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!

The French Mother Sauces

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For ease of use and reference, here are links to all five of the French Mother Sauces, as codified by Auguste Escoffier. Master these, and you’re well on your way to not only a working understanding of the heart of classic French cuisine, but to a lifetime of culinary discovery and invention all your own.

If you’ve not tried them, do, and may you have as much fun in your exploration as we’ve had in presenting them.

Allez cuisine.

Sauce Velouté

The classic Velouté - Light and creamy
The classic Velouté – Light and creamy

Sauce Béchamel

Béchamel - Creamy goodness!
Béchamel – Creamy goodness!

Sauce Espagnole

Sauce Espagnole
Sauce Espagnole

Sauce Hollandaise

Sauce Hollandaise - Gentle is the word
Sauce Hollandaise – Gentle is the word

Sauce Tomate

Sauce Tomate
Sauce Tomate

Sauce Tomate

And finally we arrive at the last of the five Escoffiere French Mother sauces – Sauce Tomate.

Tomate fresca
Tomate fresca

Tomatoes aren’t often associated all that much with classic haute French cuisine, but they wee indeed on the scene, as we noted with sauce Espagnole. Here again, we have a clear cut case of adoption of a great ingredient from the neighbors. All that considered, the roots of the tomato plant may not hail from where many of us think they do. I’ve heard a lot of folks claim that the Europeans, specifically the Spanish, brought tomatoes to North America – that’s more or less correct, but in a very round about way – The Aztec people, who ate and cultivated tomatoes as far back as the eighth century, are actually where the Spanish got tomatoes from, in a very nasty manner.

Tomatoes are far more diverse than we might realize. There are tens of thousands of variants cultivated all around the world – there’s even a Siberian one designed to be grown indoors. There are thirteen recognized wild species, and probably well more than that – There is much we do not yet know of their area of origin. Of the known wild species, three will readily cross with domestic varieties, and nine more can do so with certain caveats.

But I digress – Back to the Spanish. The horror show that was Hernan Cortez and the Spanish campaign destroyed all things Aztec from 1519 to 1521. Cortez took seeds from what was called, in the Nahuatl (Aztec), language ‘xitomatl’ seeds back to Spain, where they were called tomate, and the European introduction was made. Spain’s relatively temperate Mediterranean climate agreed with the tomato, and cultivation began forthwith. Yet for roughly a hundred years, tomatoes were grown purely as an ornamental crop – the Spanish though they were pretty, and adorned their tables with bowls of reddish fruit – It would not be until the early 1600s that they began to actually eat them.

Tomatoes spread quite rapidly across Europe. Italy began tomato cultivation in the mid 1500s, but didn’t eat them until the late 1600s. England, and subsequently the North American colonies, received seeds around 1600, but wouldn’t eat or cook with the fruit until the mid 1700s. The problem, of course, was the tomato’s family ties.

Solanum lycopersicum, AKA the tomato plant, belongs to the family Solanaceae, AKA Nightshade. When we hear the word Nightshade, we assume bad things, but the fact is this family is incredibly broad, sporting everything from herbs and vines to shrubs, trees, and even epiphytes. Many variants are cultivated, (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and chiles, for instance), even some of the ones that contain potent and highly toxic alkaloids. Others, like Deadly Nightshade (Atropa Belladonna), not so much.

In any event, once folks got the clue that tomatoes not only could be safely eaten, but were downright delicious, culinary experimentation got underway. It became readily apparent just what the tomato was especially good at – Their high liquid content, coupled with a natural ability to thicken when cooked without the need for adjuncts, (like a roux, or bread crumbs), made them a shoe in for sauces. Care to give that a test? Chop up some good fresh tomatoes, preferably from your garden, and sauté them over medium heat with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, until the raw tomato smell dissipates. Eat them warm, maybe with a hunk of fresh bread and a glass off decent red.

Boom – Any questions?

Some 300+ years later, tomato sauce in one form or another is found everywhere, and widely claimed as indigenous dish, or a favorite import. A veritable cornucopia of good things are added to the root fruit to make sauces – water, wine, stock, veggies, other fruit, nuts, meat, poultry, and fish, bean curd, and many more – a veritable pantheon of tomato versatility.

The French version, as championed by Escoffier, is quite different from most other variants you might be familiar with – In addition to the usual suspects, Escoffier included pork belly, veal stock, a ham bone, and a roux. Those deceptively simple adjuncts yield a sauce of surprising depth and complexity. It’s not a sauce you want to use all the time, given the added calories and potential for clogged arteries, but it’s a real treat for a special occasion.

For our recipe, I’ll call for canned tomatoes, since that’s what we have to work with most of the time. I prefer whole tomatoes, because it’s my belief you get more flavor from them. If you don’t have a stick or conventional blender, (Gods forbid!), then you can certainly sub crushed or diced. If it’s that time of year for fresh tomatoes and you’re of a mind to use them, you’ll want 8-10 cups.

If you get a sudden wild hair to make this stuff and don’t feel like a trip to the store, bacon will work just fine as a sub for belly and bone; just add a tablespoon of good olive oil to compensate and you’re good to go.

Sauce Tomate
2 28 ounce cans Whole Tomatoes, (or 8-10 cups fresh)
4 Cups Veal Stock, (Chicken is fine)
2 Cups diced Onion
1 Cup Diced Carrot
1 Cup diced Celery
2 Ounces Pork Belly
1 Ham Bone
1 clove Garlic
2 tablespoons Butter
2 Tablespoons Flour
8-10 Black Pepper Corns
3-4 sprigs fresh Parsley
1 Bay Leaf, (Turkish preferred, California is fine)
1 sprig fresh Thyme, (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
Sea Salt to taste.

Preheat oven to 300° F and set a rack in the middle position.

Combine the pepper corns, thyme, parsley, and bay leaf in cheesecloth and tie with kitchen twine – This is your bouquet garni.

Bouquet Garni
Bouquet Garni

Cut pork belly into 1/2″ cubes, (lardons).

In a cast iron Dutch oven over medium heat, sauté the pork belly until the fat is liquified and rendered free.

Pork belly renders much more fat than bacon
Pork belly renders much more fat than bacon

Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Sauté until the onion is translucent but not browned,about 3-5 minutes.

Mire poix - 50% onion, 25% each carrot and celery
Mire poix – 50% onion, 25% each carrot and celery
Onions just turning translucent
Onions just turning translucent

Remove tomatoes from cans and pulse with a stick blender in a non-reactive mixing bowl until they’re evenly crushed but not liquified, (or process in a conventional blender). If you’re using fresh, just rough dice everything you’ve got, removing tops and bottoms, of course.

That's a lot of fresh tomatoes...
That’s a lot of fresh tomatoes…

Add tomatoes, ham bone, stock, a pinch of sea salt, and the bouquet garni to the Dutch oven, and mix with a large spoon to incorporate. Stuff the bouquet down into the middle with your spoon.

Sauce Tomate ready for the oven
Sauce Tomate ready for the oven

Allow the sauce to come to a simmer.

Add butter to a microwave safe measuring cup and melt. Add the flour and combine to form the roux. Ladle a cup of liquid from the sauce into the measuring cup and blend thoroughly with a fork. Add this to the sauce and stir to incorporate.

Transfer the Sauce to the oven. Reduce oven heat to 250° F, and cover with the top just slightly cracked. Roast for 2 hours.

Roast for 2 hours, top slightly cracked
Roast for 2 hours, top slightly cracked

Remove the sauce from the oven and uncover.

Sauce Tomate
Sauce Tomate

You can leave the sauce rustic, or give it a few pulses with a stick blender if you prefer a smooth consistency – just don’t forget to fish out the bouquet and the bone in either case!

You can now use what you need and allow the rest to cool to room temp prior to freezing.

Use the sauce straight, add additional stuff, or create a daughter sauce if you like – Barbecue, calamari, creole, Espagnole, and a la Vodka are all made therefrom. Here are a few of those to set you on your way.

Penne with Sauce Tomate
Penne with Sauce Tomate

Sauce Creole
2 Cups Sauce Tomate
1 Cup Chicken Stock
1/2 Cup fine diced Green Pepper
1/2 Cup diced Green Onion
2 Tablespoons fresh Basil leaves, cut a la chiffonade
1 teaspoon Oregano
1 teaspoon Thyme
1 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
2-3 shakes Tabasco Sauce
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Unsalted butter
Sea Salt to taste

In a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, add the oil and butter and heat through.

Add the green pepper and onion, and season lightly with salt. Sauté until the onions start to brown slightly.

Add the tomate sauce, stock, basil, thyme, oregano, Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces, and stir to incorporate.

Bring the sauce to a simmer, then reduce heat to just maintain that.

Allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes.

Taste and adjust seasoning as needed or desired.

Serve hot.

 

Sauce a la Vodka
2 Cups Sauce Tomate
1 Cup heavy Cream
1/4 Cup Vodka
1/4 Cup fresh Basil leaves, cut a la chiffonade
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 clove Garlic, minced
Sea Salt and Black Pepper to taste

In a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, add the olive oil and heat through.

Sauté the garlic until it begins to brown lightly.

Add the vodka to the hot pan and scrape all the little dark bits free with a fork.

When the booze smell has dissipated, add the sauce tomate, and basil and stir to incorporate.

Season with a pinch of sea salt and 2-3 twists of pepper.

Reduce heat to maintain a low simmer, and cook for 10 minutes.

Bring heat back up to medium. When the sauce is simmering vigorously, add the cream and stir to incorporate.

Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed.

Reduce heat to a bare simmer and cook for 15 minutes.

Sauce is now ready to be ladled over and tossed with fresh pasta, or cooled to room temperate and frozen for future use

 

Sauce Calamari
2 Cups sauce Tomate
1/2 Cup Red Wine
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 cloves fresh Garlic, minced
1 teaspoon crushed red Chile
Sea salt
Black Pepper

In a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, add the oil and heat through.

Add the garlic and sauté until it become to brown slightly.

Add the Ted wine to the hot pan and scrape all the little dark bits from the pan with a fork.

When the raw alcohol smell has dissipated, add the sauce tomate, and crushed chiles.

Season with a pinch of sea salt and 2-3 twists of pepper.

Reduce hat to maintain a bare simmer and cook for 15 minutes.

Serve hot, or allow to cool for freezing.

Sauce Hollandaise

Onward with the Mother Sauces – Today, it’s Sauce Hollandaise. Note how, thus far in our quest, these legendary pillars of classic French cuisine seem to all hail from elsewhere? That’s not a slight or a slam. It is, rather a paean to ingenuity, and to wholehearted adaptation of good things to eat.

Hollandaise, like many of its sisters, has somewhat veiled roots. The name implies Holland, of course, and one school of thought has the original version brought to France from the Netherlands some time in the 17th century, where it was used a sauce for fish. My Larousse Gastronomique, on the other hand, claims it as French from the get go, and printed French recipes are found as far back as the mid 1600s; some are quite close to the modern iteration, while others come from farther afield – There are even green versions mentioned, flavored with fresh parsley. The recipe that yields Hollandaise as we now know it, employing a rich emulsion of egg yolks and butter, was institutionalized in the late 1800s, commensurate with Auguste Escoffier’s reign. Regardless of from where and when it stems, it’s delicious, decadent, and something you just gotta have every now and again.

Hollandaise is an emulsion, which means one of two things in cooking – either fat dispersed into water, or water dispersed into fat. Hollandaise is the former, and that’s important to understand when considering that it’s made with egg yolks. While both yolk and whites are protein rich, it’s the cooks ability to unravel and mesh those proteins that allows us to turn a bunch of fat into an emulsion, (perhaps more importantly, one that will hold long enough to use in a dish without breaking). In this regard, yolks present a distinct disadvantage over whites – They have almost no water, and their proteins are wound far tighter. The best illustration of this is provided by separately whipping yolks and whites in order to increase their volume, as you would for Belgian waffle batter.

Egg yolks need water to expand
Egg yolks need water to expand

While egg whites will whip and expand quite readily, virtually no amount of whipping will appreciably increase the volume of yolks with nothing else added. This happens because the proteins in egg yolks are too dense to expand when they stand alone, even when coaxed by mechanical beating – water is what is needed to do the deed – add a tablespoon to the yolk of a large egg and it’ll expand with vigorous whipping, but the resultant foam will be quite short lived. Those yolk proteins are so tightly packed that, even though you’ve introduced a bunch of air and force expansion, they’re still fundamentally disinclined to truly relax. In light of this fact, you might be surprised at the fact that most recipes for Hollandaise don’t call for water, and frankly, I don’t get that, either.

Acids, like lemon juice or vinegar, will also relax yolk proteins to some degree, but the most effective catalyst is gentle heat, with an emphasis on gentle. To the chagrin of many a home cook, (and plenty of Pros, truth be told), if you heat those yolks too fast, you get scrambled eggs, and nothing will take the wind out of a cooks sails faster. Overcooked hollandaise is easily the Number One Fail for home cooks. My solution, (and believe me, it’s as much for my peace of mind as it is for yours), is to use far less heat than most recipes, and no direct heat at all. Doing so solves the overcooking problem, and the overall fussiness of preparing Hollandaise. The simple truth is that indirect, (mostly steam), heat within a double boiler, coupled with the latent heat from the melted butter, is more than sufficient to get the job done. Here’s how you do it.

Sauce Hollandaise - Gentle is the word
Sauce Hollandaise – Gentle is the word

Painless Hollandaise

4 large, fresh Egg Yolks

1/2 Cup fresh Butter

1 Tablespoon Cold Water

2 teaspoons fresh Lemon Juice

2-3 shakes Tabasco Sauce

Separate eggs. Place whites in an airtight container and refrigerate or freeze for future projects.

Put about 2″ of water in a sauce pan sized such that a mixing bowl or double boiler will fit within. You want the bottom of the bowl you’ll work in to be above the water by a good 2″. Not doing this right is a primary cause of failed hollandaise – Too much heat, and/or heating too fast.

Turn heat to medium low.

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

When the water starts to simmer, turn off the heat.

In a small mixing bowl, combine egg yolks, water, and lemon juice.

Whisk briskly by hand to combine, until blend thickens and the volume has increased notably, about 2 minutes.

Place bowl over the hot water pan.

Gently but steadily whisk the egg yolk mixture to heat it through, about 1 – 2 minutes.

Begin slowly adding butter in a thin stream; add a few seconds worth, whisking gently but constantly, until the yolk mixture has incorporated the butter, then add a little more, and keep doing so until all the butter is absorbed.

The sauce will thicken somewhat, but possibly not as much as you like it to end up, but don’t sweat that point; as the sauce sits while you prep the rest of the dish, it’ll thicken a bit more.

Whisk in the Tabasco, then set the whole double boiler rig on the back of your oven, and cover with a clean towel.

traditional Eggs Benedict
traditional Eggs Benedict

With that, you should make, if nothing else, Eggs Benedict, and fresh asparagus, right?

Asparagus with Hollandaise
Asparagus with Hollandaise

The Mother Sauces – Béchamel

Alright, enough screwing around – Back to the Escoffier version of the French Mother Sauces, as asked for and promised! We covered velouté, so it’s time for béchamel, (and down the line, espagnole, tomate, and hollandaise).

Béchamel - Creamy goodness!
Béchamel – Creamy goodness!

Béchamel is arguably the most versatile of those magic five, (although tomate might dispute that claim). So many derivatives come from it. Béchamel is a cream sauce, with a heart of roux, the combination of flour and fat that gives its richness to all variants. As much as it may pain French cuisine to say so, béchamel’s roots are predominantly Italian. In that country, besciamella, (or balsamella, or bechimella), have been around for hundreds of years prior to their cropping up in French cooking. In everything from pasta primavera to lasagna and cannelloni, besciamella has been used to tie many an Italian dish into a coherent whole. The secret weapon to those Italian cream sauces? A dusting of fresh ground nutmeg – Not enough of the latter to taste like nutmeg – rather just enough to hint at something exotic. Béchamel variants are found literally everywhere, but those roots run deepest in the heart of Europe.

Béchamel in its French incarnation first appeared in print in the mid seventeenth century, within François Pierre La Varenne eponymous work, Le Cuisinier François, the bible of early French haute cuisine, (that tome was so popular that it enjoyed some thirty editions, over three quarters of a century). That first sauce, named after the Chief Steward to King Louis XIV, was a veal based velouté with a copious amount of fresh cream added. The essence of béchamel is simplicity itself – butter, flour, milk, salt, and white pepper – That’s it.

From béchamel comes many famous derivatives. There’s mornay, with cheese added, and mushroom. There’s crème sauce, with cream replacing milk. Nantua adds an essence of shellfish, mustard seed in mustard sauce, and soubise, which adds minced onion. And of course, the basic sauce itself can be varied widely merely by altering the ratio of roux to milk – from a relatively thin and easily poured sauce containing one tablespoon each of butter and flour to one cup of milk, right up to three tablespoons of each roux constituent, which will yield a very thick sauce, indeed.

Fresh herbs are all you need for amazing béchamel
Fresh herbs are all you need for amazing béchamel

Really though, the sky is the limit. Have some lovely fresh herbs in your garden? Add a few whole leaves of basil, or sage, a stem of rosemary, or thyme – That silky net of gently simmered dairy fat will embrace and enhance whatever you add. Smoked salmon, kalamata olives, capers, fresh lemon juice and zest – one or two, maybe three such things are all you need to make exquisite sauce.

One important caveat, though – Something as simple as béchamel demands good, fresh ingredients. Old, low quality, or past their prime constituents will tube a béchamel faster than anything. On the contrary, fresh butter, flour, and milk will sing a far more complex tune than their simple roots might suggest.

How you make a béchamel is, for my mind, easily as important as what you make it with. This isn’t a sauce to just be dumped in a pan and heated. There are steps and rules, if great results are what you expect. For my mind, there are four guidelines you simply must follow.

Great ingredients and patience is the key to béchamel
Great ingredients and a little patience is the key to béchamel

1. Cook the roux first, and make sure that it remains a white roux – This means medium low heat, constant whisking, and paying close attention to the look and smell of the roux as it cooks. There’s nothing wrong with darker roux, many things demand the nuttier, more intense flavors they bring – But classic béchamel is a white sauce and should stay that way. Consider also this – the lighter the roux, the greater it’s thickening power – it takes considerably more of a dark roux to thicken an equal amount of whoever you’re working with.

2. The milk must be scalded prior to adding it to the roux – This is critical to a smooth, homogeneous sauce, and to fully integrating the milk without breaking the roux.

3. Don’t break the roux – the roux should be heated through and starting to bubble a bit before milk is gradually added. Rather than dumping a cup of milk in all at once, you need to slowly add a little milk and stir it into the roux – allow that to heat through and start to bubble, then add a little more milk and repeat – Doing this controls the splitting of starch chains and the forming of new bonds as the sauce is heated and milk is slowly introduced. The breaking of those starch chains means that the starch molecules don’t thicken as effectively, but by the same token, they’re less likely to reconnect to each other, which will leave a nasty, congealed mess instead of a lovely sauce. Think of it as if the milk is stretching a net of fat and starch – You want that net to hold a lot of liquid, not break and lose it – n’est pas? Take a look at the pics in this post on mac and cheese and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.

4. Cook the sauce long enough to achieve a slightly less thicker final product than you want, then do whatever you’re going to do with it. Chances are good that might involve more cooking, so don’t overdo it in the formative phase of things – That sauce will continue to thicken if it’s made into mac and cheese, lasagna, or stroganoff.

Classic Béchamel Sauce

1 Cup Whole Milk
2 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
2 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon ground White Pepper
OPTIONAL:
1 or two grates of fresh Nutmeg
In a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat, add the milk. Watch the milk closely and whisk occasionally, until tiny bubbles form around the edge of the pan where it meets the milk. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a heavy sauce pan, add the butter and melt thoroughly.

Add the flour and whisk to incorporate. Cook while gently but constantly whisking, until the blend has stiffened up a bit, (this is caused by some of the moisture from the butter being driven out of the mix). This will take about 2 to 3 minutes or so.

Drizzle about a quarter cup of hot milk into the roux, and whisk steadily. The results will look like mashed potatoes. Whisk gently but constantly, until the heat of cooking causes the mix to bubble.

Add another quarter cup of milk, whisking gently but steadily, and allow it to heat completely through before adding more milk. Repeat with the he remaining half cup of milk.

Add the salt and pepper, taste, and adjust seasoning as desired. NOTE: If you’re adding herbs, proteins, etc, this is the time to thrown them in there.

Reduce the heat to low and continue cooking for up to 5 minutes. Stop when your sauce is a bit less thick than you want it. Remove from heat and do what you’re gonna do.
So, what are ya gonna do with that?

There’s Mac and Cheese, of course

And Beef Stroganoff,

How about Pasta Primavera, with whatever fresh veggies float your boat saluted in a little olive oil and butter, and angel hair pasta, thrown into a sauté pan with your sauce, tossed to coat and incorporate, and served with crusty bread and a fresh, green salad?

The rest of that journey is yours to take.