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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Serve piping hot, garnished with remaining onion and the cilantro, with fresh, warm tortillas.
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.
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.
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 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).
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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Let’s just address the elephant in the room, right off the bat – Beans are not exactly what one would call sexy food, right? Well, were we talking about the decidedly pedestrian offerings we’re all too used to seeing out there, I’d agree. Yet, when you consider what a little outfit based in California has been quietly doing for beans lately, the answer is a resounding, yes, they are – Because Rancho Gordo is making beans very sexy indeed.
Back about a decade or so, I discovered Rancho Gordo and some truly amazing beans. No, seriously – Truly amazing beans. We’re talking the kind of beans that you try a couple of after they’re just done cooking, and then you raise an eyebrow, and then you try more, all the while thinking, ‘damn! Those are outstanding!’ – Beans that good. Then I kinda forgot about them, for who knows what reason, until just recently, when we were reunited. In the meantime, Steve Sando and the Rancho crew had gone from harvesting a few thousand pounds a year to hundreds of thousands of pounds, and many, many more varieties. What John Bunker has done for apples in Maine, Sando is doing for beans. NOTE: When I asked Steve what their current production was, he wrote, “A lot!We’re in the middle of planning and we’re not sure where we’ll land.”
Sando wasn’t an agricultural expert, by any sense of the words, when he started this endeavor. He’d been, in fact, a web designer, DJ, and clothing wholesaler who happened to like to cook. He also lived in Napa, one of the lushest areas for food and wine one could wish for. Yet when he headed out one day in search of good tomatoes, he found… Crap. Nada – Nasty, hard, hothouse tomatoes from Holland were the best thing in sight. Since he was already an accomplished Jack of All Trades, he decided to take a swing at growing heirloom tomatoes and other veggies he’d like to cook with. Eventually, that lead to beans, and therein was made a match in culinary Heaven. Sando and crew have, in fifteen years or so, gone from humble origins to major stardom in the foodie world, with luminaries like Thomas Keller using Rancho Gordo beans in his restaurants, and an heirloom variety named after Marcella Hazan.
If you haven’t read the recent New Yorker piece on Sando and Rancho, do. It’s a wonderful vignette of the work they do, searching out new-to-us but old bean varieties, and bringing them to the rest of us. As Rancho Gordo grows, so does the search – That has spread throughout the Americas, from modest beginnings in California, through Mexico, and in to South America, (with inroads to Europe, including that Marcella bean, which naturally has Italian roots.) Their Rancho Gordo Xoxoc Project teams them up with a very fine Mexican outfit, to bring stunningly good heirloom Mexican beans to the markets up here in Gringolandia.
Oh, those beans! Seriously! We’re not talking flaccid plastic bags full of dullness – we’re talking rock stars, peacocks, a veritable rainbow of delights for the eye and stomach. Go to the Heirloom Bean Page on Rancho Gordo’s website and you’ll see, currently, thirty varieties that shine and sparkle. There’s no dullness here – There are glowing tones of red, black, white, cream, and purple – Shining solids, stripes, and blends. Let me assure you that these gems look every bit as good in person, even after they’re cooked.
And cook them you must, my friends. Yes, although I sound like a broken record, they are better than ‘that good.’ That’s important for a couple of reasons. First off, meatless meals are a thing we need to do more often. The world grows smaller as we continue to overpopulate it. Meat takes a hell of a lot of energy to produce, rather ridiculous amounts, truth be told. When we consider how and what and who produces food these days, things get grimmer yet. Up through most American history, well over 50% of the people lived in rural areas and were involved, in some degree, with farming and producing food. That figure is now around 1%, and ya can’t get a hell of a lot lower than that. Secondly, as agricultural area diminishes, or is generally overrun by huge corporate farming, diversity suffers foremost – That’s the reason why a visit to your local grocery finds those boring bags of industrial beans. Just as apples have rebounded, (leading to far greater availability of what were niche varieties), beans need to make that leap too, right into our gardens.
Beans are members of the legume family, which includes other such notables as peas, clover, and the lovely lupines that Monica planted out in front of our new digs this spring. Legumes have a great trick, a symbiosis with rhizobia, a common bacteria that are capable of fixing nitrogen, so long as they have a suitable host – Legumes provide that, so rhizobia settle into the plant’s root nodes and good things result. Instead of depleting soil, they enrich it. Fact is, planting beans or field peas at the end of your garden’s annual sojourn, (AKA, late fall), will not only help stabilize soils during the wet months, it’ll provide your next round of crops with a decent nitrogen fix, if you cut them down before they flower in the spring.
And for the record, Rancho Gordo not only approves of, but encourages home cultivation – Right there at the top of the Heirloom Bean Page, it reads, ‘Heirloom Beans are open-pollinated seeds that can be planted and you’ll get the exact same bean. They tend to have a lower yield and can be much more difficult to grow but the pay off is in the unique flavors and textures that you don’t find with bland commodity beans.’ Hey, everybody needs to start somewhere, yeah? Why not start with the best? RG doesn’t stop there, by the way – Sando wrote, The Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide, which’ll provide all the knowledge you need – Just add horsepower.
Then there are the nutritional considerations. Beans provide ample calories in a high protein, low fat package, with a low glycemic index, that includes complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and a generous sprinkling of vitamins and minerals. The USDA recommends we eat 3 cups of legumes a week as part of a healthy diet, and beans ought to be your star player in that endeavor. Now granted, all of that ain’t worth a Hill of beans if you don’t like the taste of ‘em. If what you’ve been exposed to is the seemingly endless world of canned and highly processed, or dried, low quality crap, who can blame you? Trust me when I say that Rancho Gordo is here to save the day.
As I mentioned, these beans are so far above the norm, they’re downright stratospheric. Go online, and look up threads of folks discussing cooking and eating these little beasties – you’ll read, repeatedly, something to the effect of ‘I was snacking on them so much, I was worried I wouldn’t have enough left for the dish I’d intended to make.’ They’re not joking. The first time I cooked some since my reintroduction, I experienced exactly that. Those were Vaqueros, by the way, gorgeous little black and white beauties that make amazing chili, (and are perfect for the Pacific Northwest – Their nickname is Orca Beans). Damn near anything and everything you want to eat with them or cook them into will be amazing, and just like that, your bean aversion is alleviated.
And the labels, well, those are just a fun, campy kick in the ass, far as I’m concerned. Sando was a web designer, you’ll recall, and he certainly does have an eye for catchy. They’re instantly recognizable, and downright appealing, and yeah, that kinda stuff does matter. Remember those dull, boring bags at the store? Well, screw that – These are as fun to look as they are to eat.
Alright, so whataya make with these things, anyway? Well, as I alluded to above, the sky’s the limit. From just beans, to salads, dips, and spreads. Soups, stews, and chili, to cassoulet, pasta y fagioli, and chakalaka, everything you make, from super simple to legendary, will be outstanding. For my mind, the simpler you start with, the better. Let the beans speak to before you layer them into other stuff. I’m not kidding. Eating these with an extraordinarily light seasoning hand will show you exactly what I’m gushing about. Sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, a drizzle of very good olive oil, maybe a chiffenade of a single, fresh basil leaf – nothing more – Yes, they have that much flavor and character. Do that, and on the second round, you’ll know exactly what each one will shone at when you really turn it loose. Your second wave might be a lovely bean and wild rice salad for something cold, or red beans and rice for a hot dish. After that, dive into the longer, slower stuff.
Now, when you want to genuinely layer up, and make something that will show what Rancho Gordo beans can really do, I’ll offer this recipe up, the very first elaborate one I made after RGB’s and I got reacquainted. I did it in an Instant Pot, (AKA, the IP, a truly spectacular electric, programmable pressure cooker, if you’re not familiar with them.)I’ll recommend using one, because the primary benefit of an Instant Pot can be summed up as follows – The entire process can be done in that appliance, and the total cooking time is only 18 minutes, and that includes pre-cooking the beans, yet the finished dish will taste like you slaved away all day – Capiche? If you don’t have an IP, you can soak, parboil, or bake the beans first, (Type ‘Beans’ into the search box here and you’ll get a bunch of options in that regard), then you can slow cook them as you see fit.
1 Pound Rancho Gordo Vaquero Beans
1/4 Pound Pork (whatever version you’ve got on hand)
1 Cup Chicken Stock
1/2 Cup Sweet Pepper, chopped
1/2 Cup Onion, chopped
1/4 Cup fresh Cilantro, chopped
1 to 3 fresh Serrano Chiles, cut into roughly 1/4” thick rings
1-2 cloves fresh Garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
Garnish: Crema or sour cream, hot sauce, more cilantro, fresh lime, Pico de Gallo, and so on, si?
Add dry beans and 8 cups of water to the Instant Pot.
Set the IP to 8 minutes on Pressure and let ‘er rip.
I used precooked pork – Use whatever you’ve got, from ground, to whole, to bacon.
If your pork is uncooked, give it a quick sauté to just brown it and get rid of most of the pink. When that’s done, transfer it to a small bowl and let it hang out while you continue. NOTE: If you’ve got a fatty cut of pork, trim the lion’s share and reserve it – You’ll use it shortly.
After the pressure cycle is completed, allow the pot to stay on Keep Warm mode for 10 minutes, then carefully release the remaining pressure on the IP. Use a towel or hot pads to grab the cooking vessel, then drain the beans through a colander – It’s always a good idea to save the pot liquor, it’ll be great for soups and stews down the line, and it freezes well.
Return the cooking vessel to the IP and set it to sauté.
When the IP is heated, add the reserved pork fat, (a tablespoon of avocado oil will do if you don’t have fat).
Allow the fat to melt (or the oil to heat through), then add the onion, sweet pepper, garlic, and chiles, and sauté, stirring lightly, until the onions start to turn translucent.
Add the chicken stock, pork, beans, cilantro, and seasoning to the IP and lock the cover back down.
Set the IP for 10 minutes at Pressure and let it go.
When the pressure cycle is complete, press Cancel, and let the IP’s pressure bleed off through ‘Natural Release’ – It’ll be about 20-25 minutes before you can unlock the cover.
Give beans a quick stir, taste, and adjust seasoning as desired.
Serve with whatever accoutrements you desire, albeit you’ll not really need anything else…
NOTE: Because I always get asked, I always point out the following – No, I do not get any sort of endorsement deal/perks/freebies from anyone or anything I review or recommend. I bought my Instant Pot same as you, as I do my Rancho Gordo beans and other goodies, (and oh boy, do they have other goodies – Go to the site and poke around, for cryin’ out loud!)I recommend what I love, because I want to share it with y’all – It’s that simple.
The volume of my Rancho Gordo stash, (and no, that’s not all of it, gang…) should illustrate the fact that I love their stuff. If, when you get there, six bucks seems expensive for a pound of beans, believe me when I tell you, it’s not. You’ll get a couple of great meals from that bag, without having to add a lot of other expense – That’s not pricy, that’s well worth your money, and you’re helping maintain little growers all over the place, as well as genetic diversity – Both very good things.
I’ll also mention that I belong to the Rancho Gordo Bean Club, in which you get a big ol’ shipment 4 times a year for $40 a pop, which includes six bags of beans, plus another goody, (like red popcorn, hominy, or cacao, to name but a few, as well as free shipping for something else in that quarter, and a newsletter with great recipes. The club was closed at 1,000 members for quite a while, and then was recently expanded and reopened. If you really dig Beans, you’re a fool not to join. There’s also a FB group for the club, and there are truly spectacular recipes and dishes floating across that on a daily basis, including the incredible pizza bean dish.
Seriously, go check it out, and tell ‘em I sent y’all.
Well, I’ve already heard from some folks this morning that our little blog just became a bit more popular, and for that, I’ve got A Way With Words to thank, so let me flesh out that explanation a bit. If you’re not familiar with this wonderful show/podcast, I encourage you to become so. It’s the NPR ‘show about language and the way we use it,’ hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and it’s a genuine treat for word nerds like me. Folks call in with questions about words, word origins, slang terms, etymology, regional dialects, and much, much more – It’s delightful and fascinating stuff. So, to all y’all who have journeyed here for the first time after hearing this week’s episode, welcome! If this post wasn’t waiting for you when you got here, my apologies – This is a journey that began way back in late March, so it’s required a bit of juggling to get things coordinated. but hey, you’re here now, and for that we offer Big Thanks and a hearty welcome – Please do subscribe and enjoy!
Anyway, here’s how it all started. While researching the subject of today’s post, a Norwegian cookie called the Sanbakkel, Monica came across the ingredient, Caster Sugar. Now, I knew what that was from many recipes over time, but it was new to M. For the record, Caster (and sometimes caster) sugar is the British term for what we call baker’s sugar on this side of the Big Pond – It’s granulated sugar that’s notably finer than table sugar. It blends, dissolves, and integrates far better than regular old sugar, and as such, bakers and chefs dig it.
What I didn’t know is why it’s called caster sugar – A bit of research really didn’t give a lot of info, albeit it did reveal that the stuff used to be held in a sugar caster, (basically, a fancy shaker placed at table in the old days, where folks could cast it onto whatever the liked). The caster versus castor variant also piqued my interest, and there was virtually nothing I could find to explain that, so naturally, I called A Way With Words, and as fate would have it, I ended up on the show that was broadcast today. Rather than go too far into that rabbit hole, I’ll simply say, listen to the episode, and you’ll not only get a great fleshing out of the term caster, but you’ll hear yours truly as well –A win-win if ever there was one.
So I ended up on the show, and had an absolute gas. For the record, while I noted that we live on Lummi Bay, in the northwest corner of Washington State, I recorded my part on a bus headed from downtown New Orleans to the airport. Along the way, Martha and Grant were kind enough to ask the name of the blog, and, well – Here we are! Now, as I write, a batch of fresh sandbakkel are wending their way southward to the gang at A Way With Words with our fondest thanks – Therefore, on to those cookies, yeah?
Monica has a healthy dose of Norwegian heritage from her maternal side, so a cookie that reflected that is what we were looking for when we landed on Sandbakkels. These lovely, light little sugar cookies are also sometimes called sandbakelse, or sandkaker – The sand theme running though this speaks to the shortbread-like consistency of the finished product – Sand tarts, if you will. They’re a simple sugar cookie that yields best results when the ingredients are as fresh as you can get.
Sandbakkels are traditionally a Christmas season treat, but for my mind, they’re good, if not better, in the spring and summer time – More on that thought in a bit. In their purest form, Sandbakkel contain flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. Common additions include almonds or almond extract, vanilla bean or extract, and cardamom. For the latter while virtually no recipes I found specified what variant of cardamom gets used, I’d bet on it being green, freshly ground, as it’s the sweetest version, (versus black or Madagascar).
The coolest aspect of Sandbakkels, for my mind, is the use of small fluted or patterned molds used to bake the cookies – This leaves you with a wafer thin, delicate little treat that is wonderful all by its lonely, and for my mind, spectacular with fresh fruit, nuts, etc, (even if some Norwegians consider such additions blasphemous).
The first published recipes for Sandbakkel show up in mid 19th century Norwegian cookbooks, which indicates pretty strongly that they’d been around for a while prior – A point that A Way With Words often makes about stuff showing up in print. When Norwegians packed up to emigrate, they brought their Sandbakkel molds with them, and a delicious old country traditional was maintained. Such was the case for Monica’s Gramma, Palma Hoover (née Solvang), who came to the western side of Washington State and homesteaded in the Carnation Valley, back in 1907 – Palma was just six month old at the time, one of eleven siblings. There is some discussion about where and how Sandbakkels took hold back in Norway, but nothing definitive – They are, in all likelihood, a simple treat that spread because they’re pretty, fun to make, and delicious – All the reason any of us need to dig in, right?
Sandbakkels are quite simple, and as such, quality and freshness of ingredients is paramount. What I’m getting at is this – If I’m doing these for an event, then I’ll likely make butter from very fresh, local cream, and grind flour from fresh wheat – Now, you might call that extreme, and it may indeed be somewhat, but if you’re looking to produce your best, that’s kinda the level we go to. That said, making sure that the flour and butter you use is as fresh and good quality as you can get your paws on will do the trick.
So, find the freshest butter you can for starters. Then there’s the flour question. Most stores these days will offer bread and all purpose flours, and many will also have cake or pastry flours hiding somewhere. Keep in mind that as you descend through that list, what changes is the protein level they contain – Bread relies on good gluten development to be successful, and so the protein level in that flour is relatively high, as much as 14%. Down at the other end of the spectrum, pastry flour will have protein levels as low as 8% – What that means to us from a practical standpoint is this – If you want gluten development and chewy stuff like bread, you use bread flour, and if you want something delicate and flaky like a Sandbakkel, you’ll use pastry flour. Now, that said, if what you’ve got in your pantry is All Purpose Flour, don’t fret- AP usually weighs in around 9% to 11% protein, which means it’ll do just fine, if that’s what you’ve got – After all, we’re here to have fun and chow down, si? NOTE: check out our Flour Power post for more than you probably want to know about such stuff.
Now for the catch – Yeah, it’s those little Sandbakkel molds. If you’re doing these right, you need them. Fortunately, they’re cheap and widely available online, so grab a set – They pay back the minimal expense with lovely finished product, so it’s a worthwhile thing. When you get your molds, they’ll need to be seasoned once prior to use.
Seasoning Sandbakkel Molds.
Wash your molds with soap and water, rinse thoroughly and allow to dry.
Preheat your oven to 350° F.
Lightly grease your molds with leaf lard, then arrange in a baking sheet.
Bake at 350°F for 30 minutes, then remove and allow to cool to room temperature. Wipe excess lard off the molds, and you’re good to go – The molds will provide a long life of easy releases thereafter.
So, on to the goods. This recipe will make about 4 dozen cookies. You can, if any survive, freeze them if you wish. Although they won’t be quite as yummy, of course.
4 Cups Pastry Flour (AP is just fine too)
1 1/2 Cups Unsalted Butter (If you use salted butter, just omit the additional salt listed below)
1 Cup Bakers Sugar
1 large Egg
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
Allow all ingredients to come to room temperature before proceeding.
In a non-reactive mixing bowl, add the butter and hand whisk for 2 minutes – You’re preparing the butter to accept sugar and go through the creaming process, so take the full time allotted, (And you certainly can use a hand mixer to do this work if you wish.)
Add sugar and salt to the butter and whisk to combine thoroughly, about 2 minutes. This is ‘creaming,’ wherein you’re introducing a bit of air to the dough, and helping the sugar to disperse thoroughly and evenly.
Add the egg and whisk to incorporate thoroughly – About 1 minute.
Add flour a cup at a time, whisking as long as you can, then switching to a kitchen spoon to finish the job. The dough should not stick to the bowl or your fingers when you’re done mixing, so adjust flour a pinch or two at a time, if needed.
Cover the bowl and refrigerate the dough or 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 340° F, and set a rack in the middle position.
Even though your molds have been seasoned, it’s never a bad idea to grease them a bit more. Let a very little bit of butter melt onto your fingers, and wipe a light layer around each mold.
Pull off about 2 teaspoons of dough, (and if you have issues with portioning, feel free to roll out little 2 teaspoon balls before filling the molds), and press the dough evenly into the molds – Watch your thickness, as you want things nice and even – Avoid thick bottoms and thin sides, and don’t let any dough extend beyond the rim of the mold. And by the way, this is a gas for kids – Our Granddaughters dig it big time, and I’ll bet you’re will too.
Place molds evenly spaced on a baking sheet – Ideally, you want an inch or so of free space around each mold, so you will likely need to do multiple sheets or batches, (unless of course you’ve got a way sexier oven set up than I do, and if so, I salute you!)
Bake cookies at 340° F for about 10 minutes, then have a quick look – The upper edges of the cookies should be firm and light golden brown.
Remove sheets from oven and, using a hot glove or mitt, gently turn each mold upside down and place it on a cooling rack.
Allow cookies to cool for 5 minutes, then carefully pick up a mold, still upside down, and place it just barely above the cooling rack – tap lightly on the bottom of the mold and the cookie will drop onto the rack.
Allow unmolded cookies to cool to room temperature. And yes, at this very point, the cookies will be warm and vulnerable – It’s entirely likely that several will lose their fragile lives right there and then – So be it…
Now, for a last bit of pure joy, consider this – As mentioned, I have Norwegian friends who absolutely consider anything, (and I mean anything), added to a fresh Sandbakkel as an act of sheer blasphemy. For the record, I am not Norwegian, (Scots, Welsh, and Dutch), and Monica has German and Cherokee blood as well – So, yes Virginia, we add stuff to ours, and we think you should too. This is why, point of fact, I think that these little gems were meant to be enjoyed when fresh, local fruit is abundant – A Sandbakkel filled with such stuff is an unbelievably delicious treat.
This also means that you might want to whip up a bit of crème fraiche, or perhaps whipped or pastry cream, as a bed for that lovely fruit to sit on. If the cream seems a bit heavy to you, then a lovely, light fruit glaze might be a nice option.
Fresh Fruit Glaze
3/4 Cup fresh Fruit Juice, (literally, whatever you like – Orange, grapefruit, apple, grape, etc)
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar, (honey is fine too, or bakers sugar, for that matter)
2 Tablespoons crushed Fruit, (whatever you’re filling the Sandbakkels with)
1 Tablespoon Arrowroot, (Cornstarch will do just fine, too)
2 teaspoons Citrus Rind, (lemon, lime, orange, as you see fit)
In a small, unheated sauce pan, combine fruit juice and arrowroot until thoroughly mixed.
Put the pan on the stove over medium heat, and add the agave and crushed fruit, whisk to incorporate.
Heat through, stirring steadily. Reduce heat to low and continue whisking until the sauce thickens notably, (it should evenly coat a spoon when quickly dipped in the glaze.)
Allow the glaze to cool to room temp, then drizzle or brush onto the fruit after arranged.
Just got home from a brief biz trip to New Orleans. It was in the 70s and 80s, mostly sunny, humidity not too bad. And here, well… Let’s just say that the Great Pacific Northwet is living up to its name – It’s 44° F, raining heavily, and the next week’s forecast is for more of the same. As M headed for work, she gave me the lowdown, “There’s crack ham in the fridge, (AKA, honey baked – She worked there for a time back when, and she’s right – it is), so if you want to make split pea soup, go for it.” I do, and I am, but this kinda weather calls for serious comfort food reinforcements – In this case, Pão de Queijo – Brazilian cheese bread.
How I ended up here is lovely serendipity. I planned on making either biscuits or corn bread, but was plowing through some social media food groups I belong to, and in of all places, my favorite Vietnamese cooking group, somebody mentioned having made Brazilian cheese bread. One of the many reasons I love this group is that stuff like this shows up all the time – They’re incredibly talented Vietnamese cooks, but fearless and curious in any and every other cuisine that floats their boats. I was introduced to Pão de Queijo years ago at a churascaria down in Texas, and hadn’t thought of or made them in quite a while, so this was a pleasant reminder.
Pão de Queijo is part of a truly delicious branch of cheese breads fueled by cassava (AKA yuca) flour, rather than wheat. As we outlined pretty thoroughly in our post about Guarani Cuñapes, cassava is a dominant starch down south, and for good reason – It’s abundant, works well in place of wheat flour, and tastes great – For gluten intolerant folks, it’s a champ.
The Pão variant differs from Cuñapes in recipe and construction. While they’re similar, the texture and flavored each is unique, so it’s genuinely worth adding both to your arsenal. To me, the pão de queijo is denser and chewier than a cuñape – More like Yorkshire pudding, for my mind. Best of all, they’re super easy to make – Maybe thirty minutes from start to finish, so they lend themselves to last minute inspiration, as any good side should.
I’ll share the simplest method of many for making these little gems. Like all signature foods, everybody’s Mom makes them, and their way is always best, naturally. Some folks use potato starch in lieu of yuca, and you can get very nice results that way. I’ve also seen these done up with the French pâte a choux method – They were delicious indeed, but really, those are gougères rather than pão de queijo. The method I’ll share is far less fussy and time consuming than that, especially in light of the cassava flour – That stuff behaves quite differently when employing the pâte method, and can be a handful if you’re not ready for it – It’s extremely fine, almost powdery, and when mixed with liquids, its, well, seriously glutinous stuff. Truth be told, my Brazilian cooking pals tell me that what I’ll share with y’all is the way they do it most of the time, because it strikes a perfect balance between taste, texture, and ease of preparation.
Finally, we must discuss cheese as well, sim? Down south, the traditional choice is either a quiejo de Canastra, or a quiejo de Minas. Canastra is a yellowish, cows milk cheese, fairly soft when it’s fresh and ripening to semi-hard. It has a buttery base flavor with a nice acidic tang – Very much like high quality Monterey Jack. Quiejo de Minas is also a cows milk cheese. When fresh, (Minas Frescal), it’s soft and very subtle, like a queso blanco, and lends itself well to adding fresh herbs into the mix. Once it’s aged into a Minas Curado, it’s a whole ‘nother world – rich and subtle like a good Asiago. While the vast majority of pão de quiejo recipes you find use Parmesan, for my two cents worth, a good Jack or Asiago will fit the bill much better, in both authenticity and flavor. Down the line, you can and should experiment not only with cheese, but with herbs as well. Cilantro, fennel, spring onion, parsley, and dried chiles are all delicious and opções muito autênticas, (very authentic options).
This recipe is fairly large, for good reason. The batter is stable and stores well, so you can use half tonight, refrigerate the rest, and it’ll be good for a week or so in a clean, airtight container. If you prefer to let ‘er rip, you can make the whole shebang and refrigerate or freeze whatever you don’t eat right away, (but be forewarned – They’re addictive little beasties, and you’ll easily be tricked into chowing down.) The recipe will make about 16 muffins.
NOTES: It’s best to have your milk and eggs at or near room temperature, so plan ahead accordingly. You’ll also need a muffin pan or two – They come in various sizes, but you’ll fare much better with ‘mini’ sizes, (muffin or loaf), as these guys will come out very dense indeed if you use regular size pans.
Påo de Quiejo, Brazilian Cheese Bread
3 Cups Cassava Flour
1 well packed Cup Monterey Jack or Asiago Cheese
1 1/2 Cups Whole Milk
1/2 Cup Avocado Oil
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
Set a rack into a middle position and preheat your oven to 400° F.
Wet a paper towel with avocado oil and lightly wipe the insides of each muffin cup.
Add all ingredients to a blender or processor vessel, (either truly works fine, so use what you’re most comfortable with.)
Pulse the batter until it’s smooth and consistent, scraping batter down into the mix as needed. Allow plenty of mixing time, until you’ve got a consistent smooth batter – This also allows some air to get integrated into the mix, which is important for helping these unleavened breads rise.
Fill muffin cups to roughly 1/4” from the top.
Bake, undisturbed for about 20 minutes, until the muffin tops have visibly risen and are light golden brown. There’s no leavening agent, so steam plays a roll here – Opening the oven will screw with that, so don’t!
Remove muffins from oven and set on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes, then chow down.
A friend turned me on The Plant Guide, a pretty cool site with some fine gardening tips and tricks. They also have a definite bent for the history of things, just as we do here, including a very cool bit on the origin and history of common veggies and fruit.
A fair amount of this falls into the not what you expected category, and can definitely lead to some interesting further exploration.
I’m not at all sure why more folks aren’t madly in love with Brie. After all, it once was quite literally declared the cheese of Kings. In late 1814 through mid 1815, the Austrians hosted the Congress of Vienna, a meeting of representatives from virtually all the European powers of the time, intended to forge a long term peace plan, subsequent to the Napoleonic wars. During the event, the French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, suggested a break in the negotiations, by way of a friendly cheese competition, with each country and state putting forth their finest, to be judged by all. Legend has it that Talleyrand-Périgord slyly waited until the end of the competition to bring forth Brie, after sixty some odd other cheeses had been sampled. A vote was held, and Brie de Meaux was declared, ‘Le Roi des Fromages’ the King of Cheeses.
Brie, like its popular cousin Camembert, is a soft-ripened cheese, (as opposed to soft, fresh cheeses, like cream, cottage, Neufchâtel, mozzarella,and ricotta). While the fresh, soft varieties are eaten right away, soft ripened spend some time gaining depth and complexity, as well as a thin rind that some find delicious and others quite literally cannot stomach – The rind is a bitter counterpoint to the creamy, buttery cheese itself – probably why there’s such a love/hate relationship with it – More on that in a bit.
Brie de Meaux, and Brie de Melun, which both hail from the Seine et Marne region, a Department due east of Paris, are the real McCoys, protected by the vaunted French AOC label, the Appellation d’origine Contrôlée, which means only Brie from that place may be called Brie de Meaux or Melun. That said, just plain old Brie is not a protected name, and can be made anywhere – Think of it as the difference between sparkling wine and Champagne – Both can be good, (and frankly, occasionally quite meh), but in either case, it behooves the consumer to know what it is they’re buying, and from whence it came, d’accord?
Bries are made with whole or partly skimmed cows milk, cured for a couple of days, and then placed in a cave at roughly 54° F. it’s during this aging period that the characteristic white rind forms. That rind consists of a hardened layer of cheese and some form of mold, one of the Penicillium varieties for both Brie and Camembert, plus some yeast, or a fungus such as Geotrichum Candidum. That might sound unappealing, but I assure you that you can indeed eat the rind without harm, and naturellement, the French claim it’s good for your gut. The rind is, in fact, absolutely critical to the final form of the cheese – it’s a living, breathing thing that actively works to break down the cheese, creating the creamy, (and sometimes, downright runny), texture that we love so much. Brie ages for anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks to reach maturity, during which it is lovingly turned by hand, assuring even aging. Brie de Meaux And Melun both do the full Monty at 60 days, which is why they’re the Champagne, if you will.
So, how does one chose Brie? Well, again, if you want the real deal, you need to look for Brie de Meaux, or Brie de Melun, and the accompanying AOC seal, or the words Appellation Contrôlée, on the label. Chances are what you get will be sublime and lovely, assuming you’ve bought from a scrupulous seller. Both versions are made from raw, (unpasteurized), milk. A whole round of Brie de Meaux weighs about 6 pounds, and is around 14” in diameter. Brie de Melun is smaller, at slightly over 3 pounds and roughly 11” in diameter. In general, Brie de Meaux is milder than Brie de Melun, which has a notably stronger taste and smell. The pinnacle of that trend is Brie Noir, Black Brie – It’s not Black at all, although the rind and cheese are distinctly brown, as opposed to the light creamy cheese and white rind we’re used to. Black Brie ages for up to a full year, and is much more pungent, with a dry, almost crumbly texture.
Now, all that does not mean, by any sense of the word, that Brie from other places isn’t good. Brie is made in America, Great Britain, Australia, and Brazil, that I’m aware of – There may well be more. There are herbed Brie’s, blue Brie’s, double and triple Brie’s (meaning, much higher milk fat percentage used in their making), and Brie made with milk from goats or sheep. There are also French non-AOC Bries, including Brie de Montereau, Île-de-France, Brie de Nangis, Brie de Provins, Brie fermier, Brie d’Isigny, Brie de Melun bleu, Brie petit moulé, and Brie Laitier Coulommiers, just to name a few. Again, just as you can get sparkling wine that doesn’t hail from Champagne, these alt Bries are well worth exploring.
As mentioned previously, if you buy from a reputable seller, you’re good to go, 99% of the time. Keep in mind that you’re unlikely to find, or afford for that matter, a whole wheel of Brie, so as with any other foods, let your eyes and nose and, if possible, mouth do the investigative work when choosing. Brie should have a white rind and a light, cream colored cheese, (not withstanding Brie Noir) – Don’t buy anything that has an off-color rind or flesh, or knew that smells bad. Lots of markets have expanded cheese shops these days – I mean, here in the Great Pacific Northwet, even the lowly Fred Meyer chain has a pretty damn fine cheese department, so go figure.
Store Brie in an air tight container, in the coldest section of your fridge, but better yet, plan on eating it right after you buy it – Soft ripened cheese has a short shelf life, indeed. If a stored Brie has an off-color mold on it, toss it, even if you don’t see the mold everywhere on the cheese – Trust me when I say that it’s there, and you shouldn’t eat it .
And what to do when we eat it? Many, many wonderful things. As part of a picnic lunch or dinner, Brie is delightful with good crackers, toast points rubbed with garlic, or straight with fruit – The tang of the fruit is a perfect contrapuntal note to the subtly sweet, creamy cheese – And again, the bitter rind adds a delightful third note to the chord. Apples, pears, and berries (straw, blue, black, and Marion are all lovely), figs, and apricots are great choices. Along that same vein, fruit preserves, dried fruit, and chutney are all very nice accompaniments.
If you prefer something more savory, good bacon, or pork belly is wonderful (big surprise there, huh?). Pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts are lovely, crunchy additions. Fresh mushrooms, like shiitake or morels, lightly sautéed, sun dried tomatoes, and caramelized onions shine as well. Fresh herbs, like basil, marjoram, garlic chive, rosemary, lemon thyme, or lavender are great choices, too.
My favorite way to incorporate these accoutrements is the venerable Brie en croute – Brie with a puff pastry or pie crust shell, baked and stuffed with whatever you like, (or, for that matter, straight up plain – If you’ve got good Brie, it’ll be plenty decadent, believe me). You can use single notes, or combine two or three for a truly lovely appetizer. Making puff pastry from scratch is truly laborious, but fortunately, you can get decent pre-made stuff almost anywhere these days, usually in the frozen food section of your local market. Here’s a few combinations to give a try to – Then branch out on your own.
2 Tablespoons Bacon Lardons
2 Tablespoons chopped dried Apricots
1” – 2” spring fresh Lemon Thyme
Thoroughly thaw frozen puff pastry sheet – Don’t screw with it in any way, shape, or form until it’s completely thawed, or you’ll get thin sections at the folds, and you don’t want that.
If you’re doing bacon lardons, sauté those over medium heat until they’re crisp and much of the fat has been rendered. Dry on a clean paper towel and set aside.
If you’re using nuts, sauté them in melted butter over medium heat until they begin to turn golden brown, then onto clean paper towels to drain off the excess fat.
For the dried fruit or tomatoes, sauté them after the nuts are done, in the remaining butter. Dry on a clean paper towel and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350° F and set a rack in the center position.
NOTE: For all these options, you really don’t need to add much fat, so do dry them off prior to adding them to the Brie.
Unwrap the Brie and inspect to make sure all is well. If you’re squeamish, you may gently cut away the rind, but I strongly advise you to buck up and not do so.
Unfold the thawed puff pastry and drape that over a sauté pan, baking dish, etc, large enough to hold the wrapped Brie with some space to spare.
Add goodies to the top of the Brie.
Crack egg into a small mixing bowl and whisk to an even consistency.
Fold one corner of the pastry over the top of the Brie. Brush the outside of that corner with the egg wash, then brush egg on the bottom (facing) side of the next adjacent corner, and fold that onto the first. Continue with that process until you’ve got a nice, snugly wrapped parcel.
Evenly coat the outside of the puff pastry with the remaining egg wash.
Slide the Brie into the oven and bake, undisturbed for 30 minutes.
Remove the Brie from the oven and set aside to cool for 15 minutes.
Serve with crackers, toast points, etc, and be ready to totally ruin your dinner in so doing.
We’ve just enjoyed our first snow of the season, one good enough to warrant plowing by the county and some cautious driving for a day or two. Nothing nails down the arrival of winter quite like that first storm. Our critters make it known, in no uncertain terms, that this means it’s time for some serious hunkerin’ down, and frankly, when the wind is ripping out of the north from the Fraser river valley at 30 knots with gusts on toward 50, I couldn’t agree more. That means it’s also time for serious, rib sticking comfort food, like soups, stews, casseroles, and such. Doing those dishes up right means we’ve got to pay special attention to the humble beginnings of such dishes – the aromatic bases.
So, what’s with the humble moniker, first off? Well, it’s an honest nod to the fact that what we’re going to employ in this role is rarely sexy stuff. The stars of this show are, in fact, the things that all too often languish in our kitchen. This is the stuff many of us buy at the market because it’s pretty and we have big ideas on shopping day, only to find, many days later, they’ve gone by the wayside – Carrots, celery, onion, peppers, garlic, ginger, fennel, leeks, turnips, parsnips, celeriac, and tomato, to name a good few. In that comfort food I mentioned, these lowly contributors will often play second fiddle, and may, in many iterations, be difficult to identify within a dish – Humble beginnings, indeed.
Yet without these hidden gems adding their je ne sais quoi to our winter fare, what we get is a pale reflection of the real thing. They’re called aromatic bases for a reason. In addition to key vegetables, aromatics may include herbs and spices, and occasionally a little protein as well. Gently sautéed or sweated in a little oil or stock, the magic is released – Our dishes gain the satisfying depth and breadth they demand. Literally every cuisine around the world employs some form of aromatic base, from here in the states to the farthest reaches of China. Some are more famous than others, some quite obscure, but no less worthy of exploration. Something as simple as a one veggie change in a standard mix can bring about entirely new flavors, and in many iterations, that’s exactly what has happened. Let’s have a look at a few of these.
The French Mirepoix is arguably the most well known aromatic mix out there – Technically, (and in keeping with classic French cooking’s fussy reputation), mirepoix is two parts onion to one part each celery and carrot, and the portions are weighed to assure an accurate blend – That’s more precision than you need or likely want at home, so eyeballing or volume measuring those proportions is just fine. So, whataya do with mirepoix? More like what can’t you do with it. First and foremost in my mind is making stock and broth – Without it, you’ve got bupkis, with it, you’ve got depth and breadth of flavor like nobody’s business. D’accord, it’s also a base for soups, sauces, and stews, a bed for roasting meats and poultry, a great salad blend, and the list goes on. If you’re a regular here, you know how often you see us use it. ‘Nuff said.
In Spain, the signature mix pays homage to gifts from the new world that arrived many centuries ago, namely tomatoes and chiles. Initially viewed with some suspicion, the locals eventually recognizing the error of their ways and adopted these gifts as the heart of their go-to aromatic base. Before that, especially up north in Catalonia, the signature mix was onion, leek, carrot and a touch of salt pork. Afterwards, tomato, green chile (Mild, but not sweet – Anaheims or mild Hatch are perfect), onion, and garlic, with a little olive oil and paprika became the thing – Sofrito, which still rules the roost. This kind of blend spread across the Spanish empire, and as a result, everything from the tip of South America through Mexico and the Caribbean employs some variation on the theme. From the Spanish dishes that blend indigenous cuisine with Moorish and new world influence, to Cuban picadillo, it’s everywhere you want to be.
My favorite variation on sofrito comes from Puerto Rico, where I was introduced to it as a kid. Recaíto is the name, and it looks absolutely nothing like the Spanish stuff – it’s fueled by Culantro, (eryngium foetidum), or foul thistle. That’s a cilantro cousin, but much more pungent – stronger in all the aspects that cause some folks to not like either herb. Combined with aji dulce, (a small local pepper that looks suspiciously like a scotch bonnet, but is sweet and mild), onions, garlic, and a little cubanelle chile for a touch of heat, you’ve got a green sauce made in heaven. That alone with good rice is absolutely delicious. It’s also great as a marinade for proteins, and as a base for, you guessed it, soups and stews. Recaíto is perfect stuff to stick in an ice cube tray and freeze – Instant inspiration at your finger tips.
Around the corner in Italy, the base of bases looks something like France’s, but naturally is different enough to brook argument over who came up with what first, (Don’t get me, or all them folk, started, OK?) It’s fundamentally the same as mirepoix, but with important twists – It’s called Battuto when it’s raw, and soffritto when cooked (I think the extra consonants are there to make sure you truly understand that this ain’t Spain). Onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and garlic, sautéed in olive oil. In keeping with Italian temperament, there are no recognized ratios, and if you ask, you’ll get a blank stare, a loaded shrug, and raised eyebrows – Translation – Do what you like, it’s your food. What to do with the raw blend? Make a big ol’ batch and freeze it in single use sized portions – Then you’ve got your base ready when you’re short on time and long on inspiration. Finely dice a little smoked ham and mash that together with your battuto – Toss that in a pan with olive oil as the start of an epic pasta sauce – Capiche? We can’t leave Italy without a nod to the third variant and coolest variant of their aromatic base concept, Odori. When I was in Italy many moons ago, shopping with my Sis who studied there, a trip to the market for vegetables included the question from the vendor, ‘vuoi qualche odore?’ Literally, do you want some smells? If you nodded, they’d toss a carrot, a stalk of celery, a little parsley and basil in your bag, gratis – That was just a little something to get things going once you got back home – Toss it in a pot with water and make whatever you like – It’s your food. How sweet is that? Grazie, mille grazie.
Portugal has heavenly stuff called Refogado – onion, garlic, chiles and tomato, though there are more than a few cooks there who would refute that, and point to onion, garlic, saffron, and smoked paprika as the true mix, (and truth be told, that’s my fave) – I’d say you’re hard pressed to lose going either way. This mix is amazing with seafood, which is no surprise, or course, but good with much more than just that.
Here in the States, we have one true base we can lay claim to, thanks to the Cajun folk – It’s called the Holy Trinity – onion, celery, and green pepper, and really, nothing else, although some folk do like to whip a little roux right in with that as it cooks, to kind of get a leg up on things, yeah? The usual ratio has a couple of camps – those who do equal measures of each, and those who portion like mirepoix, 50% onion, 25% pepper and celery. Whip that up, and jambalaya, gumbo, and anything else your heart desires is on tap.
How about some of the lesser known versions? Well, there’s suppengrün in Germany, which means soup greens and is perfect for same – It’s carrot, celery root, and leek, (and for the record, celery root is the root of the celery you buy in the store, and while related, it is not the same as celeriac). This stuff goes wonderfully with silky potato soup, or braised beef and cabbage.
There’s a version in Hungary that employs onion, cabbage, and paprika – I think that begs for sausage and potatoes, and I’m willing to bet nobody over there would argue much with that.
Although the cuisine of China is highly regionalized, one could land on scallion, ginger, and garlic for their more or less universal trinity. Heck, that combo with nothing more than good soy sauce is amazing in and of itself – From dipping sauce, to moisture for fried rice, to marinade for pork or chicken, you’re in like Flynn.
In India, garlic, ginger and onion would work. Just set your mind’s eye on that, and all sorts of things come to mind – From chick peas to chicken, that blend will rock.
Jamaica could be well represented by garlic, scallion, and thyme – Add that to lime juice and some hot chiles, and the sky’s the limit.
Most West African cuisines share chile, onion, and tomato as their big trio, and here again, what a great launching pad. Tofu, rice, veggies, chicken, beef – Yes to all of the above.
In Thailand, you’d be on the money with lemon grass, kafir lime, and galangal, for which ginger is a reasonable substitute. Marinate shrimp, chicken, or beef. Rice dishes, soups and stews.
Now, none of this veggie laden listing is meant to state in any way that This Is The Way It Must Be Done. Even with mirepoix, there’s poetic license. I’ll add two caveats to that – One, cut your veggies to the same size, whatever that is – That’ll assure even cooking, and Two – Season your base lightly with salt and pepper when you cook it – That’ll do much to bring those flavors to their fullest.
What it does mean is that you’ve now got a solid base from a whole bunch of cuisines to springboard from. While there are herbs here and there in the stuff above, know this – Just as every Italian Momma makes the best sauce, period, every one of them does it differently, and so should you. Use what you like, it’s your food. Not sure if something goes with that combo? Build a tiny little sample and try it – If you like it, go wild.
I just posted a bunch of pics of split pea soup the way we do it, which includes lemon zest and juice – A bunch of people asked, “Lemon, with split pea soup?” The answer is yup, we love it – That lemon brings a brightness to what can be a heavy soup, elevates the herbs we use, and helps cut the fat of the ham a bit too – If that sounds good to you, try it. If you don’t like lemon, try lime, orange, grapefruit, whatever floats your boat. And for the record, the aromatic base for that is shallot, garlic, celery, and carrot, and it rocks.
If it seems as if you’re seeing a trend in my posts lately, you are. I just finished rereading Mark Kurlansky’s, Salt – A World History, and find myself inspired. It’s a great read, and you should give it a spin. Like John McPhee, Kurlansky has the ability to write volumes on a seemingly mundane topic and come out with a page turner. When I first read it years ago, I wasn’t writing about food as much as I do now, so this go ’round lead to a fascinating bout of exploration. Recent posts on salt potatoes, ketchup, and fish sauce were all inspired therefrom, and this week, I bring you Yakitori, Japan’s answer to the kabab.
Casual observers are often surprised by how much meat is involved in Japanese cooking. Certainly Japan did have a rather protracted period of fundamental vegetarianism. The broad adoption of Chinese Buddhism in the 7th century sealed the deal – in the late 670s, the Emporer Tenmu proclaimed a prohibition on eating animal flesh, fowl, fish, and shellfish, and Shojin Ryori was born – Japanese vegetarian cuisine as cultural touchstone. Not all of that motivation was spiritual, though – The powers that be realized that eating draft animals seriously impaired the country’s ability to adequately feed its people. Nonetheless, the edict more or less persisted for some 1200 years. Clearly, the increasing presence of westerners on Japanese shores had a bearing on the resurgence of meat eating, a process that began with Portuguese traders in the middle of the 16th century, and continues to this day.
While eating food cooked on a stick undoubtedly goes back to the harnessing of fire, the Japanese have a pretty clear recollection of when yakitori first appeared. It was in the Edo period, around the middle 1600s, and initially it was game birds roasted on sticks – quail, pheasant, pigeons and the like. As European influence increased, chickens became more common, eventually making it on to a stick as well. Beef and pork followed over time. As is oft the case, how good your yakitori was back when depended on your income and social status – While the rich ate the best stuff, the poor folks were grilling offal, and all the other little weird bits the beautiful people didn’t want. In any event, those sweet, smoky flavors, basted in soy, sake, and spices, was and remains hugely popular, and the regional variety is as rich as the country that spawned it.
Just covering the chicken versions of yakitori can be a bit dizzying – Our preference is for the ever popular chicken thigh version, called momo, along with negima- chicken and spring onion, and kawa – Chicken skin, (seriously, it’s amazing done up with bacon, spring onion, and water chestnuts). There’re many more, from chicken and leeks (hasami), to breast meat (sasami), chicken meatball (tsukune) and chicken wings (tebasaki). Then there’s all those former peasant versions, which are still quite popular – Kawa is skin, bonjiri is tail, shiro is guts, nankotsu is cartilage, hāto is heart, rebā is liver, and sunagimo is gizzards – nummy.
Then there’s that seasoning and/or sauce – Yakitori is typically done salty, or salty-sweet. The salty version is, more often than not, just sprinkled with sea salt and grilled, end of story. The salty-sweet, called tare, is a whole ‘nuther ballgame. In Japan, you can bet that dang near every yakitori stand and joint has their own version, and they’re all top secret. Fortunately, we can suss out the basics – soy sauce, mirin, dry sake, and some form of sweetener are added to freshly made bone stock, and that more than gets the job done. Of course there are variants – Everything from spring onion and garlic, to ginger, hot chiles, pepper, and even wasabi might be found in there. That’s good news for us, because making a very nice basic sauce is easy, and more to the point, poetic license is fully authorized.
The real beauty of yakitori is that it makes a great last minute dinner, or a perfect vehicle for fridge cleaning – You can and should use whatever you like, in whatever combinations please you. Sure, a lot of ‘real’ yakitori is either just one thing, or maybe a couple skewered together, but there’s nothing at all wrong with doing them up like little shish kebab. The bottom line is that the cooking method and saucing has as much or more to do with the overall taste as the things you decide to grill, so go wild. By that same rule, if you’re pressed for time, there’s nothing wrong at all with using straight soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, or bottle yakitori sauce, (and the former is now quite easily found in the Asian food section of your local market.
Yakitori does not require any marinating prior to cooking. You need to merely slice stuff up into bite sized pieces and shove them onto sticks. Couldn’t be easier. One note on cutting stuff – the preferred method is known as sogigiri, AKA cutting on a roughly 30° angle with the food lying flat in a cutting board. Cut toward yourself, starting at the upper left of your intended slice and working down and across. What that does is maximize surface area on relatively small chunks of food, giving more space to add sauce and heats from the grill to.
Speaking of grilling, while traditional yakitori is done on a brazier or charcoal grill, the desired technique employs no smoke and moderate heat, which means you folks who only have a gas grill, or a broiler in your oven, are gonna be just fine.
When skewering your goodies, do take the time to make sure every piece is snuggled right up tight against the next one – With small, relatively thin cuts of flesh and veggies, dried out food is a real possibility – Keeping them tight helps retain the baste better, and keeps things moist and juicy as well. Give whatever your skewering a light dusting of good salt and fresh ground pepper after you’ve got them done up. If you’re wanting to go all out, take a trip to the market and find fresh, seasonal veggies, meats, and poultry. Like the Vietnamese, Japanese cooks pay special attention to color and season – Spring is green, summer dark green, fall is orange and red, winter is white. Have some fun with it, and let your plates reflect your findings.
Brush on your basting sauce after you’ve placed the skewers on the grill. With chicken, pork, or beef, you’re going to want in the neighborhood of 5 minutes or so cooking per side, with another baste application at the turn. Again, don’t run your grill flat out – You want to cook these on medium-low heat, allowing time for things to cook through and absorb all the goodness from your baste. If you’re using a charcoal grill, set up a two zone configuration, start the skewers on the cooler side, and finish with a couple quick flips on the hot side. If you’re using wooden skewers, soak them for about half an hour prior to loading them up. Lightly oil your grill surface prior to placing skewers, to help keep them from sticking – Use a neutral vegetable oil so you don’t adulterate your taste profiles.
That sauce, that amazing sauce. We’ll start here, because this stuff really is magical. I made the batch done for this post on the same day I slow cooked a big ol’ pork roast. In the last week, that sauce went on the pork twice, into fried rice, was added to a teriyaki joint style salad dressing, and even made its way into tacos – Its that good, and that versatile. Many, many folks say that, over in Japan, cooks add to a big pot of their signature sauce every day, so that it effectively never runs out. We won’t likely go that far at home, but my oh my, do you want this in your fridge at all times. While the real deal is made with the bones from the chicken thighs you’re about to skewer, you can sub chicken stock for the water and bones if you’re in a hurry – But DO make the bone stock version just once, and you’ll be hooked – It’s super easy, incredibly delicious, and very rewarding for home cooks.
You can certainly use one sauce for all things, and well might – But we’re including some variants, to give you some ideas for future explorations.
Urban’s Go To Yakitori Sauce
(Makes enough for several meals, or one hell of a party)
Bones from 4 fresh Chicken Thighs or Legs
1 Cup Mirin
1 Cup Tamari
1/2 Cup Dry Sake
1/2 Cup Water (Chicken Stock, if not using bones)
3 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2″ chunk fresh Ginger
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil
1 teaspoon ground Szechuan Pepper (or anything hotter if you prefer)
Peel, trim and mince garlic.
Trim scallions and cut into roughly 1/2″ rings.
Dice ginger, (you don’t need to peel it)
On a baking pan lined with foil, under a high broiler, scatter bones and broil for about 10 minutes, turning with tongs so they brown evenly.
Transfer roasted bones to a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat.
Add all additional ingredients, stir well to incorporate, and heat through until a low boil is achieved.
Reduce heat to just maintain a steady simmer and cook until the volume of the sauce is reduced by 50% – You’ll note when you get there that the sauce coats a spoon with an even, viscous layer. The cook should take around 45 minutes to an hour, but keep an eye on things and give it an occasional stir.
Remove pan from heat and pour the sauce through a single mesh strainer into a non-reactive bowl.
Allow to cool to room temperature, then transfer to a clean glass jar. Will store refrigerated for 2 to 3 weeks.
Urban’s Pork Yakitori Sauce
1 Cup Mirin
1 Cup Tamari
1 Cup Dry Sake
2 Tablespoons Hot Chile Paste (Gochujang, wangzhihe, harissa, or Sriracha will do just fine)
2 Tablespoons Sesame Oil
2 Tablespoons Honey
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
3 cloves fresh Garlic
Peel, trim and mince garlic.
In a heavy saucepan over medium high heat, add all ingredients and stir to incorporate.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer.
Allow sauce to reduce by 50%, remove from heat, run through a single mesh strainer, cool to room temp.
Store refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
Urban’s Beef Yakitori Sauce
This is quite close to a typical sauce used for that deep fried wonder, Kushiage.
I have a favorite kitchen mantra that goes like this – Simple is always good, but not always easy. The implications are rife in that phrase – Simple is always good, but our inclinations sometimes work against it. And then as stated, simple just isn’t always easy, in fact sometimes it’s deceptively hard. Yet when we bow to the sublime, amazing things can happen. Salt potatoes are such a thing. Chances are you’ve never had them, and if you have, you’ve been given an origin story for the dish. It’s safe bet they’re far older than you were lead to believe, and more widely travelled to boot.
The potato, (most often Solanum tuberosum), is another gift from the Andes, specifically southern Peru and northwest Bolivia, where it was first domesticated somewhere around 8000 to 5000 BC – Yes, that means roughly 7000 to 10,000 years ago. Brought to Europe in the mid 1500s by, (yup, you guessed it), those marauding Spaniards, the spud is now cultivated worldwide, though of the roughly 5,000 varieties known around the globe, over 3,000 are still found in the Andes – Think about that the next time you’re picking between russet, gold, or reds at the store. If ever there was a crop begging to be expanded in your garden, this is it.
Initially, Europe wasn’t crazy about the potato, especially, and maybe most strangely, in the northern climes where potatoes do quite well. Part of the reticence may lie in their Solanaceae family roots, which includes some pretty dangerous plants, (and the leaves and green skins of potatoes exposed to light.) Over time, the nutritional punch made its way through the naysayers, and by the 1800s, potatoes were in heavy cultivation throughout most of Europe. A raw potato is 80% water, followed by 16% carbs, and about 4% protein, and are rich in vitamin B and C. While cooking degrades some of the nutrient value, they’re still a relatively good bang for the buck, which is why they’re the worlds forth largest food crop – And over 68% of those grown are eaten directly by humans, to the tune of an average of 72 pounds annually. These days, over 37% of world production happens in China and India.
And of all the myriad ways to cook a potato, who’d have thought to just boil them in brine? Turns out, pretty much everybody, although some lay heavier claims than others. Look up salt potatoes, and in this country, most of what you’ll find will claim that they were invented in Syracuse, New York. Now, that’s simply not true, but there is a reason that one of these far flung claims resides there – Syracuse was a major salt production and shipping center in the 19th century.
In the fall of 1825, the last section of the Erie Canal was completed. Running east to west, the Erie connected to the north-south running Oswego canal at a little town called Syracuse. With canals running right through town, Syracuse picked up the moniker as the American Venice. The Erie Canal had been built to move Onondaga Salt to New York City and the world, and for a while, it worked really well. As fate would have it, bunch of those old Salt workers were Irish, and they truly loved their potatoes, and regularly cooked those and corn in brine, but they didn’t invent the dish.
Who did remains shrouded in mystery, but it’s a good guess it started down in South America. There, among many local versions, you’ll find papas saladas, that hail from, of course, another salt mining town. In the Canary Islands, they’re papas arrugadas, (which we mentioned in our Mojo post), and in the Guérande salt producing region of France, they’re patate cuit au sel. And of course there’s many more – Chances are very good you’ll find a version in every country, and many will claim origination – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
If you’ve never tried salt potatoes, trust me when I tell you it’s time. They’re a perfect summer accompaniment to grilled meats and veggies, and they’re delicious enough to stand alone. While the method and ingredients couldn’t be simpler, there is a bit of slightly complex chemistry going on under the hood of this one.
Right off hand, it’s not outrageous to question how good a potato boiled in brine will taste. The assumption is that way too much salt will get into that spud, making for an unpleasant, out of balance experience. Fortunately, that’s not what happens. Here’s the magic – One, cooking in a brine solution raises the boiling point higher than plain old water, (just as it lowers the freezing point when making ice cream), and two, the thin salt crust that forms on the spuds acts as a barrier, keep excess salt and water out. As a result, the potatoes effectively steam in their own skins, and you only end up with that thin layer of crystallized salt on the outside of the skins. That leads to an amazingly fluffy spud with a super tasty skin, just right for dipping in melted butter, gribiche, mojo, sauce diable, or chimichurri. As I mentioned, they’re stunningly good, good enough to eat as a meal, with little bowls of this and that to add as you please.
There are slightly different cooking methods around the globe – Some boil in brine and drain, (The Syracuse method), others boil the brine completely away with the spuds still in the pan, (I prefer the latter method.) They’re all worth trying, but this one will set you well for your first endeavor. As with all simple dishes, quality and freshness count – Freshly dug, local spuds from a farmers market deserve this dish – Old, soft, mealy, bulk spuds do not. Same goes for salt – This is the time to use something good – Sel de mere, Bolivian Sunrise, Himalayan pink, or Maldon – Whatever the unique signature the salt bears will play out beautifully. All salts do not have equal volume so you’ll be best served by weighing it out.
Salt Crusted Potatoes
1 Pound fresh new or fingerling potatoes, (You want something in the 1″ to 2″ range, and pretty uniform in size)
1 Ounce really good Salt.
In a heavy sauce pan over high heat, add potatoes, salt, and just enough water to cover the spuds.
Once you reach a boil, reduce heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook potatoes until fork tender, about 20 minutes.
Pour off all but about a half inch of water. Put the pot back on the burner and turn heat to high.
Use a wooden spoon to roll spuds through the remaining brine as it begins to boil off. You’ll see the salt crystalizing on your spuds as this occurs – It’ll take a few minutes for the brine to disappear.
Continue gently rolling the spuds in the dry pan for another couple of minutes, until the salt crust evenly coats each potato and the skins start to get slinky wrinkly.
Remove from heat to a serving bowl and serve promptly.