Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Roasted Pumpkin seeds, AKA Pepitas, are a great treat, and as is the case with many seeds, pretty good for you, too.

My Cousin Sally writes,
OK, Eben – Halloween is upon us, which means it’s time to nom on delicious toasted pumpkin seeds! Yay! But here’s the dilemma… Recipes on the Internet vary from 250 degrees to 400 degrees and 7 minutes to 50 minutes. And some recipes boil the little suckers before toasting! What the heck. Thoughts??
P.S. I used to go with the soy sauce and seasoned salt route, but now I’m a fan of the olive oil and sea salt mix. But I’m perplexed by the temp and time…

Sugar Pumpkins - Many good things inside!
Sugar Pumpkins – Many good things inside!

Great question! Here’s the drill for making great roasted pumpkin seeds every time.

Remove seeds from sugar pumpkins, and by golly, save or use that flesh for wonderful things, like Pumpkin Flan. Roasted seeds make a great garnish for squash bisque, and make a fabulous garnish on Oaxacan style chiles rellenos.

Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.
Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.

Simmering the seeds in salted water is a must-do – It helps make the seed covers less chewy, more crunchy, and also gets seasoning deeper into the seeds. It also helps remove any residual stringy stuff.

Use 4 Cups of water with 2 teaspoons salt for every Cup of seeds.

Bring salted water to a boil, then add seeds, stir, and reduce temp to maintain a steady simmer.
Cook for 10 minutes, then drain through a single mesh strainer.
Pat dry with paper toweling.

Preheat oven to 400° F – High temp roasting will give the crunchiest, most consistent results.
Note that Avocado oil is especially good for this – it’s got the highest smoke point.

Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.
Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.

Season each cup of seeds with,
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil, (Olive or vegetable oil is OK)
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
Optional –
1/2 teaspoon chile flake or powder

Savory seasonings work better than sweet, as the sugars tend to make seeds prone to burning in a high temp roast. Any combo you like is worth trying – Soy-Lime-Garlic, Lemon Thyme & Sea Salt, Smoked Salt and cracked Pepper, etc. Our Go To Seasoned Salt is fantastic here.

If you really want a sweet version, roast seeds with just the oil, then add sweet seasoning after the roast – The oil will help it stick, and you won’t burn your goodies.

Roast, evenly spread on a baking sheet, for 18 to 20 minutes, until nicely toasted.

Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake
Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake

Remove from oven and baking sheet, allow to cool before decimating.

And as my Sis, Ann Lovejoy notes over in her wonderful blog, “Store pepitos in a tightly sealed jar out of direct light for up to 2 months or freeze them for longer storage.”

And Happy Halloween!

Makin’ Bacon

Love bacon? Love good bacon? Seen the prices lately? Us too! That little revelation led us to home made, courtesy of Michael Ruhlman.

I started our odyssey with a search for pork belly locally, which wasn’t as easy to find as I thought it’d be. Eventually, we found roughly 15 pound packs at Cash and Carry for $3.15 a pound. We took that home, divided it into 2 1/2 pound batches, and went to town.

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Our first batch was made straight from Ruhlman’s recipe. It turned out great, but it wasn’t exactly what I want in my perfect bacon. Having no doubt that experimentation is almost always a good thing, we analyzed the results and decided that Ruhlman’s would be, for us, perfect lunch and dinner bacon, but not breakfast. We found Michael’s recipe a touch salty, even when we’d carefully weighed the pork belly and salt; further, we felt that while the bay leaf, nutmeg, garlic and thyme in that recipe added glorious floral notes perfect for lardons, and stellar for carbonara, it was a bit much for our breakfast palate, so we set out to build our perfect breakfast bacon.

While one needs to stick pretty closely to the 1.5:1 salt to curing salt ratio for proper bacon, you have relative freedom with the other ingredients, so we revamped with our chosen notes, less salt, more sugar, Grains of Paradise for that unique pepper note we love, brown mustard seed for the tang, and a little smoke.

The results were spot on, and we’re happy campers!

2.5 pounds Pork Belly
1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar or real Maple Syrup
1 Ounces Flaked Salt
1.5 teaspoons Pink Curing Salt, (Sodium Nitrite)
2 Tablespoons Grains of Paradise, coarsely ground
2 teaspoons Brown Mustard seed, coarsely
1 teaspoon Smoke Powder

Mix all dry rub ingredients except the smoke powder together in a bowl.

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Set your belly on a baking dish or sheet tray.

Rub the cure onto and well into all surfaces of the belly. Take your time and work it right in there evenly and completely.

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Place your belly into 1 a gallon Ziplock bag, press the excess air out, and set it in the back of your fridge for 3 days.

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On day 4, pull out your belly and rub everything back into the flesh again. Set ‘er back into the fridge for another 3 days.

And on the 7th day, there be bacon…

Pull your belly outta the bag, rinse your sink well and then stick the belly under nice, cold running water and rinse all the cure off, giving it a good rub as you do.

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Preheat oven to 200 F.

Pat your belly dry with paper towels and set into a glass baking dish or a sheet pan.

Rub the smoke powder evenly and thoroughly into your belly.

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Roast for 90 minutes, or until your internal temp reaches 150 F.

Remove from oven, allow to cool, and then repackage in a ziplock in the fridge. It’ll last as long as store bought, or maybe a bit less, since it has less bullshit stuff in it; anyway, I’d bet that after you try it, lasting long won’t be an issue…

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You can freeze bacon, but not for more than about a month. If you do freeze it, you’ll want all the air you can out of the bag so, again, vacuum sealing is best.

You can also sub Honey or Agave Nectar for the sugar and get some pretty nice flavor variations. Our family also likes peppered bacon, and for that we’ll layer on a bit of olive oil and ground, black pepper for the roast.

Big thanks to Michael Ruhlman for a wonderful charcuterie book, and for encouraging experimentation. Now it’s your turn, and make sure you try his recipe, because it rocks and it just might be your all-around fave!

Enjoy!

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Maque Choux – A Cajun Twist on Succotash

The other day, Diane Whatley Nix, a friend on a social media cooking group called Wok Wednesdays, shared an image of Maque Choux made in a wok. Instantly, I was shown a flash of brilliance for the cooking method, and reminded of a delicious dish I hadn’t made since leaving Texas six years ago. Note: If you’re into wok cooking, then you need to check out the group – It’s dedicated to cooking our way through Grace Young’s The Breath of a Wok, and it’s a serious gas!

Maque Choux (AKA mack shoe, muck shoe, muck show, and so on), is the Cajun version of that venerable side dish, succotash. The name may sound French, but it’s probably a Creole derivation of a native term. This is a great side dish at any time of the year, but especially in summer, when all of the veggie constituents are right outside in the garden. 

Many folks know of succotash and assume it to be southern, but that would be incorrect – Succotash came from some of the original occupants of New England – The name derives from a native term, possibly the Wampanoag word msíckquatash, (boiled corn kernels), or the Narragansett sohquttahhash, (broken corn kernels).

Succotash was, and is, a base of fresh corn, some kind of shell bean, and a little protein – nowadays, most commonly bacon, but back then in New England, fish or game. Any number of additional veggies and herbs might be added, like tomatoes, sweet peppers, chiles, fresh herbs and other seasonings – all of which are New World foods and therefore likely as authentic as anything else. There are a dizzying number of ‘authentic’ succotash and maque choux recipes out there, but the truth is that damn near anything you feel like doing will be authentic enough – These are dishes designed to use what was ready at the time, and later down the line, to clean out a fridge, maybe.

Succotash was popular because it was filling and nutritious. That base mix of corn and beans is rich in protein, carbohydrates, essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals. It’s still a popular side dish at many a New England Thanksgiving dinner, and was likely a main course at that original dinner hosted by the locals, to which a ragtag band of Puritans and Strangers were invited. Those settlers quickly learned that the key base ingredients lent themselves readily to drying, which meant a lifesaving, year round food supply for a struggling population.

As us white usurpers spread across the new land, (including my direct ancestor, who arrived in 1636), succotash came along for the ride, morphed by local crops as it travelled. In the south, dang near any corn and bean combo that’s fried up in lard or butter is called succotash, albeit the vast majority of the time, the bean in question will be a lima, and there will almost always be okra.

Those migrants included the Acadiens, French people exiled to the Canadian Maritimes by the Seven Years war between Britain and France in the middle of the eighteenth century. While many Acadiens remain in the Maritimes, a sizable group made their way south to warmer climes, specifically, Louisiana, which was a French colonial holding since about the time the Puritans hit the beach at Plymouth. And of course, Cajuns are in Louisiana to this day, and from that many good things have come, including maque choux.

Study up some on maque choux, and you’ll see one glaring difference from traditional succotash – It don’t have no beans on board. That’s not to say you couldn’t, or that beans aren’t popular in that neck of the woods, because you could and they are -But, when you see how the dish morphed, you’ll understand right away – It’s because of the only aromatic base that we here in the colonies can lay claim to – The Holy Trinity.

We have the Cajun folk to thank for our only original combo – onion, celery, and green pepper, and really, nothing else, (albeit when used in soups and stews and whatnot, some folk do like to whip a little roux right in with it as it cooks, to kind of get a leg up on things). Now, the key to aromatic bases is the ratio, and in that regard, there are a couple of camps for the Trinity – those who do equal measures of each, and those who portion like mirepoix, 50% onion, 25% each pepper and celery. For my mind, it kinda depends on when you’re making it. If we’re talking the non-growing season, I’d go for the heavy onion version, but if you’re in the sweet spot, where those things are right out there in your garden, I’d absolutely opt for equal shares.

As for the protein, again, you can do what you like with no shame. I like local, smoky pepper bacon myself, but down south, a lot of folks are partial to andouille sausage, and you’d be hard pressed to go wrong there. Honestly, anything you’ve got that needs using would be lovely, from pulled pork to shredded chicken, (or even beans.)

Finally, the wok as a cooking method/vessel is simply brilliant. As Diane noted, making maque choux in one adds a perfect crispy crunch to the dish that you’d be hard pressed to get anywhere else. It’s also fast, and fun, and very pretty, so give that a go. This recipe will make enough for four, and maybe some leftovers

Maque Choux a la Urban

3 ears fresh Sweet Corn

4 strips Pepper Bacon

1/2 small sweet Onion

1-2 stalks fresh Celery, including leaves

2 Anaheim Chiles

1 fresh Tomato

2 cloves fresh Garlic

4-5 fresh Chives

1 sprig fresh Thyme

1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil

A few shakes Go To Seasoned Salt, (I prefer our smoky version)

A few twists fresh ground Pepper

Mise en place for maque choux
Mise en place for maque choux

Cut kernels off the corn in two passes – Take the first to roughly cut the kernels in half,then the second to get what’s left – This gets all the corn milk in play and adds a bit more moisture to the mix – Cut the corn into a plate or shallow bowl. If you’re shy getting to the base of the kernels, flip your knife around and use the spine to scrape out those last, sweet bits – And don’t friggin’ cut yourself.

Stack your bacon slices, cut them down the middle lengthwise, then into roughly 1/2” squares.

Dice the onion, celery, and chiles into roughly equal piles.

Slice the tomato – You can gut it if you like, (M is always offended when I leave the guts in…), or not as you please.

Mince the garlic, thyme, and chives.

Set the wok over a medium high flame and heat through –  A drop of water should vaporize pretty much instantaneously when it hits the wok, then you’re ready to go.

Stir fry bacon first - Your wok will thank you
Stir fry bacon first – Your wok will thank you

Stir fry the bacon, stirring steadily with a wooden spoon.

When the bacon is about 3/4 of the way you like it, turn the heat up to high and add the avocado oil. 

When the oil is shimmering, (not smoking – That’s too hot), add the onion, celery and chiles.

adding the Holy Trinity to maque choux
adding the Holy Trinity to maque choux

Stir fry, steadily working the mix to incorporate. When the onions start to turn translucent, add the garlic and stir fry for a minute or so until the raw garlic smell dissipates. 

Final ingredients
Final ingredients

Add the corn and stir fry steadily to heat through and incorporate – If things are getting a bit hot, turn heat down somewhat – I change heat constantly as I cook on a wok, and so can/should you.

Stir fry the mix until the corn starts to get a little crust and the smells are driving you nuts.

Add the tomato, chive and thyme, a few shakes of seasoned salt and a grew twists of pepper, and stir fry to incorporate all the seasonings.

Maque Choux a la Urban
Maque Choux a la Urban

Transfer to a bowl and serve hot.

A Couple of Rancho Gordo Tweaked Recipes

I wrote about RG beans not long ago, and frankly, they’re still on my mind, as is their stunningly good Pineapple Vinegar. That combo had me digging through old favorite summer recipes and tweaking them for these newfound delights. So here, for your reading and eating pleasure, are a revamped teriyaki marinade, and an incredible three bean salad. Enjoy!

Summer is grilling season, and it wouldn’t be right without teriyaki in the mix. That pineapple vinegar inspired me to alter my go to marinade thusly.

Rancho Gordo Pineapple Vinegar powered teriyaki marinade
Rancho Gordo Pineapple Vinegar powered teriyaki marinade

RG Pineapple Vinegar Teriyaki Marinade

1/2 Cup Chicken Stock, (Veggie stock or water are both fine too)

1/4 Cup Tamari

1/4 Cup Pineapple Vinegar

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar

2 Tablespoons Rock Sugar (Dark Brown Sugar is fine too)

1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil

1 Tablespoon Arrowroot

2 Cloves fresh Garlic

1” fresh Ginger Root

Trim, peel, and mince garlic and ginger.

In a sauce pan over medium heat, combine tamari, vinegar, agave, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and ginger.

Whisk to incorporate – When sauce begins to scale, reduce heat to low.

Combine arrowroot and stock, which to incorporate thoroughly.

Add stock mixture to sauce and whisk thoroughly. Allow sauce to heat through, whisking steadily, until it reaches the thickness you like, about 2-4 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and transfer to a non-reactive bowl, allow to cool to room temperature before use – You can set up an ice bath in a second bowl to hasten that process if it’s hot where you are, like it was today where we is…

marinated skewers, full of summer goodness!
marinated skewers, full of summer goodness!

Separate some to use as a dipping sauce if desired.

That same stuff, along with dang near any or all RG beans, inspired this twist on Three Bean Salad.

Classic Three Bean Salad
Classic Three Bean Salad

Three bean salad is a delight in the dog days of summer – Cool, tangy, and hearty to boot. While I truly love the traditional base of pinto, wax, and green beans, you can and should do whatever mix you like – This is the perfect time of year to play with whatever is fresh at hand. The beauty of that freedom is that the dish really does change in very fundamental ways when you vary the bean trio, even with the same dressing. What I show below is my personal fave, but there too, you can and should go with what you’ve got fresh in the garden whenever possible. The mainstays to me are the rhythm section of that dressing – Rancho Gordo’s incredible Pineapple Vinegar, and fresh avocado oil – It creates a beautiful base to go just about anywhere from – I just got this stuff, and am absolutely enamored with it, so I re-did my go recipe, (which used live cider vinegar), to reflect same.

Bean salad should have whatever you love in it, period.
Bean salad should have whatever you love in it, period.

Speaking of Rancho Gordo, it’s there that a raft of stunningly delicious bean options await – Their heirloom stuff is so good, you can easily hop down the rabbit hole trying out different combinations. Their garbanzos, limas, and yellow woman beans make an incredible trio, with a delightful depth and breadth of flavors and textures, and again – That’s just one of many, many options. The quality of these beans is so far above anything else, you truly must try them.

Yet another combo...
Yet another combo…

Three bean salad definitely likes a little time for things to marry, so it’s a great dish to make ahead. And of course, if you have other veggies you love, that are ready to rock, add those too – You sure don’t need my permission!

Urban’s Go To Three Bean Salad

1 Cup Rancho Gordo Rio Zape Beans

1 Cup Fresh Green Beans

1 Cup Fresh Wax Beans

1 Cup Sweet Onion

1 stalk fresh Celery, with leaves

Sea Salt and fresh ground Grains of Paradise, to taste

For the Dressing

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1/3 Cup Pineapple Vinegar

2 Tablespoons fresh Shallot, minced

1-2 cloves fresh Garlic, minced

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar

1 teaspoon fresh Thyme

1 teaspoon fresh Dill

1/4 teaspoon Chile flake

Rio Zape Beans should be cooked to al dente.

Blanch green and wax beans in boiling water until al dente, about 2-3 minutes – Have a bowl of ice water ready beside the stove, and plunge the beans into that as soon as they’re right.

Rinse and stem onion and celery, and then medium chop, (chiffonade celery leaf).

Rinse, stem and mince garlic, thyme, and dill.

In a large, non-reactive bowl, combine all beans, onion, and celery. Season with a three finger pinch of sea salt and a half dozen twists of grains of paradise – Gently toss to thoroughly incorporate.

In a second non-reactive bowl, combine all dressing ingredients and whisk to incorporate thoroughly.

Allow dressing to marry for 15 minutes, then dress salad with a steady drizzle – You may or may not want to use all of it, so stop when you’re happy with the ratio.

Allow salad to marinate, chilled, for at least 2 hours prior to serving.

Will do fine refrigerated for a couple days, if it lasts that long…

Real Deal Carnitas

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

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

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

Carnitas de Urban
Carnitas de Urban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mis en place for carnitas
mis en place for carnitas

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

Carnitas de Urban

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

Fresh corn or flour Street Taco Tortillas

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

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

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

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

Arrange veggies evenly around the base of the cooking vessel.

Rinse and pat roast dry.

Combine seasonings in a small mixing bowl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remove the pork and set that on a cutting board.

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

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

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

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

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

Prepare all your fixin’s as you see fit.

Carnitas, ready to load
Carnitas, ready to load

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

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

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

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

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

Tajine – A dish and pot from North Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moroccan Chicken Tajine

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

Mis en place for tajine
Mis en place for tajine

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

Tie cilantro sprigs into a bouquet.

Cut lemon into quarters.

Peel, trim and chop garlic.

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

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

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

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

Layering a tajine
Layering a tajine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Glory Muffins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Glory Muffins

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

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

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

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

Peel and grate apple.

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

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

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

Spoon equal measures of batter into the muffin cups.

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

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

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

Boston Brown Bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Boston Brown Bread

1 Cup Whole Milk

1/2 Cup Whole Wheat Flour

1/2 Cup Rye Flour

1/2 Cup Corn Meal

1/3 Cup Dark Molasses

1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda

1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder

1 teaspoon Vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon Allspice

1/2 teaspoon Orange Zest

1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

1 Tablespoon Butter for greasing cans

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

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

 

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

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

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

Lightly coat the insides of the cans with vegetable oil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Deal Queso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Queso deserves fresh tortillas
Great Queso deserves fresh tortillas

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

Queso de UrbanMonique

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

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

Fresh tortillas and tortilla chips
Fresh Pico de Gallo or Salsa

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

Grate all cheeses and blend thoroughly.

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

Peel, trim and dice the onion.

Peel, trim and mince the garlic.

Rinse, trim and dice the tomato.

Rinse and mince the cilantro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scarf it all down with icy cold Mexican beer.

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.