Rancho Gordo – Making beans sexy again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frijoles Vaqueros in the IP
Frijoles Vaqueros in the IP

Frijoles Vaqueros

1 Pound Rancho Gordo Vaquero Beans

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

1 Cup Chicken Stock

1/2 Cup Sweet Pepper, chopped

1/2 Cup Onion, chopped

1/4 Cup fresh Cilantro, chopped

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

1-2 cloves fresh Garlic, minced 

1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seasoning Sandbakkel Molds.

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

Preheat your oven to 350° F.

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

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

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

Sandbakkels

4 Cups Pastry Flour (AP is just fine too)

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

1 Cup Bakers Sugar

1 large Egg

1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt

Allow all ingredients to come to room temperature before proceeding.

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

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

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

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

Cover the bowl and refrigerate the dough or 1 hour. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandbakkels, fresh from baking
Sandbakkels, fresh from baking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh Fruit Glaze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chow down with relative abandon.

Very Cool Guide to Common Veggies

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

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

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

check out the veggie history bit here.

Why We Do What We Do

I get asked on a regular basis why we do what we do here. Here’s my answer.

When I research a recipe or a subject, I look at a lot of food blogs, especially if I want to do something that I think is relatively original. I was doing that today, and I waded through a bunch of ‘very successful’ blogs. You know how I could tell that they were very successful? Because of the amount and general level of obnoxiousness derived from advertising on their sites – I left without reading through whatever it was I’d gone there to check out. And talk about non-sequitur? Ads for cosmetics, clothes, and a dozen other items having not one damn thing to do with food or cooking. In case you hadn’t noticed, I find stuff like that incredibly irritating. The Pioneer Woman, Rachel Ray, Tyler Florence claiming the cookbook is dead – all that? That’s not serious cooking, that’s hype, at best – The food equivalent of country music out of Nashville these days, (which I refer to as pop with fiddles). Frankly, if that’s success, well then, y’all can have it.

It’s the latest trend in monetizing what is ostensibly a food site. Monetize, if you’re unfamiliar, is an economic term. I know, ‘cause my Pop taught Econ at Harvard and MIT, (and who knows, maybe some of his smarts trickled down to me). What it means, literally, is to turn something into money – to utilize it as a source of profit. Now, if that’s why you have a food blog, good for you, but I’m out.

grow it, preserve it, whenever possible.
grow it, preserve it, whenever possible.

I was cooking for Monica and a good friend the other night, and it was his first visit to our kitchen, (though he’s had plenty of my cooking at the café). When he put his nose to the shaker of our signature seasoning salt, he couldn’t believe we’ve never monitized it. He’s a business man, and he greatly admires my cooking, so that was a compliment, no doubt, but it’s not why I labor away in relative obscurity here. That, I do because I have to – I gotta read, research, mull over, tweak, test, refine, create and write about food, and then share what I discover. Frankly, if no one read it but me, I’d still do it, (but don’t get me wrong, I greatly appreciate y’all being regulars here).

That’s the stuff - Our Signature Seasoning Salt Blend
That’s the stuff – Our Signature Seasoning Salt Blend

Now, for the record, down the line, I do intend to write a book or three based on what I do here, and frankly, I’m already working on that. Furthermore, if and when I ever come up with an original, really cool food item that I genuinely want to share with the world, I’ll do that too, (and frankly, that seasoning salt blend is getting mighty close). I do this because I love to, and because I’m driven to it – I could no longer stop writing about food than I could stop breathing.

Granted, there are a lot of great food blogs out there, but as The Corporate Machine figures out that they can profit grandly from our labors, all the ultra-commercialized stuff spirals out of control. It comes in waves, like boy bands. First, there was the need for nutritional info if you were going to be a ‘serious’ food blogger. Then came ridiculously professional-level photography, without which you couldn’t get a recipe accepted in any of the über-hip sites at the time. That morphed into full blown food styling, (right – like when we cook at home, every aspect of the meal is placed, staged, and choreographed – uh huh…) Now, if you’re cool, your site is festooned with multiple ads for a bunch of consumerist bullshit that has zero to do with food or cooking – This is how the next Food Channel Super Food Dipstick gets anointed.

I write about food for some pretty simple reasons. I’m interested in sharing recipes, methods, processes and such. I’m interested in sourcing, using wisely, and preserving food that is good for you in a world where much of what we are offered to eat is crap – Owned and foisted upon us by some pretty crappy mega-corporations. I’m interested in the science behind cooking, because I’ve never liked simply being told to ‘do it this way.’ I want to discover those cool secrets that professional Chefs and kitchens employ, and whenever possible, let the kitty out of the sack. That’s just how I’m wired. I trust that if you’re reading this, you’re interested in these things as well.

Today, some 8 years downstream from very humble beginnings, this blog has followers from all over the world. It’s won accolades from specific regions and countries for faithful renditions of beloved dishes. Stuff that I truly came up with first has been copied, and a couple of them are now fairly mainstream. It has a lot more followers and regular visitors than I ever thought it would – There are tens of thousands of genuine visits and visitors here every month. Is that a lot in the Big Picture Cool Food Blog scale? Well, no, when you consider that those tragically hip sites get millions of visitors – Frankly, I don’t really care about that, in the competing with others sense of the phrase – If you’re here, reading these posts, and you like them, and you come back when I post a new one, then I’m a seriously happy camper. While it still holds true that I cook to make M happy and write to make me happy, I love sharing stuff that helps y’all expand your horizons and eat well.

Now, all that said, I still get asked the following questions a lot, so let me just address them again – they are,
Why don’t you list nutritional information for your recipes,
Why don’t you post exact prep and cooking times, and
Why do you post exotic ingredients that I’m not likely to have?

In a nutshell, here’s why;

Frankly, listing nutritionals means, more than anything, that I am determining what kind of portion size you and yours eat, and frankly, I don’t have a clue about that. On the sites that do this, portions are most oft listed in ounces, so let me just ask – Do you weigh what you cook and what you plate before you eat it? Didn’t think so… If I post a casserole recipe and you make it, how much do you eat? How about your partner? Do you have seconds, are there leftovers, and so on. This ain’t a restaurant and neither is your house. None of us need to eat the same portion for reasons of consistency or economic viability, unless maybe we’re on a specific diet, in which case you’re not getting your recipes here, (ideas though, maybe).

For the record, I predominantly scale recipes for two, with room for leftovers, the idea being that most of the folks visiting here, like M and I, cook that way. Factor in the consideration that we heavily champion the concept of cooking one thing that will generate several meals – A whole chicken, roast, or whatnot that can easily become three or four great meals- That’s the smart way to cook if you want to eat well, be efficient, and economically savvy. And I’m still not gonna list nutritional data, sorry – For that, you’re on your own. As mentioned liberally herein, a recipe is nothing more than an idea, a guideline at best – Most people can and will tweak it, often to quite a degree – You should read some of the responses I get along the line of, ‘I made it, but I didn’t use any chocolate’…

Don’t get me wrong, nutrition is important and should be monitored in some way, shape, or form. The best way to do that is to buy, cook, and eat good things. Buy locally whenever you can. Buy fresh food, and avoid highly processed stuff like the plague. Read the labels and avoid things that are there only to help some corporation keep things on the shelf longer, or to keep it looking pretty beyond the time it should. Grow anything and everything you can. Preserve what you buy or grow so that you can notably extend the time it is available to you. Make everything you can from scratch. That may sound more intensive than what you do now, but if you really care about nutrition, you’ll do it. And as far as our recipes go, whenever you need or want detailed nutritionals on our recipes, just use a calorie counting app, and you’re off to the races.

Next up is prep and cooking time.

Weeeeeellllll, how do I say this? Listing prep time is, in my not even remotely humble opinion, one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. The problem is actually pretty obvious. Listing prep time says we all prep at the same speed, and nothing could be further from the truth. Heck, I have three preppers in my cafe and they all perform differently… So really, the question is who’s prep time are we talking about? Mine? Yours? Emeril’s? I’ve been cutting things for decades and have pretty damn good knife skills; do you? I don’t even think about process and procedure any more, it just comes naturally – does it for you? And if your answers are ‘No’, does that make you slow? The answer to that isn’t rhetorical – it’s a resounding no. Listing prep time is often a disservice, for my mind. What it can and all too often does is to set up arbitrary determinations of success or failure in a home cook’s mind – It probably leads to mistakes, as folks look at the clock and start to rush or miss something things trying to keep up with an arbitrary determination of ‘normal’ prep time – Think that’s crazy? I assure you it’s not and that it does happen that way – It ends up souring a lot of folks on cooking, let alone websites and cookbooks.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How about what ingredients you have right on hand when you start your prep, how well equipped your kitchen is, how your day went, how many rug rats are flying around your feet, or how many critters need to go out right now? Get the picture? My bottom line is simple – No one should give a rats ass how long it takes, if you have the time and want to make it. If you’re cooking regularly, you either already have a decent sense of what you can and will accomplish in a given time, or you will develop one in time. If you really do like cooking and want to do it, you’ll do it.

Our herb and spice selection is, shall we say, robust.
Our herb and spice selection is, shall we say, robust.

Finally, there’s the exotic ingredient thing. Yes, I have a ridiculous pantry and spice cabinet, (ask M what she thinks of the Asian section alone.) You may or may not have a pantry like ours, but I really don’t think that matters. We have all this stuff because we dedicate a hell of a lot of time and energy into developing and perfecting recipes to share with y’all. Whether or not you need that much is up to you. Does a couple avocado leaves and a little annatto really make or break good chili? I think the question is rhetorical. Anyway, I don’t buy the ‘why do you use ingredients I’m not likely to have’ complaint for a second – in this day and age, almost anyone in this country and many others can get anything they want. And if you can’t, well, I’ve sent grits to Sweden, cornmeal to Australia, and mustard seed to Israel – if you don’t find something you wanna try, hit me up, and I’ll get it to you.

When I say pantry, I mean pantry...
When I say pantry, I mean pantry…

I’ve also gotta point out that a lot of what we do gets designed because we had stuff in house that needed to get used, so that’s what we put in there. Again, like a broken record, a recipe is a guideline – Don’t like hot chiles, but have sweet peppers? Use those, and don’t think twice, it’s alright. If you’re here with any frequency, you know we strongly encourage and desire experimentation on your part – If you’re making it, put what you like in it. In any case, did you know that you can’t copyright or claim recipes? True story, that – All you can call your own is the verbiage and order in which you explain how to make the dish – As such, I’ve got no more right to my recipes than you do, so go wild. Anyway, maybe you should check out Tasmanian Pepperberry, or Urfa Bebir. Only the Food Goods know what you’ll do with them.

We do this because, many years ago, dear friends who love to grow, cook, preserve and explore as much as we do asked us to. We do this because we have a love for good food and cooking shared. We do this because we hope to inspire such in y’all. That’s more than good enough for me.

It’s Time To Fix Home Kitchen Food Waste

As much as we love Thanksgiving, there’s a problem there, one that we’ve tried to address as an enduring theme here – managing and avoiding food waste. Huge amounts of it, and frankly, it’s not just the holidays. It’s every day, in our home kitchens. Massive waste. It’s time to address that.

Consider this shocker, courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Over this Thanksgiving week, Americans will throw out almost 200 million pounds of turkey alone.” That’s one weekend, gang. They go on to state that, “The average household of four is wasting about $1,800 annually on food that they buy and then never wind up eating.” And there’s more – “A recent survey in three U.S. cities found that the average American tosses out 2.5 pounds of perfectly edible food each week. At the top of the list: produce and leftovers.” And the coup de grace, “Households are actually the biggest contributor to the amount of food going to waste across the country — more than grocery stores or restaurants or any other sector.” All that food is the primary thing sent to dumps and landfills in this county, and that leads directly to the production of a hell of a lot of methane as all that stuff decomposes. Methane is a serious greenhouse gas – Not good in a world that’s rapidly heating up.

Now if you doubt those household waste figures, let me share something with you – As the General Manager of a cafe that does well north of 4 million bucks in sales annually, I have a few real concerns to deal with – I need to keep my folks happy, my guests safe and happy, and make money for my company. That’s it, in a nutshell. Do those things, and everything else will fall in place. Now, we certainly have waste, but let me put it into perspective for you – Our waste, our total waste, from a full time bakery and a kitchen putting out those kind of numbers, is around 3%. That’s roughly 1.5% from both sides, café and bakery. Now, compare that to the figures from the NRDC above and tell me – Do y’all think you’re anywhere near that efficient? The answer is a resounding NO – Not even close. That’s what we need to fix, because friends and neighbors? Your concerns are not any different than mine are, truth be told – You have to keep your crew happy, safe, and fed, and you cannot afford to waste the kind of money those figures up there reflect – None of us can.

There’s your post holiday bummer for you. So, as I always like to ask when somebody brings me gratuitous doom and gloom – What are we gonna do about it? Well, again, what we’re going to do is go back to talking about planning, and about thorough use of the food we buy. Why? Because we must, without fail.

That concept I mentioned, thorough use of what we buy, starts with shopping. So let me ask – When you shop, you make a list, right? If not, (and I know there are some of you who just wing it, so stop fibbing), you’ve got to start planning, carefully, if you’re going to avoid the kind of food waste we’re guilty of here. That means going through your pantry, cupboards, freezer, and fridge, and seeing what you’ve got and what you might need.

The idea here is to change a critical aspect of the way most of us shop – Instead of thinking about what might be fun or nice to buy, we need to look at what’s already in your kitchen with a couple of perspectives – First, what do I already got that’d be great to cook with, and secondly, what do I got that needs to be dealt with right now – before it turns to waste?

When you do that, you find the things that are maybe on the verge of going bad, and you use them, convert them, make them into something you’ll cook with, rather than let them go to waste. Got tomatoes about to become long in the tooth? Put them in an airtight container and freeze them. You can make sauce, soup, or stew later, when you’re ready. In fact, any and every vegetable or fruit you’ve got that is ‘getting there’ should be treated this way – You don’t really think folks buy bananas intending to make banana bread, do you?

Case in point – M and I invented a Chicago Dog Pizza the other night, because, one – we wanted pizza, and two – We didn’t have any of the proteins we’d normally put on pizza, (No ham, pepperoni, mozzarella, etc) – What we did have was two very good locally made hot dogs that needed to get eaten, some sport peppers, and a couple tomatoes that needed to get used as well. I made some dough, and a sauce tinged with a little zing of yellow mustard and celery salt. We used cheddar cheese, and a little sweet onion, and it was actually fantastic – I’d go back to a place that makes that and order it again.

When I say ‘go through your freezer and fridge,’ I mean it! Touch everything there – EVERYTHING! We do this daily in restaurant work, and you should do it at least weekly at home – That’s the number one way to find stuff that needs to get used and get it in play before its too far gone, (And conversely, not doing so is the number one reason we waste so much food). I’ve seen a lot of fridges and freezers in my day, and many are downright terrifying. Don’t let yours get there – Police it regularly, and practice FIFO at home, (First In, First Out), combined with dating things in there, and you’ll be well on your way to running a tighter ship.

When you do make that list, think in much broader terms than one meal at a time. A chicken, one nice, fat fresh chicken, can easily make three meals – Roasted chicken, chicken tacos, chicken noodle soup. Turns that $15 bird into a much more efficient protein, doesn’t it? We talked pretty extensively about this in a couple of posts, one on Meal Planning, and one on Planning for Leftovers – Check those out.

And then, when you’re ready to go to the store, do yourselves a favor – Abide by the old adage, ‘Don’t shop hungry.’ Seriously – It’s why we shop on Sundays, our mutual day off, and go out to eat beforehand. Hungry shopping leads to binge shopping, and that’s bad for the wallet and the waste log. Stick to your list, and you’re good to go.

That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t snag something that looks great when you’re there – Just be judicious in that vein. The reason we waste so much produce is because its pretty, and stores do a great job of presenting it. That’s fine, and it’s stuff you should eat, but if you go getting all crazy in that department, thinking you’re going to use all this stuff before it spoils, nine times out of ten, you’re dead wrong – Pick a thing or two at most, and make sure you use it. If it floats your boat, add it to your list downstream. If it doesn’t, then move on.

A lot, and I mean a lot of folks snag stuff because they’ve heard of it, seen it on Iron Chef, or something along that line – The question is, do you know what Jicama tastes like? (It’s great, by the way – Sorry…) This being the 21st century, whip out the ol’ smart phone and do a quick research on what it is that’s got your attention. You may or may not like turnips, Chinese long beans, or star fruit, and a quick check can give you enough of a clue to make a more informed decision than, ‘it’s so pretty.’

Finally, when you get your booty home, think about waste when you start to cook. What we throw away day in and day out isn’t always waste – A lot of it is food we didn’t use. Those NRDC quotes came from a piece NPR did with Massimo Bottura, a Michelin starred Chef who shows us how to think differently about what we throw away. He even got some friends together, like Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse, and Ferran Adrià, to name just a few, and wrote a cookbook aimed at reducing household food waste. It’s a spiral-bound gem titled, Bread is Gold, and you want it in your culinary library. Check out the NPR piece here.

To get you started, here’s the best potato stock you’ll ever make. It’s a great thing to make, divide into portions, and whip out to make amazing sauce, soup, or stews with.

Potato Peel Stock

5 Cups Water
Peels only from 6-8 Potatoes
1 medium Sweet Onion
2 Carrots
1 stalk Celery
1 Bay Leaf
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Fresh Ground Pepper

Rinse and rough chop onion, carrots, and celery.

Throw everything into a stock pot over high heat until it begins to boil.

Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, and cook for 2 hours.

Remove from heat, run the stock through a colander and discard the veggies

Allow to cool to room temperature, then portion and freeze, or use right away.

Where the last of your turkey needs to be
Where the last of your turkey needs to be

And finally, for the record, Kevin Rosinbum, a talented photographer and cook I know wrote this yesterday afternoon, above a picture of a glorious pot of homemade soup. “If you toss out your holiday carcass, you’ve already lost.” Truer words were never written.

We had that turkey dinner of course, followed by two rounds of stunningly delicious sandwiches, (I think I like them best of all). After that, what was left of the meat got pared off the carcass, and that got thrown into the oven to roast, and then into the slow cooker – Just the carcass and the aromatics it had cooked in – covered with water and left to do its thing for 8 hours. The result, strained once, is the most unctuous, fragrant, amazing stock you could ever hope for. With carrots, celery, garlic, leftover potatoes, and the rest of the meat, it’s now a pot of our own glorious soup, simmering away as I type.

Why I Do This

I get asked a lot why I do this. I don’t get paid for it, I’ve staunchly refused to monetize the site, and I work hard at it week in and week out, and believe you me, each and every post takes a lot of time and effort, let alone the cost.

Well, lemme tell ya why – After the posts on brining turkey, and the one on sides and desserts, among with a whole bunch more very nice comments and reviews, I got these –

“Ahhh. The birds were excellent! The dry brined turkey won out the day. Better flavor and a better texture. We all raised a glass to you. I hope your day was good. Thank you.”

“The son in law pulled off a perfect brined turkey yesterday. His first! Thanks for that! You had a helping hand there.”

“I gotta be honest, I was dubious when I read the dry brine procedure, and even more so every time I’d look at it in the fridge over three long days – But Son? You weren’t blowin’ smoke! Best bird I’ve ever done, hands down.”

“The hubs loves to deep fry turkeys, but to be absolutely honest, I’ve never been that impressed, until now – That brine thing was night and day from the usual result – THANK YOU!!”

“That pumpkin flan was AMAZING, and it was pretty easy to make – Your directions even worked for this hopeless kitchen klutz – Thanks again.”

THAT is why I do this.

👍🏼❤️🙏🏼

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.

 

Spare Ribs with a Citrus Fennel Glaze

We did up some ribs for dinner the other night, in honor of our middle son and his partner coming over for dinner. As we are want to do, we posted some pics all over social media, and as such, have had a bunch of requests for the recipe, so here goes – Spare Ribs with a Citrus Fennel Glaze.

Citrus Fennel Glazed Spare Ribs
Citrus Fennel Glazed Spare Ribs

The sauce is the star here, and for good reason. It’s a grade A example of the organic way M and I arrive at a dish, based largely on what we’ve got on hand, and often initiated by a single thing – In this case, a left over blood orange that had given up it’s zest for an earlier meal with our youngest kid.

Initially, we were leaning toward a Chinese style rub, but James is allergic to sesame, so we went off on a tangent. M found that blood orange and wondered aloud if we couldn’t do something with that. A short brainstorming session yielded what you see herein. This sauce could be used on a lot of things, from chicken or beef, to Brussels sprouts or carrots.

While this might seem like alchemy, I assure you, it’s not. Often, when we’re brainstorming things, I’ll whip out our copy of The Flavor Bible, a book that you aughta have in your kitchen, if you don’t already. You’ll find a wealth of parings and affinities therein that truly can and will spark your imagination and creativity.

And I can’t stress enough to be bold in endeavors like this – If you like stuff, and you think that stuff might go well together, then try it. If you’re at all nervous about committing to a full blown recipe, then cut off a little piece of this and a little piece of that,  pop them your mouth, and see what you think. If it’s good, go with it. If it’s not, search elsewhere.  That, in a nutshell, is how you build your own ideas into culinary reality.

We used a rack of spare ribs, but you can do any cut of rib you like, (Baby Back, St. Louis, Rib Tips, County Style, or beef ribs.)

Preheat oven to 250° F and set a rack in the middle slot.

Season ribs with sea salt and fresh ground pepper, (we use our go to seasoning salt for pretty much everything).

Wrap the ribs tightly in aluminum foil, fat side up and dull side of the foil facing out.

Set the package on a baking sheet, or the bottom of a broiler pan, and cook low and slow for about 2 hours, until the rib meat is very tender.

Citrus Fennel glaze is great for a bunch of dishes
Citrus Fennel glaze is great for a bunch of dishes

Citrus-Fennel Glaze

Juice from one fat and happy blood orange.
1/4 Cup Orange Marmalade
1/3 Cup chopped fresh Fennel bulb
2 small cloves Garlic
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco chile flake, (Use any chile variety you like here)
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Teaspoon Arrowroot.

Remove ribs from oven, set a rack on a high slot, and increase temperature to 375° F.

In a sauté pan over medium heat, melt butter, then add fennel and sauté for a couple minutes until it has notably softened.

Add garlic and sauté another minute until raw garlic smell dissipates.

Reduce heat to medium low.

Add orange juice, marmalade, and chile flake, stir well to incorporate.

Cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes, until the sauce is quite liquid, (that’d be the marmalade relaxing a bit.)

Add half the arrow root and stir to incorporate. Allow the sauce to cook for another minute or so. Sauce will thicken slightly – Add the rest of the arrow root if you want things a bit thicker.

Unwrap the ribs, and flip them meat side up onto the pan. Baste or pour sauce liberally onto the ribs in an even layer.

Uncover your ribs and flip them meaty side up for glazing
Uncover your ribs and flip them meaty side up for glazing

Return the ribs to the oven on the high rack, and cook for about 10 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and starting to caramelize.

Beautiful salad!
Beautiful salad!

We served ours with an gratin potatoes, a lovely green salad, and fresh, crusty bread. They were falling off the bone tender, and the sauce was a perfect foil to the richness of the meat.