A Wee Bit o’ Irish Soda Bread

So, a few days ago, alert blog follower and old friend Jeff Jaquish sent me a PM asking about a good Irish Soda Bread recipe. I was at work at the time, so I dove into my online files, found the first one titled Irish Soda Bread, and sent that off to him, and I posted it here, too.

Then, this morning, with something nagging at my noggin, I dove back into my recipes and found much more thoughts and details in a second, unpublished file. I’ve got ahead and combined those here.

The first recipe is my version with far more in it, frankly, than a truly classic recipe for this stuff, so I wanted to include a good base model too. Somehow, I’d completely forgotten about baking to a higher temp in a Dutch oven, and that’s a crime – I’ve corrected that here, so JJ, here ya go again.

Irish Soda Bread, a Simple slice of heaven.
Irish Soda Bread, a Simple slice of heaven.

Back in the early 1800s, Ireland was poor as poor can be, so stretching food wisely was a necessity. Soda bread, comprised of flour, buttermilk, baking soda, and salt, was perfect answer to the problem, especially when the potato famine hit, mid-Century. And by the way, yes, for genuine, old school Soda Bread, that’s all that needs to be in there – Raisins, nuts, sweeteners, and whatnot are purely American affectations, truth be told.

Early commercial bakers discovered that bicarbonate of soda, (AKA baking soda), when mixed with hydrochloride acid, (Yes, Virginia, they really did that…), made for prodigious production of carbon dioxide – Lo and behold, they got bread much faster than they did by waiting around for yeast, (which wasn’t all that great back then), to do its thing.

Fortunately, home bakers were far more sensible, and got their acid from buttermilk – Much more benign, much less dangerous, and tastier to boot.

Those early cottage bakers, (AKA, Mom), would bake soda bread in a covered dish or skillet, a local version of a Dutch oven. They’d snuggle that dish right into the hearth, with some coals on top and some beneath, just as we do when camping these days. The results were and are a truly delightful bread, and it’s super easy to make.

As with all things house made, ingredient quality and freshness count a lot. You’ll want the freshest All Purpose Flour you can find, and yes, It needs to be AP Flour – the relatively low protein content therein means gluten formation remains relatively low, and that yields a nice, chewy bread that won’t get too tough. Likewise. Check your baking powder before you start – As we’ve discussed here before, that stuff does have an expiration date, so make sure you’re working with fresh powder. Finally, get your buttermilk as fresh and local as you can.

Now, for process, consider and abide by the following – This is a recipe you want to finish mixing and get straight into a hot oven. Unlike yeast, baking soda does its thing in a rapid and fairly short lived manner – Think about mixing Coca Cola and Mentos, and you get the idea. As soon as you pour in that buttermilk, the second hand on the ol’ stopwatch is in motion.

Finally, you’ll see a lot of advice on kneading Soda Bread. I initially advocated around a 3 minute knead, and that’s OK, believe me, but there is wide variance available to you, depending on what you like.

If you prefer things a bit more rustic, you can add enough additional buttermilk such that you’ll end up with a dough that is too sticky to knead, but too stiff to pour – that’ll be perfect – Put that in your Dutch oven and let ‘er rip. If you like a thinner, crunchier crust and a bit smoother crumb, keep the buttermilk percentage as shown and knead for a few minutes.

What I love about this stuff is the fact that it has a crumb and texture that, to me, is quite reminiscent of good sourdough. The beauty is that you can have this out of the oven and ready to eat in under an hour, all told, while good sourdough is dang near an all day adventure.

Give them both a try and let me know what you think. The sheet pan, lower temp version derives, for my mind anyway, a bit of a chewier crust, because it doesn’t take advantage of the steam factor baking in a Dutch oven will impart.

Urban’s Irish Soda Bread

4 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 ¼ Cups Buttermilk
½ Cup Avocado Oil
¼ Cup Unsalted Butter
1 large Egg
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar, (Honey is fine as a sub)
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
½ teaspoon Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 350° F and place a rack in the middle position. Make sure your oven is all the way to temp by the time your ready to slide the dough in there.

In a large, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients and blend thoroughly.

Add avocado oil, 1 cup of buttermilk, agave or honey, and the egg to the dry mix. Combine thoroughly with a kitchen spoon.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for up to 2-3 minutes. You can stop when everything is well incorporated, or go on if you like things a bit more refined.

Form the dough into a round, and place it on a baking sheet – A silicone sheet covering the metal is never a bad idea.

In a sauce pan over medium low heat, melt the butter.

In a small non-reactive mixing bowl, combine melted butter and remaining ¼ cup of buttermilk. Use a pastry brush to coat the outside of the loaf with this mixture.

Bake at 375 for 30 minutes, then test the loaf with a toothpick stuck into the middle – Its should draw out cleanly. Depending on your oven, you may need to bake for as long as 45 minutes, but make sure you test at 30 minutes, and then every 5 minutes thereafter.

Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. Allow to cool completely before cutting, (30 to 60 minutes).

NOTE: This recipe works great in a Dutch oven at 450° F for 40-45 minutes, too!

Classic Irish Soda Bread

3 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 – 2 1/2Cups fresh Buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher Salt
1 1/8 teaspoon Baking Soda

Preheat oven to 450° F and set a rack in the middle slot. Make sure your oven is fully up to heat before you slide the bread in to bake!

To help avoid sticking, line the bottom of a Dutch oven with parchment paper. We use a 10” oven, by the way, so that’s what this recipe is scaled for. Do the parchment thing even if your oven is well seasoned, because this stuff will stick.

In a large, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients and whisk to incorporate fully.

Add the buttermilk and use a spatula to incorporate. When the dough just comes together, you can stop mixing if you like. Again, you can add more buttermilk here to get that too sticky to handle, but too hefty to pour consistency if needed. If you like your crust a bit thinner, continue to mix for another minute or so.

Use the spatula to transfer the dough to your lined Dutch oven, and then to form a basic round loaf shape. Use a sharp paring knife to score the top of the loaf – You can do quarters, or straight lines, whatever you like.

Bake covered for 45 minutes, then remove from oven and carefully transfer the loaf to a wire rack to cool.

Allow the bread to cool thoroughly before you cut it – It’ll need that time, believe me – Anywhere from a half hour to an hour or more.

Cornbread, Old & New

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Recipes aren’t really meant to be repeated exactly, time and time again – Even when you’re the one who wrote them. They’re a springboard to further exploration, and nothing more. A guitar making parable comes to mind – I’ve seen a bunch of builders, including me, make ‘identical’ guitars, from the same wood, built to the same specs, as close to each other as we can make them, and ya know what? They never sound, feel, or play the same. Same goes for recipes and cooking – For something iconic like cornbread, for instance.

Let us pause to consider from whence this stuff came. Cornbread is largely seen as a southern culinary thing, but its roots go far beyond those boundaries. Our modern versions harken back in the 1600’s, when European interlopers adapted some bread making techniques to the new cereal the natives had introduced them to, (and had been cultivating, starting down in Mexico, for something around 10,000 years).

Nowadays there are regional variances in style, and it’s interesting that those are almost diametrically opposed to what we see with biscuits – The farther south you go, the cornbread gets more rustic and less cakey, often with little or no added sugar and very little flour, (in fact, sometimes none at all). Meanwhile, while up north and out west, while not exactly flaky, you find a sweeter, more floury version. White cornmeal, closely akin to masa, is more popular in the south, yellow up north. Those southern differences may have to do with the prevalence of Mexican regional cooking, and the proximity to the origin point of the cereal itself, while up north, European influences speak loudest. That jibes with my personal experience as well – Growing up in Massachusetts, I remember cornbread as overly sweet and therefore, not much to my liking. When M and I moved to Texas, I found what I was looking for – Something that’s a bit more savory, and highlights the natural sweetness of corn without adding sugar or other sweeteners to the mix.

In any event, cornbread isn’t something we make super often, so when we do, it can fairly be considered a treat. In that light, one should consider what it is you most want out of the stuff. For me, that means as moist as I can get it, while still being firm and grainy with genuine cornmeal flavor.

For a good few years now, I’d landed on a cheddar version that we like a lot. I’ve taken to soaking the corn meal in milk or cream as a critical step, and in fact, doing that does make notably moister bread. Grinding my own cornmeal fresh, from local, organic corn was even better.

Then, as fate would have it, a measuring malfunction lead to a new twist, or at least, new to me – I’d put too much cornmeal in the mix. Once I realized it, I balanced everything back out, but found I was out of the heavy cream I’d used for the dairy, so I thought – what the hell, why not throw in some sour cream?

The second part of this tiny epiphany had to do with the chosen fat for the batch. I’ve used, and advocated here, leaf lard and/or butter, but all of a sudden, I thought about biscuits, and realized that what has really made my current version sing is avocado oil. If you haven’t tried that yet, it’s not really avocado-y in taste at all, just very subtle and buttery – Perfect for cornbread. Since I’d putzed around so long, I didn’t bother with the dairy rest for the cornmeal, (and it turns out that, with this version, I didn’t need it.) And as fate would have it, what resulted was what M happily anointed as ‘far and away, the best cornbread you’ve every made’ – High praise, that, believe you me.

So I made a second batch, to make sure the recipe worked, then made one the old way, for comparison. What that does is give y’all a couple of options. In the picture below, the old recipe is the batch to the left, the new one to the right. First off, I assure you, both are fully cooked, and neither has had anything done to it other than being sliced. You can see how dense, moist, and almost muffinish the new recipe is, while the old one is lighter and airier. I like them both a lot, but M was right – The new stuff is heavenly.

Old style to the left, New to the right
Old style to the left, New to the right

Urban’s Old Standby Cheddar Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Corn Meal, (yellow or white)
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup grated Sharp Cheddar Cheese
1 Cup Whole Milk
4 Tablespoons Leaf Lard (or Unsalted Butter)
1 Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Optional: 1-2 seeded and cored Jalapeño chiles

Preheat oven to 400° F

Pour cornmeal into a bowl and add the milk; mix well and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Mix remaining dry ingredients, (Including the cheese), in a large bowl.

Melt shortening, then combine all ingredients and mix by hand to a nice, even batter consistency.

Place the pan(s) you’ll do the bread in into a 400 F oven, with a small dot of shortening in each pan, (Or a tablespoon full if using a single pan).

When the shortening is melted and sizzling, remove the pan, pour in the batter and return to the oven.

Bake at 400° F for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made
What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made

Urban’s New Deal Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Cornmeal
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Heavy Cream
1/2 Cup Sour Cream
1/2 Cup shredded Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
4 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 large Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 400° F and set a rack in the middle position, with the pan your going to bake in thereupon.

Combine all dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Add the cheese, egg, dairy, and oil, and whisk into a uniform batter.

Carefully remove the hot baking pan and rub a little avocado oil around the inside, without burning yourself.

Pour the batter into the baking pan and return it to the hot oven.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown.

Thanksgiving Sides & Sweets

I love Thanksgiving, and yeah, that’s because of the meal, and family, and warmth on what is often a cold, blustery day here in the Great Pacific Northwet. And I truly love turkey, so it’s weird that I have to remind myself to cook one more than once a year. Now, all that said, there’s a truth to that holiday repast that needs to be admitted and embraced – Thanksgiving dinners are really all about the sides and the desserts. Think about it – What would turkey be without spuds, stuffing, great veggies, cranberry sauce, and gravy? The answer is, boring to no end. So, last week we covered the bird, this week, it’s all about the other good stuff – Thanksgiving sides & sweets.

When it comes to deciding what to put on the table for the Big To Do, I feel strongly that the answer should be, all of it. Don’t allow yourself to be limited by what you like – This is a meal made for sharing, for enjoying favorite dishes, and trying new ones, so make sure you allow that to happen. Ready?

First off, spuds, of course, and since this is a meal designed for pulling out all the stops, why not offer two, or even three different versions? Here’s the drill for roasted root veggies, perfect mashed spuds, and incredibly decadent twice baked potatoes.

First off, something fairly healthy, given that such a perverse wish might conceivably pierce the patina of excess that defines thanksgiving dinner. A blend of roasted root veggies is, relatively speaking, just that, (especially when compared to the two recipes that follow). Check out your local market and see what’s there. You’ll certainly find carrots and spuds, and probably parsnips, turnips, beets, and rutabaga too – They’re all common winter root veggies.

Roasted Root Veggies
2-4 Red Potatoes, (more if they’re babies)
2 medium Carrots
2 Parsnips
1 Rutabaga
1 Beet
2-3 cloves Garlic
2-3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Grains of Paradise (Black Pepper is cool as a sub)

Rinse off, and trim ends from all veggies.

Cut root veggies into rough chunks about 1” in size – Equality makes for even cooking. Mince the garlic.

Put everything into a large mixing bowl, and toss to evenly coat the veggies with oil, salt, and grains of paradise.

Roast at 350° F for about an hour, until veggies are fork tender.

Serve hot.

Naturally, ya just gotta do mashed potatoes, too. Yes, ya gotta – it’s non-negotiable. For these, choose a high starch, non waxy spud like a Russet or Yukon. Doing so will give you dependably fluffy and smooth mashed spuds, (the waxy white or red varieties just never really get creamy, truth be told). The russets and Yukon’s are also more amenable to taking on necessary adjuncts, like butter and cream.

Perfect Mashed Potatoes
Plan on 1 Yukon or 1/2 Russet per person, plus a few more portions for seconds and leftovers.
1 Tablespoon of unsalted Butter per spud
About 1/2 Cup of Heavy Cream
Sea Salt and ground Black Pepper to taste

In a large stock pot over high heat, add plenty of water salted as you would for pasta, (should taste like sea water)

Add spuds and bring to a boil, then cover the pot, reduce temperature to maintain a low simmer, and cook until the spuds are fork tender, about 20-30 minutes.

Remove the pot from heat, drain all the water carefully, then return to the burner and gently agitate the spuds until they dry out.

Remove the pot from heat, and with a potato masher, process the spuds evenly, working around the pot until everything is evenly mashed.

Add butter and use a flat whisk to incorporate.

Add cream a little bit at a time and whisk in thoroughly, until you hit the consistently you like.

Add salt and pepper, whisk to incorporate, taste test, and adjust seasoning as needed. When they’re done right, the shouldn’t need anything else, except maybe gravy, of course.

Serve hot.

Twice Baked Potatoes
Russet Potatoes, 1/2 to 1 each depending on size and appetites; the rest of these ingredient amounts are based on a 4 large potato bake, so scale accordingly.
1/2 Cup heavy Cream
1/2 Cup Sour Cream
1 Cup Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
4 ounces unsalted Butter
2 strips thick cut Bacon
4 Green Onions
Sea Salt
Fresh ground Pepper
Avocado Oil
Dash of Tabasco

Preheat oven to 325° F

Rinse your spuds and pat dry with a clean towel.

Coat whole spuds with avocado oil by hand, place in a glass baking dish. Season the skins evenly with salt and pepper.

Slide the spuds into the oven and bake for about an hour, until the spuds are fork tender.

Fry bacon, dry on paper towels and fine dice.

Rinse, strip roots from green onions, and fine dice.

Grate cheddar cheese.

When the spuds are ready, pull them out of the oven and let them cool just long enough to handle with a clean towel, (in other words, still quite hot).

Reduce oven heat to 250° F.

Cut the spuds into lengthwise halves, then carefully scoop the guts into a mixing bowl, keeping the skins intact.

Add cream, sour cream, half the cheese, bacon, onions, and butter to spuds and blend thoroughly. Add salt, pepper, and Tabasco to taste.

Refill the skins with the spud mixture, top with the remaining cheese, then slide them back into the oven; bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes.

Serve hot.

Of course, stuffing is also a must. Try this recipe, redolent of herbs and citrus. It’s actually desirable to use bread that’s a couple days old, so buy ahead. Stuffing can be prepared a day ahead of service and chilled, covered. Bring the stuffing back up to room temperature before you bake.

Savory Sourdough Stuffing
1 large Sourdough loaf
1 large Sweet Onion
1 stalk Celery, with leaves
3 slices thick cut Pepper Bacon
2 large Eggs
1/2 Unsalted Butter
1 1/2 Cups low-sodium Chicken Stock
1 small Lemon
2 Tablespoons Lemon Thyme
2 teaspoons Savory
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Grains of Paradise

Preheat oven to 325° F

Cut bread into roughly 1/2″ cubes. Spread cubes on 2 baking sheets and bake until dry, about 15 minutes. Allow bread to cool on pans, then transfer to a large bowl. Crumble by hand and add the lemon thyme, savory, salt, and grains of paradise.

Rinse and dice onion and celery. Zest and juice lemon. Lightly beat eggs.

In a large saucepan over medium high heat, fry the bacon until crisp. Set that aside on paper towels to drain, and reduce heat to medium low. Add the butter to the bacon fat and melt thoroughly. Add onions and sauté, stirring steadily, until onions start to turn translucent, about 5 minutes. Add celery and continue to sauté, stirring occasionally, for another 5 minutes. Transfer all to the mixing bowl.

Crumble the bacon, then add it plus the eggs, stock, lemon juice and zest to the bowl and combine thoroughly.

Transfer stuffing to a lightly buttered, shallow baking dish, cover the dish with metal foil.

Bake, on a middle rack for 30 minutes; remove foil and continue baking until browned, about another 30 minutes.

Allow to rest for 10 minutes prior to serving nice and hot.

And then there’s more veggies, ‘Cause, well, ya gotta. To me, green beans are the perfect choice, and you can usually find decent ones even at this time of year. Make sure you gets good ones at the store – If they don’t snap crisply when bent, they’re not the ones for you.

1 Pound fresh Green Beans
3 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
1 Small Shallot
1 small Lemon
Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste

Rinse and trim ends from Beans.

Trim and peel Shallot. Mince 1/4 Cup and set aside.

Zest lemon and cut in half.

Beans can be steamed or boiled. To me, steaming gives better flavor, fresher, if you will.

Prepare an ice water bath in mixing bowl.

Cook Beans for about 3 minutes, then remove from heat and plunge into the ice water bath.

When you’re about ready to serve, heat a sauté pan over medium heat, then add 1 Tablespoon butter.

Sauté shallots until they begin to turn translucent, about 2-3 minutes.

Add beans to pan, with the rest of the butter, toss to melt butter and evenly coat beans.

Allow beans to heat through and cook for 2-3 minutes until they’re firm but tender.

Remove pan from heat, then add lemon zest and juice from 1/2 lemon, and toss to incorporate.

Season with salt and pepper, taste test, adjust lemon, salt, and pepper as desired.

Serve hot.

Brussels sprouts, the red headed first cousin of cabbage, get bad press far more often than they should. They’re truly a lovely vegetable and a perfect side for the big feast. It’s a safe bet that overcooking and poor seasoning have far more to do with negative reviews than the veggie itself. Brussels sprouts contain glucosinolates, compounds that offer abundant health benefits, but have the unfortunate tendency to release sulfurous byproducts when they’re overcooked. Avoiding the all too common boiling of sprouts is your first line of defense against bad taste. Here’s a preparation with bright and earthy notes guaranteed to please.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Almonds & Apple Cider Reduction
Brussels Sprouts, about 6 per person; the ingredient measures here are scaled for 35 to 40 sprouts.
1 1/2 Cups Honeycrisp Apple Cider
1/2 Cup slivered Almonds
Extra Virgin Avocado Oil
2 small cloves Garlic
Unsalted Butter
Sea Salt
Fresh ground Black Pepper

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Remove sprouts from stem and soak in cold water for 10 minutes.

Inspect and trim any browned or yellowed leaves, and trim stems to about 1/4″. If your sprouts are large, you may halve them if you wish.

Mince garlic.

Place trimmed sprouts in a mixing bowl, and coat generously with olive oil. Add garlic and toss to incorporate. Add enough salt and pepper to lightly coat.

Roast sprouts in a middle rack for 35 to 40 minutes, turning once, until they’ve begun to brown.

While the sprouts are roasting, prepare the almonds and cider reduction.

In a sauté pan over medium heat, add the almonds and a tablespoon of unsalted butter. Sauté, stirring regularly, until the nuts and butter start to brown, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a sauté pan over medium heat, add the cider and bring to a simmer. Whisking steadily, simmer until the cider has reduced by roughly 50%. Add a tablespoon of butter and a very small pinch of sea salt. Whisk to incorporate, then remove from heat and set aside.

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and whisk briskly to incorporate. Allow the dressing to sit while the sprouts roast.

When the sprouts are done, allow them to cool for about 5 minutes. Combine sprouts, almonds, and reduction; toss to thoroughly coat the sprouts, serve warm.

If you love cranberries, or even if you don’t, try this citrus infused sauce for a refreshing change. I’ve been making it for decades, and it’s still requested.

Urban’s Legendary Cranberry Sauce
1 12-ounce bag fresh Cranberries
3/4 Cup Water
1/2 Cup Agave Nectar (You may sub Honey, Maple Syrup, or light brown Sugar)
1 large Navel Orange
1 Lemon
1 lime
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Allspice
Shake of Sea Salt

Grate zest from all citrus; get all the nice bright orange, yellow and green, (Stop before you get to the bitter white part.)

Juice lemon and lime. Peel orange thoroughly and rough chop the meat from that; set aside.

Bring water to a boil in a saucepan over medium high heat.

When water is boiling, add cranberries and return to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium and add citrus zest, orange, and juice.

Allow sauce to continue to boil, stirring occasionally until about 3/4 of the cranberries have popped.

Add cinnamon, nut get and salt, stir in thoroughly.

Remove from heat and transfer to a glass or ceramic bowl.

Allow to cool completely at room temperature.

Cover and refrigerate until serving time. Will last in the fridge for about a week.

And finally, in addition to whatever pies you dig, try this pumpkin flan for a very cool twist on the gourd of the day.

Pumpkin Flan

For the caramel:
3/4 Granulated White Sugar
1/3 Cup Maple Syrup
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

For the flan:
1 14 Ounce can Sweetened Condensed Milk
1 12 Ounce can Evaporated Milk
1 15 Ounce can Libby’s Pure Pumpkin (Don’t use anything that reads ‘Pie Filling’)
1/2 Cup Whole Milk Ricotta Cheese
4 Jumbo Eggs
1 Tahitian Vanilla Bean, (1 teaspoon pure extract is OK as a sub)
1 Tablespoon Maple Syrup
1 large Navel Orange, (for zest and 1 Tablespoon of juice)
1/2 teaspoon Cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fresh grated Nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon Allspice
Pinch of Sea Salt

You’ll need an 8” round cake pan for this, and it can’t be a springform. Alternatively, if you’ve got enough of ‘em, you can do this as individual servings in ramekins, but you’ll need to have your mis together to make sure you can get the caramel poured into them all and spread evenly. If you go the ramekin route, having them sitting in a bath of hot water will help a bunch toward that end.

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

Have your pan or ramekins ready to go, as noted above.

Zest the orange, taking care to only get the colored part, leaving the white pith intact.

In a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat, add the sugar, syrup, and 1/3 cup of very hot water. Stir to incorporate well.

When the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer. Allow the mix to cook, without stirring, until it’s golden brown and reading 230°F on a candy or instant read thermometer. Don’t leave the pan while this is cooking – It can go overboard quickly, so keep a sharp eye on things throughout the cooking process.

As soon as the caramel is done, pour it carefully into the cake pan or ramekins. Be careful, it’s molten sugar and will burn the snot out of you if you’re careless.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the two milks, the pumpkin, and the ricotta. Using a hand or stick mixer with a whisk attachment, beat the ingredients at low speed until the mix is smooth and uniform.

Add all other ingredients, and whisk on low to fully incorporate.

Make sure that your caramel is nice and hard, then use a spatula to transfer the batter from bowl to pan or ramekins.

Place the cake pan or ramekins inside a roasting pan, and carefully fill that with water until water level reaches roughly half way up your pan or ramekins.

Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, until the flan has set, but still has some jiggle to the middle when you gently wiggle the roasting pan. A tooth pick inserted into the flan should come out clean.

Remove flan from oven, and from the roasting pan, and transfer to a cooling rack.

Allow the flan to cool completely to room temperature, then cover the pan or ramekins tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours prior to serving.

When you’re ready to serve, run a knife around the edge of the pan or ramekins, and place a serving plate tight to whatever you’re transferring. Quickly but gently give the pan a flip and viola – You’ve got gorgeous pumpkin flan with a maple caramel ready to rock.

You can add whipped cream, if you like, but you won’t really need it.

Brine That Turkey!

Truth or dare time – How many of y’all, when it comes to your Thanksgiving turkey, do not show the bird the proper love? Tell the truth, now… Do you simply throw a bird in to the oven? Do you fill it with stuffing? Thought so… truth be told, even if you rub it with something nice, you’re still not giving that poultry it’s holiday due. If you want to serve the best bird, you’ve got to brine that turkey. I’m gonna tell you how, but first, here’s why.

Turkey is an extremely lean protein. If you doubt that, buy some ground turkey, do nothing to it but cook it, and see what you get – unlike good, fresh hamburger, there’ll be no moisture in the pan, and the taste will be, well… less than optimal. Let’s face it, we don’t need fat from our bird, ‘cause we’re gonna get that from all the sides we make. What we do need is a tender, juicy bird, and again, brining is the way to get there. Now, I know there are some of you out there thinking, ‘yeah, but if I cook it right and season the skin nicely before hand, it’ll still be great,’ right? Well, no, no it won’t – it might be good, maybe even really good, but it won’t be great.

Seasoning right before you cook, or even an hour or two before you cook, doesn’t allow the salt you’ve added enough time to do its thing. It won’t penetrate the flesh at all, really, especially with a hunk of meat as thick as a turkey breast. It’ll do a bit of work on the surface, but no more. Truly, the only way to allow seasoning to work is to give it the time it needs – And that means you need to brine that bird.

Traditionally, brining is a wet process. We submerge the bird completely in a brine, and give it anywhere from eight to twelve hours to do its thing. That works great, frankly, and it really isn’t hard. Brined birds weigh more after cooking than a dry bird does – Up to 8% more, and that’s virtually all added moisture, which is very good indeed. The wet brine process also acts chemically to break down some of the tougher proteins within the bird’s muscle fibers, leading to tender flesh – Also good. So, if you’re of a mind to wet brine, here are some basics.

If you buy a frozen bird, you can thaw it while brining, which saves you some time, (if you buy a fresh turkey, you don’t need to worry about that.)

Proper brining is a function of both brine strength, the weight of the bird, and brining time. What you’re doing at home is technically called gradient brining – That is, putting food in a higher salt concentration brine than you really want in the food, because you don’t have the time to do what’s known as equilibrium brining – That’s when you use a lower salt concentration and allow the time needed for the salt content in the brine and the food to equalize. When you see or read about something like pastrami being brined for a week or longer, that’s what they’re doing, and that’s also why the Pro’s make stuff that consistently tastes better than what we do at home. All that said, don’t fret – What we do at home is safe, and it really does make a better bird. So, for reasonable gradient brining, we brine whole turkeys for about an hour per pound, in a 5% to 6% brine concentration.

Basic brine ratio is often shown as ‘1 cup salt to 1 gallon of water’, but not all salt weighs the same – what we really want is about 7 ounces of salt per gallon. When you brine, use kosher salt – The larger crystal size means it dissolves faster in water than fine grained stuff, and there’s nothing in there but pure salt, so it wont taint your brine. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, (And frankly, you should), then Morton Kosher weighs 7.5 ounces per cup, and Diamond 5 per cup. For the record, there’s nothing wrong with adding herbs or spices to a brine – If you like it, do it.

Basic Wet Poultry Brine
For each Gallon of water, add
7 Ounces Kosher Salt
1 Tablespoon crushed Sage
1 Tablespoon Lemon Thyme

For a nice twist,

Cider Brine for Poultry
For each Gallon of Apple Cider, add
7 Ounces Kosher Salt
1 Tablespoon ground Black Pepper
2-3 dashes Tabasco sauce

For a 15 to 18 pound turkey, you will need a couple of gallons of cider or water, and a clean, food grade 5 gallon plastic bucket. You don’t need to heat the water or cider. Just make sure all the salt has completely dissolved before you proceed.

You need to plan ahead for wet brining. You’ll want an additional 6 to 12 hours between the brining and the cooking, so, if you’re thawing and brining, your process needs to begin nice and early on the day before turkey day.

Pay attention to food safety procedures during brining, without fail! Your brine and bird must remain under 40° F at all times, period; if you need to add a little ice, do so. If you need to add a lot, compensate with a bit more salt. When your brining period is done, pour out the brine, (NEVER reuse it.) Gently rinse the bird in clean, cold water, then pat it dry with clean paper towels and then transfer to a roasting pan.

Now comes the secret to gloriously golden, crispy skin. Allow an air rest for your bird, by letting it sit, uncovered in the refrigerator, for 4 to 6 hours after brining. This will help moisture evaporate from the skin, and allow the meat to reabsorb some moisture as well.

Now, if all that makes you paraphrase George H. W. Bush, ‘Not gonna do it, not gonna go there,’ then here’s an even easier option that works just as well. And it’s funny that, right at this point, literally right at this point in today’s narrative, I got this text from my friend John Joyce, a fine guitar maker from the Twin Cities in Minnesota – ‘Hey E what do you think: dry brined or wet brined turkey. I’ve done wet for years but I’ve read a lot of good stuff on dry brining.’ Yep, dry brining is exactly what I was about to type, so, here ya go JJ.

While the term ‘dry brining’ might seem kinda oxymoronic, i assure you it’s not. In restaurants, this has been done for a long, long time. Often called ‘pre-salting,’ it acts on a protein more or less as a wet brine does, albeit without the water, equipment, or hassle. Think of it as a dry rub, like we use on poultry, ribs, and the like, and it’ll come to light for you.

The chemistry here is very cool, too. When we first apply a dry brine, osmosis occurs, meaning the moisture within the bird is drawn toward the higher salt concentration rubbed on the skin. As that moisture reaches the surface, it dissolves the salt and sugar in the brine. In the final stages, the liquified brine is draw back into the bird as things equalize. There, the solution acts as a wet brine does, breaking down those tough muscle proteins and acting as a tenderizer – Pretty cool, huh? And to top it off, all this is done in your fridge, during a simultaneous cold rest, so you get that crispy skin, too – Two birds with one rock, if you will.

Dry brining does require time, and in fact, more time than wet, usually. Since there’s no added water, you’ll need two to three days to let the process do it’s thing, so once again, plan ahead.

It’s also important not to get a bird that’s been pre-seasoned in any way, since that can and will upset the balance of things – Avoid anything that says kosher, re-seasoned, or self-basting. You’ll also want a fresh bird, or at the very least a fully thawed one.

Basic Dry Turkey Brine
5 Ounces Kosher Salt
1 teaspoon crushed sage
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Sweet Dry Turkey Brine
5 Ounces Kosher Salt
2 Tablespoons Dark Brown Sugar
1 teaspoon Smoked Paprika

Prep your bird by removing any of the extraneous bits, then pat it dry with clean paper towels.

Gently gently separate skin from flesh over the breast area, taking care not to rip the skin. It’ll work much better in direct contact with the meat.

Rub a teaspoon or two of the mix into the bird’s cavity, then do the same all around the drumsticks. Rub 3-4 tablespoons of the mix onto the breast meat, and use the rest evenly across the skin.

Ct a small slit in each side of the bird about half way along the wing tips and then slide the tips into that cut.

Put the bird on a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet, and into the fridge for at least 2 days, and 3 is better.

When the time’s up, you’re ready to cook. You can roast, deep fry, whatever floats your boat.

Keep your bread stuffing in a casserole dish, and prepare a nice juicy cavity filler for the bird.

1 Apple of your choice
1/2 Sweet Onion
1 stalk Celery
Tablespoon Canola Oil
1/2 teaspoon Sage
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Rough chop the orange, onion, and celery, (and if you have celery leaves, use those!). Throw those in a mixing bowl, then add oil, Sage, salt and pepper, then combine thoroughly. Stuff your bird’s cavity thoroughly. Place the bird on a rack in a roasting pan, and add 2 cups of clean water to the pan. Insert an internal thermometer to the thickest part of the breast.

Preheat your oven to 350° F.

Standard roasting times, stuffed, at 350° F follow; that said, the only real way to know when the bird is done is by internal temperature, and we’re looking for 165 F.

10 to 18 pounds 3-3/4 to 4-1/2 hours

18 to 22 pounds 4-1/2 to 5 hours

22 to 24 pounds. 5 to 5-1/2 hours

Start your roast with the bird uncovered, then cover loosely with foil for the last hour. Basting isn’t necessary, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

When the bird is done, remove it from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes prior to carving – That rest is vital to allowing juices to equalize throughout the cooked bird, so don’t cheat!

Carve, admire, enjoy, and get ready for leftovers,

Later in that text, JJ wrote, ‘I like those ingredients. I usually do two birds. I’ll do one dry and one wet. Is the cider recipe on your site?’ It’s right here for ya, Buddy! He ended with this – ‘I’m also making your ginger ale recipe. So I guess that means you’ll have a virtual seat at our table. 😁’

I told him I was honored and pleased by that to no end, and I truly am.

Aromatic Bases – Humble Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spanish sofrito looking particularly fetching
Spanish sofrito looking particularly fetching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Five Spice is good for way more than just Chinese cooking.

Chinese five spice powder – Got it in your spice cabinet? Odds are good that you do, but they’re also good that you haven’t used it for anything other than that one Chinese recipe you tried way back when and bought the stuff for – Am I right or am I right? I’m here today to fix that, and to tell you why you should -Five Spice is good for way more than just Chinese cooking.

Classic Five Spice, although more is OK
Classic Five Spice, although more is OK

So, what exactly is five spice? That depends, frankly, on where in China you ask the question. This blend is relatively ubiquitous in Chinese cooking, and culinary regions from all points on the compass points lay claim to its origin. There is, however, some general agreement about the intention of that ancient founder – To provide the culinary equivalent of Unified Field Theory – one powder to rule them all – Five spice touches on sweet, sour, bitter, heat, and salty – A blend for all things, if you will.

Now, that said, five spice is as unique as any other legendary thing. What that means is that every home cook, restaurant chef, and spice purveyor has their tried and true personal blend, and each and every one of those is the best, no questions asked. Truth be told, they’re all correct, because when you make it yours, its exactly what you want it to be – That’s the beauty of discovery and refinement. The end result of today’s exercise should be just that for y’all.

The big question, of course, is this – What are the Five Spices? Turns out, the title is a bit misleading. Take a look at the ingredients on the commercial stuff out there and you’ll find anywhere between five and ten ingredients – Interesting, yeah? That’s because ‘Five Spice’ speaks to the five flavors the blend contains – Sweet, sour, bitter, heat, and salty – Cover those, and the number of ingredients used to achieve it is open for interpretation.

The generally recognized standard however, is star anise, clove, Chinese cinnamon (Cassia), Szechuan pepper, and fennel seed, but again, you might also find regular cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, licorice, anise, turmeric, black pepper, sea salt, and mandarin orange peel as well. There’s nothing wrong with all that, frankly, though as with all things in discovery, it’s best to go to the classic roots first, and then branch out to make it yours.

For us here in the U.S., the blend has an exotic feel to it that can be a real treat for breaking up the ol’ routine. The combination of what Chinese culinary tradition refers to as hot (cinnamon and Szechuan pepper), and cold (fennel and clove), tastes does a really cool double duty with meats, especially fatty stuff – It highlights richness as it cuts through the fat – A neat trick, that.

If you have Asian grocers in your area, check them out and see if they make their own blends – If not, they’ll likely have a favorite that they sell – Diving into those is like touring the regions and towns folks come from – You’ll get a different swing on things from each one.

So, what exactly would you use this stuff on when you whip it out? The quick answer is that five spice is tailor made for proteins – Beef, pork, and poultry will all shine, (and frankly, you can’t make great char sui pork without it), as will tofu, and beans. For dang near anything you’re going to grill, barbecue, or smoke, it makes a fantastic rub. Five spice does great in flour, starch, or bread crumb coatings for fried foods, too. And frankly, there’s nothing in there that wouldn’t go great with savory eggs and veggies. And believe it or not, it’s great for baking too – Add it to a savory scone, pancake, or waffle recipe, for instance.

A note of caution for using five spice on things other than fatty meats – The blend can overpower a recipe really quickly, so a little bit goes a long way. The blend does best when it has some time to work, so employing it in marinades and rubs works best.

The gist of all this is that while five spice is a necessity for many Chinese dishes, it’s great to think outside the box and try it with other stuff as well – It’s easy enough to add a dab to a sample of something you’re cooking – A great way to expand your horizons. This is a blend that, while fundamentally simple, belies that label with a truly fascinating and complex palette of flavors.

Here’s a basic recipe to get you started – Again, use it as a springboard to tailor your own custom blend. As with all herbs and spices, freshness and quality are critical. Harkening back to that bottle you’ve got in your cabinet, chances are good it’s old, and maybe not the best stuff you could find, right? So, go to a known, high quality purveyor like World Spice, Penzey’s, or Penderey’s and buy your stuff there – They really truly don’t cost more than the junk in most stores, and the quality is far superior. Finally, it’s always a good idea to buy whole spices when available as well – They’ll stay fresher longer.

House made Five Spice
House made Five Spice

Classic 5 Spice Blend

1 Tablespoon whole Szechuan Peppercorns
3 whole Star Anise
1 stick Cassia Bark (AKA Chinese Cinnamon)
2 teaspoons whole Cloves
2 teaspoons whole Fennel Seed

Allow a dry, cast iron skillet to heat through over medium heat.

Add Szechuan pepper, star anise, cloves, and fennel seed to the pan. Toast the spices until they’re notably fragrant, about 3 to 5 minutes. Keep the spices moving constantly to avoid scorching.

Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Add the toasted spices and cassia to a spice grinder, blender, mortar and pestle, or whatever you use to grind spices. Pulse the blend to a uniform rough powder.

Store in a clean glass container with an air tight lid – Keep in mind that all spices like a cool, dark, dry environment for storage. Spices are good for about 6 months, properly stored.

 

Here’s a couple of rubs to get you started.

5 Spice Java Dry Rub

2 teaspoons 5 Spice Powder
1 teaspoon fresh ground Coffee
1 teaspoon Dark Brown Sugar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

 

5 Spice Wet Rub

1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil
Juice & Zest from 1 small Lemon
1 Tablespoon 5 Spice
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

 

Salt Cured Egg Yolks

There’s no telling how long people have been preserving eggs. As one of natures most amazing sources of energy and great taste, there’s always been great interest in having them available whenever desired. Whether by brine, smoke, or chemistry, there are a bunch of ways to do it. And it’s a natural progression to go from preserving the whole egg to just focusing on the yolk, since that’s where all the really good stuff is – and if you’re going to do that, there’s nothing easier or more effective that a simple salt cure.

Egg yolks are a nutritional powerhouse. All the fat and roughly half the protein an egg possesses is in there, along with a very long list of other things – carbohydrates, amino acids, vital trace nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and yeah, a healthy shot of cholesterol, but that’s had a bad rap for far too long. Donald K. Layman, Professor Emeritus of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Illinois has gone so far as to say that, “cutting dietary cholesterol is almost irrelevant when it comes to promoting healthy blood cholesterol levels and heart health.” While that’s not an endorsement to go off and start an all Twinkie diet, it does get eggs and a bunch of other formerly vilified foods off the hook.

Century Egg - Seriously acquired taste
Century Egg – Seriously acquired taste

There are a raft of preserved egg and yolk examples out there. The Chinese alone have been doing this for hundreds of years, exemplified by the so called Century Egg, which appeared in Hunan province during the Ming Dynasty. This, like rotten shark, is an acquired taste to say the least – They make durian seem tame – and yes, I’ve tried one, and I won’t do it again. To be fair, it’s the smell more than the taste that’s severely off-putting – think of a multi-feline cat box unchanged for weeks, and you get close.

Smoked eggs are sublime
Smoked eggs are sublime

Smoked eggs are as they sound, done either with cold or hot smoke. They too are sublime – The smoke, and as such choice of wood used, adds a lovely depth and complexity to the egg – It exemplifies egg versatility to a surprising degree.

Salt cured whole eggs
Salt cured whole eggs

Then there’s the brined or salt cured whole egg, which is an entirely different experience – good ones are lovely, like a really good egg with over the top concentrated richness and umami. The star of course, is the yolk.

This whole exercise begs the question – why would I want to do it? Well, you either love egg yolk or you don’t – If you don’t, go out and play – if you do, read on. Egg yolk has a savory, smooth taste absolutely brimming with umami, and they’re pretty, to boot. If we can create a version of that which intensifies the umami, and makes them instantly usable whenever the whim hits, it’s worth doing.

There’s also the transformational consideration – Great food is all about taking something common and doing uncommon things with them – When the whole process is stunningly simple, it’s that much sexier in the end run – And salt cured egg yolks are very sexy indeed. What you end up with is something that you can and will grate, with a gloriously bright yellow color. Preserved yolk tastes like buttery cheese – rich but not cloying – with a high level of umami added to whatever floats your boat – And it will, believe me – On pasta, pizza, salads, veggies, you name it, a little grating of this is stunningly good.

On to the process. It is a very simple thing, albeit there are a couple of versions, and we’ll cover both herein. As with all things simple in cooking, the first and most critical consideration is ingredient quality. If ever there’s a time to buy the freshest, most local eggs you can, this would be it. Since we’re merely concentrating that which already exists, mediocre will certainly breed mediocre. What you want is a stellar egg, one with a lovely orangish-yellow yolk, as fresh as you can get. Ditto for salt – you don’t need fancy, but you do want pure – high quality, coarse kosher or sea salt, with absolutely nothing else in it, is the key. Once you’ve got these together, do the deed the same day – It doesn’t take long, and that way you’re assured of taking full advantage of fresh stuff.

Set yolks in the salt cure
Set yolks in the salt cure

As for specific methodology, as mentioned, there are two primary schools – One uses just salt for the cure with passive secondary drying, while the other employs a salt and sugar cure coupled with mechanical drying in an oven or dehydrator. Both work fine, so it comes down to your predilection, and how fast you want to get done. Again, it’s so simple, it’s highly worth trying a batch of each and making your own comparison. From there, you can tweak whatever you like best to make it yours. Here’s the drill.

In both methods, the first step is the cure. You need a bunch of salt for this, depending on how many yolks you plan to do. Again, it’s super easy to do, so start with maybe four yolks, try out the results, then try the other method, pick your fave. To process a dozen yolks, you’ll need a pound of coarse kosher or sea salt. If you use the sugar/salt cure, it’s a 50%-50% blend of each – Use regular old cane sugar for that – Nothing fine or fancy needed. That’s the only difference in the cures.

Once you’ve chosen your cure, get an appropriately sized container big enough to hold how ever many yolks you want to process, as well as a bunch of cure. I like food storage containers with a snap fit lid for this – It’s gonna go in the fridge for a week, so it’s nice to have something that’ll stand up to daily use and exploration. Word to the wise, if you’ve got a bunch of folks in your house, tell them what you’re doing and point out the container – that can go a long way toward not having your stuff tossed or played with.

Pour an even layer of cure about 1/2″ thick into the container, then form a series of evenly spaced divots to receive how ever many yolks you’re gonna cure.

Have a second airtight container ready for your egg whites. Carefully separate yolks from whites, (You can and should freeze the whites for a future endeavor.) Slide a yolk into each little depression in the cure.

Now carefully cover the yolks with a nice, even layer of cure – Here again, you want about 1/2″ or so of cure over the tops of the yolks.

Seal up the container and slide it into the fridge, and leave it alone for a week.

Once your week is up, pull the yolks. Fill a small bowl with warm water, and have a clean piece of cheese cloth handy.

Cured
Cured

Take each yolk out of the cure, and brush excess cure off. Dip the cheese cloth into the water and use that to gently clean as much cure off of the yolks as you can – At this stage, they’re still a little tacky, which is just fine – Don’t freak out if the cleaning process is taking a bit of yolk with it, but again, be gentle.

Now comes the division between finishing steps.

If you’re going the passive route, then all you need is some more clean cheese cloth. Wrap each yolk in a hunk of that and tie it off with kitchen twine.

After that, hang it from a shelf in your fridge so that each yolk has good air flow all around it. Leave them there for at least a week, and two is better. When that’s done, you’re done, and you can go to town with them.

If you prefer the faster mechanical method, then you’ll set your oven or an adjustable dehydrator to 200° F. Put the yolks on a silicone pad or parchment if you’re using the oven, onto a rack if you’re going dehydrator. Let the yolks dry for 45 minutes. Remove from heat, allow to cool to room temp before refrigerating.

Grated salt cured egg yolk
Grated salt cured egg yolk

Either way you choose, the yolks, refrigerated in a non-reactive, airtight container will last at least a month, (but they won’t, ’cause you’ll scarf ’em down.)

Salt cured egg yolk on house made pizza - Si!
Salt cured egg yolk on house made pizza – Si!

Now, back there a ways I mentioned that you can tweak things, and you can – herbs and spices in the cure are par for the course, so have some fun, use your imagination, and let me know what you come up with, yeah?

Champagne Mangoes Three Ways

 

You might have been perusing the produce aisle recently and seen a fruit called a Champagne Mango. They’re somewhat new to many parts of the US, but they ain’t new in the Big Picture view. The Champagne, also known as an Ataúlfo, (and young, baby, yellow, honey, or adolpho), is a well established Mexican cultivar. Champagnes are gorgeous; big, heavy, golden-yellow beauties that are somewhat pear shaped. They’re thin skinned, with deep yellow, rich flesh and a very skinny pit. They’re quite high in sugar, with a tangy-sweet flavor, rich in vitamin C and dietary fiber.

Down in the Mexican state of Chiapas, when Ataúlfo Morales bought Some land back in 1950, there were already bearing mango trees on the property. Around eight years later, a researcher from the Mexican Commission of Pomology heard of Señor Morales’ mangoes and came to have a look. He went off with samples and stock which he named Ataúlfo, in honor of the property owner, and the rest is history.

If you like mangoes, (and even if you don’t), you owe it yourself to try these beauties. While they’re a real treat to peel and eat straight away, here are three of our favorite things to do with them.

Fruit Curds go back quite a ways in history. Technically, since they include eggs, butter, and require preparation like an emulsion, they’re probably more of a custard than a preserve, I guess. The 1844 edition of The Lady’s Own Cookery Book included a primitive version of a lemon curd;, using lemons to acidify cream, then separating the lemony curds from the whey. Further back yet you’ll find recipes for ‘lemon cheese’, used to make what was called a lemon cheese cake, but reads like what we’d call a lemon tart these days. Our version of Mango Curd is stunningly good, if we do say so ourselves…

2 ripe Mangoes
3 large Eggs
6 Tablespoons unsalted Butter
1/2 Cup Agave Nectar or Honey
1 fresh small Lemon
1 fresh small Lime
Pinch of Sea Salt

Rinse, Peel and roughly chop the mangoes; you’ll want to kind of shave the meat away from the skinny pit.

Purée the mango chunks with a stick blender or food processor. You want to end up with about 1 cup of purée.
Set that aside.

Rinse, zest and juice the lemon and lime, then set juice and zest aside.

Cut very cold butter into about 1/2″ cubes.

Crack eggs into a mixing bowl and whisk lightly.

For cooking the blend, a double boiler is best. If you don’t have one, work with a bowl or pan that will fit comfortably inside a larger one. Fill your double boiler bottom or pan about 2/3 full of water and heat over medium flame. You want the water steaming, but not simmering when you’re ready to cook.

Combine the eggs, lemon and lime zest, citrus juice, the agave nectar or honey, and a pinch of salt. Whisk the mixture until fully incorporated and evenly colored, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the mango purée to the blend and whisk for about a minute to fully incorporate.

Put your bowl with the blended ingredients over your pan filled with hot water, (Or double boiler). Allow the mixture to heat, stirring gently but continuously, for about 3 minutes. Start adding the butter in small batches of 6 to 8 cubes, whisking steadily and allowing each batch to melt and incorporate before adding the next.

Again, a curd is an emulsion, so the butter, (fat), needs time and gentle whisking to properly marry with the egg and fruit blend.

When all the butter is melted, continue whisking gently and steadily until the curd begins to thicken noticeably, about another 2 to 3 minutes.

Remove the curd from the heat. Transfer the curd to a fine mesh strainer over a glass or steel bowl and use a spatula to gently strain the curd through the strainer. You’ll end up with some zest and fiber that doesn’t make it through.

Refrigerate in a glass jar or airtight container for at least four hours. The curd will keep for about a week refrigerated, but I’ll bet it won’t last anything close to that long…

A small dish of this lovely stuff is a remarkably delicious desert, or an excellent palate cleanser after a heavy course in a fancy meal. Try it on freshly made shortbread with strawberries for a real treat.

NOTE: You may substitute coconut oil for butter for a dairy free variation.

 

Granitas are the pure essence of fruit and natural sweeteners. With no diary on board, they’re actually not at all bad for you either. This version was the best we’ve made, of any fruit.

2 ripe Champagne Mangoes
2 Cups Water
1 fresh small Lemon
1 fresh small Lime
3/4 cup Agave Nectar or Honey

Rinse, peel and rough chop the mango flesh.

Rinse, zest, and juice the lemon and lime.

In a food processor or blender, purée the mango until smooth and uniform, about 1 to 2 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula as needed.

Add the water and honey or agave to a sauce pan over medium heat. Thoroughly melt the sweetener, then add the purée, zest, lemon and lime juice, and stir to incorporate.

Add the puréed mango and stir steadily and gently until the blend starts to simmer. When the whole blend is evenly mango colored and starts to thicken slightly, remove it from the heat; the whole heating process will take around 3 to 5 minutes.

 

Remove the mixture from heat and pour the blend through a single layer strainer into a 9-inch-square shallow baking pan. This pan size works best ­because it provides a large surface area, a key point in speeding up the freezing process. To further hasten freezing, use a heavy steel or glass pan.

Put the pan in the freezer and stir about every hour with a large fork, times down like you’re raking the granita. Depending on your freezer temp, it will take around 3 to 5 hours for the granita to freeze completely.

You can eat the granita as soon as it’s frozen through, but the flavor will genuinely develop appreciably if you transfer it to an airtight container and freeze it over­night.

When you’re ready to serve the granita, just scape up the shaved ice and fill a chilled margarita glass, band top with a mint sprig.

 

 

Mango salsa is a real treat; the counterpoint of sweet and heat is great with fish, poultry, and pork. Try it on freshly scrambled eggs too.

1 Champagne Mango
2 ripe Roma Tomatoes
1/2 Red Onion
1-3 Jalapeño Chiles
2-4 sprigs fresh Cilantro
1 small Lemon
1 small Lime
Pinch of Sea Salt

Rinse all fruits and veggies. Peel and dice mango. Core, seed and dice the tomatoes. Dice the onion. Chiffonade the cilantro. Juice the citrus.

Combined all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes, (and as long as overnight – The flavors just get better.)

Yakitori, Japan’s Answer to the Kebab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House made Yakitori
House made Yakitori

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

 

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

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

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban’s Pork Yakitori Sauce

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

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

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

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

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

Store refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

 

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

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

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

Refrigerate in an airtight container for storage.

 

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

 

Urban’s Teriyaki Joint Salad Dressing

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

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

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

Salt Potatoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Papas Saladas - Andean Magic
Papas Saladas – Andean Magic

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect Salt Potatoes
Perfect Salt Potatoes

Salt Crusted Potatoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remove from heat to a serving bowl and serve promptly.