Creative Meal Planning

Let’s face it, meal planning is at best boring and at worst, pure drudgery. Why is that? We love to cook and eat, but if and when we sit down to plan out a week’s fare, it’s work – not play. I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this one – it’s because meal planning as it’s commonly done robs us of the spontaneity that is the heartbeat of great cooking.

Don’t get me wrong – if planning out a weeks worth of meals and executing them gets you cooking and makes you happy, then by all means do so! If on the other hand, planning seems like a chore, perhaps the process isn’t all it’s cranked up to be – at least for you.

Is some degree of planning necessary? Probably, and especially in busy households. On the other hand, for most of us, simply having a decent variety of things to work with is often planning enough. If you’ve got good building blocks, you can prepare nutritious and tasty meals relatively quickly, and have plenty of room for spontaneity as well.

A good herb and spice collection feeds creativity

What are good building blocks? Herbs and spices come first to mind first and foremost. You don’t need an excessive amount of these, but you should be well grounded in the basics of what you like, and maybe with eye toward the ability to build some blends when the spirit moves you.

Stock and portioned proteins make quick meals easy

Dry pasta, beans, and rice are a must. Stock is too – we always have chicken, beef, and veggie on hand, preferably our own, and boxed for backup. Having reduced stock frozen in ice cube trays with airtight lids makes it super easy to use.

Vinegar, oil, and sauces add tremendous options

Vinegars, oils, and favorite sauces like Worcestershire, hot sauce, and fish sauce are a must. Canned tomatoes are always handy, and tasty if they’re cooked. Good salt and pepper. Flour, baking powder and soda, corn meal, and masa. Proteins of your choice, from chicken and sausage, to tofu and beans – if you’ve got that stuff portioned and frozen, you’re good to go. And of course, fresh veggies from root to leaf, and fruit, especially citrus, will come in handy.

And leftovers should always be front and center. One of the biggest wastes of food, good food, is not making full use of leftovers. That may mean anything from transforming a protein to making fresh stock and then soup or stew. Making stock is always a great exercise, because so many things will make great stock – anything from poultry carcass to pea pods and Parmigiano rinds will do the trick.

Mise en place is a must!

Whatever you do, take a page from the pro play book and prep your mise en place for each meal. You know those little bowls of this, that, and the other thing, chopped just right and set out beside a cooking station? That’s your mise – it’s French, of course, meaning ‘everything in its place.’ You see it done here darn near every meal, and you can and should do the same thing. Mise is designed to maximize efficiency, and it’ll do exactly that for you in your kitchen – and if you’re prone to any sort of anxiety from meal prep, this is the answer – once everything is portioned, right where you’re going to work, building a dish becomes a joy.

As for transforming, it’s far easier than you might think. Something like barbecued chicken will readily transform into Mexican, or Asian – the smoky-sweet top notes will work perfectly. Rice or beans can become any profile you like – all it takes is a little seasoning. Veggies will make soup, or stew, a bake, or a tangy cold salad.

Really, almost anything can be transformed, so long as you have a solid grasp of seasoning. How does one get that grasp? If you’re not sure what Italian seasoning means, google that sucker – you’ll get a good enough idea to whip something up, see how you like it, and tweak it next time to make it yours. Same goes for pretty much any cuisine you can name.

If you want to go deeper than that, then get a copy of The Flavor Bible. This 2009 James Beard Award winning book, written by Karen A. Page and Andrew Dornenburg, is a reference I use constantly. It’s an alphabetically indexed cornucopia of flavors, ingredients, and their affinities for one another. It’s far more versatile than a cookbook, and will take you much farther than any recipe collection can. Pair that with Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. the seminal text on cooking process – that does for how to cook what the Flavor Bible does for what to make. With those two books, you can and will begin a limitless journey of culinary self-discovery.

Following a path like this is more fun and rewarding than planning out and executing X number of somebody else’s recipes every week – and you’ll waste less food, too. It dovetails nicely with making something spectacular on weekend nights, and then transforming leftovers through the working week. A low and slow roast, great baked beans, a big pot of rice, roasted root veggies, green salad, and so on – with leftovers like that, who needs recipes – you can let creativity rule your roost.

Enfrijoladas, Mexico’s national dish for fantastic leftovers

It’s a fact that there are amazing go-to leftover dishes all over this world. I think that’s because they’re based on food made at home with deep love, and because so many things really are even better the next day. Of course the real beauty of this is the opportunity to clean out the fridge and rummage through the pantry. All that said, the root of such a meal must be truly stellar, and great beans certainly fall into that category, especially when they lead to Enfrijoladas, Mexico’s national dish for fantastic leftovers.

Enfrijoladas Ebeños Enfrijoladas Ebeños

Like many a favorite, claims to the origins of enfrijoladas are many and varied, from all points of the compass down there. While discerning that is nigh on impossible, what we can say is that the dish is very old. To reinforce that point, we need only to take a quick look at Oaxacan cuisine.

Oaxaca, the heartbeat of indigenous Mexico

Oaxaca is down south a mite, west of the state of Chiapas and south of Puebla state. This area remains a bastion of original Mexican culture, with roughly 50% of the indigenous population there non-Spanish speakers. The geography and climate have allowed pre-Columbian culture to remain relatively healthy, which is a godsend to those striving to better grasp Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spaniards – Recent archeological studies indicate that the first inhabitants arrived over 10,000 years ago.

That antiquity is certainly reflected in the Oaxacan diet, where corn, beans, chiles, chocolate, game, and yes, insects, are staples to this day, with relatively little European influence found therein. Hundreds of mole variants come from here, as do rightfully famous versions of enfrijoladas. Made simply with black beans and potent chiles on lightly fried, fresh corn tortillas, This is a delicious and stunningly complex experience for such a simple dish – And it’s a safe bet they’ve been made this way for a long, long time.

Regardless of origin, the real beauty of making enfrijoladas is that winging it is par for the course. It’s a dish intended to use whatever you find that seems promising to you – So explore, take a risk or three, and see what happens. It’s a safe bet you’ll rarely make the same thing twice, and that’s good, (and of course, if you do strike on a mix that really bowls you over, write it down so you can do it again.)

So, naturally, there’s the bean question. When this posts I know that a bunch of y’all are going to think, ‘I’ve heard of those, but I thought they were supposed to be made with ____ bean.’ You’re not wrong, but the real key to great enfrijoladas is this – You can and should make them with any bean you have. That is, in fact, the great joy of the dish. If they’re really good beans, like Rancho Gordo or other reputable heirloom stuff, they’ll be stunning. I cannot encourage you enough to try a bunch of different beans in this pursuit. Yes, down in Oaxaca, black beans generally rule, but everywhere in Mexico, they grow and eat far more varieties than that. 

Rancho Gordo is the best way I know to try top shelf heirloom beans – In fact, the ones you’ll see me use herein are a French variety, Mogette de Vendée, that I got from them. I overcooked them for my original intent, but rather than freak out, we froze them and bided our time – When the thought of enfrijoladas came up, we went to the freezer and were off to the races – That’s how great leftovers work, gang.

French white beans for enfrijoladas?! Si!

The heartbeat of enfrijoladas is the sauce and the tortillas, of course. If ever there was a time to make fresh corn tortillas, this would be it, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the dish – As you’ll see in our pictures, we had store bought stuff that needed to get used, so that’s what we did – It’s all good in the ‘hood. 

Your sauce may be nothing more than beans and chiles with some bean broth or stock to thin things out, and if so, it’ll be wonderful – It never hurts to start as a purist, if for no other reason than to fully grasp why this dish is so ubiquitous down south. Again though, this is all about exploring pantry and fridge and using what needs to be used. You’ll see below that our version had quite a bit in the mix – Either end of that spectrum and everything in between is encouraged. 

As for filling, nothing more than great cheese is needed, preferably Mexican – Manchego would be a great filling cheese, as would Queso Blanco or Queso Oaxaca, (and Cotija or Queso Fresco would be great for topping). That said, here too the Leftover Rule is in full force – So use what needs to go. If you’ve got proteins, fine, if not, that’s fine too.

Toppings are also up for grabs. Certainly salsa or pico de gallo will go well, as will avocado, crema (Mexican sour cream), cilantro, shredded cabbage, citrus, more diced veggies, maybe a quick pickle of something – Whatever you have that needs to get used.

Enfrijoladas Toppings - Whatever ya got.

When preparing the sauce, you may simply add beans and some broth or stock to a pan, mash them to your liking, add some chiles, and call it good, because rustic is very good indeed. If you want or need to add more stuff, then you’ll want to get a blender involved. Either way, this is not a difficult or time consuming dish to make, which is another big reason it’s so popular.

 

Rustic Enfrijoladas

2-3 Cups of any cooked Bean, hopefully with some broth, (if not, chicken or veggie stock is fine)

9-12 Corn tortillas

Fresh, dried, or ground Chiles

Shredded Cheese for filling and, if desired, topping

Salsa or Pico de Gallo

Crema (or sour cream)

Leftover meat or poultry, if desired

Avocado oil for frying

If using fresh chiles, stem, seed, and fine dice.

Prepare salsa, pico, and other toppings as desired.

If using dried chiles, bring a small sauce pan of water to the boil and then remove from heat. Add however many chiles you desire and allow them to steep for 20-30 minutes until softened. Remove skins, tops, and seeds, and then mince.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add beans and mash by hand to a rough but even paste.

Add enough broth or stock to the beans to achieve the consistency of stew or a thick pasta sauce.

Add chiles to the beans and stir to incorporate. 

When the mix is heated through, reduce heat to warm.

In a second skillet over medium high heat, add a tablespoon of avocado oil and heat through.

Fry tortillas just enough to heat them through, but remain flexible.

To serve, add a generous swipe of bean sauce to a warm plate.

grab a tortilla, slather it with a thin layer of beans, and add cheese and any other fillings, then roll it up and place it seam side down on the plate. Repeat to desired serving size, then add a generous spoon or two of bean sauce to the tops of the rolled tortillas.

Serve immediately.

 

Urban’s Deluxe Enfrijoladas – Again, this is what I had on hand that needed to get used – It’s a guideline, not a rule, so have fun and use what you’ve got.

white bean enfrijolada sauce

For the Bean Sauce – 

3-4 Cups leftover beans

Bean Broth or Stock

9-12 Corn Tortillas

1+ Chiles of your choice, (I used 3 Serrano’s that needed to go.)

1-2 Tomatoes

3-4 Tomatillos

1/2 medium Onion

3-4 cloves fresh Garlic

1 Tablespoon Apple Cider Vinegar

1 Tablespoon dried Guajillo Chile

1/2 teaspoon fine ground Salt

Stem, core and halve veggies, then arrange on a baking sheet.

Veggies for enfrijolada sauce, ready to roast

Place on an upper middle rack in an oven on broil and cook until the skins blister.

Remove from heat and allow to cool enough to handle.

Roasted veggies for enfrijolada sauce

Wrap tortillas in metal foil and toss them into the hot oven to warm up (shouldn’t need any heat after roasting the veggies in there – You just want to warm them a little to encourage the sauce to stick during assembly.)

Add beans, roasted veggies, and vinegar to a blender vessel with a half cup of bean broth or stock. Process into a smooth sauce, adding more liquid as needed, to achieve the consistency of a thick soup or pasta sauce.

Transfer the sauce to a skillet over medium heat.

When the sauce is heated through, add guajillo chile and salt, and stir to incorporate. You may want to add more broth, stock, or seasoning to strike a balance you like.

Turn the heat down to low.

For the filling – 

Use any leftover meat, poultry, or what have you, if you wish. 

2 Cups of melting cheese

Dice up proteins and add it to a skillet over medium heat with a little stock or broth to moisturize and allow that to heat through.

Shred melting cheese.

For the toppings – Here again, use what you’ve got that needs to go – We went with,

Chopped Tomato

Diced Onion

Chopped Avocado

Chopped Cilantro

A quick pickle of sweet peppers, chiles, onion, cilantro (All veggies fine diced, in 3/4 Cup cider vinegar, 1/4 cup water, pinch of salt, three finger pinch of Mexican oregano.)

Shredded lettuce with sliced radish

Lime Wedges

Crema

Crumbled Queso Cotija 

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

 

For the Big Show –

Preheat oven to 300° F and place a rack in the middle position.

Lightly rub a 9” x 11” baking dish with avocado oil.

Set up an assembly area where you can have your bean sauce and fillings side by side with your baking dish.

Enfrijolada assembly station

Spread a generous layer of the bean sauce evenly across the baking dish.

Enfrijolada baking dish ready for tortillas

Grab a tortilla and either dunk one side into the bean sauce, or use a spoon to do the same while you hold it – Whichever works easier for you. 

Add a nice even layer of sauce to the tortilla, then add fillings. 

Enfrijoladas dipped and ready for filling

Roll the tortilla up and place it seam side down in the baking pan.

Enfrijoladas dipped and filled

Repeat until you’ve filled the pan.

Add any and all remaining bean sauce to the tops of the tortillas.

Enfrijoladas Ebeños ready to bake

You can add more stuff there if you like – Tomato, onion, what have you.

Bake at 300° F for 30 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes.

Enfrijoladas Ebeños

Go wild.

BTW, none of mine survived contact with the enemy, which is as it should be…

Chile Verde

After the delicious results we enjoyed with carne guisada, it seemed only fair to give green equal time – Chile Verde, of course, the venerable Mexican tomatillo-powered pork stew.

Chile Verde just starting to simmer

Chile verde is another dish that Tex-Mex lays claim to, and it is such, so long as we understand that it originated on the southern side of things. Verde is native to northern Mexico, traditionally made with pork, sometimes with chicken. It’s another dish that everybody has a favorite of, and that’s why it’s glorious – you get to put your stamp on a version, too.

Fresh tomatillos

The heartbeat of chile verde is tomatillo, which contributes that delightful color and absolutely unique flavor. Physalis philadelphica and Physalis ixocarpa are members of the Nightshade family, closer in relations to a gooseberry than they are to tomatoes. They’re native to Mexico and South America, and are truly ancient – In 2017, field scientists found a fossilized tomatillo in Argentina that dated back to 52 million years ago. Raw or cooked, tomatillos are enjoyed widely all over Mexico – especially in chile verde.

The wonderful Mexican aromatic base mix of chiles, onion, and garlic round out the mix on verde, along with just a couple of signature herbs and spices – Mexican oregano and cumin seed.

Beautiful pork shoulder

The pork is usually shoulder, a cut with a decent ratio of fat, but nothing excessive – you want something that can stand up to a few hours cooking.

If you peruse recipes online, you’ll find some things done with this dish that I don’t necessarily cotton to. First off, lots of folks like to roast the tomatillos, onions, and garlic – I don’t, as I’m not looking for a high level of sweetness in my finished product – if you like that, by all means, go for it.

Secondly, relatively few use flour to build some form of roux – what’s often stated is something to the effect that it’s not necessary because of all the pectin in tomatillos – I respectfully disagree. You need a white roux to carry the full mix of flavors you’re going to develop here – without it, things won’t taste quite right, and the general consistency of the dish will not be spot on either.

Verde is pretty easy to make – the effort all goes into the prep. Once that’s done, you can just sit back and enjoy the rich aromas. Our recipe will feed 4-6 folks, or 2-3 with generous leftovers.

Chile Verde de Urbàn


2 – 2 1/2 Pounds Pork Shoulder

2 Cups Chicken Stock

10-12 Tomatillos, (Roughly a pound)

2 medium Onions

2 large Poblano Chiles

3-5 Jalapeño Chiles

2Roma Tomatoes

4 fat cloves Garlic

1/2 bunch fresh Cilantro

4 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour

2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil (vegetable is fine)

1 Tablespoon Mexican Oregano

1 teaspoon ground Cumin

1 teaspoon ground New Mexican Red Chiles

1 teaspoon Salt (sea or kosher is fine)

Black Pepper

For Garnish and service – Fresh tortillas, Pico de Gallo, lime wedges, chopped cilantro, onion, and tomato, or whatever you desire.

Verde mis en place

Husk and rinse tomatillos. Remove the woody tops and rough chop.

Peel, stem, and rough dice onions.

Peel, stem, devein and deseed chiles, then rough dice.

End trim, smash, and peel garlic, then mince.

End trim and rough dice tomatoes.

Remove the bottom 3” of the cilantro stems, then rough chop the rest.

In a blender or food processor, combine tomatillos, tomatoes and 1 cup of chicken stock. Process until you have a nice, rough mix – You do not need to purée this, just get it broken down and combined.

Trim pork of any excessive fat, then cut into roughly 3/4”cubes.

Toss pork, flour, a three finger pinch of salt, and 6-8 twists of pepper into a paper bag and shake well to thoroughly coat the pork. Transfer to a mixing bowl.

In a cast iron dutch oven over medium heat, add the oil and allow to heat through.

Add onions and chiles to the pan and season lightly with salt and pepper. Sauté until the onions are starting to brown, about 4-6 minutes.

Add garlic, mix to incorporate and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about 2 minutes.

Transfer sautéed veggies to a mixing bowl and return the pan to the oven.

Toss the pork into the pan. Allow to cook for 3-4 minutes, until a golden brown crust forms. Turn the cubes and repeat until all sides are evenly browned.

Transfer pork to the veggie bowl.

Deglaze pan with the second cup of chicken stock, scraping carefully to fully loosen and incorporate all that gorgeous stuff off the bottom.

Deglaze all that brown good stuff

Add pork, sautéed veggies, and the tomatillo/tomato blend to the pot, stir to thoroughly incorporate.

Once you establish a simmer, reduce heat to just maintain that. Simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

That’s done!

If things get too thick, add a half cup of stock and stir to incorporate, but remember, it’s a thick stew meant to hold its own in a fresh tortilla.

At the 2 hour mark, add oregano, cumin, and chile powder, then stir to thoroughly incorporate. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed.

Chile verde with fresh tortillas, charro beans, Mexican rice, and pico de gallo

Simmer for another 30 minutes to allow everything to fully marry and develop.

Chile Verde de Urbán

Serve with what you like – we did ours restaurant style, with fresh tortillas, pico de gallo, Mexican rice, and charro beans – it was incredible.

Carne Guisada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban’s Cowtown Carne Guisada

2 Pounds Stew Beef, (chuck or shoulder roast)

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

2 fresh Pasilla Chiles (or Poblano)

3-4 fat cloves Garlic

3-4 Roma Tomatoes

3-4 Tomatillos

1 Bottle Shiner Bock Beer

2 Tablespoons Lard (Avocado oil is fine)

4 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour

1 Tablespoon Mexican Oregano

1 Tablespoon ground New Mexican Red Chile

2 teaspoons ground Cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons Sea Salt

Black Pepper

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

Cut beef into roughly 3/4” cubes.

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

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

Smash, peel, trim and mince garlic.

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

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

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

Transfer beef to a mixing bowl.

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

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

Add lard to the Dutch oven and heat until shimmering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taste and adjust salt balance as needed.

Simmer for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

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

Celery Does Not Suck

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

Wild Celery

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

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

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

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

This stuff really isn’t grown for taste

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

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

Celery leaf is where the real flavor is

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

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

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

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

Real stalk celery, not the grocery store kind

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

Leaf Celery

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

Tom Thumb Celeriac

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

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

Use them leaves in aromatic base mixes

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

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

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

Thai inspired Celery Salad

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

Celery salad with dried cranberries and walnuts

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

Authentic Caesar Salad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Notes –

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

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

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

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

Urban’s As Authentic As You Want It Caesar Salad

1 head Romaine Lettuce

1/2 Cup Parmigiano Regiano cheese

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

2 large Eggs

1 Lemon

1 Lime

3-4 fat cloves of Garlic

Worcestershire Sauce

Baguette, other dense white bread

Sea Salt

Black Pepper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add the Romaine leaves to your large bowl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cracklin Bread

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

Cracklin bread
Cracklin bread

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

Khaep Mu from Thailand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot water cracklin bread
Hot water cracklin bread

Urban’s Hot Water Cracklin Bread


4 Cups coarse ground Cornmeal

2 Cups Cracklins

2 teaspoons Sea Salt


Bring 3 cups of fresh water to a full boil.

In a large mixing bowl, combine cornmeal and salt.

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

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

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


To Bake –

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

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

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

Serve hot with lots and lots of butter.

To Fry –

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicken Paprikash

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

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

Paprika chiles
The Paprika Chile

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

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

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

Real deal Hungarian paprika
Real deal Hungarian paprika

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

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

There are three important tips to great paprikash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Chicken Paprikash


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

1 large Yellow Onion

3 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1 Red Bell Pepper

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

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

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

1/4 Cup Sweet Hungarian Paprika

2 Tablespoons Leaf Lard

1 slice dense white Bread

1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Fresh Parsley for garnish

.

Trim, peel and dice onion and sweet pepper.

Trim, peel and mince garlic.

Purée tomatoes with a stick blender.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carefully transfer chicken to a platter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Chicken Paprikash

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

Hungarian Nokedli

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

2 Cups All Purpose Flour

4 large Eggs

1 Tablespoon Vegetable Oil

2 teaspoons Sea Salt

Have all ingredients at room temperature.

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

Place the pot on a burner over high heat.

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

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

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

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

Let the dough rest for about 10 minutes.

You’ll cook the nokedli in batches.

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

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

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

Gently stir the dumplings to keep them from sticking.

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

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

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

These can be made ahead, and refrigerated or frozen.

Carne de res con col – Chiapan Beef & Cabbage

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

Chiapas State, Where Mexican coffee and chocolate come from.

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

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

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

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

A cabbage by any other name…

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

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

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

Chiles de siete caldos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Molcajete y tejolote

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

Urban Carne de Res con Col


1 1/2 Pounds Beef

1 head Cabbage

2 Roma Tomatoes

1 small sweet Onion

2 Hatch or Anaheim Chiles

1 Cup cooked Beans

4-6 fat cloves fresh Garlic

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

2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

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

8 Black Peppercorns

2 teaspoons Salt

Trim and peel garlic.

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

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

Add the spice paste to your beef.

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

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

End trim and dice tomatoes.

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

Trim and dice chiles.

Chiffonade celery leaf or cilantro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carne de res con col

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

Tacos de carne de res con col

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

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