Pan Sauces

When you hear the term ‘pan sauce,’ what do you think of? You do think of something, right? Hell, gravy is a pan sauce, albeit on the heavier end of things – Something lighter than that but still plenty potent is the epitome of this genre, and a must have for your cooking arsenal – They’re easy, fast, and they elevate your cooking game appreciably – I’d argue that employing these well is a trait that separates good cooks from OK ones.

Pan sauces are created from the liquid and the little nasty bits generated by searing or roasting meat or fowl, and that’s why such a simple thing tastes so wonderful. These sauces are traditionally put back on the stuff they’re made from, but if you don’t try them on potatoes or veggies now and again, you’re missing a big treat. In fact, spectacular pan sauces can also be generated from roasting fish, potatoes, and vegetables, so never throw that stuff away.

Pan sauces lend themselves perfectly to meat and poultry for a couple of excellent reasons – First, they add a bit more moisture and pizazz to roasted proteins, and secondly, they can and should easily be prepared during the time those proteins are resting, subsequent to cooking and prior to carving.

In essence, these are emulsions, formed by combining two or more liquids that usually don’t stay together well – AKA fat and acid. Juices from what you’ve roasted, along with the fond, (that’s the hip chef name for the naughty bits left on the pan), provide the core fat component. An acid is added, most often in the form of wine. Then comes seasoning, a little more fat, and a little aromatic base. Everything gets whisked together, et viola. With minimal prep, a pan sauce can easily be put together in the time it takes your steaks or chops to rest.

As for what you should use, it’s really a ‘what have I got’ question. Fresh herbs of any kind pretty much always get the nod. Whatever red or white wine you’ve got on hand will do fine. Onion, shallot, and garlic are all good, as are capers and olives. Used sparingly, dried herbs and blends are fine – just keep in mind that they won’t have enough time to get much past their dried stated in a sauce made this quickly. Citrus makes a dandy minor note.

Get your mis en place together before you start the sauce – that’s key to keeping things simple and fast. On the flip side, don’t leave a pan sauce sitting for very long after it’s done – This is a temperature fused emulsion, and it will separate as it cools – so get it on the plate ASAP to avoid the uglies. You do warm your plates for service, right?

If you try a sauce from potatoes and/or veggies, keep in mind that there’s no fat, so add that accordingly – another couple tablespoons of oil and/or butter will do the trick.

Varying pieces of the puzzle will reward you with whole new flavor profiles – different wine and citrus, maybe a couple drops of Worcestershire or Maggi instead of fish sauce, different herbs or aromatics, mustard, horseradish, sweet minor notes from honey or agave – the sky is the limit, and again, the best way to experiment with this is to search your fridge and pantry and use what needs to be used.

Here’s my fave general purpose sauce to get you started. Branch out from there, and make ‘em yours.

Urban’s Go To Pan Sauce

The good stuff left over in the roasting pan

1/2 Cup White Wine (I use whatever is there and open)

2 Tablespoons minced Shallot

1/4 small fresh Lemon

3 Tablespoons Ghi (Unsalted butter is fine)

Spring or two fresh Herbs, (Thyme, Oregano, Sage leaves, Rosemary are all great – a light hand of dry is OK if that’s all you’ve got)

3-4 drops good quality Fish Sauce, (Red Boat is my go to)

Pinch of kosher salt

3-4 twists fresh ground pepper.

Pull whatever you roasted from the oven and the pan and transfer to a platter to rest, somewhere warm and loosely covered with metal foil.

Carefully pour off most of the fat from the roasting pan, leaving a couple of tablespoons.

Place the roasting pan on a burner over medium heat, (it’s already hot, so it doesn’t need a bunch of help in that regard – And handle the hot pan carefully!)

Toss in the shower, and sauté until it becomes translucent, about one minute.

Add the wine, and using a fork to scrape up all available naughty bits, and get all of that stuff loose.

Cook until the raw alcohol smell dissipates, about 1-2 minutes.

Squeeze in the lemon juice and whisk to incorporate.

Add the ghi or butter a bit at a time, and whisk steadily to incorporate.

Add the fish sauce and herbs and continue to whisk.

Turn burner heat off, add salt and pepper and adjust as needed.

Slice your protein, sauce, devour, accept raving accolades from your diners.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I’ve often said that I’d write about food and cooking even if nobody read it. While that’s true, people do read what I write, and then they go onto make what I’ve written about. Some faithfully reproduce my recipes, and some, be still my heart, go on to make them their own – that seriously floats my boat.

To those why find mistakes and point them out to me, thank you – I’m my own editor, and sometimes I miss – I genuinely appreciate the help!

So here’s to the folks who make my stuff and let me know – especially during these trying times, y’all make me very happy indeed.

If you’ve cooked from this site, show your work, please! If you find something that works better or you like more, share that too.

Blessings.

Nancy Swenson did up Chicken ala Diane, prompting her Hubs, Steve to say, ‘you can make that again!’

John Joyce did the low and slow cook on a rolled roast – here he’s slicing that up for French Dip sandwiches – Looks stunning, yes?

Jenny Lynn Talton-Proulx rain with the Clafoutis et Flaugnarde post and turned out her own amazing blueberry version – Here’s what she had to say about it – “Today’s flaugnarde. Local fresh-picked blueberries. Changed the recipe slightly: Used 4 cups of blueberries, 1/2 cup sugar, put cast iron pan in oven to pre-heat while I pulled together the ingredients. When ready to assemble, pulled pan out and added 2 T butter and a layer of organic corn meal, then the layer of chopped pecans, the blueberries, and the custard mix. Put in oven for 25 minutes. Switched around and baked for another 25. Let it cool completely then ran a knife around the perimeter onto a plate. Then flipped it right side up onto another plate and dusted with powdered sugar. It is so freaking good and Mario loves it. Made a stabilized whipped cream to top it all off!”

As Monica said, ‘that looks sooooo good!’

Clafoutis, or Flaugnarde, or whatever

For the record, Limousin is not a car, it’s a chunk of central France. Well south of Paris and well north of Provence, here’s where roughly half the fine porcelain made in Europe come from, sharing its name with the regional capital, Limoges. Limousin oak is used to make the barrels that fine cognac ages in. They’re also rightfully famous for one of the most versatile desserts I know of, the clafoutis, (clah foo tee), which also happens to be incredibly easy and quick to make. It’s great any time, but right now, when berries and stone fruit are available in all their glory, it’s ethereal.

Clafoutis is an old creation, around in some form since fire and flour found each other. This was a big deal dessert in the 1800s, spreading across Europe, taking advantage of whatever favorite fruit was ripe locally. The classic Limousin version is made with unpitted cherries, but frankly, that’s a tradition I can do without – if, as claimed, the stones add a certain je ne sais quoi to the dish, I say just bake the thing in clay and keep your dental work intact.

The basic ingredients are pretty much what you’d use to make pancakes, and not too far off from custard or Yorkshire pudding, yet clafoutis is unique. Cherries are just the starting point – berries, plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches are all stellar, and in the fall, apples and pears are too, (how about an apple and extra sharp cheddar version?). Nuts go great with many of those fruit options – The traditional version uses almonds, but hazelnuts, cashews and walnuts are all solid bets.

Since this is a famous regional French dish, I do have to point out that calling anything made with fruit other than cherries a clafoutis is pas correct, because, well – it’s not – That would be a flaugnarde, (Flûn-yard). Yes, it’s exactly the same thing with different fruit – and yes, it’s nitpicky, but hey – now you have two cool French words to flash while making a delicious dessert.

I’ve done the recipe we’ll share with a bunch of different things, and varied the fruit content from 2 to almost 3 cups – while the latter versions were obviously, well, fruitier, they all were delicious and baked up just fine. If you pump up the fruit ratio, add baking time, and you’ll be fine. That’s another lovely aspect of the dish – you can eyeball things after making a few of these, which makes it a perfect last minute dessert.

You’ll note that there are no leavening agents in the dish. Just as with a pancake or a Yorkshire pudding, you want to get some air into the batter – small bubbles get trapped in the lattice of flour, sugar, and egg and expand as the dish bakes, giving you an admirable rise – from maybe an inch deep as batter, you’ll easily top a 2.5” baking dish when it’s done. Julia Child used a blender to do this, and advocated spreading a little batter over the bottom of the baking pan and cooking that a bit before adding fruit, nuts, etc. I love Julia with all my heart, but this is in essence a peasant dish, and you needn’t go to all that trouble – an immersion blender does a fabulous job and is much easier to clean. I tried the thin layer pre-cook, and frankly found zero appreciable difference from skipping that step.

NOTES:

1. All purpose flour is your best choice – it’s got the right amount of protein/gluten to make a nice stretchy batter happen.

2. If you live where you can get Rainier cherries in season, there is no finer dessert on this earth.

Urban Clafoutis / Flaugnarde

2 – 2 1/2 Cups fresh Fruit

3 large Eggs

1 Cup Whole Milk

2/3 Cup Bakers Sugar

1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour

1 Tablespoon Honey

3 Tablespoons Nuts

2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract

1/2 teaspoon Almond Extract (or liqueur)

Pinch of Salt.

2 Tablespoons Turbinado Sugar

Measure out milk and leave out at room temp – same with the eggs.

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

Lightly butter a baking dish, (anything around 10” x 7” or 11” x 8” works great).

Add a tablespoon of flour to the dish and tap it around to lightly coat the butter. Turn the pan over the sink and tap out any excess flour.

Pit any stone fruit. Cherries can stay whole, as can berries – rough chop larger fruit.

Rough chop nuts – if you have raw, a quick toast in a hot skillet until they turn golden brown and fragrant is a nice touch.

Combine sugar and honey with the eggs, and whisk to a smooth blend.

Add flour and salt to the wet mix and whisk to thoroughly incorporate.

Add the milk, vanilla and almond extract, and whisk smooth.

Process the batter with a stick blender for about a minute, until lots of small bubbles form.

Scatter fruit and toasted nuts over the bottom of the baking pan.

Pour the batter over the fruit and nuts.

Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan 180° and sprinkle the turbinado sugar evenly over the top of the dish.

Bake another 15 to 20 minutes, until the top of the clafoutis or flaugnarde, or whatever you wanna call it is golden brown, and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before serving.

It beats the heck outa granola bars for breakfast the next day, if any of it survives that long.

Perfect Roasts, Every Time

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

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

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

What you’ll need –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drop the oven temp to 175° F.

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

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

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

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

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

Parmigiano-Reggiano Stock

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

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

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

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

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

Urban’s Parmigiano-Reggiano Stock

1 Gallon (16 Cups) fresh Water

1 Pound Parmigiano Rinds

1 large Sweet Onion

2 fresh Carrot

2-3 stalks Celery

6-8 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

8 sprigs fresh Oregano (2 Tablespoons dry)

6 sprigs fresh Thyme (1 Tablespoon dry)

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

2 Turkish Bay Leaves (not California!)

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

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

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

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

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

Add the all remaining ingredients and stir to incorporate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Couple Quick Fajita Marinades

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

Steak or Chicken Fajita Marinade

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1/4 Cup Chili Powder

3 Tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce

1 Lemon

1 Lime

2-4 cloves fresh Garlic, minced

1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar

1 teaspoon ground Cumin Seed

1 teaspoon crushed Chile flake of your choice

2-3 drops Red Boat Fish Sauce

1/2 teaspoon ground Pepper

Juice and zest the citrus, grind any whole spices.

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

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

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

Urb’s House Made Chili Powder

3 Tablespoons ground Chiles of your choice

1 teaspoon ground Cumin

1 teaspoon Smoked Sweet Paprika

½ teaspoon ground Mexican Oregano

½ teaspoon ground Garlic

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

Shrimp Fajita Marinade

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

2 small Oranges, zested and juiced.

2 fat cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

1/2 teaspoon Lemon thyme

I Green Onion top, diced.

3 finger pinch of Salt

5-6 twists fresh ground Pepper

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

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

Not So Fast, Pal…

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

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

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

Adios, Amigos! Pero, Hasta Luego…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

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

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

A field of iceberg lettuce

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

Common Lettuce Varieties

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

Celtuse, or Stem Lettuce

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

Butterhead Lettuce, AKA Butter, Boston, or Bibb

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

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

Notes –

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

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

Urban’s Asian Inspired Chicken Thighs

Chicken and Marinade:

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

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

1/4 Cup Hoisin Sauce

2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar

1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil

1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar

1-3 fresh Serrano Chiles

1” chunk fresh Ginger Root

2 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1/2 teaspoon Fish Sauce

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

Peel and mince the garlic and ginger.

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

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

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

Field stripped chicken thighs

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

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

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

Lettuce and Fillings –

10-12 leaves Butter Lettuce

1 Cup Mung Bean Sprouts

1 packed Cup Savoy or Napa Cabbage

1/2 Cup Carrot

1/2 Cup Sweet Onion

1 Cup cooked Thai cellophane noodles

1/2 Cup Roasted Peanuts, rough chopped

1/2 Cup Cilantro, rough chopped

Rinse and pat dry sprouts.

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

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

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

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

1 Cup White vinegar

1/2 teaspoon Celery Seed

1/2 teaspoon Coriander

1/2 teaspoon Turmeric

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

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

1/2 Cup smooth natural, unsweetened Peanut Butter

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

1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar

1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar

1 Tablespoon fresh Lime Juice

1-2 teaspoons Sriracha Sauce

2-3 Cloves fresh Garlic

1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice

1/2” fresh Ginger Root

1-3 Tablespoons Warm Water

Peel, trim, and fine grate ginger and garlic.

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

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

Allow to marry for 30 minutes prior to serving.

Sautéing Asian marinated chicken thighs

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

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

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

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

Urban’s Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

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

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

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

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

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

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

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

Guanciale

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

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

Pecorino RomanoParmigiano Regiano

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

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

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

Mise en place for Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

1 Pound Dry Pasta

4 Large Eggs

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

1/2 Packed Cup Pecorino Romano Cheese

1/2 Packed Cup Parmigiano Regiano Cheese

Fresh Black Pepper

Cut your pork into roughly 1/2” cubes.

Grate cheese.

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

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

Cooking Spaghetti alla Carbonara

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

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

Crispy pork for carbonara

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

Egg and cheese mix for carbonara

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

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

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

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

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

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

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

Spaghetti alla Carbonara