Maque Choux – A Cajun Twist on Succotash

I came across an FB post by Diane Whatley Nix, a friend on a cooking group called Wok Wednesdays, shared an image of Maque Choux made in a wok. Instantly, I was shown a flash of brilliance for the cooking method, and reminded of a delicious dish I hadn’t made since leaving Texas six years ago. Note: If you’re into wok cooking, then you need to check out the group – It’s dedicated to cooking your way through Grace Young’s The Breath of a Wok, and it’s a serious gas!

Maque Choux (AKA mack shoe, muck shoe, muck show, and so on), is the Cajun version of that venerable side dish, succotash. The name may sound French, but it’s probably a Creole derivation of a native term. This is a great side dish at any time of the year, but especially in late summer, when all of the veggie constituents are right outside in the garden. 

Many folks know of succotash and assume it to be southern, but that would be incorrect – Succotash came from some of the original occupants of New England – The name derives from a native term, possibly the Wampanoag word msíckquatash, (boiled corn kernels), or the Narragansett sohquttahhash, (broken corn kernels).

Succotash was, and is, a base of fresh corn, some kind of shell bean, and a little protein – nowadays, most commonly bacon, but back then in New England, fish or game. Any number of additional veggies and herbs might be added, like tomatoes, sweet peppers, chiles, fresh herbs and other seasonings – all of which are New World foods and therefore likely as authentic as anything else. There are a dizzying number of ‘authentic’ succotash and maque choux recipes out there, but the truth is that damn near anything you feel like doing will be authentic enough – These are dishes designed to use what was ready at the time, and later down the line, to clean out a fridge, maybe.

Succotash was popular because it was filling and nutritious. That base mix of corn and beans is rich in protein, carbohydrates, essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals. It’s still a popular side dish at many a New England Thanksgiving dinner, and was likely a main course at that original dinner hosted by the locals, to which a ragtag band of Puritans and Strangers were invited. Those settlers quickly learned that the key base ingredients lent themselves readily to drying, which meant a lifesaving, year round food supply for a struggling population.

As us white usurpers spread across the new land, (including my direct ancestor, who arrived in 1636), succotash came along for the ride, morphed by local crops as it travelled. In the south, dang near any corn and bean combo that’s fried up in lard or butter is called succotash, albeit the vast majority of the time, the bean in question will be a lima, and there will almost always be okra.

Those migrants included the Acadiens, French people exiled to the Canadian Maritimes by the Seven Years war between Britain and France in the middle of the eighteenth century. While many Acadiens remain in the Maritimes, a sizable group made their way south to warmer climes, specifically, Louisiana, which was a French colonial holding since about the time the Puritans hit the beach at Plymouth. And of course, Cajuns are in Louisiana to this day, and from that many good things have come, including maque choux.

Study up some on maque choux, and you’ll see one glaring difference from traditional succotash – It don’t have no beans on board. That’s not to say you couldn’t, or that beans aren’t popular in that neck of the woods, because you could and they are -But, when you see how the dish morphed, you’ll understand right away – It’s because of the only aromatic base that we here in the colonies can lay claim to – The Holy Trinity.

We have the Cajun folk to thank for our only original combo – onion, celery, and green pepper, and really, nothing else, (albeit when used in soups and stews and whatnot, some folk do like to whip a little roux right in with it as it cooks, to kind of get a leg up on things). Now, the key to aromatic bases is the ratio, and in that regard, there are a couple of camps for the Trinity – those who do equal measures of each, and those who portion like mirepoix, 50% onion, 25% each pepper and celery. For my mind, it kinda depends on when you’re making it. If we’re talking the non-growing season, I’d go for the heavy onion version, but if you’re in the sweet spot, where those things are right out there in your garden, I’d absolutely opt for equal shares.

As for the protein, again, you can do what you like with no shame. I like local, smoky pepper bacon myself, but down south, a lot of folks are partial to andouille sausage, and you’d be hard pressed to go wrong there. Honestly, anything you’ve got that needs using would be lovely, from pulled pork to shredded chicken, (or even beans.)

Finally, the wok as a cooking method/vessel is simply brilliant. As Diane noted, making maque choux in one adds a perfect crispy crunch to the dish that you’d be hard pressed to get anywhere else. It’s also fast, and fun, and very pretty, so give that a go. This recipe will make enough for four, and maybe some leftovers

Maque Choux a la Urban

3 ears fresh Sweet Corn

4 strips Pepper Bacon

1/2 small sweet Onion

1-2 stalks fresh Celery, including leaves

2 Anaheim Chiles

1 fresh Tomato

2 cloves fresh Garlic

4-5 fresh Chives

1 sprig fresh Thyme

1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil

A few shakes Go To Seasoned Salt, (I prefer our smoky version)

A few twists fresh ground Pepper

Mise en place for maque choux
Mise en place for maque choux

Cut kernels off the corn in two passes – Take the first to roughly cut the kernels in half,then the second to get what’s left – This gets all the corn milk in play and adds a bit more moisture to the mix – Cut the corn into a plate or shallow bowl. If you’re shy getting to the base of the kernels, flip your knife around and use the spine to scrape out those last, sweet bits – And don’t friggin’ cut yourself.

Stack your bacon slices, cut them down the middle lengthwise, then into roughly 1/2” squares.

Dice the onion, celery, and chiles into roughly equal piles.

Slice the tomato – You can gut it if you like, (M is always offended when I leave the guts in…), or not as you please.

Mince the garlic, thyme, and chives.

Set the wok over a medium high flame and heat through –  A drop of water should vaporize pretty much instantaneously when it hits the wok, then you’re ready to go.

Stir fry bacon first - Your wok will thank you
Stir fry bacon first – Your wok will thank you

Stir fry the bacon, stirring steadily with a wooden spoon.

When the bacon is about 3/4 of the way you like it, turn the heat up to high and add the avocado oil. 

When the oil is shimmering, (not smoking – That’s too hot), add the onion, celery and chiles.

adding the Holy Trinity to maque choux
adding the Holy Trinity to maque choux

Stir fry, steadily working the mix to incorporate. When the onions start to turn translucent, add the garlic and stir fry for a minute or so until the raw garlic smell dissipates. 

Final ingredients
Final ingredients

Add the corn and stir fry steadily to heat through and incorporate – If things are getting a bit hot, turn heat down somewhat – I change heat constantly as I cook on a wok, and so can/should you.

Stir fry the mix until the corn starts to get a little crust and the smells are driving you nuts.

Add the tomato, chive and thyme, a few shakes of seasoned salt and a grew twists of pepper, and stir fry to incorporate all the seasonings.

Maque Choux a la Urban
Maque Choux a la Urban

Transfer to a bowl and serve hot.

Urban’s Go To Dry Rib Rub

Whether you grill, smoke, or bake your ribs, this is a great rub if you’re looking for something that’s not sugar based. We prefer to put the sweet note for ribs on a glaze, rather than in the rub – If that appeals to you, this is a good choice.

It works well with a 2-1 cooking regime, (2 hours in foil, 1 hour unwrapped then a quick broiled glaze), or a 2-1-1 scheme if you’re smoking them.

This blend stores well – since it doesn’t have sugar, it doesn’t clump up. Works great on chicken or beef as well.

Urban’s Go To Dry Rib Rub

Urban’s Dry Rib Rub
1/4 cup Kosher Salt
1/4 Cup Black Pepper
2 Tablespoons Dry Mustard
1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika
1 Tablespoon Mild Hatch Chile Powder
1 Tablespoon granulated Garlic
1 Tablespoon Powdered Mesquite Smoke
Combine all ingredients thoroughly, Rub in to the ribs thoroughly and deeply, and give them about 15 minutes to get to work before you cook.
Here’s ribs with the rub and a Blueberry-Chile glaze.

Giardiniera – The King of Pickled Veggies

This year’s garden has been hit and miss. Some things have done nicely, others not, even with staggered plantings. That struck home when we had a look at the cucumbers and realized we wouldn’t get enough to make a winters worth of pickles and relish – That’s when inspiration struck – Why not go for a big batch of Giardiniera, the King of pickled veggies, instead?

Giardiniera, (Jar-dhi-nare-uh), is a delightful pickled vegetable mix, either done up as bite sized pieces or a relish. Redolent of fresh veggies and good olive oil, wrapped around lip smacking brininess that rivals a great cornichon – This is something we all need to be making at home.

Pickling foods to preserve them hardens back thousands of years and crosses numerous boundaries – almost every society does and has employed it. Everything from veggies, to meat, fish, fruit, nuts, and even eggs can end up in the pickle jar, much to our advantage. Pickling not only helps preserve things through the dark months, it adds a vital zip to what can otherwise be a rather bland time of year.

Giardiniera hails from Italy, and means literally, ‘from the garden, (also called sottacetto, or ‘under vinegar.’) While variants come from all over the boot, the versions we’re most familiar with has southern roots, down where the mild Mediterranean climate fosters a wide variety of veggies, the best olive oil, and great sea salt. That’s where those colorful jars filled with cauliflower, carrot, olives, onions, peppers, and chiles hailed from.


You’ll likely find jars of the bite sized version of giardiniera in your local grocery, with the fancy olives and other pickled goodies. While some of the commercial stuff is pretty good, none of it can match what you can make at home, and to top things off, it’s remarkably easy to do, (And frankly, the relish version of giardiniera is much more versatile, and rarely found in stores).

Seasoned with fresh herbs, maybe even touched with a little hot chile flake, giardiniera is fabulous on sandwiches, (including burgers and dogs), pizza, salads, and as a table condiment with more dishes than you can shake a stick at. Now is the time to be doing up a few batches of your own – it’s fairly traditional for giardiniera to be made in the fall, as a catch all for all those late season veggies we don’t want to lose to the first frost.

The American home of giardiniera is Chicago, where that famous Italian beef sandwich hails from. Slow roasted beef, cooked over its own jus, sliced thin and slapped onto a nice, dense roll, ladled with a generous spoon of giardiniera, a little jus, and eaten in the classic sloppy sandwich hunch – a little slice of heaven.

Italian Beef Sandwich, fueled by Giardiniera
Italian Beef Sandwich, fueled by Giardiniera

Making giardiniera is a real treat. Your first and foremost issue, naturally, is what to put into the mix. The blend I outlined earlier is generally recognized as the classic base mix, but pretty much anything goes, (I should note that peppers and chiles were not in the original Italian versions of the dish, as they didn’t show up in European cultivation until the 1700s.) firm veggies, like carrots, celeriac root, turnips, cauliflower, broccoli, and asparagus do well. Peppers and chiles will do well too, though really soft stuff like tomatoes tend to break down quickly.

Making giardiniera couldn’t be easier. While some recipes call for cooking or fermenting, (both processes are perfectly fine), the simplest version is, for my mind, best – Just brine your veggie mix for a day or two, until you reach the degrees of zip and bite that you like, and that’s it. You’ll find recipes that call for the mix to be stored in brine, oil, vinegar, and a simple vinaigrette – My money is in the latter option – that will provide a nice stable medium, and a great taste as well.

There are typically mild and spicy (AKA Hot) versions, and extensive regional variety, like the Chicago style that includes sport peppers and an accompanying degree of heat. Down south, the version that goes with a muffuletta sandwich is mild and heavier on the olives. Those are great, and worth your time to build, but really, look upon giardiniera as a launching pad for creativity – You really can’t go wrong if it’s made with stuff you love – For instance, I didn’t have celery when I made up the relish version, but I did have fresh celeriac root, and it turned out to be a wonderful substitution.

You can use any oil and vinegar you like for the base vinaigrette. Seasoning can be as easy as good salt, olive oil, and vinegar. When you feel like adding additional spices, be conservative in both number and ratio – The rule of three is a good thing here.

Unless you process your giardiniera in a hot water bath, keep in mind that this is basically a fridge pickle. If made carefully, and packed into sterilized glass jars, it will last a month or two refrigerated. Just keep in mind that they’re not shelf stable unless you go through the canning process. Accordingly, what we offer below are small batches that will make a couple of quart jars of finished product. There are cooked and fermented versions out there, and we’ll leave those for you to explore.

Giardiniera Relish

A quart of fresh Giardiniera will last a couple months in your fridge
A quart of fresh Giardiniera will last a couple months in your fridge

For the base mix

1 Green Bell Pepper
1 Red Pepper
1 small Sweet Onion
2-4 Jalapeño Chiles
1 medium Carrot
1 Stalk Celery
1/2 Cup Cauliflower florets
1/4 Cup Pickling Salt

For the final mix

1 Cup White Vinegar
1 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
6-8 large Green Olives
1 Clove Garlic
1/2 teaspoon Chile Flake
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Rinse all produce thoroughly.

Stem, seed, and devein the peppers and chiles, (leave the veins in the jalapeños if you want more heat).

Cut all veggies for the base mix into a uniform fine dice, about 1/4″ pieces. It’s not important to be exact, just get everything about the same size and you’ll be fine.

Transfer the mix to a glass or stainless steel mixing bowl. Cover the mix with fresh, cold water with an inch or so to spare.

Add the pickling salt and mix with a slotted spoon until the salt is thoroughly dissolved.

Cover with a tight fitting lid and refrigerate for 24 hours.

After 24 hours, take a spoon of the mix out, gently rinse it under cold water for a minute or so.

Test the degree of pickle and softness of the veggies. If you like what you’ve got, move on – If not, give it another day.
When you’re ready to prep the final mix –

Remove the base mix from the fridge and transfer to a single mesh strainer. Run cold water over and through the mix, using your hand to make sure that the salt solution is rinsed off.

fine dice the olives, peel, trim and mince the garlic.

Add all ingredients to a glass or stainless mixing bowl and stir with a slotted spoon to thoroughly incorporate.

Sanitize two quart mason jars either by boiling the jars, rings, and lids for 3-5 minutes in clean, fresh water, or running them through a cycle in your dishwasher.

Transfer the mix to the jars, and seal. Refrigerate for two days prior to use.

Giardiniera, bite size
Giardiniera, bite size

For the bite sized version, cut everything into roughly 1″ pieces, )or larger, depending on jar size and predilection), and process as per above. A bay leaf or two is a nice addition.

Clay Cooker Chicken & Veggies with Besar

Cooking in clay is one of those things you’ve got to do to truly get the gist of. Like cast iron, clay adds a certain je ne sais quois to a dish that you can’t get any other way – it’s a subtle earthiness and added depth that’s truly captivating.

Romertopf cookers are a great way to get into clay, and there’s no better dish to make in one that chicken. It’s truly difficult to end up with anything other than one of the juiciest, most delicious things you’ll ever cook – that alone is worth the entry price.

Romertopfs are great cookers, and can often be found used.

While the inside of the body of a Romertopf is glazed, the lid is not – The porous, soaked clay and higher oven heat, (425° F rather than 325°) combine to provide a steam/roast cook – the secret behind that super juicy bird.

The next joyful surprise is this – literally no oil, stock, or water need be added to end up with a succulent chicken. Same goes for veggies you to add to the dish – the steam/roast process will generate copious quantities of juice and rendered fat without help.

Fact is, you can add nothing but salt and pepper and still come out with stunning results, but for this dish, I wanted more – a nod to Middle Eastern cuisine was in order, since clay cookery is ubiquitous there – as are stunningly delicious spice blends. Besar (also Bzar and Bezar) was the perfect choice.

Besar – Savory, sweet, and heat.

There are variants of besar in several cuisines, of which I favor the Emirati style – it’s a stunningly aromatic blend with deep notes of warm spices and a touch of heat. Besar is wonderful with chicken, but might even be better with fresh roasted veggies – a win-win for this dish. Often used to spice ghee, it’s fantastic dry on everything from squash to soups, stews, and flatbreads. This is my swing at the blend.

Urban Besar

2 Tablespoons whole Black Peppercorns

2 Tablespoons whole Cumin seed

2 Tablespoons whole Coriander Seed

2 teaspoons stick Cinnamon, (about 1/2” or so)

2 teaspoons whole Green Cardamom pods

2 teaspoons ground Ginger

2 teaspoons ground Hatch Chile (hot or mild as you prefer)

1 teaspoon whole Fennel seed

1 teaspoon Turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground Nutmeg

Combine all ingredients in a small mixing bowl.

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, toast spices until golden brown and deeply fragrant, stirring steadily with a fork to avoid scorching.

Remove blend from skillet and return to a bowl to cool – allow 30 minutes or so for things to marry further.

Leave the blend whole and store in airtight glass until you need it – that’ll keep everything fresh. I prefer making smaller batches like this more often, rather than storing larger quantities long-term.

Urban’s Clay Cooker Chicken & Veggies with Besar

3-4 fresh Chicken Leg Quarters

3-4 Gold Potatoes

2 Carrots

2-3 stalks fresh Celery with Leaves

1/2 small Sweet Onion

3 Tablespoons ground Besar spice blend

3 finger pinch of Kosher Salt

Soak your clay cooker to get the most out of cooking process, and protect it from cracking.

Soak your clay cooker (including the lid) for 30 minutes prior to use. (If this is your first use of the cooker, follow makers directions for seasoning to the letter!)

You will start with a cold oven, to avoid thermal shock and cracking of your clay cooker.

Rinse and peel potatoes, then halve or quarter, depending on size.

Rinse, end trim, and cut carrots into roughly 3” chunks.

Peel, end trim, and quarter onion.

Rinse, end trim and cut celery stalks into roughly 5” chunks – remove and reserve leaves.

Arrange veggies in a solid base layer in your cooker.

Sprinkle very lightly with salt, then with a teaspoon of besar.

Arrange leg quarters evenly across the top of the veggies, skin side up.

Toss on the celery leaf, then lightly sprinkle with salt, and liberally dust with the remaining besar.

Clay cooker chicken & veggies with besar, ready to rock.

Cover the dish and slide into a middle rack position in a cold oven.

Set oven temp to 425° F and let ‘er rip for 45 minutes.

Carefully remove the hot cover from your cooker and check internal temp on the chicken – you should be around 150°-155° F.

Cook for 10-15 minutes more, uncovered, to allow things to brown and crisp up a bit.

Clay cooker steam/roast magic

Carefully remove cooker from oven and allow a 5-10 minute rest.

Clay cooker chicken and veggies with besar

Serve piping hot, with just some flatbread, or rice, or couscous, or whatever you love best.


Urban’s Double Chocolate Milk Stout Flan

Amongst other things, my Tribal Brother, Grant Goltz is a brewer of some renown. Every year at StringFest, the annual gathering of our music, lutherie, arts, and local tribes in Hackensack, Minnesota, (just ‘Hack’ if you’re a hip local), there are endless cold kegs of his stuff on tap.

This year, he handed me a cup of syrupy, dark stuff and said, ‘try this!’ It was a seven year old double chocolate milk stout, with chocolate nibs and lactose (milk sugar) included in the brewing process. This stuff was amazing, with dense layers of coffee and chocolate notes within.

Lissa King, ‘the Martha Stewart of Northern Minnesota’, (which is bullshit – she’s way better than Stewart), took some home and made cake and cupcakes with it – those showed up the next night for dessert, and were stunning, indeed.

I immediately thought of flan when I tasted it, and came up with this recipe, which I wrote, refined, and tested on everybody Sunday night – it blew us all away. It’s got fresh stout in the caramel, reduced stout in the body of the flan, and the color, taste and scent are knockout punches. Try making this with your favorite stout, and let me know how it goes.

Urban’s Double Chocolate Milk Stout Flan

For the Caramel

2/3 cup Bakers Sugar

1/3 Cup Reduced Stout

2 finger Pinch fine Salt

For the Custard

4 Large Eggs

2 Egg Yolks

1 1/2 Cups Whole Milk

1 Cup Heavy Cream

1/2 Cup Bakers Sugar

1 Cup of Stout (reduced to 1/2 cup – see below)

1 teaspoon Vanilla Paste (or 1 Tablespoon Extract, or 1/2 scraped Bean)

1/2 teaspoon fine Salt

Open and pour your chosen Stout, then let it sit while you work through prep (to kill off some of the carbonation).

Add 1 cup of Stout to a heavy sauce pan over medium heat. Reduce to a bare simmer when the stout starts to boil, and simmer until the volume is reduced by half. Remove from heat and transfer to a small bowl or cup to cool.

Pull a 8” or 9” cake pan, or six 3” ramekins, plus something big enough to act as a water bath for whatever you’ve chosen to bake in – a big roasting pan on braiser works great for that.

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, combine milk, cream, and sugar – whisk to thoroughly incorporate, then scald, (heat only until tiny bubbles start to form at the edge of the mixture) – Remove from heat, pour into a large mixing bowl and allow to cool.

In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, yolks, vanilla, and reduced stout – whisk to incorporate.

Add cooled milk and sugar blend to the egg blend, and process with a stick blender until thoroughly incorporated, about 1 minute.

Preheat oven to 350° F and set a rack in the middle position.
Check the height of your baking pan versus the water bath vessel, then add enough water to the bath so that water level will sit about 3/4 way up your baking pan. Slide the pan onto the middle rack.

In a heavy saucepan over medium low heat, add 2/3 cup sugar and 1/3 cup of unreduced stout. Stir to thoroughly combine and continue stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Continue to stir steadily, until the caramel starts to brown, about 3-5 minutes.

NOTE – Using stout instead of water means there’s a lot more stuff in the mix for the sugar to react with as it heats up. This blend will foam aggressively, and keep doing so – So you must lift the pan from the heat and stir constantly until the foaming subsides.

Keep the pan close enough to not lose heat, but far enough away that foaming is minimal – if you don’t, you’ll get molten sugar boiling out of the pan, which is not good at all.

Reduce heat to low and continue simmering and stirring constantly until the caramel is golden brown, about another 1-2 minutes.

Remove caramel from heat and carefully pour into your pan or ramekins, then gently swirl the pan to evenly coat the bottom. Set the pan aside.

Whisk the custard base to confirm that everything is still fully incorporated.

Fill your pan or ramekins with the custard mix to within about 1/2” of the top, then cover and seal tightly with metal foil.

Carefully transfer filled pan or ramekins to the water bath vessel.

Bake at 350° F for 35 minutes.

Open the oven and check the flan by giving the pan or ramekins a gentle shake – you should get a little shimmy in the middle, but overall it should be quite firm. If you need to go another 5 minutes or so, that’s A-OK.

Very carefully slide the rack out and gently remove your pan or ramekins to a cooling rack – allow the flan to cool for 30 minutes, then refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

When you’re ready to serve, run a butter knife around the edge of the pan, cover with a plate sized larger than the top of the pan or ramekins, and carefully flip the whole deal over. Slowly pull the pan or ramekins and viola – you’ve got a stunningly good dessert.

Dean’s Braised Chops with Sauerkraut & Chile-Garlic Dumplings.

My friend Dean Kumbalek does some seriously fine cooking, growing, and preserving of fantastic things to eat. When Dean posted up sauerkraut braised pork chops and dumplings, I knew I was gonna have to take a swing at it and share the results, just as he did.

Dean’s glorious dish

Dean prefaced his post with the following, which speaks perfectly to what great cooking really is all about – ‘As Igor Stravinsky once said, it is best to work within limitations’ – Rarely do we have everything we want when figuring out what to cook, but we almost always have what we need. What Dean worked up was a truly delicious dish that may sound complicated, but is really quick and easy to prep and cook.

Braising is a two step cooking process, with an initial high heat sear followed by a low heat finish. The quick sear locks flavor into a protein, while a slow, steamy finish develops deep flavors and makes for seriously tender vittles.

We both did this with pork chops, but you could do the same with chicken, or beef, or extra firm tofu. As for what to do to the protein prior to cooking, Dean oiled and seasoned with sage, nigella seed and paprika, then rested his chops, while I went for a dry coating just prior to searing.

For searing, Dean mentioned cast iron or grilling, and both will do a great job and impart some great flavor notes to the finished dish. We both went with cast iron – then I decided I needed a bigger pan, and ended up deploying a heavy braiser for part two of the cooking process.

The low and slow was done with sauerkraut and stock for the liquid and flavor components, and savory dumplings added to the mix. Dean did mushroom/garlic/chile for his, but my crew nixed the shrooms, so I had to pick another umami bomb – I went with fish sauce. What we got was fork tender pork, delicious slaw, and fluffy, spicy dumplings. It was stunningly delicious, so Big Thanks to Dean, and I can’t wait to do this again with chicken and tofu!

For the Chop/Chicken/Tofu Sear

1/2 Cup Wondra Flour

2 Tablespoons Pineapple Vinegar (cider is fine)

1/2 teaspoon Granulated Onion

1/2 teaspoon Ground Pepper

1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt

2-3 sprigs fresh Rosemary

Pat your proteins dry with a clean towel.

Combine all dry ingredients and blend well.

Lightly dredge each side in the flour mix.

Heat a Dutch oven or braiser over medium high heat.

Add a tablespoon of butter and allow to melt, then add the vinegar and whisk with a fork to incorporate.

Set proteins in hot pan and sear for 2-3 minutes until a golden brown crust forms.

Flip the proteins and repeat on the other side(s)

Remove proteins from pan and set on a platter.

Turn heat off but leave the pan as is.

For the Dumplings

2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Whole Milk
2 large Eggs
2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1-2 Tablespoon Green Hatch Chile Powder
2 Cloves fresh Garlic
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Red Boat Fish Sauce

Pull and milk and eggs from fridge and allow to come to room temperature.

Peel, end trim, and mince garlic.

Combine all dry ingredients and blend well.

Combine wet and dry and mix with a spoon – you want a fairly loose batter to begin with.

Let batter rest for 15-30 minutes or so, during which it will tighten up and become more elastic.

You want batter just loose enough to drop from a spoon – not sloppy, as it will absorb liquid from the braise – add a little flour or milk to adjust if needed.

For the Protein Low and Slow

2 packed Cups Sauerkraut

1-2 Cups Chicken Stock

Heat the dutch oven or braiser back up over medium heat.

Add about a half cup of stock to the reheated pan and scrape all the naughty bits off the bottom.

Add the sauerkraut and enough stock to bring the liquid level just below the top of the kraut level.

Place proteins evenly across the top of the kraut and stock mix.

When the mix starts to simmer, give dumpling batter a good stir, then place nice big dollops on top of each protein, and more in the gaps if you’ve got enough batter – you want dumplings about the size of a small lemon.

Cover the pan and reduce heat to low. Allow dish to simmer and steam for 30 minutes.

Remove lid and test dumplings with a toothpick – if it come out of the middle clean, you’re there.

Serve with a crisp salad, devour, and dream about what version you’ll make next.

Garde Manger for the People

Alert blog follower Hannah sent this note from southwestern Oregon – ‘I read about you guys changing up stuff you made earlier, for subsequent meals – The last one was an Instagram of tacos where you did “a complete 180° on the seasoning” but you didn’t explain how or what you did. The same thing happened with the Chinese barbecued pork you converted to Italian, but you didn’t tell how to do that either. We’re not all wizards, so you need to explain this better!’

Hannah, with my sincere apologies, you are absolutely correct. Allow me to rectify that – And if it seems like Hannah’s reading me the riot act, she’s got a right to – I didn’t explain any of that stuff. Now, in my defense, these were both follow up images and short descriptives, secondary to a post, that as she mentioned, were on other social media sites – FB, Instagram, Twitter and the like. I though of them as throw away stuff, home food porn, but no longer – Hannah is 100% right – If I’m gonna crow about our mad skills, I gotta share the goods.

Before we talk about conversion, we gotta back up a few steps. If you’re making a French dish, what should the core seasonings be? What if it’s Italian, Spanish, Indian, North African, Mexican, South American, Caribbean, and so on? There are so many regional variations in all those examples that this kind of thing can be a bit hard to pin down – In northern France, you might find thyme, sage, and coriander, while in the south, it’s likely to be something more Provençal – marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and lavender, maybe. Same thing in every place I mentioned, frankly. With the very welcome spread of cookbooks and recipes focusing more on regional cuisines than some perceived national pastiche, us home cooks are blessed with many more options than even a decade ago. All that can make things a bit tougher to convert to something wholly different, but frankly, we don’t need to do that to succeed at the game.

Pork rib tacos? Absolutely! Pork rib tacos? Absolutely!

So what is the trick to turning those ribs into tacos? Not as much as you’d think – Hell, you could probably do not a damn thing, call it fusion, and be on your merry way… But seriously, the trick, such as it is, is simply knowing what the major and minor seasoning notes are for the thing you’re working with, and building up or down from there – I say up or down purposefully, because if you want something Chinese to taste reasonable Italian, the task at hand may be to add, but it could also involve subtraction. Let’s use those two examples Hannah cited to dig into this thing.

In both instances we’re talking about proteins. This comes up as a thing we tweak fairly often because of how we cook and plan meals – A big ol’ batch of poultry, pork, or beef is oft what we cook early in the week, and then make a buncha meals thereafter, (and we covered this pretty well in our Meal Planning post btw). First step in swinging the seasoning profile of a protein in another direction is having a pretty good grasp of what’s powering it currently. If you made it, that’s easy enough, but what about a leftover from somewhere else, or taking a step farther out – tasting something and thinking, ‘I could do this at home, and I’d like to’ – How do you parse that? Far and away, the easiest way to suss it out is to ask the Chef – Chances are good they’ll tell you, and then you’re off to the races.

But what about sleuthing things out for yourself, how does that work? There’s no cut and dried formula for doing this that I can think of offhand, other than to state the obvious – The more herbs, spices and other seasoning constituents you own and use with some frequency, the better you’ll be at identifying them in the wild – Consider it a delicious form of behavioral conditioning. Again, not everybody has the same palate, but nonetheless, practice makes perfect, so build a great pantry and familiarize yourself with as much as you can – Getting curious about world cuisine is the way to discover new tastes and combinations.

OK, so Hannah’s Bane – starting with the ribs to tacos. The ribs were a first run experiment by M from something she’d found and tweaked to her liking – Ribs done in the slow cooker, with a nontraditional twist on the marinade and sauce. She did, for two racks of ribs,

For the Rib Marinade

1/2 Cup Water

1/3 Cup Live Apple Cider Vinegar

1/4 Cup Sweet Onion, minced

6 Cloves fresh Garlic, minced

2 Tablespoons Yellow Mustard

2 Tablespoons coarse Sea Salt

2 teaspoons Lemon Thyme

1 teaspoon ground Tellicherry Pepper

For the Glaze

1/2 Cup Balsamic Vinegar

1/4 Cup Agave Nectar

1 teaspoon Arrowroot

1/2 teaspoon Chile flake

Pinch of Sea Salt

They were killer by the way – Try this on nice fresh baby backs and then thank M later. We had a slew of these things, and after 3 days of ribs, ribs, and ribs, we were kinda tired of that, so I decided to strip all the meat off the remainder and turn it into taco fodder. Now, looking at that ingredients list, you can see right off that I took poetic license with the line Hannah quoted, “a complete 180° on the seasoning,” ‘cause yeah – in a word, Eben? Bullshit. That’s already pretty damn close to a bunch of Mexican regional seasoning blends you’ve got on there. What I did was to throw diced chiles and more onion in a sauté pan, sweat them, then added chicken stock, cilantro, lime juice, and tomatoes to the mix, and let that simmer until everything was heated through and married – Boom, taco ribs. Get the picture? No, they won’t taste at all like they did as whole ribs, and yeah, now they are reasonably more Mexican in taste profile.

Char Siu in all its glory Char Siu in all its glory

Now, how about that Chinese barbecued Pork to Italian thing, then? This one admittedly took a bit more work to pull off effectively, but nothing earthshaking, and again – I made the original dish, so I knew exactly what was in there, right? The pork was my latest swing at Char Siu, derived from a Grace Young recipe in Breath of a Wok. I’ve not posted this previously, so here’s first look for y’all, (and John Joyce? This one’s for you, Buddy!)

For each Pound of Pork Shoulder

2 Tablespoons Dark Soy Sauce (I recommend Pearl River)

2 Tablespoons Tamari

2 Tablespoons Hoisin Sauce

2 Tablespoons Pixian Doubanjiang Chile Bean Sauce

2 Tablespoons Shao Hsing Rice Wine

2 Tablespoons Bakers Sugar

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar

2 teaspoons Sesame Oil

1/2 teaspoon Ground Grains of Paradise

The Pork marinates in this mix for 48 hours, then is seared over an initially hot grill, basted with the remaining sauce and finished on a medium grill until internal temp runs 145°, then rested. If you use charcoal, a two zone grill set up will do this to perfection.

Seriously tender Char Siu Seriously tender Char Siu

This stuff was fork tender and incredibly tasty, but again, after so many meals, I just needed to switch things up, and so I decided to make tomato based pasta sauce with the remainder. Granted, there are some potent Chinese regional tastes involved in that pork, but again, it’s not as discordant as it may seem at first glance. Central and northern Italian tomato pasta sauces can and do have some of those warm, earthy, and spicy notes, albeit not the same ones.

I gave the pork a quick rinse and ground it with the attachment on my Kitchenaid mixer, (you don’t need to do that, a simple rinse and mince would do just fine). As you can see from the plated image, the marinade, even after 48 hours, doesn’t get all that deep into the pork, so doing what you can to expose a bunch of the unseasoned meat gives solid ground for new flavors – The old stuff becomes interesting background that you can’t quite put your finger on, rather than a very forward Chinese.

Italian from Chinese? Yes indeed. Italian from Chinese? Yes indeed.

Next comes the Italian rebranding – A big stew pot over medium heat, with a generous slug of olive oil gets soffritto – the classic Italian aromatic base mix of onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and garlic. Add stock, tomatoes, the pork, bay leaf, oregano, rosemary, lemon thyme, lemon zest and juice, salt and pepper, and basil to finish, and wham, you’ve got a complex, earthy pasta sauce that tastes like you put far more work into it than you did – Never a bad thing.

Now, who caught the trick I used in these examples? Somebody, anybody, Bueller? There was one ya know – A small but potent anchor to all such conversions – It’s the aromatic bases. For the switch to tacos, it was onion and chile. For the Italian, soffritto – See that? Fortunately for you, we wrote a very nice piece on aromatic bases that you can use as a launching pad for further exploration. It really is a key – When you take those deep, fundamental roots of a flavor profile and set them as your new solid base, switching gears becomes a simple matter of preference thereafter.

Now, resources – A thing I’ve mentioned here several times and online a lot – Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s magnum opus, The Flavor Bible. This is a reference work with some serious horsepower – Whole menus can be worked up from the stuff therein, and should be – For my mind, with that book, and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, you’ve got a very solid basic research library to design a world cuisine of your own from.

Garde Manger - The Art of Transformation Garde Manger – The Art of Transformation

Now – One final note – This concept is not mine, and it’s not new. In fact, it’s very old, and it stems from common sense, first and foremost. In French, it’s called Garde Manger, and it loosely translates as ‘Keeper of the Food.’ This is way cooler than you can imagine if you really dig cooking. The first fine dining restaurant I worked in, back in the mid ‘70’s, was French, (and that cuisine is where the term comes from and from where, arguably, the art reached its pinnacle). The second was in Sun Valley, Idaho – Another kitchen run by French Chefs. In those places, the Chef de Garde Manger was the best there was – Old guys with a wealth of experience, tremendous patience, and endless inventiveness. Garde manger is still around, albeit not as prominent, or as likely to display that level of experience. It’s always the cold dish station – Salads, hors d’œuvres (horse doovers as my Sis and I like to quip…), appetizers, canapés, pâtés, terrines, and such. Although it’s less prevalent now, the key role of that Chef was transforming leftovers into something new, something appealing, something that would sell – And it was magical, indeed – That spirit is sparked within me every time I do something like we discussed today. If any of this strikes your fancy, then I’ll recommend another great resource – Frederick Sonnenschmidt and John Nicolas’, The Art of Garde Manger – It’s the real deal, and a delightful read. Dig in.

Old Bay Seasoning – The Rest of the Story

Do you know Old Bay seasoning? If so, it’s not unlikely that you have some in your cabinet for use specifically with crab or shrimp boils. If you don’t know if it, ya aughta, ‘cause it’s a venerable mix – and if you do, you aughta let it out to play more. Old Bay is hugely popular on the east coast, from New England to the gulf, with an epicenter in Baltimore, where it was first made. The story of its creation is one of great triumph over adversity, to say the least.

Gustav Brunn, a German Jew, founded the Baltimore Spice Company in 1939, with the Old Bay seasoning blend as his flagship – Yet his epic journey didn’t start there, it landed there. Brunn had owned a wholesale spice business in Worthheim, Germany since shortly after WWI, but the rapid rise of fascism and the Nazi party forced a move to Frankfurt. There, on Kristallnacht, he was arrested and sent to Buchenwald. His wife paid a massive bribe to get him released, and they immediately fled to the U.S.

With his broad experience, he was hired by McCormick, where he worked for a grand total of two days – when it was discovered Brunn was Jewish, he was fired. That was the impetus for his founding his own company and the blending of Old Bay, the ‘Delicious Shrimp and Crab Seasoning,’ named after a passenger liner that plied the Chesapeake Bay. It’s beyond ironic that the rights to his iconic seasoning blend were bought out in 1990 by none other than McCormick. Personally, that’s all that I need to know to want to honor the blend at home.

As mentioned, many an Old Bay user hauls it out exclusively for crab or shrimp – While Gustav won’t roll over in his grave over that, we could all get a lot more creative with this stuff, and on the eastern seaboard, they do – You’ll find Old Bay seasoned beef, chicken, pork, fish, soups, stews, peanuts, popcorn, corn on the cob, deviled eggs, potato salad, tuna salad, pasta salad, bean salad, scrambled eggs, baked potatoes, potato chips, a raft of dips and sauces, bloody mary mixes, and the rims of margarita glasses – and that’s just for starters.

Like many a proprietary spice blend, they’re not giving away an exact recipe you can follow – McCormick claims 18 ingredients in the mix, so figuring those out, plus ratios, is quite a job – which is why you’ll be far happier leaving the heavy lifting to idiots like me. We know that 3 or 4 ingredients in the commercial blend are preservatives and anti-caking agents that they don’t have to list (and we don’t need), so the sweet spot is 14.

Spice blends don’t need to follow the List Ingredients In Order of Percentage of the Whole Mix rule like most foods do, so long as what they include are GRAS ingredients, (Generally Accepted As Safe), hence we see ‘spices’ instead of specifics.

What they do admit to has varied over the years with packaging – the most common version is, ‘celery salt, spices (including red and black pepper) and paprika.’ An older version offered, ‘celery salt, spices (including mustard, pepper, laurel leaves, clove, pimento, mace, cardamom, cassia) and paprika.

Taste it and the major players are fairly well evident – celery salt, paprika, and pepper are definite top notes, with mustard and bay laurel as majors, and the warm spices – clove, cinnamon, cardamom, mace, and so on, are minors. Take a look at the color of the blend, and it’ll substantiate that list and my ratios.

You can use ground or whole spices – either way, you’ll need to grind the whole stuff (leaves, etc) prior to blending. Make sure your ingredients are fresh, of course. This blend is what I think is very close to the original – and what I like best – You get to tweak yours as you see fit.

Urban’s Faux Old Bay

1 Tablespoon Salt

1 Tablespoon Sweet Paprika (Smoked or Hot are fine if you prefer)

1 Tablespoon dried Celery Leaf (celery seed will do)

2 teaspoons Black Pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons Dry Mustard

5-6 Turkish Bay Leaves

1/2 teaspoon ground Nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground Cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon Chile Powder (mild or hot)

1/2 teaspoon ground Ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground Cloves

1/8 teaspoon Black Cardamom

1/8 teaspoon Allspice

1/8 teaspoon Mace

Grind whole spices and leaves, then blend all ingredients thoroughly.

Store in an airtight glass container, away from heat a d bright light.

Pasta Salad with Creamy Lemon Dressing

I love a creamy pasta salad, and with lots of veggies springing forth from the garden, summer is a great time for them. The majority of recipes you find are pretty heavy though, with mayonnaise or sour cream based dressings. I wanted something lighter and brighter, and came up with this excellent yoghurt powered lemon dressing.

There’s no real magic here, just a very nice combination that blends the brightness of lemon with the mouth feel of good yoghurt, and a touch of umami from garlic and fish sauce. With balanced sweet and tart, and a hint of backbite from the pepper, it compliments whatever you pair it with.

Pasta salad should be made with good stuff – so so leads to meh, otherwise – I t’s worth a splurge on a bag of high quality, local dry pasta. You want something short, that picks up easily and affords a good opportunity for the other ingredients to be there in every forkful, (spoon, in my case). Ridges are a must as well – they’ll hold onto the dressing better.

You can add whatever you like, of course. Celery, tomato, onion, sweet pepper, carrots, chives, and thyme were all available fresh as they can be, so we went with that, along with good olives, a little hard sausage, and an amazing five year old cheddar Casey made. Use what you love and have before you – the palette will always be changing.

Of course, you can leave out the meat and cheese and have an excellent vegetarian offering.

For the Pasta Salad

1 Pound Dry Pasta1/4 Cup of Hard Salami

1/4 packed Cup Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese

1/2 Sweet Onion

1/2 Red Bell Pepper

1-2 fresh Tomatoes

1-2 fresh Carrots

2 stalks fresh Celery (with leaves)

5-6 fresh Chives

2-3 stems fresh Thyme

3 finger pinch Salt

10-12 twists fresh ground Pepper

Add the pasta to plenty of well salted, boiling water. Boil until al dente, then drain through a colander.

Give the pasta a quick rinse with cold water, then drizzle with roughly a tablespoon of oil and toss to coat evenly.

End trim, peel and dice onion.

Top trim, and trim inner white membrane, then dice bell pepper.

End trim, gut and dice tomatoes.

End trim and cut carrots as you prefer, anything from rounds to dice.

Remove tops with leaves, and white bottoms from celery stalks. Carefully slice stalks lengthwise so you can dice.

Select 3-4 good sized leaves, roll tightly, and chiffenade cut them, (cut across the rolled leaves in roughly 1/8” widths)

End trim and fine dice chives.

Dice salami and cheese.

Starting at the top of the thyme sprigs, gently rub down the stem with 2 fingers, removing the leaves. Toss stems.

Combine all ingredients and toss to thoroughly incorporate, then dress. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes, refrigerated, so everything can marry.

For the Dressing

3/4 Cup Avocado Oil, (Olive or Canola are fine too)

1/2 Cup Whole Milk Plain Greek Yoghur

1/3 cup fresh Lemon Juice

3 cloves Garlic

2 teaspoons Dijon Mustard

1-2 teaspoons Honey

Zest from 2 small Lemons

2 finger pinch Sea Salt

6-8 grinds Black Pepper

3-4 drops Red Boat Fish Sauce

Zest, grate and juice lemons.

Smash, end trim, peel and mince garlic.

Combine all ingredients, but start with 1 teaspoon of honey, then add more if desired.

Let it sit for 15 minutes, taste test, and adjust balances as desired, then refrigerate and let it sit for at least 30 minutes before deploying.

Best used fresh. Knockout the next day.

Chimichangas Über Alles

Ah, the noble chimichanga. Noble? Noble?! Yes, you read that right – here’s a little ode to one of the best damn vehicles for leftovers there is. Sure, we might assume it’s a mongrel member of the Fake Mex Food Club, designed only to fool gringoes into a simulacrum of adventurous eating – but I think we’d be dead wrong.

There’s a raft of origin stories for the chimi, all based in U.S. Tex Mex bastions. Whether it’s the owner of El Charro in Tucson accidentally dropping a burrito in the deep fat frier and uttering a Mexican curse that lead to the naming of the dish, or Woody Johnson of Macayo’s in Phoenix experimenting back in ‘46, they’re likely all a bit of a tall tale. You can bet dimes to dollars they originated in Mexico.

Fill a flour tortilla with frijoles, queso, picadillo, adobada, machaca, seca, pollo, fish or shellfish – that’s the root of a chimichanga. The name probably is a thinly veiled gringo teaser, but who cares when they’re delicious?

Great chimis needn’t be bad for you. You can bake, or as I prefer, shallow fry to crisp and then finish in the oven – that marries the delightful crunch of a crisp tortilla with a perfect hot filling, and avoids the hassle and greasiness of deep frying. What you choose to stuff with will also have obvious bearing on how healthy your finished dish is.

Chimis are perfect for repurposing leftovers. While a traditional stuffing theme will certainly be a nod to Mexican staples, you can make them out anything you want – green chicken curry chimi? Hell yes. Stuff one with veggies, rice, beans and cheese, and you’ve got a delicious, healthy dish. From chicken wings to char siu pork, or firm tofu to refried beans, your imagination is the limit.

When you’re ready to stuff your chimis, layer ingredients in ratios that yield a harmonious blend – there’s no hard and fast rule, it’s all what floats your boat. How much to stuff is largely dependent on the size and elasticity of your chosen tortilla, but avoid overstuffing to a silly degree – that just leads to filling leaking out during cooking, or gods forbid, to CCSF – That’s Catastrophic Chimichanga Structural Failure – and nobody wants to see that…

The typical mix is beans, rice, veggies and cheese, and another protein if you have something that needs to get used. For veggies, you can’t go wrong with onion, garlic, chile, and tomato, but any mix is fine – you can sauté them prior to assembly, but if you go with my two step method, you don’t need to.

For a traditional version, Mexican cheeses are what you want – Asadero, Chihuahua, Manchego, or Oaxaca for filling, and Queso Blanco, Cotija, or Enchilado for topping would be great choices – and they’re easier to find these days with the flowering of local Latin groceries.

If you’ve attempted chimis and exacted less than stellar results, it’ll come as no surprise that there are techniques you need to employ to achieve consistent and attractive results – and yeah, it matters – we eat with our eyes, ya know. There are four points of order to avoid a frustratingly sloppy chimi, and they’re as follows.

1. Fresh tortillas are your best option – they’re far more pliable and tastier than store bought stuff. Pliability is critical to a successful chimi, so if you’re using store bought, here’s your solution – wrap them in a clean, lightly moistened kitchen towel, put them on a plate, and then microwave for 30 seconds – that’ll give you fairly flexible tortillas to work with. Works great for burritos, too.

2. Get your mise en place together, and set out a generously sized station for assembly. Having everything portioned into bowls makes the process more efficient, less frustrating, and far less messy.

3. The tuck – how to properly stuff eludes a lot of folks, so don’t feel bad if you’re one of ‘em. Think of the tortilla as an unfolded envelope – you want to stuff the lower middle section of the tortilla, leaving room on both sides, some below, and a bit more than that above. Next, fold the bottom over your fillings, then the sides over the bottom, and finally, bring the top flap over all, and you’re there. You can seal with a little egg wash, but once you get the hang of it, you won’t need it. Line them up, prepped for cooking.

4. As mentioned above, I firmly believe you’ll get the most consistent flavor blend and crunch from a two step cooking process – a quick shallow fry, then a quick bake. That’ll also give you ingredients that are thoroughly heated through – something often lacking in the deep fried version.

It’s a simple deal – preheat your oven to 350° F, then heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium high heat until the oil shimmers. Add chimis two at a time, and fry them just long enough to get a golden brown crust on the tortillas, flipping with a spatula to get every side done. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment, and bake for 20 minutes, and you’re done.

Top chimis with whatever you like – crema, pico de gallo, salsa, lime wedges, cilantro, fresh tomato or onion. Fresh greens make a perfect bedding – we do mixed lettuces and cabbage – use what you like best. Serve ‘em with an ice cold Mexican beer and enjoy.