Ribs R Us

Noticed the other day that ribs are big in the stores, now that summer has officially begun. Seems like a good time to offer a fave take on those bad boys. Now first off, I admit here and now that M does ribs better than I do in terms of process, so I’ll just synthesize her method and my seasoning.

So why are ribs so dang tasty; there’s not much there, so what’s the secret? In a word, bones; bones and some marrow influence, too. Little cuts of meat attached to the stuff that we use to make amazing stocks, soups, stews, and reductions from, that’s the ticket. When cooked low and slow, the influence of the bones and marrow make their presence known in a way nothing else can really emulate.

Do you know your ribs? All of ’em? Here’s a quick run down on the variations you’ll find out there.

Spareribs
Or spare ribs, either spelling works, and either way, it always means pork, period. Spareribs are cut from the side or belly. Nowadays, they’re usually sold trimmed and ready to go, but you still may find them offered with the brisket bone attached; if you get them that way, just cut the bone out and save it along with the rest for making stock. Spareribs may or may not have the skirt attached, (a thin flap of meat that runs along the meaty side). If the skirt is there, you’ve got St. Louis style ribs, and if it’s trimmed off, you’ve got Kansas City style. If you ever wondered what those two terms were all about but were afraid to ask, you may now consider yourself enlightened. If you’re serving spareribs as an appetizer, two ribs per person will do the trick; a half rack, (six ribs), is a decent entrée portion.

Baby Back Ribs
Arguably the most popular pork rib variety, baby backs are less meaty than many other styles, but tend to be leaner than their bigger cousins as well. Baby backs are, in fact, cut from the back of the rib cage. They tend to include a high proportion of loin meat, which explains their lean and tender nature. Reasonable portions for baby backs are 3 ribs per as an appetizer, or a half slab entrée.

Country Style Ribs
This cut is a bit of a misnomer. Cut from the sirloin or rib end of the pork loin, this meatiest variant of the rib family doesn’t really include ribs at all. You can often find this cut in single portion packages, as well the equivalent of a half or full slab; they’re perfect for those who want to use a knife and fork instead of getting all handsy with their meal. Country ribs can be pretty fatty and may need some trimming prior to cooking. Portion sizes are one apiece for appetizer, two as an entrée.

Beef Back Ribs
These big ribs come from the back of the loin; they’re the beef version of baby backs. Meatier than pork ribs, they contain five or six bones per slab. That said, while the bones are big, they’re not super meaty. They will, however, be plenty tasty if given a good rub and lightly smoked. Portions are two per as an appetizer and five or six as an entrée.

Beef Short Ribs
This cut used to be a tremendous bargain, until every chef in the world decided to make them popular. Now, they can often be pricier than they’re worth – If you see other cuts for much less, buy those. Short ribs come from the bottom end of the rib cage, or plate cut. Short ribs are not a tender cut and really shouldn’t be grilled or barbecued; they need low and slow braising or smoking to really shine. The cut can be fatty, so trim as needed before you cook. A quarter pound appetizer and half pound entrée will do the trick.

Lamb Ribs
A full rack of lamb contains eight ribs. The ribs themselves are really quite skimpy, so the chop is typically left attached;you’ll find them offered as rib chops or as a whole rack. The racks are a fairly famous cut and make a great roast. Fancy stuff has been done with these for many moons, like cutting the rack into 3-3-2 and tying them tips up as a crown roast, or trimming the meat at the tips of the chops back to the bone, which is the famous French chop or rack. A double French rack is two racks tied tips up back to back. If you’re not familiar working with the lamb rack cut, make sure to ask if the chine, (backbone), between the ribs has been cut, so that the roast is easy to carve. If you’ve not cooked a lot of lamb before, be aware that it’s usually quite a bit gamier than beef and pork. The heart of the gamy flavor is fat, so trim appropriately if you’re not comfortable with that. Soaking lamb in buttermilk for at least 2 hours and as much as overnight will help a lot to tame the game and keep them moist and juicy. While you can certainly cook and serve single rib chops, you’ll get a much juicier result if you leave them as doubles; you can then cut them into singles for an appetizer and leave them doubled as an entrée.

Game Ribs
Then there’s game; I’ve personally had and cooked venison, elk, boar, buffalo, bear and ostrich. The first thing to remember with game ribs is to use them; I don’t know how many hunters and cooks I’ve known who don’t even consider this, but we all should. First off, if you harvest, you’ve got the responsibility not to waste, and that’s a biggy. Seconly, if you love game, ribs can and should be a signature taste of the beastie. As with lamb, game ribs can be gamy, so trim the fat, if any, and marinate. Buttermilk works great here, but wine and herb, or a nice flavorful brine will shine as well. Keeping in mind that fleet-footed game like deer and elk are quite lean to begin with, so marinating will do a lot to keep things tender and juicy.

 

Here’s a wet rub and BBQ sauce that will go great with any of the above.
This recipe will serve for a couple of racks of ribs.
We’ll do a low and slow cook with a grilled finish for knockout flavor.

2 Tablespoons extra virgin Olive Oil
1/4 Cup Honey or Agave Nectar
2 Tablespoons Smoked Sweet Paprika
1 Tablespoon cracked black Pepper
1 teaspoon Onion powder
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
3-4 Shots Tabasco or dried Chile Powder
Optional: 1 teaspoon Smoke Powder

Preheat oven to 225° F.

Rub ribs generously with the olive oil.

In a mixing bowl, combine the honey, paprika, pepper, onion powder, garlic and Tabasco or chile powder, and the smoke powder if you’re using that. Rub evenly over the ribs, taking time to work it on to all surfaces.

Wrap racks, meaty side down, in a large piece of metal foil (The wide, heavy duty stuff does best; if you’ve got light weight stuff, double it). Seal the edges of foil with a double fold.

 

Cooking Stage 1, oven low and slow.
Cook smaller, more delicate ribs like baby backs for three and a half hours; the bigger ones can go four hours.

Preheat grill on high, then reduce heat to low with lid open. If you’re just using your oven, leave it at 225° F.

Remove ribs from oven and drain off any excess drippings. Carefully flip ribs over to bone side down, using a big grilling spatula or two smaller ones. Your ribs should be at the pint where they’re starting to fall off the bone, so be gentle.

Trim the foil back to so you’ve got a baking sheet kind of affair, with a 3/4″ inch lip of rolled foil all the way around the ribs, to catch juices and keep the sauce in place for the remainder of the cooking.

Apply an even, thick layer of sauce to the meat side with a basting brush.

Cooking Stage 2, sauced and grilled, (or not)
Transfer ribs to the grill if you’re going that route.
Cook on low heat, with the lid down, for 20 to 30 minutes more.

If you’re using the oven for the whole job, cook uncovered for 20 to 30 minutes more.

Remove from oven and serve promptly with more sauce, house made potato salad, and baked beans.

A nice local Pilsner, Lager or dry white wine is the perfect accompaniment, refreshing your pallet and cutting through the fat for that next juicy rib.

 

Try this amazing cranberry powered sauce; folks are gonna make yummy noises and ask “what IS that?” in a good way…

Eben’s Cranberry BBQ Sauce

1 bag Cranberries
1 Cup Sweet Onion
1 bottle Porter or Stout
1 large Navel Orange
1/2 Cup dry Red Wine
1/2 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1/2 Cup Honey or Agave Nectar
1/3 Cup Worcestershire Sauce
1/3 Cup Soy Sauce
2 cloves Garlic

Peel and dice onion, peel and mince garlic. Zest and juice the orange.

Use a nice, fresh local Porter or Stout.

Throw everybody into a large stainless steel sauce pan over medium high heat and blend well.

As soon as the cranberries start to pop, reduce heat to achieve a nice, steady simmer. Allow to simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

Process sauce with an immersion blender, or carefully transfer to a blender, if that’s what you’ve got. Be very careful if you use a blender; process in batches and watch out for the hot sauce. Process until the sauce is uniform and smooth. If you don’t have an immersion blender, AKA. A motor boat, go buy yourself one for Christmas, they’re indispensable.

If you like your sauce a bit chunkier, as we do, you’re done; if you like it smoother, run the sauce through a strainer once.

Transfer to a glass bowl or jar and refrigerate for at least 4 hours prior to use, to allow the flavors to marry and the sauce to finish thickening.

And remember, save those piles of bones for making pork or beef stock; they’re way too good to toss!

Spring Cleaning Your Freezer

For 25 points, identify the following protein:

Didn’t think so…

Spring is the perfect time for deep cleaning. Shaking off the dust and cold and mold of winter, letting fresh air in – We do it to our homes, (hopefully), and we need to do it to our freezers as well. Whether you’ve got just a small one adjacent to your fridge, or a stand alone separate unit, it’s time to thoroughly clean that beast, inventory what’s there with a critical eye, toss what needs to be tossed and cook what must be cooked before it too goes to the great beyond.

This line of reasoning naturally brooks the question, “Can food go bad in the freezer?” The answer to which is a definite ‘Yup!’

Keep in mind that freezing does not kill bacteria, yeast, mold, etc –  it just pretty much keeps them from multiplying. In other words, if there was something funky prior to freezing, it could indeed reappear when thawed. Additionally, freezing does not do any favors for food quality, taste, etc; over time, great stuff will become good and good stuff becomes that image up yonder.

Before we abandon the ‘how long’ question for the stuff in the freezer, let’s review – When does quality starts to degrade? Depends on what it is, and how well it was packaged fro freezing, frankly. For answers to this and other burning freezer questions, (Sorry), hop on over to the USDA’s Food Safety site and read for yourself; there’s a handy chart at the bottom of this freezer article that details recommended freezer storage guidelines. You’ll also find the National Center For Home Food Preservation a wealth of good info, so scope that out too.

In general terms, when cleaning out your freezer, look for things like the pic above, the obvious victims of freezer burn, poor packaging, etc, and single them out for further inspection. If flesh looks substantially different than it usually does when thawed, (Darker, off color, dried out, etc), then you should give it the heave ho; trust me when I say if it looks funky, it’ll taste funky, and could be dangerous.

When you package for freezing, head back to the NCHFP site and read up on best practices.

The time to clear out your freezer is also the time to clean the bugger; this should be done at least annually,
and naturally, the best time do the deed is when stocks are low, AKA, the end of winter.

Pull everything out and put it into a fridge or cooler(s) while you clean.

Turn off, unplug, and thoroughly defrost your unit.

Once it’s to room temp, clean the insides thoroughly; I like Clorox cleanup for the job, but dish soap and water works fine too. Remove and clean all the shelves, racks, drawers, etc as well.

Do a rinse wipe with a solution of 2 Tablespoons of baking soda to a quart of warm water, then wipe that down with a clean, dry cloth.

Don’t forget the unseen parts! Pull the freezer from it’s normal locale and clean underneath. Inspect the back and clean that as well, (And the top), and dust the coils if your unit has exposed ones.

If you don’t already have one, buy a decent but cheap inside-the-unit thermometer and place in an easy to see spot. Our commercial units have thermometers on them, usually digital, but we don’t trust those; every unit, reach in or walk in, has a stand alone thermometer inside it. Optimal freezer temp for food storage is -15ºF to -5ºF; it should never go above 15ºF for any extended length of time.

Fire ‘er back up, let it get fully cold and then put your bounty back in. mark the calendar for the same time next year.

OK, that about covers it; now go have a celebratory beer or two, ya done good!

Oh, and stay tuned – Next post will cover building the perfect stew with all that lovely meat ya done kilt and gathered!

E & M

Brines, Marinades, Rubs, and Glazes

Here in the Great Pacific Northwet, it’s beginning to look like maybe, just maybe, it’ll stop raining one day. As such, it’s time to think about grilling again. When we do that, there’s a veritable cornucopia of cool things to do with the stuff we grill, like brines, marinades, rubs, and glazes.

First things first, though – Time to clean and inspect your grill, before you light the fires – Here’s a pretty good primer for that.

Next question, how are you grilling? In a big way, the answer to that question will determine what to do before your food hits the fire. Grilling is, for most of us, far less controlled than cooking in an oven or on a stove top. As such, knowing how to properly set up a charcoal grill, or use a gas one, makes a big difference to your end results. The back end of this Char Siu post has clear directions for setting up a two zone charcoal grill.

Brines, marinades, rubs and glazes will all contribute to the food we grill, especially proteins and veggies. Some of those contributions will alter proteins by tenderizing, or add moisture to help foods that tend to dry out in high heat stay juicy, and all these potions can add big flavor punch when you want or need it. What’s best depends on what’s cooking.

Brining is, in simplest term, utilizing a salt solution to add internal moisture to foods that have a tendency to dry out when grilled – It’s also a great way to add some subtle flavor notes from herbs and spices. Poultry, pork, and firm fish like cod, salmon, and swordfish do especially well with a brine. This little primer will give you some great base knowledge and ideas.

Marinades combine an acid and a base, just as we do for vinaigrettes. Marinating can take anything from a few minutes to days, depending on what you’re working with. Marinades generally carry bolder flavor profiles than a brine does, although those flavors may or may not get as deep into a protein, veggie, etc, depending on how long they work. Beef works great marinated, as do some of the gamier meats like lamb, game, and field poultry. A general search on the site here will provide a bunch of options from which you can springboard to your own thing.

A rub can be either dry or wet, and is what it sounds like – Where marinades are meant to get deeper into the meat somewhat as a brine does, rubs sit on top and do their work right there. Salt and pepper are most common, and fact is, if you’ve got a really lovely fresh protein or veggie, may be all you need or want. More stuff can certainly be added, and doing so can help a bunch in forming a nice crust on your food, and sealing in moisture on that relatively hot grill. Here’s a bunch of ideas to get you started.

Finally, we’ve got glazes. Generally speaking, glazes employ some sugar or an analog, and maybe some fat, like butter, which are integral to making things stick to your food. They also are quite prone to burning, however, so glazes are generally done last, and watched closely to make sure they do their thing properly. M came home with some incredibly pretty local pork chops, which prompted this whole post. I decided to wing a sweet and sour glaze for those bad boys – Here’s what I came up with.

Sweet and Sour Pork Glaze

1/4 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1/4 Cup Ketchup
1 Tablespoon Honey
1 teaspoon Yellow Mustard
1 teaspoon Dark Molasses
1 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
1 teaspoon granulated Onion
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic
Pinch Lemon Thyme
Pinch Sea Salt

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate thoroughly. Allow to sit for 15-20 minutes at room temp for flavors to marry.

Bast pork with glaze liberally in the last 3-5 minutes that it’s grilling, and keep a close eye on things so the sugars don’t burn.

Feel free to leave some at table as well.

Cook with All Your Senses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sourdough

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

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

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

Symbiosis at work...
Symbiosis at work…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real deal sourdough
Real deal sourdough

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

Sugar, and Spice, and Everything Essential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Hour Beef Stew

It's nasty out, which means it's perfect stew weather!
It’s nasty out, which means it’s perfect stew weather!

Dateline, December 12th, 2016. Second snow storm in as many days, most schools closed, accidents everywhere, our little street is a skating rink. Wherever you are, a bunch of you said, ‘Recipe, please,’ when I posted a pic the other day of a Two Hour Beef Stew. Couldn’t ask for a better day than today to delve in, so here we go.

First off, can a stew made in a couple of hours really taste that good? Won’t your crew know it didn’t have proper time to really get good? The answers are, yup, without a doubt, and nope, they won’t. Yeah, it’ll be great the next day, but done right, you’ll fool ’em into thinking you slaved all day if you do things as I’ll show you here.

There are four tricks/secrets/thangs ya gotta do if you want a stew that’s been made quite quickly to taste like it took forever. They’re simple things, and they also happen to define a primary difference between what a professional cook turns out versus the typical home chef. They are as follows –
1. Always start with aromatics,
2. Coat you meat lightly in flour and allow it to caramelize,
3. Deglaze your pan after those are done, and
4. Season as you go.
Do that, in combination with judicious choices of ingredients, and you’re in like Flynn.

The beauty of beef stew lies in its simplicity. Sure, you can add more things than you’re gonna find in a can of Hormel, but you don’t really need to – Beef, stock, carrots, potatoes, onion, a little tomato paste, salt and pepper. Of course, if you want to add more stuff, you certainly can – I like tomatoes, because they add a nice tang to the broth and help cut the richness as well. Here’s what we’ll use –

Beef Stew a la UrbanMonique

1 Pound Stew Beef
1/2 Cup diced sweet Onion
2 Carrots, sliced into rounds
2 Yukon Gold Potatoes
4 Cups Chicken Stock
1 14 oz. can diced, fire roasted Tomatoes
2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Wondra Flour
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
Juice of 1/2 small Lemon
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
2 Bay Leaves
Sea Salt
Fresh ground Pepper

We start with the aromatics – combinations of veggies and seasoning, sautéed in a little fat. This is the critical first step to building a great stew, soup, curry, stir fry, or house made stock. Onion, garlic, carrot, celery, parsnip, turnip, bay, sweet peppers and chiles, leeks, celeriac, and jicama all qualify. And there’s a reason that some of these combinations have venerable names of their own – Mire Poix from France, with onion, carrot and celery. Sofrito in Spain and Soffritto in Italy – Garlic, onion, tomato, and garlic and/or onion in olive oil, respectively. Garlic, spring onion, and ginger in many Asian cuisines. The Holy Trinity of Cajun cooking – onion, celery, and green pepper. Suppengrün in Germany, powered by carrot, celeriac, and leeks. Sautéed in oil or butter, ghee or coconut milk, these simple vegetables provide a subtle backbone of great flavor. Try building something without them, and you’ll immediately understand why they’re critical to success – Starting your stew with great aromatics guarantees that you’re building from a strong foundation.

Chop your aromatics to relatively uniform size prior to cooking. You needn’t be super fussy about this. For stew, a large dice of about 3/4″ will serve just fine, and if you want to leave your carrots as rounds, go ahead and do that. Cutting things up produces nice bite sized pieces, and provides more surface area for those great flavors to be released from.

In your stew pot, over medium heat, add a tablespoon or two of oil. I like Avocado Oil for its buttery flavor and high smoke point, but Olive will do just fine too. Once the oil is heated through, toss in your onion, carrot, and potatoes, and season them lightly with salt and pepper. Sauté until the onion starts to turn translucent. Salt and pepper is all you need for seasoning at this point – Oily, pungent herbs like bay, thyme, rosemary, and oregano will get the flavors sautéed right out of them if they’re introduced too early in the process. When your aromatics have cooked for 3 to 5 minutes, transfer them into a bowl.

Now it’s time for the meat, and here is where things also get done to ensure that we’re making stew and not soup – That means introducing a thickener. Cut stew beef down to roughly 3/4″ chunks if it’s not there already. Flour is the agent of choice for beef stew, and Wondra is the flour you want. Cooked and dried when it’s processed, Wondra is much less prone to clumping than ordinary flour, and makes wonderfully smooth sauces and stocks. A couple of tablespoons added to a pound of stew beef, a pinch of sea salt and a few twists of pepper, tossed by hand to assure a nice, even coat is all you need. Throw the floured beef into the stew pot over medium low heat, and then let it be. Let each side of your little beef cubes cook long enough for a nice, deep brown crust to develop – This means don’t mess with it inordinately – Let each side work before gently turning to the next. When your beef has a nice, even caramelized crust, toss it into the bowl with your veggies. This is a step that is far too often omitted or seriously short changed, and that’s not good – Take the time to do it right, and you’ll be amply repaid with great flavor. And trust me when I tell you that that flour will provide all the thickening power you’ll need.

Caramelization is the key to great stew meat
Caramelization is the key to great stew meat

Now comes deglazing. By this time, the sautéing of those veggies and the caramelization of your beef has left a wealth of dark stuff on the bottom of your stew pot. Amateurs think this will taste nasty and burned. Savvy chefs know that this stuff, called fond, is the source of some serious mojo. Take a good sniff of that pot – Does it smell good, like stuff you want to eat? If so, you’re go for deglaze, (and if not, ah well – wash that pot with a tear in your eye and start fresh, but you’ll be missing out on serious flavor.) deglazing frees up all those wonderful naughty bits to join the stew party. Get a stiff spatula, and a cup of the chicken stock called for in the recipe. Turn the heat up to medium high, wait a minute for the pot to heat through, then splash that stock in there. You’ll get a cloud of heavenly smelling steam and heat. Use your spatula to scrape all that good stuff loose and incorporate it into the stock. As soon as that’s done, add the rest of the stock, turn the heat back down to medium, and let everything heat through.

Now toss your sautéed veggies and meat into the pot, add the tomatoes and bay, tomato paste, and lemon juice and stir to incorporate. Season one more time with salt, pepper, and lemon thyme. Turn the heat down to low, and let that magic work for a couple of hours.

2 hour beef stew right after final assembly
2 hour beef stew right after final assembly

What you’ll end up with will taste like it worked all day. Serve it with crusty bread and a nice glass of red wine or a local beer. You don’t have to tell them how fast you did it.

2 hour stew ready to rock - you can see how rich this stuff really is!
2 hour stew ready to rock – you can see how rich this stuff really is!