Spring Rolls – Delicious and Easy

Nobody truly knows the origin of the spring roll. While we here in the U. S. see them as Asian food, they are, In fact, a worldwide treat, and not all those threads lead to the Far East. One thing’s for certain, though – Spring rolls are delicious, simple to make, and a fantastic way to clean out the fridge and garden, especially during the heady growing months of summer.

Spring Rolls a la Urban
Spring Rolls a la Urban

Spring rolls are usually dim sum, an appetizer, although as anyone knows who’s tucked into a freshly made batch, they can and should be a meal whenever the mood strikes. If we had to posit on a point of origin, China would probably get the nod. Chūn Juǎn, 春卷, means spring or egg roll, and they go back a spell in Chinese history – The popular version of things traces them back to the Jin Dynasty, which ruled from the mid third century to the early fifth. It is said that to celebrate the first harvests of spring, thin cakes would be filled with fresh vegetables and served with various sauces. Later, during the Tang Dynasty, (early 600s through early 900s), spring rolls got a bit hotter, as the advent of imported foods like chiles and garlic made their way into the Chinese culinary lexicon. By the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the thin cakes had gotten notably thinner, much more like wonton, egg roll, and spring roll wrappers are today.

Spring rolls may be fried, deep fried, steamed, or cold, depending on the fillings, region, and history they reflect. In general, the fried and steamed versions are smaller – bite or a coupla bite sized things. The fresh versions, served cold and wrapped in rice paper – those translucent, ethereal wrappers that let the beauty of fresh ingredients shine – And that’s what we’ll be featuring here today – It’s hot, in fact, record hot here in the Great Northwet, with a lot of smoke in the air from fires up in British Columbia – A perfect time for a cool, savory treat. In China, there is still a Cold Food Festival Day, so we’ll honor that.

There is great diversity on spring rolls around China – they reflect the regions they’re known for – Szechuan and Hunan versions are fiery, with sauces to match. Shandong, in the northeast, favors seafood. Fujian is river fish, crawfish, and fowl. Jiangsu might feature duck or pork, with richer sauces leaning toward Sweet and sour. And Cantonese boasts sauces and spice blends of dizzying complexity, and more beef than anywhere else in that big country.

Continue through Asia, and it’s a sure bet that every country has a spring roll, and will claim theirs as first and best, (and who knows, they well could be right). In Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, spring rolls are generically called popiah. They’re usually fresh, and almost always wrapped in rice paper. Peanut sauce becomes the most popular dip, and is absolutely delicious in several iterations – We’ll also be making that today. It’s in Vietnam that you find gỏi cuốn, the summer roll – These usually feature pork, along with fresh veggies, some of which may, (and aughta be), lightly pickled for a lovely interplay of tastes.

As Chinese and other Asian expats spread out, they brought their cuisine with them, of course – Once reestablished, they had to make some adjustments for local ingredients, as well as for the things they used at home and couldn’t find in their new environs. Thus, innovation is born – From Korea to the Philippines, all across Europe, into South America and the Caribbean, there are variations on the spring roll theme, many found as inspired street food.

Design and construction couldn’t be easier. Spring rolls lend themselves to last minute inspiration really well, and appropriate dipping sauces can be whipped up in short order, assuming you’ve got a decent pantry, (and you should – Hoisin sauce, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and various wrappers are now fairly ubiquitous at even small town grocery stores, and if not, readily on line.)

Have your mis ready when it's time to roll
Have your mis ready when it’s time to roll

When you’re picking ingredients, consider color and texture as much as taste – When you’re working with the ethereal rice paper wrapper as your canvas, everything is visible, and so those Asian cooking concepts of season, color, and flavor balances make perfect sense. Crunch might come from lettuce, cabbage, onion, carrot, water chestnut, daikon or salad radishes, fennel root, celeriac, celery, or cucumber, just to name a few. Pork, chicken, shellfish, or tofu adds a nice protein base, as well as a sweet/savory balance. Fresh mint, cilantro, watercress, or arugula can add an herbal note.

For cold, rice wrapped spring rolls like we’ll build, a quick pickle is a must do, for my my mind – pick two or three things that take nicely to pickling and give them 30 minutes or so in a nice bath – Onion, carrot, and radishes are great, and reward with a crisp tang that helps cut though heavier proteins and dipping sauces.

A quick pickle is a must
A quick pickle is a must

For lettuces, cabbages, and sprouts, light seasoning helps wake up fresh flavors. Since you’ve already got a couple vinegar notes, just a very light drizzle of avocado or sesame oil, salt, and pepper will do the trick. While all this might seem a bit busy, it really does make the difference between making something that tastes like you paid for it and a so-so meal – And I’ll guarantee the results will be well worth it.

Salt, pepper, and a splash of oil to season your crunchy stuff
Salt, pepper, and a splash of oil to season your crunchy stuff

When prepping for spring rolls, keep in mind that marrying flavors is the goal. Spend a little time making nice, uniform cuts of all your ingredients, and keep things small – fine dice, julienne, or matchstick cuts are best for most firm veggies, and a chiffonade for the leafy stuff.

Dice, or julien - Make everything fit in that spring roll
Dice, or julien – Make everything fit in that spring roll

Small bowls are perfect for arranging your mis en place. Have everything ready to go when you feel like it’s time to stuff some wrappers. Make your dipping sauces and pickles first, to allow flavors to marry, and your quick pickle to work its magic.

Wrappers do offer some variety, but again, if you’re going to do a cold presentation, rice paper is what you want. They’re cheap, don’t need to be refrigerated, and pretty easy to work with once you know the rules.
1. Set up a bowl of warm water big enough to immerse your rice wrappers in.
2. Set up a non-stick cutting board or two for rolling/stuffing
3. Dip a wrapper into the water for 5 seconds.
4. Pull the wrapper out of the water and let excess water drip off.
5. Lay the wrapper flat and let it sit for about 45 seconds, while it absorbs water and gets fully pliable.
6. Stuff away.

Rolls can certainly be made ahead, but when you’re blending fresh flavors and ingredients, eating them ASAP after construction pays off big time.

Now, about those dipping sauces. You can use dang near anything, and if in a pinch, good soy sauce, straight hoisin, or that awesome Yakitori sauce we made last week would all do just fine. But really, if you’re building, you should build some fresh sauce – For the most part, they’re easy and quick to make, and will reward with a much more expressive presence than anything store bought. Here are two different peanut sauce variants, one with fresh whole peanuts and one with peanut butter, as well as a simple ginger-soy version. The whole peanut version is amazing, but not as smooth as the peanut butter version, fyi.

The fresh peanut version
The fresh peanut version

Urban’s Fresh Peanut Sauce

1 Cup fresh roasted Peanuts
1/3 Cup Chicken Stock
1/3 Cup Coconut Milk
2 cloves Garlic
1 Tablespoon Honey
2 teaspoons Tamari
2 teaspoons Fish Sauce
1 teaspoon Tamarind Paste (1 Tablespoon Lime Juice is an OK sub)
1-2 teaspoons Sriracha

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

If your peanuts are raw, roast in a heavy skillet, 350° F oven until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Throw everything into a food processor or blender and process until you’ve got a smooth sauce – if things are a bit too thick, add a drizzle more chicken stock until you hit desired consistency.

Taste and adjust as needed, (fish sauce, sriracha, honey).

Allow to sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes so flavors can marry.

Will last for a good week refrigerated in an airtight container.

The smooth version of peanut sauce
The smooth version of peanut sauce

Peanut Sauce II

1 Can Coconut Milk (12 to 14 ounces, unsweetened)
1/2 Cup Chicken Stock
3/4 Cup creamy Peanut Butter (Use something natural, with a lot of oil – No cheap stuff here.)
1/4 Cup Thai Red Curry Paste
1/4 Cup Honey
2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

Add all ingredients to a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, and whisk to incorporate.

When the sauce begins to simmer, reduce heat to just maintain that and cook for 3-5 minutes, whisking constantly.

Remove sauce from heat and transfer to a non-reactive bowl.

Allow sauce to cool and flavors to marry for 30 minutes prior to serving

Will last a week or more refrigerated in an airtight container.

 

Urban’s Ginger Soy Dipping Sauce

1/2 Cup Tamari
1/4 Cup Rice Vinegar
1″ piece of fresh Ginger Root
1 Green Onion
2 Cloves fresh Garlic
1 teaspoon Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Sesame Oil

Peel, trim, and mince garlic and ginger.

Peel, trim, and cut into roughly 1/4″ rings.

Combine all ingredients ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and whisk to incorporate.

Allow flavors to marry for 15-20 minutes prior to serving.

Will last a couple of weeks refrigerated in an airtight container.

Yakitori, Japan’s Answer to the Kebab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House made Yakitori
House made Yakitori

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

 

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

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

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban’s Pork Yakitori Sauce

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

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

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

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

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

Store refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

 

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

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

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

Refrigerate in an airtight container for storage.

 

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

 

Urban’s Teriyaki Joint Salad Dressing

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

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

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

So You Think You Know Ketchup?

So, you think you know ketchup, huh? Recently, we posted on Salsa, as well as the most popular derivative thereof, Sriracha, and noted therein that both those condiments actually outsell ketchup in the U.S., which might surprise some of y’all. Yet the ubiquity of American fast food concepts has done much to spread the red stuff worldwide, which then begs the question – How popular is ketchup worldwide? The answer is very.

Ketchup, it's everywhere, and growing by leaps and bounds
Ketchup, it’s everywhere, and growing by leaps and bounds

Global market research by respected industry watchers pegged ketchup as a $4.15 billion dollar commodity in 2015. With an expected annual growth rate of 3.8%, sales of ketchup worldwide are expected to hit $5.6 billion by 2022 – Billion with a B – That’s a lotta ketchup, gang. And what are the biggest trends in that friggin’ huge market? So called ‘exotic ingredient’ ketchups, and organic offerings. Interesting, no? The Big Four primary derivatives of the ketchup trade are as follows – Tomato, mushroom, fruit and nut, and ‘other.’ The latter leaves quite a bit to the imagination. Ironically, these popular trends lead us in a perhaps unexpected direction – Backwards, to the origin of the stuff.

It should come as no surprise that tomato ketchup, far and away the most popular version today, was not the first one to be so named. In England of the 1700s, sauces called catsup, ketchup, or katchup were anchovy based things, seasoned with vinegar, shallot, ginger, clove, nutmeg, lemon, pepper, and wine. The results were more like Worcestershire sauce than the stuff we know today as ketchup. The name for these lovely things comes from, of all places, Indonesia, where kecap, (pronounced ketchup), means a dark, thick, soy based sauce, (And remains immensely popular there to this day). The leap from the East back to England occurred because that’s where the Brits got a lot of those exotic spices they threw in with them salty little fish. And not surprisingly, derivations of the stuff came out featuring, you guessed it, mushrooms, fruit, and nuts.

Tomato ketchup, on the other hand, took a while longer to circulate, as the ‘love apple’ was a native to Central and South America, and as such didn’t appear in Europe until (probably) the Spaniards brought them back over the big pond in the 16th century. Tomatoes were readily embraced by most countries around the Mediterranean, which it took somewhere around 150 years or so to spread and become accepted. That acceptance was not so forthcoming from the Northern Europeans, including the British, (who initially though the fruit to be poisonous). The first acknowledged tomato ketchup recipe came from the American colonies, during the revolutionary war, and the first published version came out while Lewis and Clark were traipsing west, in 1804, by physician/horticulturist James Mease. His version salted sliced tomatoes and let them sit for a day, then added mace, allspice, shallot, and brandy, and cooked it all down. Meade claimed the French loved the stuff, which is patently bullshit – More likely, given the spicing he employed, he’d been handed something from the Caribbean, because it sounds a lot like Sauce Creole. In any event, the stuff caught on in a big way, and the rest is history.

Ketchup, especially the tomato variety, came about as one way to preserve things through the cold months, and frankly, that’s why I’m writing about it here and now. A whole bunch of us have gardens, and what is almost guaranteed to be one of those crops you sew and then some time later are offering to any friend, neighbor, or willing perfect stranger you can find, due to relative overabundance? Yep, love apples. As such, it’s a great time to visit some recipes for the stuff. Sure, there are ‘natural’ and organic versions out there in the stores, as well as those exotics styles – But frankly, while the natural stuff is far better for you than the old standard, they’re not exactly using fresh, home grown tomatoes that could and should be several varieties – And that means you can make better at home. And as for the exotics, take a look at the prices, and you quickly discover that in this regard, you can make better at home for a hell of a lot less dough. So let’s do that.

First off, let’s address the elephant in the room – There are two, when it comes to ketchup making at home.
1. Making ketchup takes an incredible amount of tomatoes – True and not true – If you’re wanting to can a whole bunch in order to enjoy house made through the cold months, then yes, it will take a lot of tomatoes. If you’ve got them, and you’re of a mind to preserve, then you should definitely throw ketchup into the mix, along with whole and sauced. That said, what you’ll see below are small batch recipes that don’t take a whole lot of tomatoes – And frankly, making a batch to last a week or two is well worth the effort, especially if you’re growing your own.
2. Making ketchup at home takes forever – Well, not forever, but all day, yeah – As mentioned, the recipes we’ve got for you here are small batch stuff, and can easily be done in under an hour or twos worth of actual work, but some of the prep and cooking does take a long time – We’re radically changing the stuff we start with, and that just can’t be rushed – So, you’d best be planning for a whole day, but it’ll be a great day, guaranteed, (and you can do other stuff, or even take off while things are cooking, if you use a slow cooker, as noted). And finally, if you’re canning, it’s gonna be an all day thing, guaranteed – And always review proper method and cooking times when doing so.

House made tomato ketchup - All other bow before it.
House made tomato ketchup – All other bow before it.

Classic Tomato Ketchup
2 28 oz cans Peeled Tomatoes, (Any version is fine so long as they’re peeled)
3/4 Cup Distilled White Vinegar
1/2 Cup Bakers Sugar
1/2 Cup Water
1 1/2 teaspoons Pickling Salt
1 teaspoon Onion Powder
1/2 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1/4 teaspoon ground White Pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground Mustard
1/8 teaspoon Celery Salt
1 whole Clove

In a slow cooker set to high, add the tomatoes. If you found ground, peeled tomatoes, you’re good to go. If you have whole, or crushed, you need to process them first. Pulse with an immersion blender to achieve a nice, rough sauce consistency.

Rinse each can with a quarter cup of water and add that to the cooker, along with all other ingredients.

Cook uncovered for 8 to 10 hours, giving the sauce a good stir roughly every hour.

When the sauce is reduced in volume by roughly 50%, and is quite thick, turn off the heat and process the sauce again with the stick blender until very smooth.

Run the sauce through a single mesh strainer, into a nonreactive mixing bowl, removing any bits of skin, seeds, and the clove.

Allow to cool to room temperature.

Taste and adjust salt and pepper balance as needed.

Transfer to a clean glass jar and refrigerate. It’ll last a good week, (if it survives that long.)

Mushroom ketchup hardens back to Medieval English sauces
Mushroom ketchup hardens back to Medieval English sauces

Mushroom Ketchup (NOTE: This recipe requires advanced prep for the shrooms, so plan accordingly)

1 Pound fresh Mushrooms, (Portobello, Shiitake, button, or wild, of course)
2 Cups Water
1 1/3 Cups Champagne Vinegar
2 medium Shallots
1/2 Ounce dried Mushrooms
2 Tablespoons Dry Sherry
1 Tablespoon Pickling Salt
1 small clove Garlic
6 Tasmanian Pepperberries
2 whole Cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground Ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground Nutmeg
1 Bay Leaf (California or Turkish as you prefer)

The day before you plan to cook the sauce, carefully wipe shrooms clean with a damp cloth, and trim away any bruised bits.

Slice mushrooms to roughly 1/4″ thick. Toss shrooms into a nonreactive mixing bowl, add the tablespoon of Pickling Salt and toss gently to incorporate.

Cover the bowl with a clean, dry cloth and allow shrooms to sit for 24 hours. Stir gently 3 or 4 times through the rest. Note that the shrooms will become quite dark during this process, and that A-OK.

An hour or two before the end of the 24 hour rest, heat 2 cups of water to about 110° F. Pour that into a mixing bowl and add the dried mushrooms. Stir to incorporate and let them steep until their nice and soft.

Trim, peel and mince garlic and shallots.

With a slotted spoon, transfer the reconstituted dried shrooms to a blender vessel or food processor. Carefully pour the soaking liquid into the blender, leaving any pooled gritty stuff out of your pour. Process the blend into a smooth mix, and transfer that to a large sauce pan.

Dump the salted, fresh shrooms into the blender, (don’t rinse it first), and process that to a smooth mix, then add them to the sauce pan.

Add 1/3 cup vinegar, the garlic, and shallots to the un-rinsed blender vessel and process to a smooth purée. Add this to the sauce pan, along with the rest of the ingredients, except the sherry, and stir to incorporate.

Bring the mix to a simmer over medium high heat, then lower heat to barely maintain the simmer. Cook for 1 to 1/12 hours, until the Mushrooms are very soft and the sauce has thickened notably.

Now’s the time to test for proper consistency – remove sauce from heat and take a spoonful of the sauce and place it on a clean saucer. Let that sit for 10 minutes – If at that point the sauce has remained homogeneous, it’s thickened enough. If a notable amount of liquid leaches out of the sauce, more cooking is needed. Continue cooking for another 15 minutes and retest until you reach proper thickness.

Run the sauce through a single mesh strainer to remove the whole spices, then process in a blender or with a stick blender to a nice, smooth consistency.

Return the sauce to a clean sauce pan over medium high heat and heat through, stirring constantly. When the sauce simmers again, add the sherry. Cook on a low simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from heat.

Transfer sauce to clean, sanitized half pint jars and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes, (Again, consult CFHFP for more specifics and altitude adjustments).

Allow sauce to marry for at least 8 weeks before use. The well sealed jars will last all winter, (but probably not!)

Green walnuts are a summer crop that make a wonderful earthy kethcup
Green walnuts are a summer crop that make a wonderful earthy kethcup

Walnut Ketchup
This one goes way back to ketchup’s English roots, right down to those salty little fish. It’s admittedly a lot of work, but the reward is huge. Canned in half pint jars, they’re an amazing house warming gift – The taste of the 17th century brought to life. Green walnuts are a summer crop, usually available only from June through August, and maybe into September some years, so plan ahead.

45-50 Green Walnuts
3 1/2 Cups Cider Vinegar
1 1/2 Cups Malt Vinegar
1 Cup Dry Sherry
1 large Sweet Onion
1/4 Cup grated Horseradish, (straight – not mixed ‘sauce’)
2 ounces Anchovies (in oil or salt)
2 teaspoons ground Black Pepper
1 teaspoon dried ground Chile (hot or mild as you like)
1″ fresh Ginger root

The tough stuff goes first! Opening walnuts, especially green ones, isn’t easy, and it’s messy – Keep in mind that wood stains are made with these guys, so dress and guard your kitchen surfaces accordingly – They WILL stain hands, counters, etc, and it will NOT come off your skin! Some folks use a knife, others a hammer – Choose your weapon and cut, crack, or crush those things.

Place nuts in a nonreactive container, (a 1/2 gallon mason jar is perfect), and cover completely with the vinegars. Tightly cover your container and let them steep for a week – 7 full days.

On Day 8, transfer nuts and liquor to a large stock pot over medium high heat. Add all remaining ingredients and stir to incorporate. When the mix starts to boil reduce heat to maintain a vigorous simmer and cook for 45 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Process the sauce with a stick blender to a nice, smooth consistency.

Run the sauce through a single mesh blender to remove any solids.

Carefully pour into clean, sanitized bottles or jars with air tight lids and seal.

Will last a good 6 months stored in a cool, dry, dark place.

Cranberry ketchup is amazing on pork, chicken, or roasted Brussels sprouts
Cranberry ketchup is amazing on pork, chicken, or roasted Brussels sprouts

Cranberry Ketchup
2 Cups Canberries, (fresh or frozen)
11/2 Cups Raw Cider Vinegar
1/4 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1 large Navel Orange
1 small Sweet Onion
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
1/4 teaspoon Allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground Black Cardamom
1/8 teaspoon Sea Salt

Peel, trim and fine dice onion.

Zest and juice orange.

In a large sauce pan over medium high heat, add cranberries, onion, and cider vinegar, stir to incorporate. Reduce heat to maintain a bare simmer and cook until cranberries are popped and soft, about 4-6 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and process with a stick blender to a smooth consistency.

Return sauce to heat and add balsamic, orange juice and zest, allspice, cardamom, pepper, and salt. Stir to incorporate. Cook on a low simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until sauce is notably thickened.

Remove from heat and process again to smooth the sauce out. You can run it through a single mesh strainer if you prefer a liquid, smooth sauce, or leave it rustic – It’s incredible on chicken, or pork, or roasted Brussels sprouts.

Store in a clean, nonreactive container, refrigerated. Will last a couple weeks, easy.

I better write about fish sauce

When I was researching for last week’s salsa post, I came across references to one of the earliest known forms of salsa, namely Garum, the pungent roman fish sauce. Then a friend posted a note about discovering that some kimchi she ate had shrimp in it, which she’s allergic to, (traditionally, it usually does include shrimp). That prompted a question about using fish sauce instead of shrimp in a kimchi recipe, (perfectly fine), and the fact that not all fish sauces are created equally. Then, a bit later, M and I were discussing that, when she noted that “proper use of fish sauce dictates that you shouldn’t taste it, (pretty much true, that), and, well – After all that I figured I’d better write about fish sauce.

While it’s enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, fish sauce is still not all that common in most kitchens, especially here in the U.S. Why that is becomes immediately evident when you open a bottle and take a deep whiff – Fish sauce is definitely funky – Yet the undeniable fact is this – If you’re looking for that certain je ne sais quoi to add salty and umami to a dish, fish sauce is the thing to reach for. And if that’s so, why did it die for so long? The answers are twofold – One, because of the fall of the Roman Empire, and two, fact is, it didn’t – It’s been alive and thriving in Asian cuisine, especially Vietnamese, for thousands of years.

Get yours here - Floor mosaic from a Garum shop
Get yours here – Floor mosaic from a Garum shop

It’s a reasonable assumption that humans have been saucing things since well into prehistory. Once we hit some form of civilization, that tendency multiplied in spades. Arguably no society has been more attuned to that trend than the Romans were. Roman chefs and diners seemed to disdain any food in its natural form – Everything had to be tweaked, poked and prodded into something else, and all of it was heavily sauced.

While the Roman Empire afforded its wealthy the chance to enjoy food, herbs, and spices from around the known world, the one thing that fueled everything was salt. It’s arguable that salt was in fact a tap root of their economy, as well as the key to their culinary hearts. In almost every place the Romans conquered, they looked for salt – in mines, evaporation projects, and boilers. Often enough, what they conquered was taken because of salt, because while the Romans traded in damn near everything, salt was simply a thing they couldn’t do without. First and foremost, it was a critical part of feeding and supplying the Roman Legions. Men and animals needed it to survive, let alone fight. It was also a huge part of what kept the lowly masses at bay – As long as they had salt and olives, and maybe a little bread, they were more or less quiescent, and that was critical for the ruling class to be able to remain thus.

Wherever the Romans went, fish sauce was made
Wherever the Romans went, fish sauce was made

Back to those sauces – What ruled back then, hands down, was fish sauce. It was in almost everything they ate, from Senator to plebeian. Now, that’s not to say that all fish sauce was created equally – Just as today some drink Veuve Clicquot and others Cooks, there was a wide variety of quality and price when it came to fish sauces. At the top of the heap was Garum, a relatively clear sauce made from the guts and gills of mackerel. This stuff was used at table, and could be fabulously expensive – The creme de la creme was called Garum Sociorum – It was made in Spain, and cost as much as an average Roman Legionnaire got paid in a year, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who got it and who didn’t. Next down the chain was Liquamen, basically, a sauce made in a manner quite close to the way it’s still done throughout Asia – The whole fish was salted and fermented, and a sauce was pressed from that after sufficient processing time. That was used by the cooks, and replaced salt in the vast majority of Roman dishes. Further down the chain came Muria, which as far as we could tell, would be the mixed dregs of the various higher cost fish sauces, pressed – and finally came Alec, which was literally a paste made from the sludge gleaned from cleaning a garum or liquamen making facility – Obviously, the plebeians got those last two products at their tables.

Fish sauces were so key to Roman life that production facilities were made anywhere and everywhere they could be. On the Italian peninsula, in Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe and Great Britain, fish were set out in the sun, (basically, to almost get on toward rotting somewhat), and then fermented into the various sauces. It must have been a distinctly pungent experience, to say the least. There was even a certified Kosher version made in occupied Israel.

As fate would have it, in the late 5th Century, the German conqueror Odoacer became the first barbarian ruler of Rome, and the empire was a thing of the past. Along with the fall of the rulers came the fall of all that fish sauce processing – Turns out the Germans didn’t care for the stuff – So a huge network of cottage industries surrounding the production of fish sauce vanished in a relative heartbeat – Except that it didn’t.

It’s not a stone cold fact that the Romans made it to Vietnam, but they probably did. Ptolemy mentioned the garrison of Cattigara, which is likely Óc Eo, in modern day Vietnam. Roman artifacts have been found there, as well as throughout Southeast Asia – No surprise, given the depth and breadth of Roman conquest and trading practices. And it’s there, in Vietnam, and eventually throughout Asia, that fish sauce was firmly established and has remained in steady production. Whether it’s Núoc Mám in Vietnam, (among other variants, they make it out of everything else too – crab, squid, shrimp, you name it), Nam Pla in Thailand, (there’s over 200 different makers there), or Bagoong in the Philippines, it’s a sauce made by fermenting little fish, (usually something from the Herring or Sardine family), and letting them sit for months – The result is as popular as it was to the Romans, and they’ve been making it continuously for thousands of years.

Colatura di Alici di Cetara - Roman Liquamen royalty
Colatura di Alici di Cetara – Roman Liquamen royalty

And now to throw another wrench into the works – It turns out that the process and the sauce never completely left Italy after all – and the differences between what’s found there now and what’s found throughout Southeast Asia are profound and illuminating. In my pantry is a little round bottle labeled Colatura di Alici di Cetara. The contents are gorgeous, a rich amber liquid, obviously quite viscous. Open the stopper and wham! It is seriously fishy, funky and potent as the day is long. It’s not an acquired taste – You either dig this stuff or you don’t. Cetara is a little fishing village tucked into the coast of Campania, between Amalfi and Salerno. There, back in the Middle Ages, a bunch of local monks somehow rediscovered the recipe and process for liquamen and started producing it again, and the town has been doing so more or less every since. It’s made from anchovies caught between March and July, then barrel brined and aged until the late fall, when the precious stuff is pressed and bottled. This is as close to the real deal as you’ll ever get today – This is the stuff Roman cooks used to add salt and umami, (whether they knew it or not), to so many ancient dishes – And that’s the best way to use Colatura as well.

Red Boat 40° N, the King of Núoc Mám
Red Boat 40° N, the King of Núoc Mám

Back in Vietnam, what they produce is a far cry from Colatura. There, I’ll boldly call the pinnacle of the art the sauce produced by Red Boat Fish Sauce. Find yourself a bottle of Red Boat 40° N, and you’ll be good to go. This is made from black anchovies from the Phu Quoc archipelago, and salt – That’s it. They’ve been making it the same way for hundreds of years, and it shows. Open that bottle and you get a much more nuanced presentation than Colatura – A gentle caress of your cheek, as opposed to an open handed slap. The fish and funk are still there, but much subtler, and there are other overtones as well, hints of Asia and the smell of Vietnamese cooking. To me, Red Boat is the Garum of our time – I’ll happily sprinkle a little out of the bottle onto whatever I’m having, and it’s awesomely good.

Get yourself a bottle of each of the above, and you’re good to go for all your fish sauce needs. But, before we talk about what to do with them, let me say this about the general state of the fish sauce nation – Having made a resurgence in the culinary world, there are a boatload of products out there. Just like badly prepared calimari, folks who say they hate fish sauce have, nine times out of ten, had crappy fish sauce – God knows there’s enough of that for sale. Let me save you much strife – Most of what you find in the average grocery store is crap. You have no idea what fish they’re talking about, and they sure ain’t tellin’ – At worst, this stuff is truly nasty, and at best, it’s insipid – Avoid it all like the plague and go with my recommendations.

As for what to do? Well, that’s easy – Replace salt with a drop or two of Colatura in damn near anything, and you’ll get not only the Salt note you’re looking for, but a hint of something deeper. Same goes for Red Boat. Used properly, aka very sparingly, you’ll get wonderful, subtle notes without any fishiness whatsoever. An on that note, I refer back to M, who’s comments came following a visit to Vietnamese joint in Seattle that overdid the fish sauce on whatever it was she ordered – The rule is hard, fast, and simple – If it tastes like fish sauce, you used too much. Chances are real good, you won’t make that mistake twice.

House Made Sriracha

My friend Ken Bonfield, Guitarist extraordinaire, recently posted an online paean to the iconic hot sauce, Sriracha, and got me thinking that I’d never posted about house made sriracha. Time to correct that omission. The countries that make up the core of the long peninsula that lies south of China and east of India – Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – represent an incredibly vibrant palette of stunning cuisines. In Fort Worth, Texas, there’s a little hole in the wall Vietnamese place in a strip mall off of Belknap Street named My Lan. Very often when we went there, we were the only white folks in the joint – the sure sign of authentic stuff. They’re still there, so go if you’re nearby, and if you want an adult beverage with dinner, stop at the liquor store across the road first – It’s a BYOB joint. What you’ll find is amazingly good food, not only in what they bring you, but in what’s already on the table when you sit down – Condiments, lots of condiments, many of them rocket powered, just the way it should be. Yet there’s one über popular Asian condiment you won’t find here – Sriracha hot sauce. This surprises many folks, but it really shouldn’t, because even though many assume that this iconic sauce is Vietnamese, in fact, it’s Thai, and the version you probably love isn’t quite how it’s made over there, either. Onward.

Huy Fong Sriracha, from humble roots
Huy Fong Sriracha, from humble roots

Sriracha, A.K.A. Rooster Sauce, isn’t American in origin, but thanks to David Tran, the arguably most popular version of this spicy condiment is. Tran, a former A.R.V.N. Officer, emigrated to California back in 1980, and shortly afterwards, began making a hot chile sauce from a little cubbyhole spot in L.A.’s Chinatown. Only 7 years later, Huy Fong Foods, (Named after the ship that took Tran away from Vietnam), moved into a 68,000 square foot production facility, and the rest is history. The company, still run by the Tran family, churns out their Tuong Ot Sriracha sauce, despite some recent legal battles with neighbors and the city of Irwindale over fumes from their plant. Huy Fong has sold tens of millions of bottles of the stuff, and recently things have come almost full circle – They’re now distributing the sauce in Vietnam. That’s full circle for Tran, but not quite for the sauce – For that, we need to go to Thailand.

A lot of Sriracha
A lot of Sriracha

Huy Fong’s ubiquitous red sauce, offered in a clear plastic bottle with white lettering and a bright green top, is far from the only player to carry that name, (or that look, for that matter.) Tran, for his part, has never trademarked his version, so literally anyone and everyone can and does produce hot chile sauces that carry the same Sriracha moniker. As such, some of those competitor’s wares are in fact exact copies of the Huy Fong recipe. This isn’t exactly a rip off, by the way, (so neither is your house made sriracha). The nature of Sriracha is such that there are only so many things you can put into it and remain authentic. Variation on the chiles theme is far and away the biggest variable in play – Tran’s original version used Serrano chiles, which were eventually replaced with red jalapeños, the chile Huy Fong uses to this day.

So, where does this stuff really hail from? A couple hours south east of Bangkok, down on the Bight, lies the district and village that bears the Sri Racha name. Who exactly first made the sauce that is somewhat in dispute to this very day. Sriraja Paniche, arguably the most famous commercially sold Thai version of the Sauce, was invented by a woman called Thanom Chakkapak, in the early 20th century. Encouraged by friends and family, she began to produce her sauce commercially, and it did very well indeed. However, according to the official Thai Sri Racha Lovers Association, it was Burmese woodworkers from that seaside town that first produced the red gold.

Regardless of who first formulated the stuff, sriracha, (pronounced, by the way, See Rah Jah), is immensely popular throughout Asia, and increasingly, the rest of the world. Yet there are marked differences between the Thai versions and the Huy Fong style we here in the States are used to. In a nutshell, the various Thai versions I’ve tried are thinner, more pourable, and generally milder and sweeter than our version, although rest assured that there, just like here, there are nuclear options. While Thai food can be crazy hot, most Thai’s, like most of us, prefer a balance of heat and flavor over intense heat. Sriraja Paniche is made with Goat Chiles, over a period of three months, with specific measures of vinegar added weekly, while Huy Fong makes no more than a one month supply of jalapeños can produce, in order to safeguard the quality and ripeness of their chiles. For heat comparison, we consult the Scoville Scale – The fairly universal measure of chile power. The goats measure around 2,000 SHUs, while a Jalapeño is more in the 2,500 to 5,000 range, although some claim red jalapeños top out around 8,000 SHUs. For the record, the current leaders in that scale of fire score well over a million SHUs, so the heat level we’re talking about is well down in the heat weenie range, as far as true chile heads are concerned.

The Scoville Scale
The Scoville Scale

The bigger picture view is that ‘Sriracha’ or any derivative thereof, isn’t really a brand name, it’s the sauce name, like ketchup or mustard – The branding comes with who makes it and what they use for fuel. And speaking of use, what do the Thais do with the stuff? The home turf where this stuff originated is coastal, so seafood obviously came in to play – Initially, sriracha got used predominantly for seafood, then eventually branched out to other stuff, like Thai omelettes, rice dishes, and the like. Nowadays, its use is fairly ubiquitous, as it is here.

So, sure you can buy it, but why not make your own house made version? Home recipes and methods run the gamut from super simple, which is what we’ll do, to stuff that takes a good bit longer – fermented versions, like McIlhenny’s Tabasco sauce. The base ingredients are the same for any authentic version – Chiles, garlic, vinegar, sugar, and salt. In the real stuff, the vinegar is almost always distilled white, the sugar almost always granulated white. That said, there are versions that use rice or cane vinegar, brown or palm sugar, and of course, the chiles run the gamut in variety and heat – Therein lies the beauty in home exploration – You don’t have to be authentic, you just have to be curious and build something you dig. Like things a bit fruitier? Use cider vinegar instead of white. Want sweetness with more substance? Sub agave nectar or good local honey for the granulated sugar. And chiles? Well, just go wild is my advice. In shopping for this piece, I went with Fresno chiles that made a fantastic sriracha, fruity, flavorful, and with a delightful ack of mouth heat finish. They sport a Scoville rating of 2,500 to 10,000, meaning the bottom end is about like a jalapeño and the top figure about double that of their green cousin. Obviously, you don’t have to use red chiles if you don’t care about your sauce being a different color, so go with what looks fresh and good to you for heat and flavor. There’s also absolutely nothing wrong with mixing varieties, either.

American Style Sriracha

1 Pound fresh red Jalapeño Chiles (Anaheim will work great too if you like less heat)
1/4 Cup Distilled White Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Granulated Garlic
2 Tablespoons granulated Sugar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

 

UrbanMonique Sriracha

1 Pound fresh Chiles, (Serrano, Fresno, New Mexican)
2-4 cloves fresh Garlic
1/4 Cup Live Apple Cider Vinegar*
1-2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

* Vinegar with the Mother acetobacter starter.

Thai Style Sriracha

1 Pound fresh Goat Chiles, (Red New Mexican, Hatch, or Anaheims will do nicely too)
3-5 cloves fresh Garlic
1/4 Cup Rice Vinegar
2 Tablespoons light brown Sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons Sea Salt

For all versions, production is the same.

PRODUCTION NOTES: You may chose to roast or blacken your chiles and garlic prior to cooking if you wish. This imparts a deeper, more nuanced flavor profile to virtually any combination you chose. If you prefer a brighter, fresher flavor, leave off the roasting step. Try all three versions and go from there.

Chiles do not contain pectin, so thickening largely depends on the reduction step detailed below. Your results will vary depending on the variety and freshness of the chiles you choose. Almost all commercial Srirachas remove most if not all of the seeds and skins from the finished sauce, but you certainly don’t have to – We don’t, because we prefer a thicker, chunkier sauce. It’s further my belief that retaining everything you cooked provides better and deeper flavor all around. Do what you like – You can’t go wrong either way.

Speaking of pectin, you can substitute fruit for the sweetener for a less traditional, but every bit as tasty on option for any sauce variant. A quarter cup of fresh berries, plums, peach, what have you will do the trick.
Remove stems from chiles, smash garlic lightly with the side of a chef’s knife – remove the skins and trim the ends.

Rough chop the chiles.

Rough chopped chiles ready for the blender
Rough chopped chiles ready for the blender

Place everything into a blender and pulse until you have a nice, thick paste.

First sauce blend - Get a nice thick paste
First sauce blend – Get a nice thick paste

Transfer the sauce to a heavy sauce over medium heat.
Don’t clean the blender vessel just yet, you’re going to use it again soon.

Cook the sauce, stirring steadily, until the raw garlic and Chiles smells dissipate, about 5 – 7 minutes.

Cook sauce until raw smells dissipate
Cook sauce until raw smells dissipate

Check your consistency at this point – You can stop there if you wish, or continue cooking the sauce down to allow more thickening – Again, keep in mind that the sauce will thicken appreciably upon refrigeration.

Remove sauce from heat and pour it back into the blender vessel and process again until you have a nice, smooth consistency. Leave it as is if you’re happy with the consistency, or thin with water as needed, adding a tablespoon at a time.

Second blend gets your post cooked consistency
Second blend gets your post cooked consistency

When you’ve got the consistency you like, you’re done if you like things more rustic. As noted above, if you prefer a thinner sauce basically equivalent to Tabasco or Cholula, transfer the sauce to a single mesh strainer over a glass or stainless mixing bowl, and use a wooden spoon or the side of a spatula to gently work the sauce through the strainer, leaving the skin, pulp and rough stuff behind. NOTE: Many strainers have a quite fine mesh, and if your sauce isn’t particularly wet, you may capture more than you want to. A chinoise is a great alternative that will let more sauce through.

Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning as desired.

House Made UrbanMonique Sriracha
House Made UrbanMonique Sriracha

Allow the sauce to cool completely to room temperature before transferring it to a clean, glass jar with an airtight lid.

Allow the sauce to marry, refrigerated, for a couple of days before use. This is a critical step to the final flavor you’ll achieve – As an example, ours went from quite sweet and hot to much more subtly so, with the Garlic slightly more notable, within 48 hours.

It’ll last up to 30 days in the fridge.

Sugar, and Spice, and Everything Essential

Sugar, and spice, and everything essential. That’s no nursery rhyme – That’s what needs to be in every home pantry, if spontaneity and discovery are to happen in your kitchen. Fact is, without a decent assortment of staples – Sweeteners, flours, herbs, spices, oils, vinegars, and the like, it can be awfully hard to successfully create on the fly. At the same time, its easy, (and pricy!), to go overboard on this stuff. What’s the happy medium, and what are the must haves? Let’s dive in and see.

Here at our kitchen, we have, well, pretty much everything. We have to, in order to do what we do for y’all – researching, creating, and testing recipes requires a ridiculous amount and variety of resources. Thankfully, your kitchen needn’t be quite so whacky to be well equipped. That said, you may want more than you’ve got currently, so how to decide what’s necessary? Let’s use our place as a guide, and pare things down to manageable for the average home kitchen. That should allow a cook to do as much as reasonably possible from scratch, and also encourage spontaneity.

Spice & Herb Overflow - It happens...
Spice & Herb Overflow – It happens…

Before we dive in to specifics, a note on organization. Some manner thereof is, of course, absolutely necessary. How that takes shape is up to you. The most common sense approach is to consider what you use most, and have those closest at hand. As far as I’m concerned, the Season As You Go rule is non-negotiable, so the core stuff needs to be close at hand. We keep our go-to salts and peppers front and center, right on top of the stove. Oils, vinegars, and other common sauces shouldn’t be much farther away, ditto for herbs and spices. Flours, sugars, canned, boxed, and bagged stuff is pantry fodder, if you’re fortunate enough to have one.

The fundamentals, salt and pepper, center stage.
The fundamentals, salt and pepper, center stage.

In any case, make arrangements that make sense to you. Once you establish an order that works for you, keep it – In a professional kitchen, having things in the same place every time is a necessity, given the time constraints under which we cook. That rule really isn’t any different for us at home – Sometimes cooking is leisurely, but more often than not, it’s home at five and dinner needed around six, or some version thereof – So having everything where you expect to find it is imperative for efficiency and peace of mind. All that said, be open minded about change, if down the road your best laid plans don’t thrill you any more. Quarterly reviews of your resources and where you have them is a very good plan to follow. That gets you looking at expiration dates, freshness, amounts on hand, and what you haven’t used in forever on a regular basis – Include your fridge and freezer in that survey as well.

Why not start with those essentials, your go-to seasonings. As savvy cooks everywhere know, the core secret to great cooking is seasoning as you go. That means that the stuff you rely on for that process should be, as noted, closest at hand. This needn’t be complex. Salt and pepper really are all you need. Were one to pick a single version of each, what should they be? I’ll advocate for a sea salt, one with a moderate grain size – For this, you don’t want either really chunky stuff or super fine – Real sea salt contains a wealth of trace minerals that taste good and are good for you. There’s a bunch out there – I like the Bob’s Red Mill a lot, as well as the Celtic brand. For Pepper, you’re hard pressed to do better than a genuine Tellicherry berry, and that requires a little explanation.

Tellicherry Pepper - Size matters.
Tellicherry Pepper – Size matters.

Contrary to popular culinary myth, Tellicherry Pepper does not come from its namesake city in India. Tellicherry berries are defined by size, not location or heritage, per se. Pepper berries, Piper Nigrum, are harvested in February and March, then dried to become what we recognize as a pepper corn. In order to be called Tellicherry, pepper corns need to be 4.25 mm or larger, (and there’s actually a jumbo version, at 4.75mm and up). In any given crop, maybe 10% to 15% of the berries reach Tellicherry size, so it’s a bit rarer and a bit pricier, but well worth it – You’re getting the literal cream of the crop. As for other pepper, a look through our spice cabinet finds long, Tasmanian, grains of paradise, smoked, Szechuan, Lampung, Aleppo, white, green, and red, so yeah – You can go pretty ballistic on those. As far as I’m concerned, Tellicherry is all you really need.

Culinary Salts now run the gamut from A to Z
Culinary Salts now run the gamut from A to Z

There are many more options for salts these days, as well – and you may or may not want or need them. Some of the legendary ones, like Malden, Sal de Mer, Himalayan pink, Bolivian Sunrise, and the like are truly spectacular, but they’re expensive – Really better suited as finishing salts for a special touch. I counted fourteen salt varieties in our spice cabinet, including kosher, flaked, smoked, and a raft of those fancy varietals – Again, you really don’t need most of those. If I had to pick a must have selection, it’d be sea, kosher, and flaked – That’ll cover the vast majority of uses you’re likely to want to mess with – And if the others catch your fancy, I say try those too, but sparingly. Salt and pepper don’t have an endless shelf life, so buy in small quantities, and use them up before adding more.

Essential oils, vinegars, and sauces get the same storage treatment as herbs and spices.
Essential oils, vinegars, and sauces get the same storage treatment as herbs and spices.

Next up, oils, and here too one can be complex or simple. For eons, what you could get was corn oil and olive oil, and little else. With the rising popularity of home gastronomy, the variety of oils available to cooks has blossomed considerably. For basic cooking, you can now find a number of relatively heart healthy oils in almost any store – canola, peanut, safflower, and sunflower, for instance. As with fancy salts, there are a bunch more fairly exotic oils – walnut, grape seed, coconut, hazelnut, avocado, and infused olive oils. While the latter bunch are delicious indeed, they’re really more for finishing or making vinaigrette than for cooking – And they’re fabulously expensive to boot. What you need is genuine Extra Virgin Olive Oil, for sure, and then a go to veg oil – Those will do the trick for 90% of your daily cooking chores. I’ll add one caveat, and that’s avocado oil. It’s become our go to, for several reasons – It’s got a light, buttery taste, it handles heat well, and is high in monounsaturated fatty acids.

For all thing flour, I’ll refer you to our Flour Power post from a while back – It’ll probably tell you more than you need to know.

Pantry is for bulk storage of staples.
Pantry is for bulk storage of staples.

Sweeteners are a bit more complex than refined white sugar, and should be – There are tastier, more potent options worth your shopping dollar. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have white sugar on hand – You should, and maybe even a couple variants – Regular white is a go to for many things, and the finer cut Baker’s sugar dissolves much faster, for baking or other cooking. Honey, real honey, local whenever possible, not only has greater sweetening power than sugar, it has the added benefit of subtle flavor notes that reflect the terroir your local bees worked to bring you their joy. Regulars here will know we’re also big on agave nectar. In addition to a lovely, light taste, like honey, agave has a lower glycemic index than white sugar, so here again, you can use less to obtain a commensurate level of sweetening power. Other sugars, brown, raw, and the like, carry a molasses flavor note white refined doesn’t, and some folks like that. If you bake, you’ll likely want some of those on hand. Molasses and corn syrup might also find favor with bakers. Alternative molasses, like Pomegranate, sorghum, carob and date, are popular for cooking Middle Eastern cuisine, and can add an exotic touch to many dishes and sauces.

Vinegar is a must as well, for everything from house made vinaigrettes to sauces and shrubs. Depending on what you like to do, you may need one or more variations on the theme. A few years back, I wrote a little primer on the basics – You can find that here. The one caveat I’ll underline is this – Infused vinegars are expensive, and they needn’t be. You can make great versions at home for next to nothing, and you should. Here are some ideas for that project.

There are a bunch of ready made sauces out there, so what do you really need? For my mind, a hot sauce or three is a necessity – A few drops of Tabasco, for instance, wakes flavor much as salt does, and adds a nice backbone note to soups and stews. Jalapeño based sauce has a milder, fruitier profile that goes great with everything from veggies to eggs. What else? Soy sauce is a must, (though beware, there are a slew of gourmet and ‘premium’ varieties that can get really pricy and aren’t really all that spectacular. There are now an abundance of dark and light varieties. Preference comes down to taste, so try a few until you find something you like, and then stick with it – The lighter version, by the way, differs mostly in color, the idea being not to turn things muddy when that’s not appealing. Fish sauce is another must have, and here you do need to be careful – There’s a lot of crap, even among the pricy stuff. Red Boat is the real deal – You can’t go wrong with a small bottle of that, and since this is added literally by the drop, a small bottle goes a long way. Obviously there are a bunch more sauces, and you may accumulate a few over time. Hopefully, you don’t get as crazy as we are, but then you never know…

Oils, vinegars, and sauces will break down in the presence of direct sunlight and heat, so store them in a cool, dark spot, in glass containers, and always read the label to see if something belongs in the fridge after opening.

Herbs and spices need dark, cool temps, and airtight glass jars.
Herbs and spices need dark, cool temps, and airtight glass jars.

And lastly, we come to herbs and spices. Here’s a place where, as you can see from our cabinet, a cook can go seriously off the deep end – That’s a blessing and a curse. Almost everything in a spice cabinet is sensitive to conditions and age – The volatile compounds that make herbs and spices do what they do mean that they can and will break down and degrade if stored improperly or kept too long. For dried herbs and spices, there are important caveats. First, sourcing – All herbs are not created equally – Provenance and proven quality matter. Although things are improving in terms of variety and quality, getting herbs and spices from the average grocery store isn’t what you want to do. A simple test illustrates why – A generic, store bought jar of oregano versus real stuff from a quality source like World Spice, or Penzeys, will prove the point. Open both and take a nice, long sniff. The sheer power and complexity of the good stuff quickly overwhelms the relatively insipid generic version. What you’re experiencing is ‘oregano’ against Mexican or Turkish oregano, with known sources of high quality – Game over. Everything you get from a good purveyor will perform like that. If you needed further motivation, what you get in the grocery is often more expensive than what the good providers charge. You’ll also have a choice as to how much of what you want to buy, and you can opt for whole or ground/mixed as well. Overall, it’s a no brainer if you’re serious about your cooking, (and if you’re here, you are.)

Onwards to storage – If your spices are in little jars in a spinny thingy on your counter top, and you got that stuff as a wedding gift and are still using it, you seriously need to repent, and soon. Sunlight, oxygen, and warmth are our friends, but for dried herbs and spices, not so much. Your stuff needs to be in a cabinet, out of direct light, away from extremes of temperature, and stored in small, airtight glass jars. That will safeguard your hard won goodies. Even so, age creeps up on us all, and spices are as susceptible as anything. This means that limiting how much and what you store is the best plan. We buy our staple, go to stuff, by the pound, but again, that’s because we do a lot of cooking to make this joint run – There are few, if any things in the spice world that the average home kitchen needs by the pound – An ounce of lemon thyme goes quite a long way, and you can have another in your mailbox in a matter of days. Buy quality, buy enough for maybe three months of use, and you’re good to go.

Of course, some herbs just beg to be used fresh, and if ever there’s an indoor gardening task you should undertake, a fresh herb window box is it. Check out our page on what we call the essentials, here. Between that and an annual herb and veggie garden, you can grow and then dry of freeze home grown stuff – There’s nothing finer, frankly.

This isn’t meant as a comprehensive kitchen analysis, but as a good starting point from which to learn and grow. Always be open to change, embrace what works and tastes good, and you’ll be hard pressed to go wrong. What we’ve outlined here should be sufficient to allow decent spur of the moment creativity on your part.

Banh Mi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rough chop the Cabbage slices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slice cucumber into very thin rings.

Rough chop cilantro.

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

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

Banh mi, final assembly
Banh mi, final assembly

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

Banh mi
Banh mi

Fold ’em up and dig in.

Goes great with a local lager or pilsner.

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.

Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade

I’ve got this young Manager, Taylor Beargeon, at the cafe. Turns out he and his mom are both followers here at UrbanMonique. Taylor has made a bunch of stuff we’ve posted, and we appreciate that more than we can say.

Skillet's Bacon Fennel Jam
Skillet’s Bacon Fennel Jam
The other day, Taylor brought in a jar of fennel, black pepper, and bacon spread from Skillet, the incredibly talented consortium of restaurants, catering, street food, and much more. Lead by Jon Severson, and packed full of an amazingly eclectic and talented mix of fellow Chefs, this Seattle mainstay is a happening thing. 

I tasted this stuff, and it was fabulous, indeed. Then the thing that always happens with me happened – I thought, ‘how would I do this?’ I trust that the folks at Skillet won’t begrudge that leap in the least – Sure, they’d love us to buy their stuff, but knowing all they do and how they do it, I believe that they’d be thrilled if what they did inspired a few home cooks.

I looked at the ingredients of their wonderful spread, and immediately saw some things that I’d change. That’s not a rip off, by the way, or a put down. It is, rather, the way things go in creative endeavors. The folks at Skillet didn’t invent the concept of bacon jams, this was just their swing at it. Tasting it, and wanting to do your own version is complimentary, not parasitic.

This is why I encourage y’all constantly to take your own swing at what we do here – It’s also why I regularly use guitar licks lifted from dozens of players who came before me – what it becomes is my own amalgamated style. And that’s also why I’m thrilled when somebody else cops something of mine.

Anyway, back to that Skillet Jam. Theirs contains bacon, onion, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, lemon juice, black pepper, whole and ground fennel seed, granulated garlic, caramel color, and xanthan gum, (a pretty benign stabilizer). What I tasted was, appropriately, bacon first, then fennel, then sweet. Again, that stuff was really tasty, but it got me thinking about what I’d want to taste in such a thing, and so here we are. As such, let’s just take a little spin through the roughly six days between what Taylor started by sharing that taste, and what I came up with for y’all to try.

The origins of bacon jam are somewhat murky. Skillet’s received a lot of press as an original condiment, and their version certainly is that. Yet the real roots go back quite a bit farther than 2011 Seattle street food. Mincemeat recipes, (an amalgam of beef or mutton mixed with suet, fruit, nuts, liquor, vinegar, and citrus), are found as early as the 1400s in England. Mincemeat might be served as a main dish, (in a pie), or as a side for meat or poultry.

Chutney, an Indian condiment made from fruit and/or veggies, sugar or vinegar, and spices, hails back to several hundred years B.C.E.. 

Marmalade, fruit preserved in sugar and originally made with quince, harkens back to the ancient Greeks.

Pissaladière, the signature southern French pizza, is topped with what can easily be called an onion marmalade. 

And in Austria, a traditional dish, called verhackert, is a spread of minced bacon, garlic, and salt.

All of these things were made in order to preserve fruit, veggies, and meat for longer than their natural period of ripe and ready. Vinegar, salt, and sugar have all been used for just that purpose for thousands of years. Bacon jam, or marmalade, or chutney, are natural offshoots of these roots. As such, the sky is the limit for what you can and should try in your own kitchen.

Accordingly, I started thinking about what I had available and what I’d like to taste in such a thing. My first consideration was texture. That Skillet spread was just that – A processed blend of all that good stuff that you can scoop out with a knife and spread onto a sandwich or burger. What I wanted was something a bit more rustic, more of a marmalade feel.

Then came the taste palate I was after. What I wanted was big shots of savory and smoke, with sweet and heat as after notes. By that I mean literally, I wanted the savory and smoke to hit you front and center when you first taste the stuff, and the lingering notes to be sweet heat.

I had both fresh fennel and some super sweet little tomatoes in the garden, so those were definitely in. Sweet onion and shallot contribute savory, sweet, and heat notes, and would act as the anchor of the whole mix. Because fennel root is fairly delicate in and of itself, it wouldn’t stand up to the long, low and slow cooking a dish like this requires.

For the smoke, the bacon absolutely had to be the keynote. I used Hemplers, a stellar local bacon smoked in applewood. To really highlight the smokiness, I opted for Bourbon, (which also adds subtle sweetness), and a local Thai chile grown by a friend of my Sister that I’d smoked and ground this summer – That also brings the primary heat note to the mix. The final smoke note came from home roasted dark coffee. Touches of balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, salt and pepper round out the blend. Here’s how I did it.

NOTE: You may sub 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika and any hot chile flake if you don’t have a smoked chile as I did.

UrbanMonique’s Bacon, Fennel, Onion Marmalade

1/2 Pound Applewood Smoked Bacon
1 fresh Fennel Root, (About 1 1/2 Cups)
1 Cup Cherry Tomatoes
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion
1/2 Cup Shallot
2 cloves Garlic
1/2 Cup brewed Coffee
1/2 Cup Bourbon
2 Tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Maple Syrup
1/2 teaspoon Chile flake or powder
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

As with any dish that calls for a bunch of ingredients, you’ll want to do all your prep, and have your mise en place set out neatly and close at hand before you start cooking.

Always get your mis en place!
Always get your mis en place!
Rinse, peel and and dice the fennel root, onion, and shallot, (about 1/4″ dice).

Rinse, stem, and quarter cherry tomatoes.

Stem, peel and mince the garlic.

Cut bacon into a roughly 1/4″ dice.

Heat a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat.

Add the chopped bacon and sauté until it browns and starts to turn crispy, about 3-5 minutes.

Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and transfer to clean paper toweling.

Toss the onion, shallot, and fennel into the hot bacon grease and sauté until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 2-3 minutes.

Transfer the veggies from the pan to clean paper toweling, with a slotted spoon.

Deglaze the pan with the bourbon, taking care to scrape loose all the little cooked bits from the bottom.

When the raw booze smell dissipates, return the bacon and salted veggies to the pan, add the tomatoes and the garlic, and stir to incorporate.

Add the coffee, vinegar, and maple syrup; stir gently to incorporate.

Season with chile powder, salt, and pepper and stir to incorporate.

Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade Cooking down - Low and slow is the key.
Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade Cooking down – Low and slow is the key.
Reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has all been absorbed and the blend has a nice, marmalade like consistency. A little loose is fine – It will tighten up as it cools.

Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade Cooking down
Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade Cooking down

Transfer marmalade to a glass bowl to cool.

Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade
Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade

So, what’s it good on? Silly question! Damn near anything! Burgers, dogs, sandwiches, omelettes, chicken, pork – There’s a reason bacon is such a ubiquitous kitchen cheat.

Refrigerated in a clean, airtight container, the jam will last for 5-7 days.

Oh and hey – Thanks Tay Tay!