Better Butter

Alert follower Jenn writes,

“I was surprised to see no post on fresh made butter in the UrbanMonique archives. Chris got me a rotary butter churn for Christmas and it’s been one of my favorite gifts in memory. Of course, we’ve done fresh pepper butter, dilly butter, rosemary and lemon peel, and obviously brown sugar and cinnamon. I know it can be done with ease in a stand mixer, but the rotary is fun to pass around at brunch parties or before dessert is served. I’m just curious to see what you’d put in butter given your expansive spice collection and superior wisdom.”

Knowing this young Texan as I do, I’m still not sure if that last line is her being a smartass or not… In any event, I’m cool with it, because she sent me filé that she grew and dried and powdered her very own self, and she’s a hell of a good cook to boot.

She’s also got an excellent point. Having relocated to an area rich in local dairy, we revel in fresh milk, cream, butter, and eggs. If you can get your paws on fresh cream where you live, making your own butter and compound butters is easy, and a true delight. We’ll cover both herein, as well as delving into the history and chemistry a bit.

First, let’s address a couple of core issues.

The Butter Is Evil mantra. If you’re late to this party, let me formally state for the record that it’s simply not so. The premise raised in the ’60’s and touted for several decades, to the effect that animal fats cause heart disease, has been roundly rejected. While it’s true that there are plenty of fine alternative vegetable fats, the artificial pantheon that replaced butter has been banned from our pantry for all time. The facts bear out that food from properly pastured animals is actually quite healthy. In particular, butter from grass fed cows is high in nutrients like vitamins E, A, beta carotene, and essential fatty acids. That last caveat, grass fed, also happens to yield butter that is notably tastier than that from grain fed cows.

The Cow Monopoly. There are thousands of species of mammal across our world, and all of them produce milk, yet here in the U.S.A., roughly 97% of our dairy products come from cows. Even at our quite enlightened local Co-Op, there are only a couple of goat milk options. Granted, when we turn to cheese, we find offerings from goat, sheep, and buffalo, but cow is still the king, hands down. Elsewhere in the world, folks drink camel, yak, water buffalo, elk, reindeer, and even mare’s milk on a regular basis. 99.9% of those critters are ruminants, mammals whose four-chambered stomachs yield prodigious quantities of milk from high-fiber, low-nutrient pasturage. On top of that feat, ruminants sport large, graspable teats that makes milking easy for humans, (hence, cats and dogs are safe for the time being). Goat, sheep, and cows were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 years ago. While all three have since been intensively bred to improve temperament and output, cows have far and away ruled the roost.

The Middle Eastern ancestor of the milk cow was the auroch, which went extinct in the 17th century. While wild aurochs were a handful, domestication quickly yielded a critter that quietly lines up to be milked, and produces about 100 pounds of milk a day. That docile nature sets cows apart from most other ruminants, including, as a for instance, the water buffalo. Bred for milking to this day in Italy and India, water buffalo are notoriously cranky, and considering their size, quickness, and very large horns, they’re potentially downright dangerous to the milker.

Here in America, the last great ice age that swept through around 20,000 years ago effectively removed all large ruminants, with the exception of the bison. When Europeans showed up with cows, they not only did just fine, they genuinely thrived. The easy separability of cow’s milk lends itself to a broad spectrum of things humans like to eat, the fat content is quite close to human milk, and it’s widely tolerated by human digestive systems. Goat’s milk, on the other hand, is richer and more complex in flavor, predominately because the cream does not separate as it will in cows milk. Goats produce the most milk of any ruminant by body size, but they’re so much smaller than cows that the advantage is null. That lack of cream separation also means that goat milk won’t readily make butter, either. As for the third member of the Fertile Crescent troika, almost nobody in this country drinks sheep’s milk. With twice the fat of cow and human milk, it’s far too rich to be popular, and the overall low yield weighs against them from a commercial production standpoint. That fattiness does make sheep’s milk near and dear to cheesmakers, however, for obvious and good reason.

On then, to butter, a part of the human diet for nigh onto 7,000 years. Through 99% of history, butter was cultured to enhance shelf life. Culturing allowed milk gathered in multiple milkings to last longer in the days before effective refrigeration; it also encourages cream to separate relatively quickly when churned. Raw cream is blessed with ample benign bacteria, so it will ferment and sour without the need for added cultures. This natural fermentation notably alters its chemistry, generating much more complex and subtle flavor profiles. One such flavor note stems from lactic acid, so cultured butter tends to taste tarter than uncultured, or sweet cream butter.

Chemically, butter is a relatively stable mixture of triglycerides from several fatty acids – predominantly oleic 31%, myristic 19%, palmitic 15%, and stearic 15%. The natural color of butter derives from trace amounts of carotene. Over time the glycerides break down, releasing free fatty acids; two of these, butyric and caproic acid, are largely responsible for the nasty smell of rancid butter.

Butter is made by churning cream. Exactly how and why churning works is still somewhat of a mystery; if that sounds unlikely, rest assured that it’s not. Delve into the chemistry of churning at the university level, and you’ll find analyses filled with detailed supposition and almost universally followed by the phrase, “not well understood.” While the process is ages old, there’s still a PhD up for grabs there. What we surmise is that air is incorporated into the liquid matrix of cream as it begins to turn into butter. A foam forms, and fat globules collect in the walls of the bubbles. Churning warms the cream slightly, to the point that those fat globules soften and liquify. Further churning bounces the softened fat globules off each other enough to break their protective membranes, and liquified fat cements the exposed droplets together. Material from the broken membranes helps in this process, as it contains emulsifiers such as lecithin. Once enough of the liquified fats have been freed by the churning process, the air foam collapses and butter granules form into larger and larger masses.

Once thickened and separated into butter grains and buttermilk, the buttermilk is poured off. 50° F water, at 20% of the volume of the cream used, is then added to the fresh butter; this ‘wash’ helps it separate thoroughly from the buttermilk. Churning continues until the butter granules are about the size of wheat grains. As with many kitchen processes, precision is important, and often enough, the difference between a pro and an amateur. Making butter is easy; even little kids can do it. Making great butter takes a bit more discipline. If you buy really good, local Jersey cream as we do, you’ll find that it’s not cheap; it certainly deserves extra attention. Of course, back when everybody did this at home such knowledge was not as arcane as it is today.

A bit more on nomenclature: Sweet Cream Butter means simply butter made from cream that has not been fermented, or cultured. When first introduced to Americans in the late 19th century, it was not popular because consumers thought it tasted ‘flat’, a sentiment raised by the lack of complexity found in cultured butter. Nowadays, sweet cream butter in some form or another rules the supermarket roost, but not all are created equally. Sweet cream butter is the taste of the cream, pure and simple. If you make butter with fresh, local cream, you get the flavor of that particular terroir – The grass, sun, water, everything. It’s sublime and truly lovely. As the seasons change, so will your butter. Change sources, and you’ve got a whole new pallete; taste, smell, and color will all vary. This is how it was before industrialization, when all butter was made locally. Back then, early spring butter commanded and received a higher price than any other.

Making butter at home, starting right now, will bring you back to where you belong; trust me when I say you’ll be buying far less commercial butter in the days to come. From buttered veggies, to homemade baked goods, everything is notably better. And speaking of baked goods, expect the biggest difference therein. Homemade butter totes a higher percentage of butterfat than the industry standard 80%, so your baked goods will taste and feel better as a result. Cultured butter can also be made at home. If home made sweet cream butter is champagne, homemade cultured butter is caviar. Those subtly complex flavors must be experienced first hand. Doing so really isn’t very much more work than making sweet cream butter, so do try it once you get in the swing of the basic process.

So, we need good cream to make all this wonderful stuff happen; the fresher, the better. If you have a choice, donor cow breed matters somewhat. Our favorite local dairy, Twin Brook Creamery, milks Jersey cows, the winner of the milk fat award. According to Iowa State University, (A pretty good judge of things dairy), Jersey’s weigh in just shy of 5% fat in raw milk, as compared to Holsteins at 3.7%, which rounds out the two most popular milking cows – or put another way, the most popular breed’s milk contains about 30% less fat than those Twin Brooks Jerseys. While there are other breeds making inroads, it’s likely to take some time – the U.S.D.A. reports that Holsteins account for 90% of the U.S. milk cow population, followed by Jerseys at 7%, with all others at a paltry 3% combined.

Some of that milk gets made into cream, and at your local store or coop, the one you want for making butter is Heavy Cream. You may have heard or been told that this is synonymous with Whipping Cream, but it ain’t necessarily so. To be called Cream in this country, dairy must contain no less than 18% milk fat. Half & half can run anywhere from 10% to 18%, so it’s right out for butter making. Whipping Cream is at least 30% milk fat, and rarely more than that. Heavy Cream is no less than 36% milk fat, and that’s our cream. If you’re allowed to buy raw cream where you live, by all means do it. Raw cream needs nothing to yield all the glory of real, live butter. It’s literally biologically active, packing its own culture, and it is absolutely redolent of its terroir. Your primary guide for what to buy is, naturally, what tastes best to you. Keep your cream refrigerated until you’re ready to churn, and do so right away; time is the enemy of freshness.

OK, let’s make butter.

In addition to cream, you need some form of churn. That’s literally anything that can agitate the cream in until butterfat comes out of suspension and separates from the buttermilk. You can use a blender, mixer, food processor, canning jar, or a dedicated churn, (Lots of places sell manual and powered versions). Whatever you use should be in good working condition and clean before you start. I use a small processor powered by a stick mixer; it holds a pint of cream perfectly. I recommend a blender if you have one – they work well and keep everything nicely contained.

 

House Made Butter

1 Pint fresh Heavy Cream

Option: Pinch of Sea Salt

1/3 Cup 50° F Water

 

Remove cream from fridge and allow to stand at room temperature, in its carton, until cream temps at right around 60° F; the optimal range for butter making is 55° F to 65° F.

Pour cream into blender vessel.

Turn to highest setting that won’t splatter the cream and keep a close eye on things.

Within a couple minutes, the cream will begin to thicken visibly – Increase blender speed a notch or two.

 

You will see butter begin to form, as you do in the image below; turn the blender speed down several notches. As butter formation increases, you may need to use a spatula to scrape down the butter as it forms. This process will take about 3 to 5 minutes, maybe a bit longer.

 

When butter is well formed and buttermilk is clearly separating, turn blender off and transfer butter to a mixing bowl.

 

Add 50° F water and knead butter by hand, thoroughly washing the butter.

 

Pour off the water and buttermilk, and continue kneading by hand, removing very bit of moisture you can find – Both water and buttermilk will cause your butter to spoil relatively quickly, so be diligent in this process.

 

If you wish to salt, or add other ingredients to make compound butters, now is the time. Note: Finishing salts with distinct flavor profiles make fabulous salted butters.

When done, transfer butter to clean glass or ceramic containers and refrigerate.

Butter should last about a week, providing you were diligent about removing the buttermilk.

 

Ready to try your hand at cultured butter? Cultures that work on butter are referred to as mesophilic, meaning they will activate in relatively cool temperatures, (As opposed to the thermophillic, or high temperature cultures we use in cheesemaking). Again, raw cream cultures naturally, but most of what we have access to has been pasteurized, and as such, it will require additional cultures to come alive. Outfits like New England Cheesemaking Supply and Leeners sell a wide variety of cultures that will work for butter, but it is easier and cheaper to use good quality, local cultured yoghurt, buttermilk, or kefir; just make sure that what you buy specifically reads that it contains live cultures. Allowing pasteurized cream to just grab whatever comes along is not a good idea: Pasteurization kills all cultures, including the good ones, so without it, cream is stripped of its natural defenses – This is why a known, quality controlled culture is your best bet. Here’s how to do it.

Use one of the following options to culture your cream;

For pasteurized cream, add 1 Tablespoon of live culture yogurt, buttermilk, or kefir to each cup of heavy cream, and whisk gently to incorporate. Allow to culture for 12 to 24 hours.

For raw cream, culture for 12 to 48 hours.

Use a clean glass bowl or jar with a clean cloth or paper towel rubber banded to cover. If you use canning jars, boil them to sterilize, then allow to cool to room temp prior to filling.

Culturing needs to be done between 70° F and 75° F for the stated intervals. If it’s not that warm in your house, you’ll need to gently heat the cream in a sauce pan over low heat, to about 75° F before transferring it to a bowl or jar and adding culture. Find a warm, quiet spot for the process to work, (On top of the stove works nicely.)

When the cream has successfully cultured, it will be notably thicker.

Stir cultured cream gently but thoroughly, then put it in the fridge to cool down to around 50° F; this will stop the culturing process and prepare the cream for buttermaking. Once it’s cooled, churn it as per instructions above.

 

Note that you will typically not get enough buttermilk from a pint of cream to be worthwhile, but if you love the tangy richness of that wonderful stuff as much as we do, you can also use your favorite milk to create homemade.

1 Cup of cultured Buttermilk

3 Cups Whole Milk

Pour buttermilk and milk into a sterilized quart canning jar and seal tightly.

Shake vigorously to incorporate, then leave jar to sit at room temp for 12 to 24 hours. When properly cultured, the fresh buttermilk will nicely coat the sides of the jar when shaken.

Refrigerated, it’ll last a good week or so.

 

And finally, compound butters, or beurres composés, are simple mixtures of butter and whatever else floats your boat. They’re ridiculously easy to prepare, making them a nice, quick way to add a custom touch to many, many dishes. They’re perfect as a general flavor profile enhancer, or used as a sauce/condiment all by themselves.

 

Freshly made butter is in perfect condition to make compound butters. We boil half pint jam jars with our pint butter jar, and use the smaller for compound butters. You can also go the more traditional route, and wrap them in waxed paper – Either way, pop them in the fridge until they’re nice and firm.

Proportions and constituents are up to you. Plan on doing some tasting to get things where you like them, (darn…) I use a fork to whisk everything to a nice, uniform consistency, then scoop them into jars or waxed paper. You can use them to top hot meats or veggies, or as a base or finishing elements for a sauce.

Here are a few classics, as well as some our favorites; the rest I leave up to you – It’s a very personal decision, and too much fun to just use somebody else’s ideas. All are prepared as described above.

 

Classic French Compound Butters

Beurre d’Ail – Garlic Butter

For every 1/2 cup of butter, add

2-4 cloves of pressed or smashed garlic and blend thoroughly.

 

Beurre a la Maître d’Hôtel – Hotel Butter

To each 1/2 cup of butter, add

1 good pinch of sea salt

A couple twists of white pepper

Zest of 1/2 fresh lemon

2 tablespoons of finely minced, fresh parsley.

 

Beurre de Citron – Lemon Butter

For each 1/2 cup of butter, add the

Zest of 1 small, fresh lemon and blend well.

Note that any other citrus zest you like will also be delightful.

 

Beurre de Frais Herbes – Fresh Herb Butter

For each 1/2 cup of butter, start with a couple teaspoons of whatever fresh herb(s) you have on hand – Rosemary, parsley, chives, lemon thyme, marjoram, basil, tarragon, or oregano are all wonderful.

 

And here are a few of our faves.

Montmorency Cherry & Vanilla Bean Compound Butter

Cherry Vanilla Compound Butter

For each 1/2 cup of butter, add

2 tablespoons minced Montmorency Cherries

Seeds from 1 freshly scraped Vanilla Bean.

 

Deep Citrus Compound Butter

Deep Citrus Compound Butter

For each 1/2 cup of butter, add

Zest and juice of 1 small Lemon

Zest and juice of 1 small Lime

1 teaspoon powdered Kaffir Lime leaves

About 3″ of fresh Lemongrass, minced.

Add juice, zest, and lemongrass to a small bowl, mix well and allow to steep for 10 minutes.

Add butter and all other ingredients and mix well.

Squeeze butter by hand to remove all excess juice

 

Smoky Compound Butter

Smoky Compound Butter

For each 1/2 cup of butter, add

1/2 teaspoon Smoked Salt

1/2 teaspoon Smoked Paprika

1/4 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1/4 teaspoon granulated Onion

1/4 teaspoon fine ground Black Pepper

 

Best Veggie Compound Butter

Best Veggie Compound Butter

For each 1/2 cup of butter, add

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1 teaspoon Savory

Zest of 1 small Lemon

Pinch Sea Salt

 

Filé Compound Butter

Jenn’s Filé Butter

For each 1/2 cup of butter, add

1 Tablespoon filé powder

1 pinch Sea Salt

Add to sauces, stocks, or soups as a thickener, or at table side for use in individual bowls.

 

Enjoy.

 

 

Pão de Queijo – Brazilian cheese bread

Just got home from a brief biz trip to New Orleans. It was in the 70s and 80s, mostly sunny, humidity not too bad. And here, well… Let’s just say that the Great Pacific Northwet is living up to its name – It’s 44° F, raining heavily, and the next week’s forecast is for more of the same. As M headed for work, she gave me the lowdown, “There’s crack ham in the fridge, (AKA, honey baked – She worked there for a time back when, and she’s right – it is), so if you want to make split pea soup, go for it.” I do, and I am, but this kinda weather calls for serious comfort food reinforcements – In this case, Pão de Queijo – Brazilian cheese bread.

Our Split Pea soup
Our Split Pea soup

How I ended up here is lovely serendipity. I planned on making either biscuits or corn bread, but was plowing through some social media food groups I belong to, and in of all places, my favorite Vietnamese cooking group, somebody mentioned having made Brazilian cheese bread. One of the many reasons I love this group is that stuff like this shows up all the time – They’re incredibly talented Vietnamese cooks, but fearless and curious in any and every other cuisine that floats their boats. I was introduced to Pão de Queijo years ago at a churascaria down in Texas, and hadn’t thought of or made them in quite a while, so this was a pleasant reminder.

Pão de Queijo is part of a truly delicious branch of cheese breads fueled by cassava (AKA yuca) flour, rather than wheat. As we outlined pretty thoroughly in our post about Guarani Cuñapes, cassava is a dominant starch down south, and for good reason – It’s abundant, works well in place of wheat flour, and tastes great – For gluten intolerant folks, it’s a champ.

Påo de Quiejo - Brazilian Cheese Bread
Påo de Quiejo – Brazilian Cheese Bread

The Pão variant differs from Cuñapes in recipe and construction. While they’re similar, the texture and flavored each is unique, so it’s genuinely worth adding both to your arsenal. To me, the pão de queijo is denser and chewier than a cuñape – More like Yorkshire pudding, for my mind. Best of all, they’re super easy to make – Maybe thirty minutes from start to finish, so they lend themselves to last minute inspiration, as any good side should.

I’ll share the simplest method of many for making these little gems. Like all signature foods, everybody’s Mom makes them, and their way is always best, naturally. Some folks use potato starch in lieu of yuca, and you can get very nice results that way. I’ve also seen these done up with the French pâte a choux method – They were delicious indeed, but really, those are gougères rather than pão de queijo. The method I’ll share is far less fussy and time consuming than that, especially in light of the cassava flour – That stuff behaves quite differently when employing the pâte method, and can be a handful if you’re not ready for it – It’s extremely fine, almost powdery, and when mixed with liquids, its, well, seriously glutinous stuff. Truth be told, my Brazilian cooking pals tell me that what I’ll share with y’all is the way they do it most of the time, because it strikes a perfect balance between taste, texture, and ease of preparation.

Påo de Quiejo - It’s a glutinous batter, even if it’s gluten free
Påo de Quiejo – It’s a glutinous batter, even if it’s gluten free

Finally, we must discuss cheese as well, sim? Down south, the traditional choice is either a quiejo de Canastra, or a quiejo de Minas. Canastra is a yellowish, cows milk cheese, fairly soft when it’s fresh and ripening to semi-hard. It has a buttery base flavor with a nice acidic tang – Very much like high quality Monterey Jack. Quiejo de Minas is also a cows milk cheese. When fresh, (Minas Frescal), it’s soft and very subtle, like a queso blanco, and lends itself well to adding fresh herbs into the mix. Once it’s aged into a Minas Curado, it’s a whole ‘nother world – rich and subtle like a good Asiago. While the vast majority of pão de quiejo recipes you find use Parmesan, for my two cents worth, a good Jack or Asiago will fit the bill much better, in both authenticity and flavor. Down the line, you can and should experiment not only with cheese, but with herbs as well. Cilantro, fennel, spring onion, parsley, and dried chiles are all delicious and opções muito autênticas, (very authentic options).

This recipe is fairly large, for good reason. The batter is stable and stores well, so you can use half tonight, refrigerate the rest, and it’ll be good for a week or so in a clean, airtight container. If you prefer to let ‘er rip, you can make the whole shebang and refrigerate or freeze whatever you don’t eat right away, (but be forewarned – They’re addictive little beasties, and you’ll easily be tricked into chowing down.) The recipe will make about 16 muffins.

NOTES: It’s best to have your milk and eggs at or near room temperature, so plan ahead accordingly. You’ll also need a muffin pan or two – They come in various sizes, but you’ll fare much better with ‘mini’ sizes, (muffin or loaf), as these guys will come out very dense indeed if you use regular size pans.

Påo de Quiejo - Brazilian Cheese Bread
Påo de Quiejo – Brazilian Cheese Bread

Påo de Quiejo, Brazilian Cheese Bread

3 Cups Cassava Flour
1 well packed Cup Monterey Jack or Asiago Cheese
1 1/2 Cups Whole Milk
1/2 Cup Avocado Oil
2 Eggs
2 teaspoons Sea Salt

Set a rack into a middle position and preheat your oven to 400° F.

Wet a paper towel with avocado oil and lightly wipe the insides of each muffin cup.

Add all ingredients to a blender or processor vessel, (either truly works fine, so use what you’re most comfortable with.)

Pulse the batter until it’s smooth and consistent, scraping batter down into the mix as needed. Allow plenty of mixing time, until you’ve got a consistent smooth batter – This also allows some air to get integrated into the mix, which is important for helping these unleavened breads rise.

Fill muffin cups to roughly 1/4” from the top.

Bake, undisturbed for about 20 minutes, until the muffin tops have visibly risen and are light golden brown. There’s no leavening agent, so steam plays a roll here – Opening the oven will screw with that, so don’t!

Påo de Quiejo - Perfect accompaniment to soups and stews
Påo de Quiejo – Perfect accompaniment to soups and stews

Remove muffins from oven and set on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes, then chow down.

Apreciar!

Real Deal Carnitas

So, I got this message from old friend and alert blog follower, Nancy ‘Nurk’ Swenson, about real deal Carnitas.

I’m looking for a recipe for pork carnitas. I made it about 3 years ago, but can’t find the recipe again. It started with melting lard, adding great spices (lots of orangey/yellowy ones, cumin etc). Then when it cooled enough to handle, you rubbed the pork roast/shoulder/piece of meat with the lard goo and double wrapped it in tin foil. It stayed overnight in the fridge. Then into a low oven in a dutch oven for like 8 hours. When you took it out there was a bunch of juice. You removed the tin foil, shredded the meat and over a 1/2 hour of occasional stirring, the juices sucked back into the meat. Lastly you threw it under the broiler to crisp up the edges. It was wonderful. Do you know this recipe or have a great one? We are having 10 people over for dinner and I want to make this again. Thanks. Love to you and Monica.

Well, first and foremost, love back to you and Steve! Naturally, I assumed that I sure do have a carnitas recipe onboard, and then I looked and… yeah, no. Hard to believe, but true, so it’s very much time to rectify that omission. So, Nurk? I got this, Pal.

Carnitas de Urban
Carnitas de Urban

First off, a bit of clarification – the literal translation of Carnitas is ‘little meats.’ This slice of heaven hails from the State of Michoacán, which lies due west of Mexico City, on the pacific side. A lot of folks seem to believe that carnitas are a specific vehicle, like a taco, burrito, tostada, etc – and that just ain’t the case – It’s the meat, the filling, the heart and soul of any and all such accoutrements. The typical cuts used to make carnitas are not unexpected – Here in El Norte, you’ll want a Boston Butt or similar heavily marbled shoulder cut, (and bone in, whenever you can get that). Mexican butchers call this cut the Espaldilla, and down there, it’s also used for stew meat and for making chorizo.

What you do with that cut to make carnitas is essentially confit – cooking pork in fat until the meat is meltingly tender and juicy. Confit is alive and well all around the world, especially since ‘experts’ stoped castigating animal fats for so many human ills. Confit began as a preservation method, sealing meat away from air and bacteria in a thick layer of fat. French versions are far and away the most widely known these days. There, the meat is salted, seasoned, and dried, then cooked low and slow to perfection. A second salting is followed by very careful removal of all meat remnants and juices from the fat, which is then poured back over the meat. Confit done this way will stay good for months, as it was intended to do – Tiding a family over from slaughter to the next.

What’s been lost over time is that fundamental use of confit for preserving food, rather than just flavoring it, along with the subtle depth and breadth of flavor that long, slow process of preparation, cooking, and preservation imparts, and that’s kind of too bad, frankly.

In Mexico, many cooks prepare carnitas by adding a shit ton of lard to a heavy, copper pan. When the lard is melted, the pork is immersed therein, along with seasoning – Usually some variation of chiles, garlic, and cumin. The meat is cooked low and slow until it’s fall apart tender, then the heat is turned up until the pork starts to crisp – At this juncture, it’ll shred easily, and can then be loaded into whatever – tacos, burritos, tortas, and what have you. Now that said, some folks sear the pork on high heat first, then do the low and slow, so really, there’s poetic license all over this dish. For my mind, searing or crisping can always be done right before service, and leaving that out leads to less loss of fat, more flavor, and a juicier, moister finished product – More on this below.

This kind of thing is wholly in keeping with our tradition of cooking something big at the beginning of the week. That makes for easy, fast meals in the ensuing days, as well as the opportunity to portion and freeze stuff for later inspiration. As such, when approaching carnitas, we’ll go for a truly big chunk of bone in, Boston Butt roast with lost of marbling.

Secondly, while I love fat, I really and truly don’t think it’s necessary to either get the cooking job done, or to impart adequate flavor when it comes down to it. The one we’re going to do up today is five and a half pounds, and as you can see, plenty fatty without being ridiculous. Believe me when I tell you, if you do a roast like this up low and slow, you’ll have all the fat you could possibly want or need, and then some – No additional lard needed, and you will get to use that in the end run. I’ll show you a brilliant cheat with this recipe that will recreate that elusive cooked in fat carnita taste, too.

Bone in Boston Butt pork roast
Bone in Boston Butt pork roast

And so on to cooking method. You don’t need a big, heavy copper pan, (although if you’ve got one, go wild). For stuff this big, we’ve got several options, depending on how you want to do it, so method goes before vessel. My preference is stand alone slow cooker, but you can certainly do this in your oven with a dutch oven or a braiser – Something with a nice, thick, heavy bottom that will store and slowly release heat over time. Whatever vessel you choose, you want your pork and aromatics to pretty much fill the thing up, with a few inches of head space to spare. That will assure that the melting fat from the pork surrounds the meat, and does its thing during the cooking process.

A lovely Boston Butt, ready for cooking
A lovely Boston Butt, ready for cooking

Now, an aside in honor of my Friend, Gloria Goodwin Raheja, who guest cheffed here the other week. Her enthusiasm for the instant pot, (along with that of damn near everybody on the Vietnamese cooking group I’m a member of), lead me to buy one for my birthday. They are pretty dang amazing, and as a Gloria noted, meats done in this manner come out divinely, so there ya go – No, it’s not low and slow, but if you’ve got an hour and a half to work with rather than six to eight, there’s nothing wrong with doing up your carnitas in one.

Now, on to seasoning. The dominant veggie notes here need to be chiles, peppers, tomato, and garlic. Whether you use a slow cooker or the oven, this is going to be the bed you cook your carnitas on. What we’re doing is more of a sofrito than anything, (more or less the Spanish base mix, as opposed to the Italian soffritto – See our bit on aromatic bases here, if you’ve not already.) For my mind, additional seasoning should be pretty minimal. What I use is our signature seasoning salt, a notably smoky blend with major chile, paprika, garlic and onion notes, and a hint of sage. To me, it’s perfect for stuff like this – You can find that recipe right here, but I’ll list an alternative for the recipe as well.

mis en place for carnitas
mis en place for carnitas

Notes:
1. Again, if you do a large roast as we suggest, you’re going to have a lot more than one night’s meal – That’s the whole idea, really. You want to do the cooking in one day, cool and then refrigerate your roast overnight, then do your first meal the next day. Plan ahead for portioning and freezing the meat.
2. Remember that a recipe is a guideline, not gospel – Do what you like in terms of heat level, etc. just don’t go too wild first time out if you’re not quite sure of what a given ratio will do to the whole – The big picture idea of carnitas is a delicate balance.

Carnitas de Urban

4-6 Pound Bone In, Boston Butt Pork Roast
3-6 Chiles, (whatever you like – Our go to are Jalapeño or Serrano)
6-8 small Sweet Peppers
1/2 medium sweet Onion
8-10 whole cloves Garlic
1 15 ounce can diced Tomatoes
6-8 sprigs fresh Cilantro
Urban Seasoning Salt, or
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon alderwood smoked Salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground Pepper
1 teaspoon smoked Paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground red Chile
1/2 teaspoon crushed Sage

Fresh corn or flour Street Taco Tortillas

For Garnish –
Lime wedges
Salsa or Pico de Gallo
Sour Cream
Avocado wedges
Shredded Lettuce and Cabbage
Pickled Onions or Radishes
Tomatoes
Sweet Peppers
More Chiles

Prepare a slow cooker, Dutch oven, etc for use. If you’re using the oven, set a rack in a middle slot and preheat to 250° F.

Rinse and trim chiles, peppers, and onion. Trim and peel garlic cloves.

Rough chop chiles, peppers, and onion, leave garlic cloves whole.

Arrange veggies evenly around the base of the cooking vessel.

Rinse and pat roast dry.

Combine seasonings in a small mixing bowl.

Rub roast lightly with vegetable oil and cover every surface evenly with the seasoning blend.

Place roast in cooker, add tomatoes evenly over the top, then sprigs of cilantro.

Cook low and slow for 6-8 hours until the roast is fork tender and reads an internal temperature of 145 – 150° F.

Real deal carnitas, cooked low and slow
Real deal carnitas, cooked low and slow

Remove roast from cooker or oven and allow to cool in the cooking vessel, (You should plan for several hours of cooling – Never put hot food in the fridge or freezer.)

Once the pork has cooled, refrigerate it overnight, (or, if it’s done in the cold season and conditions allow, put it out on your porch overnight.)

Next day, skim the fat from the top of the cooking vessel and reserve – This is gold, don’t waste it.

Remove the pork and set that on a cutting board.

Pour off the cooking liquid through a colander or strainer – transfer to a clean mason jar and freeze for future soup or stew making. Discard the cooking veggies – They’re done like dinner after that long slow cook.

Portion the pork into meal sized chunks. Vacuum sealing is best, but if you don’t have one, you can place portions in an airtight container or jar and freeze, or wrap them tightly in a layer or two of metal foil. Make sure you mark what it is and when it hit the freezer, for future reference.

For dinner one, wrap however many tortillas you need in metal foil and set into a 150° F oven, on a middle rack.

Place a heavy, cast iron skillet on a burner over low heat, and add a tablespoon of the reserved pork fat.

Shred the pork, either by hand, or with two forks.

Prepare all your fixin’s as you see fit.

Carnitas, ready to load
Carnitas, ready to load

Increase the heat under the skillet to high, until the fat is sizzling.

Sear shredded carnitas in hot fat
Sear shredded carnitas in hot fat

Add the shredded pork to the hot pan and sear it, turning steadily with two forks, until it’s evenly and lightly browned.

Seared carnitas, good as it gets
Seared carnitas, good as it gets

Transfer to a serving bowl, and go wild – There won’t be any leftovers, guaranteed.

Very Cool Guide to Common Veggies

The Plant Guide is a fun site, with some great history pieces
The Plant Guide is a fun site, with some great history pieces

A friend turned me on The Plant Guide, a pretty cool site with some fine gardening tips and tricks. They also have a definite bent for the history of things, just as we do here, including a very cool bit on the origin and history of common veggies and fruit.

A fair amount of this falls into the not what you expected category, and can definitely lead to some interesting further exploration.

check out the veggie history bit here.

Penzey’s Deserves Your Support.

Bill Penzey is a genuinely good guy, and he runs a genuinely good company, Penzeys Spices.

Penzeys deserves your business
Penzeys deserves your business

Now, I’m the kind of person who demands great quality from the companies I do business with, and when it comes to herbs and spices, I simply won’t screw around – And neither should you. There are three outfits I love and buy from regularly – Penzeys, World Spice, and Butcher & Packer.

Personally, my criterion for being a regular goes beyond the quality of the goods – It also encompasses the quality of the company and the people who run it. All three of the companies I referenced herein are good ones that treat their people well.

And in these truly turbulent times, there’s one of the three who stands head and shoulders above the rest, for taking a stand – A stand for what’s right, and very pointedly, a stand against what’s wrong.

That outfit is Bill Penzeys, and as you’ll see below, he’s not afraid to address big ticket issues, or to call out those who need to be called out. Believe you me, he’s taken some heat for it – His company has been targeted by the right for boycotting, and it’s had some impact on them. Fortunately, as he notes below, there are more good folks who’ve come to support him than there are boycotters, but a bunch more won’t hurt any.

if you find yourself of a like mind, and in need of some great herbs and spices, head over to their site, (or see if they’ve got a store near you, and head on in there). Buy some stuff from them, and if you like it, (which you will), repeat said process regularly. Read what he says here, and subscribe to his newsletter. Show good people and businesses that others of like mind hear, agree, and support their efforts – It’s what good people do in trying times.

Bill writes,

Monday is Captain Boycott’s Birthday. Celebrate with
Free Shipping with just $20 in spending instead of $30
$1 Pie Spice & Garlic—$2 Sandwich & Italian Herb—
What if we no longer turned a blind eye to those corporations that lobby and buy politicians to bulldoze the public good for their own gain? In Florida and across the nation, young people are leading the way. What if we said enough is enough and followed their lead?

Captain Boycott’s birthday is this Monday, March 12. History has its lessons and it’s looking more and more like we are on the way to relearning one of them. But it’s a good one. In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and in the incredible bravery of its students since, there is real hope that the corporations that lobby and buy politicians, and the politicians that are willing to be purchased, will no longer be able to escape the consequences of their actions.

Older generations have, for some reason, been more comfortable looking the other way as the same industries time and again have used unlimited political spending and lobbying to make windfall profits off the destruction of the public good. These kids are having none of this. What they’ve already achieved is huge, but if history is any indicator, it’s in where all this is going next that the real hope for lasting change lives.

The lesson of Captain Boycott’s day, and why his name is a word we all know, is that the advantages of wealth and privilege are not limitless. In the times where those who already have so much use their advantages not to help those less privileged, but to take ever more for themselves, inevitably a tipping point gets reached. At some point the people come together and say enough is enough. In the actions of the students challenging the NRA, and the nation’s support of the students, there are all the signs that we are once again arriving at this tipping point.

Now is the time to support this new generation and join with them in taking on those corporations that are anything but good citizens, and the politicians who willingly accept their payments. Please let them know you admire their strength to walk out this coming Wednesday the 14th at 10:00am for 17 minutes in remembrance of those lives taken one month before. And if possible, march with them March 24 in Washington and in cities across the country. Now’s the time to turn the tide. Help them seize the opportunity.

What comes next may well be what future historians will call “exciting times.” The Marjory Stoneman Douglas students have already exposed just how precarious the NRA’s power is, and just how vulnerable the politicians are who’ve accepted the NRA’s money. But this might just be the tip of the iceberg. In the wake of the Citizens United ruling that made unlimited corporate spending in politics legal, we’ve given a free pass to the corporations doing that spending. What if this is the end of that free pass?

What if this is a wake-up call to all those planning this very type of spending in the upcoming midterm elections that, just like the NRA, you too will no longer be allowed to escape the responsibility for your actions? Just like in Captain Boycott’s time, those who have mistaken wealth and connections for power could well be in for a shock at just how fast what they had perceived as power evaporates, and the wealth with it too, when the people decide enough is enough and that the corruption has to go.

So we are celebrating and drawing attention to the Captain’s birthday with Free Shipping with just $20 in spending rather than the usual $30, and really good prices on four great Spices. Of course we too have been facing our own boycott for nearly a year and a half now. It’s had its impact, but it’s going the wrong direction, and that makes it a lot less effective than the original boycott, and the ones that I suspect all the corporations funding the Republican Party will soon be facing.

At the heart of it, we are being boycotted for calling out those promoting inequality. The good thing is that, in America, being for equality still brings in more people than it sends away. Of course it is only through your word of mouth that new people are replacing those who have at least temporarily left. We are greatly appreciative of that. With this in mind, each of the four Spices we are featuring at just a buck or two are great to pick up for yourself, but each also makes a great introduction to Penzeys for anyone you think would appreciate what we do. So please, pick up a few extras to share.

Our Granulated Garlic is a joy. No bitterness, just light, bright Garlic pleasure. Good stuff. And at just $1, rather than the usual $3.45, now’s the time to pick up a few extra for the Garlic lovers in your life. There’s rumors too that Garlic drives away NRA spokespeople, but I wouldn’t know anything about that. To see our Garlic click this link: https://www.penzeys.com/online-catalog/granulated-garlic-powder/c-24/p-1000/pd-s

Italian Herb earned its place among history’s great Spice blends a long time ago. And with just how good our Oregano, Basil, Marjoram, Rosemary and Thyme are, they make this blend a gift for the ages. Salads, pasta, chicken, fish, steak, burgers and pizza so easily take on the flavor of greatness with just a couple of shakes. So Simple. So Tasty. And just $2. For Italian Herb click this link: https://www.penzeys.com/online-catalog/italian-herb-mix/c-24/p-183/pd-s

Sandwich Sprinkle is making lunch memorable across this great country. As Americans, we really do love sandwiches, and Sandwich Sprinkle makes every sandwich even more lovable. And Versatile. There are those who call it Salad Sprinkle and it makes for tasty Garlic bread/croutons, too. Don’t miss this chance to give it a try for only 2 bucks. To learn more about Sandwich Sprinkle click this link: https://www.penzeys.com/online-catalog/sandwich-sprinkle/c-24/p-594/pd-s

And please don’t forget Pi day, March 14 (3.14), is a day to celebrate math, science, and all those who spend their lives working to bring us the honest information we need to understand the real world around us. And a good time for Pie, too. Pie Spice is a Cinnamon-rich blend great for Pie, but equally at home in cookies, cakes, French toast, hot or cold cereal, and even sprinkled over a cup of coffee. And at just $1 per jar, rather than the usual $3.95, it is a great introduction to everything we are about. Please pass out a few.

To see our Pie Spice just click this link: https://www.penzeys.com/online-catalog/pie-spice/c-24/p-3079/pd-s

No coupons or codes are needed for any of these great prices either in our stores or online at penzeys.com. Just remember that the free shipping with just $20 in spending expires at midnight Pacific time on Monday March 12, so as they say, “act now.”

Thanks for your support,

Bill Penzey

bill@penzeys.com

And as always, please like our page and, even more importantly, share this post with those you think would appreciate it. We don’t have free shipping with just $20 spending that often, and it really does help for those placing a first order to give us a try. — Thanks again.

And I just have to say the art of these new up-and-coming post-millennial Penzeys brings me happiness. Love that is not passive at all but with horns and a mischievous grin. And those eyebrows! This is the Love with the strength to change the world.

Gloria’s glorious Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde.

This week, it’s time for another special guest chef. One of the things I love about social media, when done right, is the meaningful and lasting relationships that can be formed. For me personally, some of my dearest and closest friends, members of my real family, were first met online. Now, we vacation with them every year, and I can’t imagine not having that in our lives. What we get from stuff like this blog, or food groups on FB, or any other decent source, can and should be genuine connections that grow and prosper, even when we live worlds apart. Here, as elsewhere, the six degrees of separation principle is very much in play – I became FB friends with Gloria Goodwin Raheja through our Soul Sister, Christy Hohman – They met at a house concert in Crosslake, Minnesota, which is just a bit southeast of where we conduct the annual Stringfest Gathering that y’all have seen posted here for many years now – Andy Cohen was playing, and we met him last year – at Stringfest. For the final degree, here’s Gloria’s glorious Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde.

Gloria is a Professor of Anthropology at the U of M, Twin Cities, from which she conducted many years of fieldwork and wrote extensively about rural northern India. For roughly the last decade, her research has been focused in Appalachia. Her front burner project is Logan County Blues: Frank Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of the Appalachian Coalfields, a book about music and the coming of industrial capitalism to the mountains.

Harry, the de facto head of Gloria’s household.
Harry, the de facto head of Gloria’s household.

Our online interaction is in keeping with many who haunt FB, namely what we’re cooking and what our pets are up to, (Her dog Harry, like our Bandito, is quite sure he is the de facto Head of Household, and strives mightily to train his humans on proper etiquette.) Like so many brilliant and driven people, Gloria loves to cook, and does so very well, indeed. She dabbles in Indian, Moroccan, Mexican, and Appalachian foods for people who like to eat, and she frequents the St. Paul Farmers Market, and other shops that offer local and ethically produced meats.

She has, of late, become a devotee of the incredibly popular kitchen tool, the instant cooker, (or multi-cooker). If you’re not familiar with this tool, then, well… I don’t know what to say – They’re ubiquitous in online cooking groups and sites. They are, fundamentally, programmable electronic pressure cookers. Instant Pot is a brand name, and hands down the most popular one out there. These things will pressure or slow cook, cook rice, sauté, steam, or warm, and advanced version add yoghurt making, cake baking, egg cooking, sous vide, and sterilizing to the menu.

While many a kitchen gadget gets bought or gifted and soon forgotten, these things seem to have serious legs. In a very authentic Vietnamese cooking forum I belong to, almost every home chef has and regularly uses an instant cooker. For dishes like Pho that normally take 24 to 48 hours to cook, an instant cooker can do the job in an hour or two – And believe me, if the folks on that site find the results not only acceptable, but preferable in many instances, there’s something to these cookers.

Regarding her Instant Pot, Gloria noted, “Well, we totally love ours, really. It’s so great for things like chili verde, ragus, and of course beans. Tonight we’re making black chickpeas with kale, Moroccan style. Chunks of lamb and pork turn out, well, divinely – I dislike having a lot of kitchen toys piling up, plus my counter space is quite limited, but I cleared a permanent space for it, after using it just once!” That’s a pretty solid endorsement, in my book.

Now, before we dive into that Chile Verde, let’s talk about beans, because this is another place where Gloria and I are much of a mind. When M and I lived down in Tejas, I became acquainted with Rancho Gordo, Steve Sando’s Napa, California based magnum opus of heirloom goodness, and specifically, with their heirloom beans – If you don’t know about them, y’all should. Steve took frustration with a lack of great local produce (while living in Napa, fer cryin’ out loud) from a gardening whim to a full blown conservation operation, and Rancho Gordo is the result. What Home roasting brought to coffee beans, Steve brought to heirloom beans. He writes, ‘All of my agricultural pursuits have been based on being someone who likes to cook but gets frustrated by the lack of ingredients, especially those that are native to the New World.’ What I learned living and cooking down south was a primal love for all things culinarily Mesoamerican, and frankly, no foodstuff speaks to that more clearly than beans do. Like tomatoes, beans were devastated by the green revolution, and it’s only through the tireless work of folks like Steve that we’re blessed with what was and what shall be, if we’re even halfway smart.

Rancho Gordo’s heirloom Eye of the Goat beans
Rancho Gordo’s heirloom Eye of the Goat beans

And now, on to Gloria’s Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde. What I love about this, and I mean dearly love, is what she has to say about the genesis of this recipe, because folks? If you’ve been here at all, you know my mantra – Here’s a recipe, try it, and then do what you like to it and make it yours – That’s exactly what she did.

She writes, ‘I got the idea for this dish from Coco Morante’s “The Essential Instant Pot Cookbook,” but I modified it quite a bit. For one thing, I made my own roasted tomatillo and poblano and serrano chile salsa instead of used store-bought salsa, and for another thing I used heirloom Ojo de Cabra beans instead of canned pinto beans.’

Gloria’s glorious Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde.
Gloria’s glorious Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde.

For the tomatillo salsa.

1 1/2 Pounds Tomatillos
5 cloves Garlic cloves
2 Poblano chiles
2 Serrano chiles
1 bunch Cilantro

Remove papery husks from tomatillos, rinse well, and cut in half.

Rinse chiles and cilantro. Stem serranos and rough chop. Rough chop cilantro

On a foil lined baking sheet, arrange tomatillos cut side down, along with the unpeeled garlic cloves.

Position an oven rack 5” to 6” under your broiler. Broil for 5-7 minutes, turning evenly, until tomatillos are lightly blackened.

Remove from oven, set aside to cool.

Arrange poblanos on a foil-lined pan, place them under a broiler until blackened all around.

Transfer poblanos to a a paper bag with the top folded closed. This allows the cooling chiles to steep in their own steam as they cool, which adds a bit to their flavor, and helps loosen the skins – You can also do this in a baking dish or casserole with a tight fitting lid.

When the poblano are cool enough to handle, remove the skin, stem, and deseed.

Skin the roasted garlic.

Add all ingredients to a food processor or blender, and pulse until all ingredients are finely chopped and evenly mixed.

Transfer to a mixing bowl or glass jar.

For the beans.

1 Lb Eye of the Goat Beans (Yes, use what you’ve got, but honestly – Try these!)
8 Cups Water
3 cloves Garlic, trimmed and peeled
2 Bay Leaves
2 tsps Sea Salt

Gloria cooked her unsoaked beans in an Instant Pot, with all ingredients shown, for about thirty minutes, and used three cups of the cooked beans for this recipe.

If you don’t have an instant pot, the oven method works great and is pretty speedy to boot.

Set a rack in a middle position and preheat oven to 325° F.

Rinse beans in a single mesh strainer or colander, checking for debris.

Add beans, garlic, bay, and salt to a 4 quart (or larger) dutch oven, braiser, or baking dish with a tight fitting lid.

Add enough fresh water to cover the beans by 1”.

Cover and bake for 60 – 75 minutes. When beans are slightly firmer than you want them, they’re ready to go to the next step.

For the Chile Verde.

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Pound ground Turkey
3 Cups cooked Beans
1 3/4 Cups Salsa Verde
1 Cup Chicken Broth
1 medium Onion
1 bunch fresh Cilantro
2 Poblano or Anaheim chiles
2 Serrano chiles
3 cloves Garlic
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon dried Oregano
1 teaspoon ground Cumin
½ to ¼ teaspoon Cayenne Chile flake

Peel, trim, and dice onion, garlic, and chiles. Rinse and chop 1/4 Cup cilantro.

For an Instant Pot-
Select the Sauté setting on the Instant Pot and heat the oil.

Add the turkey and sauté, breaking it up with a wooden spoon or spatula as it cooks, for about 5 minutes, until cooked through and no traces of pink remain.

Add the onion, chiles, garlic, salt, oregano, cumin, and cayenne and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 5 minutes, until the onion has softened and is translucent.

Stir in the beans, salsa verde, and broth.

Secure the lid and set the Pressure Release to Sealing.

Press the Cancel button to reset the cooking program, then select the Bean/Chili setting and set the cooking time for 20 minutes at high pressure.

Let the pressure release naturally for at least 10 minutes, then move the Pressure Release to Venting to release any remaining steam.

Open the pot and stir in the chopped cilantro.

For stove top cooking –
Add oil to a stock pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat.

Add turkey and sauté until lightly browned and no pink remains, about 4-6 minutes.

Transfer meat to a mixing bowl. Add onion and chiles and sauté for 3-5 minutes, until onion begins to turn translucent. Season lightly with sea salt.

Add garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates.

Add chicken stock and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen all the good stuff.

Add beans, salsa verde, meat, salt, oregano, cumin, and cayenne and stir well to incorporate.

Reduce heat to medium low and cook, covered, for at least 1 hour, and more is fine.

Add cilantro, stir to incorporate, and serve.

And of course, Big Thanks to Gloria for this delightful dish!

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.