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.

Spaghetti Sauce a la Urban

There’s no doubt that a great batch of homemade spaghetti sauce is serious comfort food. In an ideal world, you want to make something that cooks low and slow, developing serious flavors, but what about when you get a hankering at 4:45 in the afternoon? Here’s how I scratch that itch. This is a simple sauce that tastes much richer than it might sound, and I assure you, it’s incredible the next day. The fresh veggies, citrus, pungent lemon thyme, piney savory, and subtle, herby sweetness of the marjoram is the key – Spaghetti Sauce a la Urban.

For the proteins, keep in mind that you can and should grind your own at home; if you don’t have the capability for that, dice it and you’ll be fine. If you prefer a vegetarian version, I’d substitute firm local tofu, or eggplant. Make sure all your veggies and proteins are as fresh as can be. Do use whole canned tomatoes; they hold more flavor than stewed, crushed, diced, etc, the quality is often better than fresh at this time of year, and they’re certainly less expensive.

8 Ounces Fresh Angel Hair Pasta

2 20 oz cans Whole Tomatoes

1/2 Pound Ground Pork

1/2 Pound Angus Beef

1 Cup Black Olives

1/2 Sweet Onion

1/2 Sweet Pepper

1 Stalk Celery

1 small Lemon

1/2 small Lime

3-4 Cloves Garlic

2-3 Sprigs Parsley

1/2 – 1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1/2 – 1 teaspoon Savory

1/2 teaspoon Marjoram

2 whole Bay Leaves

1 Cup Red Wine

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Dry Sherry

Sea Salt

Black Pepper

Toss the tomatoes into a large pot over medium low heat. Process with an immersion blender until you’ve got the consistency you like. I prefer to leave things a bit rustic, rather than going all the way to smooth sauce.

Rinse, peel, top and seed the onion, sweet pepper, celery, garlic, citrus, and parsley. Fine dice the onion, pepper, olives, and celery; if you have celery leaves, by all means, use them, that’s where the real flavor is. Mince the garlic, chiffonade the parsley. Quarter the citrus.

In a large sauté pan over medium high heat, add the beef and pork, and season lightly with salt and pepper. When the meats are nicely browned, add the cup of red wine and continue cooking until the raw alcohol smell goes away. Add the proteins to the tomato blend

Add a couple tablespoons of olive oil to the sauté pan and allow to heat through. Add onion and pepper and season lightly with salt and pepper. Sauté until the onion begins to turn translucent. Add garlic and continue to sauté until the raw garlic smell is gone. Add all that to the big pot

Add 1/2 Cup of Sherry to the sauté pan and deglaze, thoroughly scraping up all the little bits. Once the raw alcohol smell has burned off, add that to the pot as well.

Squeeze citrus into the big pot, stir to incorporate. Crush by hand and add the lemon lemon thyme, savory, and marjoram. Add parsley and bay leaves, stir to incorporate. Taste and adjust salt and pepper seasoning as/if needed.

Reduce heat to low and simmer for an hour or two, stirring regularly.

Serve Over fresh angel hair pasta, with freshly grated Parmegiano, crusty bread, a nice green salad and a glass or two of Old Vine Zinfandel.

The next day, add a cup of cheese to the blend, and bake for 30 minutes at 350° F. As promised, it’ll be spectacular.

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.

Split Pea Soup

Great ingredients make great soup
Great ingredients make great soup

If you’ve ever lived in the southern part of the U.S.A., then you’ve likely experienced the tradition of eating black-eyed peas, (AKA, Hoppin’ John), on New Year’s Day – Doing so is believed to be not only a harbinger of prosperity in the new year, but a pretty decent hangover cure as well. Other anointed foods for New Years include pork, corned beef and cabbage, whole fish, and even ring shaped eats. Here at UrbanMonique, we went to bed quite early on New Year’s Eve, but we still like to hedge our bets. As such, we decided it was a perfect night for M’s stunningly delicious split pea soup. That decision was made all the easier by the fact that we had leftover ham from Christmas, (including a gorgeous bone), and some amazing pea stock we froze back in the summer after harvesting snap peas from the garden. Split pea soup kinda gets a bad rap for the same reason Brussels sprouts do – Lackluster cooking, or overcooking, leads to less than stellar results – We’re here to shatter that reputation.

Ham glam shot
Ham glam shot

I hail from New England, where split pea soup has always been quite popular. Legend has it this dish was introduced to the region by southward migrating Québécois, but the ubiquity of split peas throughout many cultures may dispel that. Cultivars of Pisum sativum have been favored by humans for millennia – Romans and Greeks were growing them as far back as 500 B.C.E. – Given their propensity for far flung travel and conquest, it’s a safe bet they got them from somebody else. And in any age before modern food preservation, it’s a sure thing that drying peas was standard practice, as it still is today.

Harkening back to my comment about lackluster versions of split pea soup, it’s no surprise, frankly, when we recall the old rhyme, ‘peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.’ Lets face it, if that was good eating, we’d all still be doing it. Starting out with high quality, fresh ingredients will quickly dispel that nightmarish vision. Your journey toward that end must start with the peas themselves. Many of us have a bag of the little green guys in our pantry, straight from the store – It’s just as likely that said bag of peas has been in your pantry since the Pleistocene era too, right? If so, that’s a problem right off the bat. Dried peas, beans, etc will last a very long time, if stored properly, but left in the original plastic bag and tossed onto a shelf in the pantry doesn’t qualify as ‘proper’. The main adversary for split peas is oxygen, and that’s the case for pretty much all legumes, pulses, etc. The solution is a decent quality, air tight container – With those in use, you can easily get 3 to 5 years of storage, and if you add an oxygen absorber, like Oxy-Sorb, which is specifically made for the purpose, you ou’ll easily extend your shelf life to 10 years or more. Oxy-Sorb is great stuff, cheap, and readily available, by the way – A 100 pack costs about ten bucks, delivered from numerous online sources, and big chain grocery stores sell it as well – Same goes for decent quality food storage vessels, (and frankly, you’d be hard pressed to do better than quart, half gallon, or gallon mason jars for that job.)

As with all great soups and stews, great split pea soup depends on carefully chosen components and a specific process of assembly. It is a simple dish, but nonetheless, there are definitive steps that need to be followed. As always, this begins with the essentials, (other than peas, of course) – That’s good ham with a nice, big bone, fresh aromatics, stock, and seasoning. As for the latter, all too often what’s used for split pea soup is what’s suggested on the plastic bag they come in, AKA, water. While water sure works, stock is so much better, and is key to great soup.

Homemade, great leftovers - All you need to get started.
Homemade, great leftovers – All you need to get started.

Vegetable or chicken stock will work great, and if you’ve been keeping up with class, then you’ve taken opportunities to make and freeze stock along the way. As mentioned previously, back in July we had a bumper crop of snap peas, and took steps to harvest and preserve those – In so doing, the inspiration for pea stock hit me and we made some – It was and is incredible stuff – a lovely translucent green, with a scent redolent of fresh peas, even when defrosted some six months later – There’s a testimonial to why we freeze, dry, can, or otherwise preserve great home grown food, if ever there was one, (That doesn’t mean you need to have matched us overachievers – Use what you’ve got – Homemade preferred, but store bought is just fine.)

And while we’re talking homemade, if and when you get a nice bone, never, ever throw it out. Sure, your critters will love ’em, but your house made stocks and broths will love ’em even more. As for aromatics – It’s a safe bet that in too many home kitchens, the carrots, onion, garlic, celery and the like might be a bit long in the tooth by the time you get around to using them – In a word, don’t do that. The French have it right when they go to the market almost daily – If it’s worth making and eating, it’s worth fresh ingredients – Don’t buy the big bags of bulk carrots, onions, etc – Go to the market frequently, and poke, prod, smell, and look when you shop – Reject the rubbery, the off colored, or too soft, and carefully pick fresh stuff – That is one of the real joys of shopping, so take advantage.

And finally, there’s seasoning. I’ve said this before and will again – If you’re buying herbs and spices from the grocery store, you’re missing out. If you’re using spices from a cute little revolving wheel thingy, and the spices came with that, and you got it when you got married, you’re fired. Herbs and spices have very bit as much a shelf life as other foods, and less so than some – they’re good for 6 months or so, if they’ve been prepared and stored properly. If your wheel o’ spices is out where sunlight hits it on a regular basis, your stuff is toast and needs to be replaced. If it’s not from a high quality source, like World Spice, Penzeys, Pendereys, to name just a few, you’ve no guarantee that what your buying is up to snuff – And finally, never use my sainted Father’s wine buying plan when it comes to spice – The more you get for less dough is not a successful strategy.

So, with all that, here’s the scoop.

M’s Heavenly Split Pea Soup

4 Cups Vegetable or Chicken Stock
2 Cups Water
2 Cups (about 1/2 pound), Ham
1 nice big Ham Bone
1 Pound dried Split Peas
2 large Carrots
3 stalks Celery
2 Tablespoons chopped Shallot
3 cloves Garlic
1 Lemon
1-2 Tablespoons Parsely
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground Pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed red Chile
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil.

In a stock pot over medium high heat, combine water, stock and the ham bone. When the stock begins to boil, reduce heat until its barely maintaining a simmer. Allow the stock and bone to simmer for 60 minutes.

An hour or so of simmering will properly marry the flavors of pork Bone and stock
An hour or so of simmering will properly marry the flavors of pork Bone and stock

Rough chop ham, cut carrots into half-rounds about 1/4″ thick, chop celery, dice shallot and mince garlic.

Aromatics, the heartbeat of great soup
Aromatics, the heartbeat of great soup

Zest lemon, cut in half.

Place peas in a single mesh strainer and rinse under cold running water, checking for non-food detritus.

Rinse and inspect pease before deployment!
Rinse and inspect pease before deployment!

In a soup pot over medium heat, add oil and heat through. Add carrot, celery, and shallot. Sauté until the shallot begins to turn translucent.

Always sauté your aromatics first!
Always sauté your aromatics first!

Remove Bone from stock and allow to cool, then give it to your dawg.

Add stock, water, ham, and split peas to soup pot with aromatics over medium heat. Stir to incorporate. When the soup starts to boil, reduce heat to barely maintain a slow simmer. Simmer soup for 1-2 hours, until the split peas are where you like them – just slightly al dente is the sweet spot.

Great split pea soup should look like what it's made from, not mush!
Great split pea soup should look like what it’s made from, not mush!

Add parsley, lemon thyme, a tablespoon of lemon zest, pepper, Chile, and salt. Stir to incorporate and taste, adjust seasoning as desired. Allow the soup to simmer for another 10 minutes.

Add the herbs and spices last so they don't lose their floral qualities
Add the herbs and spices last so they don’t lose their floral qualities

Serve nice and hot, garnished with a little more fresh lemon zest and shot or two of hot sauce if you like such things. A dollop of fresh sour cream doesn’t suck, either.

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

Serve with crusty bread and a glass of decent Zinfandel, and you’re in hog heaven.

Banh Mi

Asked for reflective advice shortly before he died, the venerable rocker Warren Zevon thought for a moment, and then replied, “enjoy every sandwich.” There’s sage advice in that simple thought. Few things tell more about a chef than what kind of sandwich they offer, and the same goes for the choice a diner makes. Given the incredible depth and breadth of options out there, I’ll just come straight out and say that you’d be absolutely hard pressed to do better than an authentic, house made Banh Mi sandwich.

When we dive into sandwich history, invariably we come to the old saw regarding John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who lived in the seventeen hundreds, and reportedly ‘invented’ his namesake treat. Montagu, during an epic poker game in the winter of 1762, called for cold meat in between two slices of bread so that he wouldn’t have to break away from the game to eat. His culinary trick caught on, and subsequently, the thing began to be referred to as a sandwich – Now, all that said, there’s no doubt the dish has roots far deeper and broader than one game of five card draw.

Whether it’s a Reuben in Omaha, a torta in Mexico, smoked meat in Canada, vada pav in India, katsu sando in Japan, medianoche in Cuba, chacarero in Chile, or doner kebabs in Turkey, they’re all variations on the sandwich theme, and they’re all delicious – And none more so than a perfectly constructed banh mi.

Banh Mi is, of course, Vietnamese, with some foreign influence integral to the sandwich. The foreign would be French, who, like so many other empire builders, (Us Merkans, for instance), were eventually drummed out of Vietnam, but if they left some good behind, their influence on Vietnamese cuisine was undoubtedly it. Bread was non-existent in Vietnam before the French – Now baguette shops are ubiquitous throughout the country, (In Vietnam, baguettes are made from rice flour, by the way, so a real Vietnamese baguette has a delightfully light taste and crumb). Onions, potatoes, asparagus, and meat broth were adopted heartily, the latter leading to arguable the most famous Vietnamese culinary export, the joy that is Pho.

That said, don’t by any means assume that Vietnam was a culinary backwater prior to colonization – Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Vietnamese have always excelled at not only surviving, but thriving in good times and bad – A key part of that adaptability is the willingness to try and adopt new things – especially true when it comes to food. Vietnam and their largest neighbor, China, have cross pollinated culinarily for thousands of years. Everything from noodles and won tons, to chiles and corn made their way south from China and were adopted heartily by the Vietnamese.

That said, there are key aspects of Vietnamese culinary philosophy that color everything there, including the banh mi. At the core of this cooking is the balance of distinct, strong flavor profiles – spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet. Per the Vietnamese culinary tradition, each flavor corresponds with an organ in our bodies – gall bladder, small intestines, large intestines, stomach, and bladder, accordingly. The mantra of five continues further – Vietnamese cooks strive to include five essential nutrients in each meal – Powder (spice), water, minerals, protein, and fat. The visual element of cooking is also carefully considered; white, green, yellow, red, and black are presented in a well balanced Vietnamese dish. Finally, a balance between what is thought of as the heating or cooling properties of various ingredients is considered – The juxtaposition of jalapeño and mayonnaise in a classic banh mi, for example.

That classic banh mi is far simpler than what you probably have tasted. Banh mi thit nguoi, sometimes called the special, (Dac biet), is a baguette, sliced in two and given a hearty schmear of house made liver pate – That’s how it was for many decades and still is, in many Vietnamese deli’s. Banh mi has evolved, however, to our great fortune. Nowadays, you’ll find subtly complex sauces, pickled and fresh vegetables, and proteins from tofu, to char siu pork, roast chicken, or grilled pork, and of course, beef here in the states. Almost any protein you dig will work, which makes banh mi the perfect vehicle for leftovers. The veggies vary as well, but almost always include chiles, cilantro, cucumber, and a tart-sweet pickled daikon, carrot, or onion. That fancier, loaded version became popular in south Vietnam, especially in Saigon, and it’s that version that has spread around the globe more than any other.

Two of the things needed for a classic banh mi are things that you probably don’t have laying around your kitchens – One you’ll have to make, and the other buy, or sub for. They are the daikon or radish pickle, and Maggi seasoning. The pickle is easy as all get out to make, and we’ve got a recipe for you below. That’ll need at least an hour before you use them, and a couple to a few are even better, so consider making that ahead of meal time. The Maggi seasoning is, frankly, pretty much pure MSG and sodium, although the recipe varies depending on where it’s made, (Maggi is ubiquitous in Asian cooking, but it actually originated in Switzerland back in the 1800s). If you have an Asian grocery, you’ll find it there, and of course it can be bought from Amazon as well. It comes in various sizes, from around 5 ounces on up to 28 and 32 ounce bottles – If you decide to try it, get a small bottle – A little goes a long way. I’m going to assume you don’t have Maggi, and as such, I’ll offer a sub that’ll work just fine and taste delicious to boot. Finally, we like a light cabbage slaw on our banh mi, so I’ll shoot you a recipe for that as well.

Pickled daikon or radish is key to Banh mi
Pickled daikon or radish is key to Banh mi

For the Pickled Daikon.
You may sub regular radishes if your grocery doesn’t have decent daikon, as ours did not when I wrote this post.
5-6 Radishes
1/2 Cup White Vinegar
1/2 Cup cold Water
1/2 teaspoon Bakers Sugar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

Rinse and stem radishes, then slice into 1/8″ thick rounds. If you use daikon, slice those into matchstick size, and the same goes for carrots if you decide to go that route – Use the same brine on all three options.

Combine all remaining ingredients and stir briskly to dissolve salt and sugar.

Place radishes in a non-reactive container, cover with the brine and allow to sit for 1 to 4 hours prior to use.

For the Slaw
2-3 1/4″ thick slices Green and Red Cabbage
1 small Carrot
1-2 slices Sweet Onion
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
Pinch of Sea Salt

Slice the carrot and onion – Onion into thin slivers, and carrot into match stick size.

Rough chop the Cabbage slices.

Transfer all to a mixing bowl, add the vinegar and salt and toss to coat.

For the Sauce
1 Cup Mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dark Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Cider Vinegar
3-5 drops Fish Sauce
1-2 drops Worcestershire

Combine and thoroughly whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes prior to use.

For the Banh Mi
1/2 Pound Protein of choice
Fresh Baguette
3-4 Jalapeño chiles
1 Cuccumber
5-6 sprig Cilantro
Banh Mi Sauce
slaw
Pickled Radishes

Banh mi - a study of balance and flavor
Banh mi – a study of balance and flavor

For whatever protein you decide on, (we used beef for ours), slice very thin.

Cut baguette into roughly 6-8″ long chunks, then slice in half. It’s customary to take the soft gut of the bread out, leaving more room for goodies.

Stem and seed Jalapeños, then slice into very thin rings.

Slice cucumber into very thin rings.

Rough chop cilantro.

Arrange all the goodies so that each person can load their own banh mi.

Put a generous amount of the sauce on both sides of the baguette, then layer up, starting with your protein and ending with the slaw.

Banh mi, final assembly
Banh mi, final assembly

Now, you’ve got your balance of flavors and colors, (The Soy in your Sauce handles the black, btw), and you’ll make all your organs happy!

Banh mi
Banh mi

Fold ’em up and dig in.

Goes great with a local lager or pilsner.

Beef Stroganoff, or should I say, Stroganov?

It’s 40° F this morning, with a 17 knot wind out of the northeast, putting the wind chill at about 34° F. And it’s rained 3/4″ in the last two days, with more on the way. Can you say, Comfort Food? Sure, I knew ya could… Days like this call for something that conjures childhood memories of coming in from a frigid Massachusetts winter, to a house redolent with the rich smells of good things to eat. Beef Stroganoff, or should I say, Stroganov, is what I’ve got in mind, and I’m willing to bet that merely reading those words has already gone to work on you, too. I’m talking authentic beef stroganoff here, which raises an important question – What exactly is authentic, in this regard? Let’s find out.

Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov
Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov

Invariably, if you’re a student of food history at all, you’ve heard some version of the origin story for beef stroganoff. Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov was the Minister of Internal Affairs of Russia under Czar Alexander III, in the early 19th century, and later the Governor-General of Novorossiysk and Bessarabia. He was also the president of the historical society, a famous and wealthy man, and a bit of a gourmand. The rest of the story goes, in essence, that he collaborated with his French Chef to invent Beef Stroganov, which took Russia by storm, winning awards throughout the country, and is still with us today. While the modern dish is surely named Stroganoff, the origin story is kinda cloudy when you get down to brass tacks. And by the way, there are some serious issues with most modern recipes – More on that shortly.

Here are a few facts – first, the dish attributed to the Stroganov family is an age old Russian favorite – sautéed beef in sour cream sauce. Secondly, the upper crust during Czarist times loved all things French – Many spoke French at home and sent their kids to French schools, and French cuisine was considered especially à la mode. Third, many Russian cooks were French trained, and families who could afford to hire a genuine French Chef would do so in a heartbeat.

There is also evidence to support the belief that at least one Stroganov Count had a French Chef, though I’ve yet to read anything definitive attributed to which one was the one. While most popular versions tap Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov as the creator, there are rival claims for Counts Pavel Alexandrovich and Sergei Grigorievich as well. The first published recipe that specifically called the dish Beef Stroganov I’m aware of appeared in a cookbook written by Elena Molokovhets in 1861, (A Gift For Young Housewives). It’s also true that, thirty years later, in Saint Petersburg, a French Chef named Charles Briere was awarded a blue ribbon for a dish he called Beef Stroganov. But at that point, Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov had been dead for almost 75 years, and the youngest candidate, Sergei, had died in 1882. Nothing I read could definitively tie Briere to the Stroganovs either – Clear as mud, right?

In any case, it’s certainly plausible that a French Chef might tweak either a rustic Russian favorite, (or for that matter, a French fricassee de boeuf), making it more suitable for refined Russian palates. And it’s still most likely, for my mind, that the dish came to fame with Count Alexander, who reportedly was a serious party hound. Certainly the French-Russian twist is evident in the truest version of the dish – sautéing beef, and then whipping up a pan sauce flavored with mustard is absolutely French, while beef in sour cream defines Russian fare to a T.

When the Communist Revolution engulfed Russia and buried the last of the Czars, many who were able fled their home country. Naturally, they took their favorite dishes with them. Beef Stroganov migrated first to China, where Shanghai was known as The Paris of the East – There is where it likely was first pared with rice, and where soy or fish sauce of some kind would have been introduced as well. The dish also worked its way through what would become the soviet block countries, and eventually to America – There, in New York City in 1927, the Russian Tea Room opened, with Beef Stroganoff on the menu. It was around this time and through these gyrations and upheavals that the name apparently changed from Stroganov to Stroganoff.

Enough of the history – Onward to the stuff commonly associated with beef Stroganov that, frankly, shouldn’t be – Please note, I’m not saying you can’t do these things – I’m merely pointing out that, if authentic is important, this stuff won’t be in the mix. Pretty much the entire no-no list came from American ‘improvements’ to the dish.

Mushrooms – Russian purists say unequivocally that mushrooms in beef stroganoff is inauthentic. You can do it if you dig it, but try it at least once without. Mushrooms are potent – They add a number of elements of taste and texture that can easily overwhelm what should be a delicate balance of flavors – Leave them out once and see what you think, or sauté up some and offer them as a side dish.

Served on Noodles – Never done in Russia. Served over mashed or roasted potatoes, or accompanied by fried potatoes are the ways it was done, and later, over rice as well. Don’t get me wrong, freshly made egg noodles are great with Stroganoff, but you owe it to yourself to try the more authentic accompaniments – And doing so gives you a built in excuse to make several batches…

Adding canned cream of mushroom soup. Please, just don’t, ever. That stuff is just so wrong, I shouldn’t need to elaborate further. I don’t care if your mom and aunt Sally used it – Just don’t.

Adding ketchup/catsup. While I found, (and endorse), the use of tomato paste and honey in the seasoning mix, ketchup ain’t the way to get there. The balance is way off, and frankly, even good store bought ketchup doesn’t taste much like tomatoes. The idea is to get a little sweet note and a little msg umami feel into the recipe, and there’s much better, more balanced ways to do that, as you’ll see shortly.

For great Stroganov, you need great beef
For great Stroganov, you need great beef

Ground beef, or cheap stew cuts. Remember what I said last week about choosing beef? You certainly can make Stroganoff with these cuts and grinds, but to do it right, what you need is a nice quality, lean cut. Top sirloin, eye of the round, tenderloin will all do a great job. Stroganoff, done right, is fork tender, almost melt in your mouth, and it doesn’t require long stewing or braising time, so a good quality cut is mission critical to achieving that end. Again, you can use that other stuff in a pinch, but if you want to make the version fit for a Count, you need pretty good beef.

What you certainly can do is use a protein other than beef. While some hard cores claim only kow is korrect, plenty of genuine Russian history and recipes I chased down indicated that pork, lamb, and chicken all were used from time to time in the old country, and you can too. And for that matter, tofu sautéed to a nice crispy crust, with a soft, cream interior, is also pretty spectacular, if I do say so myself.

This recipe is an amalgam of several authentic versions. Those recipes varied from absolutely simple to quite complex. I took the common ground from all of them, as well as a couple of my favorite tweaks from the dish’s travels, to arrive where I did. I encourage you to dig in deeper and come up with one of your own – But try mine first. That said, whatever version you make, pay attention to the technique I’m showing here. I guarantee you it’ll make the most incredible Stroganov you’ve ever tasted, or your money back!

Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique

1 Pound Beef Sirloin or Tenderloin
1 small Sweet Onion
1 Cup Sour Cream
1/2 Cup Beef Stock
1 Tablespoon Wondra Flour
1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil (Olive Oil is fine)
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1 Tablespoon Tomato Paste
2 teaspoons Honey
1 teaspoon Soy Sauce
2 drops Fish Sauce
Sea Salt
Ground Pepper

Trim all fat and connective tissue from beef, and reserve that stuff.

Trimmed fat and connective tissue
Trimmed fat and connective tissue

In a cast iron skillet over low heat, add a pinch of salt and all the trimmed fat, etc. cook on low, stirring occasionally, until the fat is rendered out of the trimmings, about 15 minutes.

Rendering fat from beef trimmings
Rendering fat from beef trimmings

Peel, trim, and slice onion into thin 1/8″ thick rings, then cut those into quarters.

Sweat the onions in rendered beef fat, with a little salt and pepper
Sweat the onions in rendered beef fat, with a little salt and pepper

Remove the trimmings from the skillet, and bring heat up to medium. If your beef trimmings didn’t render enough fat to coat the pan, add a little oil.

Add onions to the skillet, stir to coat with the rendered fat, and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Reduce heat to medium low and sweat the onions – This is done with the heat initially fairly high, then reduced – Its a quick process, 2 or 3 minutes, with steady stirring. The onions will look glossy and wet, but do not brown them.

If you've made and frozen Demi glacé, this is a perfect dish to add it to.
If you’ve made and frozen Demi glacé, this is a perfect dish to add it to.

Add the beef stock and butter to the skillet and stir, add another pinch of salt and a twist or two of Pepper. If you’ve been good and made demi glacé, pull a cube or two from the freezer and add it to the pan as well. Stir to incorporate, and reduce heat to low.

Onions, beef stock, butter, and Demi glacé
Onions, beef stock, butter, and Demi glacé

With a meat hammer, pound the trimmed beef lightly to tenderize. If you have a decent meat hammer, then the trick is to let the tool’s weight do the work – Don’t add muscle to the pounding, just guide the tool – You want your beef to end up about 1/2″ thick.

Beef pounded to roughly 1/2" thick
Beef pounded to roughly 1/2″ thick

Cut the beef into strips about 1 1/2″ long and 1/2″ thick. Transfer to a non-reactive bowl.

Check your onions and stock. Give them a stir, and keep the heat low enough that they do not simmer.

The rocket fuel for great Stroganov
The rocket fuel for great Stroganov

Add flour, mustard, tomato paste, soy sauce, honey, and fish sauce to the beef and mix by hand until thoroughly and evenly coated.

Beef, seasoned with flour, mustard, tomato paste, soy sauce, and fish sauce.
Beef, seasoned with flour, mustard, tomato paste, soy sauce, and fish sauce.

Transfer onions and stock to a mixing bowl.

Increase heat to medium high and add a tablespoon of avocado oil to the skillet. When the pan is nice and hot, add the beef and sauté quickly, turning constantly. Cook for about 2 minutes until the beef is lightly browned.

Turn the heat under the skillet off, and add the onions and stock to the beef. Stir to incorporate. Cover the pan and allow the dish to sit for at least 30 minutes, and an hour is better yet.

Beef Stroganov should be luxurious, even before adding sour cream
Beef Stroganov should be luxurious, even before adding sour cream

When you’re about ready to eat, uncover the skillet and turn the heat to medium low. Allow the Stroganov to heat through, stirring occasionally. Do not allow the dish to boil or simmer vigorously – Nice and easy does it on the reheat. This will take about 15 minutes to heat the dish through.

When your Stroganov has 5 minutes of reheating left, add the sour cream, taste and adjust salt and pepper as desired. Stir gently to incorporate, and every minute or so thereafter – Again, do not allow the dish to boil, or you’ll break the delicate sauce.

Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique
Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique

Serve over rice, or mashed potatoes, with a salad or green vegetable. Garnish with parsley, cilantro, or basil, and chopped tomato if you like.

Na Zdorovie!

Practical Meal Planning

My friend Mark Conley is a follower here, (and also a purty durn good guitar maker and educator, too!) After our last post on slow cookers, he asked this million dollar question about practical meal planning,

‘It is just me and my wife most dinners. Is this practical for us? I don’t like making massive amounts of food!’

Thank you, Buddy, for asking, because we seriously need to cover this stuff. The answer is yes, it’s not only practical, but it makes more sense than most other plans. Here’s why

M and I live with just our two critters, so all our cooking is for two. We cook throughout the week, of course, but what we make is often determined on short notice – By what looks good, sounds good, or comes in a flash or inspiration. We typically have one day off together, Sunday. Our ritual is coffee in bed, then breakfast in town, followed by shopping.

Generally, the center piece of that trip to the grocery store is one thing around which we’ll generate several meals. As y’all know, we’re omnivores, so that’s often chicken, pork, or beef – We buy a whole bird, or a large roast, and cook that on Sunday, and then enjoy several meals thereafter.

If you’re not doing something similar, you really should be – It’s far more efficient than coming up with something out of the blue every night, and it makes cooking much easier, which is imperative when you both work long hours as we do. Having a main course protein already cooked or ready to go is key. And it needn’t be meat, for that matter – tofu, cheese, and beans will all provide what you need and are just as delicious as fleshy stuff.

Fresh roasted veggies
Fresh roasted veggies

Of course, to do this right, you need a lot of good stuff, staples like fresh veggies and fruit, potatoes, pasta, tortillas, beans, oils and vinegars, and the like – And especially as we roll into the cold months, there’s nothing at all wrong with having a decent stable of canned and frozen goodies. We keep decent, organic cheese pizzas on hand, as well as frozen pasta, veggies, and fruit – A combination of bought and stuff we put up during the growing months. Add a decent rack of spices, herbs, and seasonings, and you’re good to go – Inspiration can strike at will.

Here’s a basic rundown in what we did with two of those primary proteins throughout the week, including alternate meals to break up the pattern and keep things interesting.

Clay cooker roast chicken
Clay cooker roast chicken

Whole organic, free range Chicken.

Sunday – Roast chicken and veggies, green salad.

Monday – Pizza with chicken, tomato, jalapeño, and fennel.

Chicken pizza with tomato, jalapeño, and fennel
Chicken pizza with tomato, jalapeño, and fennel

Remaining chicken pulled from bones. Carcass into a stock pot with remaining roasted veggies, and fresh mire poix, for stock – Refrigerated overnight.

Tuesday – Mac and Cheese, green salad.
Stock clarified, refrigerated.

House made Mac & Cheese
House made Mac & Cheese

Weds – leftover Mac & Cheese, (’cause it’s even better the next day!)

Thursday – Chicken soup, made with a 3 bean medley, tomatoes, onion, sweet peppers, green beans, peas and corn.

House made chicken veggie soup
House made chicken veggie soup

Friday – Chicken tacos with red mole, (frozen in an ice cube tray, so super fast to prepare), fresh lettuce and pico de gallo.

Chicken and red mole tacos
Chicken and red mole tacos

Saturday – Free for all leftovers.
Second Run – Local, choice sirloin roast.

Sunday – Roast beef and root veggies, fresh green salad and local sour dough.

Monday – Roast beef hash for brunch.

Tuesday – Beef nachos with onion, tomato, jalapeño, sharp cheddar, fresh salsa and sour cream.

Wednesday – Big ol’ garden salads and sour dough.

Thursday – Beef Chimichangas with fresh pico de gallo and sour cream.

Friday – Open faced cheese sandwiches with fresh veggies.

Saturday – Free for all leftovers.

Now granted, this isn’t anything magical, but it’s incredible tasty fare that’s good for you, and none of these meals take more than 30 minutes to prepare. When we get that Sunday plan done, it’s just a matter of what sounds good through the week, and sometimes meals are chosen predominantly for ease of prep.

If any of these particularly float your boat and you want a detailed recipe, just pipe up, and we’ll make it happen.

Real Deal Fried Rice

The difference between authentic, regional Chinese cooking and the Americanized versions most of us were exposed to in the Twentieth century is vast indeed. That said, we were raised on the latter before discovering the former, so there are times when we jones for the cheap seats. Nonetheless, there are genuine roots to all that Americanized stuff as well – Even sweet and sour whatever, or chop suey. Dishes made famous, (infamous?), here were generally a far cry from their authentic roots, due predominantly to a lack of proper ingredients. While Chinese immigrants often brought, grew, or made the tools and supplies needed for authentic cooking with them, those were neither truly desired by nor fed to American diners for many decades.

Happily, here in the 21st century, most, if not all of what you need to cook authentic regional Chinese dishes is readily available. Even in relatively small towns, there is often a thriving Asian market, and if not, it’s all there in online stores. Naturally, the recipe resources available to home chefs has blossomed as well; there are myriad cookbooks for virtually every Chinese cooking style and region, let alone classes, online videos, and groups dedicated to the exploration thereof.

UrbanMonique House Fried Rice

Without a doubt one of, if not the most beloved Americanized dishes, is fried rice, and for good reason. The combination of proteins, veggies, fruit, and sauces is almost limitless, and few dishes are more satisfying when made well. Add the fact that it’s a perfect use for leftover rice, and you’ve got a perennial winner. Naturally, this begs the question – Where did fried rice actually originate?

Frying rice in some form or another has been done for as long as man has been eating cereals, and recipes harken as far back as the sixth century AD. The most well known variety is often called Yangzhou, after the city in the east central coast of China; it includes roast pork, prawns, scallions, and green peas. This is still considered one of, if not the signature version of fried rice, served at Chinese restaurants throughout the world, and called either House, or Special fried rice. That popularity doesn’t necessarily apply to China herself – There, myriad variants of the dish are found, especially in the south where rice is a major staple – Everything from heavily sauced Fujian and Cantonese versions, to Chāhan flavored with Katsuobushi, (Bonito flakes), and the red and white, yin-yang Yuan style. And that’s just China – There are signature versions from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, and Europe. There’s a Hawaiian version with Spam, and an ‘American’ version in Thailand served with hot dogs and catsup, and more varieties from South America and Cuba as well.

While you certainly can and should check out those recipes, the ubiquity of the dish certainly encourages exploration in the kitchen. Like spaghetti sauce, or mac and cheese, every household has a signature version that’s the best, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t add one of your own.

The real trick to great fried rice lies no so much in the add-ons, but in what rice you use – for the best results, you want cold, day old rice – or even frozen, (and that should be all the reason you need to save leftover rice every chance you get). The reason is moisture, or lack thereof. If you’ve ever tried making fried rice from fresh stuff, chances are you ended up with something soggier than you wanted. Using refrigerated, day old allows the rice grains to dry out somewhat, yielding nicely separated grains, and the slightly chewy texture we’re after. For longer storage, freeze rice in a ziplock bag with the air sucked out. Either way, once you’ve got your base material squared away, building whatever you like becomes a quick and easy task.

Long grain white rice is best for frying

Next question – what kind of rice is best? Long grained white will dependably cook up plump, distinct grains. This is due to a couple of important starch molecules, namely amylose, and amylopectin. Long grain white rice contains the highest concentration of amylose. This starch does not gelatinize when rice cooks, so varieties rich in it yield that fluffy stuff we’re after. Amylose also crystallizes and hardens when rice is cooled after cooking, but melts readily upon reheating, again lending itself perfect to frying over high heat. Amylopectin, on the other hand, makes rice that is sticky and softer, and while that’s perfect for risotto or paella, it’s not so much for fried. Medium and short grain varieties are richer in this starch, while long grain white has significantly less. Thai jasmine rice is also long grained, but has less amylose, so can get a bit sticky. If you like the slightly sweeter taste of jasmine, Basmati might be a better choice for frying.

Restaurant woks at work

And finally before we cook, what about the best vessel for the job – to wok or not to wok, that is the question. The answer is, not absolutely necessary, but if you want the real McCoy, then only a wok over a really hot flame will give you that certain je ne sais quoi – the slightly grilled, smoky, almost burnt flavor notes great fried rice flaunts. When the weather allows here, we cook ours in a wok over the same propane powered burner we use for roasting coffee, outside – There’s no way I know of to get a hot enough flame inside, unless you’ve got a pretty serious commercial quality gas range.

A carbon steel wok on a propane burner

Cooking in a high carbon steel wok also imparts a certain flavor note of its own, just as cast iron does. It’s a subtle thing, but certainly notable and for my mind, highly desirable. If you don’t own a wok and decide to buy one, go with a 14″ like ours, with a flat bottom and double handles, one long, one short. Take great care to read up on the proper initial cleaning and seasoning of a new wok – failure to do so can literally sink your investment before you even get started. Now, all that said, you can do a perfectly fine job in a heavy skillet, but in any event, use the biggest thing you’ve got in your kitchen – a big cast iron skillet or Dutch oven is a fine alternative.

Alright, now that we have our pan chosen, here are a few basic guidelines for the overall process.

Get your pan as hot as you can safely get it, and use an oil with a high smoke point, like peanut or avocado. Those elusive grilled/smoky notes depend on it.

Use the biggest pan you’ve got – this is why even good home woks are 14″ – an overloaded pan won’t get hot enough to do the job right. If you’re cooking for more than two, do so in batches, as you would when deep frying.

Don’t overdo the sauce – Too much of a good thing will overpower the flavor of delicate ingredients, and will make your rice mushy as well. Note: most soy sauce you find in stores is considered dark, even if it doesn’t say so – Light soy is notably saltier and more assertive in taste, so should be used sparingly.

Alright – Here’s our version to get you started.

UrbanMonique House Fried Rice

UrbanMonique House Fried Rice
4-5 Cups cooked Rice, (1 Cup of dry long grain white should yield just right)
1/2 Pound Chinese Pork, fine diced
2 large Eggs
4-6 Scallions, trimmed and diced
1/2 Cup Chinese Long Beans, trimmed and diced
1/4 Cup Carrot, fine diced
1/4 Cup sweet Pepper, diced
1/4 Cup Green Peas
1-2 Tablespoons Avocado or Peanut Oil

For the Sauce
1 Tablespoon steaming hot Water
1 Tablespoon Dark Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Light Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Sesame Oil
1 teaspoon Honey or Agave Nectar
1/2 teaspoon Szechuan Pepper
1/4 teaspoon Smoked Sweet Paprika

In a non-reactive mixing bowl, combine all sauce ingredients and whisk with a fork to incorporate. Allow flavors to marry for about 10 minutes before use.

Scramble eggs until fluffy, remove from heat and set aside.

Preheat your wok/pan over medium-high until it’s fully heated through.

Gently massage the cold rice by hand, to break up any and all clumps.

Turn the heat up to high, add a tablespoon of oil to the wok and let it heat through.

Add the carrots and peppers to the hot oil and fry for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the scallions, peas, and long beans and fry for another couple of minutes, until heated through.

Add the rice and pork, then fry for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the sauce and the eggs, stir to incorporate and heat through.

Serve piping hot.

Chiles Rellenos de Oaxaca

On a chilly, rainy Saturday morning, M and I set out for the local farmer’s market in Bellingham. On arrival, we found a thriving and well attended scene – it’s a thing I love about towns like this – Rainy weather does nothing to dissuade Bellinghamsters from their appointed rounds, any more than snow and cold did the Concordians of my youth.

Rain doesn't stop Bellinghamsters
What struck us as particularly vibrant was the surprising number of small farms represented, most of which were organic. The fall bounty of chiles, tomatoes, sausage, and cheese set my dinner plan in mind – Chiles rellenos de Oaxaca. We made our leisurely rounds, then headed home to cook.

Great produce at the farmer's market
You’ll find some variant of the Chile Relleno, ‘stuffed peppers’, all over Mexico. Most often, the chile used will be Poblanos, and rest assured that the people who share the same name, (folks from the State of Pueblo), lay claim to the origins of that famous dish. That said, the amazing number and breadth of relleno variants indicates that pretty much anywhere chiles grow, they are and have been stuffed for a long, long time.

Oaxacan Chiles
The typical chile relleno is stuffed with cheese, coated in an egg batter, and fried. You’ll see that throughout Mexico, and of course, up here in the states as well. The Oaxacan version, however, is a bit more robust – It is, technically, a chile relleno de picadillo, meaning stuffed with cheese and shredded or minced meat; everything from goat and lamb, to pork, beef, or chicken is used, as is chorizo, that singularly delightful Mexican fresh sausage. The other hallmark of Oaxacan rellenos is the range of chiles used; they grow a dizzying variety down there, and whatever looks good and is in season is as likely as not to end up stuffed. That’s a good thing for us all to embrace, frankly – Each chile brings a different level of taste, heat, and color to a dish, and variety is indeed a wonderful thing.

Fresh chorizo
Chorizo, or chouriço, is not indigenous to Mexico; it is an import from the Iberian Peninsula, where both Spain and Portugal lay claim to its origins. While the Spanish version uses smoked pork, the Mexican is made with fresh. There are as many varieties of chorizo as there are chiles, frankly, so defining The Real Recipe is a bit of a crap shoot. I’ve got a favorite recipe that I use, and I’ll share that here. I make Chorizo as a loose sausage, and you can too; it’s much simpler that way. If you’d rather buy and you’re from this neck of the woods, I’ll tell you that the Haggen’s version has been declared muy authentico by trusted Mexican friends, and after testing that claim, I agree wholeheartedly – It’s surprisingly good stuff. As promised, here’s my version.

Fresh Chorizo

2 pounds fresh ground local Pork
1/4 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
3 cloves Garlic, minced
2 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika
1-2 teaspoons flaked or ground Chipotle Chile
1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1 teaspoon flaked Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black Pepper
3-5 Tablespoons Ice Water

Chill a large stainless steel mixing bowl in the freezer for about 20 minutes prior to building the chorizo. Pork should be refrigerated right up to the point of assembly.
Combine all ingredients in the cold bowl and mix by hand until you have a homogenous blend. You should end up with a nice moist, deeply red sausage.
Transfer sausage to a airtight, non-reactive container and place it in the freezer for about fifteen to twenty minutes.
Remove from freezer and refrigerate until ready to use.
If you’re not using the chorizo right away, wrap tightly in plastic, then aluminum foil and freeze.

Fresh Queso Blanco
The cheese used for this dish simply must be fresh queso blanco. This soft, non-aged white cheese also has its roots on the Iberian Peninsula, but has been wholeheartedly adopted throughout the Americas. Queso blanco is remarkably easy to make; if you’ve never given it a try, you really must. The caveat here is that ultra-pasteurized milk simply will not produce good cheese. You need something fresh and as local as possible – Since there’s no aging involved, and no culture added, this cheese will directly reflect the milk you make it from, (although you certainly can add herbs, veggies, etc if you like). While the ability to press this cheese will make a more consistent product, you really don’t need a dedicated press. Here’s how it’s done. Here again, you can find fresh queso blanco at many grocery stores these days, too.

You’ll need;
Non-reactive stock pot,
Steel mixing spoon,
Instant read thermometer,
Metal colander
Decent cheesecloth

Queso Blanco
1/2 gallon fresh whole milk, (no ultra-pasteurized)
6 teaspoons Live Apple Cider Vinegar
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
Salt to taste

In a stock pot over medium low heat, add the milk.
Stir occasionally and monitor temperature until milk reaches 185° F, about 10 minutes or so.
Reduce heat to low and add 2 teaspoons of vinegar, and stir gently. You will see curds begin to separate from the whey; going forward, stir very gently – The curds retain moisture, which you want, so stir them, don’t batter them.
After a minute or so add 2 more teaspoons of vinegar and stir.
Repeat with the last 2 teaspoons of vinegar after another minute or two.
Let the curds and whey rest for five minutes.
Once you’ve got well formed curds, continue to stir gently to keep the curds from clumping, (called matting in the cheese making parlance)
Spread cheesecloth over your colander. If you’d like to make ricotta with the whey, put the colander inside a mixing bowl; if not you can discard it.
Gently pour the curds into the lined colander. Add salt,(and any herbs or veggies), and mix gently by hand.
You can now hang the cheese in the cloth for 10 to 20 minutes if you prefer a dryer cheese. If not, (and thereafter if you do), it’s time to press the cheese. I’ve got a press, so that’s what I use; I realize 99% of y’all don’t have one, so here’s what you do:

Pressing the queso
Return the cloth wrapped cheese to the colander. Place a flat plate small enough to fit well within the colander on top of the cheese. Place a stock pot on top of the plate. Water weights 8 pounds a gallon. Start with one gallon of water and let the cheese sit for 20 minutes. Add 2 more gallons of water and continue pressing for 2 hours.
Remove cheese from cloth, wrap it in waxed paper and refrigerate until ready to use. Fresh queso will last for 3 to 4 days refrigerated.

And finally, the rellenos.

Chiles Rellenos de Oaxaca for 4, (or a hungry two, or leftovers…)
4 Poblano Chiles
1/2 Pound Chorizo
1/2 Pound Queso Blanco
1 14.5 ounce can Tomatoes
1/4 Cup diced Sweet Onion
2 tablespoons minced, toasted almonds
2 cloves minced Garlic
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground Cinnamon
Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper to season
Olive Oil
Canola Oil or Lard for frying

For the Batter
4 Egg Whites
1 Tablespoon Wondra Flour
Pinch Sea Salt
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour for dredging

To a sauté pan over medium heat, add chorizo and cook until lightly browned and no pink shows.
Add minced almonds and continue cooking until they’re lightly toasted.
Remove chorizo blend from pan into a small bowl.
Add diced queso to chorizo/almond mix, and incorporate. Set aside.

queso-chorizo blend
Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the sauté pan and scrape all the little chorizo remnants loose.
Add onions and sauté until they start to turn translucent.
Add garlic and sauté until raw garlic smell dissipates.
Add tomatoes to sauté pan and heat through, stirring to incorporate, until sauce starts to simmer.
Add cinnamon, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low and stir occasionally.
Heat oven to Broil and place a rack on a high setting.
Place chiles on a baking sheet and broil until the skins begin to blister, turning steadily to get all sides evenly seared.
Remove chiles from oven and set onto a plate to cool.
Set oven to bake at 300° F and set a rack to a middle position.
When chiles are cooled enough to handle, carefully cut the stem and seed cluster free from each chile and discard.
Carefully stuff each chile with equal volumes of the chorizo/queso mixture. Set stuffed chiles on a plate.

Rellenos ready to stuff
Add 1/2 cup oil or lard to a frying pan over medium high heat to 350° F.
Set 1/2 cup of flour onto a plate or shallow dish for dredging.
Beat egg whites, with a pinch of salt added, to a stiff peak, then add a tablespoon of flour and beat to incorporate.
Carefully roll chiles in flour, one at a time, then roll them through the egg whites to coat.
Carefully place chiles in hot oil and fry until golden brown, turning carefully onto each side, about 3 to 4 minutes total.
Carefully place chiles on a baking sheet and slide that into the oven. Bake chiles for 15 minutes at 300° F.
To serve, ladle a generous dose of tomato sauce into a bowl, and add a relleno to each.

Chiles rellenos de Oaxaca
Top with sour cream and fresh chopped cilantro.
I’m certainly not going to tell you how to eat your dinner, but I will say this – The real joy of this dish is to break up the relleno in the tomato sauce until you’ve got an even, kind of chili-like consistency – Doing that lets all the ingredients blend together in each bite – And it is amazing, indeed.

Cooking at the Gathering

So, a couple weeks ago, I didn’t post, because, as luck and joy would have it, I was 1600 miles from home, at my other home for a few precious days. Formally known as The Luthier Community Gathering, this is an annual event held in the north woods of Minnesota. Hosted by Grant Goltz and Christy Hohman at their incredibly eclectic and homey spread, this is several days of companionship, renewed and new friendships, music, incredible house made beer and ale, and of course, food.   

Over the years, I’ve become the official Chef de Gathering, and it is a joy of joys to do. Over the three days of the main event, we feed somewhere around 30 to 40 folks for dinner, and maybe 12 to 20 for breakfasts and lunches. While some folks bring a little of this and a little of that, Chris and I provide the mainstays, (and usually Monica, who couldn’t make the trip this year due to a new job). And rank has its privilege – I get my own incredibly cozy Chef apartment, and an incredible kitchen to work from.


 For such a big crowd, the process is incredibly easy. At some point, we’ll touch base and decide on theme, main ingredients, etc – it rarely takes more than a couple minutes. I say, “Hey Chris, what are we gonna build?” She fires off some options, inspiration takes hold, and off we go. 

 The real joy comes not only from feeding good friends in a great kitchen, but in the gathering of ingredients. Grant and Christy run a Community Supported Agriculture, (CSA), operation on their spread, so the variety and scope of produce is truly stunning, as you can see.  So, picking ingredients means just that; heading out on the trail with basket in hand, and coming back with the bounty. 

  
  
 This year marked the first truly amazing mushroom harvest, from logs inoculated and set up last season – Shiitakes, an almost embarrassing wealth of gorgeous, just picked beauties – I put them in everything I could think of, (and I did say ‘almost’).

  

  
Our mutual friends, John and Lissa Sumption, have a working CSA close by, (King’s Gardens), so literally anything we don’t have right on hand can be had with a phone call. During my visit, Mark, the very talented local butcher, stopped by and dropped off some goodies, for which he took produce in barter. The results speak for themselves.  

  
 Our recent piece on apples contains several of the recipes we did this year. Here’s the recipe for smoked Guacamole – It’s become a must-do for the event ever since we debuted it seven or eight years ago.


The Annual Gathering is open to any and all who love music, good friends, and good food. Here’s a video and a song that pretty well sums up the vibe. It’s held in August every year. This year, a dear friend from my wildfire fighting days, Nancy Swenson, made the trip out – First time we’d seen each other in thirty four years!