Carne Guisada

David Berkowitz is one of the best home cooks I know. He’s inquisitive, inventive, and fearless in the kitchen. When he asks for recipes or advice, I give it, and when he’s offering, I listen carefully. When he put out the call to Texas friends for a Carne Guisada recipe, I knew I had to throw mine into the mix.

My answer was as follows – ‘Waaalllll, ah’ll tell yoo whut. I lived and cooked in Cowtown for 12 years, so I consider myself a Texas Friend – Besides, I got a bitchin’ recipe.’

I’m no longer a Texan by location, but I certainly still am by way of a deep love for the people, the food, and the amazing land. Spend any significant time in Texas and it gets into your blood and does not let go. M and I both know that returning there to some degree is absolutely in our future.

Carne guisada, literally translates as stewed beef – It’s the Mexican or Tex-Mex take on this worldwide favorite comfort food. It is widely claimed as a Tex Mex dish, and it is – by assimilation, but not by origin – that definitely comes from farther south. Carne guisada is a low and slow stove top or oven cooked beef stew, some version of which has been made since fire and hunting crossed paths.

Frankly, the Euro version of beef stew, with root vegetables and little to no kick onboard seems pretty pedestrian along side guisada. Powered by chiles and warm herbs and spices, guisada seriously hits the spot on a nasty winter night.

The wheelhouse of this stew is traditional – cubes of meat, dusted with flour, cooked until a nice char develops – that yields the right flavor and a seriously rich body. The flour dusting, combined with tomatillos, makes for a delicious, thick gravy.

The essence of carne guisada is the chiles and spices, but it is a dish that is fundamentally meant to use what you have on hand don’t get too caught up in the ‘right’ combinations – there is no wrong. For peppers, anything from bell to nuclear is fine, if that’s what you like – that said, it’s proper to have a couple different chiles in the mix for depth of flavor. Of course the liquid content should be Texas tinged, which is why I make mine with Shiner Bock.

Carne guisada is beef, but this dish can be made with poultry, or pork, or extra firm tofu, and it will be equally fabulous – it’s a marvelous springboard for invention and exploration. Fact is, everybody’s Mamma or Abuela makes their own version, and you will too.

Fresh is best for the veggies, but if it’s mid-winter, and canned or frozen is what you’ve got, that’s what you’ll use. The cumin really should be from seeds you grind, but if pre-ground is what you’ve got, use that too. Mexican, not Turkish, oregano is a must – nothing else has the right flavor.

I call for ground New Mexican red chile, but any that you like will do – That’s where you can introduce a little heat if you use mild chiles, as well as another layer of chile complexity – a must for this dish.

Urban’s Cowtown Carne Guisada

2 Pounds Stew Beef, (chuck or shoulder roast)

1 large Yellow onion2 fresh Hatch Chiles (Anaheims are fine)

2 fresh Pasilla Chiles (or Poblano)

3-4 fat cloves Garlic

3-4 Roma Tomatoes

3-4 Tomatillos

1 Bottle Shiner Bock Beer

2 Tablespoons Lard (Avocado oil is fine)

4 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour

1 Tablespoon Mexican Oregano

1 Tablespoon ground New Mexican Red Chile

2 teaspoons ground Cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons Sea Salt

Black Pepper

Pop the top on the Shiner and let it breath while you prep.

Cut beef into roughly 3/4” cubes.

In a bag or bowl, combine beef, flour, a teaspoon of salt, and 5 or 6 grinds of pepper – Toss to thoroughly coat the beef.

Trim and dice onion, chiles, tomatoes, and tomatillos.

Smash, peel, trim and mince garlic.

In a cast iron Dutch oven over medium heat, add the cubed beef.

Cook beef on one side, undisturbed, until a deep brown crust is formed, about 3-4 minutes

Turn the beef and repeat the browning step until they’re all got a nice deep brown char layer.

Transfer beef to a mixing bowl.

Deglaze the pan with the Shiner Bock – Scrape all the naughty bits from the bottom of the pan into suspension.

When that’s done, pour the results into the bowl with the beef.

Add lard to the Dutch oven and heat until shimmering.

Add onion and chiles, and season lightly with salt and pepper – sauté until onion starts to turn translucent, about 3-4 minutes.

Add garlic and sauté, blending in with other veggies, until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about 2 minutes.

Add tomato and tomatillo and blend in, and cook for about 3-4 minutes until everything is simmering.

Return the beef and beer and scrapings to the pan and stir to thoroughly incorporate.

Once you get to a brisk simmer, reduce heat to low and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

If things get too thick, add a little stock and whisk in to incorporate, but note that carne guisada should be notably thicker than beef stew – you want a dish you can scoop into flour tortillas without a bunch of it running off the sides.

Add oregano, cumin, and chile powder, whisk to incorporate.

Taste and adjust salt balance as needed.

Simmer for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve with fresh flour tortillas, crumbled queso fresco or Monterey Jack, lime wedges, fresh pico de gallo, chopped cilantro, and mas Shiner.

Celery Does Not Suck

Celery gets a totally undeserved bum rap. Need proof? Grow your own from heirloom seeds this year – you can thank me later. Still not convinced? Think of it this way – If we judged all apples by the qualities of the red delicious, we’d think they all sucked, too.

Wild Celery

Celery has been around for a long time, though it’s changed quite a bit from its wild roots. Celery cultivation likely began in the Mediterranean, around three thousand years ago. It’s found and cultivated widely around the globe today, (which doesn’t sound like a loser crop to me). The name derives from a late Latin word, celenon. Apium graveolens is the official moniker.

While we can plant celery and eat it in the same growing season, wild celery is a biennial plant – it flowers and seeds only in its second year.

Called Smallage, wild celery is a marshland plant up to three feet tall, with small, tough stalks and broad, spade shaped leaves. The stalks are generally not eaten, as they’re rather acidic, but the leaves are used as an herb and the seeds are the ones you want as a spice. Wild celery has a notably earthier and more potent flavor profile than its domesticated cousins.

Celery cultivars are generally hearty things that will do well in a bunch of zones and seasons. There’s 8” of snow on the ground as I write this, with temps in the high teens, and ours is merrily growing away out in the garden. Back before big Agra, it was planted as a winter to early spring crop, sewn in September and lasting until April. Celery likes moist to wet nutrient rich soils, with a little salt content.

This stuff really isn’t grown for taste

Now, about that bad rap – First and foremost is the charge that celery has no taste. Fact is, it has tons of taste, but you won’t find it in the grocery store. Here in the states, the über dominant commercial celery cultivar is one version of Pascal, and it’s frankly boring – again, think red delicious. Big Agra commercial pascal is not grown for flavor, it’s grown for durability and longevity in transport and on store counters.

Find locally grown stuff from a CSA or farmer’s market, or better yet, grow your own from a wide choice of cultivars, and you’ll find the flavor.

Celery leaf is where the real flavor is

Next, use the leaves – when I post pics of cooking with fresh celery leaf, bunches of folks take note – as well they should. The leaves are where the signature flavors of celery really are at – good celery is earthy and complex, and those leaves will add a delightfully herbaceous, peppery note to stews, soup, stir fries, braises, and bakes.

The second charge is to the effect that celery has zero nutritional value – that old saw about burning more calories chewing it than it delivers. Again, if you’re eating shitty grocery store celery, it’s probably all true – but not if you choose wisely.

A hundred grams of good celery will give you just shy of 18 Kcals, about 4 grams of carbs, and a gram of protein. You’ll also get decent shots of vitamins K, A, C, as well as follate, manganese, potassium, and calcium – so there.

What can you grow? Over a dozen cultivars – there’re stalk, leaf, and root bulb versions to try. USDA Zones 2 to 10 are good to go for much of this stuff. Choose a spot with indirect sunlight and make sure to water regularly, and fertilize once a month – it takes about 60 to 90 days for celery to mature, but once it does, it’s generally hearty and prolific.

Real stalk celery, not the grocery store kind

For stalk celery, there are some dandy Pascal variants – Monterey is deep green, with really lovely flavor, complex and peppery. Tall Utah has good flavor and big, juicy stalks. Conquistador is early maturing, great for zones with a short growing season. And if you like color, Red Stalk is a zesty cultivar from the early 18th century.

Leaf Celery

Leaf celery varieties generally have thinner stalks and notably more flavor in the leaf – they’re sometimes packaged as Chinese celery. Safir is my fave, with a crisp leaf and an excellent, peppery flavor, Par Cel is another great choice – it’s another delightful 18th century heirloom cultivar.

Tom Thumb Celeriac

In Europe, celeriac gets far more use than it does here, and we’d be wise to join the team. It’s the root bulb, or hypocotyl that’s eaten with this one, cooked or raw. There are a bunch of varieties to try, though celeriac will only thrive in zones 7 – 9. Find the Tom Thumb variety, and you’ll have a great choice for small gardens – and maybe steer clear of Giant Prague and Early Erfurt unless you’ve got a big garden – they grow humongous roots in the 2 to 3 pounds range.

What to cook with your celery? First off, any and every aromatic base mix that employs celery will be far superior with good stuff in the mix, as will the soups, stews you make from them.

Use them leaves in aromatic base mixes

When you discover that there really is flavor to go with the legendary crunch, something as simple as fresh butter and sea salt on stalks just out of the garden are pretty sublime – or maybe work up a compound cream cheese or three.

Don’t use high heat when drying celery leaf – it robs flavor and nutrients

The leaves dry well and will maintain their potency for several months, but the real joy of growing your own is having fresh available whenever the spirit moves you – I probably use celery leaf more often than I do cilantro, and I like cilantro a lot.

Thai inspired Celery Salad

Cold celery-based salads also rock – how about something with Thai Basil, cilantro, and carrot, with a spicy vinaigrette, or a celery and dried cranberry salad with nuts? Celeriac and apple salad with a creamy dressing is sublime.

Celery salad with dried cranberries and walnuts

The great thing is that once your taste buds have been alerted to the true nature of this under-sung veggie, the sky’s the limit for your creativity.

Authentic Caesar Salad

As much as I may seem to focus on hefty proteins here, let me go on record as stating that I seriously love salad. The variety and endless flavor combinations just absolutely float my boat. Had I to choose one to rule them all, it would be without question the Caesar, the king of salads.

In the mid-70’s I worked in a French restaurant that did many things the old school way, among them table side service of Chateaubriand, Steak Diane, and of course, Caesar salad. Never mind that two out of three of those dishes didn’t originate in France, they are all classic table side preparations, and the French have never been shy about appropriating a good thing.

In the mid 1930s, an august group of French chefs hailed the Caesar salad as ‘the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in the last fifty years,’ and they were right. While there are many claims to who actually originated this gem, it’s generally agreed that the honor goes to Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who ran restaurants in Southern California and northern Mexico starting in the 1920s.

It’s said that the original came about via the mother of culinary invention – immediate need. Running low on supplies during a busy service at his Tijuana namesake restaurant, he put together what he had – romaine lettuce, Parmigiano Regiano cheese, croutons, and a garlicky vinaigrette with a couple of fabulous twists.

Truly defining what is or is not ‘authentic’ with a Caesar isn’t as simple as it sounds. While Cardini’s family champions his origin claim, there is very little early documentation of the recipe. Caesar was by all report producing this salad from the 1920s onward, but the first detailed version of the salad wasn’t published until the mid 1940s, and it didn’t come from Cardini. Like many a restaurateur, Caesar wasn’t all that keen on sharing the secret of a very good thing. Do an internet search for Authentic Caesar, and you’ll get hundreds of results that vary quite a bit.

You’ll also find a lot of references to Caesar’s version versus his brother Alex’s, and the issue is often painted as a sibling duel – which it was indeed. Alex joined Caesar’s in 1926, and brazenly tweaked his brothers original recipe, changing the oil from olive to vegetable, the cheese from Parmigiano to pecorino – and adding anchovies.

Alex called his version the Aviator salad in honor of military pilots from a nearby San Diego air base. Caesar was not amused, especially when Alex’s version became quite popular – As far as he was concerned, his namesake salad was made with extra virgin olive oil, Parmigiano Regiano, and Worcestershire sauce, period. Anything else was an imposter, even if it came from his brother – maybe especially when it came from his brother.

The original Caesar was made with big, whole leaves of romaine, generously dressed and arranged artfully on a plate – meant to be picked up with your fingers and eaten just like that. The preparation was always table-side, and still is – almost 100 years later, Caesar’s is located where it’s always been, on the Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana, and is still serves their namesake salad.

If you’ve never been treated to a great table-side Caesar, now’s your chance – at your very own table. Sure, if you’re in a hurry, you can buy Caesar dressing – Cardini’s makes several iterations that are pretty good for bottled dressing – But you owe it to yourself to do it up right now and again.

General Notes –

1. I use Greek olive oil because I love the flavor – you can and should use whatever you like best. If you notice a distinctly greenish cast to my dressing, that is why.

2. I use lemon and lime for the citrus element – fact is, we don’t really know what Caesar used back when, but in northern Mexico, limes and lemon/lime hybrids are pretty common, while yellow lemons were and still are not.

3. The lion’s share of recipes out there employ raw garlic – now, if you like that, go for it, but my family does not. That’s why I blend garlic with oil and deploy it in the dressing and on the croutons. That way, your dressing garlic is nicely marinated in the oil, which tames it appreciably, and what you use for the croutons gets baked and nicely distributed throughout the dish.

4. Real deal Caesar dressing must have egg. You’ll see exhortations to go raw, to hard boiled, and everything in between. Best available evidence says Caesar used very lightly boiled egg yolk – eggs boiled just long enough to thicken them and to appreciably remove the danger of salmonella. That’s what I do, and strongly recommend to you. Raw just doesn’t taste right to me, and anything towards hard boiled is just wrong.

Urban’s As Authentic As You Want It Caesar Salad

1 head Romaine Lettuce

1/2 Cup Parmigiano Regiano cheese

3/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil, (Plus 1/4 cup for the croutons)

2 large Eggs

1 Lemon

1 Lime

3-4 fat cloves of Garlic

Worcestershire Sauce

Baguette, other dense white bread

Sea Salt

Black Pepper

Trim, peel and mince garlic as finely as you can, then add that to the oil – allow to sit and marry for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 325° F, with a rack in the middle slot.

Cut bread into roughly 1/2” thick slices and then cubes – if you’re using baguette, allow 3-4 slices per person.

Add croutons to a bowl with 1/4 cup of the garlic oil and toss to coat thoroughly, then slide them into the oven.

Bake until the croutons are crunchy and light golden brown, about 7-10 minutes. Remove and transfer to a bowl.

Grate Parmigiano on a large grate, transfer to a bowl.

Cut lemon and lime in half and set in a bowl.

Cut romaine off 2” to 3” above the base, and remove any scruffy outer leaves. Leave what’s left whole, and place lettuce and the plates you’ll use for service into the fridge to chill.

You’ll want the biggest bowl you’ve got for dressing the salad – if you don’t have something pretty large, do the deed in 2 batches.

Make a space at your table to put on the show – arrange your mis en place there – everything you’ve prepped, plus salt, pepper, and Worcestershire, tongs for tossing and serving.

In a heavy sauce pan over high heat, add enough water to boil the eggs – you want an inch or more above egg height.

Prep a small bowl of ice water beside the cooking pan.

Once the water is fully boiling, gently add eggs and set a 2 minute timer.

When 2 minutes are up, carefully transfer the eggs to the ice bath to stop the cooking process.

When the eggs are cool enough to handle, (it only takes a minute or two), carefully crack the eggs and scoop the yolks into a small bowl.

Ready to rock? Arrange all ingredients at your table station, and assume the slightly bored but deeply competent expression of a career Parisian waiter.

Add the Romaine leaves to your large bowl.

In a separate dressing bowl, add about three-quarters of the remaining garlic and olive oil mix, a generous pinch of salt, and 8-10 twists of pepper.

Squeeze the juice from each lemon and lime, 10-12 drops of Worcestershire sauce, and the egg yolks and whisk to incorporate.

Taste and adjust as needed for oil, Worcestershire, citrus, seasoning, etc.

Pour about 3/4 of the dressing over the lettuces and gently roll the leaves to thoroughly coat them. Add more dressing as needed to get that done.

Add the croutons and the Parmigiano, and toss gently to incorporate.

If you want to be molto autentico, place whole leaves on a plate, stem ends facing out, so that they can be eaten as Caesar intended.

As your diners swoon, you may mournfully intone, ‘Bon appetit, Madame.’

NOTE – This dressing really should be consumed right away – it will not store well at all.

Cracklin Bread

Wandering further down the cornbread road, we come to cracklin bread – that’s cornbread with cracklins therein. Cracklins are nothing more than fatty pig skin put to a far better use than football. Of course, the subject isn’t quite that simple – if it were, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun, or as tasty. If we’re going to make cracklin bread, we’ve gotta know our cracklins.

Cracklin bread
Cracklin bread

Here in the states, pork rinds have always been a thing, at least in the south. Worldwide, they’re everywhere. In Mexic0, South and Central America, and Spain, they’re chicharones. Up in Canada, they might be scrunchions or orielles de Christ. In China, they’re Zhīzhā, in Thailand, it’s khaep mu. In the Slavic countries, they’re škvarky, tepertő in Hungary, and jumări in Romania. They’re integral to the traditional Czech dish, bramborové knedlíky se škvarkama a kyselým zelím – potato dumplings with cracklings and sauerkraut. In merry old England, they’re scratchings.

Khaep Mu from Thailand

You needn’t be a Fergus Henderson fan to know that it’s still very much waste not want not when it comes to hoof to snout consumption of our piggy pals. The names and dishes detailed above aren’t oddities, they’re mainstream eats, all made possible by pork skin. If you think that’s icky, think again the next time you’re swooning over crisp turkey or chicken skin, or bacon for that matter.

Pork rinds come to us through lard production, as well as general slaughter and processing. In the south, the venerable cast iron wash pot was and is used to render down lard. Leftover scraps and skin went in there as well, and crunchy bits of that would rise to the surface, to be skimmed off, lightly salted, and served as a snack – and they’re friggin’ seriously good, by the way.

There are, of course, less than inspired versions of this age old treat out there, and if you’ve ever had them, I’m sorry – a lot of what gets called cracklins and sold in stores is closer in consistency and taste to packing material than pork.

Fortunately, there are plenty of places to get good stuff, and probably one or more near you – go to your local carniceria or Latin market and you should be good to go. If you’re blessed with a local butcher, ask if they do cracklins – if they make leaf lard, they well might.

There are variations on the theme – The basic version of a rind is just skin – no fat at all. Into hot fat they go, and you get the Cheeto-like puffy thing. A genuine cracklin has some fat and maybe little flecks of meat still attached – something with some flavor and very satisfying bacony crunch.

I get mine from 4505 Meats – they have a luscious fat layer, a nice crunch, a little sea salt, and nothing else. The donor pigs are humanely raised, with no added hormones or antibiotics. You can find them online.

Making cracklin bread is no more involved than adding them to your favorite cornbread recipe. If you favor a dense, super moist version of this wonderful stuff, just add a packed cup of good quality cracklins to my latest and greatest, and you’re good to go. If, in reading that piece, the purist hot water version appeals, here’s the drill for that – You can bake or fry, as you prefer.

Hot water cracklin bread
Hot water cracklin bread

Urban’s Hot Water Cracklin Bread


4 Cups coarse ground Cornmeal

2 Cups Cracklins

2 teaspoons Sea Salt


Bring 3 cups of fresh water to a full boil.

In a large mixing bowl, combine cornmeal and salt.

Carefully pour boiling water over the dry mixture, whisking steadily until you have a heavy batter consistency.

Let the batter sit, allowing the meal to fully absorb the water, and the mixture to cool enough to handle.

You want a consistency that will allow you to hand form cakes about 3” to 4” round and about 3/4” thick.


To Bake –

Preheat oven to 400° F, and set a rack in the middle slot.

Generously butter a heavy baking sheet, and place cakes evenly on the sheet, with an inch between each.

Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown, and a toothpick stuck in the middle of a cake comes away clean.

Serve hot with lots and lots of butter.

To Fry –

In a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, heat oil, using an instant read thermometer to monitor temperature – you want right about 375° F.

Once your fat is up to temp, add generous soup spoons of batter – You can get 3 or 4 in a 12” skillet without crowding.

If you like things thin and crispy, use the back of the spoon to tamp down each dollop a bit, otherwise, let it ride for a softer middle.

These will cook quite quickly – about 1 to 2 minutes per side – when you’ve got a nice golden brown, it’s time to flip.

Transfer cooked cornbread to a paper towel lined wire rack to cool a bit.

As soon as you can grab them without burning yourself, devour with abandon.

Chicken Paprikash

It’s January, and it’s snowing lightly here. I was going to do a simple picnic for dinner, but that didn’t sound that comforting, frankly. Suddenly, the little dim bulb above my head glowed, and the perfect dish came to mind – Chicken Paprikash, a hearty answer to a cold winter night.

Like many great winter dinners, chicken paprikash, (Paprikás Csirke in Hungarian, and pronounced paprikash cheerke), is a farm meal at heart, and the heartbeat is Hungarian paprika. Way back in the 1500s, when new world food began to make its way to Europe, Hungarians were one of the earliest folk to embrace and cultivate chiles.

Paprika chiles
The Paprika Chile

The paprika chile is relatively mild, anywhere from 250-1000 HSU on the Scoville scale – of course there are hotter variants out there – a chile head is a chile head, world around. Dried and powdered, it rightfully becomes the stuff of legendary flavors.

Here in the states, you’re commonly a bit hard pressed to find more than a couple Hungarian paprika variants, namely hot and sweet. Over there, there are seven recognized versions. Starting from the mildest and ending with the wildest, they are – Special Quality, Exquisite Delicate, Pungent Exquisite Delicate, Rose, Noble Sweet, Half-Sweet, Strong. Should you ever come upon those, snap them up – you’ve found a great source indeed.

What you want, when you can find it, is paprika from the Kalocsa region, which comes in bags like the one you see in the image below. This is extraordinarily good stuff, pungent and piquant. If you’re going to make a signature dish, it deserves great ingredients, and one simply cannot skimp on the paprika in paprikash. If you’ve got old paprika hanging around your pantry, please – don’t bother with it – toss it and get fresh. It’s that important.

Real deal Hungarian paprika
Real deal Hungarian paprika

Paprikash is, in fact, a variety of dishes made with meat, onions, lots of paprika, and sour cream, stewed low and slow. Many paprikash variants hail from south-central Hungary, the rich agricultural region where most of the paprika chiles are grown, including the legendary ones from Kalocsa and Szeged. The meat might be chicken, pork, lamb, or veal. While the original dish likely didn’t have tomato or sweet pepper included, some Hungarian cooks do. Like all great farm dishes, each cook puts their own stamp on things, just as you’ll do.

What are the non-negotiables for the dish? Some form of protein, generous portions of onion, garlic, and paprika, sour or heavy cream, salt, pepper, and stock or water – that’s it for ingredients. There are also some steps to the cooking that are must do’s, if you’re to fully appreciate all paprikash has to offer.

There are three important tips to great paprikash.

1 – You need far more paprika than most recipes call for – usually, it’s around a two or three tablespoons, tops. What you need is a quarter cup. It’s called paprikash, so paprika has to indisputably lead the parade.

2 – The paprika needs to be introduced and integrated in a specific step – early, in hot fat, and sautéed for a bit until it’s pungent. Doing that generates some nuances you won’t get otherwise, and assures that paprika is fully dispersed through the dish.

3 – Most recipes call for two or more cups of water or stock. If you cook this dish right, you won’t need that much much – it’ll generate its own. I have an ingenious clay cooker called a Yunnan steam pot. You load whatever you want in there, with no liquid – a low and slow, covered simmer generates all the stock you could want or need – that concept is what you’ll employ here, too. Chicken has a lot of bound liquid in it, (especially if you use legs and thighs) – cooking as we will do releases all that and makes a glorious dish.

Here stateside, you’ll find paprikash served over egg noodles probably 90% of the time, but over yonder, nokedli, a dumpling very similar to German spaetzle, would likely get the call. Nokedli is easy enough to make, so I’ll include a recipe in case you’re feeling especially frisky. Bottom line is that you can and should use what you’ve got and prefer – there’s no wrong choice in your kitchen.

This dish is perfect for using what you’ve got, so don’t guilt out if everything isn’t spot on – you’ll see I used chicken breast here, ‘cause that’s what I had – no harm, no foul.

A covered cast iron dutch oven or deep skillet is the cat’s meow for this dish, but any heavy stock or stew pot with a tight fitting lid will do just fine.

So here’s Urban Paprikash. Feel free to make it yours, but do follow the cooking steps closely.

Urban Chicken Paprikash


2 1/2 – 3 Pounds Chicken, (bone in, skin on Chicken legs and thighs preferred)

1 large Yellow Onion

3 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1 Red Bell Pepper

2-3 Tomatoes (about 1 1/2 Cups)

3/4 Cup Sour Cream (plus more for garnish)

1/2 Cup stock or water (whatever you’ve got is fine)

1/4 Cup Sweet Hungarian Paprika

2 Tablespoons Leaf Lard

1 slice dense white Bread

1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Fresh Parsley for garnish

.

Trim, peel and dice onion and sweet pepper.

Trim, peel and mince garlic.

Purée tomatoes with a stick blender.

Remove crusts from the slice of bread and put it in a shallow dish. Cover completely with stock, (whatever you’ve got is fine, and water will do if, gods forbid, you don’t have stock on hand). Let it sit and absorb while you do your thing.

In a dutch oven or deep cast iron skillet over medium heat, add lard and allow to melt and heat through.

Add onions and peppers, and a pinch of salt to the hot fat. Sauté, stirring steadily, until the onion starts to brown at the edges, about 6-8 minutes.

Add the garlic and the paprika and stir well to incorporate. The mix will thicken appreciably as a result.

Add chicken to the Pan and drag each piece through the fat/veggie/paprika blend to thoroughly coat.

Place chicken in a solid, single layer across the bottom of the Pan.

Add tomatoes, stock, a teaspoon of salt, and the pepper – stir to incorporate, but don’t displace the chicken.

Cover the pan and turn the heat down to low. Allow the dish to stew covered for 45 minutes.

Prep whatever you’re putting your stew on – pasta, nokedli, or spuds. They can be cooked off and held warm.

Uncover and check chicken for doneness – it should be fork tender and pull easily away from the bones. If it’s not there, re-cover and stew another 15 minutes.

Carefully transfer chicken to a platter.

You should have about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of liquid in the sauce at this point – If you don’t, add stock or water to get there.

Add the sour cream to the paprikash and whisk to incorporate.

Taste and adjust salt, pepper, and paprika as desired.

Add the stock soaked bread, (which should be pretty much be falling apart at this point), and whisk to incorporate – This is your thickener, by the way.

Add the chicken back into the paprikash, thoroughly coating each piece.

If you’re doing noodles or nokedli, add enough sauce to whichever you chose to thoroughly coat them.

Arrange in a bowl, with chicken on top, a dollop of sour cream, and a sprig of parsely.

Urban Chicken Paprikash

Serve with fresh crusty bread, because there’s no way your leaving and sauce in that bowl.

Hungarian Nokedli

A potato ricer or noodle grater is great for these. If you don’t have one, you can push ‘em through the holes in a colander or cooks spoon.

2 Cups All Purpose Flour

4 large Eggs

1 Tablespoon Vegetable Oil

2 teaspoons Sea Salt

Have all ingredients at room temperature.

Fill a stock pot with at least 6” of water, add the 1 teaspoon salt and the oil.

Place the pot on a burner over high heat.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour and 1 teaspoon salt.

Add eggs and 1/2 cup water to the dry mix.

Mix with a wooden spoon – you’re after a wet dough that will pour easily – add more water, up to another 1/2 cup, as needed to get to the right consistency

Stir the dough with the spoon until you get an even texture throughout.

Let the dough rest for about 10 minutes.

You’ll cook the nokedli in batches.

Position your colander of cooks spoon over the boiling water and place a blob of dough in the middle of your utensil.

Use the back of a soup spoon to squash the dough through the holes of your utensil and into the boiling water.

Keep loading the boiling vessel but don’t over crowd it – a third of the total is good for a single batch.

Gently stir the dumplings to keep them from sticking.

When the nokedli bob to the surface, give them another minute of cooking, then test one – they should be springy in texture, not rubbery.

When done, transfer with a slotted spoon to a lightly oiled bowl.

Keep after it until you’ve done all your dough.

These can be made ahead, and refrigerated or frozen.

Carne de res con col – Chiapan Beef & Cabbage

Combining a cheap cut of beef with cabbage might seem like peasant food, and in many places, it is just that. Relegating it as such, however, absolutely diminishes the delightful flavors and textures such a dish provides. It is, in fact, worthy of many experiments. Carne de res con col, from the Mexican state of Chiapas, is a stellar example.

Chiapas State, Where Mexican coffee and chocolate come from.

I came across this recipe years ago, through Diana Kennedy’s Essential Cuisines of Mexico. Therein she describes eating this one morning in the market in Tapachula, Chiapas, a city way down in the southwest corner of the state. One might raise an eyebrow at eating carne de res con col for breakfast, but I wouldn’t – on a fresh tortilla, this is heaven at any time of day.

Such a dish makes perfect sense in a Chiapas market. More than half its people work in agriculture, with cacao and coffee the heavy hitters – Chiapas is the second largest cacao producer, and roughly 60% of Mexico’s coffee comes from there.

Chiapan cuisine focuses more on the indigenous then many Mexican states do, with chiles, cacao, beans, avocados and many foraged plants, herbs, and mushrooms at the fore. While game makes up a solid part of a rural Chiapan diet, Spanish influence is felt in larger towns and cities. There, beef, pork and chicken are king, with beef far and away the most popular.

Employing cabbage as a major note in a dish isn’t unique, or odd at all for that matter. Cabbage happens to be quite good for us – it’s rich in vitamins C, most of the important B’s, A, K, as well as several trace minerals and omega 3 fatty acids.

A cabbage by any other name…

It’s also delicious, and there’s a lovely variety to choose from. There’s the ubiquitous red and green, savoy, napa, bok choy, and of course, Brussels sprouts, just for starters. In Spanish, it’s called Col or Repollo, and it’s grown and eaten widely. Just like New England boiled dinner, bubble and squeak, lions head, or southern smothered cabbage, dishes combining cabbage and meat are savored worldwide.

In Mexican regional cooking, cabbage comes into play for everything from tacos to stew, and soup to cabbage rolls. I love carne de res con col because cabbage plays a major role, and it really delivers.

The name translates as beef with cabbage, giving away almost nothing while suggesting quite a bit. Make it once and you’ll get hooked. Change nothing but the cabbage and it’ll be a whole new thing. You can use any cut of beef you like, so it’s perfect for leftovers. I highly recommend ground meat – it integrates best.

Chiles de siete caldos

Chiapan cuisine does not use as heavy a hand with chiles as most other Mexican regions do – though that’s not to say that they don’t like heat – they do. Their signature chile is the chile de siete caldos, the seven broth chile, implying that one of those bad boys has the horsepower to ignite seven batches of whatever. Therefore, when making carne de res, any chile you like, at whatever power level, is fine.

Chiapan seasoning tends toward warmer, sweeter notes, with cinnamon, pineapple, raisins, pears, pumpkin seeds, and peas not uncommon in dishes and sauces. There’s German influence there too, in the beer and the coffee, and in some local cured meats – which opens another interesting avenue of recipe development.

This version is what I do, after Diana Kennedy’s introduction, and a subsequent take on the dish by Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo, wherein he introduced beans, (of course he did!) You can and should make a version to call your own.

This is a large batch, meant to produce ample leftovers. While the cabbage won’t be crisp the next day, it will still lend itself wonderfully to a sauced rice dish, soup, stew, or chimi’s. You can halve this without changing ratios if you prefer.

If you use something other than ground beef, dice it so it will cook evenly with the other ingredients.

I like white beans in mine for their ability to soak up flavors, but here again, a change will bring something new altogether – Blacks or pintos or anything from Rancho Gordo would be great.

A deep skillet is a great cooking vessel for this – Kennedy didn’t say what the version she had was cooked in, but if I had to guess, I’d give a clay comal over charcoal the nod. As you’ll see from my image, a wok works great as well. Just make sure whatever you use is large enough to allow you to stir freely, and that the ingredients aren’t crowded – the dish counts on the liquids being evenly distributed and absorbed.

Molcajete y tejolote

Finally, to really nail the dish, you want to make a paste of the garlic, salt, and peppercorns. The proper tools for this are a molcajete and tejolote, the traditional Mexican stone mortar and pestle – as with those who swear that proper guacamole requires these, I’d tell you this one does too.

Urban Carne de Res con Col


1 1/2 Pounds Beef

1 head Cabbage

2 Roma Tomatoes

1 small sweet Onion

2 Hatch or Anaheim Chiles

1 Cup cooked Beans

4-6 fat cloves fresh Garlic

3/4 Cup Stock (beef, chicken or veggie are all fine)

2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

1/2 Cup fresh Celery Leaf (original recipe uses cilantro, which is wonderful too)

8 Black Peppercorns

2 teaspoons Salt

Trim and peel garlic.

If you don’t have a molcajete, combine salt and peppercorns in a spice blender, and grind to a powder. Crush, then mince the garlic, and combine all three ingredients in a small bowl.

If you have the molcajete, add garlic, salt, and peppercorns and process into a paste.

Add the spice paste to your beef.

Swirl 2 tablespoons of stock around in your molcajete (or bowl) to loosen up anything left in there, then add that to the meat mixture.

Massage the mix well by hand to fully incorporate, then set aside to marry while you prep everything else.

End trim and dice tomatoes.

Trim, peel and dice onion – you want a packed 1/2 cup.

Trim and dice chiles.

Chiffonade celery leaf or cilantro.

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, add the oil and allow to heat through.

Add onion and chiles, a pinch of salt and a couple twists of pepper. Sauté until the onion turns translucent, about 2 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, stir to incorporate, and continue sautéing until the tomato juice is largely absorbed, about 2 minutes.

Turn heat up to medium high, and add the beef. Stir well to incorporate and sauté until most of the raw red color is cooked out.

Add the cabbage, beans, and celery leaf or cilantro and stir to incorporate and heat through a bit, about 1-2 minutes.

Add the stock, stir to incorporate, and reduce heat to medium low.

Carne de res con col

Simmer until the mixture is fully combined and coated, moist but not wet, about 8-10 minutes.

Tacos de carne de res con col

Serve with fresh tortillas, and whatever else you like, but you won’t need much of anything else except cervesa frio.

You Can, (again), and you should, (again)

Subscribe, that is – please and thank you. My best laid plans to expand and change and blah, blah, blah – yeah, well – that ain’t happenin’. Here is where I be, and here is where I’ll stay, so please do sign up, and thank you, muchly.

There’s a subscribe box down there on the left side.

A Paean to my Knifemaker

I have a Knifemaker. This does not make me elitist – it makes me happy. It’s surprisingly affordable and it provides me with the best kitchen tools I’ve ever owned. You should have a Knifemaker too, and believe me, you can.

All Element Fe knives, except for M’s stainless Japanese Santoku, and those über cool steak knives…

Prepping for dinner the other night prompted this post. I looked at my knife block, and was about to reach for The Thumbslayer, my pet name for the last knife my guy made for me. It’s my go to blade, and with that and my favorite parer, I can do every job that requires a knife in my kitchen.

Santoku on the left, hybrid cleaver on the right

Anyway, my eye drifted up a slot, and landed on the first knife Andy Gladish of Element Fe Forge made for me, and I grabbed that instead.

As for why it’s called the Thumbslayer? Let’s just say that if you lose focus during prep, shit can happen, and leave it at that. One of my favorite Tony Bourdain quotes is this – ‘when you cut yourself in the kitchen, half the pain you feel is the realization that you’re a dumbass.’

It’s called the Thumbslayer…

That blade I grabbed is the biggest one I own, an 8” Santoku, with a lovely live edge. As I prepped mire poix, I noted how well this one felt in the hand – an extension thereof, really – with perfect balance and power, making the job a joy.

When Andy made this one for me, we had collaborated on what I wanted, but he really didn’t know me at all – and yet the blade ended up perfect for me.

Boner, Carver, Slicer

There were others after that one, of course – in fact, there were eight more, and as you can see, they’re the only knives I own and use every day. There’s the Thumbslayer, which is our riff on a Chinese cleaver, a boner, a carver, a serrated slicer, and four, count ‘em, four parers – a thin, flexible drop point 3”, a stiffer 3.5” spear point, a 3” hawkbill, and a 5.5” serrated – and yes, even Andy once asked, ‘haven’t I made you enough parers?!’

Too many parers? Naaaahhhh!

The truth is that I don’t really need all those others, and you don’t either. One version of a general chef knife that floats your boat and one paring knife will do pretty much all of the work you need done in your kitchen too.

These two can and will get it all done for you

So why do I have so many? Well, ‘cause I can, and because I do stuff you might not where having a job-specific blade is important, and because I love the relationship that sees them made and then housed in my kitchen. And if you want more than two knives, you can have ‘em, too.

The differences between a great, handmade knife and even a good knife are profound – The former does everything a knife needs to do better than the latter – with less effort, greater control, and a much better feel for the work – In other words, it’s well worth it.

Having a knife made for you by Andy won’t cost you any more than a decent name brand production knife. In a world where you can easily spend several hundred bucks on a chef’s knife, (and way more than that if you really wanted to), his will cost well less than that.

If you buy something he makes a bunch of, it’ll be a hand forged knife with great balance and power, just like mine.
If you discuss something specific you want, and partake in the design process, it’ll be even better.

And if he makes more than one for you, the next will be better yet. It’s probably not coincidence that the two blades I use most are the last two he’s made for me – by this point in the relationship, he knows very well what I want.

When you have Andy make your knife, you’re supporting a network of small businesses, (if you include Andy’s suppliers), and you’re getting a very high quality hand made tool in return – I guarantee that you’ll find that process infinitely more satisfying than paying a faceless mass producer.

So what do you want in a chef’s knife? You can go the western route, (think Wusthof or Henckels), or Asian, like my Santoku or Chinese cleaver inspired blades. Size is a matter of what you need versus what you can comfortably wield – my Santoku is an 8”, the thumbslayer is around 7” – I prefer the shorter length for most jobs, and anything between 6” and 9” is reasonable.

A paring knife with a blade in the 3” to 4” is all you need there. Then decide how you like that blade to perform – do you want it flexible or more rigid? Do you like a drop point, or a spear point, or something else? It’s your knife, you get to choose.

As for what to have them made from, that too is your choice. Monica likes stainless steel, while I prefer high carbon. There are pros and cons to both. Generally, stainless is harder and holds an edge longer, while high carbon sharpens easier and, to me at least, gets sharper – but it will stain, and requires a bit more upkeep. Andy can explain the options on steel better than I can, but in a nutshell, that’s it.

I’ve gifted Andy’s knives to others, and recommended them to anyone and everyone. To a person, everyone who now owns one says the same thing – love them, best I’ve ever had.

I think that Christy Hohman sums up what I’m trying to say here better than I can –

‘Since I am the happy owner of two knives made by Andy, I have to add a KnifeTale here. I have always loved to cook, but usually got by with whatever motley assortment of knives happened to be in the drawers of various places where I lived. Then I got a knife block and set of Chicago Cutlery. Wow, I was in heaven…. until Eb and Monica sent me a set of Henckels. Then the Chicago set moved to the cabin and I was in heaven again. But then Eb gave me two knives made by Andy and I’m set for life. They are never put away because I use them multiple times a day. They are always at the ready on the butcher block my bro made me. The Henckels are only used on occasion when I need a larger knife to do something like cut a winter squash. I love my knives and you deserve some too!’

If you’re in the market for a new go-to knife, you now know where to go. I’m sure there are many other reputable makers out there if you prefer to find one near you – This is simply the guy I know and love and recommend without hesitation.

Cornbread III – The Go To, and Traditional Hot Water Cornbread

There’s a bunch of recipes out there for cornbread, including several of mine, the last of which I wrote about a year ago. I guess it’s not all that strange that my go to recipe has changed again.

Cornbread is as old as fire and grain in human history. Like pretty much everyone else who’s obsessive about food, I’ve gussied up and stripped down cornbread recipes more times that I can remember.

Here in the states, in very general terms, the farther into the Deep South you go, the closer cornbread gets to its deepest roots. One of the recipes I’ll share here today, hot water cornbread, harkens back very closely indeed. Go west, into Texas, or pretty much anywhere up north, and the stuff gets sweeter and and more cake-like.

All that aside, whatever version you make will only be as good as your corn meal. No matter how pumped up or stripped down your recipe, if your meal isn’t fresh and of good quality, it’ll be impossible to make a really stellar final product. That’s especially true with hot water cornbread, where the meal used has literally nothing else to hide behind.

Fortunately, there’s a resurgence in great corn and corn meal, much of that centered in the Deep South, but not all. Do a little searching, and you’re more likely than not to find a small mill near you.

That’s good for a number of reasons – you’ll get fresh stuff, it’ll likely come from local corn, and you’ll be supporting one or more small, local businesses. With a wealth of heirloom varieties coming into cultivation, you’ll find a lot more options out there than you did in years past.

So it’s a great time to tweak your personal recipe. That may entail nothing more than a new corn variety, or it might lead to a full blown overhaul. If you love cornbread, you simply must explore all those regional twists and niche recipes – that’s where brilliance and inspiration often hides. Small mills offer variety on grind, too – which is important, I think – I love the nuttier taste of a coarse grind.

For either version shared here, cast iron is a key element. Cast iron provides excellent thermal conductivity for this dish – in essence, that’s the ability of the cooking vessel to conduct heat, or more specifically, to absorb heat from areas of higher temperature and move it to areas of lower temperature, like your batter.

For my current go to, there are a couple more key steps – Preheat your oven with a rack in the middle position, and your cast iron skillet on that.

Having your skillet oven hot is important for two reasons – first, it’ll foster a nice, crispy crust to start forming as soon as you drop batter in the skillet, and secondly, it’ll brown your butter – that’ll yield a deeper, richer smell and mouth feel, and a lovely nutty minor taste note.

What I’m doing now is more or less southern-style cornbread. There’s no sugar, it’s 50%-50% flour and cornmeal, and the way it’s built pretty much guarantees a great finish every time – Bold words, I know, but I’ll stand behind them. And for purity’s sake, there’s the hot water version too – try that when you come across some truly special cornmeal.

Flour note – I use bread flour for my cornbread. It has a little bit higher protein content than AP, a.k.a. a bit more gluten. I like that, because I get a better rise out of it while maintaining a nice overall density. You can certainly use all purpose, if that’s what you prefer.

Urban’s Go To Cornbread


1 Cup Cornmeal

1 Cup Bread Flour

2 Cups Buttermilk (Or 1 1/2 Cups Whole Milk and 1/2 Cup Sour Cream)

1/2 Cup Unsalted Butter

2 large Eggs

1 Tablespoon Baking Powder

1 teaspoon Sea Salt

1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda

Preheat oven to 425° F and place a rack in the middle slot. Slide your dry cast iron skillet in there too.

In a large mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder – whisk to thoroughly incorporate.

In a second mixing bowl, combine buttermilk and eggs, (or milk, sour cream and eggs if you go that road) and whisk thoroughly to incorporate.

When your oven is preheated, add the butter to your skillet – keep an eye on that, so you get it melted and browned, not burned – this should only take you a couple minutes at that temp.

Combine the wet and dry ingredients, carefully adding the browned butter.

Whisk just enough to combine things, then use a spatula to quickly get the batter into the hot skillet.

Bake for 22-25 minutes, until cornbread is golden brown, and a toothpick stuck in the middle of the skillet comes out clean.


Serve hot, then eat more the next morning, if any survived.

Hot water cornbread is the real deal in the south, or as my friend Carter Monroe puts it, ‘What we in The Provinces refer to as “The Grown Folks Method.”’

Also known variously as corn pone, hoecake, or corn dodgers, this is cornbread stripped to its roots.

When I asked Carter if folks would make different versions for kids and adults, he wrote, ‘Nah, the Northern version of what I call “cake” cornbread has permeated the south. This is old school. What those of us who are wore out grew up with.’ That’s more than good enough for this here Yankee.

When you contemplate making this version, remember what I wrote above. Hot water cornbread often was and is made from freshly ground meal, from good local corn – that’s key, frankly, because that meal is what you’re going to taste here. There’s nothing else in the mix but enough water to get to the consistency you like and a little salt to make everything pop – that’s it.

Coarse or fine ground is also up to you, but far as I’m concerned, it aughta be coarse for this.

There’s no sugar in there, so whatever sweetness you’ll taste comes from the corn. There’s no leavening, so you won’t get a rise either, albeit you can manipulate things quite a bit. Make a thicker batter with some air whipped into it, and you’ll get cornbread with a creamy, soft middle – the corn/water slurry will trap some air bubbles as it fries. Leave it thin and you can have it as crispy as you like.

Oh yes – this version is fried in oil, y’all, not baked, which adds a whole new texture, and subtle flavor notes. This brings a frying fat into play as well, so what’ll it be? Leaf lard, peanut oil, or corn oil will all do fine, and each will have a slightly different flavor profile. If you’re feeling modern, avocado oil is a great choice – it has a great, buttery taste.


This is hot water cornbread, which means the water matters too. If you have funky water, you’ll get funky cornbread. We happen to be graced with such, so we use a filtered pitcher for cooking water, and that’s what I’ll recommend to y’all if you share that malady.

Finally, although there’s not much salt in the recipe, you’ll taste it. Kosher works fine, but this is a great place for some fancier salts to express a subtle flavor note too – use ‘em if you’ve got ‘em, I say.

Hot Water Cornbread


3/4 Cup Cornmeal

1/2 to 3/4 Cup Water

1/2 teaspoon Salt

Frying Fat of your choice

Heat water to near boiling – do 3/4 cup, so you have some leeway once you see how things shake out.

In a mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, 1/2 cup water and salt and whisk to incorporate with a fork.

Adjust water ratio to your desired consistency if the initial balance is too thick for you.

In a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, add enough oil to get about 1/2 inch depth.

Heat oil, using an instant read thermometer to monitor temperature – you want right about 375° F.

Once your fat is up to temp, add generous soup spoons of batter – You can get 3 or 4 in a 12” skillet without crowding.

If you like things thin and crispy, use the back of the spoon to tamp down each dollop a bit, otherwise, let it ride for a softer middle.

These will cook quite quickly – about 1 to 2 minutes per side – when you’ve got a nice golden brown, it’s time to flip.

Transfer cooked cornbread to a paper towel lined wire rack to cool a bit.

As soon as you can grab them without burning yourself, devour with abandon.

Urban’s New England Baked Beans

If you’re from New England, chances are good you grew up with oven baked beans. There’s a brand that’s emblematic of that heavenly dish – beans from the B&M company. As good as they are, those are canned, and we can do much better at home, from scratch.


Boston is known as Bean Town, and one of B&M’s venerable offerings is their Boston Best version, so you wouldn’t be out of line assuming that the company is based there – but it’s not. Way back in 1867, George Burnham and Charles Morrill got together in Portland, Maine to start a canning company. They’re still at it right there, at 1 Bean Pot Circle. Their beans are still slow cooked in brick ovens, and they’re still damn good canned beans.


Beans came to New England colonists via the natives, who taught them to plant them as the Three Sisters, with corn and squash, a scheme that enriches soil, mutually supports, and discourages weeds and pests. Baked beans naturally followed, especially as a sabbath meal that kinda cheated, by cooking them Saturday night so they’d still be hot the next day.

Baked beans became specifically a Boston thing in the late 1700’s, when the town was a major rum producer and exporter – molasses was used to make rum, and it also made great beans. A fair amount of salt pork also moved the through town, headed for ships stores and provided by local farmers. Thus a legendary dish was born.


A traditional New England baked bean sports major notes of pork and molasses, with minors of onion, garlic, mustard, and smoke. Tomatoes were generally accepted as food around the middle of the eighteenth century, and gradually found their way into baked bean recipes. Plenty of other herbs and spices are fantastic there too – The ever musical parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme are great starting points for further exploration.

Jacobs cattle beans
Jacobs Cattle Beans


As for the bean itself, you’ll find plenty of advice to the effect that Navy beans are the only proper one to use, but that’s bunk. Navy and Great Northerns were and are used by canners because they hold up well to cooking, canning, and long term storage. While New Englanders appreciate those characteristics, they also like a little variety in the garden. Baked beans were and are still made with other local heirloom varieties, like Soldier, Yellow Eye, or Jacobs Cattle. If you’d like to try those out, Green Thumb Farms of Fryeburg, Maine will sell you some.

Soldier Beans
Soldier Beans


With a recent resurgence in heirloom bean cultivation, you can and should do some sleuthing and find new favorites – Check out your local scene to see what’s being grown around you. Online, Rancho Gordo is the place for stunningly delicious beans. If you prefer Navy or Great Northern, I highly recommend Camellia as a source.


A very common complaint about home made baked beans centers on bitterness. It’s assumed that the problem is not enough sweetener, and most folks simply throw more brown sugar at the mix, but that’s not really a solution. Too much sugar disrupts the delicate balance of flavors, and I n any event, the problem probably lies in the molasses you’re using.


Dark and blackstrap molasses dominate in stores, enough that many of us don’t know there are other options out there. Frankly, neither of those is what you want in your beans. Blackstrap molasses is boiled three times, resulting in a very thick, dark, bitter product. While it’s relatively high in vitamins and minerals, it’s absolutely not good at all for cooking. Dark molasses is twice boiled, meaning it’s still pretty bitter.


What you want is light molasses, also called sweet, first, mild, or Barbados – That’s the stuff that will produce great baked beans in your kitchen, and it’ll do well in just about any recipe calling for molasses. Sulphured molasses, by the way, means it was treated with sulphur dioxide as a preservative – and yes, you can taste that, so, look for unsulfered on the shelf. Grandma’s brand, which is fairly ubiquitous, is light if it’s the original yellow label version – their ‘robust’ green label is dark.


What pork to use? Anything with a good fat content will do. Bacon, belly, fat back, and salt pork all come to mind, and there’s nothing wrong with sausage if you like that best. Whatever you choose can go raw into this recipe, so long as it’s cut fairly small – It’s going to have plenty of cooking time.
I get powdered smoke from Butcher and Packer, and it rocks – it’s 100% natural and can’t be beat. They have hickory and mesquite. If you must, you can use liquid smoke, but I find that stuff pretty harsh.

Mixteca salt comes from Rancho Gordo and is amazing stuff. It’s mined in Puebla, and has a high bicarbonate content – Added at the beginning of cooking, (I do so after the brief initial boil), it will soften your beans appreciably. It ably replaces baking soda, which imparts a taste I don’t care for at all.


What to bake your beans in? If you’ve got clay or earthenware, that’s a top choice – It imparts a subtle note you can’t get elsewhere, and is hard to describe if you’ve never experienced it. Barring that, a really heavy vessel like cast iron that will really hold heat will work great.


My recipe isn’t a classic anything, and frankly, there’s no such thing – Everybody’s Mom and Gramma did things their own way and so should we. This is what I love best when I make New England baked beans. Try it, and then tweak it to make it your own favorite.

Urban’s New England Baked Beans


1 Pound Dry Beans

1/2 Pound Bacon, Belly, Fat Back, or Sausage

1 small Sweet Onion

2 cloves fresh Garlic

1/2 Cup Light Molasses

1/4 Cup Agave Nectar

6 0z. can Tomato Paste

2 teaspoons Dry Mustard

1teaspoon Sea Salt

1 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

1 teaspoon powdered Smoke

2 Turkish Bay Leaves

Pinch Rancho Gordo Mixteca Salt

In a single mesh strainer, rinse beans and check for stones, (I’ve never found one in any Rancho Gordo bean package, but you should always check)


In a heavy sauce pot over medium high heat, add beans, bay leaves, and at least 2” of water above bean level.


ALWAYS maintain at least 2” of water above cooking bean level. Have a kettle ready to go for hot water to add as needed.


Bring beans to a boil for 10 minutes, then add a pinch of Mixteca salt and reduce heat to the barest simmer you can achieve – you literally want a lazy bubble now and again and nothing more.


Simmer beans until they are al dente – not done, but not tooth breaking hard. Cooking time varies depending on the variety you use.


Peel, trim and fine dice onion.


Peel, trim and mince garlic.


Dice whatever pork you’re using.


When beans are al dente, pour them carefully into a single mesh strainer over a stock pot, reserving the bean broth.


Preheat oven to 300° F and set a rack in the middle position. NOTE – If you’re cooking in clay, do not preheat your oven, start with it cold.


In a large mixing bowl, combine onion, garlic, tomato paste, agave nectar, salt, pepper, smoke powder, and dry mustard. Stir well to fully incorporate.


Add beans to the bowl, along with 2 cups of bean broth. Stir well to fully incorporate. You want a very soupy mix, far wetter than you want your finished beans, so add more liquid if needed to achieve that.


Transfer the bean blend to your cooking vessel, and slide that bad boy into the oven.


Cooking time will be at least 3 hours and may be longer. Check beans and give a stir after the first hour, and then about every 30 minutes.


If your beans look too dry, add bean broth 1/2 cup at a time and stir well to fully incorporate.


Beans are done when they’re tender, bubbling nicely, and at the consistency you like – some go for a wetter bean, some drier – do what you like best.

New England baked beans
Urban’s New England baked beans


Serve nice and hot, and accept the myriad accolades from your adoring diners.