Rancho Gordo – Making beans sexy again

Let’s just address the elephant in the room, right off the bat – Beans are not exactly what one would call sexy food, right? Well, were we talking about the decidedly pedestrian offerings we’re all too used to seeing out there, I’d agree. Yet, when you consider what a little outfit based in California has been quietly doing for beans lately, the answer is a resounding, wrong – Because Rancho Gordo is making beans sexy again.

Some of the Rancho Gordo goods
Some of the Rancho Gordo goods

Back about a decade or so, I discovered Rancho Gordo and some truly amazing beans. No, seriously – Truly amazing beans. We’re talking the kind of beans that you try a couple of after they’re just done cooking, and then you raise an eyebrow, and then you try more, all the while thinking, ‘damn! Those are outstanding!’ – Beans that good. Then I kinda forgot about them, for who knows what reason, until just recently, when we were reunited. In the meantime, Steve Sando and the Rancho crew had gone from harvesting a few thousand pounds a year to hundreds of thousands of pounds, and many, many more varieties. What John Bunker has done for apples in Maine, Sando is doing for beans. NOTE: When I asked Steve what their current production was, he wrote, “A lot! We’re in the middle of planning and we’re not sure where we’ll land.”

Sando wasn’t an agricultural expert, by any sense of the words, when he started this endeavor. He’d been, in fact, a web designer, DJ, and clothing wholesaler who happened to like to cook. He also lived in Napa, one of the lushest areas for food and wine one could wish for. Yet when he headed out one day in search of good tomatoes, he found… Crap. Nada – Nasty, hard, hothouse tomatoes from Holland were the best thing in sight. Since he was already an accomplished Jack of All Trades, he decided to take a swing at growing heirloom tomatoes and other veggies he’d like to cook with. Eventually, that lead to beans, and therein was made a match in culinary Heaven. Sando and crew have, in fifteen years or so, gone from humble origins to major stardom in the foodie world, with luminaries like Thomas Keller using Rancho Gordo beans in his restaurants, and an heirloom variety named after Marcella Hazan.

If you haven’t read the recent New Yorker piece on Sando and Rancho, do. It’s a wonderful vignette of the work they do, searching out new-to-us but old bean varieties, and bringing them to the rest of us. As Rancho Gordo grows, so does the search – That has spread throughout the Americas, from modest beginnings in California, through Mexico, and in to South America, (with inroads to Europe, including that Marcella bean, which naturally has Italian roots.) Their Rancho Gordo Xoxoc Project teams them up with a very fine Mexican outfit, to bring stunningly good heirloom Mexican beans to the markets up here in Gringolandia.

these are not your average commodity beans
these are not your average commodity beans

Oh, those beans! Seriously! We’re not talking flaccid plastic bags full of dullness – we’re talking rock stars, peacocks, a veritable rainbow of delights for the eye and stomach. Go to the Heirloom Bean Page on Rancho Gordo’s website and you’ll see, currently, thirty varieties that shine and sparkle. There’s no dullness here – There are glowing tones of red, black, white, cream, and purple – Shining solids, stripes, and blends. Let me assure you that these gems look every bit as good in person, even after they’re cooked. 

And cook them you must, my friends. Yes, although I sound like a broken record, they are better than ‘that good.’ That’s important for a couple of reasons. First off, meatless meals are a thing we need to do more often. The world grows smaller as we continue to overpopulate it. Meat takes a hell of a lot of energy to produce, rather ridiculous amounts, truth be told. When we consider how and what and who produces food these days, things get grimmer yet. Up through most American history, well over 50% of the people lived in rural areas and were involved, in some degree, with farming and producing food. That figure is now around 1%, and ya can’t get a hell of a lot lower than that. Secondly, as agricultural area diminishes, or is generally overrun by huge corporate farming, diversity suffers foremost – That’s the reason why a visit to your local grocery finds those boring bags of industrial beans. Just as apples have rebounded, (leading to far greater availability of what were niche varieties), beans need to make that leap too, right into our gardens.

Beans are members of the legume family, which includes other such notables as peas, clover, and the lovely lupines that Monica planted out in front of our new digs this spring. Legumes have a great trick, a symbiosis with rhizobia, a common bacteria that are capable of fixing nitrogen, so long as they have a suitable host – Legumes provide that, so rhizobia settle into the plant’s root nodes and good things result. Instead of depleting soil, they enrich it. Fact is, planting beans or field peas at the end of your garden’s annual sojourn, (AKA, late fall), will not only help stabilize soils during the wet months, it’ll provide your next round of crops with a decent nitrogen fix, if you cut them down before they flower in the spring. 

And for the record, Rancho Gordo not only approves of, but encourages home cultivation – Right there at the top of the Heirloom Bean Page, it reads, ‘Heirloom Beans are open-pollinated seeds that can be planted and you’ll get the exact same bean. They tend to have a lower yield and can be much more difficult to grow but the pay off is in the unique flavors and textures that you don’t find with bland commodity beans.’ Hey, everybody needs to start somewhere, yeah? Why not start with the best? RG doesn’t stop there, by the way – Sando wrote, The Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide, which’ll provide all the knowledge you need – Just add horsepower.

Then there are the nutritional considerations. Beans provide ample calories in a high protein, low fat package, with a low glycemic index, that includes complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and a generous sprinkling of vitamins and minerals. The USDA recommends we eat 3 cups of legumes a week as part of a healthy diet, and beans ought to be your star player in that endeavor. Now granted, all of that ain’t worth a Hill of beans if you don’t like the taste of ‘em. If what you’ve been exposed to is the seemingly endless world of canned and highly processed, or dried, low quality crap, who can blame you? Trust me when I say that Rancho Gordo is here to save the day.

As I mentioned, these beans are so far above the norm, they’re downright stratospheric. Go online, and look up threads of folks discussing cooking and eating these little beasties – you’ll read, repeatedly, something to the effect of ‘I was snacking on them so much, I was worried I wouldn’t have enough left for the dish I’d intended to make.’ They’re not joking. The first time I cooked some since my reintroduction, I experienced exactly that. Those were Vaqueros, by the way, gorgeous little black and white beauties that make amazing chili, (and are perfect for the Pacific Northwest – Their nickname is Orca Beans). Damn near anything and everything you want to eat with them or cook them into will be amazing, and just like that, your bean aversion is alleviated.

the Rancho Gordo label, delightfully campy and instantly recognizable
the Rancho Gordo label, delightfully campy and instantly recognizable

And the labels, well, those are just a fun, campy kick in the ass, far as I’m concerned. Sando was a web designer, you’ll recall, and he certainly does have an eye for catchy. They’re instantly recognizable, and downright appealing, and yeah, that kinda stuff does matter. Remember those dull, boring bags at the store? Well, screw that – These are as fun to look as they are to eat.

Alright, so whataya make with these things, anyway? Well, as I alluded to above, the sky’s the limit. From just beans, to salads, dips, and spreads. Soups, stews, and chili, to cassoulet, pasta y fagioli, and chakalaka, everything you make, from super simple to legendary, will be outstanding. For my mind, the simpler you start with, the better. Let the beans speak to before you layer them into other stuff. I’m not kidding. Eating these with an extraordinarily light seasoning hand will show you exactly what I’m gushing about. Sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, a drizzle of very good olive oil, maybe a chiffenade of a single, fresh basil leaf – nothing more – Yes, they have that much flavor and character. Do that, and on the second round, you’ll know exactly what each one will shone at when you really turn it loose. Your second wave might be a lovely bean and wild rice salad for something cold, or red beans and rice for a hot dish. After that, dive into the longer, slower stuff.

Now, when you want to genuinely layer up, and make something that will show what Rancho Gordo beans can really do, I’ll offer this recipe up, the very first elaborate one I made after RGB’s and I got reacquainted. I did it in an Instant Pot, (AKA, the IP, a truly spectacular electric, programmable pressure cooker, if you’re not familiar with them.)  I’ll recommend using one, because the primary benefit of an Instant Pot can be summed up as follows – The entire process can be done in that appliance, and the total cooking time is only 18 minutes, and that includes pre-cooking the beans, yet the finished dish will taste like you slaved away all day – Capiche? If you don’t have an IP, you can soak, parboil, or bake the beans first, (Type ‘Beans’ into the search box here and you’ll get a bunch of options in that regard), then you can slow cook them as you see fit.

Frijoles Vaqueros in the IP
Frijoles Vaqueros in the IP

Frijoles Vaqueros

1 Pound Rancho Gordo Vaquero Beans

1/4 Pound Pork (whatever version you’ve got on hand)

1 Cup Chicken Stock

1/2 Cup Sweet Pepper, chopped

1/2 Cup Onion, chopped

1/4 Cup fresh Cilantro, chopped

1 to 3 fresh Serrano Chiles, cut into roughly 1/4” thick rings

1-2 cloves fresh Garlic, minced 

1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Garnish: Crema or sour cream, hot sauce, more cilantro, fresh lime, Pico de Gallo, and so on, si?

Veggie mise for the frijoles vaqueros
Veggie mise for the frijoles vaqueros

Add dry beans and 8 cups of water to the Instant Pot.

Set the IP to 8 minutes on Pressure and let ‘er rip.

I used precooked pork – Use whatever you’ve got, from ground, to whole, to bacon. 

If your pork is uncooked, give it a quick sauté to just brown it and get rid of most of the pink. When that’s done, transfer it to a small bowl and let it hang out while you continue. NOTE: If you’ve got a fatty cut of pork, trim the lion’s share and reserve it – You’ll use it shortly.

After the pressure cycle is completed, allow the pot to stay on Keep Warm mode for 10 minutes, then carefully release the remaining pressure on the IP. Use a towel or hot pads to grab the cooking vessel, then drain the beans through a colander – It’s always a good idea to save the pot liquor, it’ll be great for soups and stews down the line, and it freezes well.

Return the cooking vessel to the IP and set it to sauté.

When the IP is heated, add the reserved pork fat, (a tablespoon of avocado oil will do if you don’t have fat).

sautéing the veggies and pork fat
sautéing the veggies and pork fat

Allow the fat to melt (or the oil to heat through), then add the onion, sweet pepper, garlic, and chiles, and sauté, stirring lightly, until the onions start to turn translucent. 

Add the chicken stock, pork, beans, cilantro, and seasoning to the IP and lock the cover back down.

Set the IP for 10 minutes at Pressure and let it go.

When the pressure cycle is complete, press Cancel, and let the IP’s pressure bleed off through ‘Natural Release’ – It’ll be about 20-25 minutes before you can unlock the cover.

Give beans a quick stir, taste, and adjust seasoning as desired.

Serve with whatever accoutrements you desire, albeit you’ll not really need anything else…

NOTE: Because I always get asked, I always point out the following – No, I do not get any sort of endorsement deal/perks/freebies from anyone or anything I review or recommend. I bought my Instant Pot same as you, as I do my Rancho Gordo beans and other goodies, (and oh boy, do they have other goodies – Go to the site and poke around, for cryin’ out loud!)  I recommend what I love, because I want to share it with y’all – It’s that simple. 

The volume of my Rancho Gordo stash, (and no, that’s not all of it, gang…) should illustrate the fact that I love their stuff. If, when you get there, six bucks seems expensive for a pound of beans, believe me when I tell you, it’s not. You’ll get a couple of great meals from that bag, without having to add a lot of other expense – That’s not pricy, that’s well worth your money, and you’re helping maintain little growers all over the place, as well as genetic diversity – Both very good things. 

I’ll also mention that I belong to the Rancho Gordo Bean Club, in which you get a big ol’ shipment 4 times a year for $40 a pop, which includes six bags of beans, plus another goody, (like red popcorn, hominy, or cacao, to name but a few, as well as free shipping for something else in that quarter, and a newsletter with great recipes. The club was closed at 1,000 members for quite a while, and then was recently expanded and reopened. If you really dig Beans, you’re a fool not to join. There’s also a FB group for the club, and there are truly spectacular recipes and dishes floating across that on a daily basis, including the incredible pizza bean dish.

Seriously, go check it out, and tell ‘em I sent y’all.

Hey, Sandbakkels! You’ve got A Way With Words!

Well, I’ve already heard from some folks this morning that our little blog just became a bit more popular, and for that, I’ve got A Way With Words to thank, so let me flesh out that explanation a bit. If you’re not familiar with this wonderful show/podcast, I encourage you to become so. It’s the NPR ‘show about language and the way we use it,’ hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and it’s a genuine treat for word nerds like me. Folks call in with questions about words, word origins, slang terms, etymology, regional dialects, and much, much more – It’s delightful and fascinating stuff. So, to all y’all who have journeyed here for the first time after hearing this week’s episode, welcome! If this post wasn’t waiting for you when you got here, my apologies – This is a journey that began way back in late March, so it’s required a bit of juggling to get things coordinated. but hey, you’re here now, and for that we offer Big Thanks and a hearty welcome – Please do subscribe and enjoy!

Anyway, here’s how it all started. While researching the subject of today’s post, a Norwegian cookie called the Sanbakkel, Monica came across the ingredient, Caster Sugar. Now, I knew what that was from many recipes over time, but it was new to M. For the record, Caster (and sometimes caster) sugar is the British term for what we call baker’s sugar on this side of the Big Pond – It’s granulated sugar that’s notably finer than table sugar. It blends, dissolves, and integrates far better than regular old sugar, and as such, bakers and chefs dig it. 

What I didn’t know is why it’s called caster sugar – A bit of research really didn’t give a lot of info, albeit it did reveal that the stuff used to be held in a sugar caster, (basically, a fancy shaker placed at table in the old days, where folks could cast it onto whatever the liked). The caster versus castor variant also piqued my interest, and there was virtually nothing I could find to explain that, so naturally, I called A Way With Words, and as fate would have it, I ended up on the show that was broadcast today. Rather than go too far into that rabbit hole, I’ll simply say, listen to the episode, and you’ll not only get a great fleshing out of the term caster, but you’ll hear yours truly as well –  A win-win if ever there was one.

So I ended up on the show, and had an absolute gas. For the record, while I noted that we live on Lummi Bay, in the northwest corner of Washington State, I recorded my part on a bus headed from downtown New Orleans to the airport. Along the way, Martha and Grant were kind enough to ask the name of the blog, and, well – Here we are! Now, as I write, a batch of fresh sandbakkel are wending their way southward to the gang at A Way With Words with our fondest thanks – Therefore, on to those cookies, yeah?

Sandbakkels with fresh fruit and crème fraiche
Sandbakkels with fresh fruit and crème fraiche

Monica has a healthy dose of Norwegian heritage from her maternal side, so a cookie that reflected that is what we were looking for when we landed on Sandbakkels. These lovely, light little sugar cookies are also sometimes called sandbakelse, or sandkaker – The sand theme running though this speaks to the shortbread-like consistency of the finished product – Sand tarts, if you will. They’re a simple sugar cookie that yields best results when the ingredients are as fresh as you can get.

Sandbakkels are traditionally a Christmas season treat, but for my mind, they’re good, if not better, in the spring and summer time – More on that thought in a bit. In their purest form, Sandbakkel contain flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. Common additions include almonds or almond extract, vanilla bean or extract, and cardamom. For the latter while virtually no recipes I found specified what variant of cardamom gets used, I’d bet on it being green, freshly ground, as it’s the sweetest version, (versus black or Madagascar). 

The coolest aspect of Sandbakkels, for my mind, is the use of small fluted or patterned molds used to bake the cookies – This leaves you with a wafer thin, delicate little treat that is wonderful all by its lonely, and for my mind, spectacular with fresh fruit, nuts, etc, (even if some Norwegians consider such additions blasphemous).

The first published recipes for Sandbakkel show up in mid 19th century Norwegian cookbooks, which indicates pretty strongly that they’d been around for a while prior – A point that A Way With Words often makes about stuff showing up in print. When Norwegians packed up to emigrate, they brought their Sandbakkel molds with them, and a delicious old country traditional was maintained. Such was the case for Monica’s Gramma, Palma Hoover (née Solvang), who came to the western side of Washington State and homesteaded in the Carnation Valley, back in 1907 – Palma was just six month old at the time, one of eleven siblings. There is some discussion about where and how Sandbakkels took hold back in Norway, but nothing definitive – They are, in all likelihood, a simple treat that spread because they’re pretty, fun to make, and delicious – All the reason any of us need to dig in, right?

Sandbakkels are quite simple, and as such, quality and freshness of ingredients is paramount. What I’m getting at is this – If I’m doing these for an event, then I’ll likely make butter from very fresh, local cream, and grind flour from fresh wheat – Now, you might call that extreme, and it may indeed be somewhat, but if you’re looking to produce your best, that’s kinda the level we go to. That said, making sure that the flour and butter you use is as fresh and good quality as you can get your paws on will do the trick.

So, find the freshest butter you can for starters. Then there’s the flour question. Most stores these days will offer bread and all purpose flours, and many will also have cake or pastry flours hiding somewhere. Keep in mind that as you descend through that list, what changes is the protein level they contain – Bread relies on good gluten development to be successful, and so the protein level in that flour is relatively high, as much as 14%. Down at the other end of the spectrum, pastry flour will have protein levels as low as 8% – What that means to us from a practical standpoint is this – If you want gluten development and chewy stuff like bread, you use bread flour, and if you want something delicate and flaky like a Sandbakkel, you’ll use pastry flour. Now, that said, if what you’ve got in your pantry is All Purpose Flour, don’t fret- AP usually weighs in around 9% to 11% protein, which means it’ll do just fine, if that’s what you’ve got – After all, we’re here to have fun and chow down, si? NOTE: check out our Flour Power post for more than you probably want to know about such stuff.

Now for the catch – Yeah, it’s those little Sandbakkel molds. If you’re doing these right, you need them. Fortunately, they’re cheap and widely available online, so grab a set – They pay back the minimal expense with lovely finished product, so it’s a worthwhile thing. When you get your molds, they’ll need to be seasoned once prior to use. 

Seasoning Sandbakkel Molds.

Wash your molds with soap and water, rinse thoroughly and allow to dry.

Preheat your oven to 350° F.

Lightly grease your molds with leaf lard, then arrange in a baking sheet.

Bake at 350°F for 30 minutes, then remove and allow to cool to room temperature. Wipe excess lard off the molds, and you’re good to go – The molds will provide a long life of easy releases thereafter.

So, on to the goods. This recipe will make about 4 dozen cookies. You can, if any survive, freeze them if you wish. Although they won’t be quite as yummy, of course.

Sandbakkels

4 Cups Pastry Flour (AP is just fine too)

1 1/2 Cups Unsalted Butter (If you use salted butter, just omit the additional salt listed below)

1 Cup Bakers Sugar

1 large Egg

1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt

Allow all ingredients to come to room temperature before proceeding.

In a non-reactive mixing bowl, add the butter and hand whisk for 2 minutes – You’re preparing the butter to accept sugar and go through the creaming process, so take the full time allotted, (And you certainly can use a hand mixer to do this work if you wish.)

Add sugar and salt to the butter and whisk to combine thoroughly, about 2 minutes. This is ‘creaming,’ wherein you’re introducing a bit of air to the dough, and helping the sugar to disperse thoroughly and evenly.

Add the egg and whisk to incorporate thoroughly – About 1 minute.

Add flour a cup at a time, whisking as long as you can, then switching to a kitchen spoon to finish the job. The dough should not stick to the bowl or your fingers when you’re done mixing, so adjust flour a pinch or two at a time, if needed.

Cover the bowl and refrigerate the dough or 1 hour. 

Preheat oven to 340° F, and set a rack in the middle position.

Even though your molds have been seasoned, it’s never a bad idea to grease them a bit more. Let a very little bit of butter melt onto your fingers, and wipe a light layer around each mold.

Rolling 2 teaspoon balls of Sandbakkel dough can help with portioning
Rolling 2 teaspoon balls of Sandbakkel dough can help with portioning

Pull off about 2 teaspoons of dough, (and if you have issues with portioning, feel free to roll out little 2 teaspoon balls before filling the molds), and press the dough evenly into the molds – Watch your thickness, as you want things nice and even – Avoid thick bottoms and thin sides, and don’t let any dough extend beyond the rim of the mold. And by the way, this is a gas for kids – Our Granddaughters dig it big time, and I’ll bet you’re will too.

Fill Sandbakkel molds evenly as possible
Fill Sandbakkel molds evenly as possible

Place molds evenly spaced on a baking sheet – Ideally, you want an inch or so of free space around each mold, so you will likely need to do multiple sheets or batches, (unless of course you’ve got a way sexier oven set up than I do, and if so, I salute you!)

Bake cookies at 340° F for about 10 minutes, then have a quick look – The upper edges of the cookies should be firm and light golden brown.

Sandbakkels, fresh from baking
Sandbakkels, fresh from baking

Remove sheets from oven and, using a hot glove or mitt, gently turn each mold upside down and place it on a cooling rack.

Allow cookies to cool for 5 minutes, then carefully pick up a mold, still upside down, and place it just barely above the cooling rack – tap lightly on the bottom of the mold and the cookie will drop onto the rack.

Allow unmolded cookies to cool to room temperature. And yes, at this very point, the cookies will be warm and vulnerable – It’s entirely likely that several will lose their fragile lives right there and then – So be it…

Now, for a last bit of pure joy, consider this – As mentioned, I have Norwegian friends who absolutely consider anything, (and I mean anything), added to a fresh Sandbakkel as an act of sheer blasphemy. For the record, I am not Norwegian, (Scots, Welsh, and Dutch), and Monica has German and Cherokee blood as well – So, yes Virginia, we add stuff to ours, and we think you should too. This is why, point of fact, I think that these little gems were meant to be enjoyed when fresh, local fruit is abundant – A Sandbakkel filled with such stuff is an unbelievably delicious treat.

Sandbakkel blaspheme? I don’t think so...
Sandbakkel blaspheme? I don’t think so…

This also means that you might want to whip up a bit of crème fraiche, or perhaps whipped or pastry cream, as a bed for that lovely fruit to sit on. If the cream seems a bit heavy to you, then a lovely, light fruit glaze might be a nice option.

a simple fruit glaze is a nice touch
a simple fruit glaze is a nice touch

Fresh Fruit Glaze

3/4 Cup fresh Fruit Juice, (literally, whatever you like – Orange, grapefruit, apple, grape, etc)

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar, (honey is fine too, or bakers sugar, for that matter)

2 Tablespoons crushed Fruit, (whatever you’re filling the Sandbakkels with)

1 Tablespoon Arrowroot, (Cornstarch will do just fine, too)

2 teaspoons Citrus Rind, (lemon, lime, orange, as you see fit)

In a small, unheated sauce pan, combine fruit juice and arrowroot until thoroughly mixed.

Put the pan on the stove over medium heat, and add the agave and crushed fruit, whisk to incorporate.

Heat through, stirring steadily. Reduce heat to low and continue whisking until the sauce thickens notably, (it should evenly coat a spoon when quickly dipped in the glaze.)

Allow the glaze to cool to room temp, then drizzle or brush onto the fruit after arranged.

Chow down with relative abandon.

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!

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.

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

Brie du Monde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brie en Croute

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

If you’re adding goodies:
1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add goodies to the top of the Brie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brie en croute
Brie en croute

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

Aromatic Bases – Humble Beginnings

We’ve just enjoyed our first snow of the season, one good enough to warrant plowing by the county and some cautious driving for a day or two. Nothing nails down the arrival of winter quite like that first storm. Our critters make it known, in no uncertain terms, that this means it’s time for some serious hunkerin’ down, and frankly, when the wind is ripping out of the north from the Fraser river valley at 30 knots with gusts on toward 50, I couldn’t agree more. That means it’s also time for serious, rib sticking comfort food, like soups, stews, casseroles, and such. Doing those dishes up right means we’ve got to pay special attention to the humble beginnings of such dishes – the aromatic bases.

Aromatic bases literally make the food world go round
Aromatic bases literally make the food world go round

So, what’s with the humble moniker, first off? Well, it’s an honest nod to the fact that what we’re going to employ in this role is rarely sexy stuff. The stars of this show are, in fact, the things that all too often languish in our kitchen. This is the stuff many of us buy at the market because it’s pretty and we have big ideas on shopping day, only to find, many days later, they’ve gone by the wayside – Carrots, celery, onion, peppers, garlic, ginger, fennel, leeks, turnips, parsnips, celeriac, and tomato, to name a good few. In that comfort food I mentioned, these lowly contributors will often play second fiddle, and may, in many iterations, be difficult to identify within a dish – Humble beginnings, indeed.

Yet without these hidden gems adding their je ne sais quoi to our winter fare, what we get is a pale reflection of the real thing. They’re called aromatic bases for a reason. In addition to key vegetables, aromatics may include herbs and spices, and occasionally a little protein as well. Gently sautéed or sweated in a little oil or stock, the magic is released – Our dishes gain the satisfying depth and breadth they demand. Literally every cuisine around the world employs some form of aromatic base, from here in the states to the farthest reaches of China. Some are more famous than others, some quite obscure, but no less worthy of exploration. Something as simple as a one veggie change in a standard mix can bring about entirely new flavors, and in many iterations, that’s exactly what has happened. Let’s have a look at a few of these.

Mirepoix - 50% onion, 25% each carrot and celery
Mirepoix – 50% onion, 25% each carrot and celery

The French Mirepoix is arguably the most well known aromatic mix out there – Technically, (and in keeping with classic French cooking’s fussy reputation), mirepoix is two parts onion to one part each celery and carrot, and the portions are weighed to assure an accurate blend – That’s more precision than you need or likely want at home, so eyeballing or volume measuring those proportions is just fine. So, whataya do with mirepoix? More like what can’t you do with it. First and foremost in my mind is making stock and broth – Without it, you’ve got bupkis, with it, you’ve got depth and breadth of flavor like nobody’s business. D’accord, it’s also a base for soups, sauces, and stews, a bed for roasting meats and poultry, a great salad blend, and the list goes on. If you’re a regular here, you know how often you see us use it. ‘Nuff said.

Spanish sofrito looking particularly fetching
Spanish sofrito looking particularly fetching

In Spain, the signature mix pays homage to gifts from the new world that arrived many centuries ago, namely tomatoes and chiles. Initially viewed with some suspicion, the locals eventually recognizing the error of their ways and adopted these gifts as the heart of their go-to aromatic base. Before that, especially up north in Catalonia, the signature mix was onion, leek, carrot and a touch of salt pork. Afterwards, tomato, green chile (Mild, but not sweet – Anaheims or mild Hatch are perfect), onion, and garlic, with a little olive oil and paprika became the thing – Sofrito, which still rules the roost. This kind of blend spread across the Spanish empire, and as a result, everything from the tip of South America through Mexico and the Caribbean employs some variation on the theme. From the Spanish dishes that blend indigenous cuisine with Moorish and new world influence, to Cuban picadillo, it’s everywhere you want to be.

Recaíto - A slice of Puerto Rican Heaven
Recaíto – A slice of Puerto Rican Heaven

My favorite variation on sofrito comes from Puerto Rico, where I was introduced to it as a kid. Recaíto is the name, and it looks absolutely nothing like the Spanish stuff – it’s fueled by Culantro, (eryngium foetidum), or foul thistle. That’s a cilantro cousin, but much more pungent – stronger in all the aspects that cause some folks to not like either herb. Combined with aji dulce, (a small local pepper that looks suspiciously like a scotch bonnet, but is sweet and mild), onions, garlic, and a little cubanelle chile for a touch of heat, you’ve got a green sauce made in heaven. That alone with good rice is absolutely delicious. It’s also great as a marinade for proteins, and as a base for, you guessed it, soups and stews. Recaíto is perfect stuff to stick in an ice cube tray and freeze – Instant inspiration at your finger tips.

Italian Soffritto - Don’t call it mirepoix!
Italian Soffritto – Don’t call it mirepoix!

Around the corner in Italy, the base of bases looks something like France’s, but naturally is different enough to brook argument over who came up with what first, (Don’t get me, or all them folk, started, OK?) It’s fundamentally the same as mirepoix, but with important twists – It’s called Battuto when it’s raw, and soffritto when cooked (I think the extra consonants are there to make sure you truly understand that this ain’t Spain). Onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and garlic, sautéed in olive oil. In keeping with Italian temperament, there are no recognized ratios, and if you ask, you’ll get a blank stare, a loaded shrug, and raised eyebrows – Translation – Do what you like, it’s your food. What to do with the raw blend? Make a big ol’ batch and freeze it in single use sized portions – Then you’ve got your base ready when you’re short on time and long on inspiration. Finely dice a little smoked ham and mash that together with your battuto – Toss that in a pan with olive oil as the start of an epic pasta sauce – Capiche? We can’t leave Italy without a nod to the third variant and coolest variant of their aromatic base concept, Odori. When I was in Italy many moons ago, shopping with my Sis who studied there, a trip to the market for vegetables included the question from the vendor, ‘vuoi qualche odore?’ Literally, do you want some smells? If you nodded, they’d toss a carrot, a stalk of celery, a little parsley and basil in your bag, gratis – That was just a little something to get things going once you got back home – Toss it in a pot with water and make whatever you like – It’s your food. How sweet is that? Grazie, mille grazie.

Portugal has heavenly stuff called Refogado – onion, garlic, chiles and tomato, though there are more than a few cooks there who would refute that, and point to onion, garlic, saffron, and smoked paprika as the true mix, (and truth be told, that’s my fave) – I’d say you’re hard pressed to lose going either way. This mix is amazing with seafood, which is no surprise, or course, but good with much more than just that.

Say Cajun and you want the Holy Trinity
Say Cajun and you want the Holy Trinity

Here in the States, we have one true base we can lay claim to, thanks to the Cajun folk – It’s called the Holy Trinity – onion, celery, and green pepper, and really, nothing else, although some folk do like to whip a little roux right in with that as it cooks, to kind of get a leg up on things, yeah? The usual ratio has a couple of camps – those who do equal measures of each, and those who portion like mirepoix, 50% onion, 25% pepper and celery. Whip that up, and jambalaya, gumbo, and anything else your heart desires is on tap.

How about some of the lesser known versions? Well, there’s suppengrün in Germany, which means soup greens and is perfect for same – It’s carrot, celery root, and leek, (and for the record, celery root is the root of the celery you buy in the store, and while related, it is not the same as celeriac). This stuff goes wonderfully with silky potato soup, or braised beef and cabbage.

There’s a version in Hungary that employs onion, cabbage, and paprika – I think that begs for sausage and potatoes, and I’m willing to bet nobody over there would argue much with that.

Although the cuisine of China is highly regionalized, one could land on scallion, ginger, and garlic for their more or less universal trinity. Heck, that combo with nothing more than good soy sauce is amazing in and of itself – From dipping sauce, to moisture for fried rice, to marinade for pork or chicken, you’re in like Flynn.

In India, garlic, ginger and onion would work. Just set your mind’s eye on that, and all sorts of things come to mind – From chick peas to chicken, that blend will rock.

Jamaica could be well represented by garlic, scallion, and thyme – Add that to lime juice and some hot chiles, and the sky’s the limit.

Most West African cuisines share chile, onion, and tomato as their big trio, and here again, what a great launching pad. Tofu, rice, veggies, chicken, beef – Yes to all of the above.

In Thailand, you’d be on the money with lemon grass, kafir lime, and galangal, for which ginger is a reasonable substitute. Marinate shrimp, chicken, or beef. Rice dishes, soups and stews.

Making your own aromatic base? Yes, you can add seasoning.
Making your own aromatic base? Yes, you can add seasoning.

Now, none of this veggie laden listing is meant to state in any way that This Is The Way It Must Be Done. Even with mirepoix, there’s poetic license. I’ll add two caveats to that – One, cut your veggies to the same size, whatever that is – That’ll assure even cooking, and Two – Season your base lightly with salt and pepper when you cook it – That’ll do much to bring those flavors to their fullest.

What it does mean is that you’ve now got a solid base from a whole bunch of cuisines to springboard from. While there are herbs here and there in the stuff above, know this – Just as every Italian Momma makes the best sauce, period, every one of them does it differently, and so should you. Use what you like, it’s your food. Not sure if something goes with that combo? Build a tiny little sample and try it – If you like it, go wild.

I just posted a bunch of pics of split pea soup the way we do it, which includes lemon zest and juice – A bunch of people asked, “Lemon, with split pea soup?” The answer is yup, we love it – That lemon brings a brightness to what can be a heavy soup, elevates the herbs we use, and helps cut the fat of the ham a bit too – If that sounds good to you, try it. If you don’t like lemon, try lime, orange, grapefruit, whatever floats your boat. And for the record, the aromatic base for that is shallot, garlic, celery, and carrot, and it rocks.

 

Yakitori, Japan’s Answer to the Kebab

If it seems as if you’re seeing a trend in my posts lately, you are. I just finished rereading Mark Kurlansky’s, Salt – A World History, and find myself inspired. It’s a great read, and you should give it a spin. Like John McPhee, Kurlansky has the ability to write volumes on a seemingly mundane topic and come out with a page turner. When I first read it years ago, I wasn’t writing about food as much as I do now, so this go ’round lead to a fascinating bout of exploration. Recent posts on salt potatoes, ketchup, and fish sauce were all inspired therefrom, and this week, I bring you Yakitori, Japan’s answer to the kabab.

Hey, if they serve it at the ballpark, it's gotta be great, right?
Hey, if they serve it at the ballpark, it’s gotta be great, right?

Casual observers are often surprised by how much meat is involved in Japanese cooking. Certainly Japan did have a rather protracted period of fundamental vegetarianism. The broad adoption of Chinese Buddhism in the 7th century sealed the deal – in the late 670s, the Emporer Tenmu proclaimed a prohibition on eating animal flesh, fowl, fish, and shellfish, and Shojin Ryori was born – Japanese vegetarian cuisine as cultural touchstone. Not all of that motivation was spiritual, though – The powers that be realized that eating draft animals seriously impaired the country’s ability to adequately feed its people. Nonetheless, the edict more or less persisted for some 1200 years. Clearly, the increasing presence of westerners on Japanese shores had a bearing on the resurgence of meat eating, a process that began with Portuguese traders in the middle of the 16th century, and continues to this day.

While eating food cooked on a stick undoubtedly goes back to the harnessing of fire, the Japanese have a pretty clear recollection of when yakitori first appeared. It was in the Edo period, around the middle 1600s, and initially it was game birds roasted on sticks – quail, pheasant, pigeons and the like. As European influence increased, chickens became more common, eventually making it on to a stick as well. Beef and pork followed over time. As is oft the case, how good your yakitori was back when depended on your income and social status – While the rich ate the best stuff, the poor folks were grilling offal, and all the other little weird bits the beautiful people didn’t want. In any event, those sweet, smoky flavors, basted in soy, sake, and spices, was and remains hugely popular, and the regional variety is as rich as the country that spawned it.

Season lightly with salt and pepper before grilling
Season lightly with salt and pepper before grilling

Just covering the chicken versions of yakitori can be a bit dizzying – Our preference is for the ever popular chicken thigh version, called momo, along with negima- chicken and spring onion, and kawa – Chicken skin, (seriously, it’s amazing done up with bacon, spring onion, and water chestnuts). There’re many more, from chicken and leeks (hasami), to breast meat (sasami), chicken meatball (tsukune) and chicken wings (tebasaki). Then there’s all those former peasant versions, which are still quite popular – Kawa is skin, bonjiri is tail, shiro is guts, nankotsu is cartilage, hāto is heart, rebā is liver, and sunagimo is gizzards – nummy.

Then there’s that seasoning and/or sauce – Yakitori is typically done salty, or salty-sweet. The salty version is, more often than not, just sprinkled with sea salt and grilled, end of story. The salty-sweet, called tare, is a whole ‘nuther ballgame. In Japan, you can bet that dang near every yakitori stand and joint has their own version, and they’re all top secret. Fortunately, we can suss out the basics – soy sauce, mirin, dry sake, and some form of sweetener are added to freshly made bone stock, and that more than gets the job done. Of course there are variants – Everything from spring onion and garlic, to ginger, hot chiles, pepper, and even wasabi might be found in there. That’s good news for us, because making a very nice basic sauce is easy, and more to the point, poetic license is fully authorized.

Protein or veggies, anything you've got will make fine Yakitori
Protein or veggies, anything you’ve got will make fine Yakitori

The real beauty of yakitori is that it makes a great last minute dinner, or a perfect vehicle for fridge cleaning – You can and should use whatever you like, in whatever combinations please you. Sure, a lot of ‘real’ yakitori is either just one thing, or maybe a couple skewered together, but there’s nothing at all wrong with doing them up like little shish kebab. The bottom line is that the cooking method and saucing has as much or more to do with the overall taste as the things you decide to grill, so go wild. By that same rule, if you’re pressed for time, there’s nothing wrong at all with using straight soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, or bottle yakitori sauce, (and the former is now quite easily found in the Asian food section of your local market.

Yakitori does not require any marinating prior to cooking. You need to merely slice stuff up into bite sized pieces and shove them onto sticks. Couldn’t be easier. One note on cutting stuff – the preferred method is known as sogigiri, AKA cutting on a roughly 30° angle with the food lying flat in a cutting board. Cut toward yourself, starting at the upper left of your intended slice and working down and across. What that does is maximize surface area on relatively small chunks of food, giving more space to add sauce and heats from the grill to.

The Sogigiri cut maximizes surface area
The Sogigiri cut maximizes surface area

Speaking of grilling, while traditional yakitori is done on a brazier or charcoal grill, the desired technique employs no smoke and moderate heat, which means you folks who only have a gas grill, or a broiler in your oven, are gonna be just fine.

When skewering your goodies, do take the time to make sure every piece is snuggled right up tight against the next one – With small, relatively thin cuts of flesh and veggies, dried out food is a real possibility – Keeping them tight helps retain the baste better, and keeps things moist and juicy as well. Give whatever your skewering a light dusting of good salt and fresh ground pepper after you’ve got them done up. If you’re wanting to go all out, take a trip to the market and find fresh, seasonal veggies, meats, and poultry. Like the Vietnamese, Japanese cooks pay special attention to color and season – Spring is green, summer dark green, fall is orange and red, winter is white. Have some fun with it, and let your plates reflect your findings.

Place skewers close together to help keep things moist and juicy
Place skewers close together to help keep things moist and juicy

Brush on your basting sauce after you’ve placed the skewers on the grill. With chicken, pork, or beef, you’re going to want in the neighborhood of 5 minutes or so cooking per side, with another baste application at the turn. Again, don’t run your grill flat out – You want to cook these on medium-low heat, allowing time for things to cook through and absorb all the goodness from your baste. If you’re using a charcoal grill, set up a two zone configuration, start the skewers on the cooler side, and finish with a couple quick flips on the hot side. If you’re using wooden skewers, soak them for about half an hour prior to loading them up. Lightly oil your grill surface prior to placing skewers, to help keep them from sticking – Use a neutral vegetable oil so you don’t adulterate your taste profiles.

House made Yakitori Sauce - Black gold.
House made Yakitori Sauce – Black gold.

That sauce, that amazing sauce. We’ll start here, because this stuff really is magical. I made the batch done for this post on the same day I slow cooked a big ol’ pork roast. In the last week, that sauce went on the pork twice, into fried rice, was added to a teriyaki joint style salad dressing, and even made its way into tacos – Its that good, and that versatile. Many, many folks say that, over in Japan, cooks add to a big pot of their signature sauce every day, so that it effectively never runs out. We won’t likely go that far at home, but my oh my, do you want this in your fridge at all times. While the real deal is made with the bones from the chicken thighs you’re about to skewer, you can sub chicken stock for the water and bones if you’re in a hurry – But DO make the bone stock version just once, and you’ll be hooked – It’s super easy, incredibly delicious, and very rewarding for home cooks.

House made Yakitori
House made Yakitori

You can certainly use one sauce for all things, and well might – But we’re including some variants, to give you some ideas for future explorations.

 

Urban’s Go To Yakitori Sauce
(Makes enough for several meals, or one hell of a party)

Bones from 4 fresh Chicken Thighs or Legs
1 Cup Mirin
1 Cup Tamari
1/2 Cup Dry Sake
1/2 Cup Water (Chicken Stock, if not using bones)
6 Scallions
3 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2″ chunk fresh Ginger
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil
1 teaspoon ground Szechuan Pepper (or anything hotter if you prefer)

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

Trim scallions and cut into roughly 1/2″ rings.

Dice ginger, (you don’t need to peel it)

On a baking pan lined with foil, under a high broiler, scatter bones and broil for about 10 minutes, turning with tongs so they brown evenly.

Transfer roasted bones to a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat.

Add all additional ingredients, stir well to incorporate, and heat through until a low boil is achieved.

Reduce heat to just maintain a steady simmer and cook until the volume of the sauce is reduced by 50% – You’ll note when you get there that the sauce coats a spoon with an even, viscous layer. The cook should take around 45 minutes to an hour, but keep an eye on things and give it an occasional stir.

Remove pan from heat and pour the sauce through a single mesh strainer into a non-reactive bowl.

Allow to cool to room temperature, then transfer to a clean glass jar. Will store refrigerated for 2 to 3 weeks.

Urban’s Pork Yakitori Sauce

1 Cup Mirin
1 Cup Tamari
1 Cup Dry Sake
2 Tablespoons Hot Chile Paste (Gochujang, wangzhihe, harissa, or Sriracha will do just fine)
2 Tablespoons Sesame Oil
2 Tablespoons Honey
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
3 cloves fresh Garlic

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

In a heavy saucepan over medium high heat, add all ingredients and stir to incorporate.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer.

Allow sauce to reduce by 50%, remove from heat, run through a single mesh strainer, cool to room temp.

Store refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

 

Urban’s Beef Yakitori Sauce
This is quite close to a typical sauce used for that deep fried wonder, Kushiage.

1/2 Cup Ketchup
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
2 Tablespoons Tamari
1 Tablespoon Mirin
1 Tablespoon Honey
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1/2 teaspoon granulated Garlic

Mix all ingredients together and allow at least 30 minutes for the flavors to marry before brushing onto your skewers.

Refrigerate in an airtight container for storage.

 

Just in case you’re like us, and want a little something green with your skewers, here’s my swing on that great savory salad dressing you get from your local teriyaki joint.

 

Urban’s Teriyaki Joint Salad Dressing

1 Cup Mayonnaise
1/3 Cup Rice Vinegar
4 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
4 Tablespoons Sesame Oil
2 Tablespoons Yakitori Sauce
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

Whisk all together in a non-reactive bowl, and allow flavors to marry for at least 30 minutes prior to use.

Store refrigerated for up to a week in an airtight, non-reactive container.

Salt Potatoes

I have a favorite kitchen mantra that goes like this – Simple is always good, but not always easy. The implications are rife in that phrase – Simple is always good, but our inclinations sometimes work against it. And then as stated, simple just isn’t always easy, in fact sometimes it’s deceptively hard. Yet when we bow to the sublime, amazing things can happen. Salt potatoes are such a thing. Chances are you’ve never had them, and if you have, you’ve been given an origin story for the dish. It’s safe bet they’re far older than you were lead to believe, and more widely travelled to boot.

There are over 5000 potato varieties world wide
There are over 5000 potato varieties world wide

The potato, (most often Solanum tuberosum), is another gift from the Andes, specifically southern Peru and northwest Bolivia, where it was first domesticated somewhere around 8000 to 5000 BC – Yes, that means roughly 7000 to 10,000 years ago. Brought to Europe in the mid 1500s by, (yup, you guessed it), those marauding Spaniards, the spud is now cultivated worldwide, though of the roughly 5,000 varieties known around the globe, over 3,000 are still found in the Andes – Think about that the next time you’re picking between russet, gold, or reds at the store. If ever there was a crop begging to be expanded in your garden, this is it.

Initially, Europe wasn’t crazy about the potato, especially, and maybe most strangely, in the northern climes where potatoes do quite well. Part of the reticence may lie in their Solanaceae family roots, which includes some pretty dangerous plants, (and the leaves and green skins of potatoes exposed to light.) Over time, the nutritional punch made its way through the naysayers, and by the 1800s, potatoes were in heavy cultivation throughout most of Europe. A raw potato is 80% water, followed by 16% carbs, and about 4% protein, and are rich in vitamin B and C. While cooking degrades some of the nutrient value, they’re still a relatively good bang for the buck, which is why they’re the worlds forth largest food crop – And over 68% of those grown are eaten directly by humans, to the tune of an average of 72 pounds annually. These days, over 37% of world production happens in China and India.

And of all the myriad ways to cook a potato, who’d have thought to just boil them in brine? Turns out, pretty much everybody, although some lay heavier claims than others. Look up salt potatoes, and in this country, most of what you’ll find will claim that they were invented in Syracuse, New York. Now, that’s simply not true, but there is a reason that one of these far flung claims resides there – Syracuse was a major salt production and shipping center in the 19th century.

Syracuse New York, the American Venice.
Syracuse New York, the American Venice.

In the fall of 1825, the last section of the Erie Canal was completed. Running east to west, the Erie connected to the north-south running Oswego canal at a little town called Syracuse. With canals running right through town, Syracuse picked up the moniker as the American Venice. The Erie Canal had been built to move Onondaga Salt to New York City and the world, and for a while, it worked really well. As fate would have it, bunch of those old Salt workers were Irish, and they truly loved their potatoes, and regularly cooked those and corn in brine, but they didn’t invent the dish.

Papas Saladas - Andean Magic
Papas Saladas – Andean Magic

Who did remains shrouded in mystery, but it’s a good guess it started down in South America. There, among many local versions, you’ll find papas saladas, that hail from, of course, another salt mining town. In the Canary Islands, they’re papas arrugadas, (which we mentioned in our Mojo post), and in the Guérande salt producing region of France, they’re patate cuit au sel. And of course there’s many more – Chances are very good you’ll find a version in every country, and many will claim origination – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

Papas Arrugadas - Canary Island Magic
Papas Arrugadas – Canary Island Magic

If you’ve never tried salt potatoes, trust me when I tell you it’s time. They’re a perfect summer accompaniment to grilled meats and veggies, and they’re delicious enough to stand alone. While the method and ingredients couldn’t be simpler, there is a bit of slightly complex chemistry going on under the hood of this one.

Right off hand, it’s not outrageous to question how good a potato boiled in brine will taste. The assumption is that way too much salt will get into that spud, making for an unpleasant, out of balance experience. Fortunately, that’s not what happens. Here’s the magic – One, cooking in a brine solution raises the boiling point higher than plain old water, (just as it lowers the freezing point when making ice cream), and two, the thin salt crust that forms on the spuds acts as a barrier, keep excess salt and water out. As a result, the potatoes effectively steam in their own skins, and you only end up with that thin layer of crystallized salt on the outside of the skins. That leads to an amazingly fluffy spud with a super tasty skin, just right for dipping in melted butter, gribiche, mojo, sauce diable, or chimichurri. As I mentioned, they’re stunningly good, good enough to eat as a meal, with little bowls of this and that to add as you please.

There are slightly different cooking methods around the globe – Some boil in brine and drain, (The Syracuse method), others boil the brine completely away with the spuds still in the pan, (I prefer the latter method.) They’re all worth trying, but this one will set you well for your first endeavor. As with all simple dishes, quality and freshness count – Freshly dug, local spuds from a farmers market deserve this dish – Old, soft, mealy, bulk spuds do not. Same goes for salt – This is the time to use something good – Sel de mere, Bolivian Sunrise, Himalayan pink, or Maldon – Whatever the unique signature the salt bears will play out beautifully. All salts do not have equal volume so you’ll be best served by weighing it out.

Perfect Salt Potatoes
Perfect Salt Potatoes

Salt Crusted Potatoes

1 Pound fresh new or fingerling potatoes, (You want something in the 1″ to 2″ range, and pretty uniform in size)
1 Ounce really good Salt.

In a heavy sauce pan over high heat, add potatoes, salt, and just enough water to cover the spuds.

Once you reach a boil, reduce heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook potatoes until fork tender, about 20 minutes.

Pour off all but about a half inch of water. Put the pot back on the burner and turn heat to high.

Use a wooden spoon to roll spuds through the remaining brine as it begins to boil off. You’ll see the salt crystalizing on your spuds as this occurs – It’ll take a few minutes for the brine to disappear.

Continue gently rolling the spuds in the dry pan for another couple of minutes, until the salt crust evenly coats each potato and the skins start to get slinky wrinkly.

Remove from heat to a serving bowl and serve promptly.

So You Think You Know Ketchup?

So, you think you know ketchup, huh? Recently, we posted on Salsa, as well as the most popular derivative thereof, Sriracha, and noted therein that both those condiments actually outsell ketchup in the U.S., which might surprise some of y’all. Yet the ubiquity of American fast food concepts has done much to spread the red stuff worldwide, which then begs the question – How popular is ketchup worldwide? The answer is very.

Ketchup, it's everywhere, and growing by leaps and bounds
Ketchup, it’s everywhere, and growing by leaps and bounds

Global market research by respected industry watchers pegged ketchup as a $4.15 billion dollar commodity in 2015. With an expected annual growth rate of 3.8%, sales of ketchup worldwide are expected to hit $5.6 billion by 2022 – Billion with a B – That’s a lotta ketchup, gang. And what are the biggest trends in that friggin’ huge market? So called ‘exotic ingredient’ ketchups, and organic offerings. Interesting, no? The Big Four primary derivatives of the ketchup trade are as follows – Tomato, mushroom, fruit and nut, and ‘other.’ The latter leaves quite a bit to the imagination. Ironically, these popular trends lead us in a perhaps unexpected direction – Backwards, to the origin of the stuff.

It should come as no surprise that tomato ketchup, far and away the most popular version today, was not the first one to be so named. In England of the 1700s, sauces called catsup, ketchup, or katchup were anchovy based things, seasoned with vinegar, shallot, ginger, clove, nutmeg, lemon, pepper, and wine. The results were more like Worcestershire sauce than the stuff we know today as ketchup. The name for these lovely things comes from, of all places, Indonesia, where kecap, (pronounced ketchup), means a dark, thick, soy based sauce, (And remains immensely popular there to this day). The leap from the East back to England occurred because that’s where the Brits got a lot of those exotic spices they threw in with them salty little fish. And not surprisingly, derivations of the stuff came out featuring, you guessed it, mushrooms, fruit, and nuts.

Tomato ketchup, on the other hand, took a while longer to circulate, as the ‘love apple’ was a native to Central and South America, and as such didn’t appear in Europe until (probably) the Spaniards brought them back over the big pond in the 16th century. Tomatoes were readily embraced by most countries around the Mediterranean, which it took somewhere around 150 years or so to spread and become accepted. That acceptance was not so forthcoming from the Northern Europeans, including the British, (who initially though the fruit to be poisonous). The first acknowledged tomato ketchup recipe came from the American colonies, during the revolutionary war, and the first published version came out while Lewis and Clark were traipsing west, in 1804, by physician/horticulturist James Mease. His version salted sliced tomatoes and let them sit for a day, then added mace, allspice, shallot, and brandy, and cooked it all down. Meade claimed the French loved the stuff, which is patently bullshit – More likely, given the spicing he employed, he’d been handed something from the Caribbean, because it sounds a lot like Sauce Creole. In any event, the stuff caught on in a big way, and the rest is history.

Ketchup, especially the tomato variety, came about as one way to preserve things through the cold months, and frankly, that’s why I’m writing about it here and now. A whole bunch of us have gardens, and what is almost guaranteed to be one of those crops you sew and then some time later are offering to any friend, neighbor, or willing perfect stranger you can find, due to relative overabundance? Yep, love apples. As such, it’s a great time to visit some recipes for the stuff. Sure, there are ‘natural’ and organic versions out there in the stores, as well as those exotics styles – But frankly, while the natural stuff is far better for you than the old standard, they’re not exactly using fresh, home grown tomatoes that could and should be several varieties – And that means you can make better at home. And as for the exotics, take a look at the prices, and you quickly discover that in this regard, you can make better at home for a hell of a lot less dough. So let’s do that.

First off, let’s address the elephant in the room – There are two, when it comes to ketchup making at home.
1. Making ketchup takes an incredible amount of tomatoes – True and not true – If you’re wanting to can a whole bunch in order to enjoy house made through the cold months, then yes, it will take a lot of tomatoes. If you’ve got them, and you’re of a mind to preserve, then you should definitely throw ketchup into the mix, along with whole and sauced. That said, what you’ll see below are small batch recipes that don’t take a whole lot of tomatoes – And frankly, making a batch to last a week or two is well worth the effort, especially if you’re growing your own.
2. Making ketchup at home takes forever – Well, not forever, but all day, yeah – As mentioned, the recipes we’ve got for you here are small batch stuff, and can easily be done in under an hour or twos worth of actual work, but some of the prep and cooking does take a long time – We’re radically changing the stuff we start with, and that just can’t be rushed – So, you’d best be planning for a whole day, but it’ll be a great day, guaranteed, (and you can do other stuff, or even take off while things are cooking, if you use a slow cooker, as noted). And finally, if you’re canning, it’s gonna be an all day thing, guaranteed – And always review proper method and cooking times when doing so.

House made tomato ketchup - All other bow before it.
House made tomato ketchup – All other bow before it.

Classic Tomato Ketchup
2 28 oz cans Peeled Tomatoes, (Any version is fine so long as they’re peeled)
3/4 Cup Distilled White Vinegar
1/2 Cup Bakers Sugar
1/2 Cup Water
1 1/2 teaspoons Pickling Salt
1 teaspoon Onion Powder
1/2 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1/4 teaspoon ground White Pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground Mustard
1/8 teaspoon Celery Salt
1 whole Clove

In a slow cooker set to high, add the tomatoes. If you found ground, peeled tomatoes, you’re good to go. If you have whole, or crushed, you need to process them first. Pulse with an immersion blender to achieve a nice, rough sauce consistency.

Rinse each can with a quarter cup of water and add that to the cooker, along with all other ingredients.

Cook uncovered for 8 to 10 hours, giving the sauce a good stir roughly every hour.

When the sauce is reduced in volume by roughly 50%, and is quite thick, turn off the heat and process the sauce again with the stick blender until very smooth.

Run the sauce through a single mesh strainer, into a nonreactive mixing bowl, removing any bits of skin, seeds, and the clove.

Allow to cool to room temperature.

Taste and adjust salt and pepper balance as needed.

Transfer to a clean glass jar and refrigerate. It’ll last a good week, (if it survives that long.)

Mushroom ketchup hardens back to Medieval English sauces
Mushroom ketchup hardens back to Medieval English sauces

Mushroom Ketchup (NOTE: This recipe requires advanced prep for the shrooms, so plan accordingly)

1 Pound fresh Mushrooms, (Portobello, Shiitake, button, or wild, of course)
2 Cups Water
1 1/3 Cups Champagne Vinegar
2 medium Shallots
1/2 Ounce dried Mushrooms
2 Tablespoons Dry Sherry
1 Tablespoon Pickling Salt
1 small clove Garlic
6 Tasmanian Pepperberries
2 whole Cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground Ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground Nutmeg
1 Bay Leaf (California or Turkish as you prefer)

The day before you plan to cook the sauce, carefully wipe shrooms clean with a damp cloth, and trim away any bruised bits.

Slice mushrooms to roughly 1/4″ thick. Toss shrooms into a nonreactive mixing bowl, add the tablespoon of Pickling Salt and toss gently to incorporate.

Cover the bowl with a clean, dry cloth and allow shrooms to sit for 24 hours. Stir gently 3 or 4 times through the rest. Note that the shrooms will become quite dark during this process, and that A-OK.

An hour or two before the end of the 24 hour rest, heat 2 cups of water to about 110° F. Pour that into a mixing bowl and add the dried mushrooms. Stir to incorporate and let them steep until their nice and soft.

Trim, peel and mince garlic and shallots.

With a slotted spoon, transfer the reconstituted dried shrooms to a blender vessel or food processor. Carefully pour the soaking liquid into the blender, leaving any pooled gritty stuff out of your pour. Process the blend into a smooth mix, and transfer that to a large sauce pan.

Dump the salted, fresh shrooms into the blender, (don’t rinse it first), and process that to a smooth mix, then add them to the sauce pan.

Add 1/3 cup vinegar, the garlic, and shallots to the un-rinsed blender vessel and process to a smooth purée. Add this to the sauce pan, along with the rest of the ingredients, except the sherry, and stir to incorporate.

Bring the mix to a simmer over medium high heat, then lower heat to barely maintain the simmer. Cook for 1 to 1/12 hours, until the Mushrooms are very soft and the sauce has thickened notably.

Now’s the time to test for proper consistency – remove sauce from heat and take a spoonful of the sauce and place it on a clean saucer. Let that sit for 10 minutes – If at that point the sauce has remained homogeneous, it’s thickened enough. If a notable amount of liquid leaches out of the sauce, more cooking is needed. Continue cooking for another 15 minutes and retest until you reach proper thickness.

Run the sauce through a single mesh strainer to remove the whole spices, then process in a blender or with a stick blender to a nice, smooth consistency.

Return the sauce to a clean sauce pan over medium high heat and heat through, stirring constantly. When the sauce simmers again, add the sherry. Cook on a low simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from heat.

Transfer sauce to clean, sanitized half pint jars and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes, (Again, consult CFHFP for more specifics and altitude adjustments).

Allow sauce to marry for at least 8 weeks before use. The well sealed jars will last all winter, (but probably not!)

Green walnuts are a summer crop that make a wonderful earthy kethcup
Green walnuts are a summer crop that make a wonderful earthy kethcup

Walnut Ketchup
This one goes way back to ketchup’s English roots, right down to those salty little fish. It’s admittedly a lot of work, but the reward is huge. Canned in half pint jars, they’re an amazing house warming gift – The taste of the 17th century brought to life. Green walnuts are a summer crop, usually available only from June through August, and maybe into September some years, so plan ahead.

45-50 Green Walnuts
3 1/2 Cups Cider Vinegar
1 1/2 Cups Malt Vinegar
1 Cup Dry Sherry
1 large Sweet Onion
1/4 Cup grated Horseradish, (straight – not mixed ‘sauce’)
2 ounces Anchovies (in oil or salt)
2 teaspoons ground Black Pepper
1 teaspoon dried ground Chile (hot or mild as you like)
1″ fresh Ginger root

The tough stuff goes first! Opening walnuts, especially green ones, isn’t easy, and it’s messy – Keep in mind that wood stains are made with these guys, so dress and guard your kitchen surfaces accordingly – They WILL stain hands, counters, etc, and it will NOT come off your skin! Some folks use a knife, others a hammer – Choose your weapon and cut, crack, or crush those things.

Place nuts in a nonreactive container, (a 1/2 gallon mason jar is perfect), and cover completely with the vinegars. Tightly cover your container and let them steep for a week – 7 full days.

On Day 8, transfer nuts and liquor to a large stock pot over medium high heat. Add all remaining ingredients and stir to incorporate. When the mix starts to boil reduce heat to maintain a vigorous simmer and cook for 45 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Process the sauce with a stick blender to a nice, smooth consistency.

Run the sauce through a single mesh blender to remove any solids.

Carefully pour into clean, sanitized bottles or jars with air tight lids and seal.

Will last a good 6 months stored in a cool, dry, dark place.

Cranberry ketchup is amazing on pork, chicken, or roasted Brussels sprouts
Cranberry ketchup is amazing on pork, chicken, or roasted Brussels sprouts

Cranberry Ketchup
2 Cups Canberries, (fresh or frozen)
11/2 Cups Raw Cider Vinegar
1/4 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1 large Navel Orange
1 small Sweet Onion
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
1/4 teaspoon Allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground Black Cardamom
1/8 teaspoon Sea Salt

Peel, trim and fine dice onion.

Zest and juice orange.

In a large sauce pan over medium high heat, add cranberries, onion, and cider vinegar, stir to incorporate. Reduce heat to maintain a bare simmer and cook until cranberries are popped and soft, about 4-6 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and process with a stick blender to a smooth consistency.

Return sauce to heat and add balsamic, orange juice and zest, allspice, cardamom, pepper, and salt. Stir to incorporate. Cook on a low simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until sauce is notably thickened.

Remove from heat and process again to smooth the sauce out. You can run it through a single mesh strainer if you prefer a liquid, smooth sauce, or leave it rustic – It’s incredible on chicken, or pork, or roasted Brussels sprouts.

Store in a clean, nonreactive container, refrigerated. Will last a couple weeks, easy.