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.

Carne Polaca – A Polish Swing on Mexican

T’is the football playoff season here in the States, and as such, the occasion calls for appropriate eats. It’s traditional to cook stuff that’ll feed a bunch of folks, and that’ll fill them up right as well. In many parts of Mexico, there’s such a dish, and it might even be made for a football match, although they mean what most of the world means when they say football, (and that’s soccer, of course). Doesn’t matter which game you’re glued to, ’cause Carne Polaca is guaranteed to please. Here’s the scoop on a very popular dish south of the border that you’ve likely never heard of – Carne Polaca – a Polish swing on Mexican.

How did a polish influenced dish make it to Mexico? The answer is broader than that, because versions of this dish reside all through South and Central America, as well as Mexico. That shouldn’t be a surprise, frankly. At something over 22 million souls, the Polish diaspora is one of the largest in the world, and that very much includes points south of the border. Most of this emigration occurred because of long term and repeated persecution by more powerful neighbors, though it has continued into the 21st Century, when Poland’s inclusion in the E.U. lead to a large scale migration of young folk headed elsewhere for work. Poles arrived en mass in Mexico during the mid 19th century, and again post WWII, settling mostly in the states of Chihuahua, in central northern Mexico, and Nuevo León in the northeast. The mid 19th century bunch also settled in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Naturally, they brought their cooking with them, but believe me when I tell you that they also loved what they found to work with in their new homes.

Many assume ‘Polish food,’ to be a backhanded homage, as if it were describing something inordinately simple or dull – Neither could be farther from the truth. Because the country often changed hands over the millennia, Polish cuisine is incredibly diverse. Influences run from neighbors like Czech, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Slovak, and Ukrainian, to more widespread roots in French, Turkey, and Italy. There is, internally, rich variety among the regions of the country, and the influences there naturally dovetail with their respective neighbors and traditions. Bagels originated in Poland, as did donuts, as did Kolacz, AKA kolaches. Polish food has always been centered on meats, from a wide variety of game, to beef, pork, poultry, and fish. Side dishes are hearty, focused on local crops and traditional favorites. Spice is everywhere, and used liberally – Paprika and other chiles, dill, cloves, garlic, marjoram, caraway, beetroot, and pepper all get liberal use. Sauerkraut is widely popular, as are a cornucopia of traditional sausages and cheeses. Kielbasa, golabki (stuffed cabbage rolls), and pierogis have all made their way across the globe from their homeland. So, a dish called Polish meat in Mexico isn’t so farfetched after all.

Recipes in English for carne Polaca are few and far between – In fact, I found exactly one, (sort of), so I stuck with the ones in Spanish. While quite a few recipes I checked out did indeed come from the northern border states where Mexican Poles are more concentrated, there were versions from as far afield as Tabasco on the Yucatán peninsula, to Colima on the Pacific coast. Carne Polaca is hugely popular as a party and family gathering dish, and there is significant uniformity as to ingredients and the process of making it. That said, what you won’t find, or at least I couldn’t find, was much of anything about the roots or history of this dish, as popular as it may be. As such, I shifted my sleuthing to traditional polish food, and found what I believe to be the answer – Bigos – Polish Hunters Stew.

Bigos is huge in Poland, a national dish and a tradition pretty much everywhere. It is an ancient dish, full of all things prized by hunter-gatherer societies. Like Burgoo here in the states, almost every polish cook has a version, (and theirs is best, just ask ’em). In essence, Bigos is a meat stew featuring cabbage as a main ingredient, heavily sauced and spiced, just as is carne Polaca. What goes into Bigos is what’s available. It’s often touted as a great thing to make when you need to clear out your freezer, smokehouse, or pantry. As such, there really isn’t a standard recipe, although there are some commonalities. The cabbage used may be fresh or fermented, (sauerkraut). Onions are common, sautéed until lightly browned. Spices include salt, pepper, juniper, and bay. Cloves, garlic, mustard seed, nutmeg, paprika and thyme are also mentioned quite often. This is particularly of interest given that almost every Mexican carne Polaca recipe includes quite a bit of ketchup, and many of those latter ingredients are common therein. There is often a sweet note to Bigos, as well, and that is also most definitely present in ketchup. All things considered, it’s a solid bet that Bigos is the root of carne Polaca, and that’s good news for us.

So here is our swing at a very tasty dish, indeed. You can do this with any protein you like, served over chips as a kind of dip, or with fresh tortillas taco style. It gets better the next day, so lends itself well to making burritos or chimis. What we came up with uses no ketchup, and that’s much for the better, truth be told. The tomato element we provide has the spice notes of good ketchup, with less sugar, and other stuff you may not want, and is truer to the roots of the dish.

Carne Polaca de UrbanMonique

2 Pounds Chicken Thighs
2 12-14 Ounce cans Whole Peeled Tomatoes
16-24 Ounces Chicken Stock
1 small Onion
1 head Green Cabbage
1 bunch Cilantro
1/4 Cup Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon yellow Mustard
2 cloves Garlic
2-5 Chipotle Chiles
1 small Lemon
2 whole Cloves
1/2 teaspoon Allspice
1/2 teaspoon Celery Salt
2 California Bay Leaves
Sea Salt
Ground Black Pepper
If you’re using dried chipotles, reconstitute them in a small bowl of warm water. If you’re using canned or crushed, you’re good to go.

Peel and trim garlic.

Preheat oven to 250° F.

In a Dutch oven or heavy sauce pan over medium heat, add a couple tablespoons of oil and allow to heat through.

Braise 2-3 minutes a side
Braise 2-3 minutes a side

Add chicken thighs to hot oil, season with sea salt and pepper, and braise them, about 2 minutes per side.

Ready for a low and slow oven
Ready for a low and slow oven

Add chicken stock to the Dutch oven, to almost cover the chicken. Add bay leaves, garlic, and cloves, allow the stock to simmer.

When you’ve reached a low simmer, cover the Dutch oven and slide it into a middle rack in the oven.

Zest lemon and cut in half.

Open tomatoes and carefully pour the liquid into a small mixing bowl. Pour the tomatoes into an oven-proof dish, (not too large, you want the liquid concentrated.)

 

To the bowl of tomato juices, squeeze half the lemon, then add a tablespoon of oil, the vinegar, agave nectar, mustard, allspice, and celery salt. Whisk with a fork to incorporate.

Add the blended liquid to the tomatoes, and slide them into the middle rack beside the chicken.

Tomatoes ready for a slow roast
Tomatoes ready for a slow roast

Allow chicken and tomatoes to stew for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the chicken is fork tender. Remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle.

Slow roasted and savory
Slow roasted and savory

Hand shred chicken and set aside. Reserve the jus and freeze for future projects.

Hand shredded chicken
Hand shredded chicken

Add chipotles and juice from remaining half lemon to the tomato blend and process with a stick or regular blender to a smooth consistency.

The sauce, processed
The sauce, processed

Peel, trim and rough chop onion, cabbage, and cilantro.

The veggie mise en place
The veggie mise en place

In the Dutch oven over medium high heat, add two Tablespoons oil and allow to heat through.

Add cabbage, onion, cilantro, and lemon zest to the Dutch oven. Sauté for 2-3 minutes, until onions are lightly browned.

Sauté the veggie blend until the onions are lightly browned
Sauté the veggie blend until the onions are lightly browned

Add chicken to the Dutch oven and stir to incorporate.

Add tomato blend and stir to incorporate.

Carne Polaca de UrbanMonique
Carne Polaca de UrbanMonique

Allow the mix to cook on a low simmer for about 10 minutes.

Tacos de Carne Polaca
Tacos de Carne Polaca

Serve over warm tortillas, taco style, or with tortilla chips, or whatever way floats your boat.

We’re here to tell you that this stuff is bloody amazing, and even better the next day – We went with taco salads on day two.

Beef Bourguignon – France’s legendary beef stew

The National Weather Service announced back in the fall of last year that winter here in the Pacific Northwet would be colder and wetter than normal, and they’d be right. We’ve had snow on the ground, in places, for weeks here already. Just north of us, ponds around Vancouver, B. C. have frozen hard enough to skate on for the first time in decades. This cold snap has, in fact, hit a lot of North America. I’m sure this is why I’m so obsessed with hearty, rich comfort foods right now – Stuff like Beef Bourguignon, France’s legendary beef stew.

Bourgogne - Where the magic starts
Bourgogne – Where the magic starts

Just reading the name Beef Bourguignon is enough to know it’s French, but more to the point, it’s from Bourgogne – Burgundy – And that’s what Bourguignon means, d’accord? About 100 km southeast of Paris and stretching for some 350 km toward Switzerland, Burgundy is crossed by a series of working canals, and rightfully famous for deep, complex red wines that bear the regions name, (as well as Pinot, Chardonnay, Chablis, and Beaujolais.) There are also stunningly lovely chateaus, legendary mustard from the regional capitol of Dijon, and Charolais cattle – Some of the finest beef in the world.

Late in the sultry month of August, the commune of Saulieu holds the Fête du Charolais, a paean to meat lovers, a celebration of Charolais beef featuring, naturellement, Boeuf Bourguignon. With a distinct taste reflecting its stunning terroir, Charolais beef has perfect tenderness that yields great beef bourguignon. All that said, most of us probably won’t have Charolais Beef available, (Although there are American Charolais cattle raisers out there, FYI.) Regardless of the beef you’ll use, when you combine it with wine, spirits, fresh veggies and herbs, you’ll be hard pressed to go wrong.

While the roots of beef bourguignon go far back in time, it was Auguste Escoffier who made it famous. Of course, dishes that would bear the Maestro’s stamp couldn’t be rustic, (perish the thought!), so his 1903 recipe upgraded the dish to haute cuisine, utilizing a rather large chunk of beef. It took Julia Child, some seventy years later, to return things back toward the rustic again, advocating the use of cubed stew beef.

Like so many iconic regional dishes, there really is no definitive beef bourguignon recipe, regardless of what anyone tells you – Including bourguignon chefs. Why? Because like spaghetti, or mac and cheese, everybody does it a bit differently – What goes into the mix is, as often as not, what’s good that day – And this is exactly as it should be. What is set in stone is the cooking process, and that’s what I’ll share with y’all today. I’ll also note that there are things assumed to be seminal to the recipe that just really aren’t – Mushrooms for one, and pearl onions for another – Sure, those can and should go in the pot if you like them and they’re readily at hand, but if they’re not, it doesn’t mean that what you’re making isn’t authentic.

The techniques employed to make beef bourguignon correctly are braising and stewing, and that requires a bit of clarification to separate those techniques from searing and roasting, their higher heat first cousins. Searing beef, to get a nice caramelized crust on it, is done in a dry pan over high heat. Braising, from the French verb braiser, is a semi-wet, medium heat cooking method, designed to brown meat and infuse it with the flavors of the wet adjuncts that share the pan. Stewing, when done in the oven or on the stove top, is a relatively low temperature, wet cooking process, while roasting is a high heat, dry method. The high heat techniques work best for lean cuts, (like a roast, of course). Tougher, fattier cuts benefit most from braising and stewing – The lower, slower methods that provide the time needed to break down connective tissue, making things nice and tender.

Here’s our take on this iconic dish. Feel free to make it yours. Pay attention to the techniques and the order of operation – That’ll get you where you want to go – And again, everything else is free reign. Take note of our choice for the spirit employed – We don’t have cognac in the house, and I ain’t buying it just for a recipe – You could use brandy, Armagnac, or frankly, any spirit that floats your boat – Bourbon would go great, too. Another case in point – We served ours over rice, while tradition holds that you use thick slices of good country bread rubbed with garlic – If I’d had good bread on hand, I’d have done that, but I didn’t, so – get the picture? Innovate, whenever you want to or must – A recipe is a template, not gospel, so tweak it to your liking. If parsnips or turnips or some other great winter root veggie floats your boat, throw it in there – It’ll still be tres bien when you’re done.

Beef Bourguignon a la UrbanMonique

1 Pound Stew Beef
4 slices thick cut Bacon
3-4 Carrots
1 medium Sweet or Yellow Onion
2 cloves Garlic
1/2 Bottle Pinot Noir, (Yes, that’s what red Burgundy is, in fact)
2 Cups Beef Broth
1 1/2 Ounces Reposado Tequila
1 Tablespoon Tomato Paste
1 teaspoon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground black Pepper
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil, (Olive is just fine too.)
2 California Bay Leaves
1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter
1 Tablespoon Wondra Flour

Always start with your mise en place
Always start with your mise en place

Rinse and peel carrots and onions.

Place the flat side of a chef’s knife on top of the garlic cloves and smack the blade with the palm of your hand to smash the garlic – It doesn’t need to be pulverized – you just want to get the skin loose. Peel and trim garlic.

Cut the onion in half, then cut each half into quarters. Carefully cut the carrots in half lengthwise, then into half rounds about 1/2″ thick. Mince the garlic.

Preheat oven to 250° F.

Place a Dutch oven, (or heavy stock pot with a tight fitting lid), over medium heat and add the oil – Allow to heat through.

Cut the bacon into lardons – Chunks about 1/2″ square.

Rendering the lardons
Rendering the lardons

Sauté the bacon in the oil until the lardons start to crisp, about 3-5 minutes. Transfer the bacon onto a paper towel with a slotted spoon.

Beef goes in after bacon
Beef goes in after bacon

Add the beef to the hot fat and braise until the beef is lightly browned on all sides, about 3-5 minutes. Use the slotted spoon to transfer the meat onto the towel with the bacon.

The beef, nicely browned, ready to set aside
The beef, nicely browned, ready to set aside

If you’re left with a fair amount of beef juice and fat, as we were, carefully pour that into a small bowl and set aside.

Save that beef juice and fat to reincorporate
Save that beef juice and fat to reincorporate

Add another Tablespoon of oil to the Dutch oven and allow to heat through.

Veggies into oil for a quick sauté
Veggies into oil for a quick sauté

Add the carrots and onions to the hot oil and sauté until the onions are slightly browned, about 3-5 minutes.

Veggies sautéed until the onions are slightly browned
Veggies sautéed until the onions are slightly browned

Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about 1 minute.

Add the tequila to the veggies and flambé (light it) to burn off the alcohol – Be careful – Don’t get your face or hands close to the Dutch oven when you do this!

With a wooden spoon, scrape all the dark stuff from the bottom of the Dutch oven.

Add enough beef broth to almost cover the stew
Add enough beef broth to almost cover the stew

Add the wine, beef, reserved beef juice and fat, and bacon back into the Dutch oven and stir.

Add enough beef stock to almost cover the mix.

Add the tomato paste, thyme, salt, pepper, and bay leaves. Stir to incorporate.

Seasoning added, ready for oven stewing
Seasoning added, ready for oven stewing

Cover the Dutch oven and place on a middle rack in your oven. Stew the bourguignon at 250° F for 75 to 90 minutes, until the meat and veggies are fork tender.

Remove from the oven and uncover. Combine butter and flour in a measuring cup, then add a cup or so of broth. Mix with a fork until the blend thickens. Pour back into the bourguignon and stir in thoroughly to incorporate.

Monter au beurre - Adding cold Butter to a Sauce or stew at the end of cooking
Monter au beurre – Adding cold Butter to a Sauce or stew at the end of cooking

Serve over crusty toasted bread rubbed with garlic, or rice, or egg noodles. Garnish with fresh parsley if you like.

Beef Bourguignon - Heaven in a bowl
Beef Bourguignon – Heaven in a bowl

Goes great with a glass of that red, and it’ll be spectacular the next day.

bon apetit.

A NOTE ON THAT LAST PIC –

i posted this on social media, and a friend of a friend wrote this in responses – “I can tell you’re an accomplished chef, so why would you post such a poor picture of your work?”

It’s a fair question, so here’s the fair answer. This site is, as it’s subtitled, about real food in real kitchens. For a time, to get something accepted at the most swanky food porn sites required professional level photography – I for one think that’s total bullshit. I posted this because it’s the bowl I ate that night. Expecting all of my images to be professional, or all your meals to turn out incredibly photogenic, has nothing to do with cooking – certainly not at home. It sets up an impossible level of expectation that gets in the way of learning to cook. If and when presentation is important at home, we do it,  but we do so because we like to, not because it must be done. This site is about real cooking, and real cooking isn’t always perfect. And besides, I’ll bet you’d bloody swoon over that bowl if I’d handed it to ya – that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Split Pea Soup

Great ingredients make great soup
Great ingredients make great soup

If you’ve ever lived in the southern part of the U.S.A., then you’ve likely experienced the tradition of eating black-eyed peas, (AKA, Hoppin’ John), on New Year’s Day – Doing so is believed to be not only a harbinger of prosperity in the new year, but a pretty decent hangover cure as well. Other anointed foods for New Years include pork, corned beef and cabbage, whole fish, and even ring shaped eats. Here at UrbanMonique, we went to bed quite early on New Year’s Eve, but we still like to hedge our bets. As such, we decided it was a perfect night for M’s stunningly delicious split pea soup. That decision was made all the easier by the fact that we had leftover ham from Christmas, (including a gorgeous bone), and some amazing pea stock we froze back in the summer after harvesting snap peas from the garden. Split pea soup kinda gets a bad rap for the same reason Brussels sprouts do – Lackluster cooking, or overcooking, leads to less than stellar results – We’re here to shatter that reputation.

Ham glam shot
Ham glam shot

I hail from New England, where split pea soup has always been quite popular. Legend has it this dish was introduced to the region by southward migrating Québécois, but the ubiquity of split peas throughout many cultures may dispel that. Cultivars of Pisum sativum have been favored by humans for millennia – Romans and Greeks were growing them as far back as 500 B.C.E. – Given their propensity for far flung travel and conquest, it’s a safe bet they got them from somebody else. And in any age before modern food preservation, it’s a sure thing that drying peas was standard practice, as it still is today.

Harkening back to my comment about lackluster versions of split pea soup, it’s no surprise, frankly, when we recall the old rhyme, ‘peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.’ Lets face it, if that was good eating, we’d all still be doing it. Starting out with high quality, fresh ingredients will quickly dispel that nightmarish vision. Your journey toward that end must start with the peas themselves. Many of us have a bag of the little green guys in our pantry, straight from the store – It’s just as likely that said bag of peas has been in your pantry since the Pleistocene era too, right? If so, that’s a problem right off the bat. Dried peas, beans, etc will last a very long time, if stored properly, but left in the original plastic bag and tossed onto a shelf in the pantry doesn’t qualify as ‘proper’. The main adversary for split peas is oxygen, and that’s the case for pretty much all legumes, pulses, etc. The solution is a decent quality, air tight container – With those in use, you can easily get 3 to 5 years of storage, and if you add an oxygen absorber, like Oxy-Sorb, which is specifically made for the purpose, you ou’ll easily extend your shelf life to 10 years or more. Oxy-Sorb is great stuff, cheap, and readily available, by the way – A 100 pack costs about ten bucks, delivered from numerous online sources, and big chain grocery stores sell it as well – Same goes for decent quality food storage vessels, (and frankly, you’d be hard pressed to do better than quart, half gallon, or gallon mason jars for that job.)

As with all great soups and stews, great split pea soup depends on carefully chosen components and a specific process of assembly. It is a simple dish, but nonetheless, there are definitive steps that need to be followed. As always, this begins with the essentials, (other than peas, of course) – That’s good ham with a nice, big bone, fresh aromatics, stock, and seasoning. As for the latter, all too often what’s used for split pea soup is what’s suggested on the plastic bag they come in, AKA, water. While water sure works, stock is so much better, and is key to great soup.

Homemade, great leftovers - All you need to get started.
Homemade, great leftovers – All you need to get started.

Vegetable or chicken stock will work great, and if you’ve been keeping up with class, then you’ve taken opportunities to make and freeze stock along the way. As mentioned previously, back in July we had a bumper crop of snap peas, and took steps to harvest and preserve those – In so doing, the inspiration for pea stock hit me and we made some – It was and is incredible stuff – a lovely translucent green, with a scent redolent of fresh peas, even when defrosted some six months later – There’s a testimonial to why we freeze, dry, can, or otherwise preserve great home grown food, if ever there was one, (That doesn’t mean you need to have matched us overachievers – Use what you’ve got – Homemade preferred, but store bought is just fine.)

And while we’re talking homemade, if and when you get a nice bone, never, ever throw it out. Sure, your critters will love ’em, but your house made stocks and broths will love ’em even more. As for aromatics – It’s a safe bet that in too many home kitchens, the carrots, onion, garlic, celery and the like might be a bit long in the tooth by the time you get around to using them – In a word, don’t do that. The French have it right when they go to the market almost daily – If it’s worth making and eating, it’s worth fresh ingredients – Don’t buy the big bags of bulk carrots, onions, etc – Go to the market frequently, and poke, prod, smell, and look when you shop – Reject the rubbery, the off colored, or too soft, and carefully pick fresh stuff – That is one of the real joys of shopping, so take advantage.

And finally, there’s seasoning. I’ve said this before and will again – If you’re buying herbs and spices from the grocery store, you’re missing out. If you’re using spices from a cute little revolving wheel thingy, and the spices came with that, and you got it when you got married, you’re fired. Herbs and spices have very bit as much a shelf life as other foods, and less so than some – they’re good for 6 months or so, if they’ve been prepared and stored properly. If your wheel o’ spices is out where sunlight hits it on a regular basis, your stuff is toast and needs to be replaced. If it’s not from a high quality source, like World Spice, Penzeys, Pendereys, to name just a few, you’ve no guarantee that what your buying is up to snuff – And finally, never use my sainted Father’s wine buying plan when it comes to spice – The more you get for less dough is not a successful strategy.

So, with all that, here’s the scoop.

M’s Heavenly Split Pea Soup

4 Cups Vegetable or Chicken Stock
2 Cups Water
2 Cups (about 1/2 pound), Ham
1 nice big Ham Bone
1 Pound dried Split Peas
2 large Carrots
3 stalks Celery
2 Tablespoons chopped Shallot
3 cloves Garlic
1 Lemon
1-2 Tablespoons Parsely
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground Pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed red Chile
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil.

In a stock pot over medium high heat, combine water, stock and the ham bone. When the stock begins to boil, reduce heat until its barely maintaining a simmer. Allow the stock and bone to simmer for 60 minutes.

An hour or so of simmering will properly marry the flavors of pork Bone and stock
An hour or so of simmering will properly marry the flavors of pork Bone and stock

Rough chop ham, cut carrots into half-rounds about 1/4″ thick, chop celery, dice shallot and mince garlic.

Aromatics, the heartbeat of great soup
Aromatics, the heartbeat of great soup

Zest lemon, cut in half.

Place peas in a single mesh strainer and rinse under cold running water, checking for non-food detritus.

Rinse and inspect pease before deployment!
Rinse and inspect pease before deployment!

In a soup pot over medium heat, add oil and heat through. Add carrot, celery, and shallot. Sauté until the shallot begins to turn translucent.

Always sauté your aromatics first!
Always sauté your aromatics first!

Remove Bone from stock and allow to cool, then give it to your dawg.

Add stock, water, ham, and split peas to soup pot with aromatics over medium heat. Stir to incorporate. When the soup starts to boil, reduce heat to barely maintain a slow simmer. Simmer soup for 1-2 hours, until the split peas are where you like them – just slightly al dente is the sweet spot.

Great split pea soup should look like what it's made from, not mush!
Great split pea soup should look like what it’s made from, not mush!

Add parsley, lemon thyme, a tablespoon of lemon zest, pepper, Chile, and salt. Stir to incorporate and taste, adjust seasoning as desired. Allow the soup to simmer for another 10 minutes.

Add the herbs and spices last so they don't lose their floral qualities
Add the herbs and spices last so they don’t lose their floral qualities

Serve nice and hot, garnished with a little more fresh lemon zest and shot or two of hot sauce if you like such things. A dollop of fresh sour cream doesn’t suck, either.

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

Serve with crusty bread and a glass of decent Zinfandel, and you’re in hog heaven.