Ah, the noble chimichanga. Noble? Noble?! Yes, you read that right – here’s a little ode to one of the best damn vehicles for leftovers there is. Sure, we might assume it’s a mongrel member of the Fake Mex Food Club, designed only to fool gringoes into a simulacrum of adventurous eating – but I think we’d be dead wrong.
There’s a raft of origin stories for the chimi, all based in U.S. Tex Mex bastions. Whether it’s the owner of El Charro in Tucson accidentally dropping a burrito in the deep fat frier and uttering a Mexican curse that lead to the naming of the dish, or Woody Johnson of Macayo’s in Phoenix experimenting back in ‘46, they’re likely all a bit of a tall tale. You can bet dimes to dollars they originated in Mexico.
Fill a flour tortilla with frijoles, queso, picadillo, adobada, machaca, seca, pollo, fish or shellfish – that’s the root of a chimichanga. The name probably is a thinly veiled gringo teaser, but who cares when they’re delicious?
Great chimis needn’t be bad for you. You can bake, or as I prefer, shallow fry to crisp and then finish in the oven – that marries the delightful crunch of a crisp tortilla with a perfect hot filling, and avoids the hassle and greasiness of deep frying. What you choose to stuff with will also have obvious bearing on how healthy your finished dish is.
Chimis are perfect for repurposing leftovers. While a traditional stuffing theme will certainly be a nod to Mexican staples, you can make them out anything you want – green chicken curry chimi? Hell yes. Stuff one with veggies, rice, beans and cheese, and you’ve got a delicious, healthy dish. From chicken wings to char siu pork, or firm tofu to refried beans, your imagination is the limit.
When you’re ready to stuff your chimis, layer ingredients in ratios that yield a harmonious blend – there’s no hard and fast rule, it’s all what floats your boat. How much to stuff is largely dependent on the size and elasticity of your chosen tortilla, but avoid overstuffing to a silly degree – that just leads to filling leaking out during cooking, or gods forbid, to CCSF – That’s Catastrophic Chimichanga Structural Failure – and nobody wants to see that…
The typical mix is beans, rice, veggies and cheese, and another protein if you have something that needs to get used. For veggies, you can’t go wrong with onion, garlic, chile, and tomato, but any mix is fine – you can sauté them prior to assembly, but if you go with my two step method, you don’t need to.
For a traditional version, Mexican cheeses are what you want – Asadero, Chihuahua, Manchego, or Oaxaca for filling, and Queso Blanco, Cotija, or Enchilado for topping would be great choices – and they’re easier to find these days with the flowering of local Latin groceries.
If you’ve attempted chimis and exacted less than stellar results, it’ll come as no surprise that there are techniques you need to employ to achieve consistent and attractive results – and yeah, it matters – we eat with our eyes, ya know. There are four points of order to avoid a frustratingly sloppy chimi, and they’re as follows.
1. Fresh tortillas are your best option – they’re far more pliable and tastier than store bought stuff. Pliability is critical to a successful chimi, so if you’re using store bought, here’s your solution – wrap them in a clean, lightly moistened kitchen towel, put them on a plate, and then microwave for 30 seconds – that’ll give you fairly flexible tortillas to work with. Works great for burritos, too.
2. Get your mise en place together, and set out a generously sized station for assembly. Having everything portioned into bowls makes the process more efficient, less frustrating, and far less messy.
3. The tuck – how to properly stuff eludes a lot of folks, so don’t feel bad if you’re one of ‘em. Think of the tortilla as an unfolded envelope – you want to stuff the lower middle section of the tortilla, leaving room on both sides, some below, and a bit more than that above. Next, fold the bottom over your fillings, then the sides over the bottom, and finally, bring the top flap over all, and you’re there. You can seal with a little egg wash, but once you get the hang of it, you won’t need it. Line them up, prepped for cooking.
4. As mentioned above, I firmly believe you’ll get the most consistent flavor blend and crunch from a two step cooking process – a quick shallow fry, then a quick bake. That’ll also give you ingredients that are thoroughly heated through – something often lacking in the deep fried version.
It’s a simple deal – preheat your oven to 350° F, then heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium high heat until the oil shimmers. Add chimis two at a time, and fry them just long enough to get a golden brown crust on the tortillas, flipping with a spatula to get every side done. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment, and bake for 20 minutes, and you’re done.
Top chimis with whatever you like – crema, pico de gallo, salsa, lime wedges, cilantro, fresh tomato or onion. Fresh greens make a perfect bedding – we do mixed lettuces and cabbage – use what you like best. Serve ‘em with an ice cold Mexican beer and enjoy.
Living as close to the border as we do, (you can pretty much throw rocks at it from here), Canada Day is a bit of a big deal. Held each July 1st, what once was known as Dominion Day harkens back to 1867. In that year, the British North America Act came into play, uniting the independent colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick into one big, happy Canada. Fifteen years later, the Canada Act made It Canada Day, and the rest is glorious history. Our northern pals pretty much have a holiday three day weekend every month, (which is incredibly sensible, by the way), but this is a biggy – Coming when it does, it means food, and in particular, stuff appropriate for a picnic, barbecue, what have you. We gathered our one available kid, (the eldest, sans grandkids but with dawg), and decided to do up an appropriate meal – And as fate would have it, this wouldn’t suck on the 4th of July, either.
We settled on brisket, because we had a lovely, local grass fed hunk of beef just begging to be honored. Naturally, we just had to do some bbq beans and potato salad to go with it. Might seem heavy, but frankly, it wasn’t at all – It was ethereal – Perfect, in fact.
With the day kind of cloudy and cold, I decided I’d rather do the brisket in the oven, rather than on the grill and smoker. This raises the issue of authenticity – A beautiful hunk of beef like that deserves all glory, laud, and honor, so the prep and cooking absolutely cannot be half assed. Secondly, I decided on beans too late in the day to do traditional slow cooked, so those would have to go in the Instant Pot, and again, be as good as the real deal. M rounded things out with a stunningly good potato salad. While this may sound pretty pedestrian, I assure you, it’s not – Everything came out surprisingly good – Good enough that we had to write it down and share it. While we do the same kind of things a lot, we’re constantly tweaking methods and recipes. When the stars align and a meal is this good, it’s time to stop, think, and write down exactly what you used and what you did, because yeah – It’s so worth recreating again.
Let me say that again – Whenever you make something great, write it down, right then and there. Stop and write it down. I do this daily – Everything from a few scratches on a post it note, (sometimes fast enough that I later can’t read them), to more than a few thousand words. My food notes are vast, and many haven’t yet been revisited since they were recorded – Some have been researched, added to, recipes fleshed out, etc, (which sometimes leads to me saying, ‘Yeah I gotta recipe for that,’ after which I discover that answer to be sorta kinda true at best.) In any case, here is a shining truism – The worst thing we can do when cooking is to think, I’ll remember that, because chances are real good that you won’t. Sure, if it’s a thing you do the same way every time, or a basic, you don’t need to record that, (unless you want to share it, of course.) When I’m after a new idea, more oft than not, I’ll plow into my raw notes, see something that triggers a memory, (or at least piques my interest), and away we go. If it struck you as great food, write it down, don’t lose it – As for remembering what you wrote it down on, and where that is – you’re on your own.
So the first challenge was that brisket. Having lived a dozen years in Texas, I know better than to screw with something so culinarily sacred – You are welcome to try alternatives to the Gold Standard, (even if it might earn you some sideways glances or a mumbled comment), but whatever you produce had damned well be real good, y’all hear? Now, far as I’m concerned, there are three non-negotiables for a finished brisket
It must have a nice, crisp crust formed by a dry rub.
It must have notable smoke to the flavor profile.
It must end up fork tender and juicy as all get out.
This version was good enough that, when M noted that Joe didn’t have a knife, his response was, ‘You don’t need one.’
Obviously the quality of the beef is paramount. We had that covered, but I guess I’m getting wimpy in my old age, because I just really didn’t wanna cook out there on a gray, drizzly day, so I sussed out a viable alternative method. When I do brisket on a grill, it’s charcoal, for sure – Two zone set up. Once it’s mostly done, it goes to the smoker for the last hour or so. My solution was to incorporate smoke into the rub, in the form of smoke powder from Butcher and Packer. Through what they call a “highly refined process,” smoke is turned into powder form and mixed with dextrose so that it won’t clump too much. What you get is true to the wood smoke flavor that will fool damn near anyone into thinking you smoked whatever it is you apply it to – In the immortal words of Jackie Chan, ‘No bullshit.’ They make hickory and mesquite, and they’re sublime stuff, indeed. Next, we plugged in an uncovered dry/covered wet cooking process that approximates grilling to a very acceptable degree.
My big twist here is a North African Berbere spice mix to the rub, which was totally serendipitous – It added a delightful, exotic warmth and heat that really popped. I intended to do my typical brisket rub that calls for chili powder, only to find that I didn’t have any mixed up. As I was searching, I saw the berbere and thought, why the hell not? Here’s the deal with that stuff, (but you could absolutely just sub chile powder if you’re not feeling adventurous.)
Urban’s Indoor Brisket
3-4 Pound Beef Brisket
1 1/2 Cups Beef Stock
2 Tablespoons Berbere Spice Blend
2 Tablespoons Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Mesquite Smoke Powder
1 Tablespoon Granulated Garlic
1 Tablespoon Granulated Onion
1 Tablespoon ground Tellicherry Pepper
1 Tablespoon Dark Brown Sugar
2 teaspoons Dry Mustard
1/2 teaspoon crushed Sage
Preheat oven to 350° F
Unwrap and trim brisket, leaving a nice fat cap.
Combine all dry ingredients and hand blend thoroughly.
Rub a generous layer of the mix into all surfaces of the brisket – Do it by hand, take your time and really work the rub into the meat.
Place the brisket fat side up on a broiling pan.
Roast for 1 hour, uncovered.
Reduce the heat to 300° F, carefully add the beef stock to the bottom of the broiler pan, then tightly wrap and seal the entire pan with metal foil – Wrap it fairly tight to the meat – Don’t leave a whole bunch of air space around the brisket.
Roast for about another 3 hours, until the brisket is fork tender.
Remove from oven, keep the brisket covered and allow a 15 minute rest.
Carve roughly 1/4” slices across the grain and serve.
You can use pan juices as is, or transfer them to a sauté pan, add a little butter and a little more stock over medium heat, and use that as well.
Next came Beans, which I defaulted to the Instant Pot – I can assure you that they were amazing, and suffered not at all from that cooking method, (and I have witnesses). As you’ll see, it’s a three step cooking process with the IP, but it’s all done onboard, it’s super efficient, and the results are stunningly good.
Here again, quality matters a lot. You’ll recall that not long ago, I wrote a bit of a paean to Rancho Gordo beans – On the social media site for RG Club members, a newer convert recently commented as follows, ‘I love my beans so much, but… RG has ruined other beans for me. I can no longer grab a can of garbanzos or a bag of black beans, because they don’t even compare to the quality of RG beans.’ This is so true. I used a variety called Rio Zape, which RG owner Steve Sando describes as, ‘the classic heirloom bean that inspired the birth of Rancho Gordo. Suggestions of chocolate and coffee make this pinto-family rarity one of our favorite and most requested beans.’ It’s no joke – Those beans, coming out of the initial cook with nothing involved but a little salt, are amazing – Taste them, give them to others to taste, and everyone’s eyebrows go up and they start making little spontaneous yum yum noises – Get the picture? If you love beans, you must try Rancho Gordo – They’re that good.
Urban’s BBQ IP Beans
1 Pound Rancho Gordo Rio Zape Beans
1 small Sweet Onion
1-2 Serrano Chiles
6 slices Bacon
3/4 Cup Blackstrap Molasses
1/2 Cup Chicken Stock
1/2 Cup Ketchup
1/4 Cup Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Yellow Mustard
1 Tablespoon Apple Cider Vinegar
3-4 Shakes of Worcestershire Sauce
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil for sautéing.
Add dry beans and 6 cups of water to the IP.
Set to Beans and 60 minutes and start the cook.
Allow the pressure to reduce by natural release.
Transfer beans to a colander and drain, (save the liquor for soups and stews – It freezes great)
Dice onion and chiles, cut bacon into roughly 1/4” strips across each piece, (the short way, so you end up with strips about 1/4” by 3/4” or thereabouts.
In a non-reactive mixing bowl, combine molasses, ketchup, mustard, agave nectar, vinegar, and Worcestershire – Whisk thoroughly to incorporate.
Set the IP on sauté, add the tablespoon of avocado oil and allow it to heat through.
Add onion, chiles, and bacon – Sauté until onion is soft and bacon lightly browned – about 3 to 4 minutes.
Turn IP off, leaving veggies and bacon therein. Deglaze the bottom of the IP pan with 1/2 cup of chicken stock, scraping up and loosening all the naughty bits.
Add beans and sauce to veggies, bacon, and stock, and gently stir to incorporate thoroughly.
Set for normal pressure run, 30 minutes.
And finally, M’s potato salad incorporates two different pickle flavors that really shine together – Dills in the salad, and bread and butter brine in the dressing. It was stellar.
M’s Two Pickle Potato Salad
4 large Potatoes
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion, diced
1 stalk Celery, fine diced
1 Cup Olive Oil Mayonnaise
1 Tablespoon Yellow Mustard
1 Tablespoon minced fresh Dill
2 teaspoons minced fresh Parsley
2-3 dill pickles, fine diced
1/3 Cup Bread & Butter Pickle Brine
Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste.
Prepare an ice bath in a large mixing bowl.
Put eggs in a pan large enough to cover with 2” or so of water.
Bring to a boil, cover, then turn the heat off, and let them sit in the covered pan for 20 minutes.
Pour out the hot water and replace with cold a couple of times, then let the eggs sit in that until you’re ready to deal with them.
Boil potatoes until just fork tender, then plunge into the ice bath to shock, (stops the cooking process).
Prepare veggies as per above.
In a large non-reactive mixing bowl, add potatoes and veggies, including pickles, and eggs. Stir gently with a kitchen spoon to thoroughly combine.
Add mayo, mustard, dill, parsley, pickle brine, and lightly salt and pepper. Stir to combine and thoroughly coat the salad. Taste and adjust brine, salt, and pepper to your liking. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes prior to serving.
Do have cookbooks in your house? Do you use ‘em, and if so, how do you do that? Weird questions? I don’t think so, really – it’s a thing that maybe we should discuss more. It’s an opportunity for me to share some love I don’t think I’ve really every fleshed out before.
First off, have you read any cookbooks, cover to cover, page burner style? If not, I suggest you’ve not yet found the great ones – James Beard’s American Cookery, Claudia Rosen’s Book of Jewish Food, Marcela Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Grace Young’s Breath of a Wok, Diana Kennedy’s Essential Cuisines of Mexico, Rick Bayless’ Authentic Mexican, Shizuoka Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking, Fuchsia Dunlop’s Food of Sichuan, Lihn Nguyen’s Lemongrass Ginger & Mint, Claudia Rosen’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden’s The Food of Spain, Georgia Friedman’s Cooking South of the Clouds, Grace Young’s Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, Jeffrey Weiss’ Charcuteria, Carolyn Phillips’ All Under Heaven, Toni Tipton-Martin’s Jubilee, Felicia Campbell’s Food of Oman. Every single book in that list will captivate you – They’re meant to be consumed like the amazing cuisines and techniques they lovingly describe.
Others are more for reference, like Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, Page & Dornenberg’s Flavor Bible, Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise, Russell Van Kraayenburg’s Making Dough, Kenji Alt-Lopez’s The Food Lab, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, Josh & Jessica Applestone’s Butchers Guide to Well Raised Meat, Ruhlman’s Ratios, Ruhlman and Polson’s Charcuterie, Larousse Gastronomique, The Escoffier Cookbook – These provide a solid grounding in the science, technique, and history behind what we do in the kitchen – you’ll go back to those again and again over the years.
Celebrity cookbooks are, by and large coffee table stuff meant to impress and delight the eye, though there are notable exceptions. I should clarify that the pablum put out by TV or social media created people who’ve never worked a shift in a kitchen in their lives, and who generally couldn’t cook their way out of a paper bag on their own are not even considered herein – those folks and their output should be roundly ignored.
Stuff written by and with chefs who really can cook is another matter. While the books they offer tend to be part of their brand as much as anything, don’t discount the fact that most of those folks have put in their time and got where they got because they know their stuff. Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook was written with Ruhlman, so it’s done well without a doubt, and that Chef wants to share what he knows and loves. Bourdain was by his own admission a journeyman Chef, but he was CIA trained and steeped in French country food, and his Les Halles cookbook is a joy. Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin book is stunningly good, and his 32 Yokes memoir is a delight.
Memoirs from real Chefs are wonderful genre. If you’ve never read Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’ s raucous tell all that brought him to fame, you must do so. Bill Bruford’s Heat, Amy Thielen’s Give a Girl a Knife, Bob Spitz’ Dearie, Anya Von Bremsen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, M. F. K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating, James Beards Delights and Prejudices, Jacque Pepin’s The Apprentice, Jonathan Gold’s Counter Intelligence, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood Bones and Butter, and Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat, just to name a very few – There are stunning gems in this genre, and delightful tales.
Anyway, those cookbooks you got – I asked, ‘what do you do with them?’ It’s a serious question to wrap up this ramble. If, gods forbid, you’re just copying a recipe now and again, you’re frankly wasting the true magic of this genre. In a nutshell, that magic is this – If you read a cookbook, really read it – study it, work with, take some notes about what you really liked – let’s say one of Grace Young’s stellar offerings, like Breath of a Wok, then you’ll reap some of the passion and energy she put into that work. More to the point, one day out of the blue, you’ll think ‘I’m gonna do a stir fry,’ and before you know it, you’ll be pulling the core ingredients for that – veggies, herbs, sauce ingredients, without much of a thought. When that happens, then you’re getting what you should out of that wonderful book – and somewhere, a Chef-Author smiles.
Yesterday was Father’s Day, and the grill was in play. We had burgers and potato salad and green salad, but dang it, I wanted beans, and I wanted ‘em baked, and I wanted ‘em BBQ style, so that’s what I made. Since we already had burgers in the mix, I made them vegetarian.
I often see questions about what the proper beans for baked beans are – my answer is that you really can use anything you like, but you do want to have a pretty good idea of what you choose brings to the table. You don’t want to drown a particularly flavorful bean in a heavy mix where their subtleties would get lost – but really, the color or size doesn’t matter as much as if they’re tasty and you love ‘em.
Whatever variety you choose, they better be dry beans you cook at home – making this dish with canned beans is an affront to the Legume Gods, and you never want to piss them off… Traditionally, American baked beans use white varieties like Navy or Great Northern. If you’re a Rancho Gordo fan, Alubia Blanca, Ayocote Blanco, Mogette de Vendée, Yellow Eyes, and Vaqueros all make excellent baked beans, (and if you love beans and your not an RG fan, shame on you – get with the program!)
Barbecue sauce is a really broad term – we could be talking mustard based, tomato based, vinegar based, and everything in between. For baked beans, tomato based is the ticket, although I wouldn’t discount experimentation farther afield. Typical BBQ sauce is a balance of sweet and tart, and a little heat – and balance is the key. In my not even remotely humble opinion, using store bought sauce is a crime – it’s super easy to make and so much better when you do.
Here’s my swing on them beans. If you really want to impart some magic into the mix, bake them in clay – like cast iron, clay cookers add a subtle but unmistakable note to the mix that’s hard to beat.
Urban’s Vegetarian BBQ Beans
1/2 Pound Par Cooked Beans (al dente is where you want them)
1 Cup Sweet Onion
1/2 Cup Sweet Bell Pepper
2 fat cloves fresh Garlic
1 Roma Tomato
1/2 Cup Tomato Sauce
1/2 Cup Bean Broth
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
2 Tablespoons Light Molasses
1 teaspoon Yellow Mustard
2-3 shakes Hot Sauce, (Tabasco, or whatever you like)
6-8 twists Black Pepper
In a heavy pan over high heat, add beans, a slice of onion, and 2 bay leaves with at least 2” of water over bean level and bring to a boil.
Allow beans to boil for 5 minutes, then reduce heat to a bare simmer and cook until al dente, about 20 to 40 minutes depending on variety and where you’re cooking.
Remove beans from heat and allow to cool in the bean broth, (never discard bean broth, it’s kitchen magic).
End trim, peel and fine dice onion, bell pepper, and tomato.
End trim, peel and mince garlic.
Combine all ingredients except beans and veggies in a mixing bowl and whisk to thoroughly incorporate. Let that sit for about 15 minutes, so everybody gets to know one another.
Preheat oven to 300° F.
In an oven safe baking dish, combine everything and mix well – you should have a pretty soupy consistency at this point.
Set in a middle rack and bake for about 3-4 hours – Check thing and give them a stir after 90 minutes, and every thirty thereafter, checking for fluid balance – if things get too dry, stir in another quarter cup of bean broth.
When everything is bubbling merrily, smells amazing, the beans are tender and the sauce has a nice thick consistency, you’re there.
Serve with whatever you like, but truth be told, you wouldn’t need anything else to be a very happy camper.
P.S. – if any of it survives, it’s flippin’ unbelievable the next day, cold on a bed of crisp lettuce…
It’s June, believe it or not, and even here in the Great Northwet, things are starting to warm up. This means that greens are starting to appear in our garden – lettuces and spinach among ‘em. Blessed with a big ass harvest of the latter, M asked, ‘what can we do with spinach other than salad and Greek?’ That’s when chicken Florentine popped into my head.
Funny thing about this dish – while it shows up at Olive Garden and plenty of other faux Italian joints, chicken Florentine is neither Italian in general nor from Florence specifically. Like General Tso’s, it’s a dish likely invented in America, meant to look ethnic and mysterious. Fact is, you won’t find it in Italy – it’d be shunned like pineapple on pizza.
This doesn’t mean it’s not a great dish, because it certainly can be – and it is a wonderful use of fresh spinach. What it does mean is that most of the so-called rules can frankly be ignored. You don’t need cremini mushrooms or some specific pasta shape for your version to by ‘authentic’, because there ain’t no authentic – whatever you like is just fine.
I’ve got no idea where spinach came into the mix as ‘Florentine’ by the way. It’s not really a signature of anything in particular, but it is tasty. There certainly are Italian creamed spinach dishes, and the French version of spinach au gratin comes to mind as well, but that’s about as far as I get – no matter – it all eats.
Chicken Florentine is fundamentally an Alfredo derivative if anything, so maybe somebody harkened back to Catherine de’ Medici and her imported French chefs as the inspiration for the naming of this dish. The Italians call the sauce besciamella, aka bechamel – your basic cream sauce, or alfredo if you like – they’re fundamentally the same thing.
That said, what a great chicken Florentine needs is a well made sauce, and that means a solid aromatic and stock base. The technique you employ, as well as the ingredients, will yield a great dish. Great Florentine should be a stock-based sauce with a little cream, not a cream only or cream heavy thing.
Here’s my swing at it, and I’ll tell ya, it was stellar – you can ask M and Casey if you don’t believe me…
Urban’s Chicken Florentine
Will feed 3 to 4 with leftovers likely
1 1/2 to 2 pounds Chicken Thighs (skinned, boned preferred)
1 Pound Dry Pasta of your choice
2 Cups Stock (Chicken or Veggie)
1/2 Cup Heavy Cream
1/2 large Yellow Onion
1/2 Red Bell Pepper
1 small Roma Tomato
1/2 small lemon
6-8 cloves fresh Garlic
3-4 packed Cups fresh Spinach
1/4 Cup Parmigiano Cheese
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
2 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon Turkish Oregano
1 teaspoon Crushed Sage
1 Turkish Bay Leaf
6-8 twists black Pepper
3 finger pinch Salt
If needed, skin and debone chicken, then pat dry with a clean kitchen towel.
Peel, trim and dice onion, pepper, and tomato.
Peel, trim and mince garlic.
Fine grate cheese.
In a large heavy skillet over medium heat, add oil and heat through.
Add chicken and flour to a large mixing bowl and coat chicken evenly.
Add floured chicken to the hot skillet, and sauté on one side until a golden brown crust forms, about 4-6 minutes.
Flip pieces once and cook other side as you did the first, about 3-5 minutes.
Carefully remove chicken to a plate.
Add butter to the skillet and allow to melt.
Add onion and bell pepper to the skillet and sauté until the onions are semi-translucent, about 3-5 minutes.
Add garlic and tomato, and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about 2-3 minutes.
Deglaze the pan with a cup of chicken stock, scraping all the naughty bits from the pan bottom.
Add the second cup of stock, and squeeze in the juice from half a lemon.
Reduce heat to a bare simmer, add bay leaf, and simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes.
Bring a stock pot with well salted water to a boil over high heat, and set a colander in your sink.
Add pasta to boiling water and cook until al dente, about 5-7 minutes depending on what you use.
Drain pasta into colander, then return it to the stock pot and cover, unheated.
Add chicken, parmigiano, and cream to the simmering stock and stir well to incorporate.
Add oregano and sage, pepper and pinch of salt to the sauce and stir well.
Simmer sauce for about 10 minutes, until it thickens slightly and coats a spoon.
Toss in the spinach and stir to incorporate well.
Lay a bed of pasta in a shallow bowl, add a piece of chicken or two, and a generous portion of sauce.
I guess we all have gremlins in our lives. Mine has been a consistent, working email sender for this here blog.
After screwing with a seemingly endless stream of plugins that work for a while and then don’t, or screw up the entire site when they suddenly become incompatible with the latest software, I discovered that my host provides a perfectly serviceable tool for this job.
If you’re subscribed, (and if you’re not, or were, please do – The handy subscribe form is over there to the left.). You should get a once a week email via RSS feed in PDF form, covering the latest three posts. It’ll come from email@example.com.
They’re set to come out on Thursdays, so that you’ve got ammo for the approaching weekend. If all goes as planned, you’ll see the first one next week.
Thanks for hanging in, reading, commenting, and sharing – it’s why I do this.
Potato soup in some form is as old as the hills. Spuds originated in the Peruvian Andes, and that’s where the greatest variety is still cultivated to this day. From patatas or patas, to batatas, papas, potatoes, pomme de terre, krompir, aartappel, peruna, or картофель – pretty much every language has a name for them – and fantastic dishes to match.
Here in El Norte, many restaurant chains made loaded baked potato soup pretty famous, and it took no time at all for home chefs to catch on.
There’s a couple primary considerations when making this stuff – namely an all dairy versus stock and dairy base, and how thick the soup will end up. For my mind, there’s no question as to the right way to go – it’s stock and dairy for base, and it’s soup, not stew.
As to the latter point, almost every recipe you’ll find adds either a flour roux or corn starch as a thickener – I’ll never understand why that’s done, considering that mashed potatoes are perfect for the job – just designate two or three small spuds for thickening duty and you’re good to go.
You can use any stock you like – preferably homemade and fresh, but go with what you’ve got. This is a great fridge clearer if you think about it – anything you’d like on a spud can go into the mix. A solid aromatic base is a must, and also is a great place for a little variety. You’ll find lots of options for both stocks and bases right here, of course.
Seasoning is also a wide open field – anything from simple salt and pepper to favorite blends will afford ample opportunity for exploration and expression – Italian or Greek mixes, herbes de Provence or fines herbs come to mind right off the bat, but do what you like most – North African or Indian would be spectacular, I’d bet.
What potatoes to use? Whatever you’ve got that needs using, really. Pretty much any variety will do, though if I was buying, I’d go with Yukon golds. The harder, waxier whites and reds are probably not my first choice – they don’t have the richness of a gold or a russet, and they don’t mash particularly well either.
What is vinegar, anyway? Truth be told, it’s nothing more than spoiled booze in some form or another. While pedestrian vinegar is plentiful and cheap, there’re two things you notice right away when you check out the good stuff in stores – the bottles are small and the prices are really high. What better reason would you need to make your own?
Great vinegars, from Aceto Balsamico de Modena and Vinagre de Shiraz to Zhenjiang and Sukang Baombang, are legendary for a reason, imbued with amazing depth and flavor. These gems power everything from dressings and marinades, gastrique and finishing notes, to soups, stews and much more. If you’re pickling, distilled white or generic cider vinegars are fine, but when you need something special for all that stuff I just mentioned, it’s time to get cracking in your home kitchen.
If you want to get technical, vinegar is a suspended solution of acetic acid in liquid, usually in the 5% to 9% range for culinary use. It’s been around for as long as humans have been making booze, which means something over 5000 years. Pretty much anything you can ferment can be made into vinegar, and that’s good news, because the vast majority of those options are delicious.
Distilled white vinegar, (AKA spirit vinegar or white vinegar), isn’t actually distilled – it’s made from neutral grain spirits – so you can make a vodka, gin or rum based vinegar too. Cider vinegar comes from just that, and with the recent explosion in local cider production, consider how many amazing variants of that you can make – how about a blackberry ginger or blood orange version? Hell yes.
Malt vinegar? Comes from beer – you can convert any bottle or can of beer, ale, stout, or porter into pretty amazing stuff. Wine vinegar? Your cellar and local store is the limit, which means a bunch of options. Any and all of these will be far better than what you can buy, and incredibly easy to make. And we haven’t even talked about fruit yet.
Almost anything with a decent sugar content can be fermented into booze and then vinegar. 5000 years ago, they used dates and palm sap. Today, pretty much any fruit you can think of is used. Two of my favorites in this regard are pineapple and banana, (actually plantain). Both are Mexican specialties, used from Veracruz to the Yucatán for fish, adobado, guisado, salsa, and much more. They’re subtle and delicious, but they’re hard to find and often out of stock, which is what lead to this post. Friends and I thought, why not take a swing at it? We did, the results rocked, and again, it’s easy and fun, (and perfectly safe I’ll add), so I’m sharing it here.
Making home vinegar from scratch is a two stage process, (but really just one long one, broken into two processes.) You don’t actually have to do much, other than monitor what’s happening and make sure everything is going right. If you’re making vinegar from something alcoholic, it’s simpler yet.
Many folks get a bit freaked about about fermenting because it’s ‘dealing with bacteria.’ Approached sensibly, it’s nothing to be worried about. What we employ to make vinegar at home are naturally occurring, beneficial fungus and bacteria – You’d have to be a troglodyte to not have heard all the buzz about good microbes, bacteria, yeast, and the like in recent years – it’s vital to our health, and what we’re using here plays for the right team.
Once we have alcohol, Mother is all we need to make vinegar – Mother is a beneficial bacterial culture, an acetobacter to be exact. Mixed with air, it converts alcohol to acetic acid, which is what gives vinegar it’s delightful tang. You can buy Mother from brewing and winemaking shops, or snag some out of the bottom of a bottle of real deal vinegar, (like Bragg’s here in the states), or you can make your own, and then keep that going with each batch you make, (that’s my preferred method). When mother is happy, you’ll see powdery whitish stuff and even gooey ropes forming in your liquid – this is very desirable, so when you see that, you’ve know you’ve done well.
Let’s start with a super easy one, wine vinegar. For wine, here’s how it works – you’ll need some fine mesh cheesecloth – something like a Grade 80 unbleached cloth would be perfect, and a rubber band.
Select a white or red wine you like that’s in the 10% to 12% alcohol range – that’s the sweet spot for mother to do its thing – higher alcohol content just isn’t, and lower will deliver vinegar that won’t be shelf stable for long.
Open a bottle and pour yourself a glass, you deserve it. Like it? Then onward – Decant the rest into a sterilized quart mason jar, (dishwasher clean is fine).
Now drape a patch of cheesecloth over the top and rubber band that sucker down – the ability for the yeast in the air to get to the wine is critical – no air exchange, no vinegar, (and the cheesecloth will keep fruit flies out of the mix too.)
Set the jar in a warm, relatively dry spot out of direct sunlight, and let ‘er rip – the conversion to vinegar can take anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks, so be patient.
Perform a weekly check of your vinegar-to-be. If you see a whitish scum on top of your wine as things progress, and everything smells good, you’re on your way – that’s vinegar mother forming. If you get any kind of dark surface scum and accompanying bad smells, that’s not good – Scoop all that stuff off and keep going.
Taste your product weekly – when it tastes like vinegar and smells good, you’re there. Transfer the stuff to a clean bottle and cork it – Vinegar eats metal, so clean glass bottles and cork is the way to go.
Let it sit for a couple days, then pull the cork. If you get a pop, that’s CO2 escaping, a sign that your vinegar isn’t quite done yet – put cheesecloth over the bottle top and give it another week – that should do the trick.
If you want to speed things up a smidge, add 1/4 cup of mother laden vinegar to the wine and you’re off to the races – it’ll cut the production time notably.
Love malt vinegar? Grab a couple bottles of beer, ale, porter, or stout of your choice, and do what we did with the wine. Because of the lower alcohol content, homemade malt vinegar generally won’t have the long term shelf stability other stuff will – but no biggy – just make it more often.
Want to build the ultimate home malt vinegar? Go find a locally brewed ale or stout in that 10% to 12% alcohol sweet spot – it’ll make amazing, shelf stable, vinegar – bring some of that back to the brewery and turn them on, you’ll likely get a free beer – maybe more if they have a kitchen.
On to vinegar from fruit. When we do this, we’re doing the two step process mentioned earlier – first, we’re gonna make booze, and then turn that into vinegar. You can make vinegar from juice, or macerated fruit, or chunks if you’re lazy like me. Juice or macerated fruit allows yeast more access to the fruit, and your process will go faster, but I find it more fun to be patient and let nature do her thing.
The more fruit you process, the deeper the flavor, but there is a ratio to maintain. I’ve found that filling a half gallon mason jar roughly 2/3 of the way with mashed or chopped fruit and then topping off with fresh water is spot on – I get lots of flavor and aroma with minimal fuss.
If you want to increase the fruit content, you can batch infuse. Fill your jar as described above and let it sit for a week, then decant the liquid into another jar through a strainer to catch the fruit. Refill your first jar with fresh fruit and repeat for another week. Do this three or four times and you’ll get a notably more intense flavor profile. It’s a great process for fruit with a lower sugar content.
Once you’ve got a jar full of fruit and water, cover it with cheesecloth and set it in a warm, quiet spot out of full sunlight – This is the point where that local yeast goes to work making booze for you.
Again, you can certainly add a little mother to help speed up the overall process at this point. Since we’re making booze first, you don’t need as much – 2 tablespoons is plenty.
As we did with wine vinegar production, let things go in one week increments. You’ll not likely see much happening in week one, but by the second or third, expect to see little bubbles forming on jar edges and the surface of your mix – that’s CO2 getting produced as yeast eats sugar and converts it to alcohol.
As you check progress, use your nose, mouth and eyes – By the two to three week point, you should smell a faint whiff of booze coming off your jar, and taste that too. Keep an eye on things, assuring that what you sense is pleasant. Anything dark, stinky, or nasty tasting is not desirable – scoop it off and keep going – the good guys should take over again when you do.
After somewhere in the 3-6 week range, the local yeast will have done its thing, and the process changes from alcohol production to conversion of booze to acetic acid. Taste testing now begins to focus on that desired acidity – we all know what good vinegar tastes like, and how sharp it is, right? If you didn’t answer yes to those last questions, shame on you.
Once you’ve reached the desired state of vinegariness, you’re ready to clarify and bottle. Line a chinois or funnel with cheesecloth and carefully pour your vinegar through into a clean glass jar or mixing bowl. A couple of passes will make sure any fruit goo, seeds, skin, etc doesn’t make it to your finished product.
You’ll see ample evidence of healthy mother production – lots of that powdery white stuff and some gooey, ropy stuff too – as you filter, rest assured that sufficient amounts of mother will make it to your vinegar jars.
Bottle in sanitized glass, with clean cork stoppers. You now have shelf stable, incredibly delicious house made vinegar – what kind will you make next?
Now for those two fruit versions I promised
Urban’s Vinagre de Piña
If you want this to be muy authentico, you need piloncillo oscuro (dark) sugar – it’s made from pure sugar cane boiled down to a thick syrup and then poured into cone shaped molds, and has far greater depth and nuance of flavor that our brown sugar. It’s readily available at Latin markets and online.
1 ripe Pineapple
1/4 Cup Piloncillo Sugar
2 whole Cloves
Water to fill a half gallon mason jar
Optional: 2 tablespoons vinegar with mother.
Trim top and bottom from the pineapple, the remove all the skin, skim cutting around the outside edges.
Cut pineapple into roughly 2” chunks.
Cut a hunk of piloncillo and microwave for 15 seconds – that should soften it enough to grate or hand crumble.
Add sugar and cloves to a clean half gallon mason jar.
Fill jar half way with fresh water and stir vigorously to dissolve the sugar.
Add pineapple, then top off the water to within roughly 1 1/2” of the top of the jar.
Drape tight cheesecloth over the top of the jar and secure with a rubber band.
Let sit in a warm, quiet spot out of direct sunlight.
See above and follow specifics of the process. Without added mother, the process will take a good 6 to 8 weeks to complete, a bit faster if you live in hot country.
When you can find it, what often is called banana vinegar is no such thing – the real deal made down in Mexico is made with plantains. Sometimes called cooking bananas, plantains come from the same family, but are a far cry from bananas – they’re starchier, seedier, and have a notable lower sugar content, and generally want to be fried, baked, or boiled and topped with something sweet to be truly tasty.
In Veracruz, the Macho Plantain is the one most often used to make vinegar – it’s big, hence the dubious moniker, and gets used for all kinds of dishes – there’s even an empanada dough made from them.
Machos are among the sweeter of the plantains, not as potato like as some. They make a delightfully subtle, nuanced vinegar. They’re also the variety most grown up here in the states, so you can actually find them pretty readily at local Latin groceries, (they’re readily available online as well). My version uses warm spices you’d likely find in a Veracruzano molé.
Urban’s Vinagre de Plátano Macho
6-8 Macho Plantains
1 Cup Piloncillo Sugar
1 whole Star Anise
1” stick Canela
1 whole Clove
Fresh water to fill a half gallon mason jar
Optional: 2 tablespoons vinegar with mother.
Peel, end trim and chop plantains into roughly 2” chunks.
Cut a hunk of piloncillo and microwave for 15 seconds – that should make it soft enough to grate easily.
In a clean half gallon mason jar, combine sugar, star anise, cinnamon, and clove.
Fill jar half way to the top with fresh water and stir vigorously to dissolve the sugar.
Add plantains and top water off to within about 1 1/2” of the top of the jar.
Drape tight cheesecloth over the top of the jar and secure with a rubber band.
Let sit in a warm, quiet spot out of direct sunlight.
See above for specifics throughout the process. Without added mother, the process will take a good 6 to 8 weeks to complete, a bit faster if you live in hot country.
It’s impossible to say where exactly adobada, (or sometimes, adovada), comes from. Generally, it’s a safe bet that northern Mexico, past and present, is the source. Adobada in Catalan means marinated, which doesn’t give a whole bunch of clues at to what we’re supposed to marinate with. As it turns out, that’s OK though, because however you make it, carne adobada is 100% delicious.
Adobada is popular all over Mexico. In its simplest form, adobada marinade might just include red chiles (powdered or minced), vinegar, and Mexican oregano, while more involved iterations can approach mole in their complexity. It’s arguably most popular in the coastal states south of Puerta Vallarta – Jalisco, Colima, and Michoacan. There the chile power is likely to be a mix of guajillo, ancho, pasilla, or chipotles. Adobada is also wholly embraced by New Mexican cuisine. There, the chile in question will undoubtedly be New Mexican red, AKA Hatch, (varying in power from fairly mild to nuclear, depending upon one’s proclivities.)
Back in the days before refrigeration, the cut up pork most commonly used for the dish might be tossed into a pot with the lactobacillus acidophilus that generates yoghurt. Doing so would aid in preservation, and impart a subtle sour note to the finished dish – That’s likely why modern iterations call for citrus or vinegar in the mix. Ditto for the reason most cooks prefer their adobada chiles con pellejo (with skins) – the chiles either blistered by roasting or, if using dried, toasted during the cooking process – This adds a subtle bitter note that many folks insist is absolutamente necesario for authentic taste.
Truth be told, a lot of marinating came into play because the meats it was working on were less than stellar in quality or condition, (and that’s still true in much of the world.) Here, where we’re privileged to have amazing proteins available pretty much any time, it’s done to add things to the mix, not hide them. Even if we’re building a complex palette of flavors, we want the true flavor of beef, pork, chicken, tofu, or beans to remain notable – That’s achieved by balance in the marinade, and paying attention to the way we cook.
look up adobada on a search engine and you’ll see myriad ways to cook suggested, or even insisted upon. What I believe is necessary is this – The finished product must have a distinct outer crust, almost burnt, (as you’d generate when making great chili or beef stew), while the inside of each chunk needs to be tender and juicy. While some places offer adobada that’s more like a stew, to me that’s just chile colorado – Another thing altogether, really.
Many cooks think there’s only one way to do this, (theirs), but it ain’t necessarily so – You can get there by stove top, or grill, or baking, as you please. For M2¢W, I think a multi-stage cook is in order. Specifically, a relatively low and slow primary cook, followed by a quick, hot seat just prior to serving. That is, in fact, what a fair share of restaurants that offer adobada as I’ve described do. It works great, and it gives you flexibility when you’re short on time.
You can do adobada with any protein you like, (and you should), but you aught to start with pork – That’s the holy grail of the dish. For that, you’ll want around 3 pounds of fresh, boneless shoulder. And for those of you who don’t eat meat, I’m here to tell you this will rock with fresh, firm tofu, or great beans.
So, what I’ll offer here is an amalgam of some Mexican and New Mexican ingredients and techniques that will deliver the goods, and it’s a gas to make too. With this marinade, you can go as long as overnight, but at the very least, let it bathe for a good 4 hours prior to cooking. If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can certainly do this in a 325° F oven, (but why would you not have a slow cooker?)
The chiles I used were picked to feed the hybrid theme. None of them are particularly hot, because to me, this dish isn’t designed to burn your face off – It’s meant to provide a pleasant chile buzz as a top note of the marinade. You can use more, or sub hotter varieties as you please, (David Berkowitz? I’m talking about you, Pal.) The same goes for garlic, as you can certainly find adobada so laden with ajo that it’ll be your signature scent for days to come, but to me, that’s not the point – Balance is.
Urban’s Carne Adobada
3 – 3 1/2 Pounds Boneless Pork Shoulder
2-3 Cups low sodium Chicken Stock
1 Cup chile soaking water
1-2 dried Ancho Chiles, seeded
2-3 dried Guajillo Chiles, seeded
1 dried Chipotle Chile, seeded
1-3 dried New Mexican Red (Hatch) Chiles, seeded
3-5 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2 medium Onion (roughly 1 cup)
1/2 Cup fresh Orange Juice
1/2 Cup Raisins
1/4 Cup live Cider Vinegar
3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 teaspoon Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1 teaspoon Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Cumin
2 Bay Leaves
NOTE: in the images here, you’ll see I used some ground, some flake, and some whole chiles – That’s what I had, so that’s what I used. Certainly, the more whole dried you use, the more of that smoky, bitter con pellejo flavor you’ll get into the mix.
Allow a cast iron skillet over high heat to get truly hot.
Remove seeds from chiles, but leave the stems on, (it makes them easier to handle and flip)
Toast chiles, flipping regularly until they start to smoke a bit.
Transfer chiles to a bowl, add bay leaves, and cover well with boiling water. Allow to steep for 30 minutes, until they’re nice and soft.
Put raisins in another small bowl and cover with about 1” of boiling water. Let them steep for the time remaining on the chile soaking clock.
Add unpeeled garlic cloves to the skillet and reduce heat to medium. Toast the garlic, flipping regularly, until the skin is scorched and the cloves are notably soft, about 5-8 minutes. Set aside to cool.
While that’s going on, cut your pork shoulder into roughly 1” steaks and trim excess fat. Shoulder has plenty of interstitial fat, so remove any really big hunks and obvious silver skin, but don’t go overboard – Pork fat is good.
When your chiles are ready, drain them, and reserve the soaking water – Just make sure you check the heat level so you know what you’re dealing with. You can chuck the bay leaves.
Remove the stems from your reconstituted chiles, mince them, then toss them into a blender vessel.
Peel the garlic and add that, along with 2 cups of the chicken stock, the orange juice, the drained raisins (don’t need to save that soaking liquid), the vinegar, a tablespoon of avocado oil, a pinch of salt, the agave nectar, and the ground cumin.
Cover and pulse all that until you get a nice mix. There will be some chunks of this and that still, which is just fine.
Arrange your pork in a baking dish and pour in all the marinade. Lift each piece of pork to make sure you get marinade on the undersides of each piece.
Cover the pan with metal foil and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.
When you’re ready to cook –
Peel and trim and dice onion.
Remove pork from baking dish and arrange in slow cooker – Leave the lion’s share of the marinade in the baking dish.
Add the reserved chile soaking water to the marinade, along with a pinch of salt, the oregano, and lemon thyme. Stir all that to incorporate, and then pour it all into the slow cooker. Add the diced onion on top and cover.
You can cook on low, medium, or high as you’ve got time for – Lower and slower is better, but they’ll all do just fine. Cook until the pork is fork tender, which on our pot means anywhere from 4 to 8 hours.
When you’re ready to serve, heat 2 tablespoons of avocado oil in a cast iron skillet over high heat.
Add as much pork as you want for the meal to the skillet and let it cook, unflipped, until it develops a nice dark crust, about 3-5 minutes. Flip once to get the other side.
Transfer pork to a serving platter.
Serve with fresh, warm tortillas, pico de gallo, pickled onions/chiles/radishes, crema, lime wedges, and maybe some queso fresco or cotija, and cold, cold Mexican beer.
Monica had two quotes after this meal that I’ll share here –
‘This is better than anything we’ve ever had a Mexican restaurant,’ and
‘You’ve bested me in slow cooker pork.’
Coming from her, that’s fairly amazing, so – Just sayin’…
This post is dedicated to the late, great food writer Jonathan Gold. There’s a guy who knew how to write about food. His love, passion, humor, and vast knowledge always shown through, and damn, could he write great last lines. Thanks man, you’re missed, but never forgotten.
I admit it, I’m obsessed with clay cookers. That’s not a bad thing, by the way. It’s not a stretch in any way to say that cooking in clay has been going on since deep into prehistory. By 400 B. C., earthenware was being mass produced in several places around the world. The advantages were obvious, and in this age of renewed interest in slow food, they are again. Clay cooking adds a certain je ne sais quoi to a dish – a subtle, earthy note and a distinct juicy tenderness. Today, we’ll take a look at the tajine, a dish and pot from North Africa.
You’ve seen a tajine, even if you didn’t know what it was called. It’s that elegant, conical pot you see on food porn shows and sites – and they’re truly magical. As noted above, tajine refers both to the cooking vessel and the dishes that are cooked and served therein. Now, first question answered – No, you don’t have to buy the pot to make the dish, but yes – it will taste that much better if you do.
A tajine, (or Tagine, Maraq, or Qidra, depending on where you are), consists of two parts, a shallow, round pan, and a tall conical top that fits snuggly inside the rim of the pan. The pan and top are rather thick on a tajine made for cooking, around 1/2” to 3/4” – This implies that there are tajines not made to cook in, and indeed, there are – Many of the shiny glazed, highly decorated versions you’ll find are in fact not cookware, but meant to present and serve a dish. From a reputable seller, they’ll be clearly marked as a serving tajine, (And woe betide the cook who doesn’t do their due diligence). Serving tajines are thinner, and will fail in a spectacularly catastrophic manner if you attempt to cook in them – Don’t be that cook. If you’re interested in buying, get an unglazed, hefty, genuine cooking tajine, made in Morocco. You’ll find tajines made of numerous other things – aluminum, cast iron, steel, and enameled metal among them. If you want the real deal, it’s gotta be unglazed clay – More on that shortly.
The magic that a tajine imparts to a dish stems from that conical top. It’s hollow and sports a small hole placed very near the apex. On the outside, there’s what looks like an egg cup set atop the cone. Every aspect of this device is intentional and adds to the voodoo the tajine do do. The cover is designed to collect and condense moisture from the cooking food and return it to the pan. The little hole in the top regulates steam pressure within the vessel. As such, when working with a clay cooker, very little water or stock is generally added to the dish, because it’ll generate its own. The little egg cup at the very top of the pot is filled with cold water and serves to improve condensation while cooking. Magic, I tells ya.
The pot is truly ancient, dating all the way back to the 800’s in Arabic literature, which certainly implies it was around well before then. This was during the reign of the Abbasid Empire, which sprawled from southern Spain to Northern Africa and most of the Middle East. These days, the pot and the dish see heaviest use in North Africa, with the Middle East a close second, and France a surprising third – They’re popular enough there that legendary French cookware maker Le Creuset makes an enameled, cast iron version.
Naturally, my magic claims beg the question – Is there reputable science behind that? Some say yes and some say no. The most common claim is that unglazed clay adds flavor to a dish – I’ve got quite a few clay cookers, and I swear it’s true, as do a whole bunch of cooks and chefs around the world. As a clay cooker acquires a history, the more pronounced that ‘certain something’ it imparts becomes. It’s subtle, but it’s there, just as cast iron does. Scientists, including Harold McGee, poo poo this claim, but nonetheless, I swear it’s there – Oh, and yes, curve balls do curve.
Taste claims aside, there are thermodynamic reasons clay cookers do what they do. Clay is a good insulator, the exact polar opposite of the claim most cookware makers like to tout – that is, how well their stuff conducts heat. Naturally, this begs the question, why would we want an insulator to cook in? The answer is relatively simple – Because if you truly want to cook something low and slow, an insulator will do a far better job than a conductor. Conductive materials absorb and pass heat to a dish relatively quickly, while insulators do both on a much slower time line – Low and slow. This is especially important when cooking proteins like meat and poultry – Fast and hot makes meat tough, especially the cheaper, tougher cuts, while low and slow makes them fork tender and delicious – Every bowl of beef stew or plate of pot roast attests to this.
Furthermore, thermodynamic laws dictate that the property of a good insulator holds true regardless of temperature. Doubt that fact? Take our Romertopf cooker as an example then. These folks tell you to crank the heat up 100° F above your normal roasting temperature – 450° F for a whole chicken. The Romertopf will cook that bird perfectly. With nothing more than a little salt and pepper onboard, it’ll be one of the best chicken you’ve ever tasted. Think about it – Clay cooker are ancient and yet they’re still around, all over the world – Thousands of years of culinary experience cannot to be denied. The fact is, all the modern cookware versions of low and slow cooking are okay, but they pale before the real thing.
Traditional tajine is cooked over coals, the African answer to a Dutch oven. Here in the West, you can get it done that way, on a stove top, or in the oven. They key here is to avoid thermal shock, a thing that can and will lead to a cracked tajine. A gas cook top works great, while electric or flat top is a bit trickier – Their tendency to cycle the heat can play havoc with the cooker, so a diffuser is needed to even things out – That’s just a chunk of steel or aluminum that sits between burner and tajine, (they cost about ten bucks). You can cook with a tajine on your gas or charcoal grill, so long as you don’t ramp things up too high. Medium low heat is the rule, regardless of the method. That means that dishes cooked this way aren’t gonna go fast, so one must plan accordingly. And by the way, those metal bottomed tajines are specifically designed for stove top cooking.
As with virtually every clay cooker, there are seasoning steps that must be done to properly prep your cooker for a long, useful working life. Unglazed tajines must be immersed in water for a minimum of 2 hours, (and overnight isn’t a bad idea at all). Once they’re soaked, they’re patted dry and left to air dry for an hour, then lightly rubbed with olive oil. Seasoning is done by placing the tajine in a cold oven, then cranking the heat to 300° F for two hours. Turn the oven off, leave the tajine in there to cool completely. Once cooled, give it another light coating of olive oil, and you’re good to go.
So, what about the dish that shares the pot’s name? They’re predominantly Moroccan, but they’re popular throughout the Maghreb, (that includes Tunisia and Algeria). The roots stem from the collision between hometown Berbers and invading Muslim Arabs, back in the 900s – That’s when middle eastern spices met Berber stews, and a beautiful thing was born. The result is the spice blend known as Ras el Hanout, the Head of the Shop.
Ras el Hanout, as the name implies, is the best a spice shop has to offer. Like certain molés, it’s a very complex mix indeed, and like so many regional favorites, everybody has a different version, and their’s is best, no doubt about it. It’s used for everything from tajines, to a rub for meat or fish, to an adjunct for rice and couscous dishes. It’s hefty, complex, and heady, and it’s what really gives tajines their kick. Purists will claim a proper Ras el Hanout must have exactly so many ingredients, and again, whatever theirs are would be the only proper mix. The list for potential contributors is long – allspice, aniseed, ash berry, cardamom, chiles, chufa, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cubeb, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, galangal, ginger, grains of paradise, mace, nutmeg, long pepper, and dried rosebuds are just a start.
Those ingredients and blends will change radically in countries other than Morocco. Truth be told, a day to day tajine won’t have the full monty ras el hanout on board – They’ll use a few favorite spices, just as we would with a casserole or stew – The full Ras is for special occasions. Tunisian tajine is very different from this – A stew base is seasoned with the Berber mix Baharat, (a close but distinct cousin to ras el hanout.) that is thickened with bread or flour, and then has egg and cheese added – The end result is more like a frittata than what we’d think of as a North African stew. A quick internet search will yield you a bunch of options for any or all of these.
Here’s a fine chicken tajine to get you started. If you don’t have a tajine, don’t sweat it – a braiser or Dutch oven will do OK in a pinch. Same goes for the spice blend – Use what you’ve got and don’t sweat the rest, it’ll still be very tasty. If you catch the bug, you can branch out and go wild. The one thing worth chasing down here is nigella seed – You can find those at a speciality grocer or online. They have a unique, nutty, shallot-like flavor that’s a signature note to this dish. You’ll note that the tajine shown herein has more veggies than what’s noted in the recipe – That’s intentional – Folks will put in what they’ve got, and what they like when they make one – I did, and you should too, yeah?
Moroccan Chicken Tajine
1 whole Chicken
2 medium Onions
1/2 Cup pitted Olives (red or purple)
1/3 Cup Water
1/4 cup Avocado Oil
3-4 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2 Preserved Lemon (1/2 Fresh is fine)
6-8 sprigs Cilantro
2 Tablespoons Nigella Seed
1 Tablespoon Butter
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon ground Turmeric
3/4 teaspoon ground Ginger
3/4 teaspoon Grains of Paradise (Pepper is just fine)
1/2 teaspoon ground Cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Saffron threads, crushed
Cut chicken into pieces, (you can butterfly it and then cut pieces if you wish)
Tie cilantro sprigs into a bouquet.
Cut lemon into quarters.
Peel, trim and chop garlic.
Peel, trim and chop one onion, and cut the other into roughly 1/4”thick rings.
In a heavy sauté pan, toast nigella seeds until fragrant. Grind half and leave half whole.
Pour olive oil into the bottom of your cooking pot. Cut the butter into small cubes and distribute evenly. Evenly arrange the onion rounds over the oil.
In a large mixing bowl, combine chicken, chopped onion, garlic, all nigella seeds, and all spices. When the ingredients are well mixed, arrange the chicken pieces evenly around the cooking pot, bone side down.
Pour the water into the mixing bowl, and swish things around to get all the left over spice and veggie bits. Pour that into the cooking pot as well.
Distribute olives around the pot. Squeeze the lemon quarters over the chicken and toss them in too. Add the cilantro bouquet.
If you’re cooking in a tajine, put the cover on and put the pot on a diffuser over a burner on medium low heat. Cook for 11/2 to 2 hours, checking at the one hour mark to make sure there is sufficient liquid in the mix. If it seems a bit dry, add a quarter cup of water and re-cover. When done, the chicken should be fork tender, and the sauce thick enough to coat a spoon. If you prefer to use the oven, put the loaded tajine into a cold oven on a lower center rack. Bake at 350° F for 45 minutes, then check liquid level and adjust as needed. Cook for another 30 to 45 minutes until chicken is fork tender.
If you’re cooking in a Dutch oven or casserole, cover and heat over medium high until the stew begins to simmer. Reduce heat to just maintain a simmer. Check at thirty minutes for liquid level and adjust as per above. When the chicken is tender, pour off the sauce and thicken in a sauté pan if it needs it.
Serve with flatbread, and maybe a cool cucumber salad, or a cold rice or couscous dish.