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.

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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.

Urban’s Go To Cornbread, Yet Again

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 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.

Ragù alla Bolognese

It’s almost the winter solstice, and comfort food is called for. There’s no better time for low and slow – something that’ll make the shack smell wonderful all day, and seriously hit the spot at dinner. Pasta alla Bolognese is the ticket – There’s history behind this dish, and also some important caveats about doing it right – if you’re going to call it pasta alla Bolognese, that is.

Pasta alla Bolognese


Bologna is up in the middle of the cuff of the Italian boot, anchoring the Emilia-Romagna region. It’s an ancient Etruscan city that’s changed hands a few times – both Celts and Romans made it theirs for a while. Bologna is gorgeous and well preserved, famous for architecture and the oldest university in the world, the Università di Bologna, established in 1088 AD. It’s a city of music and culture and food, including the deservedly famous ragù that carries its name.


And what a ragù it is, which leads to our first caveat – what we’re making here is not just Bolognese, it’s Ragù alla Bolognese, or if you wish, sauce in the Bolognese style. It is one of the legendary Italian ragùs, as anointed by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina – well, by the Bologna chapter thereof, anyway… The etymology of ragù is French, from ragout, meaning pretty much any sauce where proteins and vegetables are stewed. Meat sauces in Emilia-Romagna definitely predated whatever French influence might have taken place, and it wasn’t until the early 19th century that recipes for ragù appeared that more or less mirror the modern day versions.


As with all great dishes, there really isn’t one classic ragù alla Bolognese, because everyone’s Momma makes the best. Naturally, other regions of Italy take umbrage to claims that ragù alla Bolognese is better than what they make. This battle is nowhere more pronounced than between Bologna and Naples, where the equally delightful ragù alla Napolitana hails from. That said, (at least in this country), if you google ‘ragù alla,’ the overwhelming result will be Bolognese, with a smattering of Napolitana and maybe a Genovese or two, (and by all means, you should explore them all.)


Like ‘salsa,’ ragù is a broad word – it too means sauce in essence, but it also speaks to the way a ragù is made. In northern Italy, the meat is usually ground or finely minced, with sautéed vegetables in a meat stock that gradually reduces over the low and slow cook. The protein might by beef, poultry, lamb, or wild game, and often includes offal. And here’s Caveat Number Two, in a proper ragù alla Bolognese, the tomato content is quite a bit less than you likely think it is – it really is a meat sauce.

In the south, where the Napolitana style reigns, the proteins are cut larger – beef, pork, or sausage, cooked low and slow in veggies and plenty of tomato. The meat is often removed and served separately, while the ragù goes over fresh pasta.

Ragù alla Napolitana


Caveat Number Three – Despite what that google search may show you, there is absolutely no such thing as ‘authentic spaghetti Bolognese’ – In Bologna, you will never, ever see that. What you will find is ragù over fresh tagliatelle, a long pasta a bit wider and thicker than fettuccine – It’s great to make at home too.

If you’re not up for that, there is a wealth of good fresh pasta out there these days – and if that doesn’t work, then a short, ridged dry variety, like rigatoni, penne rigate, or conchiglie (aka shells), will work great too. The diff between spaghetti and tagliatelle may seem nitpicky, but it ain’t – it’s truly seminal to the overall flavor and texture of the finished dish.


So, what meat to use? Start with beef for your first run. If you have a butcher, (and you probably do, even if it’s your local grocery store – just ask them), or the capability to grind your own, you can do up something special, which needn’t be fancy by the way – chuck is prefect for this dish. If not, fear not – fresh 80%-20% ground beef will do fine. Don’t go any leaner than that, as a fundamental sweetness of the ragù depends on the fat content.


Ragù is a study in low and slow – sautéing, sweating, and braising all play a part. The intention is to get as much as possible out of the ingredients and into an integrated sauce. As such, you don’t need to add any kind of stock when you make this – it’ll make its own for as long as it’s needed, and in the end run, much of the extra liquid will be absorbed. When you plan on making this dish, pencil in a good 5+ hours for the process, (and all day is better yet).

Don’t fret if you gotta go do an errand or two though – any good Bolognese Mamma will tell you it’s fine to shut things off for a bit, go do your thing, and kick it back in gear a bit later – so long as it gets the overall cooking time it needs.


What to cook your ragù in? In Emilia-Romagna, many a Nonna would tell you that earthenware is the only thing that’ll do. Not everyone has the wherewithal for stovetop clay cookery, (though if you do, you most certainly should). If you don’t, then choose a heavy vessel that retains heat well – a cast iron Dutch oven or deep skillet is perfect.


As for wine, you’ve really gotta have it in this dish. Tradition holds with the ubiquitous ‘dry white,’ but you really can use what you have and like – really – you’re going to make this yours, and you get to choose.


Many recipes call for imported Italian plum tomatoes – That might be the thing to do in the middle of winter, but if you’ve got access to fresh Roma’s then use those – I don’t care where they’re from or what they’re named, fresh beats canned, every time. If you do have to go canned, check out our post on who’s better and who’s best.


When it comes to seasoning, those Bolognese Nonnas often use nothing but salt and pepper, depending on fresh ingredients to carry the day. That’s totally cool, and delicious, but if you like an herbaceous note or two in there as I do, add one. Caveat Number Four is this – do not leave the nutmeg out, and if you can, get a fresh whole one and grate a little into the dish – it’s key to the signature flavor of true ragù alla Bolognese.


Final note – the process outlined below is important. This can perhaps be best summed up in a question from my friend, Russ Robinson, who wrote in response to an image of this sauce cooking, ‘I am a huge fan of scratch Bolognese. A few times I’ve ended up with bitter red sauce. I can throw sugar at it. but I’m thinking some step was missed in the process early. Ideas?’ I told him that I knew exactly why, and that all would be revealed herein – as it shall be. Take note that there’s nothing really exotic in here – the real magic is in the technique.


This recipe will make plenty for 2-4 folks, with leftovers likely, because it’s even better the next day.

Urban’s Ragù alla Bolognese


1 1/2 Pounds ground Beef, (you certainly can go with beef & pork if you like)

4-6 fresh Roma Tomatoes

1 small yellow Onion

2-3 stalks fresh Celery

2-3 fresh Carrots

2-3 cloves fresh Garlic

1 Cup Whole Milk (or cream, if you’re feeling frisky)

1 Cup Wine (drier is better, but really – use what you like)

2 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil

3 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter

Whole Nutmeg (ground is OK)

Sea Salt (or kosher)

Black Pepper

1 Tablespoon Oregano


1 Pound good Pasta

Parmigiano-Regiano or Pecorino Romano Cheese


It’s a good idea to use a bunch of bowls and cups to arrange your ingredients.


Trim, peel and dice about 1 1/2 cups of onion.


Trim and dice about 3/4 cup each of celery and carrot. If you have celery leaves, separate and mince or chiffonade cut those.


Trim, peel and mince garlic.


Rough chop tomatoes, then process in a bowl with a stick blender to a sauce – A blender is fine for this too.


Portion milk and wine, (separately)


Set up your full mise en place right beside your stove.


In a heavy stock pot over medium heat, add the oil and 2 tablespoons of butter – allow to melt and heat through.


Add the carrot and sweat for about 2-3 minutes, stirring steadily.


Bring heat up to medium high and add onion and celery – sauté until the onion starts to become translucent but not browned, about 2-3 minutes – stir steadily to thoroughly coat the veggies in the fat.


Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smells dissipates, about 1-2 minutes.


Add the wine and stir the veggies until the raw alcohol smells dissipates, about 2 minutes.


Transfer everything from the pot to a bowl.


Add the meat to the stock pot – season with a generous three finger pinch of salt and a few twists of pepper.


Mix the seasoning in while working the meat to break it down into smaller pieces – The salt helps extract liquid from the meat, making that more available to the sauce, so don’t skip this step.


When the meat is starting to brown and has lost most of its raw red color, add the milk and turn the heat down to medium low.


Simmer the meat and milk, stirring gently, until all the milk has been absorbed by the meat, about 4-6 minutes, but really, as long as it takes – This step is critical to get real Bolognese and to avoid what happened to Russ – allowing the meat to cook with and fully absorb the milk prevents the acidic wine and tomato from creating a bitter sauce. There’s a subtle softness and sweetness to Bolognese done right that can be achieved no other way.


Add a grating of fresh nutmeg, about a 1/4 teaspoon, and stir to incorporate – The smells you get at this point are pretty heavenly.


Add the veggies and oil/butter blend back into the meat and stir to incorporate.


Add the tomatoes, celery leaf, and oregano. And stir well to fully incorporate all your ingredients.


Turn your heat down to low, and cook uncovered for at least 4 hours, and longer is not only fine, it’s better.


What you want is an occasional lazy bubble forming in the sauce – no hotter. This is genuine low and slow, and why we want that heavy, heat-holding pot to cook it in.


What you’re after in your final product is a sauce where the fat is visibly starting to separate out, as you see in the image below.


If your sauce dries out while cooking, add about a half cup of water and stir that in as needed – but make sure that your finished products conforms to the sentence above.


Taste and adjust seasoning.


Boil and drain your pasta, leaving a tablespoon of water in the pot.

Return half the pasta to the pot with the burner off.


Add a tablespoon of butter to the pasta and toss to coat.


Add about 2 cups of sauce to the pasta, and toss to incorporate.


Serve with freshly shaved Parm or romano and crusty bread on the side, (to sop the sauce up with), and a nice glass of Italian red.

Crab Bisque

One of the great joys of cooking is receiving a thoughtful gift from a friend. When you’re blessed to live near the cold Pacific Ocean as we are, that often means something from the sea. So it was recently when a coworker of Ms blessed us with freshly caught Dungeness crab. It was a cold December weekend, so something really comforting came immediately to mind – crab bisque.

Urban’s Crab Bisque


I posted some images of the cooking process before I wrote this, and a couple people asked, ‘what’s the difference between chowder and bisque?’ It’s a good question – Both often contain shellfish, (and frankly bisque must to be bisque). Past that, chowder features big rustic hunks of ingredients, while bisque is creamy, smooth, and oh so rich.


Bisque is a strained or puréed soup, with stock made from shells, thickened with rice, cream, or roux. Its roots are in eighteen century France, albeit then it contained game birds – it wasn’t until the next century that shellfish made their way into the dish. There are numerous claims that the dish originated in the Bay of Biscay, which is likely hooey – the etymology of the word bisque is bis cuit, meaning twice cooked. For the record, soup that doesn’t contain shellfish that are called bisque is nothing more than a marketing ploy – ‘Whatever Bisque’ sells a bunch more product than ‘Whatever Soup’ does.


Over on this side of the pond, it took bisque a while to catch on. In colonial New England, lobster, oysters, and clams were so plentiful they were often referred to as ‘poverty food,’ and were not relished by many. It wasn’t until the 19th century that they became truly de rigueur.


Making bisque at home has an undeserved reputation as a fussy, even scary process. Fact is, it’s a gas and not at all difficult. While the stock needs simmer time to come into its own, the actual soup making phase is quite quick. You’ll need cooked crustacean for this, including the shells – which means you’ll need to do some disassembly prep, but that too is part of the fun.


The stock, freshly made from scratch, is the real heartbeat of this dish. The combination of crab shells and an aromatic base is intoxicating – it’s what makes bisque great. Traditionally, the aromatics are mire poix, but as you’ll see from our post on the subject, there are lots of options out there for you to play with.


There is often booze in bisque – usually wine, sherry, or brandy (cognac for instance). It’s there to impart a flavor note – some would say it’s mandatory, but really it’s up to you. Same goes for what you use. Tradition is fine, but add what you like – if you have a red that you think would be nice in this dish, use it, even if it ‘should be a dry white wine’. I’ve had bourbon crab bisque that was to die for, and añejo tequila adds a subtle smokey sweet note.if you don’t like booze, fear not – it’ll be delightful without it.


If you go with wine or sherry, simmer it until the alcohol and most of the moisture is cooked off – you can add this step to the process after you’ve made the stock and before you sauté the veggies. If you decide on high proof stuff, flambé that – flaming it will achieve the same end as simmering wine.


Seasoning your bisque is another perfect vehicle for self expression. Stateside, a lot of folks swear by Old Bay, and you wouldn’t go wrong with that. Old Bay has a lot of stuff in it, with major notes of bay leaf, black pepper, cayenne, salt, mustard, and celery seed, to warm minor notes of allspice, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon – Knowing that, you could certainly pull out a few of those for your own blend, if you don’t feel like going the full Monty. If you want to try something a bit more traditional, fines herbes would be a great choice – major notes of parsley and chive are married to minors of tarragon and chervil – it’s an absolute classic in French cooking, for good reason.


For prepping your crab, here’s my routine – crack and harvest meat from body joints and major claws and legs, then leave whatever is in all the little nitpicky sections in place and use that for stock. You’ll get plenty of meat, and glorious stock as well.

Urban’s Crab Bisque


5 Cups Water

4-8 ounces cooked Dungeness Crab

Cooked Shells from 2-3 Crabs

2 Cups Heavy Cream

1 Cup Dry White Wine

1 medium Onion

1 medium Tomato

3-4 stalks Celery

1/2 Red Bell Pepper

3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

2 Tablespoons unsalted Butter

2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste

2 teaspoons Fines Herbes

2 Turkish Bay Leaves

Sea Salt

Fresh ground Pepper

Peel, trim and dice onion.


Trim and dice celery, reserve tops and leaves for stock.

Mire poix


Trim and dice red pepper and tomato.


In a heavy stock pot over medium heat, combine water, the crab shells, 1/4 cup of onion, the celery tops and leaf, the tomato, the bay leaves, a three finger pinch of salt, and 8-10 twists of pepper.

Stock for crab bisque

Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for at least an hour, and two is better.


Remove pot from stove and carefully pour the broth through a single mesh strainer.

Base stock for crab bisque


Return the pot to the stove over medium heat. Add the wine and simmer until the raw alcohol scent dissipates, about 1-2 minutes.


Return strained stock to pot and bring to an aggressive simmer.

Crab bisque


Add 1/2 cup onion, the celery and bell pepper, and simmer until the stock reduces to about 2 cups – about 15 minutes.


Reduce heat to medium low and add the tomato paste and cream to the stock. Whisk to incorporate and allow soup to heat through, about 5-8 minutes.

Crab bisque


With an immersion blender, carefully pulse until you have a smooth, uniform consistency.


Turn heat down to a bare simmer, add fines herbs, and allow everything to marry, whisking occasionally, until the bisque thicken a bit, about 10-12 minutes.


Add crab meat and butter, whisk to incorporate, and allow to heat through, about 3-5 minutes.

Crab bisque


Taste and season with salt and pepper as desired.


Serve nice and hot with crusty bread or oyster crackers and a nice glass of wine.

Greek Thanksgiving Turkey Bake

I wanted to do something different with post-Thanksgiving turkey. We’d had the glorious main meal, and fantastic sandwiches the next day. I was making stock for soup, thinking that’d be round three, when a Greek theme intruded on my traditional progression.

It began with feta cheese and great Greek olive oil, both of which I have on hand. We’d also just received some lovely Brussels sprouts from our CSA that didn’t make it into the Big Dinner. I’d cooked some Rancho Gordo Alubia Blanca beans for soup. Of course we have onions, garlic, lemons, and Greek oregano, along with a raft of other fresh herbs out in the garden. My next thought was along the line of, would Greek people in Greece really eat this? Turns out the answer is, probably so.

The Greeks call turkey ‘gallopoula,’ and that or pork is quite popular on a holiday table – quite a few people raise their own birds, and you can’t get better than that. Beans have been a traditional staple in Greece for a long time and are widely cultivated there. And yes, Brussels sprouts are enjoyed in Greece as well – Good to go, all around.

Greek inspired turkey bake

I decided on a baked dish, to transform the feta into a creamy, tangy delight, with everything bound by kalamata olive oil and lemon juice – And that just demands some freshly baked pita, right? Right!

As for herbs, there really is no ‘go to’ blend. If I had to pick must have herbs, I’d go with Greek oregano, dill, flat leaf parsley, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, basil, and fennel. Christy Hohman, my Guru of Greek, makes a blend I love, with Greek oregano, garlic salt, dried grated lemon peel, marjoram, sumac, thyme, and black pepper. She added that, ‘the essentials for the Greek flavor in a mix would be good Greek oregano, lemon, and marjoram or thyme.’ And that is what I will use here.

Home made pita bread

Pita Bread

3 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour

1 1/4 Cups Water

1/4 Oz. active Dry Yeast, (1 package, if you have those)

2 teaspoons Sea Salt

Heat water to @ 115° F

In a large mixing bowl, combine water and yeast and stir gently to dissolve.

Add 3 cups of flour and the salt, then use a spoon or spatula to form a loose dough.

Spread the last 1/2 cup of flour on a working surface and turn the dough out onto that.

Knead the dough for 4-5 minutes, working the last half cup into the mix as needed when things get too sticky.

When the dough is nice and smooth and springy, cut it into 6 more or less equal portions, and roll those into balls.

Roll the balls out to about 6” circles.

Lightly grease a baking pan, and place the rolled out rounds onto that.

Allow to rise for about 50 minutes, until roughly doubled in height.

Preheat oven to 475° F and place a rack in the middle position.

Flip raised pitas over gently, and bake for 6-9 minutes, until they’re light golden brown

Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool.

Greek turkey bake

Urban’s Greek Thanksgiving Bake

1/2 Pound Turkey Breast

1/4 Pound Feta

2 Cups Brussels Sprouts

1 Cup Turkey Stock

2 Cups cooked White Beans

2 Cups Cherry Tomatoes

1 medium Yellow Onion

5-7 cloves fresh Garlic

2 fresh Lemons

1 bulb fresh Fennel

4-6 Ounces Extra Virgin Greek Olive Oil

1/2 Cup Kalamata Olives

1 Tablespoon Greek Oregano

1 Tablespoon Lemon Thyme

Sea Salt

Black Pepper

Preheat oven to 425° F with a rack in the middle slot.

Chop turkey breast.

Trim and halve Brussels sprouts.

Peel, trim, and chop onion.

Peel, trim, and fine dice garlic.

Slice olives into rounds.

Cut 1 lemon in half and zest. Cut the other into roughly 1/8ths.

Trim fennel and cut into roughly 1/4” thick rounds.

In a large casserole, baking pan, or whatever you’ve got, begin assembly.

Spread a layer of beans, then add Brussels sprouts.

Add onion, tomatoes, garlic, olives, fennel, and turkey.

Crumble feta evenly over all that.

Pour stock into the mix.

Squeeze lemon chunks and place evenly, then squeeze second lemon’s juice and spread zest.

Add olive oil evenly over all.

Sprinkle oregano and thyme evenly over all.

Add a three finger pinch of salt over all, then liberal twists of ground pepper.

Bake at 425° F for 30-40 minutes, until the tomatoes burst and the sprouts are fork tender.

Serve with fresh pita bread, which you darn well better make yourself – See above.

Dueling Roasts

Pot roast – arguably the epitome of a humble beginning becoming a glorious end – a paean to low and slow. Yet there’s more than one way to get there, and naturally we’d like to know if one is better than another.

In our kitchen, I prefer a slow cooker and M leans toward oven. When discussing which route to go recently, we naturally arrived at, why not both? Now, we ain’t Kenji Alt Lopez, but hey, it sounded like fun – and when she guaranteed me I’d lose the bet, it was on. We took two lovely local, grass fed pot roasts out and got busy.

‘Pot roast’ may be any one of a number of different cuts
‘Pot roast’ may be any one of a number of different cuts

Certain proteins just need to be cooked low and slow. Sure, a wagyu steak is going to be super tender and a chuck roast not so much, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Thousands of years of cooking has proven that almost anything can be made tasty, and frankly should. We don’t have to go all Fergus Henderson on this, but waste isn’t cool, and buying expensive isn’t necessary.

Flesh is flesh – It’s all the connective tissues that are the toughies – tendons, ligaments, and fasciae. Most of these are collagens, the primary structural proteins. That stuff should never be looked upon as waste though. If you’ve checked out any of our posts on making stock, you’ll recall that rendering collagens is what gives meat stocks great body and flavor. If you cook collagen-rich cuts low and slow, you’ll be rewarded with the same benefits – tender meat, and a more balanced budget.

Cuts like pot roast, pork shoulder, and lamb shanks are all glorious when cooked low and slow, and they’re generally pretty inexpensive. I’ll go out on a limb a bit and say the cheaper the better when it comes to something cooked that way – you’ll get a bunch of great meals therefrom. I’d add short ribs and pork belly to this list, except that they’re still considered sexy, and as such, are nowhere close to cheap.

While our butcher cuts and marks stuff as pot roast, that’s not super common in the grocery. In any event, there are several cuts that will make a great one. Most cuts called Chuck will do great – you may also find variations called shoulder or seven bone roasts. Round will also do well – bottom round and rump roasts are probably what you’ll find most often.

Mire Poix and the Thumb Slayer

On to the cook off. I prepped equal amounts of our basic roasting aromatic blend, onion, carrot, celery and garlic, and we deployed our homemade beef stock as well.

My slow cooker roast went fully submarine

For my slow cooker version, I did not sear the roast, and I fully submersed that bad boy in stock, as you can see. M, for her oven version, seared, and used an appropriate amount of stock for a classic braise – maybe an inch and change, but not even close to drowning.

M’s roast seared in a braiser

Both went low and slow – M in a 275° oven, and mine on low in the slow cooker.

M’s oven roast set up for a classic braise

Both cooked until they hit 145° F, and were then given a fifteen minute rest, at which point they temp’d out at right about 155° F. For the record, M’s oven version did have a decent amount of liquid left when it was done cooking. In the image below, M’s roast is top and mine is bottom.

Oven roasted on top, slow cooker below

All three of us agreed, unanimously, that my version was far more tender and juicy. Granted, this wasn’t a full out scientific test with multiple runs and all conditions fully controlled, but it bears out what I believe about cooking such cuts – full submersion gives more moisture to the protein, you get a steadier temperature throughout the cooking process, and that leads to a tender, juicy roast.

Slow cooker pot roast with a cherry gastrique

The image below shows what that slow cooker version looked like the next day after being defatted – you can clearly see how much that stock was able to do.

Slow cooker pot roast did a job on all those tough collagens

And yes, for the record, it tasted great, and I am still gloating – just a little, and quietly.

We Got a Winnah!

A couple of weeks ago, an old friend PM’d me to say that the local paper, the Bellingham Herald, was running a national holiday recipe contest, and thought I might be interested.

I allowed that I was, and then noticed that the deadline for submissions was that very day. I thought about if for a sec, and what I figured was the perfect thing came to mind.

Back in 2017, I did a Thanksgiving Sides & Sweets post, and Pumpkin Flan was found therein. I took a look at that, edited it a bit, (as in, tweaked for a mass audience), rummaged around and found an image of that glorious stuff, and sent it in.

Urban’s Pumpkin Flan

The contest was run nationally by McClatchy, so to be honest, I really didn’t expect anything to come of it.

I was wrong, in the best sense of the word. I ended up taking the local dessert prize, and I won a hundred bucks to boot. I’m kind of ridiculously thrilled.