Chicken Paprikash

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

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

Paprika chiles
The Paprika Chile

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

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

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

Real deal Hungarian paprika
Real deal Hungarian paprika

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

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

There are three important tips to great paprikash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Chicken Paprikash


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

1 large Yellow Onion

3 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1 Red Bell Pepper

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

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

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

1/4 Cup Sweet Hungarian Paprika

2 Tablespoons Leaf Lard

1 slice dense white Bread

1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Fresh Parsley for garnish

.

Trim, peel and dice onion and sweet pepper.

Trim, peel and mince garlic.

Purée tomatoes with a stick blender.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carefully transfer chicken to a platter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Chicken Paprikash

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

Hungarian Nokedli

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

2 Cups All Purpose Flour

4 large Eggs

1 Tablespoon Vegetable Oil

2 teaspoons Sea Salt

Have all ingredients at room temperature.

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

Place the pot on a burner over high heat.

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

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

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

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

Let the dough rest for about 10 minutes.

You’ll cook the nokedli in batches.

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

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

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

Gently stir the dumplings to keep them from sticking.

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

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

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

These can be made ahead, and refrigerated or frozen.

Greek Thanksgiving Turkey Bake

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

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

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

Greek inspired turkey bake

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

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

Home made pita bread

Pita Bread

3 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour

1 1/4 Cups Water

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

2 teaspoons Sea Salt

Heat water to @ 115° F

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

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

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

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

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

Roll the balls out to about 6” circles.

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

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

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

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

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

Greek turkey bake

Urban’s Greek Thanksgiving Bake

1/2 Pound Turkey Breast

1/4 Pound Feta

2 Cups Brussels Sprouts

1 Cup Turkey Stock

2 Cups cooked White Beans

2 Cups Cherry Tomatoes

1 medium Yellow Onion

5-7 cloves fresh Garlic

2 fresh Lemons

1 bulb fresh Fennel

4-6 Ounces Extra Virgin Greek Olive Oil

1/2 Cup Kalamata Olives

1 Tablespoon Greek Oregano

1 Tablespoon Lemon Thyme

Sea Salt

Black Pepper

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

Chop turkey breast.

Trim and halve Brussels sprouts.

Peel, trim, and chop onion.

Peel, trim, and fine dice garlic.

Slice olives into rounds.

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

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

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

Spread a layer of beans, then add Brussels sprouts.

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

Crumble feta evenly over all that.

Pour stock into the mix.

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

Add olive oil evenly over all.

Sprinkle oregano and thyme evenly over all.

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

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

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

Homemade Hummus & Tahini

If you’ve ever had great hummus, you know it’s a treat. If you’ve experienced meh hummus, maybe too often, you owe it to yourself to make your own – while you can’t control the freshness or quality of store bought, you sure can do so at home.

Urban’s House Made Hummus

Ubiquitous in the Middle East, this dip/spread is built from chickpeas, (AKA garbanzos), which are widely cultivated and enjoyed throughout the region for good reason. They pack decent calories, mono and poly unsaturated fats, no cholesterol, and an excellent assortment of vitamins, and they’re a truly versatile ingredient. Add good olive oil, lemon juice, tahini (ground sesame seeds), garlic, and a pinch of salt, and you’ve got a delicious treat.

You’ll find a lot of online recipes using canned garbanzos, but you won’t find that here – your finished product is only as good as your ingredients. The first time you cook top quality dried against anything canned, you’ll never use the latter again – it’s a night and day difference. Get dried garbanzos from Rancho Gordo and you’ll get the best of the best, and likely never look back.

For olive oil, my hands down choice is top quality Greek oil, and I’ll let my Tribal Sister, Christy Hohman Caine, explain why – “Your raw oil should come from Kalamata or Crete and be labeled PDO (protected designation of origin). Greek oils are usually greenish to greenish-gold in color. They are zippy, peppery, grassy, and herbaceous and very complex. They are definitely NOT buttery. Think of Greek oils as flavor enhancers and condiments. There are different tastes in Greek olive oils which are great to experiment with. Some have a tomato leaf essence, others are more lemony. You can get good Greek olive oils online at Greek markets and food shops.” Don’t know about y’all, but you don’t need to tell me twice – I’ve been a convert ever since I read that.

Toasted sesame seeds

Finally a note on tahini – it’s critical to great hummus. Finding good quality, fresh is far easier than it used to be, but if you want the best, you can build your own – here’s how.

House made Tahini

House Made Tahini

1 Cup fresh Sesame Seeds

+/- 1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

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

Spread seeds evenly across a clean baking sheet.

Bake until seeds lightly brown and are fragrant, about 10 – 12 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature.

Pour seeds and oil into a processor, (or blender), and pulse until a smooth paste forms – add more oil if needed, a teaspoon at a time.

Store in a glass, airtight container in a cool, dark spot. Tahini may separate over time, but just flip and shake your container and it’ll be good as new.

Urban’s House Made Hummus

1 pound Rancho Gordo Garbanzos

2/3 Cup Greek Kalamata Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/2 cup freshly squeezed Lemon Juice

1/3 Cup Tahini

3 cloves fresh Garlic

2 teaspoons ground Cumin

1 teaspoon Sea Salt

1 teaspoon Smoked Paprika

Vegetable crudités and/or pita bread for chowing

Cooking garbanzos a la Rancho Gordo

NOTE: volumes of ingredients other than garbanzos are to our taste – we think it makes great hummus – that said, the batch you make is yours, so adjust as needed to get what you love.

Cook the garbanzos in the RG manner – stove top, covered with 2+” of fresh water, with 2 bay leaves and 2-3 small cloves of peeled and trimmed garlic. Bring to a full boil for 10-15 minutes, then reduce heat to a bare simmer and cook until the peas are tender, always maintaining at least 2” of water above the peas – add simmering hot water from a tea kettle to top things off.

Do as Steve Sando advises on the RG website for cooking beans – reduce heat as far as you can while still getting a simmer bubble and let them go low and slow until they’re creamy and almost starting to fall apart a bit.

Drain the peas and reserve bean broth – it’s magic stuff as a base for soup or stew, or added to a pan sauce.

Allow the peas to cool to close to room temperature.

Add garlic cloves to a food processor and pulse until well minced.

From garbanzo to hummus

Add garbanzos, lemon juice, tahini, and cumin, and pulse a few times to get things incorporated.

Running the processor, add the oil in a slow steady stream. Stop several times to scrape the sides down with a spatula.

Add salt and continue to process until you have a smooth, creamy consistency. If things are too thick, add a tablespoon at a time of oil to thin it out.

House made hummus

Taste and adjust as desired – keep in mind that it takes a good 15 to 30 minutes for everything to get truly cozy and incorporated.

Transfer to a serving bowl, drizzle with a bit more oil, and dust with the paprika.

Chow down with veggie crudités, pita chips, flatbread, your finger, etc.

Branch out and maybe top a bed of hummus with spiced beef and pine nuts, a wonderful Lebanese treat.

Store refrigerated in an airtight glass container for up to 5 days, or freeze up to 2 months.

White Beans & Chorizo – A Paean to the Pyrenees

Yesterday was really yucky out. Add M and Casey driving back from Spokane in less than wonderful conditions, and I thought some serious comfort food was in order. I had a half pound of really lovely Spanish chorizo, which got the gears grinding.

I came up with this spicy paean to the Pyrenees, with ingredients from France and Spain, powered by the legendary piment d’Espelette chile. You can read more about those in this post on Basque Piperrada I did back in 2015, (that won a formal nod from the Basque tourist bureau). Feel free, of course, to tweak this as you see fit and make it your own. It’s a relatively quick dish to prepare, and an absolute joy to have cooking low and slow for a few hours.

Spicy white beans with chorizo

Urban’s Paean to the Pyrenees Beans & Chorizo

1 Pound Rancho Gordo White Beans, (I used my fave, the Mogette de Vendée)

3 Cups Bean Broth

8 Ounces Spanish Chorizo

1/2 Yellow Onion, (about a cup or so)

1-2 fresh Jalapeños (any chile you like is fine, as is green pepper)

1/2 fresh Red Bell Pepper

3 cloves fresh Garlic

2 large fresh Tomatoes

1 1/2 Cups Tomato Sauce

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar

2 Tablespoons Rancho Gordo stone Ground Chocolate, (other good Mexican disc chocolate is fine too)

2 Tablespoons Rancho Gordo Pineapple Vinegar, (Live Cider Vinegar will do as a sub)

2 Tablespoons Dijon Mustard

2 Tablespoons Smoked Paprika

2 teaspoons fine ground Black Pepper

2 teaspoons ground Piment d’Espelette Chile, (You can sub hot Spanish paprika if need be)

2 teaspoons crushed Celery Leaf, (1 teaspoon of seed or celery salt will do fine – crush the former, omit kosher salt for the latter)

1 teaspoon fine kosher Salt

White beans and chorizo in a veggie-laden, spicy sauce

Choose a baking vessel with a lid – If you’re cooking in clay, (and I hope you are), soak your vessel if needed.

Cook the beans in the RG manner – stove top, covered with 2+” of fresh water, with 2 bay leaves and 2-3 small cloves of peeled and trimmed garlic.

Bring to a full boil for 10-15 minutes, then reduce heat to a bare simmer and cook until the peas are tender, always maintaining at least 2” of water above the peas – add simmering hot water from a tea kettle to top things off.

Do as Steve Sando advises on the RG website for cooking beans – reduce heat as far as you can while still getting a simmer bubble and let them go low and slow until they’re done.

Drain beans, remove bay leaves, and reserve 3 cups of bean broth.

Stem, peel, and fine dice onion and red pepper.

Stem, trim, and devein chiles – you want the flavor from these, not the heat, (but if you’re a chile head, go wild.)

End trim and dice the tomatoes.

Smash, peel, trim and mince garlic.

Dice chorizo, (depending on the form of your chorizo, this may vary).

If you’re not cooking in clay, preheat oven to 300° F – No preheat for clay vessels!

In a large mixing bowl, add 2 cups of the bean broth and all other ingredients – whisk thoroughly to incorporate.

Add beans and veggies and stir well to combine – You should have a very soupy consistency at this point.

Load your chosen vessel and bake – for clay, I start out at 250° F for 30 minutes, then go up to 300°.

Check and stir your pot every 30 minutes or so – if things start to get too thick, add more bean broth.

The bake takes me roughly 3-4 hours to get creamy beans and a nicely caramelized, bubbly sauce.

Serve with fresh, rustic bread rubbed with garlic, (and if you don’t have that, whatever floats your boat).

Savor smugly while your diners swoon.

Mojo, the marinade that made carne asada famous

It’s a sure bet that, if you eat enough Mexican, Tex Mex, Caribbean, or South American food, you’ve enjoyed some form of carne asada. Certainly then, you’ve swooned over the rich and pungent blends of flavors presented by something that looks so simple, but tastes so complex. The answer lies in Mojo, the marinade that made carne asada famous.

The literal translation of the South American name for the dish is roasted meat, which tells us right away that the cooking side of things isn’t complex. All that magic comes from the mojo, and fortunately for us, it’s not only easy to make, it’s downright a gas.

Carne asada de UrbanMonique
Carne asada de UrbanMonique

Before we dive fully into Mojo, let’s spend a few looking at the history of carne asada – It’s as old as fire and cooking vessels, really. No one can lay claim to originating the dish, (although that hasn’t stopped many from trying). In addition to straight asada, there are popular variants that have much to do with how the meat is handled for service – Shredded or ground, as opposed to cooked whole and sliced, for instance. Shredded or pulled beef is found in American barbecue, ropa vieja in the Caribbean, and carne deshebrada in Mexico. One of the few variants with a fairly clear origin is carne asada fries, a sort of Tex-Mex swing at poutine, with carne asada and typical fixins replacing the gravy – Lolita’s in San Diego lays claim to that one, by the way. The versions most Americans are accustomed to stem from northern Mexican cuisines, although there are popular southern variants as well.

Mojo de UrbanMonique, a great all purpose marinade
Mojo de UrbanMonique, a great all purpose marinade

Specific cuts of beef are commonly associated with carne asada, and they’re not exactly the rock stars. These include skirt, flank, and flap steak, the stuff the folks doing the boogie up on the hill certainly did not buy for themselves. That stuff was considered refuse, and the genesis of great meals formed around such marginal cuts is another example of the disenfranchised making due. Yet here in the 21st century, popularity has turned all that on its head – When we shopped for this post, skirt steak wasn’t available, and both flank and flap were commanding $10 a pound – TEN BUCKS A POUND!! Remember what happened with short ribs, or veal bones, a while back? Same gig – Popularity breeds stunning expense, straight out. The moral of the story is to be flexible – When we spied eye of the round cut thin as steaks for $5 a pound, it was game over, and ‘authenticity’ be hanged – It’ll all eat just fine – Boneless chuck, the bargain basement of beef cuts, makes perfectly wonderful carne asada.

Mojo de UrbanMonique - Leave it rustic, or blend, as you prefer

Now, on to that mojo. If you have a carniceria nearby, you can bet they offer carne asada, either in whole steaks, sliced, or chopped. You’ll likely find it either preperada, (marinated) or not, and if you get their marinade, what you’ll get can run the gamut from simple salt and oil, to quite complex mixes that rival a mole – The marinade is where the real poetic license lives with carne asada. What you create is up to you, (and we’ll provide plenty of options herein to get ya started.)

As common and as diverse as spaghetti sauce, there are dozens of popular, commercial mojo variants, let alone the tens of thousands rendered by home cooks everywhere. The Spanish word Mojo derives from the Portuguese, Molho, which simply means sauce – a clear indicator of its ubiquity. There is general agreement that mojo originated in the Canary Islands, the archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa. Canarian cuisine is a fascinating amalgamation of the native islanders, (sadly, now largely extinct), Spanish, Portuguese, and African roots. Their cooking emphasizes freshness, simplicity, and powerful flavors, many of which derive from various mojos. Literally every Canarian family has at least two signature mojos, passed down from generation to generation. The signature island dish, Papas Arrugadas, (wrinkly potatoes), is demonstrative of all that. Whole potatoes boiled in salt water, and served with red and green mojo – And in an interesting twist of serendipity, the potato isn’t native to the Canaries – They came from South America, of course.

Canarian Mojo with Papas Arrugadas
Canarian Mojo with Papas Arrugadas

In its simplest form, mojo contains olive oil, chiles (pimienta in the Canaries), garlic, paprika, coriander (either fresh or seed), and cumin. As mentioned, there are two primary branches of Canarian mojo, red and green. The red, fueled by dried or fresh chiles and paprika, is most often paired with meat, while the green, made with green peppers, cilantro, or parsley, compliments fish courses. There are many other iterations, some using local cheese, (mojo con queso), garlic, almonds, and fresh herbs – Check out that almond Mojo recipe and you’ll see what I mean about rivaling moles. One could easily spent a happy year working through all these lovely things, and one of these days, I just might.

The flow of humanity in the 16th through 19th centuries, both forced and chosen, brought mojo to Europe, then South America, the Caribbean, and eventually, North America. Mojo not only thrived, it grew in leaps and bounds. Were I forced to define a generic, accurate version that we here in the Estados Unidos are familiar with, it would certainly include chiles, citrus, garlic, oil, and vinegar – A Mexican vinaigrette, in essence. Proportions are pretty broadly interpreted, with the main aim being making enough to generously coat and marinate your proteins.

Established Mexican, Caribbean, and South American variants also run the gamut from super simple to dizzyingly complex. What this means to the home cook is that, in all honestly, you can’t go wrong – Combine stuff you love and that plays well together, and you’re in like Flynn. I’m going to offer several variants, including fairly faithful renderings of styles you’ve probably tried and liked – As I always note, use these as a springboard for personal creativity, and know that you’ll likely never do the exact same thing twice – The real beauty of Mojo is as a last minute inspirational meal – You’ve got this, that, and the other thing in your stores, so what do you do with them? You do this.

The basics for a Mexican style mojo
The basics for a Mexican style mojo

NOTE ON WHAT TO MAKE: Tacos, burritos, chimis, or taco salads, with fresh pick de gallo and warm tortillas, are almost a must for your first meal if you’re marinating proteins, but keep in mind, this stuff has North African and Iberian roots, so get bold and go that direction if you feel so inspired. And you can always sauté the meat with something new, change the spicing, and make something totally different.

Carne Asada Hash, the perfect next morning leftover
Carne Asada Hash, the perfect next morning leftover

NOTE ON MARINATING: Any marinade containing citrus, other acids like Vinegar, or other fruits like papaya, kiwi, pineapple, fig, or mango will break down the connective tissues in proteins as they marinate – There’s an enzyme called protease, (papain in papaya), that does the trick. That’s great for tenderizing tougher cuts, and it’s the secret as to why marginal stuff like skirt stake or flank steak can come out so tender. That said, be careful with the duration – There are a lot of recipes out there that advise marinating overnight, and that’s taking things too far – Going over 6 hours risks mushy meat, and nobody likes that texture. Marinate proteins for at least an hour, and as long as 4 or 5, and you’ll get great flavor infusion and a proper degree of tenderization.

Tacos Carne Asada
Tacos Carne Asada

NOTE ON GRILLING: Anything you marinate in Mojo will taste best grilled. And if you can, do so with wood or charcoal, although gas works just fine too. With the thinner cuts or proteins commonly used for carne asada, you’ve got to keep an eye on things – We’re talking a 2 minute punk rock song per side, as opposed to the common, classic rock 3-4 minutes a side measure. A lot of restaurants grill carne asada to well done, but you do not need to do that. Grill to medium rare, then allow a good 5 to 10 minute rest before you carve. If you use the more rustic cuts of beef, like skirt, flank, or flap steaks, carve 90° to the grain, at a 45° angle for each slice.

NOTE ON OIL: You’ll see I call for Avocado Oil on several Mojo recipes. I like it for it’s rich, buttery feel and neutral taste, as well as its exceptional smoke point. You can certainly use Extra Virgin Olive Oil in any of these recipes, but you really owe it to yourself to try avocado oil in the near future.

First, the classic Mojo roots.


Canarian Green Mojo

1 Bundle fresh Cilantro
3/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 fresh Lime
3 cloves Garlic
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Cumin
1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper

Rinse and dry all produce.

Remove long stems from Cilantro, discard and mince the leaves.

Peel and stem garlic, and mince.

Juice lime, and set aside.

If you’re using whole spices, add salt, pepper, and cumin to a spice grinder and pulse to an even consistency, (3 or 4 pulses should do it.)

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. You can leave the sauce rustic, or process it with a stick blender for a smoother consistency.

Allow sauce to marry for 30 minutes prior to use. Serve with fresh crusty bread, potatoes, fish, or veggies.

 

Canarian Red Mojo

1 large Red Sweet Pepper
2-4 fresh hot chiles, (chef’s choice, they don’t have to be red – Jalapeño, Habanero, Serrano, and Cayenne all work)
3 cloves fresh Garlic
2-3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Cider Vinegar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Cumin

Rinse all produce and pat dry.

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

Fine dice Pepper and chiles.

Mince Garlic.

Process Cumin to a powder if you’re using whole.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. You can leave the sauce rustic, or process it with a stick blender for a smoother consistency.

Allow sauce to marry for 30 minutes prior to use. Serve with fresh crusty bread, chicken, pork, or beef.

 

UrbanMonique Signature Mojo – This is a great all purpose Mojo, with a couple of our signature twists.

Prep for making mojo is simple and quick
Prep for making mojo is simple and quick

2 small Limes
1 navel Orange
1-3 Jalapeño Chiles
1/2 bunch fresh Cilantro
1/2 Cup Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Live Cider Vinegar
Pinch of Sea Salt
3-4 twists fresh ground Pepper

Rinse and pat dry all produce.

Zest and juice the citrus, and reserve both.

Peel, stem, and mince the garlic.

Stem, de-seed, and devein the jalapeños, (leave the veins if you like more heat).

Remove long stems from Cilantro and mince the remainder.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. You can leave the sauce rustic, or process it with a stick blender for a smoother consistency.

Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Also does great with tofu, veggies, or fish.
And finally, here are a few Mexican and South American variants.

 

Quick Cervesa Mojo – Great for folks that don’t like heat.

1 bottle Negra Modelo Beer
1 small lime
1 bunch Green Onions
3 cloves fresh Garlic
Pinch of Sea Salt
A few twists fresh ground Pepper

Open beer and pour into a bowl, allowing it to loose its fizz and flatten somewhat, (About 5-10 minutes)

Zest and juice lime, set both aside.

Peel, stem and mince garlic

Trim and peel green onions, then leave them whole, as trimmed.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. Leave the sauce rustic, do not process it.

Allow sauce to marry for 30 minutes prior to use. Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Marinate proteins for an hour, then remove the steaks and the onions and grill both as desired. Goes great with the rest of the Negra Modelo six pack.

 

Taco Truck Mojo – There is no standard recipe, but this will put you in the running…

2 small Limes
2-4 hot Chiles of your choice
3 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2 Cup Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon dark Soy Sauce
2 teaspoons Smoked Sweet Paprika
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Cumin
1/2 teaspoon Oregano
1/4 teaspoon Black Pepper
1/4 teaspoon White Pepper

Rinse and pat dry produce.

Zest and juice Limes, set both aside.

Stem, seed, and devein chiles, (leave veins in if you want the heat). Fine dice chiles.

Peel and stem Garlic, then mince.

Process spices to a consistent rough powder if you’re using whole.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl. Process with a stick blender to a smooth, even consistency.

Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Marinate proteins for at least an hour, and as many as 5 hours. Grill proteins as desired, and baste with the marinate as you’re grilling.

 

Garlic Papaya Mojo

1 fresh Papaya
1 small Green Bell Pepper
3-4 Green Onions
1 small fresh Lime
3 cloves Fresh Garlic
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon live Cider Vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
Pinch of Sea Salt
A couple twists fresh ground Pepper

Peel, seed and rough chop papaya.

Zest and juice Limes.

Stem, seed and devein green pepper, then dice.

Peel, stem green onions, then cut into 1/4″ thick rounds.

Peel, stem, and mince garlic.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl. Process with a stick blender to a smooth, even consistency.

Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Marinate proteins for at least an hour, and as many as 3 hours – don’t exceed that too much, as the papain enzyme in papaya is formidable stuff. Grill proteins as desired, and baste with the marinate as you’re grilling.

Beef Stroganoff, or should I say, Stroganov?

It’s 40° F this morning, with a 17 knot wind out of the northeast, putting the wind chill at about 34° F. And it’s rained 3/4″ in the last two days, with more on the way. Can you say, Comfort Food? Sure, I knew ya could… Days like this call for something that conjures childhood memories of coming in from a frigid Massachusetts winter, to a house redolent with the rich smells of good things to eat. Beef Stroganoff, or should I say, Stroganov, is what I’ve got in mind, and I’m willing to bet that merely reading those words has already gone to work on you, too. I’m talking authentic beef stroganoff here, which raises an important question – What exactly is authentic, in this regard? Let’s find out.

Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov
Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov

Invariably, if you’re a student of food history at all, you’ve heard some version of the origin story for beef stroganoff. Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov was the Minister of Internal Affairs of Russia under Czar Alexander III, in the early 19th century, and later the Governor-General of Novorossiysk and Bessarabia. He was also the president of the historical society, a famous and wealthy man, and a bit of a gourmand. The rest of the story goes, in essence, that he collaborated with his French Chef to invent Beef Stroganov, which took Russia by storm, winning awards throughout the country, and is still with us today. While the modern dish is surely named Stroganoff, the origin story is kinda cloudy when you get down to brass tacks. And by the way, there are some serious issues with most modern recipes – More on that shortly.

Here are a few facts – first, the dish attributed to the Stroganov family is an age old Russian favorite – sautéed beef in sour cream sauce. Secondly, the upper crust during Czarist times loved all things French – Many spoke French at home and sent their kids to French schools, and French cuisine was considered especially à la mode. Third, many Russian cooks were French trained, and families who could afford to hire a genuine French Chef would do so in a heartbeat.

There is also evidence to support the belief that at least one Stroganov Count had a French Chef, though I’ve yet to read anything definitive attributed to which one was the one. While most popular versions tap Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov as the creator, there are rival claims for Counts Pavel Alexandrovich and Sergei Grigorievich as well. The first published recipe that specifically called the dish Beef Stroganov I’m aware of appeared in a cookbook written by Elena Molokovhets in 1861, (A Gift For Young Housewives). It’s also true that, thirty years later, in Saint Petersburg, a French Chef named Charles Briere was awarded a blue ribbon for a dish he called Beef Stroganov. But at that point, Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov had been dead for almost 75 years, and the youngest candidate, Sergei, had died in 1882. Nothing I read definitively tied Briere to the Stroganovs either – Clear as mud, right?

In any case, it’s certainly plausible that a French Chef might tweak either a rustic Russian favorite, (or for that matter, a French fricassee de boeuf), making it more suitable for refined Russian palates. And it’s still most likely, for my mind, that the dish came to fame with Count Alexander, who reportedly was a serious party hound. Certainly the French-Russian twist is evident in the truest version of the dish – sautéing beef, and then whipping up a pan sauce flavored with mustard is absolutely French, while beef in sour cream defines Russian fare to a T.

When the Communist Revolution engulfed Russia and buried the last of the Czars, many who were able fled their home country. Naturally, they took their favorite dishes with them. Beef Stroganov migrated first to China, where Shanghai was known as The Paris of the East – There is where it likely was first pared with rice, and where soy or fish sauce of some kind would have been introduced as well. The dish also worked its way through what would become the soviet block countries, and eventually to America – There, in New York City in 1927, the Russian Tea Room opened, with Beef Stroganoff on the menu. It was around this time and through these gyrations and upheavals that the name apparently changed from Stroganov to Stroganoff.

Enough of the history – Onward to the stuff commonly associated with beef Stroganov that, frankly, shouldn’t be – Please note, I’m not saying you can’t do these things – I’m merely pointing out that, if authentic is important, this stuff won’t be in the mix. Pretty much the entire no-no list came from American ‘improvements’ to the dish.

Mushrooms – Russian purists say unequivocally that mushrooms in beef stroganoff is inauthentic. You can do it if you dig it, but try it at least once without. Mushrooms are potent – They add a number of elements of taste and texture that can easily overwhelm what should be a delicate balance of flavors. So if you do add them, make them good ones, and pay attention to proportion – half to a loose full cup is plenty – And for the record? Yeah, I add them – Shiitakes from our tribe in Minnesota, along with a half cup of steeping liquid.

Served on Noodles – Never done in Russia. Served over mashed or roasted potatoes, or accompanied by fried potatoes are the ways it was done, and later, over rice as well. Don’t get me wrong, freshly made egg noodles are great with Stroganoff, but you owe it to yourself to try the more authentic accompaniments – And doing so gives you a built in excuse to make several batches…

Adding canned cream of mushroom soup. Please, just don’t, ever. That stuff is just so wrong, I shouldn’t need to elaborate further. I don’t care if your mom and aunt Sally used it – Just don’t.

Adding ketchup/catsup. While I found, (and endorse), the use of tomato paste and honey in the seasoning mix, ketchup ain’t the way to get there. The balance is way off, and frankly, even good store bought ketchup doesn’t taste much like tomatoes. The idea is to get a little sweet note and a little msg umami feel into the recipe, and there’s much better, more balanced ways to do that, as you’ll see shortly.

For great Stroganov, you need great beef
For great Stroganov, you need great beef

Ground beef, or cheap stew cuts. Remember what I said last week about choosing beef? You certainly can make Stroganoff with these cuts and grinds, but to do it right, what you need is a nice quality, lean cut. Top sirloin, eye of the round, tenderloin will all do a great job. Stroganoff, done right, is fork tender, almost melt in your mouth, and it doesn’t require long stewing or braising time, so a good quality cut is mission critical to achieving that end. Again, you can use that other stuff in a pinch, but if you want to make the version fit for a Count, you need pretty good beef.

What you certainly can do is use a protein other than beef. While some hard cores claim only kow is korrect, plenty of genuine Russian history and recipes I chased down indicated that pork, lamb, and chicken all were used from time to time in the old country, and you can too. And for that matter, tofu sautéed to a nice crispy crust, with a soft, cream interior, is also pretty spectacular, if I do say so myself.

This recipe is an amalgam of several authentic versions. Those recipes varied from absolutely simple to quite complex. I took the common ground from all of them, as well as a couple of my favorite tweaks from the dish’s travels, to arrive where I did. I encourage you to dig in deeper and come up with one of your own – But try mine first. That said, whatever version you make, pay attention to the technique I’m showing here. I guarantee you it’ll make the most incredible Stroganov you’ve ever tasted, or your money back!

Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique

1 Pound Beef Sirloin or Tenderloin
1 small Sweet Onion
1 Cup Sour Cream
1/2 Cup Beef Stock
1 Tablespoon Wondra Flour
1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil (Olive Oil is fine)
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1 Tablespoon Tomato Paste
2 teaspoons Honey
1 teaspoon Soy Sauce
2 drops Fish Sauce
Sea Salt
Ground Pepper

Trim all fat and connective tissue from beef, and reserve that stuff.

Trimmed fat and connective tissue
Trimmed fat and connective tissue

In a cast iron skillet over low heat, add a pinch of salt and all the trimmed fat, etc. cook on low, stirring occasionally, until the fat is rendered out of the trimmings, about 15 minutes.

Rendering fat from beef trimmings
Rendering fat from beef trimmings

Peel, trim, and slice onion into thin 1/8″ thick rings, then cut those into quarters.

Sweat the onions in rendered beef fat, with a little salt and pepper
Sweat the onions in rendered beef fat, with a little salt and pepper

Remove the trimmings from the skillet, and bring heat up to medium. If your beef trimmings didn’t render enough fat to coat the pan, add a little oil.

Add onions to the skillet, stir to coat with the rendered fat, and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Reduce heat to medium low and sweat the onions – This is done with the heat initially fairly high, then reduced – Its a quick process, 2 or 3 minutes, with steady stirring. The onions will look glossy and wet, but do not brown them.

If you've made and frozen Demi glacé, this is a perfect dish to add it to.
If you’ve made and frozen Demi glacé, this is a perfect dish to add it to.

Add the beef stock and butter to the skillet and stir, add another pinch of salt and a twist or two of Pepper. If you’ve been good and made demi glacé, pull a cube or two from the freezer and add it to the pan as well. Stir to incorporate, and reduce heat to low.

Onions, beef stock, butter, and Demi glacé
Onions, beef stock, butter, and Demi glacé

With a meat hammer, pound the trimmed beef lightly to tenderize. If you have a decent meat hammer, then the trick is to let the tool’s weight do the work – Don’t add muscle to the pounding, just guide the tool – You want your beef to end up about 1/2″ thick.

Beef pounded to roughly 1/2" thick
Beef pounded to roughly 1/2″ thick

Cut the beef into strips about 1 1/2″ long and 1/2″ thick. Transfer to a non-reactive bowl.

Check your onions and stock. Give them a stir, and keep the heat low enough that they do not simmer.

The rocket fuel for great Stroganov
The rocket fuel for great Stroganov

Add flour, mustard, tomato paste, soy sauce, honey, and fish sauce to the beef and mix by hand until thoroughly and evenly coated.

Beef, seasoned with flour, mustard, tomato paste, soy sauce, and fish sauce.
Beef, seasoned with flour, mustard, tomato paste, soy sauce, and fish sauce.

Transfer onions and stock to a mixing bowl.

Increase heat to medium high and add a tablespoon of avocado oil to the skillet. When the pan is nice and hot, add the beef and sauté quickly, turning constantly. Cook for about 2 minutes until the beef is lightly browned.

Turn the heat under the skillet off, and add the onions and stock to the beef. Stir to incorporate. Cover the pan and allow the dish to sit for at least 30 minutes, and an hour is better yet.

Beef Stroganov should be luxurious, even before adding sour cream
Beef Stroganov should be luxurious, even before adding sour cream

When you’re about ready to eat, uncover the skillet and turn the heat to medium low. Allow the Stroganov to heat through, stirring occasionally. Do not allow the dish to boil or simmer vigorously – Nice and easy does it on the reheat. This will take about 15 minutes to heat the dish through.

When your Stroganov has 5 minutes of reheating left, add the sour cream, taste and adjust salt and pepper as desired. Stir gently to incorporate, and every minute or so thereafter – Again, do not allow the dish to boil, or you’ll break the delicate sauce.

Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique
Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique

Serve over rice, or mashed potatoes, with a salad or green vegetable. Garnish with parsley, cilantro, or basil, and chopped tomato if you like.

Na Zdorovie!

Not Your Mom’s Sloppy Joe

What could possibly be more American than the sloppy joe – lots of things, actually. While the iconic loose meat sandwich has origin claims all over the lower 48, the straight skinny is that this messy gem came from Havana, Cuba – And you can rest assured that this is not your mom’s sloppy joe.

Those of us who’re old enough will remember stuff like the Manwich from the 1960s, (and other atrocities). Go back farther though, and hints of the true roots come to light – Names like ’Spanish hamburger’, and ‘minced beef Spanish style’. American origin stories focus on the Midwest, where loose meat sandwiches have been popular since the mid nineteenth century. Sioux City, Iowa and an ephemeral cook named Joe back in the 1930s is about as good as the story gets – Yet there was direct evidence out there – like a 1944 ad from the Coshocton, Ohio Tribune that read, ‘Good Things to Eat’ says ‘Sloppy Joes’ – 10c – Originated in Cuba,’ – and there you have it.

There is, of course, the world famous Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, Florida – That joint sells upward of 50,000 of the iconic sandwiches annually – yet they are not the original. That would be Jose Garcia Rios’ Havana Club, a tiny bar attached to a grocery store in Havana, Cuba, that opened back in 1918. The store sold a lot of seafood, and the floor was eternally covered in ice and packing materials – As such, locals started referring to Jose G. as Sloppy Joe, because Habaneros truly love fond but slightly barbed nicknames – and it stuck. According to Mark Kurlansky in his wonderful book, Havana – A Subtropical Delirium, ‘Sloppy Joe’s specialized in a sandwich of the same name that was a perfect expression of Havana at the time. It was the traditional Cuban dish picadillo, served on an American-style hamburger bun,’ and that is where it all began.

Cuban sofrito

Cuban picadillo is different from what you’re likely familiar with. It’s ground or shredded meat powered by Cuban sofrito, the signature aromatic blend of onion, garlic, and bell pepper, often with other veggies and herbs added as the cook sees fit. If you google ‘Cuban picadillo,’ you’re more likely than not to find a recipe that includes ground beef, potatoes, onions, garlic, cumin, bell peppers, white wine, tomato sauce, raisins, olives and capers. The reason that this iteration is so prolific isn’t necessarily because it’s the most authentic, but because it’s the most copied – often word for word, by different posters. Picadillo is a core Cuban dish, and as such, everybody makes it, and nobody makes it the same way.

Kurlansky included this passage on the subject in his book – ‘Below is the recipe as the bartender (at the Havana Sloppy Joe’s), gave it to me, translated into English. But first you have to make a picadillo, so here is a recipe for picadillo given to me more than thirty years ago at an equally famous Havana bar, La Bodeguita del Medio: Grind meat (beef) and marinate it with salt and lime juice, or vinegar. Make a sofrito with minced garlic and onion sautéd with the ground meat. This should be done slowly. Now the Sloppy Joe: Saute picadillo in oil: add black pepper, onion, garlic, cumin, bay leaf, and tomato sauce, and finish with demi-glace sauce. Add salt to taste and when it is cooked, add (green) olives. Keep on medium heat for 5 minutes to finish. Serve over a hamburger bun.’

That struck me as a much sounder base to work from. It’s safe to say that, if we have stuff we like at hand, any Cuban cook would encourage us to add some – to a point. Cuban cooking is fundamentally simple, not always because of a dearth of ingredients, but because that’s how they do things – When ingredients are good, it’s best to allow them to shine. As for process, I like it a lot – Most folks will want to treat the dish as a slow cooked stew, and that’s fine – but I really dig doing the low and slow with the meat first, adding that carnitas cooking step of lightly frying the beef in oil before final assembly, and then using reduced, fresh beef stock as a stand in for the demi glacé.

The carnitas step to Cuban sloppy joe

Here then is my swing at a Cuban Sloppy Joe. We use a slow cooker here – I think you get brighter, more distinct flavors that way, since the potent ingredients go in at the end of the cooking process. The recipe is bulked up beyond what you’d need for a single meal, because leftovers like these are a thing of beauty. Note that there are no hot chiles this dish. I’ve been told more than once that most Cubans don’t really do a lot of hot food, rarely using hot chiles. They do use onion and garlic generously, which adds plenty of spicy notes. They also don’t salt things nearly as much as we do up here in el Norte – This recipe reflects those predilections. 

Finally, there’s no reason at all not to serve this over rice with a side of beans the first night – That would be more in keeping with Cuban cooking than the hamburger bun – 24 hours later, the mix is much firmer and, frankly, better than it was on day one – That’s the time to bring out the buns.

Urban’s Habanero Sloppy Joe

Urban’s Habanero Sloppy Joe

This is an all day low and slow dish, so plan accordingly.

3 Pounds Beef Roast, (Chuck, Rump, Cross Rib, or Bottom Round will all shred nicely)

1 large yellow Onion

2 mild Anaheim Chiles

1 Green Bell Pepper

2 stalks Celery

2 Carrots

7 fat cloves Garlic

1 bunch fresh Cilantro

2 14 oz cans diced Tomatoes (if it’s tomato season, absolutely use fresh – but you’ll need 8-10 big ones)

1 Cup stuffed Manzanillo Olives

2 Cups Beef Broth

2 Tablespoons Banana Vinegar (Cider vinegar will work fine)

2 fresh Limes

2 Tablespoons Non Pareil Capers with Brine

2 teaspoons Mexican Oregano

1 teaspoon Salt

1/2 teaspoon Cumin

3-4 Turkish Bay Leaves

5-6 twists of ground Black Pepper

4 Tablespoons Avocado Oil for cooking

Low and slow cross rib roast

Peel and trim onion. Smash and skin 2 cloves of garlic. End trim celery and carrots. Rough chop half the onion, the celery, and the carrots.

Place beef roast, onion, garlic, celery, carrots, and a quarter teaspoon of whole cumin in a slow cooker. Add a three fingertip pinch of salt and a couple of bay leaves.

Cover the roast about 3/4 way with water and set the cooker on low – Cooking will require around 8 hours for most devices. 

Keep an eye on the water level and don’t let it drop much – I keep it pretty much where I started at throughout the cooking process.

Check internal temperature of the beef after 7 hours of cooking – You’re after 160° F. When you reach that, pull the roast out of the cooker and let it rest for 15 minutes. Retain the beef broth in the cooker.

While the beef is cooling, prepare your mise en place for everything else – An assortment of small bowls or ramekins is really indispensable in a kitchen – If you don’t have a bunch – get ‘em.

Always get your mise together

Dice remaining onion. Smash, peel, end trim, and mince remaining cloves of garlic. Stem, end trim, and dice Anaheims and bell pepper. Chop 1/2 packed cup of cilantro.

Transfer one can of tomatoes to a mixing bowl and process to a sauce with a stick blender. Leave the other can diced, and retain the liquid.

Measure out and either rough chop or quarter the manzanillo olives, as you prefer.

Measure out 2 tablespoons of capers with brine.

Halve the lime and squeeze out 1/4 cup of juice. Retain any extra, cut into 1/8ths for garnish.

Measure out 2 tablespoons of vinegar.

Measure out 2 teaspoons of oregano. 

Measure and grind 1/4 teaspoon of cumin.

In a large sauté pan or skillet over medium heat, add a tablespoon of oil and heat through. Add the onion, chiles, and bell pepper, and sauté until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 3-5 minutes.

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

Turn off the heat under those veggies and let them sit.

Hand shredded beef for Cuban sloppy joe

Beef shredding time – You can do this by hand, or with two forks, which I find easier – You need pretty stout flat wear, and you should hold them close to the tines. You can cut things to length if you like, then shred with the grain of the roast.

In a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat, add 3 tablespoons of oil and heat through.

The carnitas step to Cuban sloppy joe

When the oil is nice and hot, add the beef and let if fry for a minute or so before flipping it – You want to get a thin coating of oil to char slightly.

Once the beef has been evenly fried, (about 3-4 minutes), add a cup of stock from your slow cooker and deglaze the pan. Scrape all the naughty bits off the bottom. Chances are good most of this cup will boil away, which is OK – add another and let that heat through until it’s simmering.

Add the can of diced tomatoes and the can you sauced, and stir to incorporate. 

Real deal Cuban Sloppy Joe

Once the mix is simmering again, add the sautéd veggies and a three finger pinch of salt, a few twists of ground pepper, and 2 Bay Leaves – stir those in thoroughly. 

Reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer and allow to cook for about 30 minutes.

Urban’s Habanero Sloppy Joe

Add the cilantro, olives, capers, oregano, lime juice, vinegar, and cumin – stir to incorporate.

Let cook on a bare simmer for another 30 minutes.

Serve hot, and try not to eat it all the first night.

Again, I’ll recommend you do rice and beans as we did the first night, and go for buns on day two – The flavors have thoroughly married and it’s that much better, as well as tighter then.

A Story of Bitter Orange

This is a story of bitter orange, naranja agria. I came to love this little bundle of pucker power through the cuisine of the Yucatán peninsula. There, bitter orange is everywhere in the food, most famously in the signature dish, conchinita pibil, an intoxicating alchemy of naranja agria, chile heat, and low and slow pit cooking. While chiles and the Yucatán swing on pit barbecue are critical elements here, the one thing you absolutely can’t do pibil without is bitter orange.

Bitter Orange is seminal to a bunch more cuisines as well, from Cuban and other Caribbean islands, to Spanish, Moroccan, and Persian. This is not, for the most part, an eating or drinking orange and juice, although in Mexico, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see them sliced, salted, and slathered in chile paste as a snack. These oranges are very bitter indeed, and sour to boot – Think more lemon or lime than orange in that regard. Yet the orangey notes are most definitely there, and that’s what brings the magic.

Naranja Agria - The noble bitter orange

Also known as Seville orange, sour orange, marmalade orange, naranja acida, naranji, melangolo, and even soap orange, Citrus x aurantium originated in Southeast Asia and spread rapidly around the globe. Natives of the South Sea Islands believe it hit their shores prehistorically. It was the sole European orange for hundreds of years, and the first to arrive on this side of the pond. Now grown commercially virtually worldwide, bitter orange trees range from maybe 10 feet to over 30 feet. It’s generally a thorny evergreen tree, with leaves and flowers that smell absolutely delightful, and smallish fruit, 2 to 4 inches or so, and thick, wrinkly, oily skins, (that make great marmalade, of course.)

The noble bitter orange tree

As favored as these fruit are to so many cuisines, it’s natural that numerous varieties have been established. Seville is probably the most internationally recognizable, but there’s also the English bergamot (bouquet here in the states), the chinotto from the Mediterranean, the daidai from Japan and China, the Californian goleta, the South American Paraguay, and the Indian karna – There’s a bunch more than this, but you get the idea – They’re beloved all over the place.

There’s a nice range of notable food uses for sour orange, other than powering sauces and marinades – The peels make amazing marmalade, of course. Oil squeezed from the peels is a signature orange flavoring for curaçao liqueur, candy, soft drinks, ice cream, and a bunch of other stuff. Orange blossom honey is a treat wherever you can find it. Orange flower water finds its way into Middle Eastern and Persian food. In quite a few places, the juice is fermented into wine – I’ve never tried that, but I’d like to.

There are some very interesting non-food uses for naranja agria, tambien – when the fruit and leaves are crushed together, they’ll lather in water, and are sometimes used as soap. The perfume industry loves the oil and flowers. The juice has antiseptic and hemostatic properties. And finally, the wood is nice stuff – Dense and hard, it was used in Cuba for baseball bats.

So, now that you’re all excited to join the party, it’s time for some good news/bad news – First, the bad – in all likelihood, you won’t find decent sour orange juice anywhere near you – In fact, you probably won’t find it at all. Oh sure, there’s stuff out there called bitter or sour orange – Goya, Badia, and Lechonera are the brands you’re most likely to see – But the fact is, none of them are bitter orange juice. They contain, variously, orange juice concentrate, other juices like lime, lemon, or grapefruit, and at best, a little bit of sour orange oil, and a bunch of stabilizers and preservatives – the Lechonera brand, in fact, has lists propylene glycol as the seventh ingredient therein – In other words, at best these are shelf stable, pale shadows of the real thing.

So called ‘bitter orange’ marinade is anything but

The good news is, if you have a decent Latin grocery near you, there’s a 90%+ chance they sell fresh naranja agria, (and same goes for a Persian or Middle Eastern grocery, where they’ll probably call them Persian oranges). I get plump, juicy Valencias for around 50¢ a pop at La Gloria in Bellingham, WA. Do make sure you confirm they’re agria, (albeit they’ll probably have the little sticker on them telling what variety and place of origin they are). They’ll last like most citrus, good for three to four weeks refrigerated in a drawer designed for holding produce. Four or five is plenty to provide enough juice for most recipes. As with all citrus, look for firm, heavy fruit. More so than sweet oranges, bitters may have some green on their skins and still be ripe.

Now, what to do if you get a sudden hankerin’ to build something that calls for bitter orange when you ain’t got none? Then, it’s definitely time to fake it. As those commercial marinades indicate, the proper substitution is a combination of citrus juices, and maybe even some vinegar. The key here is the taste of orange forward in the mix, with the sourness of lemons, limes, and maybe vinegar – Again, naranja agria is really, really acidic – truly sour, with bitter notes from the oils. What you really need to do, assuming you’re into this, is try fresh squeezed sour orange juice, and then concoct what most closely resembles that to your taste – Everyone’s different, so your mix shall be your own.

When I posted a piece on pibil back in May of ‘17, I was using a mix of orange juice, lemon juice, cider vinegar, and tequila – And for the record, no, I don’t do that any more, and yes, I’ve revised that post. My current, (and consistently used), go to sour orange sub mix has morphed into equal portions of orange juice, lime juice, grapefruit juice, and a minor share of pineapple vinegar, (the latter comes from Rancho Gordo and is worth its weight in gold). I build it in just shy of one cup batches, like so,

 

Urban’s Faux Sour Orange

All juices fresh squeezed

1/4 Cup Orange Juice

1/4 Cup Grapefruit Juice

1/4 Cup Lime Juice 

2 Tablespoons Pineapple Vinegar (Good Cider vinegar is just fine)

Again, you’ll have to experiment and tweak things to your liking. Finally, here’s a Cuban inspired chicken dish that’ll take full advantage of naranja agria you can give a try to.

Urban’s Pollo Cubano

Urban’s Pollo al Cubano 

1 whole chicken, around 3 pounds

1 Cup fresh Bitter Orange Juice (or Sub)

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1-3 Hatch or Anaheim Chiles, (Assuming you can’t get fresh Cubanelles – If you can, do)

1 small Sweet Onion

1 Red Bell Pepper

4-6 fat cloves Garlic

1 Tablespoon Mexican Oregano

2 Bay Leaves 

Salt and fresh ground Pepper

Butterfly the chicken, (if you don’t know this trick, check it out here)

Skin and trim onion and garlic. 

Fine dice onion, and mince the garlic.

Stem and seed chiles, then fine dice.

Stem, seed, and fine dice the bell pepper.

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of oil and allow to heat through. 

Add chiles, peppers, and onion. Sauté until the onion starts to turn translucent, about 3-5 minutes.

Add the garlic and continue to sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about another 1-2 minutes.

Remove veggie blend from heat and allow to cool to room temp.

Zest and juice whatever citrus you’re using.

In a non-reactive bowl, combine juice, zest, remaining oil, the cooled sofrito, oregano, bay leaves, a pinch of salt, and a few twists of ground pepper. Whisk to fully incorporate.

Place the chicken in a baking dish as close to the size of the butterflied bird as you’ve got.

Pour the marinade on the chicken, and then rub it in by hand, making sure all exposed surfaces get coated, including underneath.

Allow the bird to marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 3 – Any more than that can lead to a mushy chicken.

Bake the bird on a middle rack in a 350° F oven, or grill it if you prefer – 

I like to bake, because more of the marinade stays with the chicken.

Serve with rice, black beans, and cold beer.

Moros y Cristianos

Since rediscovering Rancho Gordo beans, and even joining the Bean Club, (which ain’t easy – It’s capped currently at 5000 members, it’s full, and there’s a substantial waiting list!), we’ve been more and more entranced with the diversity and wide ranging potential of bean dishes. These RG beans are just incredibly good, and you don’t need to be a Bean Clubber to enjoy them – Just head for their website, but be forewarned – This is the time of year when quite a few varieties are not available, a function of their small size and heavier than expected holiday demand. Fortunately, the dish we’re going to highlight today calls for black beans, and not only does RG have stunningly good options in that regard, but they’re in stock as I write, too. The Ayacote Negros are wonderful, as are the Midnight Blacks – so if this piece floats your boat, head on over to RG and snag some while the snagging is good.

Arguably, the most wonderful use for most wonderful beans are old school stuff that may have gone by the wayside, like Moros y Cristianos.

Great Cuban food always has Moros

If you’ve ever eaten authentic Cuban food, then you’ve likely had Platillo Moros y Cristianos. Also known as moro, moros, or arroz moro, this is the classic Cuban version of rice and beans. Widely served and loved in its home country, as well as throughout the Caribbean and the southeastern U.S., moros is a deeply nuanced dish with a wealth of wonderfully blended favors. Translated, moros y cristianos is Moors, (the black beans), and Christians, (the rice). The name harkens all the way back to the Islamic conquest of the Spanish peninsula in the 8th century. That event had profound effect on Spanish food and culture that resonates in this wonderful dish, for among many other staples, the Moors brought rice and beans, and a live of subtlety and complexity in cooking.

The Moorish influence on Spanish food and culture runs deep

Making moros y cristianos takes a bit longer than other variations on the theme, but rewards with truly amazing favors for your efforts. Served alone with fresh tortillas, it’s a deeply satisfying and filling treat. If you’re of a mind to pair with another protein, simple shredded beef, chicken, or pork is all you need.

image

For the Moros
2 Cups dry Black Beans
2 Tablespoons diced Onion
2 Tablespoons chopped Bacon
1 clove Garlic, peeled and rough chopped
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black Pepper

Preheat oven to 250° F.
In an oven-ready sauce pan with a tight fitting lid, add all ingredients, (and if you’re blessed with some kind of clay cooker, use that!)
Pour enough boiling water over the beans to completely cover by a good 2”.
Cover the pan and set on a middle rack.
Bake for 75 minutes, checking the water level after half an hour, and again at 45 minutes and an hour in. Add water as needed.
When beans are slight al dente, remove from heat and set on stove top, covered.

For the Cristianos
1 Cup long grain white rice
1/4 Pound Bacon
1 Cup diced sweet onion
3/4 Cup diced Green Pepper
1/4 Cup fine chopped Cilantro
3-4 cloves Garlic, peeled
1 Tablespoon Red Wine Vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground Cumin
1 Bay Leaf
Sea Salt
Olive Oil

Using the flat side of a chefs knife, smash the garlic cloves, then sprinkle lightly with salt and allow to rest for five minutes.
Mince rested garlic into a paste and set aside.
Chop bacon, then add to a large sauté pan, (with a cover you’ll use later), over medium heat and fry until crisp lardons are formed, about 5 minutes.
Transfer bacon from pan to paper towels, leaving bacon fat in the pan.
Add two tablespoons of olive oil to bacon fat, bringing heat back up to medium.
Add 3/4 cup of the onion, pepper, and garlic to hot oil,and fat and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 3-5 minutes.
Add dry rice, bay leaf, cumin, oregano, stir all to incorporate.
Taste and add salt and pepper as desired.
Add Beans and their liquid, and the vinegar, then stir to incorporate.
Cover and reduce heat to low.
Simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, checking and stirring at around the 20 minute mark. Add a bit more water if things look too dry.

Homemade Moros y Cristianos

Serve piping hot, garnished with remaining onion and the cilantro, with fresh, warm tortillas.

Vancouver B. C. – Chinatown and Serious Ramen

M and I are on our second year of a tradition I’m liking very much – Since we live within rock throwing distance of the Canadian border, we go up for a few days the week before Christmas. It’s a good time, sort of a ’tween holidays lull. Last year was just a quiet trip to Harrison Hot Springs, which is lovely and quaint and very relaxing indeed. This year, we chose a different route, one that was guided by food as much or more as any other criterion.

Sure, we all eat when we travel, and often enough, it’s a focus, but what came to mind for us was going to Vancouver B.C. specifically for two things – First, to eat some great Asian food (and spark our own creativity thereby), and secondly, to do a recon cruise through Chinatown, maybe pick up some supplies.

The Hotel Listel in Vancouver’s West Side

We chose a nice hotel, smack in the middle of the West End, a relatively bohemian chunk of the city. Rents and incomes are middle of the road here. Roughly bordered by Stanley Park to the northwest, Chinatown and Gastown to the east, Vancouver harbor to the north, and Granville Island to the south, the West End is home to lots of art, great food, and plenty of sidewalk entertainment, (as in, just soaking up the vibe). There is marvelous, flowing diversity in the people, food, commerce, and art.

The Hotel Listel prides itself on great art.

Our hotel was the Listel, which was remarkable affordable given the obvious quality therein. They pride themselves on abundant art throughout the place, their environmental concern and awareness, (which is palpable – No plastic anything in the room, recycling containers, solar power generation, to name but a few), and their food, which for us was hot and cold. We ate at the Timber restaurant, where the staff and service were once again excellent, but dishes were hit and miss. The calimari and chicken wings were delightful, while the cheese dip and shore lunch were not so much – The dip itself was great, but the crackers and potato skins provided there with were not done at all well, and the fish, while obviously quality, came to us soggy and a bit tired. That said, room service breakfast was truly excellent – The eggs were obviously top notch, and I’d be excited about the Benedict wherever I was eating, but especially so in bed on a lazy Monday morning!

Our room in the Listel was seriously cozy

Our room faced an adjoining high rise apartment building, which initially might seem disappointing, but the fact is, this is how and where people live here, so it should be embraced – Families doing their thing, a hairless kitty in the window checking out the gulls – it was all rather nice. The staff and the people in general were remarkably friendly. The rhythm of the area varied from absolutely hopping when we arrived on a rainy Sunday afternoon, to comfortably relaxed on a weekday. The Listel has valet parking for an additional fee, (about $30 a night), which includes unlimited access when you want your ride. Staff were happy to offer good honest advice on destinations, including where not to park in Chinatown, (avoid parking garages where your vehicle isn’t in plain sight of the street). 

Vancouver Chinatown

Neither M or I had been in Vancouver for literally decades, so some broad exploration was in order. We started with Chinatown, which may have its share of touristy kitsch, but is still vibrant and genuine for the folks who live there. There is plenty of great food and some wonderful shops throughout, (like the original Ming Wo Cookware building, a truly scary place, in a good way). We sought advice from a knowledgeable resident, with an eye toward food that the locals buy and eat – He strongly recommended T & T Supermarket. There are three of these in Vancouver – we chose the one smack in the middle of Chinatown, at 179 Keefer Place, (there was ample street parking nearby on our weekday visit). 

T & T Supermarket is an absolute delight

First off, yes, this is a grocery store, but it’s certainly not your average one. We’re used to seeking out high quality ingredients when we shop at home, and to do that we visit a litany of smaller specialty shops and markets. This place has it all under one roof, (and our guide had been absolutely correct – we were part of a very small handful of non-Asian shoppers.)

T & T Supermarket is an absolute delight

The differences here lie chiefly in variety and quality. From staples like noodles, rice, flour, and oil, to incredible varieties of very fresh seafood, meat, and produce, T & T is stunningly good – If I lived here, this is where I’d shop, and in light of that, we’re already planning for our next stay to have cooking facilities so that we can do just that. On this recon trip, our purchases were kept to Christmas treats for the granddaughters, some wonderful dried noodles, and a bottle of aged black vinegar – You can bring quite a variety of personal use food items back to the States, and there’s a good resource for that here.

Our T & T stash

On the way out of Chinatown, we decided to cruise Gastown, and thought about stopping for a beer and a bite, but despite the outward charm, we found it all a bit too trite and decided to head back to the West End. Across from our hotel there was a little hole in the wall noodle place, Ramen Danbo, that always had a line in front of it, and often, a really long line. When we arrived, there were only four people out front, so we decided to go for it. There are two in Vancouver, one in Seattle, and one in NYC, augmenting the 20 shops throughout Japan. This one has only 28 seats, which explains some of the constant line, but not all – The lions share of that is due to the fact that this is really good ramen – Fukuoka style Tonkatsu, from the southern end of Kyushu, to be precise.

Ramen Danbo - Seriously good stuff

Naturally, good quality, fresh noodles are critical to ramen, and these guys certainly have those, from thin to thick, and soft to firm, as you please. As with all great soups, though, it’s more about the broth and the base. Tonkatsu is considered by many to be the ne plus ultra of Japanese ramen variants – it’s a complex, involved dance, indeed.

Ramen Danbo, Vancouver

First off, there’s the all important broth, that sublime elixir. It tastes simple as can be, and it may be, in terms of ingredients, but it’s sure not in terms of preparation. Traditionally, this is made from is pork trotters or knuckles, either split lengthwise, or whacked with a hammer to release the marrow, along with a few chicken feet, which add some serious protein, calcium, collagen, and cartilage to the mix, (AKA, some stuff that’s good for you, and some serious unctuousness). Add aromatics, (onion, garlic, ginger, leek, scallion), and finally, some fresh fatback, and then boil the shit out of it – In traditional circles, for as long as 60 hours, and you get this stock – Well, sort of anyway. Fact is, there is some seriously finicky cleaning called for to get broth as pretty as the stuff we ate at Danbo. Everything from those bones that isn’t white or beige has to go, or what you’ll get is a mud colored, albeit tasty broth, so some serious washing and nit-picky cleaning is in order. Unlike French stocks, this stuff is not clarified and filtered extensively before it’s served. With a bone broth cooked for as long as tonkotsu is, not only do you generate a bunch of gelatin, but virtually every other constituent gets into the act as well – fat, marrow, calcium from the bones themselves – All this stuff is why it’s so stunningly good.

Next comes the soup base. There are several primary Japanese variants – Tonkatsu, miso, shoyu, and shio – and Danbo does versions of all of those. Their signature base is ‘ramen-dare’, and they’re tight lipped about what’s in it – They say, and I quote, ‘our ramen-dare soup base is imported from Japan, made from select natural ingredients, and despite having low sodium, is filled with umami extracts.’ This apparent obfuscation is neither nefarious nor unusual, by the way. Like many signature ingredients, soup bases are closely guarded in Japan, so it’s next to impossible to discover exactly what’s in there. I sure don’t know what fuels Danbo’s dare, but I’d take a stab at kombu, plenty of shiitake, a little bonito, and a little shoyu – The Shiitakes would be the likely culprit for adding serious umami without a lot of sodium. As dark as the stuff looks in their menu pic, might be the possibility of deeply caramelized aromatics as well, (heavy on the onion, garlic, and ginger). The base is generally added to the broth in a ratio of around a tablespoon to a bowl, (or less, given how lightly colored theirs is when it hits the table.) 

Ramen Danbo - Seriously good stuff

Topping off Ramen Danbo’s offering is a little spoonful of red sauce – They call it tare, and all they’ll tell us is that it’s, ‘Togarashi red pepper powder mixed with Chinese spices and medicinal ingredients, this top-secret mixture brings out the flavour, umami, and full-bodied taste of our ramen,’ which significantly downplays what this stuff likely is – I’d guess that what we have here is a spin on classic Tonkatsu Master Sauce – a complex, heady mix of onion, tomato, garlic, apple, sake, kombu, hot chiles, and most if not all of the warm spices from Chinese five spice – Sort of a Japanese swing at Worcestershire sauce, (and some cooks put that into the mix, too). It is, in other words, seriously concentrated flavors, mouth feel and a decent punch in a very small package – Maybe a teaspoon crowns your bowl. 

Ramen Danbo - Seriously good stuff

Put all that together and you’ll be staring, glassy eyed, wowed, and very contently, at a mostly empty bowl if you’re me. Or you might be like the guy who sat next to us taking advantage of the kaedama offering – Additional helpings of noodles, which he did for a grand total of five servings – And He was a skinny little guy, too – Some guys get all the luck.