candidum. That might sound unappealing, but I assure you that you can indeed eat the rind without harm, and naturellement, the French claim it’s good for your gut. The rind is, in fact, absolutely critical to the final form of the cheese – it’s a living, breathing thing that actively works to break down the cheese, creating the creamy, (and sometimes, downright runny), texture that we love so much. Brie ages for anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks to reach maturity, during which it is lovingly turned by hand, assuring even aging. Brie de Meaux And Melun both do the full Monty at 60 days, which is why they’re the Champagne, if you will.

So, how does one chose Brie? Well, again, if you want the real deal, you need to look for Brie de Meaux, or Brie de Melun, and the accompanying AOC seal, or the words Appellation Contrôlée, on the label. Chances are what you get will be sublime and lovely, assuming you’ve bought from a scrupulous seller. Both versions are made from raw, (unpasteurized), milk. A whole round of Brie de Meaux weighs about 6 pounds, and is around 14” in diameter. Brie de Melun is smaller, at slightly over 3 pounds and roughly 11” in diameter. In general, Brie de Meaux is milder than Brie de Melun, which has a notably stronger taste and smell. The pinnacle of that trend is Brie Noir, Black Brie – It’s not Black at all, although the rind and cheese are distinctly brown, as opposed to the light creamy cheese and white rind we’re used to. Black Brie ages for up to a full year, and is much more pungent, with a dry, almost crumbly texture.

Black Brie, aged and oh so gnarly.
Black Brie, aged and oh so gnarly.

Now, all that does not mean, by any sense of the word, that Brie from other places isn’t good. Brie is made in America, Great Britain, Australia, and Brazil, that I’m aware of – There may well be more. There are herbed Brie’s, blue Brie’s, double and triple Brie’s (meaning, much higher milk fat percentage used in their making), and Brie made with milk from goats or sheep. There are also French non-AOC Bries, including Brie de Montereau, Île-de-France, Brie de Nangis, Brie de Provins, Brie fermier, Brie d’Isigny, Brie de Melun bleu, Brie petit moulé, and Brie Laitier Coulommiers, just to name a few. Again, just as you can get sparkling wine that doesn’t hail from Champagne, these alt Bries are well worth exploring.

As mentioned previously, if you buy from a reputable seller, you’re good to go, 99% of the time. Keep in mind that you’re unlikely to find, or afford for that matter, a whole wheel of Brie, so as with any other foods, let your eyes and nose and, if possible, mouth do the investigative work when choosing. Brie should have a white rind and a light, cream colored cheese, (not withstanding Brie Noir) – Don’t buy anything that has an off-color rind or flesh, or knew that smells bad. Lots of markets have expanded cheese shops these days – I mean, here in the Great Pacific Northwet, even the lowly Fred Meyer chain has a pretty damn fine cheese department, so go figure.

Store Brie in an air tight container, in the coldest section of your fridge, but better yet, plan on eating it right after you buy it – Soft ripened cheese has a short shelf life, indeed. If a stored Brie has an off-color mold on it, toss it, even if you don’t see the mold everywhere on the cheese – Trust me when I say that it’s there, and you shouldn’t eat it .

And what to do when we eat it? Many, many wonderful things. As part of a picnic lunch or dinner, Brie is delightful with good crackers, toast points rubbed with garlic, or straight with fruit – The tang of the fruit is a perfect contrapuntal note to the subtly sweet, creamy cheese – And again, the bitter rind adds a delightful third note to the chord. Apples, pears, and berries (straw, blue, black, and Marion are all lovely), figs, and apricots are great choices. Along that same vein, fruit preserves, dried fruit, and chutney are all very nice accompaniments.

If you prefer something more savory, good bacon, or pork belly is wonderful (big surprise there, huh?). Pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts are lovely, crunchy additions. Fresh mushrooms, like shiitake or morels, lightly sautéed, sun dried tomatoes, and caramelized onions shine as well. Fresh herbs, like basil, marjoram, garlic chive, rosemary, lemon thyme, or lavender are great choices, too.

Brie en croute with slivered almonds, sun dried tomato, and fresh rosemary
Brie en croute with slivered almonds, sun dried tomato, and fresh rosemary

My favorite way to incorporate these accoutrements is the venerable Brie en croute – Brie with a puff pastry or pie crust shell, baked and stuffed with whatever you like, (or, for that matter, straight up plain – If you’ve got good Brie, it’ll be plenty decadent, believe me). You can use single notes, or combine two or three for a truly lovely appetizer. Making puff pastry from scratch is truly laborious, but fortunately, you can get decent pre-made stuff almost anywhere these days, usually in the frozen food section of your local market. Here’s a few combinations to give a try to – Then branch out on your own.

Brie en Croute

1 8 Ounce wheel Brie
1 Sheet prepared Puff Pastry
1 Egg

If you’re adding goodies:
1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter

For Toppings:
3 Tablespoons slivered Almonds
2 Tablespoons dry Sun-dried Tomatoes
1-2” spring fresh Rosemary

Or
2 Tablespoons chopped Hazelnuts
2 Tablespoons dried Cranberries
2 teaspoons Honey

Or
2 Tablespoons Bacon Lardons
2 Tablespoons chopped dried Apricots
1” – 2” spring fresh Lemon Thyme

Thoroughly thaw frozen puff pastry sheet – Don’t screw with it in any way, shape, or form until it’s completely thawed, or you’ll get thin sections at the folds, and you don’t want that.

If you’re doing bacon lardons, sauté those over medium heat until they’re crisp and much of the fat has been rendered. Dry on a clean paper towel and set aside.

If you’re using nuts, sauté them in melted butter over medium heat until they begin to turn golden brown, then onto clean paper towels to drain off the excess fat.

For the dried fruit or tomatoes, sauté them after the nuts are done, in the remaining butter. Dry on a clean paper towel and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350° F and set a rack in the center position.

NOTE: For all these options, you really don’t need to add much fat, so do dry them off prior to adding them to the Brie.

Unwrap the Brie and inspect to make sure all is well. If you’re squeamish, you may gently cut away the rind, but I strongly advise you to buck up and not do so.

Brie en croute, ready to wrap, with toppings added
Brie en croute, ready to wrap, with toppings added

Unfold the thawed puff pastry and drape that over a sauté pan, baking dish, etc, large enough to hold the wrapped Brie with some space to spare.

Add goodies to the top of the Brie.

Crack egg into a small mixing bowl and whisk to an even consistency.

brie en croute, wrapped, egg washed, and ready to bake
brie en croute, wrapped, egg washed, and ready to bake

Fold one corner of the pastry over the top of the Brie. Brush the outside of that corner with the egg wash, then brush egg on the bottom (facing) side of the next adjacent corner, and fold that onto the first. Continue with that process until you’ve got a nice, snugly wrapped parcel.

Evenly coat the outside of the puff pastry with the remaining egg wash.

Slide the Brie into the oven and bake, undisturbed for 30 minutes.

Remove the Brie from the oven and set aside to cool for 15 minutes.

Brie en croute
Brie en croute

Serve with crackers, toast points, etc, and be ready to totally ruin your dinner in so doing.