I have a favorite kitchen mantra that goes like this – Simple is always good, but not always easy. The implications are rife in that phrase – Simple is always good, but our inclinations sometimes work against it. And then as stated, simple just isn’t always easy, in fact sometimes it’s deceptively hard. Yet when we bow to the sublime, amazing things can happen. Salt potatoes are such a thing. Chances are you’ve never had them, and if you have, you’ve been given an origin story for the dish. It’s safe bet they’re far older than you were lead to believe, and more widely travelled to boot.
The potato, (most often Solanum tuberosum), is another gift from the Andes, specifically southern Peru and northwest Bolivia, where it was first domesticated somewhere around 8000 to 5000 BC – Yes, that means roughly 7000 to 10,000 years ago. Brought to Europe in the mid 1500s by, (yup, you guessed it), those marauding Spaniards, the spud is now cultivated worldwide, though of the roughly 5,000 varieties known around the globe, over 3,000 are still found in the Andes – Think about that the next time you’re picking between russet, gold, or reds at the store. If ever there was a crop begging to be expanded in your garden, this is it.
Initially, Europe wasn’t crazy about the potato, especially, and maybe most strangely, in the northern climes where potatoes do quite well. Part of the reticence may lie in their Solanaceae family roots, which includes some pretty dangerous plants, (and the leaves and green skins of potatoes exposed to light.) Over time, the nutritional punch made its way through the naysayers, and by the 1800s, potatoes were in heavy cultivation throughout most of Europe. A raw potato is 80% water, followed by 16% carbs, and about 4% protein, and are rich in vitamin B and C. While cooking degrades some of the nutrient value, they’re still a relatively good bang for the buck, which is why they’re the worlds forth largest food crop – And over 68% of those grown are eaten directly by humans, to the tune of an average of 72 pounds annually. These days, over 37% of world production happens in China and India.
And of all the myriad ways to cook a potato, who’d have thought to just boil them in brine? Turns out, pretty much everybody, although some lay heavier claims than others. Look up salt potatoes, and in this country, most of what you’ll find will claim that they were invented in Syracuse, New York. Now, that’s simply not true, but there is a reason that one of these far flung claims resides there – Syracuse was a major salt production and shipping center in the 19th century.
In the fall of 1825, the last section of the Erie Canal was completed. Running east to west, the Erie connected to the north-south running Oswego canal at a little town called Syracuse. With canals running right through town, Syracuse picked up the moniker as the American Venice. The Erie Canal had been built to move Onondaga Salt to New York City and the world, and for a while, it worked really well. As fate would have it, bunch of those old Salt workers were Irish, and they truly loved their potatoes, and regularly cooked those and corn in brine, but they didn’t invent the dish.
Who did remains shrouded in mystery, but it’s a good guess it started down in South America. There, among many local versions, you’ll find papas saladas, that hail from, of course, another salt mining town. In the Canary Islands, they’re papas arrugadas, (which we mentioned in our Mojo post), and in the Guérande salt producing region of France, they’re patate cuit au sel. And of course there’s many more – Chances are very good you’ll find a version in every country, and many will claim origination – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
If you’ve never tried salt potatoes, trust me when I tell you it’s time. They’re a perfect summer accompaniment to grilled meats and veggies, and they’re delicious enough to stand alone. While the method and ingredients couldn’t be simpler, there is a bit of slightly complex chemistry going on under the hood of this one.
Right off hand, it’s not outrageous to question how good a potato boiled in brine will taste. The assumption is that way too much salt will get into that spud, making for an unpleasant, out of balance experience. Fortunately, that’s not what happens. Here’s the magic – One, cooking in a brine solution raises the boiling point higher than plain old water, (just as it lowers the freezing point when making ice cream), and two, the thin salt crust that forms on the spuds acts as a barrier, keep excess salt and water out. As a result, the potatoes effectively steam in their own skins, and you only end up with that thin layer of crystallized salt on the outside of the skins. That leads to an amazingly fluffy spud with a super tasty skin, just right for dipping in melted butter, gribiche, mojo, sauce diable, or chimichurri. As I mentioned, they’re stunningly good, good enough to eat as a meal, with little bowls of this and that to add as you please.
There are slightly different cooking methods around the globe – Some boil in brine and drain, (The Syracuse method), others boil the brine completely away with the spuds still in the pan, (I prefer the latter method.) They’re all worth trying, but this one will set you well for your first endeavor. As with all simple dishes, quality and freshness count – Freshly dug, local spuds from a farmers market deserve this dish – Old, soft, mealy, bulk spuds do not. Same goes for salt – This is the time to use something good – Sel de mere, Bolivian Sunrise, Himalayan pink, or Maldon – Whatever the unique signature the salt bears will play out beautifully. All salts do not have equal volume so you’ll be best served by weighing it out.
Salt Crusted Potatoes
1 Pound fresh new or fingerling potatoes, (You want something in the 1″ to 2″ range, and pretty uniform in size)
1 Ounce really good Salt.
In a heavy sauce pan over high heat, add potatoes, salt, and just enough water to cover the spuds.
Once you reach a boil, reduce heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook potatoes until fork tender, about 20 minutes.
Pour off all but about a half inch of water. Put the pot back on the burner and turn heat to high.
Use a wooden spoon to roll spuds through the remaining brine as it begins to boil off. You’ll see the salt crystalizing on your spuds as this occurs – It’ll take a few minutes for the brine to disappear.
Continue gently rolling the spuds in the dry pan for another couple of minutes, until the salt crust evenly coats each potato and the skins start to get slinky wrinkly.
Remove from heat to a serving bowl and serve promptly.
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.
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.
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 (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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Open your fridge and look at the door side – Chances are good that what you’ll see there are condiments – in ours, you find mustards, relish, horseradish, harissa, ketchup, mayo, sriracha, and of course, salsa. Those last three illustrate big changes in what folks in this country like and buy most of, in the ever-changing condiment world. In 2011, mayo was King. By 2014, salsa had surpassed all, (for the second time – More on that later), and as of last year, sriracha topped regular old salsa for the win. Interesting, is it not? Think about it and it makes great sense. Sure, the old standbys still star on sandwiches, and as constituents in sauces, salads, and the like – but salsa can do much more than any of those, and, well, sriracha is good with damn near anything.
Of course, salsa is still king, because sriracha is, after all, exactly that – Salsa, and not very different from the predominantly Mexican varieties we’re used to here. I say varieties, but truth be told, us folks up here in El Norte are far from well schooled in the stunning pantheon that is Mexican salsa – And that’s just speaking of Mexico, let alone the rest of Central and South America. Trust me when I tell you that you’re really missing something spectacular if that’s the case for you. Today, we’re out to fix that.
I’ll provide links to several recipes that you’ll find here, and add a few new ones as well. The rest of this is kind of a primer, designed to hopefully show you something new, pique your interest, and get you digging for a variation you can call your own. You’ll also notice I’m not going to describe a whole lot of parings, and that’s done on purpose – What you like salsa on – what kind on what things – That’s your gig, and discovering for yourself is a hell of a lot more fun than reading what I think you should eat, yeah?
Many Americanos assume that the term salsa is purely Mexican, but it’s definitively not. Salsa means ‘sauce’ in Spanish, Italian, and Greek. The term derives from the Latin word ‘salsus’, meaning salted. I think it’s an interesting fact that, while touched with sweet, heat, herbs, and spices, it’s still that salty, savory bass note that defines the salsa rhythm section. Of course, sauces didn’t start out that way anywhere that lacked tomatoes – That makes the salsa we’re used to a true native of Mexico, Central, and South America. It wasn’t until the Spaniards caused all their mayhem in the new world that the tomato made its way over to Europe, and then basically conquered the world.
Salsa began with the Aztec, Inca, and Mayan peoples. The Spanish were intrigued, and termed the piquant blend of tomatoes, chiles, herbs, and spices ‘salsa’ as far back as the late 16th century – Then they took it back home with them. While those three legendary civilizations largely didn’t survive, their salsas did, and continue to flourish throughout the Americas. It’s these Mexican staples that largely flavor things up here in the north.
One version of the stuff, ubiquitously known as ‘hot sauce,’ ( Basically chiles, vinegar, and salt, AKA, what’s in sriracha), caught on quite early here in America – Maybe earlier than you’re aware of – That’s particularly interesting in light of the fact that, by the mid 20th century, a fair number of those chiles and brands were very hard to find, having been driving out by post WWII food homogeneity. Yet the first bottled hot sauce, powered by cayenne chiles, was offered for sale in Massachusetts, back in 1807. In 1849, Louisiana banker Colonel Maunsell White planted the first crop of Tabasco chiles north of the border – Ten years later, Maunsell marketed the first bottles of ‘Tobasco’ chile Sauce, and Edmund McIlhenny plants some seeds obtained from Maunsell on his property – Avery Island, Louisiana. In 1868, McIlhenny poured his aged sauce into used cologne bottles and sent it out as samples, resulting in thousands of orders. By the 1860s, you could buy bird chile powered sauce in New York City. By 1898, a former McIlhenny employee started up B. F. Trappey & Sons, and another legendary sauce was born.
In 1917, Henry Tanklage introduced La Victoria Salsa Brava, a traditional Mexican style salsa still in production today. La Victoria’s red, green, and enchilada sauces, along with Old El Paso, (which was formed in 1917, but didn’t start making Tex-Mex stuff until 1969), are the stuff that introduced generations of gringos to Mexica and Tex Mex cooking. It’s reasonable to say that the full circle of originators can be closed with David and Margaret Pace’s introduction of his namesake salsa in 1947. Pace noted that, “In ’47, my sauce bottles exploded all over the grocery shelves because I couldn’t get the darned formula right.” Those were simpler time, without a doubt. By the mid 1980s, the salsa craze was in full swing, and by the early ’90’s, salsa outsold all other condiments for the first time.
Salsa, as most of us know it, is a play on Salsa Roja, a tomato based, cooked salsa, usually containing onion and chile, with hints of garlic and cilantro. It’s what you get when you sit down at damn near any Mex joint in the U.S. As simple as it is, the range of quality and taste is huge. I argue that you can reliably learn much about the restaurant you’re about to patronize by how good that first dish of salsa is – If it’s inspired – nuanced, with obvious care given to balance and the overall flavor palette, you’re about to eat good food. If it’s dull, lifeless, tastes old or made from crappy ingredients, well… I’ve been known to get up and go elsewhere. The lions share of American store bought salsa is salsa roja, regardless of how schmancy it may sound. Other popular roja derivatives include ranchera, taqueria, and brava. Many, many derivations on this theme have been made and are sold, most of which feature various levels of heat, (from mild to truly stupid), roasting of the constituents, or exotic additions. Those are all great, but if you find something you like, what’s far greater is for you to dissect that recipe and make one of your own – That’s what the folks who sell that stuff did, so why shouldn’t you?
Probably the next most well known version is Pico de Gallo, which literally translates to ‘rooster’s beak.’ There are competing tales for the origin of the name, from the fact that serrano chiles kinda look like a birds beak, to the ‘chicken feed’ consistency of well made Pico, to the early propensity to eat it by grabbing a pinch between dialing finger and thumb – You get to decide on that one… Pico is a Salsa Cruda, raw salsas that need nor want cooking. From a straight mix of tomato, onion, chile, and cilantro, to blends made with corn, fruit, seeds, nuts, or more exotic veggies, they’re a delight and a must make. Our raspberry Pico is stunningly good, and illustrates why you see some kind of acid in most of them – Be it citrus, mango, berries, or a splash of vinegar, that slightly sweet counterpunch and bite makes amazing things happen.
Salsa Verde, is, of course, green. Verdes are usually cooked sauces made with tomatillos, that pre-Colombian Nightshade relative native to pretty much everywhere in the Americas except the far north. Tomatillos have a bunch of pectin, so they gel up nicely and form a rich Sauce that sticks to what you put it on. Mixed with chiles, onion, garlic, and cilantro, they have a sublime, early flavor that goes well with many things.
Salsa Ranchera is a roasted red sauce made from tomatoes, chiles, and a spice blend. It’s typically blended to a smooth consistency and served warm. If you’re making huevos rancheros, it’s a must have.
Salsa Negra is not well know up here, but it should be. A combination of chiles, garlic, spices, and oil, it’s pungent and delightful, more like a Mexican style harissa or sambal than a salsa roja, and is much more potent. See our recipe below.
Farther south, there are many iconic salsas, some of which we’ve covered, and some you need to check out.
Chimichurri, that delightfully pungent mix of parsley, onion, garlic, and chiles in oil and vinegar, is the most popular thing in Argentina and Uruguay, and for good reason. Here’s a recipe for you to try.
In Costa Rica, the ubiquitous table condiment is Salsa Lizano, a smooth, delicate brown sauce that is, frankly, highly addictive. There’s a recipe below.
In Peru, the go to is Peri Peri. Its more like harissa than most South American salsas, mainly because the most fiery and traditional version is powered by African birds eye chiles, which truly do pack a wallop. You can make it with less incendiary stuff, and many folks down there do. Recipe down below for you.
And then, from the Caribbean, Cuba, and the Yucatán, there’s mojo, the heavenly marinade that powers great carne asada – You’ll find that over on this page.
So, there you have it, a salsa map to go wild with. Tonight, I’m gonna do pork tenderloin tacos, with two fresh picos, one corn, one berry – What are you making?
1 large Carrot
1/2 small Sweet Onion
1-2 Jalapeño Chiles
1/4 small Red Bell Pepper
5-6 sprigs fresh Cilantro
1/2 fresh small Lemon
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste
Peel, core, trim pineapple, and dice 2 Cups.
Peel, trim and grate 2/3 Cup of the carrot.
Peel, trim and fine dice the onion and pepper.
Trim, devein and de-seed the Jalapeño, (or leave all that if you like the heat, and you can always use hotter chiles – I should write this into every recipe, just for David Berkowitz – The DB Rule 😄)
Mince the Cilantro.
Throw all that into a non-reactive mixing bowl. Add the lemon thyme, lemon juice, and zest. Season lightly with Salt and Pepper.
Refrigerate covered for at least an hour, then remove, remix and taste – Adjust seasoning as needed.
EThis stuff was born to power rice and beans, as far as I’m concerned, but it’s incredible on a whole lot more than that – Put this on roasted Brussels sprouts and suddenly, you live Brussels sprouts…
8-10 cloves Black Garlic (Readily available at many Asian groceries and online, this aged Garlic is more intense, sweeter, and notably darker, hence the name – It is basically slowly caramelized over a long period of time, and it’s amazing. If you don’t have that and the jones hits you, see below)
8-10 cloves fresh Garlic
2-4 fresh Chiles, (Guajillo, Serrano, or Árbol if you can get them, if not, use 1 ounce of guajillo and árbol each, reconstituted)
3/4 Cup Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon distilled White Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Cumin seed.
* If you don’t have black garlic, in a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, add a couple Tablespoons of avocado oil and allow to heat through. Stem and peel a whole head of garlic, and slice big cloves in half. Pack a nice, solid layer of garlic onto the pan and reduce heat to medium low. Keep an eye on things and stir occasionally. Let the garlic cook until it’s deeply browned, aromatic, and soft, then use that for the recipe.
Peel, trim and mince black and fresh garlic.
Stem, seed, and devein chiles, (Or apply the DB rule)
Pulse the Cumin seed in a spice grinder until their roughly broken up, but not powdered.
In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, add the oil and allow to heat through. Add the chiles and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the chiles start to brown and and are quite fragrant.
Remove from heat and pour into a non-reactive jar or bowl. Add the garlic, vinegar, agave, cumin, and a teaspoon of salt. Mix well, then allow to cool, covered, to room temperature.
Will last for a couple of weeks in clean glass, refrigerated.
1 1/2 Cups Vegetable Broth
1-2 Chiles, (Guajillo or Serrano are both good)
1/2 small Sweet Onion
2-3 Baby Carrots
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1/2 fresh Lemon
1 Tablespoon distilled White Vinegar
2 teaspoons Blackstrap Molasses
2 teaspoons pickling Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Cumin
Peel, trim, and fine dice carrot and onion.
Stem chiles, cut in half, then devein and deseed.
In a heavy skillet over medium high heat, add the chiles and pan roast for 3-5 minutes until they start to blister and get quite fragrant.
Add the veggie broth, onion, and carrot. Allow to heat through until it simmers, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few more minutes.
Zest lemon half.
Strain the cooked veggies, reserving the broth. Add veggies to a large mixing bowl.
Add Agave Nectar, vinegar, lemon juice and zest, molasses, cumin, and salt to the mix.
Add 1 cup of the reserved broth to the bowl.
Process with a stick blender, (use your regular blender if, gods forbid, you don’t have a stick). Blend to a smooth, even consistency. If you want super smooth, run the processed sauce through a single mesh strainer, otherwise just leave it rustic.
It’ll last a good two weeks in clean glass, refrigerated.
Peri Peri Sauce – Peruvian Rocket Fuel
1/2 Cup African Birds Eye Chiles, ( árbol, birds beak, cherry, or red serranos will work fine too)
1 Red Onion
8 cloves Garlic
2 small Tomatoes
1 small Red Bell Pepper
1 large Lemon
3 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
2-3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
2 teaspoons Smoked Paprika
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
2 Bay Leaves, (Turkish or California, as you prefer)
Place whole chiles, onion, bell Pepper, chiles, and peeled garlic on a rimmed baking sheet under a high broiler. Broil for 2-3 minutes, until veggies start to blister, then turn – Repeat until all sides are done, remove from heat. Once the veggies are cool enough to handle,
Stem, seed, and devein chiles and bell pepper, mince garlic, fine dice onion, chiles, and pepper.
Set up to blanch tomatoes- One pot of boiling water, with an ice water bath next to that. Pop the tomatoes in for about 30-45 seconds, then remove with a slotted spoon and immerse them fully into the ice water bath until fully cooled.
Remove tomatoes, peel of skins, and rough chop.
Zest and quarter the lemon.
In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, add all prepped veggies, agave nectar, paprika, salt, pepper, oregano, and bay leaves. Mix well, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to just maintain that, and cook for 25-30 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.
Add cooked ingredients to a blender vessel, then add lemon juice, and vinegar, then process blender until the sauce is nice and smooth.
Finally, while processing add a slow drizzle of oil, allowing the sauce to take it up at its preferred rate.
You may run it though a single mesh strainer, or leave it rustic.
It’ll last a good week refrigerated in clean glass.
The older we get, the longer things take. And when for the last few years you’ve been squeezed into a tiny, disfunctional kitchen with shitty appliances and no room for more than one person to cook, getting an amazing, brand new kitchen is a little slice of heaven.
One week after the move, we’re not done in the kitchen, but we’re really close, and we’re really excited! This is where the magic happens, going forward, and as I alluded to, there’s a couple more changes here in the wind – More on that later.
M and I agreed that this is and will be a serious working kitchen, a production kitchen for things here at the website, so we took our time, discussed things in depth, and decided together how to to arrange everything. And in a word, it’s magnificent. Wanna talk storage? This alone is a 12 cabinet pantry, 24″ deep, with tons of space for stores. There are drawers and cabinets and display places everywhere – it is so cool.
The basic triangle is, in this iteration, a square, and it’s marvelously functional – defined by fridge, stove, sink, and island, there’s plenty of room for collaboration, and for guests to hang and watch.
And speaking of hanging and watching, the kitchen is open to the living room as well – I seriously dig this.
And naturally, if you’re here with any frequency, you know where my heart is – Testing, designing, refining – And here’s the new nerve center for that process.
So thanks for being here, thanks for your patience and kind words through the transition, and stay tuned – It’s about to get really, really good.
Noticed the other day that ribs are big in the stores, now that summer has officially begun. Seems like a good time to offer a fave take on those bad boys. Now first off, I admit here and now that M does ribs better than I do in terms of process, so I’ll just synthesize her method and my seasoning.
So why are ribs so dang tasty; there’s not much there, so what’s the secret? In a word, bones; bones and some marrow influence, too. Little cuts of meat attached to the stuff that we use to make amazing stocks, soups, stews, and reductions from, that’s the ticket. When cooked low and slow, the influence of the bones and marrow make their presence known in a way nothing else can really emulate.
Do you know your ribs? All of ’em? Here’s a quick run down on the variations you’ll find out there.
Or spare ribs, either spelling works, and either way, it always means pork, period. Spareribs are cut from the side or belly. Nowadays, they’re usually sold trimmed and ready to go, but you still may find them offered with the brisket bone attached; if you get them that way, just cut the bone out and save it along with the rest for making stock. Spareribs may or may not have the skirt attached, (a thin flap of meat that runs along the meaty side). If the skirt is there, you’ve got St. Louis style ribs, and if it’s trimmed off, you’ve got Kansas City style. If you ever wondered what those two terms were all about but were afraid to ask, you may now consider yourself enlightened. If you’re serving spareribs as an appetizer, two ribs per person will do the trick; a half rack, (six ribs), is a decent entrée portion.
Baby Back Ribs
Arguably the most popular pork rib variety, baby backs are less meaty than many other styles, but tend to be leaner than their bigger cousins as well. Baby backs are, in fact, cut from the back of the rib cage. They tend to include a high proportion of loin meat, which explains their lean and tender nature. Reasonable portions for baby backs are 3 ribs per as an appetizer, or a half slab entrée.
Country Style Ribs
This cut is a bit of a misnomer. Cut from the sirloin or rib end of the pork loin, this meatiest variant of the rib family doesn’t really include ribs at all. You can often find this cut in single portion packages, as well the equivalent of a half or full slab; they’re perfect for those who want to use a knife and fork instead of getting all handsy with their meal. Country ribs can be pretty fatty and may need some trimming prior to cooking. Portion sizes are one apiece for appetizer, two as an entrée.
Beef Back Ribs
These big ribs come from the back of the loin; they’re the beef version of baby backs. Meatier than pork ribs, they contain five or six bones per slab. That said, while the bones are big, they’re not super meaty. They will, however, be plenty tasty if given a good rub and lightly smoked. Portions are two per as an appetizer and five or six as an entrée.
Beef Short Ribs
This cut used to be a tremendous bargain, until every chef in the world decided to make them popular. Now, they can often be pricier than they’re worth – If you see other cuts for much less, buy those. Short ribs come from the bottom end of the rib cage, or plate cut. Short ribs are not a tender cut and really shouldn’t be grilled or barbecued; they need low and slow braising or smoking to really shine. The cut can be fatty, so trim as needed before you cook. A quarter pound appetizer and half pound entrée will do the trick.
A full rack of lamb contains eight ribs. The ribs themselves are really quite skimpy, so the chop is typically left attached;you’ll find them offered as rib chops or as a whole rack. The racks are a fairly famous cut and make a great roast. Fancy stuff has been done with these for many moons, like cutting the rack into 3-3-2 and tying them tips up as a crown roast, or trimming the meat at the tips of the chops back to the bone, which is the famous French chop or rack. A double French rack is two racks tied tips up back to back. If you’re not familiar working with the lamb rack cut, make sure to ask if the chine, (backbone), between the ribs has been cut, so that the roast is easy to carve. If you’ve not cooked a lot of lamb before, be aware that it’s usually quite a bit gamier than beef and pork. The heart of the gamy flavor is fat, so trim appropriately if you’re not comfortable with that. Soaking lamb in buttermilk for at least 2 hours and as much as overnight will help a lot to tame the game and keep them moist and juicy. While you can certainly cook and serve single rib chops, you’ll get a much juicier result if you leave them as doubles; you can then cut them into singles for an appetizer and leave them doubled as an entrée.
Then there’s game; I’ve personally had and cooked venison, elk, boar, buffalo, bear and ostrich. The first thing to remember with game ribs is to use them; I don’t know how many hunters and cooks I’ve known who don’t even consider this, but we all should. First off, if you harvest, you’ve got the responsibility not to waste, and that’s a biggy. Seconly, if you love game, ribs can and should be a signature taste of the beastie. As with lamb, game ribs can be gamy, so trim the fat, if any, and marinate. Buttermilk works great here, but wine and herb, or a nice flavorful brine will shine as well. Keeping in mind that fleet-footed game like deer and elk are quite lean to begin with, so marinating will do a lot to keep things tender and juicy.
Here’s a wet rub and BBQ sauce that will go great with any of the above.
This recipe will serve for a couple of racks of ribs.
We’ll do a low and slow cook with a grilled finish for knockout flavor.
2 Tablespoons extra virgin Olive Oil
1/4 Cup Honey or Agave Nectar
2 Tablespoons Smoked Sweet Paprika
1 Tablespoon cracked black Pepper
1 teaspoon Onion powder
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
3-4 Shots Tabasco or dried Chile Powder
Optional: 1 teaspoon Smoke Powder
Preheat oven to 225° F.
Rub ribs generously with the olive oil.
In a mixing bowl, combine the honey, paprika, pepper, onion powder, garlic and Tabasco or chile powder, and the smoke powder if you’re using that. Rub evenly over the ribs, taking time to work it on to all surfaces.
Wrap racks, meaty side down, in a large piece of metal foil (The wide, heavy duty stuff does best; if you’ve got light weight stuff, double it). Seal the edges of foil with a double fold.
Cooking Stage 1, oven low and slow.
Cook smaller, more delicate ribs like baby backs for three and a half hours; the bigger ones can go four hours.
Preheat grill on high, then reduce heat to low with lid open. If you’re just using your oven, leave it at 225° F.
Remove ribs from oven and drain off any excess drippings. Carefully flip ribs over to bone side down, using a big grilling spatula or two smaller ones. Your ribs should be at the pint where they’re starting to fall off the bone, so be gentle.
Trim the foil back to so you’ve got a baking sheet kind of affair, with a 3/4″ inch lip of rolled foil all the way around the ribs, to catch juices and keep the sauce in place for the remainder of the cooking.
Apply an even, thick layer of sauce to the meat side with a basting brush.
Cooking Stage 2, sauced and grilled, (or not)
Transfer ribs to the grill if you’re going that route.
Cook on low heat, with the lid down, for 20 to 30 minutes more.
If you’re using the oven for the whole job, cook uncovered for 20 to 30 minutes more.
Remove from oven and serve promptly with more sauce, house made potato salad, and baked beans.
A nice local Pilsner, Lager or dry white wine is the perfect accompaniment, refreshing your pallet and cutting through the fat for that next juicy rib.
Try this amazing cranberry powered sauce; folks are gonna make yummy noises and ask “what IS that?” in a good way…
Eben’s Cranberry BBQ Sauce
1 bag Cranberries
1 Cup Sweet Onion
1 bottle Porter or Stout
1 large Navel Orange
1/2 Cup dry Red Wine
1/2 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1/2 Cup Honey or Agave Nectar
1/3 Cup Worcestershire Sauce
1/3 Cup Soy Sauce
2 cloves Garlic
Peel and dice onion, peel and mince garlic. Zest and juice the orange.
Use a nice, fresh local Porter or Stout.
Throw everybody into a large stainless steel sauce pan over medium high heat and blend well.
As soon as the cranberries start to pop, reduce heat to achieve a nice, steady simmer. Allow to simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Process sauce with an immersion blender, or carefully transfer to a blender, if that’s what you’ve got. Be very careful if you use a blender; process in batches and watch out for the hot sauce. Process until the sauce is uniform and smooth. If you don’t have an immersion blender, AKA. A motor boat, go buy yourself one for Christmas, they’re indispensable.
If you like your sauce a bit chunkier, as we do, you’re done; if you like it smoother, run the sauce through a strainer once.
Transfer to a glass bowl or jar and refrigerate for at least 4 hours prior to use, to allow the flavors to marry and the sauce to finish thickening.
And remember, save those piles of bones for making pork or beef stock; they’re way too good to toss!