Perfect Roasts, Every Time

If you’re going to buy a big hunk of meat, whatever you do to cook it better work well, consistently – flunking out isn’t an option. We’ve tried a bunch of different methods for something as potentially knock out as a local, grass fed rolled rump roast, but this last weekend, we hit on a super simple method that delivered the best we’ve ever made. This isn’t a secret, and we didn’t invent it, it just works and is absolutely worth sharing.

Low and slow doesn’t often go wrong, as long as it’s monitored and you know what you’re after. What we wanted was a perfect medium rare roast throughout, with minimum fuss and equipment, repeatable and dependable in method. That’s what we got. It’s nothing earthshaking, but it sure did deliver stellar results – best we’ve ever achieved, and here’s what we did.

This was a large, 3 1/2 pound rolled roast – you want to leave that in its string while cooking – being tightly rolled helps with even cooking results.

What you’ll need –

A heavy pan, a big skillet, Dutch oven or braiser – Cast iron or heavy steel are both fine.

A fast read thermometer – we use one that gets plugged into the roast and left throughout the cooking process, but any fast read probe type will work just fine.

A rack big enough for the roast that’ll get it around 1/2” off the bottom of the cooking vessel.

A quart of stock – Anything you like will do, and if you don’t have any, use water and add half an onion, a carrot, a stalk of celery all rough chopped, and a couple of bay leaves – you’ll make your own stock that way.

Preheat oven to 225° F and set a rack in a middle slot.

Unwrap the roast and pat it dry with a clean kitchen towel.

Set your cooking vessel onto a burner with medium high flame.

When the pan is nice and hot, start searing the roast, one side or end at a time. Let it sit long enough to get a consistent, light golden brown crust formed before you turn it to the next face.

When your roast is fully seared, set it on your rack for a minute.

Pour the stock into the pan, (carefully, it’ll be frisky at first), and let the steam and boiling loosen all the charred stuff on the pan bottom – scrape that all loose.

Put the roast on the rack into the pan, rolled end up, (if you’re not cooking a rolled roast, roast fat side up.)

Lightly season the roast with coarse kosher salt and fresh ground pepper.

If your temp probe can handle cooking, sink it right into the middle of the roast.

Pop that into the oven until the internal temperature of the roast reaches 100° F.

Drop the oven temp to 175° F.

Now is a good time to add halved potatoes, carrots, onions, or other veggies to the roasting pan – Keep an eye on those, as they may cook faster or slower than the roast.

Continue roasting until you reach an internal temperature of 135° F.

Pull the roast to the stove top and allow a 10 to 15 minute rest before carving. You can loosely tent it with aluminum foil, but this isn’t required.

Don’t even think about throwing away those roasting juices. They’ll make amazing gravy, or a fine base for a soup or stew – you can freeze that for up to a couple months.

This will work with anything you want to roast – Just refer to proper temperature range targets for whatever you’re cooking.

Parmigiano-Reggiano Stock

You might call it Parmesan, but it really is Parmigiano-Reggiano, ya know. It is arguably the most popular of Italian cheeses worldwide, and rightfully so. When you tase the real deal, aged between 24 and maybe 48 months, the depth and breadth of flavor notes is stunningly good. Maybe, subconsciously, that’s why so many of us save the rinds, even if we don’t do anything with them – the stuff is so damn tasty, we just can’t bear to throw out the ‘inedible’ part. Fear not, I say, because thankfully that inedible thing is hogwash. Last spring, I wrote about stuff you can do with the rinds, but somehow, I missed making stock – time to fix that.

Real deal Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from the five provinces that are allowed to call the stuff by its proper name – Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, and Mantua. Sorry, but anything else from somewhere else is just cheese. The outer most layer of a wheel of Parmesan Reggiano is the place where all the interaction with the outside world has occurred, while inside, that miraculous cheese matures. The rind hardens, forming a barrier to keep bad things out while allowing moisture to leave the cheese over time. When we buy it, we obviously want a reasonable ratio of rind to cheese. Don’t go too far on that, though, and definitely save rinds, because parmigiano rind stock is liquid heaven.

Parmigiano stock, made with aromatics, herbs, plenty of rinds, and simmered low and slow is the ticket. What you get will be redolent with the scent, taste, and umami powered mouth feel only Parmigiano-Regiano can provide. It is the stuff for staples like Italian wedding, white bean, or minestrone soups. Use it to cook beans low and slow and the results are truly ethereal. Freeze it in resealable ice cube trays and add it to pan sauces or veggies. Cook rice with it and prepare to swoon – no, I’m not bullshitting – it really is that good.

Best of all, it’s incredibly simple to make. There’s a lot of versions out there – This is my take on it, powered by soffritto, the legendary Italian aromatic base, with fresh herbs. Try it the way I’ve written it, then tweak your next batches to your liking, and make it truly yours.

Note: if you’re not a rind saver, you’ll find that quite a few retailers now sell them by the pound – so long as the initial quality is good, and they’ve been properly kept, you shouldn’t hesitate to buy them that way. If you do save them, refrigerated in an airtight container is fine – they’ll last for months.

Urban’s Parmigiano-Reggiano Stock

1 Gallon (16 Cups) fresh Water

1 Pound Parmigiano Rinds

1 large Sweet Onion

2 fresh Carrot

2-3 stalks Celery

6-8 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

8 sprigs fresh Oregano (2 Tablespoons dry)

6 sprigs fresh Thyme (1 Tablespoon dry)

1 Tablespoon Tasmanian Pepperberries (regular old pepper is fine, but not nearly as complex)

2 Turkish Bay Leaves (not California!)

Peel and quarter the onion, smash and peel garlic, rough chop carrots and celery.

Add the olive oil to a heavy stock pot over medium high heat, and heat through.

Add onion and carrots and fry for 2-3 minutes.

Add the garlic and celery and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the onion is lightly browned, about 3-4 minutes.

Add the water to the veggies and allow to heat through until the stock starts to simmer, about 6-8 minutes.

Add the all remaining ingredients and stir to incorporate.

Once the stock comes to a boil, reduce to a bare simmer, uncovered.

Simmer for at least 2 hours, and up to 4, stirring occasionally to make the sure the rinds don’t stick, and to test the strength of the stock.

When the stock smells strongly of parmigiano, is slightly cloudy, and everything other than the absolute outer hardest layer of rind has gone into solution, you’re done.

Pour the stock through a colander and send all the non-liquid stuff to compost.

If you’re finicky, you can further clarify the stock through cheesecloth, but frankly, who bother? This is good, rustic stuff in your kitchen, not something done for presentation at a white linen restaurant – live a little and let it be.

Cool stock to room temperature. Store in clean glass jars with enough headroom to not break the container when freezing, about 2”. Also do some up in ice cube trays for smaller batch fun.

Stock is fine refrigerated for 3-4 days. If you want to hold it longer than that, freeze it – it’s good there for a couple of months.

A Couple Quick Fajita Marinades

Decided to make fajitas with some leftover steak, only to discover we really didn’t have enough for three folks. I dug into the freezer and found some very nice, fat shrimp that wanted to join the party, so two marinades needed to get made.

Steak or Chicken Fajita Marinade

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1/4 Cup Chili Powder

3 Tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce

1 Lemon

1 Lime

2-4 cloves fresh Garlic, minced

1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar

1 teaspoon ground Cumin Seed

1 teaspoon crushed Chile flake of your choice

2-3 drops Red Boat Fish Sauce

1/2 teaspoon ground Pepper

Juice and zest the citrus, grind any whole spices.

Combine all in a non reactive mixing bowl and whisk with a fork to incorporate thoroughly.

This batch size will marinate 2-3 pounds of steak, chicken quite nicely – 3 to 4 hours will do the trick nicely.

Here’s my go to chili powder mix, too –

Urb’s House Made Chili Powder

3 Tablespoons ground Chiles of your choice

1 teaspoon ground Cumin

1 teaspoon Smoked Sweet Paprika

½ teaspoon ground Mexican Oregano

½ teaspoon ground Garlic

For the shrimp, M wanted something ‘lighter and more herbaceous,’ and asked me to use up some oranges too if I could – I could.

Shrimp Fajita Marinade

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

2 small Oranges, zested and juiced.

2 fat cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

1/2 teaspoon Lemon thyme

I Green Onion top, diced.

3 finger pinch of Salt

5-6 twists fresh ground Pepper

Combine all in a non reactive mixing bowl and whisk with a fork to incorporate thoroughly.

Shrimp don’t need to want too long in an acidic marinade – 30 minutes tops will get the flavors infused without making the shellfish mushy.

Not So Fast, Pal…

Turns out being an essential service takes a lot of time and energy, and well… the new website isn’t coming as quickly as I’d thought. Ah well – it shall in its good time, and meanwhile, there is a wealth of stuff to peruse right here on the trusty ol’ blog!

Dig in, enjoy, and as always, if you’re in need of a specific recipe and don’t find one here, hit me up – I’ll be happy to work something up for you.

Meanwhile, stay the fuck home, stop hording TP, masks, and cleaning supplies. Take care of yourselves, and one another. We will get through this as a people and a world, if we just do that. Peace to you.

Adios, Amigos! Pero, Hasta Luego…

Back in 2010, a dear friend running a Minnesota CSA asked me to start a blog, to help their customers figure out what to do with all that gorgeous produce. Now, some 10 years and 700+ posts down the line, it’s time for a metamorphosis. It’s been fun – in fact it’s been a tremendous joy, but I feel I’ve done all I can with a plain old blog – So here comes the next generation of my online passion and presence.

It was initially called KGNG Chef, and if you go all the way back there, you’ll see that I was, ummm, not as good at this as I am now. Shortly after inception, I mentioned that ‘Urb an’ Monique were headed north,’ in a social media message – those euphemisms for Eben and Monica stuck, and we became UrbanMonique. It was tongue in cheek, and cute, but, bottom line? If after 10 years one still has to explain why we’re called that, and people still kind of nod and say, ‘oohhhhhkay…’ it’s probably time to become a bit more plain spoken.

We’ve had a gas here, and I’ve learned a lot, and I like to think I’ve gotten better at what I do. Along the way we’ve gathered a whole lot of friends and followers, from literally all around the world. We’ve received official recognition and kudos from Basque, French, Spanish, and Mexican tourist bureaus for promoting home cooks to make authentic dishes from their honored cuisines. We had a lady in Walker, Minnesota ask what a jalapeño was, and then exclaim, ‘we’re Minnesotans – we only eat white food,’ (it’s not at all true, but it was funny). I’ve been accused of blasphemy by a New Mexican resident for claiming Hatch and Anaheim chiles are essentially the same beast, (They are, but it’s all about terroir and venerable seed stock, and yes, Hatch chiles are superior.) I’ve mailed corn meal to Australia and Norway, so followers there could make corn bread like I’d written about.

The shape of things to come - www.ebenskitchen.com

The next iteration of my chosen avocation will be much more straightforward in name – It is Eben’s Kitchen, and before Monica fans utter cries of dismay, let me explain – M will still be here, and she will contribute as she always has – no change there. That said, the lion’s share of what shows up on the page here is my baby, and always has been – M would be the first to tell you that. Secondly, she is an amazing jewelery designer and maker, with a focus on reworking 20th century beads and metal, (that she finds in some very interesting searches), into unique pieces with a contemporary flair. We have also built her a new website, Canary Pitcher, that she is very excited about, as am I – Her primary passion and focus will be there going forward.

The famously irascible cook and author Richard Olney once wrote this – ‘Improvisation is at war with the printed word. It either defies analysis or, in accepting it, finds its wings clipped.’ It is the spirit of that passage that has prompted me to shift gears. I’ve matured considerably as a recipe developer, and while that’s great, it’s still a pretty one dimensional achievement. What I write and what you have in your kitchen, or decide to do, are often quite different. If I’ve harped on anything over the last decade, it’s been the exhortation to do your own thing, to branch out from what I presented. That’s a thing I’m proud of, but again, writing it only goes so far.

Eben’s Kitchen will be much more multimedia, encompassing posts, images, video, and dare I say it, even some classes offered here in our kitchen and garden, and eventually, stuff for sale too. This will be a full bore website, much broader in scope, and much more capable of sharing my passion in the kitchen. UrbanMonique will not go away, for the record – There’s too much history and love and fun to just shelve it – it will, in some form, be linked to the new site as well.

Eben’s Kitchen will make its debut soon, so please stay tuned, and please do follow it too. In order to bring things full circle, the first thing to go up there will be a collaboration with my Tribal Sister, Christy Hohman, the one who urged me to start this whole thing back in 2010 – it’s going to be a great debut.

Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

We belong to a great local CSA outfit called Dandelion Organic. Even though we grow produce and preserve a fair amount of that, there are plenty of things we don’t have or can’t get in winter – That’s where an outfit like Dandelion really comes in handy. We crave fresh veggies in the dreary months, when supermarket fare is often less than stellar. Seeing a box of local, fresh produce really lifts our spirits, and it certainly sparks creativity in our kitchen. When M added a head of really gorgeous lettuce to our last order, she said ‘lettuce wraps,’ and I got busy.

Are you one who sneers at lettuce? If you’re of the opinion that lettuce, like celery, is a tasteless veggie, you’re not all that wrong – far too much of what we find in grocery stores is a pale shadow of the real deal. Like commercial apples not so long ago, what you find in stores is iceberg, romaine, and one or two varieties of leaf – they’re usually not local, and they’re not grown for taste – they’re made to travel and store well, and that’s why they generally suck. The image below underlines this trend. That’s a field of iceberg lettuce – Study that and ask yourself, when was the last time the iceberg you saw in the store looked like this?

A field of iceberg lettuce

Lettuce is a member of the daisy family – Asteraceae. It was first cultivated in Egypt around 3,500 years ago, grown for seeds that produce cooking oil, (and in some places still is). It was initially a plant 2 to 3 feet tall that looked like a mutant head of Romaine. Lettuce spread quickly, courtesy of the Greeks and Romans, and by the first century AD, had taken root across the known world. China leads world cultivation these days, by leaps and bounds in fact – And yes, it’s still grown in Egypt. There are six major cultivars – Leaf, Cos (Romaine), Crisphead (Iceberg), Butterhead (Boston or Bibb), Celtuce (Stem), and Oilseed. From those big branches stem hundreds of varieties, many of which are imbued with marvelous taste and texture – And you can grow many of them, so do – Make a salad from lettuces out your own garden, and you’ll know it’s wonderful stuff.

Common Lettuce Varieties

Lettuce, (and plenty of other leaves), have played a part in cooking and eating pretty much since us apes went bipedal – Food has been cooked in, plated on, served with, and wrapped in them – and still is. Little bites of meat, fish, poultry, or starchy vegetables wrapped in leaves, especially lettuce, is ubiquitous throughout Asian cuisines. I love such things, because you get a purer taste of what you’re eating than you would with something starchy, like bread, tortillas, pancakes, masa, or any of the other myriad sandwich wrappers employed – it’s also generally pretty darn healthy and remarkably tasty.

Celtuse, or Stem Lettuce

The challenge comes in finding lettuce strong and tasty enough to do the job. Romaine will work, but it usually tastes like cardboard. What you want is something from the Butterhead cultivar – a lovely head of Butter, Boston, or Bibb lettuce. These are robust enough to handle being stuffed, are far prettier than most other varieties, and taste great. They can be a bit pricier than simpler stuff, but if you get 12+ wrappable leaves out of a head, it costs about the same as dozen tortillas.

Butterhead Lettuce, AKA Butter, Boston, or Bibb

Chicken is a great protein for doing up an Asian inspired wrap dish, but so would fresh, firm tofu, fish, pork, or beef. If you use meat, it doesn’t have to be fancy – there’s a marinating step in this recipe, so even tougher cuts will get some time and help toward breaking down tougher tissues. A lot of the chicken lettuce wrap recipes out there advocate breast, but I do not – that is about the most expensive piece you can find, and the standard American white meat chicken breast hasn’t much flavor – yes, a marinade will help fix that, but why not use something that has some? Skin on, bone in thighs are the trick – Lots of flavor, cheap, and easy to prep – and a lot more authentic to boot.

As for that marinade – Rather than go for something point specific, I built a reasonably faithful mashup that holds true to regional cuisines and is a bit exotic to us Americans. Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cuisines all use soy sauce, albeit they have specific variations they prefer – those are worth checking out, as they’re quite distinct. Hoisin sauce also crosses several borders, it’s often thought of as a generic Asian barbecue sauce. Rice wine and sesame oil are ubiquitous as well.

Notes –

1. Since this is a marinating recipe, you’ll need to allow time for that.

2. I pickled or dressed some of the veggie filling options, because we like that sort of thing- you don’t have to if it doesn’t float your boat – I included recipes just in case, as well as for peanut sauce.

Urban’s Asian Inspired Chicken Thighs

Chicken and Marinade:

1 1/2 to 2 Pound Chicken Thighs (Bone in, skin on – if you go boneless/skinless, a pound is plenty)

1/2 Cup Light Soy Sauce, (as in, light versus dark, not ‘lite’ as in abomination)

1/4 Cup Hoisin Sauce

2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar

1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil

1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar

1-3 fresh Serrano Chiles

1” chunk fresh Ginger Root

2 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1/2 teaspoon Fish Sauce

Rinse, stem and dice chiles – you can field strip the membranes if you’re a heat weenie.

Peel and mince the garlic and ginger.

Combine everything but the chicken in a non-reactive mixing bowl, whisk to incorporate, and allow to marry at room temp while you prep the chicken.

Bone in, skin on chicken thighs – where the flavor is.

Remove skin and extra fat from thighs, then debone – the skin will pull off easily from one side, and the bones are mostly loose – a little careful paring will free them.

Field stripped chicken thighs

Toss your bones and skin into 6 cups of water with a little onion, celery, and carrot and you can simmer up some stock to have on hand for whatever – Most of the fat in chicken skin is unsaturated, BTW.

Cut the chicken into roughly 1/2” slices across the short side of each thigh.

Pack the sliced chicken into a bowl or storage container and pour the marinade over it – work it in so that everything is well coated. Marinate refrigerated for at least 2 hours, and 4 to 6 is even better.

Lettuce and Fillings –

10-12 leaves Butter Lettuce

1 Cup Mung Bean Sprouts

1 packed Cup Savoy or Napa Cabbage

1/2 Cup Carrot

1/2 Cup Sweet Onion

1 Cup cooked Thai cellophane noodles

1/2 Cup Roasted Peanuts, rough chopped

1/2 Cup Cilantro, rough chopped

Rinse and pat dry sprouts.

Slice cabbage into roughly 1/2” shreds. If you like this dressed, add 1 tablespoon of roasted sesame oil, and 2 teaspoons of rice vinegar, and toss to coat.

Slice carrot into roughly 2” matchsticks, and onion into 2” pieces

Pour boiling water over noodles in a mixing bowl and steep for a minute or so, until they’re al dente. Pour out hot water and rinse noodles with cold water, then drain. Place in a bowl with a teaspoon of avocado oil and mix by hand to coat the noodles.

Put the onions and carrots in a small non-reactive bowl, and add

1 Cup White vinegar

1/2 teaspoon Celery Seed

1/2 teaspoon Coriander

1/2 teaspoon Turmeric

Whisk with a fork to incorporate and let the mix marinate at room temperature

If you like peanut sauce, here’s my fave version –

1/2 Cup smooth natural, unsweetened Peanut Butter

2 Tablespoons Light Soy Sauce, (See above, not ‘lite’)

1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar

1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar

1 Tablespoon fresh Lime Juice

1-2 teaspoons Sriracha Sauce

2-3 Cloves fresh Garlic

1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice

1/2” fresh Ginger Root

1-3 Tablespoons Warm Water

Peel, trim, and fine grate ginger and garlic.

Combine everything but the water and whisk with a fork to incorporate.

Add water, about a tablespoon at a shot, until you each the sauce consistency you like.

Allow to marry for 30 minutes prior to serving.

Sautéing Asian marinated chicken thighs

When you’re ready to eat, set all the fillings out in bowls so folks can load up at the table.

Separate lettuce leaves, then gently wash in cold water and pat dry with a clean towel. Arrange on a platter.

Pour out most of the marinade, but leave the chicken well coated, and some of the goodies too.

In a large skillet over medium high heat, sauté the chicken until fully cooked, stirring and flipping steadily, about 4-6 minutes. This is also a great thing to stir fry in a wok, if you’re of a mind.

Urban’s Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Transfer chicken to a serving platter, top with a few chopped nuts and some cilantro, and dig in.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

In 1972, my family spent a month touring Italy. We stopped, of course, in Perugia, where my older sister was studying abroad, at the Università per Stranieri di Perugia. We stayed at a hilltop hotel with a rather large dining room. One night, Ma and Pa went out by themselves, and my older Bro and I had dinner there – That was the first time I experienced Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

The plates were, for a 12 year old, huge. A lady at the table next to ours showed us the right way to do things – grab some pasta with a fork, spin that into the bowl of your spoon, then pop that lovely stuff into your mouth. The stuff was stunningly good, and it became an instant favorite for me, but try as I might, I couldn’t finish. First the waiter looked appalled, and asked if I didn’t like it. I denied this, just said it was too much, but the process was already underway. Next came the head waiter, then the maitre d’, and finally, the Chef. With all these guys gesturing and beaming, I finished that damn plate. Ever since, I’ve been more judicious about my intake, and well that I should be – This is seriously rich stuff.

Carbonara is another of those fascinating dishes that are hard to pigeonhole. It’s a Roman thing, in all likelihood – and the locals have heartily embraced it as such. It’s delightfully simple, stemming from the pasta/cheese/pepper family of dishes, like cacio e pepe – maybe more like pasta alla gricia, since carbonara must have cured pork to be authentico. While the roots go way back, this is not an old dish. Carbonaro means ‘charcoal burner,’ and lead to the sobriquet, ‘coal miners pasta,’ but that is probably poetic license.

Carbonara appeared in Italy post World War II, because quite frankly, there was little or no eggs or bacon in that war torn collection of city states prior to the war. There was plenty of both afterwards thanks to the presence of American GIs and their vast supply stores. I think the Carbonara moniker came about because pepper and diced bacon kinda look like coal, if one is being imaginative. This line of reasoning is substantiated by the notable absence of the dish in Ada Bono’s seminal 1930 work, La Cucina Romana – If carbonara had been part of the scene, I guarantee it would have been in her book – and it did appear in Elizabeth David’s 1954 edition of Italian Food. In any event, Italians loved it, and so did the GI’s.

Like any seminal dish, there are a lot of potential rights and wrongs around making Carbonara, I mean come on – it’s Italian cooking, OK? In Italy, 90% of the time you encounter it the meat will be guanciale, the pasta will be spaghetti, the cheese will be Pecorino Romano, and the only other ingredients will be eggs, black pepper, and salt – anything else will be received akin to putting pineapple on their pizza.

Guanciale

Guanciale is worth checking out, but it can still be a bit hard to find here in the states. It is cured pork from the jowl or cheek, notably porkier and fattier than bacon or pancetta. The magic lies in the fat, which melts beautifully when it’s cooked, adding marvelous depth of flavor and mouth feel to a dish. Americans tend to use bacon for Carbonara, which is fine, really, especially if it’s really good bacon – sure they frown on this in Italy, but even pancetta can get you looked at funny over there. I think you should use what you like, but trying a cured pork product you’ve not had before should be on your dance card.

While the pasta you deploy doesn’t have to be spaghetti, it should be something with a hefty surface to volume ratio – that’ll allow the simple and relatively small amount of sauce involved to fully deploy. Folks have been known to double the sauce and use something like penne, and while that would technically be wrong, I’d snarf it down.

Pecorino RomanoParmigiano Regiano

The cheese should be Pecorino Romano, but if you like parmigiano regiano, use that – Just know that they’re very different things – Pecorino is a salty, sharp, almost smoky sheep’s milk cheese, while Parmesan comes from cows – it’s nuttier and funkier stuff.

If ever there was a dish that wanted the best, freshest eggs you can find, this would be it. The taste and the appearance of the dish depend on great eggs, because they constitute most of the sauce – a watery, pale supermarket egg is not going to make great carbonara. Most cooks use whole eggs, while some employ only yolks, and either is fine, really.

As far as other stuff in carbonara goes, everything I’m about to mention does not go into the dish according to purists, and I feel strongly that you try the traditional dish at least once – After that, do what you like – it’s your kitchen. Some folks deploy a little cream in their sauce. Veggies from peas to broccoli and leaks to mushrooms have made their way into the mix. One thing you must never, ever do, however, is buy and eat anything from the store called ‘carbonara sauce’ – knowing what is likely in that stuff to make it shelf stable, it should be obvious that it’s not something you want in your pasta.

Mise en place for Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

1 Pound Dry Pasta

4 Large Eggs

8 Ounces Guanciale, (Pancetta or bacon are fine too)

1/2 Packed Cup Pecorino Romano Cheese

1/2 Packed Cup Parmigiano Regiano Cheese

Fresh Black Pepper

Cut your pork into roughly 1/2” cubes.

Grate cheese.

Fill a large pot with 5-6 quarts of water, then add 4 tablespoons of kosher salt and bring to a boil over high heat.

Add the spaghetti, allow the water to return to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a rolling boil.

Cooking Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Boil pasta until it’s al dente, about 6-9 minutes.

In the largest skillet you’ve got, sauté the pork over medium heat until the fat is rendered out and the meat is crisp, about 3-4 minutes. Turn off the heat and slide the pan off of the burner.

Crispy pork for carbonara

Reserve 1 cup of past water, then drain the pasta into a colander.

Egg and cheese mix for carbonara

Crack the eggs into a small mixing bowl, then whisk – add the cheese and whisk to fully incorporate.

Slide the skillet back onto a burner on medium and let it heat back through for a minute.

Add the pasta and half the reserved pasta water and use a couple of forks to incorporate that with the meat and fat – a lot of the water will evaporate and that’s OK.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Pull the skillet off the heat again, then add the egg and cheese blend and the rest of the pasta water, and use the forks to quickly incorporate everything – work quickly to get the pasta coated with the egg and cheese mix, and take care that the eggs don’t sit on the bottom of the skillet and scramble – if you get a little of that effect, don’t worry – we’re all human, it happens, and it’ll still be delicious. It’s your kitchen.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Season the pasta liberally with fresh ground black pepper, take a picture, then portion onto plates or bowls and serve pronto. Every time I spin a fork full of this lovely stuff, I’m right back in that dining room in Perugia.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Italian Beef

Michael Whyte and I have been friends on social media for over 10 years. We are an example of what’s great about social media – we’re friends who wouldn’t have met otherwise. We keep track of one another’s lives, and I can say I have genuine affection for the man – Heck, I proudly wear one of his band t shirts. We met via music and guitars, although exactly how I do not recall, (and I doubt Mike does either). He lives in Rockford, Illinois, and I in Ferndale, Washington. We have not yet met face to face, although I hope to correct that. In addition to music and guitars, we share a love of family, community, and growing and cooking great food. We also both lost our Moms during the time we’ve known each other, and that’s where today’s post comes in.

Michael has pretty much been a musician his whole life, and I for most of mine. While I can sing and play, (even at the same time), and have a ridiculous volume of lyrics and guitar licks stuffed in my head, I’m sadly not much of a songwriter. Michael on the other hand very much is. He is currently part of the Blue Healers band in Rockford, so if you’re in the area, check it. We share a strong drive to create, often through music and writing. We’ve both worked blue collar jobs for most of our days, and prefer that – especially if it gets us outdoors. We both recall our childhoods with affection, and a fair share of those memories focus on food and gardening.

My Mom was born Marjorie Jean Langston in 1923, although she never used her first name. She was raised in Billings by parents of English/Scots/Irish descent, who came through Canada and the American south before landing in Montana. She left home at 18 to do her part for the WWII war effort, and headed down to the Fort Douglas army base outside Salt Lake City, where a high school friend was already working. Pretty early on she asked what there was to do for fun and who she should meet – She was told dancing and Tom Atwater, who was a fine dancer. Even though her mother told her not to be dazzled by a guy in uniform, they were married a few months later at the base. Mom did a lot of supporting dad’s education after the war, but also raised four kids, mostly in Concord, Massachusetts, and became an artist of some renown on two coasts in her lifetime. She passed away in 2015, at the ripe old age of 92.

Mom was not a fancy cook by any stretch of the imagination, but she admired a great deal about good food. She put three squares on the table for a family of six for many years. Her culinary bible was The Joy of Cooking, which now occupies a place of honor in my kitchen. She greatly admired and often attempted dishes by Julia Child, as did so many budding cooks in the 1960s, (She also introduced me to Julia at WGBH, it that’s another story). That said, she baked bread and cinnamon rolls regularly, canned produce she grew in her vegetable garden, (she made stunningly lovely gardens in general), and was quite open minded about exploring cuisines that were pretty out there for the times. I know that my interest in world cuisine and being adventurous came from her, without a doubt.

Mike’s Mom was Lenore Lazzaro. Her Pappa hailed from the Piedmont, in the northwestern shin of the Italian boot, and her Mom from Ireland, by way of Canada and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She started working for the USPS in the mid 1960s and did so for most of her working life. Lenore learned to cook when she was just a kid, to help feed her three younger siblings. She certainly inherited both Italian and Irish roots to her cooking. Mike says, ‘she just always loved to cook,’ and that passion has passed to him. He wrote, ‘When I was a kid we lived on a small chicken farm. We always had a large garden. She and her cousin and her Italian aunts made fresh pasta. She did her own canning. I rarely remember having food from cans as a kid.’ Their farm was on the northwest edge of Rockford, and some of it remains – The house and barn are there, as is the chicken coop, although that’s been turned into a garage. Lenore passed away last May at the age of 84.

So when I saw Michael post about making Italian beef recently, the light bulb atop my beady little head lit up brilliantly. We had a nice back and forth about it after I asked for his recipe, wherein he mentioned that this was a dish that had come to him from his Mom. I asked if I might write all this up, and he replied, ‘It would be an honor,’ – and indeed it is.

So, about that ethereal stuff – First off, what we’re talking about is a well cooked and seasoned hunk of beef that is then enjoyed in as many permutations as you have imagination. You can begin that journey as we did – a nice thick slice, with some fresh pasta and veggies on the side, but you could also go straight to Italian beef sandwiches without a trace of guilt. While you’re highly unlikely to find an analog of this dish in Italy, it’s a hallmark of the cuisine of Italian immigrants who landed in the American Midwest, firmly centered in Illinois. For scholars of the sandwich, Chicago is the Holy Land, and arguments as to who’s version is best can get, shall we say, rather animated. While some troglodytes have been known to claim that this sandwich derived from a French Dip, I beg to differ – French dip is, at its best, pedestrian, whereas a great Italian beef sandwich is a thing of sublime deliciousness – and of course, the beef is key.

The cut used is traditionally a top or bottom round, wet roasted in rich, (preferably home made), stock, with a properly hefty degree of garlic and dry spices onboard. Doing things this way will notably reduce the weight and size of your roast, and can even lead to people claiming it is dry, but that should never be true – Italian beef is meant to go with the incredibly rich jus that this cooking method generates – Whatever you do, make sure you combine the two and you will be more than happy, trust me.

As for method, purists will demand that the roasting be done at exactly 350° F, and you can certainly do that, placing your beef in a braiser or Dutch oven. That said, even if this is how many of the famous makers do theirs, we at home can do the deed in a slow cooker and achieve splendid results as well.

Here is what Michael had to say about how he does his version, followed by a point specific recipe that’s our swing at things. Between the two, you’ll get a good idea of what’s involved, and from that you can develop one that’s distinctly yours.

“Pretty much what you’d expect, with one exception: top or bottom round, onions, peppers (red and green), lots of garlic, a mix of dried herbs and spices, 3 to 1 beef broth to chicken broth (the chicken helps keep the metallic taste that the beef sometimes has at bay), a sprig each of fresh thyme and rosemary and a bay leaf (remove all at end), a couple healthy shots of Worcestershire sauce, a dribble of juice from a jar of pepperoncini and…here’s the secret…1/2 to a full cup of black coffee! Season and sear the roast, everything into the slow cooker, and about 5 hours later it’s done. The dry dressing mixes that a lot of Italian beef recipes call for are just too salty for my taste. I prefer to control the salt by mixing my own – My mom never used those mixes, either. I don’t know if my recipe is exactly like hers, but the coffee was definitely her contribution. Crunch the garlic and use a LOT.”

As for the dried Italian blend, I’ll just say that this should be as individual as possible. There’s some good guidelines for what makes a mix ‘Italian’, but that’s not gospel – you should go with what pleases you best. Here’s what we use these days as our All Purpose Italian Dry Blend – Feel free to tweak that as you see fit, and then call it yours.

2 Tablespoons Basil

2 Tablespoons Turkish Oregano

2 Tablespoons Lemon Thyme

2 Tablespoons Chive

2 Tablespoons Savory

1 Tablespoon Marjoram

1 Tablespoon Rosemary

1 Tablespoon Chile Flake

You can pulse this stuff in a food processor or spice grinder, or just patiently work it through a single mesh strainer. There’s nothing wrong with having the blend somewhat rustic, as opposed to a perfectly uniform powder – process until you reach the consistency you like, then store in a clean glass container.

Italian seasoning blend

Urban’s Italian Beef

3-4 Pound Top or Bottom Round Roast

4 Cups Beef or Chicken Stock, (or a blend as Mike does, if you prefer – homemade of course)

1 Red Bell Pepper

1 Green Bell Pepper

1-2 Onions (whatever variety you like)

1 Head fresh Fennel

8-12 Cloves Garlic

4 Tablespoons Italian Seasoning Blend

2 Turkish Bay Leaves

1 Cup Black Coffee

1/4 Cup Pepperoncini Juice

1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce

1/2 teaspoon Kosher Salt

1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Peel, trim and rough chop onions.

Smash, trim, and peel garlic.

Stem and devein peppers, then rough chop.

You may, if you wish, sauté the peppers and onions for a bit to get some deeper flavors into them.

Sautéing peppers and onions prior to slow cooking

Step, peel, trim and rough chop fennel.

In a dry, heavy skillet over medium high heat, sear the beef thoroughly on all sides.

Searing the beef roast

Transfer beef to a slow cooker, then add stock and all other ingredients.

Italian beef ready for a slow cook

Cook on a medium setting 3-4 hours, until you reach an internal temperature of 135° – 140° F.

Pull the beef out of the stock and let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing or shredding.

Homemade Italian beef

Do not toss the stock! This is liquid gold, and it’s critical to enjoying the beef for additional meals. It also makes an exceptional base for soup or stew.

Italian beef stock - liquid gold

If you like slices, the stock will make amazing gravy with very little work required.

Whatever you make for subsequent meals, reheat stock in a heavy pan large enough to handle the stock plus whatever beef you want to use. You can slice or shred as you please – Then reduce heat to low and immerse the beef in the stock for at least 30 minutes, up to a coupe of hours – The longer you reintroduce them, the better your results.

Italian beef sandwich

If you’re doing Italian Beef Sandwiches, know that there’s a bunch of variations on this theme, each a favorite of someone and often debated hotly – Just go with what sounds best to you, and to heck with the naysayers. The most common, (and in my opinion, most delicious), additions are a giardiniera mix or pickled sweet peppers. Some folks like cheese, and that’s fine too. If you want more onions, tomato, and shredded lettuce, then do that – it’s your house. I like a little homemade Italian salad dressing on mine from time to time. The bread should be a nice, fresh Italian loaf, sliced thick but not too thick. Here are some of the more common ‘official’ variants.

Hot Dipped means Italian beef with gardiniera, and the bread slathered with hot stock.

Sweet Dry is Italian beef and sweet peppers, no extra stock.

A Soaker means the bread has been generously dunked in hot stock, with sweet peppers or gardiniera.

Cheesy is just that, with provolone or mozzarella.

Cheesy Garlic is beef and cheese on grilled garlic bread, (and it’s freakin’ delicious)

So there you go, with big love to Michael’s Momma for a wonderful dish, and a lifetime of fond memories. When you make it, offer up a little thanks to Lenore.

Boston Brown Bread

If you’re from New England, and specifically Boston, you know all about Boston Brown Bread – Pared with Boston baked beans and fresh cole slaw, it’s graced many a Saturday night supper throughout New England.

The B&M company, not to be confused with the huge British food conglomerate, has been making baked beans and brown bread for over 150 years, and there’s a reason they’re still around doing just that .

A lot of folks, even locals, think that B&M is a Massachusetts based enterprise, but it ain’t so. Way back in 1867, George Burnham started a canning business and was joined by Charles Morrill – and Burnham & Morrill was born. B&M has been a fixture in Portland, Maine at One Bean Pot Circle, ever since.

Their rightfully famous beans are still slow cooked in brick ovens, and their brown bread is The One, as far as I’m concerned. Brown bread cans are filled with batter and the product is baked therein – and that’s just how you can do it at home.

In the 19th Century, Brown Bread was poverty food throughout the British Empire, although it eventually gained cache for the health benefits of the mixed flour used to make it. It eventually crossed the big pond and became a staple for the colonists, then a sentimental favorite. Keeping in mind that lobster was also once considered ‘poverty food,’ I don’t think there’s a stigma attached to liking brown bread.

Boston Brown Bread is a great recipe for folks who are nervous about bread baking – It’s easy, fast, and almost foolproof – Brown Bread is steamed, rather than baked, and requires very little prep time.

If you’ve never tried it, do. Served hot with fresh butter, ham, baked beans, and cole slaw, you got that legendary Saturday Night Suppah – And it’s great the next morning, too.

 

Boston Brown Bread

1 Cup Whole Milk

1/2 Cup Whole Wheat Flour

1/2 Cup Rye Flour

1/2 Cup Corn Meal

1/3 Cup Dark Molasses

1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda

1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder

1 teaspoon Vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon Allspice

1/2 teaspoon Orange Zest

1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

1 Tablespoon Butter for greasing cans

NOTE: there are folks, (even B&M), who make this with raisins or currants within – I’m not one of them, but if you are, you can add a quarter cup to this recipe.

there are also purists who pull eschew the addition of flavorings such as vanilla, allspice, and orange zest – I’m not one of those, either.

 

Rinse and dry two 28 Ounce metal cans with one end of each cut off.

Move a rack to the bottom third of the oven and heat the oven to 325° F.

Choose an oven safe pot or dish deep enough so that you can fill it with water to about halfway up the sides of the cans. Boil enough water on the stove top to fill that pot or dish.

Lightly coat the insides of the cans with vegetable oil.

In a mixing bowl, combine wheat flour, rye flour, cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder, allspice, and salt.

Add the molasses, milk, vanilla and zest to the dry ingredients and thoroughly combine.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cans. Cover the top of each can with a double thickness of aluminum foil and tie securely with kitchen string. Place the cans in your deep pan and slide that into the preheated oven.

Carefully fill the pan with boiling water to about halfway up the sides of the cans.

Bake for 70 to 75 minutes. At seventy minutes, remove the foil tops. When the edges of the bread begin to pull away from the sides of the cans, you’re there.

Remove the cans from the oven, place on a wire rack to cool for 1 hour before sliding the bread out of the cans. If the bread is a bit sticky, a thin bladed knife run around the can will free it up.

Don’t forget to have plenty of fresh, local butter on hand…

Gratin Dauphinois

Simple is best in the kitchen, especially a busy home kitchen, with life, family, world crises and whatnot a constant maelstrom. In the winter, that means comfort food, and with next week’s forecast calling for single digit temperatures, high winds, and snow, something rib-sticking is on my mind. We’re finishing up the last of 2019’s excellent local beef with a lovely brisket, and that requires an inspired side dish. This is where a classic French gratin dauphinois comes into play.

I like cooking aphorisms that make sense. I’ve got a small handful of them that I use when something in the kitchen frustrates me. This happened the other day, and the mantra I turned to was this – Whenever you feel moved to cook simply, do so. A dauphinois is a perfect example of that concept – good potatoes and dairy with seasoning, cooked low and slow – it really doesn’t get any better.

You’ve certainly made something like a gratin dauphinois – scalloped potatoes, for instance. Like Pommes Anna, dauphinois is French cooking at its best – simple, rustic, regional fare that strikes the bullseye. Any and every culture that has dairy and potatoes in their quiver has combined them in myriad ways. Of course all that glorious French cheese starts with great milk, a thing we’re also blessed with here.

Gratin dauphinois is potatoes, milk, cream, a soured cream of some sort, butter, garlic, a bit of nutmeg, salt, and a little cheese on top – you don’t want more than that, ‘cause if you do, it’s literally another dish altogether, (and not quite comme il faut, oui?) What you’ll end up with is super tender potatoes in a distinctly garlic infused cream sauce – c’est magnifique. There are many variants of the dish, but the all important roots are the same – good, local ingredients, simply treated.

In this culinary iteration, ‘dauphinois’ refers to the region, roughly 550 km southeast of Paris, in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Most locals still refer to the area as the Dauphiné or Dauphiné Viennois, even though the modern political iteration is broken up into three smaller departments. Back in the 1200s it was a sovereign country called Albon – The Count from thereabouts had a dolphin on his coat of arms and was nicknamed le Dauphin – and there ya go. Tucked between national parks and mountains south of Lyon and north of Grenoble, it is a stunningly lovely area. Oh, and they grow and eat a variety of potatoes in the Dauphiné, too.

What this dish wants is what we here in the states generically call a baker – a floury, relatively soft variety that will readily soak up all that dairy and garlic. Over there, popular varieties might be an Agatha, Marabel, Mona Lisa, or Caesar – Here, a good old Russet, or pretty much anything else labeled as a baking variety will do just fine – Maybe, sooner than later, we Yankees will get to the point of having varietal potato choices again.

They also make excellent cheese in the dauphiné, naturellement. Reblochon, Saint Marcelin, and Beaufort cheeses all come from here. While the first two varieties are soft, Beaufort is a cow’s milk cheese from the alpine Gruyère family, a yellowish, somewhat firm cheese with a grassy nose and a distinct gruyère tang – and it melts really well, hint, hint. Over here, any good gruyère would certainly do for a topping cheese.

The cooking steps you’ll use are what makes a gratin dauphinois truly unique. Raw potatoes are poached in milk and garlic, then very gently steeped in cream and seasonings, before a final bake. Some swear by slicing the potatoes very thin, rubbing a shallow baking dish with butter and garlic, and then popping everything into the oven for a low and slow bake. You can certainly do that, but I believe the method I’ll share here make a superior dish.

Urban Gratin Dauphinois

2-3 Baking Potatoes

3 Cups Whole Milk

2 Cups Heavy Cream

1 Cup Crema (yes crema, because it’s far closer to crème friache than sour cream, and readily available these days)

1/2 Cup Gruyère Cheese

2 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1 Tablespoon Unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon Kosher Salt

1/2 teaspoon ground White Pepper

2 finger pinch ground Nutmeg

Rinse potatoes and slice to 1/4” thickness, preferably on a mandoline. If you don’t have one, take your time and make your slices as even as you can – that helps the dish cook evenly quite a bit.

Leave the sliced potatoes submerged in a bowl of ice cold water while you finish prep.

Smash, peel, and end trim garlic.

Rub a baking dish in the 9” x 12” range with the smashed garlic, then set garlic aside.

Rub the dish evenly with the butter.

Grate the cheese.

Combine cream, crema, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in an adequately sized mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate.

Add milk, smashed garlic and the potatoes to a large sauce pan over medium heat.

When the mixture begins to simmer, reduce the heat to just maintain that.

Simmer potatoes for 12-15 minutes, until they just turn fork tender.

When they’re there, remove them from heat and carefully pour off the milk – Leave the potatoes and garlic in the pan.

Preheat oven to 350° F and set a rack in a middle position.

Add the cream, crema and seasoning blend to the hot potatoes.

Put the sauce pan on a burner over medium low heat.

Let the pan heat gradually through – you don’t want a simmer here, just a slow, even heat. If the pan starts to simmer, reduce the heat.

Let the mixture steep for 10 to 15 minutes, until the potatoes are fully fork tender, but not falling apart.

Carefully layer the potatoes into the baking dish.

Pour the hot cream blend over the potatoes, then garnish with the grated cheese.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the top layer of spuds is golden brown, and most if not all of the cream mixture has been absorbed.

Serve piping hot.