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.

Real Deal Carnitas

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

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

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

Carnitas de Urban
Carnitas de Urban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mis en place for carnitas
mis en place for carnitas

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

Carnitas de Urban

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

Fresh corn or flour Street Taco Tortillas

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

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

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

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

Arrange veggies evenly around the base of the cooking vessel.

Rinse and pat roast dry.

Combine seasonings in a small mixing bowl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remove the pork and set that on a cutting board.

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

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

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

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

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

Prepare all your fixin’s as you see fit.

Carnitas, ready to load
Carnitas, ready to load

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

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

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

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

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

Gloria’s glorious Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde.

This week, it’s time for another special guest chef. One of the things I love about social media, when done right, is the meaningful and lasting relationships that can be formed. For me personally, some of my dearest and closest friends, members of my real family, were first met online. Now, we vacation with them every year, and I can’t imagine not having that in our lives. What we get from stuff like this blog, or food groups on FB, or any other decent source, can and should be genuine connections that grow and prosper, even when we live worlds apart. Here, as elsewhere, the six degrees of separation principle is very much in play – I became FB friends with Gloria Goodwin Raheja through our Soul Sister, Christy Hohman – They met at a house concert in Crosslake, Minnesota, which is just a bit southeast of where we conduct the annual Stringfest Gathering that y’all have seen posted here for many years now – Andy Cohen was playing, and we met him last year – at Stringfest. For the final degree, here’s Gloria’s glorious Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde.

Gloria is a Professor of Anthropology at the U of M, Twin Cities, from which she conducted many years of fieldwork and wrote extensively about rural northern India. For roughly the last decade, her research has been focused in Appalachia. Her front burner project is Logan County Blues: Frank Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of the Appalachian Coalfields, a book about music and the coming of industrial capitalism to the mountains.

Harry, the de facto head of Gloria’s household.
Harry, the de facto head of Gloria’s household.

Our online interaction is in keeping with many who haunt FB, namely what we’re cooking and what our pets are up to, (Her dog Harry, like our Bandito, is quite sure he is the de facto Head of Household, and strives mightily to train his humans on proper etiquette.) Like so many brilliant and driven people, Gloria loves to cook, and does so very well, indeed. She dabbles in Indian, Moroccan, Mexican, and Appalachian foods for people who like to eat, and she frequents the St. Paul Farmers Market, and other shops that offer local and ethically produced meats.

She has, of late, become a devotee of the incredibly popular kitchen tool, the instant cooker, (or multi-cooker). If you’re not familiar with this tool, then, well… I don’t know what to say – They’re ubiquitous in online cooking groups and sites. They are, fundamentally, programmable electronic pressure cookers. Instant Pot is a brand name, and hands down the most popular one out there. These things will pressure or slow cook, cook rice, sauté, steam, or warm, and advanced version add yoghurt making, cake baking, egg cooking, sous vide, and sterilizing to the menu.

While many a kitchen gadget gets bought or gifted and soon forgotten, these things seem to have serious legs. In a very authentic Vietnamese cooking forum I belong to, almost every home chef has and regularly uses an instant cooker. For dishes like Pho that normally take 24 to 48 hours to cook, an instant cooker can do the job in an hour or two – And believe me, if the folks on that site find the results not only acceptable, but preferable in many instances, there’s something to these cookers.

Regarding her Instant Pot, Gloria noted, “Well, we totally love ours, really. It’s so great for things like chili verde, ragus, and of course beans. Tonight we’re making black chickpeas with kale, Moroccan style. Chunks of lamb and pork turn out, well, divinely – I dislike having a lot of kitchen toys piling up, plus my counter space is quite limited, but I cleared a permanent space for it, after using it just once!” That’s a pretty solid endorsement, in my book.

Now, before we dive into that Chile Verde, let’s talk about beans, because this is another place where Gloria and I are much of a mind. When M and I lived down in Tejas, I became acquainted with Rancho Gordo, Steve Sando’s Napa, California based magnum opus of heirloom goodness, and specifically, with their heirloom beans – If you don’t know about them, y’all should. Steve took frustration with a lack of great local produce (while living in Napa, fer cryin’ out loud) from a gardening whim to a full blown conservation operation, and Rancho Gordo is the result. What Home roasting brought to coffee beans, Steve brought to heirloom beans. He writes, ‘All of my agricultural pursuits have been based on being someone who likes to cook but gets frustrated by the lack of ingredients, especially those that are native to the New World.’ What I learned living and cooking down south was a primal love for all things culinarily Mesoamerican, and frankly, no foodstuff speaks to that more clearly than beans do. Like tomatoes, beans were devastated by the green revolution, and it’s only through the tireless work of folks like Steve that we’re blessed with what was and what shall be, if we’re even halfway smart.

Rancho Gordo’s heirloom Eye of the Goat beans
Rancho Gordo’s heirloom Eye of the Goat beans

And now, on to Gloria’s Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde. What I love about this, and I mean dearly love, is what she has to say about the genesis of this recipe, because folks? If you’ve been here at all, you know my mantra – Here’s a recipe, try it, and then do what you like to it and make it yours – That’s exactly what she did.

She writes, ‘I got the idea for this dish from Coco Morante’s “The Essential Instant Pot Cookbook,” but I modified it quite a bit. For one thing, I made my own roasted tomatillo and poblano and serrano chile salsa instead of used store-bought salsa, and for another thing I used heirloom Ojo de Cabra beans instead of canned pinto beans.’

Gloria’s glorious Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde.
Gloria’s glorious Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde.

For the tomatillo salsa.

1 1/2 Pounds Tomatillos
5 cloves Garlic cloves
2 Poblano chiles
2 Serrano chiles
1 bunch Cilantro

Remove papery husks from tomatillos, rinse well, and cut in half.

Rinse chiles and cilantro. Stem serranos and rough chop. Rough chop cilantro

On a foil lined baking sheet, arrange tomatillos cut side down, along with the unpeeled garlic cloves.

Position an oven rack 5” to 6” under your broiler. Broil for 5-7 minutes, turning evenly, until tomatillos are lightly blackened.

Remove from oven, set aside to cool.

Arrange poblanos on a foil-lined pan, place them under a broiler until blackened all around.

Transfer poblanos to a a paper bag with the top folded closed. This allows the cooling chiles to steep in their own steam as they cool, which adds a bit to their flavor, and helps loosen the skins – You can also do this in a baking dish or casserole with a tight fitting lid.

When the poblano are cool enough to handle, remove the skin, stem, and deseed.

Skin the roasted garlic.

Add all ingredients to a food processor or blender, and pulse until all ingredients are finely chopped and evenly mixed.

Transfer to a mixing bowl or glass jar.

For the beans.

1 Lb Eye of the Goat Beans (Yes, use what you’ve got, but honestly – Try these!)
8 Cups Water
3 cloves Garlic, trimmed and peeled
2 Bay Leaves
2 tsps Sea Salt

Gloria cooked her unsoaked beans in an Instant Pot, with all ingredients shown, for about thirty minutes, and used three cups of the cooked beans for this recipe.

If you don’t have an instant pot, the oven method works great and is pretty speedy to boot.

Set a rack in a middle position and preheat oven to 325° F.

Rinse beans in a single mesh strainer or colander, checking for debris.

Add beans, garlic, bay, and salt to a 4 quart (or larger) dutch oven, braiser, or baking dish with a tight fitting lid.

Add enough fresh water to cover the beans by 1”.

Cover and bake for 60 – 75 minutes. When beans are slightly firmer than you want them, they’re ready to go to the next step.

For the Chile Verde.

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Pound ground Turkey
3 Cups cooked Beans
1 3/4 Cups Salsa Verde
1 Cup Chicken Broth
1 medium Onion
1 bunch fresh Cilantro
2 Poblano or Anaheim chiles
2 Serrano chiles
3 cloves Garlic
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon dried Oregano
1 teaspoon ground Cumin
½ to ¼ teaspoon Cayenne Chile flake

Peel, trim, and dice onion, garlic, and chiles. Rinse and chop 1/4 Cup cilantro.

For an Instant Pot-
Select the Sauté setting on the Instant Pot and heat the oil.

Add the turkey and sauté, breaking it up with a wooden spoon or spatula as it cooks, for about 5 minutes, until cooked through and no traces of pink remain.

Add the onion, chiles, garlic, salt, oregano, cumin, and cayenne and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 5 minutes, until the onion has softened and is translucent.

Stir in the beans, salsa verde, and broth.

Secure the lid and set the Pressure Release to Sealing.

Press the Cancel button to reset the cooking program, then select the Bean/Chili setting and set the cooking time for 20 minutes at high pressure.

Let the pressure release naturally for at least 10 minutes, then move the Pressure Release to Venting to release any remaining steam.

Open the pot and stir in the chopped cilantro.

For stove top cooking –
Add oil to a stock pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat.

Add turkey and sauté until lightly browned and no pink remains, about 4-6 minutes.

Transfer meat to a mixing bowl. Add onion and chiles and sauté for 3-5 minutes, until onion begins to turn translucent. Season lightly with sea salt.

Add garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates.

Add chicken stock and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen all the good stuff.

Add beans, salsa verde, meat, salt, oregano, cumin, and cayenne and stir well to incorporate.

Reduce heat to medium low and cook, covered, for at least 1 hour, and more is fine.

Add cilantro, stir to incorporate, and serve.

And of course, Big Thanks to Gloria for this delightful dish!

Real Deal Queso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Queso deserves fresh tortillas
Great Queso deserves fresh tortillas

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

Queso de UrbanMonique

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

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

Fresh tortillas and tortilla chips
Fresh Pico de Gallo or Salsa

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

Grate all cheeses and blend thoroughly.

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

Peel, trim and dice the onion.

Peel, trim and mince the garlic.

Rinse, trim and dice the tomato.

Rinse and mince the cilantro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scarf it all down with icy cold Mexican beer.

¡Salsa Espectacular!

¡Esto es un Salsa Espectacular!

Raspberry Pico de Gallo - A slice of Heaven in a bowl
Raspberry Pico de Gallo – A slice of Heaven in a bowl

Open your fridge and look at the door side – Chances are good that what you’ll see there are condiments – in ours, you find mustards, relish, horseradish, harissa, ketchup, mayo, sriracha, and of course, salsa. Those last three illustrate big changes in what folks in this country like and buy most of, in the ever-changing condiment world. In 2011, mayo was King. By 2014, salsa had surpassed all, (for the second time – More on that later), and as of last year, sriracha topped regular old salsa for the win. Interesting, is it not? Think about it and it makes great sense. Sure, the old standbys still star on sandwiches, and as constituents in sauces, salads, and the like – but salsa can do much more than any of those, and, well, sriracha is good with damn near anything.

Of course, salsa is still king, because sriracha is, after all, exactly that – Salsa, and not very different from the predominantly Mexican varieties we’re used to here. I say varieties, but truth be told, us folks up here in El Norte are far from well schooled in the stunning pantheon that is Mexican salsa – And that’s just speaking of Mexico, let alone the rest of Central and South America. Trust me when I tell you that you’re really missing something spectacular if that’s the case for you. Today, we’re out to fix that.

I’ll provide links to several recipes that you’ll find here, and add a few new ones as well. The rest of this is kind of a primer, designed to hopefully show you something new, pique your interest, and get you digging for a variation you can call your own. You’ll also notice I’m not going to describe a whole lot of parings, and that’s done on purpose – What you like salsa on – what kind on what things – That’s your gig, and discovering for yourself is a hell of a lot more fun than reading what I think you should eat, yeah?

Many Americanos assume that the term salsa is purely Mexican, but it’s definitively not. Salsa means ‘sauce’ in Spanish, Italian, and Greek. The term derives from the Latin word ‘salsus’, meaning salted. I think it’s an interesting fact that, while touched with sweet, heat, herbs, and spices, it’s still that salty, savory bass note that defines the salsa rhythm section. Of course, sauces didn’t start out that way anywhere that lacked tomatoes – That makes the salsa we’re used to a true native of Mexico, Central, and South America. It wasn’t until the Spaniards caused all their mayhem in the new world that the tomato made its way over to Europe, and then basically conquered the world.

Salsa began with the Aztec, Inca, and Mayan peoples. The Spanish were intrigued, and termed the piquant blend of tomatoes, chiles, herbs, and spices ‘salsa’ as far back as the late 16th century – Then they took it back home with them. While those three legendary civilizations largely didn’t survive, their salsas did, and continue to flourish throughout the Americas. It’s these Mexican staples that largely flavor things up here in the north.

One version of the stuff, ubiquitously known as ‘hot sauce,’ ( Basically chiles, vinegar, and salt, AKA, what’s in sriracha), caught on quite early here in America – Maybe earlier than you’re aware of – That’s particularly interesting in light of the fact that, by the mid 20th century, a fair number of those chiles and brands were very hard to find, having been driving out by post WWII food homogeneity. Yet the first bottled hot sauce, powered by cayenne chiles, was offered for sale in Massachusetts, back in 1807. In 1849, Louisiana banker Colonel Maunsell White planted the first crop of Tabasco chiles north of the border – Ten years later, Maunsell marketed the first bottles of ‘Tobasco’ chile Sauce, and Edmund McIlhenny plants some seeds obtained from Maunsell on his property – Avery Island, Louisiana. In 1868, McIlhenny poured his aged sauce into used cologne bottles and sent it out as samples, resulting in thousands of orders. By the 1860s, you could buy bird chile powered sauce in New York City. By 1898, a former McIlhenny employee started up B. F. Trappey & Sons, and another legendary sauce was born.

¡Salsa Espectacular!
¡Salsa Espectacular!

In 1917, Henry Tanklage introduced La Victoria Salsa Brava, a traditional Mexican style salsa still in production today. La Victoria’s red, green, and enchilada sauces, along with Old El Paso, (which was formed in 1917, but didn’t start making Tex-Mex stuff until 1969), are the stuff that introduced generations of gringos to Mexica and Tex Mex cooking. It’s reasonable to say that the full circle of originators can be closed with David and Margaret Pace’s introduction of his namesake salsa in 1947. Pace noted that, “In ’47, my sauce bottles exploded all over the grocery shelves because I couldn’t get the darned formula right.” Those were simpler time, without a doubt. By the mid 1980s, the salsa craze was in full swing, and by the early ’90’s, salsa outsold all other condiments for the first time.

Salsa, as most of us know it, is a play on Salsa Roja, a tomato based, cooked salsa, usually containing onion and chile, with hints of garlic and cilantro. It’s what you get when you sit down at damn near any Mex joint in the U.S. As simple as it is, the range of quality and taste is huge. I argue that you can reliably learn much about the restaurant you’re about to patronize by how good that first dish of salsa is – If it’s inspired – nuanced, with obvious care given to balance and the overall flavor palette, you’re about to eat good food. If it’s dull, lifeless, tastes old or made from crappy ingredients, well… I’ve been known to get up and go elsewhere. The lions share of American store bought salsa is salsa roja, regardless of how schmancy it may sound. Other popular roja derivatives include ranchera, taqueria, and brava. Many, many derivations on this theme have been made and are sold, most of which feature various levels of heat, (from mild to truly stupid), roasting of the constituents, or exotic additions. Those are all great, but if you find something you like, what’s far greater is for you to dissect that recipe and make one of your own – That’s what the folks who sell that stuff did, so why shouldn’t you?

Pico de Gallo - Delicious, whatever the root of the name
Pico de Gallo – Delicious, whatever the root of the name

Probably the next most well known version is Pico de Gallo, which literally translates to ‘rooster’s beak.’ There are competing tales for the origin of the name, from the fact that serrano chiles kinda look like a birds beak, to the ‘chicken feed’ consistency of well made Pico, to the early propensity to eat it by grabbing a pinch between dialing finger and thumb – You get to decide on that one… Pico is a Salsa Cruda, raw salsas that need nor want cooking. From a straight mix of tomato, onion, chile, and cilantro, to blends made with corn, fruit, seeds, nuts, or more exotic veggies, they’re a delight and a must make. Our raspberry Pico is stunningly good, and illustrates why you see some kind of acid in most of them – Be it citrus, mango, berries, or a splash of vinegar, that slightly sweet counterpunch and bite makes amazing things happen.

Salsa Verde, is, of course, green. Verdes are usually cooked sauces made with tomatillos, that pre-Colombian Nightshade relative native to pretty much everywhere in the Americas except the far north. Tomatillos have a bunch of pectin, so they gel up nicely and form a rich Sauce that sticks to what you put it on. Mixed with chiles, onion, garlic, and cilantro, they have a sublime, early flavor that goes well with many things.

Salsa Ranchera is a roasted red sauce made from tomatoes, chiles, and a spice blend. It’s typically blended to a smooth consistency and served warm. If you’re making huevos rancheros, it’s a must have.

Salsa Negra
Salsa Negra

Salsa Negra is not well know up here, but it should be. A combination of chiles, garlic, spices, and oil, it’s pungent and delightful, more like a Mexican style harissa or sambal than a salsa roja, and is much more potent. See our recipe below.

Farther south, there are many iconic salsas, some of which we’ve covered, and some you need to check out.

Chimichurri, that delightfully pungent mix of parsley, onion, garlic, and chiles in oil and vinegar, is the most popular thing in Argentina and Uruguay, and for good reason. Here’s a recipe for you to try.

Salsa de Lazano - Costa Rican gold
Salsa de Lazano – Costa Rican gold

In Costa Rica, the ubiquitous table condiment is Salsa Lizano, a smooth, delicate brown sauce that is, frankly, highly addictive. There’s a recipe below.

In Peru, the go to is Peri Peri. Its more like harissa than most South American salsas, mainly because the most fiery and traditional version is powered by African birds eye chiles, which truly do pack a wallop. You can make it with less incendiary stuff, and many folks down there do. Recipe down below for you.

And then, from the Caribbean, Cuba, and the Yucatán, there’s mojo, the heavenly marinade that powers great carne asada – You’ll find that over on this page.

So, there you have it, a salsa map to go wild with. Tonight, I’m gonna do pork tenderloin tacos, with two fresh picos, one corn, one berry – What are you making?

 

Carrot Salsa

1 Pineapple
1 large Carrot
1/2 small Sweet Onion
1-2 Jalapeño Chiles
1/4 small Red Bell Pepper
5-6 sprigs fresh Cilantro
1/2 fresh small Lemon
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste

Peel, core, trim pineapple, and dice 2 Cups.

Peel, trim and grate 2/3 Cup of the carrot.

Peel, trim and fine dice the onion and pepper.

Trim, devein and de-seed the Jalapeño, (or leave all that if you like the heat, and you can always use hotter chiles – I should write this into every recipe, just for David Berkowitz – The DB Rule 😄)

Mince the Cilantro.

Throw all that into a non-reactive mixing bowl. Add the lemon thyme, lemon juice, and zest. Season lightly with Salt and Pepper.

Refrigerate covered for at least an hour, then remove, remix and taste – Adjust seasoning as needed.

 

Salsa Negra

EThis stuff was born to power rice and beans, as far as I’m concerned, but it’s incredible on a whole lot more than that – Put this on roasted Brussels sprouts and suddenly, you live Brussels sprouts…

8-10 cloves Black Garlic (Readily available at many Asian groceries and online, this aged Garlic is more intense, sweeter, and notably darker, hence the name – It is basically slowly caramelized over a long period of time, and it’s amazing. If you don’t have that and the jones hits you, see below)
8-10 cloves fresh Garlic
2-4 fresh Chiles, (Guajillo, Serrano, or Árbol if you can get them, if not, use 1 ounce of guajillo and árbol each, reconstituted)
3/4 Cup Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon distilled White Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Cumin seed.
Sea Salt

* If you don’t have black garlic, in a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, add a couple Tablespoons of avocado oil and allow to heat through. Stem and peel a whole head of garlic, and slice big cloves in half. Pack a nice, solid layer of garlic onto the pan and reduce heat to medium low. Keep an eye on things and stir occasionally. Let the garlic cook until it’s deeply browned, aromatic, and soft, then use that for the recipe.

Peel, trim and mince black and fresh garlic.

Stem, seed, and devein chiles, (Or apply the DB rule)

Pulse the Cumin seed in a spice grinder until their roughly broken up, but not powdered.

In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, add the oil and allow to heat through. Add the chiles and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the chiles start to brown and and are quite fragrant.

Remove from heat and pour into a non-reactive jar or bowl. Add the garlic, vinegar, agave, cumin, and a teaspoon of salt. Mix well, then allow to cool, covered, to room temperature.

Will last for a couple of weeks in clean glass, refrigerated.

 

Salsa Lizano

1 1/2 Cups Vegetable Broth
1-2 Chiles, (Guajillo or Serrano are both good)
1/2 small Sweet Onion
2-3 Baby Carrots
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1/2 fresh Lemon
1 Tablespoon distilled White Vinegar
2 teaspoons Blackstrap Molasses
2 teaspoons pickling Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Cumin

 

Peel, trim, and fine dice carrot and onion.

Stem chiles, cut in half, then devein and deseed.

In a heavy skillet over medium high heat, add the chiles and pan roast for 3-5 minutes until they start to blister and get quite fragrant.

Add the veggie broth, onion, and carrot. Allow to heat through until it simmers, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few more minutes.

Zest lemon half.

Strain the cooked veggies, reserving the broth. Add veggies to a large mixing bowl.

Add Agave Nectar, vinegar, lemon juice and zest, molasses, cumin, and salt to the mix.

Add 1 cup of the reserved broth to the bowl.

Process with a stick blender, (use your regular blender if, gods forbid, you don’t have a stick). Blend to a smooth, even consistency. If you want super smooth, run the processed sauce through a single mesh strainer, otherwise just leave it rustic.

It’ll last a good two weeks in clean glass, refrigerated.

 

Peri Peri Sauce – Peruvian Rocket Fuel

1/2 Cup African Birds Eye Chiles, ( árbol, birds beak, cherry, or red serranos will work fine too)
1 Red Onion
8 cloves Garlic
2 small Tomatoes
1 small Red Bell Pepper
1 large Lemon
3 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
2-3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
2 teaspoons Smoked Paprika
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
2 Bay Leaves, (Turkish or California, as you prefer)

Place whole chiles, onion, bell Pepper, chiles, and peeled garlic on a rimmed baking sheet under a high broiler. Broil for 2-3 minutes, until veggies start to blister, then turn – Repeat until all sides are done, remove from heat. Once the veggies are cool enough to handle,

Stem, seed, and devein chiles and bell pepper, mince garlic, fine dice onion, chiles, and pepper.

Set up to blanch tomatoes- One pot of boiling water, with an ice water bath next to that. Pop the tomatoes in for about 30-45 seconds, then remove with a slotted spoon and immerse them fully into the ice water bath until fully cooled.

Remove tomatoes, peel of skins, and rough chop.

Zest and quarter the lemon.

In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, add all prepped veggies, agave nectar, paprika, salt, pepper, oregano, and bay leaves. Mix well, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to just maintain that, and cook for 25-30 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.

Add cooked ingredients to a blender vessel, then add lemon juice, and vinegar, then process blender until the sauce is nice and smooth.

Finally, while processing add a slow drizzle of oil, allowing the sauce to take it up at its preferred rate.

You may run it though a single mesh strainer, or leave it rustic.

It’ll last a good week refrigerated in clean glass.

Try it on chicken, pork, or burgers.

 

 

Puerco Pibil – Yucatán Magic.

My friend Shane is a fine cook in her own right, especially so since she lives on a moored boat in the Skagit river and has a teeny, tiny little kitchen. The other day, she posted about ‘A splash of tequila for the puerco pibil and one for the chef,’ and a lightbulb went off. It’s been a long, long time since I’d prepared this delightful Yucatecan specialty.

The heartbeat of this recipe is the marinade and the low and slow cooking method – Things as old as the land it springs from – the word Pibil may well stem from the Mayan noun for roast, but it’s come to mean the specific marinade used for this dish. The pinnacle of the art is Cochinita Pibil, a suckling pig wrapped in banana leaves and cooked low and slow in a pit dug in the ground, with hot rocks as the heat source – Very similar to traditions from the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands, among other hot spots.

The rocket fuel here is a highly acidic marinade, Pibil, focused on bitter orange, (AKA Seville orange) – That’s pretty legendary stuff, and for good reason – It originated in Southeast Asia, but has taken root all around the world as cooks have discovered its legendary qualities and transplanted variants across the globe. Bitter orange is the go to source for British marmalade, as it has very high pectin content and sets quite firmly. Bitter orange came to the Yucatán via the Spanish, stayed and spread somewhat – It’s found throughout the Caribbean, Florida, and other parts of the American Deep South. Up here in Washington State, not so much, as with a lot of the temperate north. You can get marinades and such that call themselves bitter orange, but frankly, that stuff is kinda like blended scotch – Two cups of Glenlivet in a barrel of grain alcohol. Finding pure bitter orange juice is harder and rarer, so we’re forced to approximate, which thankfully isn’t too hard to do.

Annatto de Achiote
Annatto de Achiote

The other vital leg to pibil is Annatto, the seed of the Achiote tree, also known as the Lipstick tree. Annatto is widely used as a food coloring – It’s what makes cheddar yellow in many iterations, but that’s selling it short. Annatto is subtle, but necessary in a whole bunch of Mexican recipes, and for good reason – I’ve heard it described as smelling like cinnamon or nutmeg, but I’ve never found those notes – What it imparts to me is a base earthiness, with hints of nuts and pepper – It’s hard to describe, but the fact is, if it’s missing from a recipe to which it’s seminal, like pibil, then you know right away, and the recipe just ain’t right.

The other musts for this recipe are a proper marinating phase, and a relatively low and slow cook, both of which are easy to do, either inside or out. Here’s our take on this classic dish. Note that we leave you wide latitude in the heat constituent – As with many things, there are plenty of recipes out there touting hefty amounts of seriously hot chiles for pibil, and frankly, that’s not how it’s typically done down south. If you want to make it nuclear, go for it, but know that the true beauty of pibil is the marriage of all the ingredients, without one swamping the rest – And for the record, I used fresh Fresno chiles and they were lovely.

One final note – Annatto is, as described, a colorant, and a pretty potent one at that – It will color your skin, your sink, your counter tops, and anything else it gets in contact with, so be cognizant and careful.

Puerco Pibil de UrbanMonique

2 Pounds Pork Roast, (Butt, Shoulder, Loin are all fine.)
1 Small Lemon
1/2 Cup Orange Juice
2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
2 cloves Garlic
2+ whole Chiles (anything from Anaheim to Habañero)
2 Tablespoons Anatto seed
1 teaspoon whole Black Pepper Corns
1/2 teaspoon Cumin seed
2 Whole Cloves
3 Allspice Berries
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Tequila

As we always note, it’s best to use whole spices, and I trust that you are – If not, just roll with it.

Zest the lemon and add that and the juice to a non-reactive mixing bowl.

Add the orange juice, vinegar, and tequila.

Combine all dry ingredients in a spice grinder, or mortise, and process/grind to a fine, consistent powder.

Add all dry ingredients to the wet and blend thoroughly.

Pibil - Yucatán rocket fuel
Pibil – Yucatán rocket fuel

Cut pork into roughly 1/2″ chunks, and transfer those to a one gallon ziplock bag.

Cut your pork to roughly 1/2" chunks
Cut your pork to roughly 1/2″ chunks

Pour the marinade into the bag and seal, then shake to thoroughly coat the meat.

Marinate for a minimum of four hours and as long as six – Don’t exceed that, as the degree of acidity in the pibil can and will make mush of your meat if you let if work too long.

Preheat oven to 300° F

Preferably, you want cast iron, or enameled cast iron for the cooking vessel. Choose something that will not let the meat spread out too much. Pour the meat and marinade into the dish/pan and tamp it down lightly. Cover with foil.

Choose a cooking vessel that's not too big.
Choose a cooking vessel that’s not too big.

Bake for 90 minutes and then check temperature and texture. When your meat is 160° F and fork tender, remove from heat and allow to rest for 10 minutes, covered.

Low and slow Puerco Pibil
Low and slow Puerco Pibil

Serve as tacos, or loose with rice, beans, quick pickled onions, fresh cotija cheese, or whatever else floats your boat.

Gotta have the accoutrement
Gotta have the accoutrement
Tacos de Puerco Pibil
Tacos de Puerco Pibil

Restaurant Style Rice & Beans

M and I don’t eat out much, predominantly because we cook better than most restaurants. That said, there are times when you just get a serious hankering for the real thing, and when that happens to us, more times than not, it’s for good Mexican or Tex Mex. The bug hit us Saturday night, and we went to our small town, truly fabulous joint – Chihuahua’s in Ferndale, Washington. Chihuahua’s is a gas for several reasons – First off, they have an eclectic menu of genuine regional Mexican gems, interspersed with more typical Tex Mex offerings, (Which I unabashedly dig, by the way.) Secondly, they own the whole block, and the sprawling interior seats 300 folks – A quirky, kitschy, great place to eat, people watch, and enjoy a seriously good house made margarita, (Order the Denver). Third, the Hernandez family and staff are seriously dialed in for making a great dining experience happen – they’re connected with radios and discrete ear pieces, so within seconds of sitting down, warm chips and fabulous house made salsa appears like magic, somebody comes for your drink order, and food is always delivered hot and fresh. Hit up your server for mas serviettas y salsa, and they appear almost before you’re done asking. If you’re ever in the area, go there, and order the slow cooked pork shanks with the green sauce – To die for!

All that said, what I truly love are the retried beans and rice. You can get charro beans, as M always does, but I love the refrieds – Silky, perfectly seasoned, and the rice – Slighly dry, with great flavor and bite. Salsa may be the first judge of a good joint, but truly great restaurant style beans and rice seal the deal. Here’s how to make your own at home that’ll rival your fave spots, even Chihuahua’s.

For real deal restaurant style refrieds, there are some critical caveats. First off, you’ve got to use fresh, dried beans. Pintos are far and away the go-to restaurant bean, but you certainly can use black, red, or even white if you like – and of course, what you have on hand certainly has bearing on what you use when the spirit moves you. Secondly, texture is as important as seasoning – You need that silky, smooth consistency. To get it, you need an immersion blender, period. Yes, you can use a blender, but the mess, additional time required, and over all hassle factor. Thirdly, you need a little bit of lard, the pièce de résistance of a great refried recipe. Finally, we don’t always have time, energy, or materials to make beans from scratch, so I’ll include cheat recipes for canned refrieds as well, and trust me, they’ll come out great.

Speaking of lard, leaf lard is king in the world of pork fat; if you’ve not tried it, you need to. Leaf lard comes from the super soft fat around the kidneys and loins of the pig, and it maintains that softness when rendered – It spreads readily at room temp, and has a subtle hint of porkiness that adds that certain je nais se quois to your refrieds, (and anything else your heart desires). It’s not overtly piggy tasting at all, which is why bakers also dig it for making super flaky pie crusts. Leaf lard used to be hard to find, but is now readily available – Ask a local butcher, or find it online through many sources, (And plain old lard will certainly do, as that’s what’s usually used, anyway.)

For rice, any decent long grain white will do – The Magic is in the cooking method, although having good quality, fresh stuff is a must.

Cooking is all about options, and you need them with something as apparently simple as retried beans. Ideally, we’d soak beans overnight, and then slow cook them for hours before transformation to refried. Barring that, a good slow cooker allows you to combine those steps, and let it work for 8 or 9 hours while you’re at work. The low and slow is what most good restaurants do, and you’ll want to give that a whirl. What we’ll do here is explore some cheats that’ll get you stellar results with less of a time commitment. Just as we’ve shown you for soups and stews, proper ingredients, seasoning, and layering of flavors can make almost anything taste like you’ve slaved for hours, and refried beans are no exception. If you go the low and slow stove top, oven, or slow cooker route, everything goes in the pot and then let ‘er rip. The primary cheat version will reduce everything down to three or four hours, tops.

This recipe will make way more than enough beans for a single meal, and that’s a good thing – When you make great stuff, make extra. You can and should freeze some, either in a vacuum sealed bag or ziplock with the air sucked out – They’ll be good for 90 days, easy.

Mise en place for the beans
Mise en place for the beans

Restaurant Style Refried Beans

3 Cups dried Beans, Pintos preferred (others just fine)
4 Cups Chicken Broth
2 Cups water
1 Cup diced Yellow Onion
1/2 Cup diced Red Bell Pepper
1/2 Cup Crema (Sour cream is fine)
2 cloves minced fresh Garlic
1 Tablespoon Lard
2 teaspoons ground Cumin
1 teaspoon Franks Hot Sauce
1 teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Rinse beans and remove any floaters. Check them for little rocks too – Not uncommon in dried beans.

Cover beans with at least 3″ of water, in a large sauce pan over high heat, and bring to a boil.

Boil beans for one minute, then cover and remove from heat. Allow beans to steep in hot water for one hour.

After a one minute boil and an hour soak - Just look at that liquor!
After a one minute boil and an hour soak – Just look at that liquor!

Add beans and liquor to a stock pot over medium high heat.

Add all other ingredients, except crema, and stir to incorporate. Bring beans to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer beans for 1-2 hours, until they’re fork tender. Be prepared, the aroma will make your stomach growl…

They take less than half the time of low and slow, but nobody will know
They take less than half the time of low and slow, but nobody will know

You’ll have enough beans for several meals. See above for freezing.

Transfer two cups of cooked beans to a large mixing bowl. Process the beans with a stick blender until they’re smooth and creamy.

In a large cast iron skillet over medium heat, add a tablespoon of lard and allow to melt and heat through.

Add the processed beans and stir to incorporate. When the beans start to bubble, turn off the heat, add crema or sour cream and whisk to incorporate and heat through.

Real deal refrieds, rich and creamy
Real deal refrieds, rich and creamy

Serve piping hot, garnished with shredded cheddar or jack cheese.
No time for all that? No problem – Here’s the super fast cheat that’ll yield surprisingly good results.

Big Time Cheat Refried Beans

1 16 ounce can Refried Beans
1/4 Cup Crema or Sour Cream
1/2 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1/2 teaspoon granulated Onion
1-3 teaspoons of Franks Hot Sauce
Pinch of Sea Salt
Couple twists of ground Black Pepper

In a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, melt 2 teaspoons of lard. Add beans, garlic, onion. Hot sauce, salt and pepper. Whisk with a fork to incorporate,and allow to heat through until bubbling.

Turn off the heat, add crema or sour cream, whisk to incorporate

Serve piping hot, garnished with shredded cheddar or jack cheese.
Great Mexican restaurant rice is never heavy or soggy – It’s light, fluffy, and nicely seasoned, and that’s what you’ve got here. Slightly on the dry side, and with a notable, nutty taste, the secret lies in the cooking method as much as it does the ingredients. Here’s the drill.

Real Deal Mexican Restaurant Rice

1 Cup long grained White Rice
1 1/2 Cups Chicken Broth
1/2 Cup Tomato Sauce
1 small cloves fresh Garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground Coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
4-5 twists fresh ground Black Pepper
2 Tablespoons Lard

In a large sauce pan over medium heat, add the lard and allow to melt and heat through.

Add the rice to the hot pan and sauté the rice, stirring gently and steadily, until the rice turns light brown.

Add ground coriander, garlic, salt and pepper – continue sautéing until the rice is golden brown.

When the rice is golden brown, it's time to add stock and tomato sauce
When the rice is golden brown, it’s time to add stock and tomato sauce

Add chicken broth and tomato sauce and stir to incorporate.

Bring the heat up to medium high and allow the mixture to boil.

Reduce heat to low, cover the pan and cook for 20 to 25 minutes.

Restaurant style rice, savory and nutty
Restaurant style rice, savory and nutty

Remove from heat and fluff with a fork.

Serve piping hot.

T Bone Tacos with rice and beans
T Bone Tacos with rice and beans

Carne Polaca – A Polish Swing on Mexican

T’is the football playoff season here in the States, and as such, the occasion calls for appropriate eats. It’s traditional to cook stuff that’ll feed a bunch of folks, and that’ll fill them up right as well. In many parts of Mexico, there’s such a dish, and it might even be made for a football match, although they mean what most of the world means when they say football, (and that’s soccer, of course). Doesn’t matter which game you’re glued to, ’cause Carne Polaca is guaranteed to please. Here’s the scoop on a very popular dish south of the border that you’ve likely never heard of – Carne Polaca – a Polish swing on Mexican.

How did a polish influenced dish make it to Mexico? The answer is broader than that, because versions of this dish reside all through South and Central America, as well as Mexico. That shouldn’t be a surprise, frankly. At something over 22 million souls, the Polish diaspora is one of the largest in the world, and that very much includes points south of the border. Most of this emigration occurred because of long term and repeated persecution by more powerful neighbors, though it has continued into the 21st Century, when Poland’s inclusion in the E.U. lead to a large scale migration of young folk headed elsewhere for work. Poles arrived en mass in Mexico during the mid 19th century, and again post WWII, settling mostly in the states of Chihuahua, in central northern Mexico, and Nuevo León in the northeast. The mid 19th century bunch also settled in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Naturally, they brought their cooking with them, but believe me when I tell you that they also loved what they found to work with in their new homes.

Many assume ‘Polish food,’ to be a backhanded homage, as if it were describing something inordinately simple or dull – Neither could be farther from the truth. Because the country often changed hands over the millennia, Polish cuisine is incredibly diverse. Influences run from neighbors like Czech, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Slovak, and Ukrainian, to more widespread roots in French, Turkey, and Italy. There is, internally, rich variety among the regions of the country, and the influences there naturally dovetail with their respective neighbors and traditions. Bagels originated in Poland, as did donuts, as did Kolacz, AKA kolaches. Polish food has always been centered on meats, from a wide variety of game, to beef, pork, poultry, and fish. Side dishes are hearty, focused on local crops and traditional favorites. Spice is everywhere, and used liberally – Paprika and other chiles, dill, cloves, garlic, marjoram, caraway, beetroot, and pepper all get liberal use. Sauerkraut is widely popular, as are a cornucopia of traditional sausages and cheeses. Kielbasa, golabki (stuffed cabbage rolls), and pierogis have all made their way across the globe from their homeland. So, a dish called Polish meat in Mexico isn’t so farfetched after all.

Recipes in English for carne Polaca are few and far between – In fact, I found exactly one, (sort of), so I stuck with the ones in Spanish. While quite a few recipes I checked out did indeed come from the northern border states where Mexican Poles are more concentrated, there were versions from as far afield as Tabasco on the Yucatán peninsula, to Colima on the Pacific coast. Carne Polaca is hugely popular as a party and family gathering dish, and there is significant uniformity as to ingredients and the process of making it. That said, what you won’t find, or at least I couldn’t find, was much of anything about the roots or history of this dish, as popular as it may be. As such, I shifted my sleuthing to traditional polish food, and found what I believe to be the answer – Bigos – Polish Hunters Stew.

Bigos is huge in Poland, a national dish and a tradition pretty much everywhere. It is an ancient dish, full of all things prized by hunter-gatherer societies. Like Burgoo here in the states, almost every polish cook has a version, (and theirs is best, just ask ’em). In essence, Bigos is a meat stew featuring cabbage as a main ingredient, heavily sauced and spiced, just as is carne Polaca. What goes into Bigos is what’s available. It’s often touted as a great thing to make when you need to clear out your freezer, smokehouse, or pantry. As such, there really isn’t a standard recipe, although there are some commonalities. The cabbage used may be fresh or fermented, (sauerkraut). Onions are common, sautéed until lightly browned. Spices include salt, pepper, juniper, and bay. Cloves, garlic, mustard seed, nutmeg, paprika and thyme are also mentioned quite often. This is particularly of interest given that almost every Mexican carne Polaca recipe includes quite a bit of ketchup, and many of those latter ingredients are common therein. There is often a sweet note to Bigos, as well, and that is also most definitely present in ketchup. All things considered, it’s a solid bet that Bigos is the root of carne Polaca, and that’s good news for us.

So here is our swing at a very tasty dish, indeed. You can do this with any protein you like, served over chips as a kind of dip, or with fresh tortillas taco style. It gets better the next day, so lends itself well to making burritos or chimis. What we came up with uses no ketchup, and that’s much for the better, truth be told. The tomato element we provide has the spice notes of good ketchup, with less sugar, and other stuff you may not want, and is truer to the roots of the dish.

Carne Polaca de UrbanMonique

2 Pounds Chicken Thighs
2 12-14 Ounce cans Whole Peeled Tomatoes
16-24 Ounces Chicken Stock
1 small Onion
1 head Green Cabbage
1 bunch Cilantro
1/4 Cup Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon yellow Mustard
2 cloves Garlic
2-5 Chipotle Chiles
1 small Lemon
2 whole Cloves
1/2 teaspoon Allspice
1/2 teaspoon Celery Salt
2 California Bay Leaves
Sea Salt
Ground Black Pepper
If you’re using dried chipotles, reconstitute them in a small bowl of warm water. If you’re using canned or crushed, you’re good to go.

Peel and trim garlic.

Preheat oven to 250° F.

In a Dutch oven or heavy sauce pan over medium heat, add a couple tablespoons of oil and allow to heat through.

Braise 2-3 minutes a side
Braise 2-3 minutes a side

Add chicken thighs to hot oil, season with sea salt and pepper, and braise them, about 2 minutes per side.

Ready for a low and slow oven
Ready for a low and slow oven

Add chicken stock to the Dutch oven, to almost cover the chicken. Add bay leaves, garlic, and cloves, allow the stock to simmer.

When you’ve reached a low simmer, cover the Dutch oven and slide it into a middle rack in the oven.

Zest lemon and cut in half.

Open tomatoes and carefully pour the liquid into a small mixing bowl. Pour the tomatoes into an oven-proof dish, (not too large, you want the liquid concentrated.)

 

To the bowl of tomato juices, squeeze half the lemon, then add a tablespoon of oil, the vinegar, agave nectar, mustard, allspice, and celery salt. Whisk with a fork to incorporate.

Add the blended liquid to the tomatoes, and slide them into the middle rack beside the chicken.

Tomatoes ready for a slow roast
Tomatoes ready for a slow roast

Allow chicken and tomatoes to stew for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the chicken is fork tender. Remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle.

Slow roasted and savory
Slow roasted and savory

Hand shred chicken and set aside. Reserve the jus and freeze for future projects.

Hand shredded chicken
Hand shredded chicken

Add chipotles and juice from remaining half lemon to the tomato blend and process with a stick or regular blender to a smooth consistency.

The sauce, processed
The sauce, processed

Peel, trim and rough chop onion, cabbage, and cilantro.

The veggie mise en place
The veggie mise en place

In the Dutch oven over medium high heat, add two Tablespoons oil and allow to heat through.

Add cabbage, onion, cilantro, and lemon zest to the Dutch oven. Sauté for 2-3 minutes, until onions are lightly browned.

Sauté the veggie blend until the onions are lightly browned
Sauté the veggie blend until the onions are lightly browned

Add chicken to the Dutch oven and stir to incorporate.

Add tomato blend and stir to incorporate.

Carne Polaca de UrbanMonique
Carne Polaca de UrbanMonique

Allow the mix to cook on a low simmer for about 10 minutes.

Tacos de Carne Polaca
Tacos de Carne Polaca

Serve over warm tortillas, taco style, or with tortilla chips, or whatever way floats your boat.

We’re here to tell you that this stuff is bloody amazing, and even better the next day – We went with taco salads on day two.

Mojo, the marinade that made carne asada famous

It’s a sure bet that, if you eat enough Mexican, Tex Mex, Caribbean, or South American food, you’ve enjoyed some form of carne asada. Certainly then, you’ve swooned over the rich and pungent blends of flavors presented by something that looks so simple, but tastes so complex. The answer lies in Mojo, the marinade that made carne asada famous. The literal translation of the South American name for the dish is roasted meat, which tells us right away that the cooking side of things isn’t complex. All that magic comes from the mojo, and fortunately for us, it’s not only easy to make, it’s downright a gas.

Carne asada de UrbanMonique
Carne asada de UrbanMonique

Before we dive fully into Mojo, let’s spend a few looking at the history of carne asada – It’s as old as fire and cooking vessels, really. No one can lay claim to originating the dish, (although that hasn’t stopped many from trying). In addition to straight asada, there are popular variants that have much to do with how the meat is handled for service – Shredded or ground, as opposed to cooked whole and sliced, for instance. Shredded or pulled beef is found in American barbecue, ropa vieja in the Caribbean, and carne deshebrada in Mexico. One of the few variants with a fairly clear origin is carne asada fries, a sort of Tex-Mex swing at poutine, with carne asada and typical fixins replacing the gravy – Lolita’s in San Diego lays claim to that one, by the way. The versions most Americans are accustomed to stem from northern Mexican cuisines, although there are popular southern variants as well.

Mojo de UrbanMonique, a great all purpose marinade
Mojo de UrbanMonique, a great all purpose marinade

Specific cuts of beef are commonly associated with carne asada, and they’re not exactly the rock stars. These include skirt, flank, and flap steak, the stuff the folks doing the boogie up in the hill vertainly did not buy for themselves. That stuff was considered refuse, and the genesis of great meals formed around such marginal cuts is another example of the disenfranchised making due with while the rich folks wolfed down filet mignon. Yet here in the 21st century, popularity has turned all that on its head – When we shopped for this post, skirt steak wasn’t available, and both flank and flap were commanding $10 a pound – TEN BUCKS A POUND!! Remember what happened with short ribs, or veal bones, a while back? Same gig – Popularity breeds stunning expense, straight out. The moral of the story is to be flexible – When we spied eye of the round cut thin as steaks for $5 a pound, it was game over, and ‘authenticity’ be hanged – It’ll all eat just fine – Boneless chuck, the bargain basement of beef cuts, makes perfectly wonderful carne asada.

Mojo de UrbanMonique - Leave it rustic, or blend, as you prefer

Now, on to that mojo. If you have a carniceria nearby, you can bet they offer carne asada, either in whole steaks, sliced, or chopped. You’ll likely find it either preperada, (marinated) or not, and if you get their marinade, what you’ll get can run the gamut from simple salt and oil, to quite complex mixes that rival a mole – The marinade is where the real poetic license lives with carne asada. What you create is up to you, (and we’ll provide plenty of options herein to get ya started.)

As common and as diverse as spaghetti sauce, there are dozens of popular, commercial mojo variants, let alone the tens of thousands rendered by home cooks everywhere. The Spanish word Mojo derives from the Portuguese, Molho, which simply means sauce – a clear indicator of its ubiquity. There is general agreement that mojo originated in the Canary Islands, the archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa. Canarian cuisine is a fascinating amalgamation of the native islanders, (sadly, now largely extinct), Spanish, Portuguese, and African roots. Their cooking emphasizes freshness, simplicity, and powerful flavors, many of which derive from various mojos. Literally every Canarian family has at least two signature mojos, passed down from generation to generation. The signature island dish, Papas Arrugadas, (wrinkly potatoes), is demonstrative of all that. Whole potatoes boiled in salt water, and served with red and green mojo – And in an interesting twist of serendipity, the potato isn’t native to the Canaries – They came from South America, of course.

Canarian Mojo with Papas Arrugadas
Canarian Mojo with Papas Arrugadas

In its simplest form, mojo contains olive oil, chiles (pimienta in the Canaries), garlic, paprika, coriander (either fresh or seed), and cumin. As mentioned, there are two primary branches of Canarian mojo, red and green. The red, fueled by dried or fresh chiles and paprika, is most often paired with meat, while the green, made with green peppers, cilantro, or parsley, compliments fish courses. There are many other iterations, some using local cheese, (mojo con queso), garlic, almonds, and fresh herbs – Check out that almond Mojo recipe and you’ll see what I mean about rivaling moles. One could easily spent a happy year working through all these lovely things, and one of these days, I just might.

The flow of humanity in the 16th through 19th centuries, both forced and chosen, brought mojo to Europe, then South America, the Caribbean, and eventually, North America. Mojo not only thrived, it grew in leaps and bounds. Were I forced to define a generic, accurate version that we here in the Estados Unidos are familiar with, it would certainly include chiles, citrus, garlic, oil, and vinegar – A Mexican vinaigrette, in essence. Proportions are pretty broadly interpreted, with the main aim being making enough to generously coat and marinate your proteins.

Established Mexican, Caribbean, and South American variants also run the gamut from super simple to dizzyingly complex. What this means to the home cook is that, in all honestly, you can’t go wrong – Combine stuff you love and that plays well together, and you’re in like Flynn. I’m going to offer several variants, including fairly faithful renderings of styles you’ve probably tried and liked – As I always note, use these as a springboard for personal creativity, and know that you’ll likely never do the exact same thing twice – The real beauty of Mojo is as a last minute inspirational meal – You’ve got this, that, and the other thing in your stores, so what do you do with them? You do this.

The basics for a Mexican style mojo
The basics for a Mexican style mojo

NOTE ON WHAT TO MAKE: Tacos, burritos, chimis, or taco salads, with fresh pick de gallo and warm tortillas, are almost a must for your first meal if you’re marinating proteins, but keep in mind, this stuff has North African and Iberian roots, so get bold and go that direction if you feel so inspired. And you can always sauté the meat with something new, change the spicing, and make something totally different.

Carne Asada Hash, the perfect next morning leftover
Carne Asada Hash, the perfect next morning leftover

NOTE ON MARINATING: Any marinade containing citrus, other acids like Vinegar, or other fruits like papaya, kiwi, pineapple, fig, or mango will break down the connective tissues in proteins as they marinate – There’s an enzyme called protease, (papain in papaya), that does the trick. That’s great for tenderizing tougher cuts, and it’s the secret as to why marginal stuff like skirt stake or flank steak can come out so tender. That said, be careful with the duration – There are a lot of recipes out there that advise marinating overnight, and that’s taking things too far – Going over 6 hours risks mushy meat, and nobody likes that texture. Marinate proteins for at least an hour, and as long as 4 or 5, and you’ll get great flavor infusion and a proper degree of tenderization.

Tacos Carne Asada
Tacos Carne Asada

NOTE ON GRILLING: Anything you marinate in Mojo will taste best grilled. And if you can, do so with wood or charcoal, although gas works just fine too. With the thinner cuts or proteins commonly used for carne asada, you’ve got to keep an eye on things – We’re talking a 2 minute punk rock song per side, as opposed to the common, classic rock 3-4 minutes a side measure. A lot of restaurants grill carne asada to well done, but you do not need to do that. Grill to medium rare, then allow a good 5 to 10 minute rest before you carve. If you use the more rustic cuts of beef, like skirt, flank, or flap steaks, carve 90° to the grain, at a 45° angle for each slice.

NOTE ON OIL: You’ll see I call for Avocado Oil on several Mojo recipes. I like it for it’s rich, buttery feel and neutral taste, as well as its exceptional smoke point. You can certainly use Extra Virgin Olive Oil in any of these recipes, but you really owe it to yourself to try avocado oil in the near future.

First, the classic Mojo roots.


Canarian Green Mojo

1 Bundle fresh Cilantro
3/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 fresh Lime
3 cloves Garlic
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Cumin
1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper

Rinse and dry all produce.

Remove long stems from Cilantro, discard and mince the leaves.

Peel and stem garlic, and mince.

Juice lime, and set aside.

If you’re using whole spices, add salt, pepper, and cumin to a spice grinder and pulse to an even consistency, (3 or 4 pulses should do it.)

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. You can leave the sauce rustic, or process it with a stick blender for a smoother consistency.

Allow sauce to marry for 30 minutes prior to use. Serve with fresh crusty bread, potatoes, fish, or veggies.

 

Canarian Red Mojo

1 large Red Sweet Pepper
2-4 fresh hot chiles, (chef’s choice, they don’t have to be red – Jalapeño, Habanero, Serrano, and Cayenne all work)
3 cloves fresh Garlic
2-3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Cider Vinegar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Cumin

Rinse all produce and pat dry.

Stem, seed, and devein the Pepper and chiles, (leave veins in chiles if you want more heat.)

Fine dice Pepper and chiles.

Mince Garlic.

Process Cumin to a powder if you’re using whole.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. You can leave the sauce rustic, or process it with a stick blender for a smoother consistency.

Allow sauce to marry for 30 minutes prior to use. Serve with fresh crusty bread, chicken, pork, or beef.

 

UrbanMonique Signature Mojo – This is a great all purpose Mojo, with a couple of our signature twists.

Prep for making mojo is simple and quick
Prep for making mojo is simple and quick

2 small Limes
1 navel Orange
1-3 Jalapeño Chiles
1/2 bunch fresh Cilantro
1/2 Cup Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Live Cider Vinegar
Pinch of Sea Salt
3-4 twists fresh ground Pepper

Rinse and pat dry all produce.

Zest and juice the citrus, and reserve both.

Peel, stem, and mince the garlic.

Stem, de-seed, and devein the jalapeños, (leave the veins if you like more heat).

Remove long stems from Cilantro and mince the remainder.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. You can leave the sauce rustic, or process it with a stick blender for a smoother consistency.

Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Also does great with tofu, veggies, or fish.
And finally, here are a few Mexican and South American variants.

 

Quick Cervesa Mojo – Great for folks that don’t like heat.

1 bottle Negra Modelo Beer
1 small lime
1 bunch Green Onions
3 cloves fresh Garlic
Pinch of Sea Salt
A few twists fresh ground Pepper

Open beer and pour into a bowl, allowing it to loose its fizz and flatten somewhat, (About 5-10 minutes)

Zest and juice lime, set both aside.

Peel, stem and mince garlic

Trim and peel green onions, then leave them whole, as trimmed.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. Leave the sauce rustic, do not process it.

Allow sauce to marry for 30 minutes prior to use. Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Marinate proteins for an hour, then remove the steaks and the onions and grill both as desired. Goes great with the rest of the Negra Modelo six pack.

 

Taco Truck Mojo – There is no standard recipe, but this will put you in the running…

2 small Limes
2-4 hot Chiles of your choice
3 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2 Cup Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon dark Soy Sauce
2 teaspoons Smoked Sweet Paprika
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Cumin
1/2 teaspoon Oregano
1/4 teaspoon Black Pepper
1/4 teaspoon White Pepper

Rinse and pat dry produce.

Zest and juice Limes, set both aside.

Stem, seed, and devein chiles, (leave veins in if you want the heat). Fine dice chiles.

Peel and stem Garlic, then mince.

Process spices to a consistent rough powder if you’re using whole.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl. Process with a stick blender to a smooth, even consistency.

Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Marinate proteins for at least an hour, and as many as 5 hours. Grill proteins as desired, and baste with the marinate as you’re grilling.

 

Garlic Papaya Mojo

1 fresh Papaya
1 small Green Bell Pepper
3-4 Green Onions
1 small fresh Lime
3 cloves Fresh Garlic
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon live Cider Vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
Pinch of Sea Salt
A couple twists fresh ground Pepper

Peel, seed and rough chop papaya.

Zest and juice Limes.

Stem, seed and devein green pepper, then dice.

Peel, stem green onions, then cut into 1/4″ thick rounds.

Peel, stem, and mince garlic.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl. Process with a stick blender to a smooth, even consistency.

Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Marinate proteins for at least an hour, and as many as 3 hours – don’t exceed that too much, as the papain enzyme in papaya is formidable stuff. Grill proteins as desired, and baste with the marinate as you’re grilling.

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.